Synoptic Gospels

NEW BOOK: Matthew within Sectarian Judaism (John Kampen)

In 2019, Yale University published a book on the Gospel of Matthew that is sure to rock some boats: Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, written by John Kampen. You can purchase the book from the publisher here.

Kampen is probably best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which makes this book especially interesting – here Matthew’s Gospel is viewed, as the title suggests, as an authentically Jewish work. This is what is meant by the title – Matthew within Sectarian Judaism. The book is thus part of a larger trend in New Testament Studies, which seeks to underscore that the early Christians did not view themselves as converts away from Judaism. Early Christianity is not to be interpreted as simply a “new” religion, but as a Jewish movement.

This movement has been especially pronounced in Paul (see, e.g., the SBL Group known as “Paul within Judaism”). Did Paul see himself as renouncing his Jewish heritage in embracing Jesus as the Messiah? Of course not! The book of Acts certainly indicates this perspective: there the Jesus-movement is seen as a “sect” within Judaism. For example, in Acts 28 the Jews in Rome tell Paul, “[W]e desire to hear from you what your views are; for with regard to this sect [haireseōs] we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:22). 

However, though these discussions have long been raging in Pauline research (and Luke and Acts studies), they have also been going on in Matthew studies for some time.

In fact, how to place Matthew vis-a-vis Judaism has been hotly debated. Some interpreters have argued that the Gospel indicates that God has rejected the Jewish people. Perhaps the most common passage highlighted in this regard is the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. Interpreters recognize that the parable draws from Isaiah 5, where Israel is described as the vineyard of the Lord. In Jesus’ story, the owner of the vineyard lends it out to other tenants. These, in the end, mistreat the owner’s servants and, ultimately, kill his son. Jesus concludes by explaining, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [ethnos] producing the fruits of it” (Matt 21:43). The Gospel, it is argued, would seem to indicate that rejection of Israel and the nation’s replacement with other peoples.

Other arguments have also been leveled along these lines. Matthew, for instance, has Jesus tell the disciples that they should expect to be persecuted in “their synagogues” (Matt 10:17), a reference scholars often view as sure-fire proof that the evangelist writes to a community that has separated from “the synagogue.”

Yet while the parable has often been interpreted as indicating God’s rejection of Israel in favor of the Church or the Gentiles, more recent scholarship has challenged that reading by pointing out it is the tenants, not the vineyard itself, which is judged.[i] We are even told at the end, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them” (Matt 21:45). As others have noted, the wicked tenants are best seen as a reference to these figures.[ii] Furthermore, within Matthew it is clear that it is Jewish disciples who will be governing the kingdom, which include “the twelve tribes” (cf. Matt 19:28). The “people” the kingdom will be given to, then, need not be interpreted simply as Gentiles. In fact, the vineyard itself is not replaced, it is the leaders who are changed. To simply interpret the story as indicating God’s rejection of Israel would seem to misread the story.

As for the references to “their synagogues,” Anders Runesson’s ground-breaking work on synagogues has shown that synagogues were not always simply public meeting centers for all Jews. Instead, they were sometimes associated with specific groups. In speaking of “their synagogues,” Jesus may not therefore be simply referring to all Jewish synagogues, but those that were governed by groups that were especially hostile to Christ-believing Jews.

Much more could be said about these debates. Again, as those who know the field will see, I am barely scratching the surface. But the upshot of these discussions is that scholars debate whether the evangelist writes to a community “within” or “outside” of the synagogue.

Kampen’s book goes further than others though. Kampen points to recent research that indicates that sectarianism did not evaporate after the destruction of the temple. While scholars have long assumed that the rabbis consolidated power and quickly united various factions, Kampen draws on work that casts doubt about this.

Scholars have frequently read Matthew as engaged in a conflict with “formative Judaism,” that is, the emergence of what would be called rabbinic Judaism. Yet whether or not Judaism was quickly coalescing at this time is, as Kampen shows, less clear than people have made it out to be.

Because of this, Kampen adds a fascinating wrinkle to Matthew studies. With Anders Runesson’s work on synagogue research, this book offers another blow–a serious one–to the parameters usually set in Matthean scholarship. Scholars have liked to debate whether the evangelist writes to a community intra muros (“within the walls”) or extra muros (“outside the walls”) of Jewishness. But this is far too simplistic.

In sum, Kampen makes the case that Matthew writes to a group that still considered itself Jewish. This does not mean that the condemnation of other Jewish figures such as the Pharisees should be explained away. Jesus’ words of judgment fit well within the landscape of the first-century Jewish world. For instance, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, those who were not part of the new covenant community were not just viewed as in trouble, but are seen as “sons of Belial” (i.e., sons of the devil). And there is no reason to think that such tensions were erased in the aftermath of the temple’s destruction.

Much more could be said about Kampen’s book, but I highly recommend it.

[i] Against the view that the parable teaches that Jesus has rejected Israel, Evans points out that the identity of the vineyard remains constant, it is the tenants—likely the Jewish “leadership”which changes hands. See Evans, Mark, 223.

[ii] See, e.g., Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 77.

[iii] See 1QIsaa LIV, 13; CD IV, 19; VIII, 12; b. Šabb. 114a; b. Ber. 64a; Song Rab. 1.5 §3; Exod. Rab. 33.10; Tg. Ps. 118:22–28; cf. also Acts 4:11.

[iv] See Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark, BNTC (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991], 276; Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 360.

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