In this first of two planned commentaries on the First Gospel, Jeffrey Gibbs covers Matthew 1:1-11:1 (the second volume will treat 11:2-28:20). The commentary is part of the Concordia Commentary series, which is subtitled “A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture,” and put out by Concordia Publishing House, a division of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Some introductory words about this relatively new series are warranted, given that the authors of the commentaries in it share many of the same beliefs.
According to the editors’ preface, “The purpose of this series … is to assist pastors, missionaries, and teachers of the Scriptures to convey God’s Word with greater clarity, understanding, and faithfulness to the divine intent of the text” (p. xi). Accordingly, the editors describe the commentaries in their series as “Christ-centered,” “evangelical,” “confessional, ecumenical, and catholic” (pp. xi-xii). Moreover, they acknowledge their belief “that the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments are, in their entirety, the inspired and inerrant Word of God” (p. xi) and that the Bible was and is meant to be used by the church (p. xii). Gibbs, Professor of Exegetical Theology (New Testament) at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, a seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, (all of the authors in the Concordia Commentary series, in fact, are confessional Lutherans [p. xiii]) describes his “average reader” as “a theologically conservative pastor, perhaps a clergyman of my own church body” (p. 18).
The introduction section of Gibbs’s commentary occupies the first 67 pages of the book. Here Gibbs treats Matthew’s audience, intention, and location. Many of his conclusions run against the scholarly grain. He dismisses, for instance, the notion that the Gospel does not paint an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus, and affirms that despite the undeniable presence of authorial creativity, Matthew has preserved the actual words and deeds of Jesus in his Gospel. Gibbs also rejects the validity of searching for Matthew’s original audience, following the lead of Graham Stanton (“Revisiting Matthew’s Communities,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1994 Seminar Papers [ed. E. H. Lovering, Jr.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1994], 9-23) and Richard Bauckham (“For Whom Were Gospels Written,” in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences [ed. R. Bauckham; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 9-48). Gibbs, however, is either unaware or dismissive of arguments against Bauckham’s thesis (see, for instance, David C. Sim, “The Gospels for All Christians?: A Response to Richard Bauckham,” JSNT 24 (2001): 3-27; and Philip F. Esler, “Community and Gospel in Early Christianity: A Response to Richard Bauckham’s Gospels for All Christians,” SJT 51 (1998): 235-48). In Gibbs’s view Matthew’s Gospel was intended for a broad community, not a narrow and specific one whose social make-up can be ascertained. More specifically, Gibbs believes the Gospel was written for baptized Christians and was meant to be read and heard in the context of a worship service. In fact, Gibbs suggests that Matthew intended to write scripture that would be received on par with the Old Testament. He argues that “Matthew’s strategy [is] to write a narrative that extends the OT Scripture, and to bring that scriptural narrative to its goal” (p. 10).
This narrative, Gibbs argues, was written independently of the other Gospels. In perhaps his most controversial conclusion, Gibbs avers that despite the preponderance of similarities between Matthew and Mark at both a macro (structural) and micro (lexical) level, there is no direct literary dependence between the two. Moreover, Gibbs denies Markan priority, favoring instead a scenario sympathetic to early church testimony that believed Matthew was the first written Gospel (which, thus, eliminates the need to speculate on the existence of Q). This is not to say, however, that Gibbs is an adherent of either the Griesbach hypothesis (which claims Matthew wrote first; Luke wrote second, making use of Matthew as one of his sources; and Mark wrote last among the Synoptic evangelists, condensing Matthew and Mark) or the Augustinian hypothesis (which maintains that Mark knew of and used Matthew in composing his Gospel).
Not only does Gibbs reject both Griesbach and Markan priority, his own analysis of the textual data, combined with a heavy reliance on the work of Bo Reicke (see especially The Roots of the Synoptic Gospels [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986]) leads him to conclude “that a combination of oral tradition, some smaller written materials, and the influence of the common teaching of the Jerusalem apostles suffices to explain the data as we have them in Matthew, Mark, and Luke” (p. 21). While I am sympathetic to the (underlying, though unstated) premise that the Synoptic Problem is not, chiefly, a literary problem, Gibbs’s arguments in support of his conclusion are unlikely to persuade many. (Gibbs, himself, acknowledges that Reicke’s work “has not met with wide acceptance” (p. 21).)
