Reviewing commentaries is a tricky business – particularly for me as a generalist, and an in-publisher editor of commentaries! I tend to offer my review based on the format and content of the volume, and it’s utility or otherwise to preachers and pastors. Occasionally I’ll digress into particularly theological or stylistic quirks. Under the review proper I’ve got some remarks comparing it to other Matthew commentaries – I’ve read a few and own several.
As anyone who waded through what I read in 2022, or the books I picked up at ETS/IBR/SBL/AAR 2022 will know, I’m fascinated by commentaries and find them useful both for personal study in my devotional time (Where, alongside a 365 devotional, I try to work through a book of the Bible with a commentary) and in various more professional contexts. This year’s reading kicked off in the Gospel of Matthew – and I chose two companions, Harrington’s Sacra Pagina volume (which I was generally quite underwhelmed by) and the book(s) I’m reviewing today – Walter T. Wilson’s two-volume entry in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (henceforth ECC). It’s worth noting that this is the first time I’ve worked through an ECC volume – a series that hasn’t had that many volumes published – and that this is a series aimed at being a comprehensive critical commentary, I think to rival the International Critical Commentary published by T&T Clark, or the Hermeneia/Continental Commentary series from Fortress. One initial thought is that this feels like a non-evangelical or non-conservative (At least by default – Wilson is not wedded to any one theological school) NIGTC – another Eerdmans series; I’ll be interested to read an Old Testament ECC and see where it lands in comparison to the Apollos Old Testament Commentary, or JPS, for two different comparisons.
One strong point of this commentary, despite it being in two volumes, is it’s navigability and structure. The layout in relation to the Gospel of Matthew – structure of section>unit>part is helpful. The commentary’s structure of text, commentary, conclusion is logical and clear – and unlike some commentaries (for example Goldingay’s Genesis [BECOT]) the editors and author are to be commended for following the structure firmly. This had the benefit for me of feeling as though each section/unit/part was thoroughly engaged with. This thoroughness had one nagging issue, in my reading – Wilson made much of ‘Q’, without necessarily making an argument for why. By and large this didn’t detract from much of what he was saying, but it did start to grate – with one notable example being a speculative non-conclusion [vol. 2, p. 219] around the different versions of Q that the different Gospel authors may or may not have had access to! This is, however, a minor quibble in the grand scheme of the commentary – most users of a volume like this are going to be able to ignore it, or engage with it.
It was clear to this reader that a) Wilson closely and carefully reads the text and b) is writing as a Christian. In some ways, the relatively short introduction is a mark of his excitement to get into the text. And it is a distinctly Christian reading – “The advent of the messiah is accompanied by the advent of the spirit” [p. 97], “Being a disciple means being “with” Jesus” [p. 119]. Wilson’s reading of and exploration into the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes in particular were strong: “Simply put, God is declared to be on the side of those in greatest need of God’s succor, a fact that lends these groups a sense of identity and purpose” [p. 148], “Anxiety regarding ‘tomorrow’ is inappropriate not because the future is uncertain or because each day has problems enough of its own but because doing so diverts one from enlisting in service to God’s eschatological kingdom” [p. 227]. It’s clear, however, that the challenge of Jesus’ teaching echoes through the centuries to challenge different shibboleths – provoking a response, and I think this commentary captures this, and reproduces it carefully. For example, “The obligations of love must extend to all people, even enemies” [p. 189] could be misread as a ‘love’ without content or definition, but this is not what Wilson is getting at. The shocking clarity of Jesus’ teaching that there are two kinds of people is calmly exposited: “While both true and false followers of Jesus can make confessional statements (cf. 16.16.) and perform charismatic acts (cf. 10:8), only true believers achieve the higher righteousness necessary to ‘enter’ the kingdom (7:21; cf. 5:20)” [p. 250-1]
Pausing the review momentarily, I found that reading two commentaries in parallel highlighted to me the challenge of writing in a fresh way and also avoiding plagiarism. Obviously the source and focus is the same text. But the level of thematic overlap made this reader wonder whether Wilson was aware of Harrington’s Sacra Pagina – which didn’t appear in the bibliography.
The way that Wilson writes of eschatology, the Kingdom of God, is a highlight of this commentary – and perhaps makes it more useful for preachers than it could have been. This includes observation on the miracles of Christ; “The mighty deeds of Jesus are seen to function as enacted symbols of the heavenly kingdom, dramatizing his the power of God interrupts human lives and expels a rival power” [p. 306], the gathering of Christ’s people; “The gathering to which Jesus calls tax collectors and sinners is no ordinary meal but rather a foretaste of the messianic banquet, an eschatological event that in Matthew’s mind can be hosted by none other than the Messiah himself (cf. 9:15)” [p. 310-1] and the way that Christ’s teaching (in the subsequent quotation particularly Matthew Chapter 13) interacts with this: “the discourse can be seen to blend elements of wisdom discourse, with its emphasis on fruitfulness of speech and action, with elements of apocalyptic discourse, with its emphasis on the problem of evil, the revelation of transcendent mysteries, and the ‘gathering’ of Gods holy people” [p. 461]. Eschatology should not be divorced from mission, ministry, and teaching – and Wilson shows how Matthew ties all these together.
