Tag Archives: gospel of matthew

The Need and Help Beatitudes

Frederick Bruner, one of the masterful commentators of Matthew, helpfully reflects on the idea of the “need” and “help” nature of the Beatitudes.

“It can be said fairly, I think, that a certain post-Reformation exegesis stressed the need Beatitudes too much, emphasizing that the Sermon on the Mount was intended to drive us to our knees, to our sense of need, to our impotence before the law of God. This exegesis did take seriously the almost insuperable difficulty of living the Sermon on the Mount, and it took seriously the central content of the gospel’s Cross and Resurrection. Yet Jesus calls us not only to our knees, and the purpose of his sermon is not only to make us feel weak. Half the purpose of his sermon is to set us on our feet again and to give us the strength to go out and be a help. The help Beatitudes  belong as much to jesus’ teaching as the need Beatitudes, and deserve equal time.

God helps those who cannot help themselves (the need Beatitudes), and he also helps those who try to help others (the help Beatitudes), but he does not in any Beatitude help those who think they can help themselves—an often ungodly and antisocial conception. Jesus wants faith and love. Only faith justifies, only love proves faith real. There is no contradiction between the fact that God helps the helpless (that is God’s free mercy) and that he helps the helpful (that is God’s justice). The Beatitudes reward not only helplessness—Reformation exegesis has always delighted in knowing this; the Beatitudes also reward helpfulness—we have been reluctant to see this from a fear, often enough legitimate, that a teaching of merits might creep in. But if we can stick closely to Jesus’ definition of the righteous deed in the Beatitudes, and see the exact nature of that deed—that it involves people at center and not first at their works—we will be half way to freedom from new legalisms. The need Beatitudes engage us deeply with God; the help Beatitudes engage us deeply with people. The need Beatitudes enlist us in all that we are not. The help Beatitudes enlist us in all that we are. In the need Beatitudes we are salted (passively); in the help Beatitudes we are salt (actively). In the need Beatitudes we are picked up from the earth; in the help Beatitudes we are thrown into it. What happens to us when we hit earth is described in greater detail in the final double Beatitude.”

F.D. Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Matthew 1-12, The Christbook  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 152. 

Ulrich Luz on Matthew as Gospel

Matthean scholar Ulrich Luz argues that the Gospels, particularly Matthew[1], should not necessarily be understood as βίος but a whole new genre, “Gospel.” Just as earlier Jewish writers picked up the foundation story and reworked it in there writings, likewise Matthew picked up Mark’s story and reworked it, forming a new foundation story. He says,

Between the biblical-Jewish literature and the Gospels, including the Gospel of the Jewish follower of Jesus, Matthew, the foundation story changes. With his story of Jesus Matthew tells a new foundation story that permits him to understand Israel’s previous foundational text, the Bible, in a completely new light. In my (Luz) judgment, here in the framework of the biblical-Jewish tradition and literary activity something completely new, a revolution, happened.

The ancient church recognized this revolution when it put the title “Gospel” at the head of Matthew’s Jesus story and thus created a new genre designation. In so doign it not only expressed a theological judgment; it also did justice to Matthew’s intention.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1–7. Translated by James E. Crouch. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.


  1. At the time of writing, the genre βίοςm was not particularly well known but later readers might have understood Matthew to be some form of βίος.  ↩

Book Review: Reading Backwards by Richard Hays

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Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, changed the landscape of understanding Paul’s use of the Old Testament with his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and now seeks to write a “Gospel-focused sequel” to this work (ix). Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press) is the product of the Hulsean Lectures in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and with minor changes made for this publication. Thus, this book feels like a primer for understanding the Gospel writers use of the Old Testament primarily focused on their figural Christology. I look forward to a full-fledged “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” type work that examines the fourfold witness in more detail. Nevertheless, this work is a helpful starting point in understanding the Gospel writers figural interpretation.

The thesis of the book argues that “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels (5).” Hays works this out by primarily focusing on how this effects the Christology of each of the Gospel writers. He does this through six short chapters (lectures):

  1. “The Manger in Which Christ Lies”: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture
  2. Figuring the Mystery: Reading Scripture with Mark
  3. Torah Transfigured: Reading Scripture with Matthew
  4. The One Who Redeems Israel: Reading Scripture with Luke
  5. The Temple Transfigured: Reading Scripture with John
  6. Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics

At the outset Hays lays out his methodology building on the work of Erich Auerbach and his definition of “figural interpretation.” According Auerbach,

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spritual act (2)[1].

