Book Review: Matthew, Texts @ Contexts

Matthew Texts and ContextsFortress / Amazon

Duran, Nicole Wilkinson, and James P. Grimshaw, eds. Matthew. Texts @ Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013. Xxii + 351 pp. $49.

Among the myriad of commentaries on the book of Matthew, Fortress has just put out one with a significantly different angle, or perhaps we might say it has several different angles. As part of their new Texts @ Contexts commentary series, this commentary on Matthew edited by Nicole Wilkinson Duran and James P. Grimshaw is a gathering of sixteen essays from scholars of a variety of diverse contexts who have been brought together in order to shed new light on the book of Matthew. These contexts include differing ethnic cultures, religious traditions, and social environments, covering “work conditions, disabilities, ecological trauma, nonviolent resistance movements, post-Communism and globalization, single mothers and preacher’s kids, womanism, and masculinity studies” (1). Although each author represents a differing reading context, the commitment remains for them to be in dialogue with traditional scholarship and faithful to the biblical text in its ancient world context. As the editors state, the goal of the work is to “have a conversation that takes seriously both the ancient text and its many contemporary contexts” (1).

This wide range of contexts becomes readily apparent from a brief overview of the book. The commentary is divided into five sections according to themes, and each chapter focuses usually on one particular text within Matthew (thus, it diverges from the typical format of commentaries in that it does not cover every pericope). The first section entitled “Community and Beginnings” contains two essays, which both look at the genealogy of Matthew. Lidija Novakovic explores the idea of community identity in Matthew’s genealogy in light of sociological realities she experienced in post-Communist Croatia. In a similar way to how Croatians reinterpreted their past through the formation of a new collective memory and identity, she argues that the Matthean community also remembers its Jewish past in a unique way in order to create its own new identity. In another essay, Jonathan Draper, a white South African, uses his insights from working with the Zulu people to examine the genealogy, pointing out how the Jewish culture of Matthew’s day may have shared some of the same conceptions about ancestry. He also uses the illustration of South Africa needing to “forge a new identity and practice” beyond genetic ties and argues that this same situation, which existed in Matthew’s community, may have influenced his genealogy.

The second section, “Children and Family” consists of five essays, four focusing on mothers and one on fathers. Sharon Betsworth analyzes Jesus as a child (Matt 1-2) and his teaching about children (Matt 18:1-5) in light of insights from those who work in children’s ministries. Febbie Dickerson and Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, African American women, analyze the story of the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28) in light of family realities of women (Dickerson focuses on her as a single mother and Crowder looks at her as a working mother). In another essay, Tsui-yuk Liu, from her Hong Kong context, explores Matthew’s use of mother imagery in light of disenfranchised working mothers, while in another essay, Sung Uk Lim, examines Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane and what it signifies based on his relationship with his father as a pastor’s kid in a patriarchal family in Korea. Clearly, the scholars in this section read Matthew through the lens of various familial contexts, and as such, offer unique insights for interpretation.

The third section, “Disability and Culture” contains two essays focused on healing stories. In one, James Metzger and James P. Grimshaw (who both have experiences related to chronic pain from rheumatic conditions) shed light on Jesus’ responsiveness to those he heals, while at the same time, giving attention to how those with disabilities are portrayed in the gospel. A second essay written by L. J. Lawrence, who has experience working with deaf individuals, analyzes Matthew’s gospel with a resistant reading to its audiocentrism as well as a sympathetic reading to features that affirm the deaf culture.

The fourth section, “Laborers and Empire” contains three essays. Gerald West and Sithembiso Zwane examine the parable of Matthew 20:1-16 in the context of casual workers in South Africa, offering socioeconomic readings of the text. A second essay, written by Lung-pun Common Chan views the Matthean apocalypse (Matt 24-25) as a critique of Roman imperial power and applies this critique to the economic and political realities of globalized Hong Kong. John Yieh, a Chinese Christian scholar, writes a third essay on the Sermon on the Mount in view of the growing greed and exploitation he has witnessed in China’s global economy.

The fifth and final section “Community and Borders” consists of four essays which address border issues that threaten communities. Dorothy Jean Weaver, a member of the North American Mennonite community, interprets Matt 5:38-42 in light of issues of violence and nonviolence from the insights they gained from interviews with Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Elaine Wainwright offers an ecological reading of Matt 4:1-11 from her context in Oceania, where she has experienced firsthand the effects of climate change. Francisco Lozada writes from a Latino/a perspective on the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9b-13). Finally, Jeannine Brown examines the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46) assessing how her own culture of white, middle-class, evangelicalism interprets this parable both in relation to individualism and community.

Clearly, from this overview, we see that one of the primary strengths of this work is the diversity of voices brought to bear on the gospel of Matthew. The book certainly draws from a wide range of contexts and does a commendable job of directing the reader’s attention to many issues for the church to consider such as racial and gender concerns, socio-economic realities, and global issues. In addition, as many of the contributors have a greater sensitivity to the cultural and social realities of the characters in Matthew’s narrative and the historical context of the work itself, they are able to shed new light on the text and ask fresh questions of the text. In so doing, these essays offered new interpretational insights that enrich our understanding of Jesus, the historical world of the gospel, and Matthew’s purposes. Beyond interpretation, this work is also valuable for life-transforming application, especially for those living in the various contexts of the contributors. Thus, for both interpretation and application, this commentary has much to offer.

In critique, the trappings of such a contextual approach were also evident in this work. At times, it seemed as if the writers were overstretching the parallel between the ancient context of the biblical world and their own. While in some cases, there were certainly strong connections to be made, at other times writers did not seem to give due credence to the differences between their own contemporary culture and that of the first century. Furthermore, as is often the case whenever someone reads texts through a particular lens, there is always the danger of missing the forest for the trees—or perhaps, more accurately, seeing only one species of tree when looking at a forest which hosts a variety. There were certainly moments when it felt the authors did, indeed, fall into this trap thus, offering a very narrow interpretation of a particular text.

Despite the hazards pertaining to the approach, this commentary offers a great deal for anyone striving to understand Matthew on a deeper level. Most readers will emerge from this work having gained a deeper appreciation for various contextual perspectives along with a stronger conviction that biblical scholarship needs to move beyond the first-world Euro-American orientation that has characterized it for far too long. This work may also encourage those studying scripture to broaden their own contextual horizons, and perhaps, as a result, both the academy and the church will be richer for it.

Special thanks to Fortress Press for providing this review copy.

About Susan Rieske

I am in my fourth year of doctoral work at Wheaton College studying under Nicholas Perrin. My dissertation focuses on the concept of "generation" in the book of Matthew. Before pursuing a doctorate, I spent several years in ministry serving on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), in various leadership roles in the local church, teaching as an adjunct professor at Moody Theological Seminary, Michigan, and as a writer and speaker with Shepherd Project Ministries. I live in Wheaton with my husband and four children, who I'm training to be amazing research assistants.
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