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Courteous custom

19 September 2014

Henry Wansbrough  on studying a Gospel

Discovering Matthew: Content, interpretation, reception
Ian Boxall
SPCK £15.99
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A REMARKABLE feature of this commentary is its comprehensiveness. It is a straightforward introduction to the theology and emphases of St Matthew's Gospel, easily intelligible, and careful to avoid (or clearly explain) obscure technical terminology. It is an excellent companion to the equally clear and attractive second edition of Ruth Edwards's Discovering John, published simultaneously.

The author draws on interpreters and commentators from every age and every sphere, ranging from Origen and Jerome, through pictorial and artistic representations in Byzantine ivories, medieval cathedrals, or J. S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, to careful presentation of theories of modern scholars. Every comment is courteously and sympathetically considered, resulting in a rich tapestry of Christian scholarship and devotion down the ages, so varied and kaleidoscopic that some readers may hanker for a fuller emphasis on and explanation of the author's own views.

He is such a careful scholar that he will have a neat little presentation of any view that has been expressed, stating clearly his own agreement or disagreement, but leaving the reader space to consider the arguments and make a personal decision on the matter.

Two early chapters that I found valuable were those on the different current methods of interpreting a biblical text, with the tools and advantages of each approach. There follows an exploration of some of the textual variants and the possible theological motivations behind them. Besides explaining the textual variants, this throws a fascinating light on theological concerns of earlier ages and their effect on the text itself.

The discussion of the order of the Gospels is crisp and clear. I would only think that after this discussion it would have been possible to put the outmoded theory of Matthaean priority to rest without repeatedly making allowances for it.

Of the many individual aspects considered, I find the most enriching to be the full presentation of the intertextuality of Matthew. Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels, cannot be understood except against the background of the Old Testament. He draws on, reflects, and enriches the biblical tradition in a thousand ways, quietly making a point that becomes apparent only in view of familiarity with the Old Testament or Jewish tradition. A typical case is the contribution of knowledge of the prophet Zechariah to an understanding of the Matthaean Passion narrative. Boxall's careful attention to detail makes his exposition of Jesus as teacher and healer in the miracle-stories of the Gospel equally valuable.

This commentary will be useful to students at every stage. It will be intelligible to the A-level student, and gave me some valuable insights, too.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet's Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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