Thus, figural interpretation can only occur after both events have happened, which changes the significance of each event. Hays argues that this form of interpretation is not necessarily dependent upon the authorial intent of the original writer but respects the historical reference of the text being used (15). When the Gospel writers employ this type of hermeneutic they are not twisting the Old Testament scriptures but are reading backwards in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension can we go back and reread the Torah, Writings, and the Prophets.

Hays then argues that each Gospel writer has a distinct voice and purpose for their figural reading of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Mark is shrouded in mystery and the figural exegesis is “evocative” shedding light into this mystery. For example, Hays argues that Mark 1:2–3 is subtely showing that the Lord of the Old Testament is Jesus, which is spoken about in Isaiah 40:3. This example alone is just one of the many places Mark quietly shows that Jesus is the Lord of the Old Testament (21). Mark’s Christology is a narrative that can only be understood by putting together the pieces of the whole story. Each figural reading builds upon one another to give us a robust but mysterious portrait of Jesus.

Unlike the mysterious Mark, the Gospel of Matthew is bold, clear, and didactically explains Jesus’ divine identity. Beginning and ending with the “Emmanuel” theme Matthew shows how Jesus is God incarnate explicitly through Old Testament fulfillments and figural rereadings of the Scriptures. One interesting figural rereading that Hays examines is a possible subtle allusion to Genesis 28:12–17 in Matthew 28:20. Hays argues that Jesus is playing the same role as God when he says in Genesis 28 “Behold I am with you…” and Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold I am with you…” in Matthew 28:20 (48). Along with the explicit high Christological statements through Matthew this subtle allusion shows a figural rereading of the Genesis story showing Jesus’ “embodiment of Israel’s God (52).”

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” This passage, Hays argues, “is to bring us up short and send us back to the beginning of the Gospel to reread it, in hopes of discerning more clearly how the identity and mission of Jesus might be prefigured in Israel’s Scripture (56).” This rereading will show how Luke shows Jesus’ divine identiy narratively. Hays explains that Luke presents this narrative divine identity in two ways (58): 1) mouths of characters in the story (see Luke 4:16–21) and 2) implicit correspondences (allusion and echo). These allusions and echoes manifest themselves in several ways:

  1. Jesus as the awaited Lord of the new exodus (62)
  2. Jesus as Kyrios (64)
  3. Receptin and rejection of the divine visitation (68)
  4. Jesus as object of worship (69)
  5. Jesus desires to gather Jerusalem under his wings (69)

Hays concludes by arguing that the modern assumption of Luke’s “low” Christology does not take account of his many allusions and echoes that show Jesus is divine and the one who will redeem Israel (72).

The Gospel of John is the most “figural” of the Gospels but also contains the least amount of explicit Old Testament citations and allusions. Hays argues that John 1:45 gives us the clue to understanding and seeking out the figural rereading of John. Hays argues, “If Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination (78).” When Jesus references Numbers 21:8–9 in John 3:14 Hays argues that this allusion is more “visual” rather than “auditory” (78). The allusion to the serpent is only given by a couple words: Moses and serpent. Hays then suggests that John may also be alluding to the “lifting up” of the suffering servant in Isa 52:13 (LXX).

The conclusion is worth the price of the book alone. Not arguing against modern critical readings but arguing that we need to broaden our hemerneutical lense lest we miss what the Gospel writers are saying. Hays asks, “what if we learned to read Israel’s Scripture not only through the lenses of modern critical methods but also through the eyes of John and the other authors of the canonical Gospels (93)?” This book aptly gives us a taste of the imagery and figural readings the Gospels present us.

The final chapter gives a helpful overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each Gospel writers figural rereading. For example, the strength of John’s gospel is the “poetic reading of the texts (101).” This allows us to Jesus as the divine Word that “underlies and sustains all of creation (101).” John’s weakness is that it can lend its hand to “anti-Jewish and/or high-handedly supersessionist thoelogies (102).” This opens the door for some readers of the Gospel for “ahistorical quasi-gnostic spirituality (102).” But as stated at the beginning a figural rereading of the Old Testament does not “deny the literal sense but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the literal historical sense (102).” Hays then examines 10 ways the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament.