While his caveat that ” each of the Gospels should be read on its own terms, for its own message, in a holistic way” (p. 28) is a helpful and needed corrective to a great deal of contemporary scholarship, Gibbs’s attempt to at once affirm the differences between Matthew and Mark and yet claim that the Synoptics “offer a historically accurate portrait of the Son of God that is completely faithful to the actual events” (p. 31) is puzzling. In the end, the question that users of this commentary will have to ask is: What theory best explains the data? A majority of New Testament scholars have concluded, at the very least, that we begin with Markan priority, and ultimately, Gibbs’s arguments, though interesting for their idiosyncrasies, have not and probably will not prove convincing, and his caution that “[a]ny position on the Synoptic Problem must be held humbly, and with a certain amount of tentativeness” (p. 20) is well applied to his own unique hypotheses.
Gibbs’s structure of Matthew follows that of his former doctoral supervisor, Jack Dean Kingsbury ( Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975]). Using the phrase
Gibbs also briefly traces three Matthean themes in his discussion of Matthew’s intention: the reign (i.e., kingdom) of heaven/God in Jesus; fulfillment; and mission. His analysis of the complex theme of fulfillment is particularly striking when he comes to the implications of his conclusions. According to Gibbs, because Jesus is “the one and only person who fulfills the entire OT … those who reject Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God cannot read it aright, at least not in the most important ways, and with regard to its central message” (p. 54). This remark is sure to disturb and offend many readers, particularly in light of the fact that many of the leading New Testament scholars are not professing Christians.
In the final section of his introduction, Gibbs argues, again contrary to the views of the majority in academia, that the author of Matthew is indeed the apostle to whom the First Gospel is attributed. Accordingly, he dates the Gospel in the mid-to-late 50s. While Gibbs is agnostic about Matthew’s provenance, he favors a Palestinian origin, “in harmony with early church testimony” (p. 67).
In the commentary proper Gibbs begins his discussion of each pericope with his own (more literal than free) English translation, followed by verse-by-verse textual notes, unit-by-unit comment, and an examination of the themes in the pericope. His interpretations are marked by fairly straightforward and standard interpretations, though interspersed with the occasional peculiarity. Because of his conviction that the Gospels are accurate historical accounts, for example, he attempts to harmonize at a few points. He believes, for instance, that the genealogies in Matthew 1:2-17 and Luke 3:23-28 can be reconciled in one of three ways: either Luke records the genealogy of Mary (rather than Joseph), or Matthew offers Jesus’ legal genealogy while Luke has his biological ancestry (an argument also made by Paul Gaechter, Das Matthäus Evangelium: Ein Kommentar [Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 1963]), or some combination of both (pp. 89-95). Gibbs also tries to harmonize the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (pp. 145-50), though these attempts at forcing the Gospel accounts to fit one another seems unnecessary in a commentary that espouses the value of reading each Gospel on its own terms (p. 28), a fact Gibbs himself makes before, nevertheless, proceeding with his efforts at harmonizing (pp. 89, 145).
Despite this criticism, Gibbs’s work is, on the whole, a solid addition to the existing commentaries on Matthew. One of the strengths of Gibbs’s narrative critical approach is that he understands and evaluates each pericope within the context of the Gospel’s overall story arc. His careful exegesis is always done with the larger scope of the Gospel in mind, helping readers to keep from missing the forest for the trees.
One of the unique features of the commentary is the use of icons in the margins of the text to highlight 15 different themes where Gibbs sees them appearing in the Gospel: Trinity; Temple, Tabernacle; Incarnation; Passion, Atonement; Death and Resurrection, Theology of the Cross, the Great Reversal; Christus Victor, Christology; Baptism; Catechesis, Instruction, Revelation; Lord’s Supper; Ministry of Word and Sacrament, Office of the Keys; The Church; Worship; Sin, Law, Death; Hope of Heaven, Eschatology; and Justification (pp. xx-xxi). Unfortunately, there is no index in this volume to indicate where these icons occur in the commentary. One hopes such an aid will appear in volume two.
The commentary has extensive footnotes and quotes the Greek New Testament liberally, often without translation. Given the intended readership, however, I question how accessible these features will be.
Overall, Gibbs’s first volume on Matthew is highly readable, carefully argued, and sensitive to recent scholarship. One need not agree with all of his hermeneutical presuppositions or conclusions to profit from this work. It is a helpful resource, particularly for the pastoral audience that Gibbs envisions, though it will not likely be among the first commentaries to which preachers turn. As the articulate voice of an admittedly minority viewpoint, however, it is sure to provide pastors and students with an alternative reading to the standard arguments.