[quotes/page numbers below this line are from volume 2, which covers chapters 14 through 28]
One aspect of this commentary that I further appreciated was the regularity of, and authorial comfort with, explicit Old Testament allusions/echoes, particularly in contrast to the aforementioned Sacra Pagina volume. This is apparent at various points – just as breaks with Old Testament/Jewish Messianic expectation are also noted. For example, “In the end, the only agency that matters is that of Christ, who appears as the eschatological Son of Man (cf. 24:26), accompanied by a host of conventional theophanic trappings” [p. 288]; “a biblical intersect reinforces the presentation of Jesus as a righteous sufferer being afflicted by his adversaries” [p. 417] and “A noteworthy feature of the passion narrative is the large number of allusions to the Psalms that it incorporates into the story line” [p.459]. Incorporating these, but also running around other topics, are some of Wilson’s helpful one-line summaries of some key theological themes. Some of these make for quite preachable quotes, I think, such as:
- “If the king is a giver of death, then, the Messiah is a giver of life” [p. 14]
- “The way of discipleship is the way of the cross, that is, a way that entails self-denial but also holds out the promise of vindication” [p. 63]
- “Enduring to the end entails proclaiming the gospel until the end, thereby carrying on the work of Jesus himself” [p. 279-80]
The passion narrative looms in Matthew’s Gospel presentation, and Wilson engages it well, throughout. He relates it to the wider themes of the Gospel, eschatology and discipleship – “Matt. 16:25 can be understood as a summons for the readers to prepare themselves for both eschatological tribulation and eschatological vindication” [p. 78], with this dialectic echoing something of the Kingdom of God that Jesus has announced, inaugurated, and is enacting: “The kingdom will indeed upset human categories and assumptions about status, and it will do so in ways that they may find unsettling” [p. 156]. The unsettling nature of this kingdom is perhaps best seen in the events of the passion, as Wilson comments on 27:1-31, “the accompanying scene then presents a procession of mockers, who taunt Jesus for his trust in God and attempt to lure him from the cross. The observed, by contrast, know that it is precisely through his death that Jesus demonstrates his divine sonship and saves others from sin (cf. 1:22; 26:28)” [p. 402]. For this reader, it was this sort of thing that made this a doxologically and devotionalyl valuable commentary – despite it’s ‘critical’ moniker.
Overall, then, this is an impressive commentary on Matthew that reads the text that we have closely, and is by and large well-engaged with the secondary literature. Some notable absences in the bibliography from my perspective (I’m not a New Testament scholar let alone a Matthew specialist) were the Sacra Pagina volume by Harrington, the Pillar volume by Morris, France’s Tyndale (arguably superseded by his NICNT, though comparison’s might have been interesting), Turner’s BECNT (though one of Turner’s monographs is mentioned), Osbrone’s ZECNT and either the IVPNTC or standalone volume by Craig Keener. More popular level work like Green’s BST volume is perhaps a less notable absence, but it represents an interesting possibility of lack of engagement with evangelical exegesis. Practically speaking, this is a 2 volume critical commentary – and that explains the price, and also the twenty plus pages of front matter, (identical) eighty pages of bibliography in each volume, and indices of Modern Authors, Subjects, and Ancient Sources (The latter including but by no means limited to the Bible!). One does wonder if it might have been manageable to squeeze the commentary into one volume (saving 100 pages at least), though it still would have been hefty! The two 600+ pages volumes end up being nice to handle and read, with managable margins and a clear layout. Eerdmans have a reputation for producing beautiful sewn hardbacks – and this ECC is no exception.
Some comments on this commentary in relation to other commentaries on Matthew I’ve used/read, partly because at some point I’ll be editing David Pao’s new Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Matthew (Which is one of the reasons I bought and read this ECC!). Wilson’s ECC is probably a nice balance in terms of length/level/cost between the 3vol Hermeneia commentary by Luz (Wilson offers in my view a similar level of analysis, though with ~15 years more scholarship digested, and a more ‘normal book’ layout) and substantial single volume commentaries such as those by Nolland (NIGTC), Turner (BECNT) and France/Morris (NICNT/PNTC). If the average preacher/pastor were looking for a serious critical commentary to supplement a selection of the above (I’d recommend the BST, TNTC, and BECNT volumesfor a good spread) then this would by and large be a solid option, as it is a major commentary published several years after others. I’ll be keeping an eye out, though, for Charles S. Quarles’ Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (EBTC) from Lexham Academic this spring.