Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri’s The Gospel of Matthew is the fifth and latest volume of seventeen in Baker Academic’s Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series. The series as a whole is aimed toward those engaged in pastoral ministry and catechesis, as well as lay Catholics who wish to study Scripture in greater depth. According to the editor’s preface, “These volumes seek to offer scholarship illumined by faith, in the conviction that the ultimate aim of biblical interpretation is to discover what God has revealed and is still speaking through the sacred text” (9).
The introduction to this particular volume provides a brief yet sufficient overview of scholarly debates surrounding Matthew’s gospel; issues regarding authorship, date, audience, structure and themes are addressed in clear, non-technical prose, such that those without formal training in biblical studies will have little trouble grasping the complexity that surrounds any responsible reading of the gospel. Some scholars will take issue with various decisions made in the introduction, e.g. the decision to ascribe to Matthew a date of composition that predates the destruction of the temple, but disagreement with such decisions need not invalidate the commentary as a whole, as that which is discussed in the introduction has minimal bearing on what follows. This is not to say that the commentary is not concerned with historical issues; rather, it is to say that its main focus is not the exposition of scholarly debates, past or present.
The commentary itself follows the New American Bible translation. The text of Matthew is divided into manageable sections, and each section is followed by helpful references to Old and New Testament allusions/parallels as well as to the Lectionary. The commentary on each textual division is typically divided into two parts: (1) a more technical exposition followed by (2) reflection and application. The style is reminiscent of The Interpreters Bible series (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1951-57), which includes both critical and “theological” exegesis of biblical texts, separated by a fine, mid-page horizontal line. The division between exposition and reflection in this commentary is clear at the beginning, but as things progress the division between the two often becomes fuzzy. For example, in their exposition of Matt 7:1-6, the prohibition of judgment, the authors make reference to how “we” as Christians harm our relationship with God when we judge the faults of others. Such sentiment is repeated in the reflection and application section that follows the passage’s exposition. The breakdown of the division between exegesis and application, in this reviewer’s opinion, is not a symptom of sloppy reading, but rather it is expressive of the fact that the line between historical and theological exegesis is often blurred by the nature of the interpretive task. That said, in a commentary intended for readers with little to no background in biblical scholarship, a more rigorous maintenance of the division between exegesis and application would be helpful, simply on the level of distinguishing Matthew’s concerns from those of the modern interpreter.
Observations regarding Matthew’s gospel in this commentary are clearly informed by modern scholarship. While footnotes and bibliography in the volume are somewhat slim, presumably to avoid distracting the intended reader, it is evident from the exposition offered that the authors are drawing from a broad corpus of studies on Matthew. As was the case with the introduction, the authors are to be commended for expositing the biblical text in a language understandable to the untrained reader, while at the same time paying attention to the intricacies present in the text.
The commentary does at times suffer from a somewhat apologetic desire to maintain consistency with the Catholic tradition, even when Matthew seems to be in tension with it. For example, in their exposition of Matt 19:9, Jesus’ conditional prohibition of divorce, the authors favor the NAB’s rendering of the Greek mê epi porneia (lit., “except for sexual immorality) as “unless the marriage is unlawful.” They note the translation difficulty, but in the end the conditional prohibition is flattened, and Jesus is hailed as “history’s greatest defender of the sanctity and permanence of marriage” (240). Regardless of whether one finds qualms with the Church’s stance on the issue of divorce and remarriage, the question remains, Is this what Matthew intended for the reader to discern from Jesus’ statement on the issue? The question could also be raised, To what degree should tensions, as they arise, be allowed to stand simply as tensions? Must we smooth them over in an effort to convey and promote harmony?
On a practical level, the commentary has a quite usable “Index of Pastoral Topics” (381). Those engaged in pastoral ministry will find it useful in addressing various questions that arise in the course of preaching and catechesis. A broader index of Scripture citations would be of valuable to a commentary such as this, as would an index of references to the Catechism.
By offering criticisms of this commentary, I do not wish to downplay its profound accomplishments. Despite its minor shortcomings, this commentary stands as a strong paradigm of the theological interpretation of Scripture, and it is a paradigm that more biblical scholars would do well to take note of. In my opinion, this volume speaks well to its intended readers, as well as anyone wishing to study Matthew’s gospel through the eyes of faith.