So, what can be said about this provocative argument that we should be engaged in a figural rereading of the Old Testament scriptures? I think that Hays’ overal argument is valid and that the Gospel writers do present us with a model of how to read the Old Testament in light of Christ. Many ways which the Gospel writers reference the Old Testament are only valid because of the resurrected Jesus. To say that Moses lifting up to the serpent speaks of Christ being lifted up on the cross can only happen after the subsequent event. This involves a “rereading” of the story in Numbers.

One area of critique that I would have of Hays’ own rereading of the Gospels and his rerereading(?) of their interpretation of the Old Testament is that he sometimes seems to stretch the ways in which the Gospel writers allude to Old Testament passages. Is John really symbollically alluding to both the serpent being lifted up and the suffering servant being lifted up? Personally, it seems better to possibly argue for our own rereading of both the Gospels and the Old Testament. Is it possible for us to say that this John’s allusion to the lifting up of the serpent can also be reread figuratively (to use Hays’ language) to that of the suffering servant in Isaiah? That is, do we need to discern some type of authorial intent of John alluding to Numbers and Isaiah or can this be our own rereading of the text?

With this critique aside, the overall argument of this book is one which New Testament interpreters need to wrestle with. Indeed, the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and likewise the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament.

You can purchase the book here.


  1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 73.  ↩

How the Gospels Teach Us to Read the Old Testament (Hays)

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I’ve begun reading Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Witness and with all of Hays’ content it is provacative, engaging, and thought provoking. As you can probably gather from the title of the book, his thesis is, “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”[1] This retrospective hermeneutic argues that we cannot fully understand the writings of the Old Testament without the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

In the first chapter, after explaining how the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels, Hays examines how Luke 24 teaches us how to read the Old Testament. He concludes with three observations.[2]

  1. The Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration. The literal historical sense of the OT is not denied or negated; rather, it becomes the vehicle for latent figural meanings unsuspected by the original author and readers. It points forward typologically to the gospel story. And, precisely because figural readings affirms the original historical reference of the text, it leaves open the possibility of respectful dialogue with other interpretations, other patterns of intertextual reception. This is a point of potentially greater significance for conversation between Jews and Christians about the interpretation of Israel’s Scripture.”

  2. “The story of Israel builds to a narrative climax in the story of Jesus.”

  3. “The figural disclosive reading that the Gospels teach occurs rightly in a community of discipleship and table fellowship.”


  1. Reading Backwards, p. 5  ↩

  2. Reading Backwards, p. 15–16  ↩

QOTD: Ulrich Luz on Understanding Texts

Historical reconstruction means to describe the life situations to which the texts — as their frozen memories belonged and to which they referred. But again, this is not yet to understand the texts. Frozen food becomes meaningful only when it is unfrozen and can be eaten. A photograph becomes meaningful only when it is combined with our memory and when, through it, the persons represented in it come alive again in our hearts. In a similar way biblical texts are meaningful only when they become part of our life. In other words, to understand a New Testament text does not mean to understand the words of the text only but to understand the living Christ to whom it testifies and the life situation that was shaped by him, and to understand both as a gift, a question, and a challenge for our own lives. Understanding such texts is not an intellectual knowledge that can be separated from other dimensions of life; rather this understanding is possible only when it encompasses human life in its totality — intellectual insights, feelings, actions, and suffering

— Luz, Ulrich. Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, 14

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Richard Bauckham on Wholeness in James

One of the major themes weaved throughout the book of James is the idea of “wholeness.” Often in our translation the word for wholeness (τέλειος) is translated as “perfect.” This is an unhelpful translation because it gives that connatation that James is just calling for a sinless morality. James envisions wholeness as a life that is characterized by both doing and being. We cannot “do” without “being” and likewise we cannot “be” without “doing.” Richard Bauckham, in his excellent book on James, lays out five ways that James speaks of this wholeness[1]:

