Synoptic Gospels

RECENT BOOK: Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew (Anders Runesson)

Anyone interested in serious scholarship on Matthew should pick up a copy of Anders Runesson’s recent book, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew: The Narrative World of the First Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016).

I realize this book has already been out for about 4 years, however, I do not believe it has received the attention it deserves. In fact, the book bears glowing endorsements from some of the leading scholars in the field, including, Paula Fredriksen, Dale Allison, Amy-Jill Levine, Donald Senior, Terence Donaldson, David Sim, and Donald Hagner (you can read them at Fortress Press’ site).

Though I have some quibbles (e.g., I do not think he accurately critiques the work Nathan Eubank has done on Matthew; I am not convinced by his interpretation of Matthew 13’s use of Isaiah 6), the book contains numerous insights that are worthy of consideration. It represents a major contribution to Matthean scholarship.

I have mentioned before that Runesson has done ground-breaking work on synagogues in the first century, which has important implications for Matthew studies. He briefly draws on some of this research. Here, however, he turns his sharp mind to various other issues in the Gospel according to Matthew, offering a comprehensive synthesis of numerous themes found in it. The result is a very stimulating and insightful read.

In view of full disclosure, I should add that I have known Anders Runesson for many years and consider him a friend. We both served together on the steering committee for SBL’s Matthew section. I have tremendous respect for him as a scholar. He is extremely well-read and is a careful scholar. He is also a wonderful man who admirably devoted to his students (who rave about his mentoring). I am, of course, grateful to him for mentioning me in the acknowledgement section at the beginning of his book.

With that out of the way, let me talk about his fine monograph.

Runesson spotlights a major theme in Matthew that scholars often gloss over: divine judgment. As he shows, the theme is especially stressed by the evangelist in various ways.

Along the way, Runesson takes on interpretations that have misapplied Matthew’s message to justify anti-semitism. Of course, the most infamous Matthean passage in this regard is the statement made by the crowds in Matthew 27: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:25). Against the view that this line signals Matthew’s intent to put a permanent indictment upon all Jewish people, Runesson shows that the evangelist is very much concerned for the people of Israel. According to him, the guilty are primarily the leaders who mislead the crowds.

Runesson argues that Jesus is portrayed as a faithful Jew whose mission is understood in Jewish terms. The Gospel begins by explaining in particular that Jesus comes to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Moreover, Jesus stresses that he sends his disciples out to save “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6).

Throughout his treatment of the Gospel, Runesson’s emphasizes the way Matthew portrays the crowds as led astray by corrupt leaders. In this, he shows how the crowds’ guilt is mitigated. Among other things, Runesson underscores that, according to Matthew, the crowds end up demanding Jesus’ execution at the behest of “the chief priests and elders” (Matt 27:20).

At the same time, Runesson makes the case that Matthew presents Jesus as the compassionate shepherd that comes to gather the people of Israel in the place of the wicked leadership exemplified by the Pharisees. He highlights Matthew 15:32:

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.”

Matt 15:32

The compassion of Jesus stands in stark contrast with the depiction of the Pharisees, who are unwilling to help those who look to them for leadership. Jesus explains, “[The scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23:4).

Going on, Runesson points out that, prior to being led by the chief priests and elders to turn against Jesus, the crowds are generally positive towards him. Though the crowds are sometimes portrayed as confused and lacking understanding, this stands

in tension with other passages in Matthew, where it is stated that crowds, contrary to the chief priests and the elders in Jerusalem, understood very well that John [the Baptist] as well as Jesus were prophets, and they respected and revered them both (16:14; 21:11, 26, 46). . . Indeed, crowds, i.e., the majority of the people present in any given locale, are said to have followed Jesus everywhere, even to Jerusalem, and the religio-political leaders were afraid of them due to their loyalty to Jesus (and John; e.g., 8:1, 18; 13:2; 14:13-14; 19:2, 13; 20:29; 21:8-9, 14-15; 23:1; 26:5). . . This reinforces the impression of the crowds as in dire need of help, and Matthew’s Jesus–and his disciples–are there to give it, as they seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel (9:36; 15:24; 10:6).

Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew, pp. 276-77.

The crowds need guidance from their leaders, who fail miserably. Jesus ultimately accuses them of being guilty of corruption. They are the heirs of those who persecuted the righteous of the past and inherit their guilt from them:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?

Matt 23:29-33

They also share in the sins that defile the temple by shedding blood within the sanctuary’s precincts:

“that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.”

