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Food for Thought: Robert Gundry on Matthew as Midrash

Robert H. Gundry, Scholar-in-Residence at Westmont College

The NC State’s Graduate Christian Fellowship will be meeting for another Food for Thought dinner on October 23rd.  Over the course of this year we are studying the Gospel According to Matthew during our Tuesday night meetings, which has been a rich, challenging and encouraging time for all of us.  The Gospel of Matthew, when looked at closely, takes some surprising twists and turns, and so we decided that it might be helpful to read something on the First Gospel to sharpen our thinking, inform our reading, and raise good questions that we may never have thought about asking.

So this month’s reading is “A Theological Postscript” to Robert H. Gundry’s Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church Under Persecution (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).  Robert Gundry is now Scholar-in-Residence at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.  When Gundry first published this piece in 1984 it caused quite a stir at the Evangelical Theological Society and eventually led to Gundry having to leave the society.  You can read about all of that here.  In any case, whether one ends up agreeing with Gundry’s conclusions or not, Gundry’s piece poses important questions for anyone who takes the Bible seriously and as authoritative.

In a nutshell, Gundry argues that the Gospel of Matthew does not give us unvarnished history, but rather that the Gospel writer took quite a few artistic liberties with the story of Jesus–sometimes making it hard to tell just where history ends and elaborated story-telling begins.  The artistic manner in which Matthew tells the story of Jesus, says Gundry, is rather like the creative ways in which Jewish writers handled their own Scriptures in the first century.  These creative modes of Jewish Biblical interpretation and re-narration were called haggadah and midrash, and in the ancient world they were considered to be perfectly acceptable ways of handling the Bible.  According to Gundry, Matthew gives us a midrashic or haggadic retelling of the story of Jesus which highlights Jesus’ unique messianic, authoritative, and divine character and identity, and underscores the ways in which His life, ministry, death and resurrection bring the story of Israel’s Scriptures to a climax.  To the extent that conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists insist that Matthew must give us unmixed history, says Gundry, they are measuring the text against modern, post-Enlightenment expectations for history writing rather than expectations that anyone in the ancient world would have insisted upon.  Below is a summary of the essay for anyone who will not have time to read the whole thing before the dinner, or for anyone who is interested.  Enjoy!

A page from a 6th century manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew

Matthew, apparently, is not written in such a way as to give us straight history.  “All history writing entails more or less editing of materials,” says Gundry.  “But Matthew’s editing often goes beyond the bounds we nowadays want a historian to respect.”  What in the world, you might be asking, is Gundry talking about?  Gundry is referring to “tendentious patterns of diction, style, and theology” that he and other scholars have noticed in the Gospel of Matthew, and which, they think, indicate that Matthew is not giving us unvarnished history.

These patterns attain greatest visibility in, but are by no means limited to, a number of outright discrepancies with the other synoptics…. Matthew’s taking away the disciples’ misunderstanding at the feeding of the five thousand (14:16-17; contrast Mark 6:37-38) is part of a thoroughgoing program that pervades his gospel.  Not allowing the disciples to take even a staff and sandals (10:9-10; so also Luke 9:3; 10:4), where in Mark 6:8-9 Jesus allows both, links up with increased rigorism throughout Matthew.  Making the chief priests and elders sentence themselves at the close of the parable of the tenant farmers (21:41), where in Mark 12:9; Luke 20:16 Jesus pronounces the sentence, provides but one instance among many of Matthew’s intensifying the Jewish leader’s guilt.  And so on and on.  We are not dealing with a few scattered difficulties.  We are dealing with a vast network of tendentious changes….

So what are we supposed to make of all this?  What does this mean for how we think about biblical authority?  For inspiration?

The first thing to see is that typical ways of evading the issue and preserving traditional views of inspiration are no longer open to us, says Gundry.  Harmonizations of the Synoptics frequently collapse into absurdity.  So-called “solutions” to these so-called “Bible difficulties” are increasingly ad hoc and, indeed, it seems more and more likely that these phenomena are difficulties not for the Bible itself but for our preconceptions about it.  Suspending judgment until more evidence is in is not a promising option either, for the more data we acquire, the more such “difficulties” come to view.

One ancient Jewish midrashic text--now lost--called The Assumption of Moses, narrates a dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over the body of Moses--an event nowhere mentioned in the OT. See, however, Jude 9.

Instead of letting the tail of our preconceptions about inspiration wag the dog of the Biblical text, perhaps, says Gundry, we should let what we actually see in the Bible–the texture of the text–shape, inform and nuance our understanding of the Bible’s inspiration.  We should conform our conceptions of inspiration to the shape the Bible actually takes, not vice versa.