  1. Integration – The whole self is devoted to God. This includes the heart (thoughts, feelings, will), tongue (speech), and hands (deeds)[2]. One cannot worship God with his heart but lack proper speech ethics. In the same manner, one cannot do good deeds without a heart devoted to God. For James, this type of person is a “double-minded” person who is not fully devoted to God. Wholeness as integration is also a community excersise. Someone cannot be completely devoted to God without being person “characterized by peaceable, gentle, considerate, caring, and forgiving relationships (Jas. 2.13; 3.13, 17; 4.11–12; 5.16, 19)[3].”
  2. Exclusion – The whole person is one who excludes values and actions that doesn’t make up a τέλειος type person. One cannot be devoted to the world and God but must choose one or the other (Jas. 4.4).
  3. Completion – This is related to the integration since according to James a person cannot be halfway devoted to God. A whole person is one who has faith but also deeds (Jas 2.14–26), endures completely (Jas 1.2–4, 12; 5.7–11), and not only hears the words of God but also does them (Jas. 1.22–25)[4].
  4. Consistency – Bauckham argues that consistency is “another way of considering the first three[5].” These aspects cannot be done intermittently but must represent a consistent life that is completely devoted to God.
  5. Divine Perfection – We can only be a whole person because “God himself is characterized by wholeness and consistency[6].” Just as God himself is whole so too should we be a people characterized by wholeness. God is completely devoted to himself (holy) and for his people this means that they are completely devoted to him (Dt. 4.4–6).

The theme of wholeness pervades the book of James. It is also a key theme in the Gospel of Matthew. This also ties in nicely with a virtue ethic understanding of Paul and especially the Sermon on the Mount. I hope to explore these themes more closely in the future but for now I leave you with a final excerpt from Bauckham’s book:

Wholeness is a goal towards which one can move only in relation to a center which is already whole and from which one can gain wholeness. This means moving in one direction rather than others. It means rejecting values and behavior which are inconsistent with the goal. It means refusing all the idolatries which dominate and diminish human life in favor of the one love which can truly liberate and include all that Is good[7].


  1. Bauckham, Richard. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. New Testament Readings. London ; New York: Routledge, 1999.  ↩

  2. 178  ↩

  3. 178  ↩

  4. 181  ↩

  5. 181  ↩

  6. 182  ↩

  7. 183  ↩

Differentiating the Good Seed from the Rest in Matthew 13.38

In the ESV, Matthew 13:38–39 reads:

“The field is the world, the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels.”

In the NA27 it reads:

ὁ δὲ ἀγρός ἐστιν ὁ κόσμος, τὸ δὲ καλὸν σπέρμα οὗτοί εἰσιν οἱ υἱοὶ τῆς βασιλείας· τὰ δὲ ζιζάνιά εἰσιν οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ πονηροῦ, ὁ δὲ ἐχθρὸς ὁ σπείρας αὐτά ἐστιν ὁ διάβολος, ὁ δὲ θερισμὸς συντέλεια αἰῶνός ἐστιν, οἱ δὲ θερισταὶ ἄγγελοί εἰσιν.

A more helpful English translation would be

“…the good seed — these are the sons[1] of the kingdom…”

It seems that Matthew is trying to differentiate and place an emphasis on who the kingdom people are. In 8:12, οἱ υἱοὶ τῆς βασιλείας, are Jews, who by birth are “sons of the kingdom” but are thrown into outer darkness because of their rejection of the Messiah. As Matthew’s Gospel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that ethnicity is not the determining factor of kingdom status. At this juncture Jesus has declared that those who identify with him — these are the kingdom people and those who reject him are of the devil. People of the kingdom are the ones who identify with and are planted by the Son of Man.

Here are the ways other versions translate this passage:

  • Lexham English Bible – And the good seed—these are the sons of the kingdom
  • HCSB – and the good seed—these are the sons of the kingdom.
  • NIV 2011 – and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom.
  • NRSV – and the good seed are the children of the kingdom
  • NKJV – the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom
  • NET – and the good seed are the people of the kingdom.

  1. or people of the kingdom  ↩

Thoughts on Chrysostom’s First Sermon on Matthew

Chrysostom notes the many difficulties in the text of Matthew. He says that it may be plain at first site but when one focuses on the text many question arises. What is interesting is the amount of preparation for his sermon that he called his congregation to do. He says that they will not get anything out of his teaching if they do not thoughtfully prepare before hand.