Matt 23:35

Runesson makes an important contribution here. He highlights the fact that in some cases the scriptures of Israel indicate that God will visit the sins of parents on their children (cf. Exod 34:6-7). In other cases, however, God insists that subsequent generations will not be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors (cf. Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18:1-32). Runesson argues that Matthew resolves this problem by insisting that one inherits the guilt of earlier generations if one acts shares in their specific sins. He writes,

In Matthew 23:35-36, it is stated that “this generation” (genean tautēn) will be held responsible for the accumulated guilt resulting from all the shedding of righteous individuals’ blood, from Abel to Zechariah son of Barachiah, i.e., for all the bloodshed in the Hebrew Bible, since Abel is the first righteous victim (Genesis) and Zechariah the last (2 Chronicles). As in Exodus’ theology, punishment for sins committed by others in history may befall later generations within the people. Interestingly, the Matthean Jesus makes sure to portray those who murdered the prophets as the “fathers” of the “scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 23:31-32), which extends the meaning of family relationships beyond the biological to refer primarily to connections established between people who act in the same or similar ways, just as he has done earlier in the story, but then in a positive sense about his disciples being his own family (Matt 12:49-50). In the case of “scribes and the Pharisees,” this identification between them and those leaders in Israel’s history identified as murderers of righteous prophets sent to them by God (cf. Matt 23:34) further strengthens the connection to Exodus’ theology of inherited sin.”

Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew, pp. 81-82.

Runesson hastens to add though:

It should be noted, however, that the application of this notion is limited to the Pharisees and the scribes asssociated with them, and does not apply in any straightforward way to all members of the Jewish people, as the Gospel as a whole amkes clear. It is the grave sins of these specific leading figures in Jerusalem that tip the scales (cf. 23:32) and provide the outpour of divine wrath over Jerusalem.

Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew, p. 82.

Runesson is persuasive on these points.

One quibble: I think his overall portrait, which downplays the guilt of the crowds and lays the blame at the feet of the Jerusalem authorities, fails to consider the implications of Matt 11:20:

And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

Matt 11:23

The Jerusalem leadership is certainly credited with the bulk of the guilt, but not all of it.

Nevertheless, Runesson is correct to zero in on Matthew 23. According to Runesson, Matthew 23 represents a key turning point in the narrative. Up until this point, Jesus had endorsed participation in the temple in various ways. However, after condemning the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, he announces that the temple is “desolate” (erēmos) (Matt 23:38). He then departs from the temple, taking the divine presence with him. Jesus therefore goes on to announce the coming destruction of the temple in the following chapter.

The Destruction of the Temple by Francesco Hayez (1867), Gallerie dell’Accademia

Here is where Runesson offers a provocative interpretation:

“Therefore, in order to save his people from their sins–and the impurity that results from sin–Jesus is said to offer his own body as a sacrifice, taking the place of the defiled, empty, and soon to be destroyed temple (Matt 26:26-29). His blood is “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins [eis aphesin hamartiōn](v.28). This function of his death is already suggested in 20:28, where the life of “the Son of Man” is said to be given as a “ransom for many.” Jesus’s death thus leads to the removal of the impurity that results from sin and offers a way for the people to be holy and “perfect” (Matt 5:48) after the temple cult has been lost. Contrary to common Christian theology, in Matthew, the temple is not destroyed as a punishment for the death of Jesus. The logic goes in the opposite direction: Jesus has to die precisely because the temple has already been defiled and will, as a consequence, inevitably be destroyed.”

Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew, pp. 128-29.

It seems to me that Runesson has helpfully put his finger on a key issue, namely, the way the loss of the temple poses a problem within the logic of the Mosaic covenant. I cannot say that I am entirely sold, however, on the idea that the temple is not also in part destroyed because of the Jerusalem leadership’s rejection of Jesus. It would seem to me that the execution of the the righteous Jesus is portrayed as the final installment of violence stretching back to Cain.

In addition, in suggesting that Jesus rejects the temple from chapter 23 on, Runesson seems to overlook one detail in Matthew’s narrative. Matthew 26 would seem to suggest that Jesus had the disciples prepare a conventional Passover meal. This would seem to involve the sacrifice of the lamb in the temple, as Mark makes clear (cf. Mark 12:12-16). Had Matthew intended to portray the disciples as celebrating a passover meal–in Jerusalem!–without preparing a sacrificial lamb, one would think he would have spelled that out in greater detail. The natural reading, then, is that even after Matthew 23, Jesus expects the disciples to engage in sacrificial worship at the temple though he certainly does see temple sacrifice coming to an end in the future due to a future “desolating sacrilege” (Matt 24:15).

Again, despite such quibbles, let me clear: as scholars such as Allison and Levine have indicated, this book is a major contribution to Matthean studies. In his review of the book which appeared in Review of Biblical Literature, David J. Neville said, “this is a potentially agenda-shaping book.” Indeed, this book bears a careful read. It marks a landmark work in Matthean scholarship that demands careful engagement.

I only wish the sticker price was not so high because it deserves to be read by a wide audience. You can purchase it on Amazon for about $84. If you are serious about Matthean scholarship, you are going to want to pony up the cash… or get it from your library. Either way, I highly recommend it.

Leave a Reply