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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 55, 2007

JOHN RICHES and DAVID C. SIM (eds), The Gospel of Matthew in its Roman Imperial Context (London: T&T Clark, 2005). Pp. viii + 202. 25.00.

The first four essays in this book deal with the nature of empire and colonialism, and with non-Matthaean responses to Rome. The remaining four essays are more directly concerned with the Gospel of Matthew itself. An Introduction by John Riches precedes the essays, and Conclusions by David Sim follow. The essays are:

  1. In “Rome in Apocalyptic and Rabbinic Literature” Philip Esler investigates the “counter-discourse” developed by a subject people in Jewish apocalyptic and rabbinic writings down to the third century C.E.

  2. In “Josephus and the Roman Empire in Jewish War”James McLaren argues that Josephus initially supported the Judaean revolt, but after Jotapata he changed his mind about which side had divine support.

  3. In “Empire: Theories, Methods, Models” Dennis Duling combines “vertical”and “horizontal” analysis to provide “an inventory of groups” in Matthew from “ruling strata” down to “expendables and unclean.”

  4. In “A State of Tension: Rome in the New Testament” Peter Oakes finds “tension” between positive and negative attitudes to Rome within each of five New Testament writings apart from Matthew.

  5. In “Rome in Matthew’s Eschatology” David Sim believes that Matthew portrays a supernatural conflict between good and evil, in which Rome is inextricably connected with Satan and will finally be condemned by Jesus the Son of Man.

  6. In “‘Thus You Will Know Them By Their Fruits’: The Roman Characters of the Gospel of Matthew” Dorothy Jean Weaver sees the “lower level” portrait of these characters (except Pilate’ wife) as “a monolithic portrayal of brutal and oppressive military might” (114), but the “upper level”portrait as containing much more variation.

  7. In “Matthew’s Missionary Strategy in Colonial Perspective” John Riches assesses how the themes of Matt 28:18–20 (teaching authority, political power, territorial expansion) interact with the motif of Jesus’ divine status.

  8. In “Matthaean Christology in Roman Imperial Key: Matthew 1.1” Warren Carter reverts to the beginning of the Gospel and examines five significant terms (the book of the origin, of Jesus, Christ, son of David, son of Abraham) for their links and contrasts with Jewish and Roman religious and political ideas.
The “imperial context” of Matthew is defined piecemeal in different chapters. Geographically, Rome already had an empire under the republic. Politically, an empire began with Augustus. Chronologically, Matthew’s Gospel belongs to the period after 70 C.E. Syrian Antioch is the most likely location for the composition and audience of the Gospel. The essays deal with the Gospel in this “context,” but also with Roman elements and persons within the Gospel. And chapters 1–3 provide background for Matthew, but also for other aspects of Judaism and early Christianity.

The essays generally adopt a rather negative attitude towards Rome, emphasising military, political, economic and religious oppression. The Virgil quotation on p.13 omits “… and to add civilisation to peace” (Esler). There could have been greater acknowledgment of Judaean invitations to Rome from earliest to latest Hasmonaeans, Rome’s avoidance of direct rule, leniency to rebellious Judaean groups and individual leaders, and removal both of the Herodian Archelaus and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate because of Judaean complaints. Whereas essayists stress the brutality of the Roman army, Josephus, with more balance, reports as well the brutality of Judaeans to Romans and to each other.

“Tensions” between positive and negative attitudes towards Rome are detected within New Testament writings generally (Oakes) and in Matthew specifically (Weaver). Oakes admits that none (or one?) of his five selected texts exhibits all six attitudes considered. And he too readily assumes that the tension of attitudes is present throughout the New Testament. Weaver’s two “levels,”borrowed from a theory of irony, seem to express a tension between Matthew’ Roman characters as representatives of categories and as individuals. “Why did [Matthew] depict the Romans in such an inconsistent way?” (169, Sim). But perhaps Matthew’s portrayal of Romans is not “tensive”or “inconsistent.” Rather, the responses of Matthew’s Romans to Jesus are indeed “variegated” (114, Weaver), but on the single level of the narrative. Sim finally approaches this view, but still sees more goats than sheep (169).

Reliance on primary sources varies between, and even within, individual essays. Sometimes essayists, pressed for space, refer for primary evidence to other modern authors or to their own earlier writings. For example, although Antioch is the presumed provenance of the Gospel of Matthew, little is said about the city. The main reference is Carter's quotation (151) of R. Stark’s sweepingly general characterisation of Antioch in The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 160–61. Both Carter and Stark actually construct a typical “late-first-century city like Antioch” (149, Carter). Stark quotes no primary source in the relevant section of his book, but claims to depend primarily on G. Downey, Ancient Antioch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), the abbreviated version of A History of Antioch in Syria (1961). Whether Downey should be held responsible for such a negative description of life in Antioch is another question.

The book contains a bibliography and indexes of passages and of modern authors, but no subject index. Readers will find points of interpretation to disagree with, just as the contributors do not always agree with each other. But if the essays provoke thoughtful reaction, that is exactly what the editors have hoped (8, 169).

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010