In his first homily he asks several question. Here is a sampling:

  1. Why is the genealogy traced through Joseph if he is not Jesus’ biological father?
  2. Why can Jesus be said to come from David when the forefathers of Mary are not known?
  3. Why does Matthew pass over eminent women but focus on four that are “famed for some bad thing?”
  4. Why did he omit three kings in the genealogy?
  5. If he speaks of 14 generations why does the 3rd set not have 14 generations?
  6. Why do Matthew and Luke both trace the genealogy of Joseph but have different number of names and starting points?
  7. How was Elizabeth, who was from the Levitical tribe, kinswoman to Mary?

He tells his congregation that if they are going to learn they must prepare and seek the answers to these questions apart from his preaching. Only then, if he sees an eagerness to learn from them, will he “endeavor to add the solution” but if they are not preparing and seeking out answers on their own he will “conceal both the difficulties and their solution in obedience to the divine law.” His reason is rooted in an allusion to Matthew 7:6, “Give not the holy things to the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.” And who are these people that are the dogs and swine? They are the ones who do not “account these things as precious and venerable.” This is a serious offense because to Chrysostom the ones who do not prepare before hand are not taking the Scriptures seriously. He laments, “where God is speaking, they will not bear to tarry even a little time.”

This section of the homily brings up some interesting questions:

First, how many people had access to the text of Matthew at this time? From this section it seems that everyone had some type of access to at least the text for the next sermon. How big was his congregation? Did they memorize the passage for the next gathering or copy it somewhere? Did they have some type of “study groups” or was this all individual? Did Chrysostom check in and ask questions to see if they had pondered the passage?

Second, how does Chrysostom go about answers the questions he poses? Many of the questions that he poses are still questions for todays scholars.

Third, what is the history of interpretation of Matthew 7:6 up to this point and where does it go from here. For Chrysostom the holy things are the Scriptures and the interpretation of them. The only other interpretation of this passage that I know of (I would be interested to researching this more) is in Didache 9:5. This passage says, “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ”Do not give what is holy to dogs.“ For the Didachist the holy things is participation in the Eucharist and you are a ”dog" if you have not been baptized. These interpretations are similar but not quite the same. For Chrysostom, if one is uninterested in the Scriptures then this makes them the dog or swine but for the Didachist baptism is the criteria for being a dog and swine.

I love the quote that Chrysostom ends his homily with. He compares the Gospel of Matthew as entering into a holy city that is leading the reader to the royal throne where Christ sits. He concludes,

If we would order ourselves wisely, the grace itself of the Spirit will lead us in great perfection, and we shall arrive at the very royal throne, and attain to all good things, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and always, even for ever and ever. Amen.

Chrysostom and the reason for the four-fold Gospel

What then? Was not one evangelist sufficient to tell all? One indeed was sufficient; but if there be four that write, not at the same times, nor in the same places, neither after having met together, and conversed one with another, and then they speak all things as it were out of one mouth, this becomes a very great demonstration of the truth.

He goes on to say…

But if there be anything touching times or places, which they have related differently, this does not injure the truth of what they have said. And these thing too, so far as God shall enable us, we will endeavor, as we proceed, to point out; requiring you, together with what we have mentioned, to observe, that in the chief heads, those which constitute our life and furnish our doctrine, nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed, no not ever so little.

He then gives a list of doctrines that they agree on:

  1. God became man
  2. He did miracles
  3. He was crucified, buried, rose again, and ascended
  4. He will judge
  5. He has given commandments pertaining to salvation
  6. He brought in a law not contrary to the Old Testament
  7. He is a Son
  8. He is only-begotten
  9. He is a true Son
  10. He is of the same substance with the Father

in Homilies on Matthew: Homily 1

Necessary Ending to the Gospel of Matthew

 

Dale Allison has some helpful remarks regarding the resurrection as the perfect ending to the Gospel of Matthew.