Gundry observes “that the liberty Matthew takes with his sources is often comparable witht he liberty taken with the OT in Jubilees, the Genesis Apocryphon, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, 1 Enoch, the Targums, and the Midrashim and Haggadoth in rabbinic literature.  In his Antiquities Josephus takes similar liberties, or includes materials in which they have been taken.”  Thus, Gundry thinks that when talking about Matthew’s mode of writing, adjectives such as “haggadic” and “midrashic” are apropos.  To put that in laymen’s terms, Matthew treats his sources about the same way in which other ancient Jewish writers treated theirs–which suggests that whatever concerns we modern Western people have about Matthew’s handling of his sources, the ancients would not necessarily have shared them.

"St. Matthew and the Angel," by Guido Reni, ca. 1597, Vatican Pinacoteca. The Evangelists are frequently depicted in iconography and Renaissance art as being directed in their writing by an angel.

And, says Gundry, none of these observations suggests that Matthew was not inspired or that Matthew had low regard for the historical Jesus.  Artistic renderings of a person’s life usually demonstrate high regard, not low.  And on the matter of inspiration, what gives us the right to say a priori that God could not inspire a biblical writer to pen a text that has both historical and ahistorical elements?  What if Matthew, guided by divine inspiration, intended to write something other than just straight-up history?  Gundry writes:

None of this should occasion alarm.  Elsewhere in Scripture and in other literature we live comfortably with differences of intent.  ‘Every literature has its own proper kind of truth’…. We do not read the Psalms as we read the Proverbs, or Jesus’ parables as we read the Acts of the Apostles.  Even language that seems historical at first (“Behold, a sower went out to sow; and it came to pass…”–Mark 4:3-4; “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho”–Luke 10:30…) may, on close inspection, look unhistorical and be accepted as such by the majority of the most historically minded readers.  If, then, Matthew writes that Jesus said or did something Jesus did not say or do in the way described–this supported by adequate exegetical and comparative data–we have to say that Matthew did not write entirely reportorial history.  Comparison with midrashic and haggadic literature of his era suggests that he did not intend to do so….What Matthew wrote bears the stamp of inspiration in the meaning he intended–be it historical, unhistorical, or a mixture of the two–not in any meaning he did not intend….

Moreover, the act of retelling a story with artistic flourishes, elaborations and adumbrations is something preachers do all of the time.  “Are we to deny Matthew the privilege of speaking to people of his day in a way we relish using (and our audiences relish hearing and reading)?,” asks Gundry.

“The use of the OT in the NT should have prepared us for some inspired license in the use of dominical materials,” Gundry argues.

Matthew converts historical statements about the Exodus and the Babylonian Exile into messianic prophecies (Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; cf. Matt 2:15, 18) and negates what Micah affirmed about the smallness of Bethlehem (Mic 5:1; cf. Matt 2:6…).  Paul uses statements concerning the restoration of Israel, who had been God’s people (Rom 9:25-26; cf. Hos 2:1 [1:10]; 2:25 [2:23]).  Many similar examples could be cited.  If NT writers go so far in the transformation of OT texts, what is there to keep us from accepting Matthew’s shifting the meaning of Jesus’ words and altering the particulars of Jesus’ deeds?

Over against modern scholars who question whether the First Gospel could have been written by an eyewitness, Gundry defends the traditional attribution of the First Gospel to the Apostle Matthew.  And though it “may seem paradoxical at first,” to his mind “apostolic authorship of Matthew and midrashic and haggadic style go well together.”  Why?  Because the “Apostle Matthew accompanied Jesus and knew that things did not always happen as he described them.  So unless we attribute to him an unusually poor memory or an attempt to deceive his readers concerning historical actualities–and neither of these is likely in view of his writing when others could easily have falsified his presentation–he did not write under a delusion when he wrote midrashically of haggadically.”

But, again, does this idea that Matthew is not giving us straight history jibe with the doctrine of the Bible’s inspiration?  Yes, says Gundry, because “[by] itself, inspiration [fails] to guarantee historicity.”

But we have taken nothing from the doctrine of inspiration.  We have only revised our understanding of what certain passages in the Bible were meant to say.  What does inspiration mean for a passage of biblical poetry, or a parable, and exhortation?  How could the message for such biblical materials be falsified?  Certainly not by the historical-critical method, for they were not written as history.  Likewise, Matthew’s midrash and haggadah were inspired as such, not as history, so that historical-critical recognition of their unhistoricity takes nothing away form what they were intended to be.

For Gundry, the Spirit guided Matthew’s editorial, creative, midrashic process so as to produce not unmixed history, but rather a sharp, powerful, and deeply true literary portrait of Jesus’ character, identity and significance.

I can’t wait to hear what you guys think about this piece.  What are the strengths of Gundry’s thesis?  The weaknesses?  Does his approach help us read the Bible more faithfully or not?  Is he asking the right questions?  Is he giving good answers?  What do you think?

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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