When it comes to “go-to commentaries” for Matthean studies, few scholars will deny that the commentary set by Ulrich Luz is a frontrunner. This three volume set, written by the renowned Matthean scholar Ulrich Luz and translated from German into English by James E. Crouch provides an in-depth, scholarly treatment of Matthew that is indispensable to anyone wanting to get a solid grasp of the first gospel.
Ulrich Luz (Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Bern in Switzerland) has offered many rich contributions to Matthean studies for several years. His key works available in English include Studies in Matthew (2005), The Theology of the Gospel of Matthew (1995), and Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (1994). But his magnum opus is certainly this three volume commentary on Matthew. It is an English translation from his four volume German commentary on Matthew (1985 – 2002) published in the Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament series.
As part of the Hermeneia series published by Fortress Press, these commentaries certainly live up to the high level of academic excellence we have come to expect from the series, which is known for its keen attention to historical backgrounds, textual criticism, and history of interpretation. Luz’s commentary set, alongside other critical commentaries in the Hermeneia series, is aimed at “the serious student of the Bible” and as such provides benefits not only to scholars but also to educated pastors and laypersons interested in an in-depth study of the text.
Luz’s commentaries reflect his years of study and reflection on the first gospel and demonstrate Luz’s solid grasp of both the broad contours and specific details of the book. Its strengths include its careful engagement with the text, close attention to historical backgrounds, survey of important relevant literature, careful attention to the contribution of various ecclesiastical traditions (early church, Protestant, Catholic, etc.), and a keen focus on the gospel’s history of interpretation.
The commentaries as a whole are well-organized, smoothly written and translated, and easy to use. In the vast amount of introductory information (88 pages) at the beginning, a trademark of the Hermeneia series, Luz presents a thorough overview of Matthew’s structure, characteristics, genre, purpose, style, sources, authorship, historical setting, theology and other pertinent matters. Assuming the two-source theory, Luz also includes here two helpful lists: one of “Matthew’s Preferred Vocabulary (consisting of words that are redactionally significant) and another of “Avoided Words in Matthew” (consisting of words in Mark that tend to be avoided in Matthew). This section is rich with important information on Matthew and is well worth a careful read.
The actual commentary on the text is divided up by pericope, proceeding from the beginning to the end of Matthew. The material is laid out in double columns with clear headings and subheadings, making the commentary easy to read or just simply scan for pertinent information. The section for each pericope begins with a bibliography containing important publications for that particular passage and thanks to Luz’s German nationality, is sure to include several of the key German works (although English, French, Italian and Spanish works are included as well). Although the bibliography does not attempt to be exhaustive, it offers an important starting place for research. After that follows Luz’s translation of the text and exposition, with the main text of commentary in regular font and material on details in the text or tangential issues in a smaller font. Not the least of valuable features are the extensive footnotes, which are full of pertinent biblical and extra-biblical references, additional background information, and more bibliographic information.
As for hermeneutical method, while being primarily historical-critical, Luz affirms that he is not “bound to a single methodological approach” (1:xvii) but attempts to integrate various approaches, with attention to literary criticism and sociological and reader-oriented exegeses. Luz gives significant attention to the history of a text’s interpretation as well as its influence (Wirkungsgeschichte) which he understands as “consisting of all the reflections on and receptions and actualizations of the gospel in new historical situations” (1:xvii). This approach is the hallmark of Luz’s work, and flows, in part, from his fundamental hermeneutical convictions that texts “do not simply have a fixed, closed meaning; they are full of possibilities” (64). In this regard Luz emphasizes the “openness of the texts” for certain key passages like the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer (1:190, 314), and so an analysis of the history of the texts’ effects are helpful for determining their meaning for today. Luz does not limit his overview to literary works, but also includes how certain themes were portrayed in the arts. For example, in regard to Matthew’s passion narrative, the commentary contains a section on how the passion has been portrayed in art, music and drama.
Often criticized in this commentary set is Luz’s approach to the text which commonly dismisses the historicity of miraculous events. The virgin birth, for example, is considered by Luz as historically improbable (although he sees the story itself as having benefit for pointing to God’s real actions in Jesus Christ). However, this aspect in no way overwhelms the commentaries and one can certainly still hold a conservative viewpoint on Scripture and the events of the Christ narrative and yet gain much from Luz’s work.
While other commentaries may give a bit more detailed exegesis of the text, the exegesis in this commentary is careful and illuminating. Furthermore, the attention to the history of interpretation and influence of texts is unmatched among Matthew commentaries and provides several key insights. This set is well worth the investment, and, as it has already in the past, will continue to be a stand-by in Matthean studies for many years to come.
Special thanks to Fortress Press for providing these review copies.