  1. Without the resurrection Jesus’ words are vacant and his opponents exonerated. With it Jesus is vindicated, his cause and authority confirmed, and his opponents disgraced.
  2. The earthquake, the movement from heaven to earth, and the resurrection from the tomb together make the vindication of Jesus an eschatological event. When the Messiah enters into suffering and death and then is raised to new life amidst signs and wonders, he plays out in his own life the eschatological scenario. The end of Jesus is the end of the world in miniature.
  3. The resurrection – the full meaning of which only becomes apparent in 28:16–20 – makes Jesus himself an illustration of his own teaching. He is, like the prophets before him, wrongly persecuted because of his loyalty to God, and he gains great reward in heaven. He finds his life after losing it. He is the servant who becomes great, the last who becomes first.
  4. There is a happy contrast between chapter 2 and 28, the only two places where angels are active participants in the story. In the former the Gentile magi inform Herod and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, including the chief priests, of events surrounding the advent of the Messiah. In the latter Gentile soldiers announce to the chief priests of Jerusalem the events surround the resurrection of Jesus. In the former the king opposes the infant Messiah and tries to kill him. In the latter the leaders counter the resurrection by setting a guard at the tomb, and when that fails by promulgating a false rumor. In the former the faithful magi worship Jesus and rejoice with great joy. In the latter the faith women worship Jesus and go on their way with great joy.

Davies, W. D., and Dale C. Allison Jr. Matthew 19–28: Volume 3. 1st ed. T&T Clark, 2004, p. 673

Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew

Daniel Gurtner has a helpful essay in the most recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (BBR)[1], titled “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew.” The goal of the essay is to outline a methodology for interpreting “apocalyptic symbolism in Matthew”[2] (I would say after reading the essay this could be applied to the other Gospels as well). After briefly summarizing the apocalyptic interpretation in Matthew he concludes that some, such as David Sim, place too much emphasis on “Matthew’s community”. While recognizing that apocalyptic literature typically arises out of an oppressed community he argues that Matthew’s gospel is not an apocalypse but rather a bios with apocalyptic imagery woven in. It is better to understand Matthew’s use of apocalyptic to “convey the meaning of history more profoundly than would be possible from a straightforward narrative” (544). Therefore, one loses sight of the reason Matthew is using apocalyptic writing when they tried to establish a community in which Matthew is writing in.

Gurtner says that the one aspect that is similar in all types of apocalyptic writing is symbolism. Since symbolism is present in post apocalypses (literary genre) and other genres that contain apocalyptic language (i.e. the Gospels) then this should be the interpreters entry into studying the apocalyptic writing of the Gospels. In order to identify and interpret these symbols he uses the interpretive methods G.K. Beale uses in understanding Revelation:

  1. When the symbol is not clearly identified by the author the interpreter must look at a “known commonplace association of a picture” (shared corpus)
  2. If the first option is not identifiable the interpreter should look at the “literal subject itself” (534). Gurtner notes that symbolic does not necessarily mean nonliteral. He gives the example of the exodus and the resurrection. Both events are highly symbolic (exodus = salvation/deliverance) but they are both understood to be literal events.

The rest of the essay provides an example using Gurtner’s interpretation of the tearing of the temple veil in Matthew. He has already done many studies ( dissertation, essay in JETS) but the purpose of this essay is to show the methodology of his interpretation rather than shed new light on the text.

Not having much history with apocalyptic writing I found this essay helpful as an entrance into the world of apocalypticism in interpreting the symbolic nature of the writing. The essay is worth a read as a helpful example of working through an apocalyptic writing within the Gospel narrative.


  1. Gurtner, Daniel. “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 525–546.  ↩

  2. Gurtner acknowledges that the term “apocalyptic symbolism” is a “contradiction in terms. And, ironically, it is precisely this confusion in terminology that has led to confusion in interpretation” (525)  ↩

A Typological Reading of Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew

Brian Davidson has written three different reflections on Jonah. He hopes to inspire some “horizontal blogging” in responses to other readings on Jonah. For my response I thought I would write a brief post summarizing an earlier paper I wrote at SBTS on a typological interpretaiton of Jonah in Matthew.

The story of Jonah was one of earliest artistic expressions of early Christianity. Jesus telling the Pharisees that something greater than Jonah is here no doubt sparked the minds of early Christian artists and theologians.

