The Gospel of Matthew. In the New International Commentary on the New Testament
By R. T. France
Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 115-118
The long awaited volume on Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT) has finally arrived. This venerable commentary series was launched over a half century ago under the editorship of Ned Stonehouse (1947-1962), followed by that of F. F. Bruce (1962-1990), and is (hopefully) being brought to completion under Gordon Fee (1990 -). The series was launched with a team of international scholars sympathetic to the Reformed faith from the U.K., the U.S., South Africa, and the Netherlands. The commentary has been around long enough for replacements of some of the original volumes to appear (e.g., Luke, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, James, and the Epistles of John) and revisions by the author of some of the originals to be issued (e.g., John, Acts, Thessalonians, Hebrews, and Revelation).
In light of the long history of the NICNT, one may wonder why it took so long for the Matthew volume to see the light of day. From an examination of old dust covers, one can see that the Gospel of Matthew was originally assigned to Stonehouse, but his untimely death caused a switch to Robert Guelich. For some reason, it was then assigned to Herman Ridderbos who for whatever reason did not complete it. In his preface to this volume, editor Gordon Fee reveals that during his tenure since 1990 he had contracts for the Matthew volume returned to him by two “very capable” younger scholars. Fee says that one day he asked a fellow member of the Committee on Bible Translation (NIV/TNIV), Dick France, if he would take the commentary project, and what we have is the result.
For those familiar with Gospel studies, France is no stranger, having written a smaller commentary on Matthew for the Tyndale NT series, a separate book on Matthew’s teaching, and a commentary on Mark in the NICGT series. France has also contributed scholarly articles on Matthew, Jesus, and the Synoptics. No one seems more qualified to step into the gap, and France does not disappoint with this volume.
Sadly, most commentaries from scholars of this caliber are a series of technical word studies somehow strung together, or they become a commentary on other commentaries, or they suffer from the unholy union of both those characteristics. France avoids both the pedantry of the first method (the one totally word based) and the endless lists of different interpretations characteristic of the second method (those who comment on other commentaries). He does this with constant attention in every individual pericope to how this section fits into the larger section in which it appears and how everything fits into Matthew’s larger strategy. He avoids the danger of simply providing a digest of others’ interpretations by referencing other authors in the footnotes and majoring on telling what he believes Matthew is saying. No one can accuse him of ignoring scholarly opinion on Matthew. For example, his bibliography of books, commentaries, and journal articles covers thirty-five pages! He interacts with other views, but majors on a fresh interpretation of the text.
Another refreshing aspect of France’s treatment is that he places his emphasis on discovering what the canonical text of Matthew is teaching. He does not follow the endless bypaths of source and redaction critics which mar many modern commentaries on Matthew. One thinks of the magisterial work of Davies and Allison, filled with insights both exegetical and theological, only to be marred by statements that this or that word/phrase is the work of a redactor. How can one know that when no text of Matthew indicates such redaction? France tells what the text means and does not get bogged down on questions of whether this verse was in Q or M, or if it is the result of a final redaction of those two or more sources. This also makes his commentary much more valuable for the preacher and teacher.
France explains briefly the two dominant views about the structure of Matthew’s gospel (2, 3). The first is the fivefold division based on the repeated statement, “And Jesus finished the sayings,” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). The second is the threefold division base on the repetition of “From that time Jesus began to . . .” (47; 16:21). He opts for seeing the similar way in which Matthew follows a geographical procession of Jesus, as is in Mark. Thus he suggests the following overall outline: I. Introducing the Messiah (1:1–4:11); II. Galilee: The Messiah Revealed in Word and Deed (4:12–16:20); III. From Galilee to Jerusalem: Messiah and His Followers Prepare for the Confrontation (16:21–20:34); IV. Jerusalem: The Messiah in Confrontation with the Religious Authorities (21:1–25:46); V. Jerusalem: Messiah Rejected, Killed, and Vindicated (26:1–28:15); VI. Galilee: The Messianic Mission is Launched (28:16-20). Thus, to France, semantic content trumps literary features in a book’s structure. This approach may be more valuable to the preacher, but it neglects the possibility that Matthew may have intended those distinct literary characteristics to communicate his structure. Whether the features favor a fivefold or a threefold division, this reviewer believes that Matthew had a literary design that he intended the reader to understand.
On the other hand, France is best when he is interpreting an individual pericope or even a set of related pericopes. For example, he displays his very capable interpretive skills in his deft handling of the five pericopes in the Matthew nativity account (1:18–2:23). He recognizes the controversial way in which Matthew employs the OT quotations there and arrives at very satisfying conclusions which maintain the hermeneutical sanity of Matthew over against his modern detractors and critics. At this point one might wish to explain specifically how he does that, but space constraints mandate leaving that delight to be discovered by the reader who will not be disappointed by France’s insightful method and his conclusions.
Reviewers of a commentary will usually issue the expected caveat that they do not accept every interpretation in the commentary. That is, of course, the same situation with this reviewer’s approach to France’s commentary. But rest assured that France has considered all views and presents cogent arguments, whether one agrees with them or not. In that regard, I must demur from France’s treatment of the Olivet Discourse. He argues for Jesus’ answering the first of the disciples’ questions (“When shall these things be?”) in 24:4-35 before he answers the second question (“What shall be the sign of your coming and the end?”) in 24:36–25:46. He views the first section as describing the events leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem. The rest of the discourse he sees as describing the events related to the “eschaton.” Though France studiously avoids millennial terminology, his approach seems to be a form of realized eschatology that views the events of A.D. 70 as fulfilling most of the prophecies traditionally taken as describing Jesus’ second advent. Again, the limits of a review do not allow interaction with France in detail. Such a comment is only to alert the reader that in the reviewer’s opinion France has not made a compelling case for his view. Yes, problems exist with whatever view one adopts, but France’s approach raises more problems than he solves. For a more traditional and a better handling of the issues, the commentary by Stanley Toussaint, Behold the King, (Multnomah, 1980) is recommended.
France’s commentary should take its place among the best on Matthew. Will it dislodge the commentaries by Davies and Allison and Luz that are at the top of scholarly commentaries on Matthew? Probably not. But it should be one of the finest ones used to find out not only what is being said about Matthew, but to find out what Matthew is saying.