These Jonah sculptures (minus the one in the front right) were found carved in the 3rd century AD depicting the story of Jonah

These Jonah sculptures (minus the one in the front right) were found carved in the 3rd century AD depicting the story of Jonah

But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. – Matthew 12:39–41

The Calming of the Storms

In Matthew’s Gospel he presents a typological interpretation of Jonah. He first hints at a Jesus is greater than Jonah interpretation in the pericope of Jesus calming the stormy seas. There are many similarities in the events of the stories. The stories begin by Jesus and Jonah getting into a boat (Jonah 1:3 “καὶ ἐνέβη εἰς αὐτὸ τοῦ πλεῦσαι”; Matt 8:23 “ἐμβάντι αὐτῷ εἰς τὸ πλοῖον”). Immediately the story says that a great storm was upon them (Jonah 1:4 “καὶ ἐγένετο κλύδων μέγας ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ”; Matt 8:24 “σεισμὸς μέγας ἐγένετο ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ”). This is no ordinary storm but one that is great and mighty. Just as in Jonah, these career seafarers were greatly afraid of this storm due to their fears of it overtaking their ship. Both storms are fierce enough that the thought of death is on each of the crew members’ minds (Jonah 1:5; Matt 8:25 ). Both Jesus and Jonah are fast asleep (Jonah 1:5–6 “καὶ ἐκάθευδεν”; Matt 8:24 “δὲ ἐκάθευδεν”)[1]. The boats are crashing up and down but they are oblivious to the dire situation. The disciples run to Jesus and say, “Lord, save us” (Matt 8:25 “κύριε, σῶσον, ἀπολλύμεθα”). Just as the crewmen run to Jonah and cry, “call out to your god that he may save us and we not perish” (Jonah 1:6 “καὶ μὴ ἀπολώμεθα”). In both instances, the people on the ship wake up the person who in their own unique way can calm the storm. Jesus wakes up with confidence because he knows he is in complete control of this storm. Just as when Jonah is woken up and confronted he knows that he (in a completely different way) is in control of the storm (Jonah 1:12). Jesus, being greater than Jonah, has the power to calm the storm instantly with his voice (Matt 8:26). Jesus speaks and the storm immediately calms and the waters become peaceful once again (Matt 8:26). Jonah knows that the reason the storm is crashing on them is because he is fleeing from Yahweh’s commands. Jonah tells the crew members if they throw him overboard, then the storm will become calm. After throwing Jonah in the sea, the storm ceased immediately and there was complete peace. The response of both the crewmen and the disciples is utter amazement. The disciples are amazed because the wind and the waves obeyed the voice of their Lord (Matt 8:27 “οἱ δὲ ἄνθρωποι ἐθαύμασαν”). The crewmen are amazed and compelled to worship Yahweh, who is not just Jonah’s god any more (Jonah 1:16 “καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν οἱ ἄνδρες φόβῳ μεγάλῳ τὸν κύριον”).

The Judgement of Jonah and Jesus

Another way that Jesus is greater than Jonah is the divine judgement brought on both Jesus and Jonah. The judgement brought on Jonah was because of his disobedience to the commands of God. Jonah is “swallowed up” and compares his situation to Sheol. There are other places throughout the Old Testament that combine these terms to denote judgement on the person. In Number 16:30 it says, “But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you should know that these men have despised the Lord.” The context is when Korah and his family rebel against Moses and Aaron and since they are representatives for Yahweh the punishment is the same as if they are rebelling against Yahweh. In judgment Yahweh opens up the earth and swallows them. In Proverbs 1:12 the combination of judgment, swallow, and Sheol appear again. Solomon is teaching his son not to associate with people who have rejected Yahweh’s commands. These wicked people compare the killing of innocent people with Sheol swallowing people alive. Finally, Psalm 21:9 is another verse where the term “swallow” is associated with judgment. David has written a psalm where he writes the judgment of Yahweh will “swallow them (the wicked who have turned against Yahweh) up in his wrath, and fire will consume them.”

In the belly of the great fish Jonah is under divine judgement and feels that Yahweh has turned his back on him (Jonah 2:4) but at the same time he has hope and realizes that Yahweh also saved him by allowing the waves pass over him. Jonah is feeling both anxiety and despair along with a sense of gratitude to Yahweh for sparing his life.

Just as God judged Jonah, God also judged Jesus as he took on our sins on the cross. Jonah disobeyed Yahweh in his command to go preach the message of repentance to the Gentiles but Jesus obeyed his Father. Jesus was judged and experienced the wrath of God but not for his disobedience but for our disobedience. Just as Jonah “went to Sheol” and experienced God turning his back on him; Jesus went to the cross and experienced an intense separation from God (Matt 27:46).[2]

Typological Significance of Three Days and Deliverance

There is a typological significance of the theme of three days and deliverance throughout the Old Testament.[3] The following is a brief overview of theme of three days in the Old Testament with the ultimate fulfillment being in Jesus.

In Genesis, Abraham goes up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac on the third day (Gen 22:4). Yahweh graciously provides a ram in the place of Isaac and delivers Isaac to safety. After three days the Israelites arrived at Matt Sinai after Yahweh had delivered them from the Egyptians (Exod 19:16). In 1 Samuel, on the third day David delivers his wives after engaging in battle. The King of Israel who was spurning Yahweh’s commands while pursuing to kill David dies in battle. In this way, David is delivered from the threat of death and rightfully takes his place as King of Israel. During all this the new King of Israel is giving gifts to his men (1 Sam 30:1ff). In Hosea, the prophet prophesies that Yahweh has judged Israel but Yahweh will also deliver them. “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up that we may live before him” (Hos 6:2). Finally, in the story of Jonah, Yahweh delivered him after three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. So Jesus is comparing his death and resurrection to that of Jonah. Just as Jonah was delivered from the belly of the fish Jesus will be delivered from the heart of the earth. Jesus being the typological fulfillment of Jonah is greater because he suffered a real physical death and after three days experienced a real physical resurrection.

Jesus is greater than Jonah; Jonah was three days in the belly of a fish for punishment for his rejection of Yahweh but Jesus was three days in the heart of the earth because of our rejection of God. Jonah was released after three days to preach to the Gentiles but Jesus was resurrected and given authority and power to send out his people to preach and disciple the nations (Matt 28:18).

Conclusion

Matthew guides his readers to see that Jesus is greater than the prophet Jonah. He first hints at this in the similarities of the calming of the storms. Then Jonah is swallowed by the great fish and in his prayer he hints that he both being judged by Yahweh yet also delivered by him while experiencing “death”. In the same way Jesus feels the judgement and separation from God and dies a real physical death and then was resurrected.

Do you see any other typological connections to Jonah and Jesus in Matthew? In the other Gospels?


  1. Jonah 1:5 – καὶ ἐκάθευδεν. Matthew 8:24 – αὐτὸς δὲ ἐκάθευδεν. The third singular imperfect active indicative, καθευδω, is only used in the New Testament once, in Matthew 8:24, and in the LXX in a very concentrated use in 2 Kings and once in Jonah 1:5  ↩

  2. In the high priestly prayer, Jesus cries out to his Father “to let this cup pass” (Matt 26:39). The cup metaphor is used in the Old Testament as a picture for suffering and judgment. Previously in Matthew 20:23 the cup Jesus is referring to is his suffering. R.T. France in his commentary on Matthew explains, “Here the context demands that it be understood of suffering rather than of punishment. It is reading too much into it to find in this context (Matt 20:23) the theme of vicarious punishment…when the same metaphor is taken up again in (Matt 26:27–28, 39), that aspect (judgment) will be added.”  ↩

  3. See Harney McArthur, “On The Third Day,” New Testament Studies 18 (1971): 84 for the theme of the third day and deliverance in rabbinic interpretation of the Old Testament  ↩

History of Interpretation: Aquinas on the star guiding the Magi

In his commentary on Matthew, Aquinas focuses the journey of the Magi as the “first fruits of the Gentiles, because they were the first Gentiles to come to Christ.” By recognizing that their wisdom originated in Christ they came to worship Jesus. Because they were Gentiles coming to Christ he gives two reasons why it was a star that guided them:

  1. He (Christ) was made known to the Gentiles by a star, because they came to the knowledge of God through created things; ‘The invisible things of God, by the things that are made, are clearly seen’ (Rom 1:20).
  2. It was appropriate for those to whom it was being shown, namely, the Gentiles, whose calling was promised to Abraham in the likeness of the stars; ‘Look up to the heaven and number the stars, if thou canst.’ (Gen 15:5).

For Aquinas, the story of the Magi, was the story of Gentiles being brought in to Christ because of the promises of Abraham. Since Abraham was to look to the skies and see that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars it was right for God to use a star to guide the magi. And because the Gentiles came to know God by his created things then it was also right for God to use a star to reveal Christ.

Taken from Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew