Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 68-81.

        Copyright © 1985 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.   

 

 

 

MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY

 

           J. W. SCOTT

 

 

IN “A Theological Postscript” to his redaction-critical study

of Matthew’s Gospel, Robert H. Gundry argues that Mat-

thew wrote his work in the accepted “midrashic” manner, i.e.

by deliberately embellishing historical narrative with nonhis-

torical elements.1 The idea that there might be midrash in

the Gospels is not new with Gundry, but in the past it has

usually been argued that this midrash is midrash on OT texts

(as are the Jewish midrashim).2 According to Gundry, how-

ever, Matthew’s Gospel is a midrashic treatment of the gospel

tradition, principally as recorded in Mark and “Q.”3

Gundry’s thesis has been criticized by several scholars, who

question his redaction-critical methods (including his source-

critical assumptions and his use of statistics), his understand-

ing of midrash and the first-century literary milieu, his han-

dling of apparent Gospel discrepancies, and other aspects of

 

1 Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1982) 623-40, esp. pp. 627-29, 637. Cf. Moisés Silva, “Ned B.

Stonehouse and Redaction Criticism,” WTJ 40 (1977-78) 77-88, 281-303,

at pp. 289-98 (exploring the feasibility of a semihistorical interpretation of

Matthew's Gospel). For the purposes of this article we will use the term

midrash” and its derivatives as Gundry does, although we are not convinced

that Jewish midrashists necessarily considered their “embellishments” to be

nonhistorical. Gundry calls Matthew's Gospel “midrashic,” which would im-

ply that it belongs to the literary genre of “midrash.” But he prefers to limit

the term “midrash” to the nonhistorical elements in the Gospel, making it

a mixture of history and midrash. It would be preferable, however, to use

the term “midrash” to designate the otherwise unnamed literary genre.

2 For criticism of this view see R. T. France, “Scripture, Tradition and

History in the Infancy Narratives of Matthew,” in Gospel Perspectives, vol. 2:

Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (ed. R. T. France and David

Wenham; Sheffield: JSOT, 1981) 239-66.

3 M. D. Goulder, in Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: S.P.C.K., 1974),

previously advanced the thesis that “Matthew was writing a midrashic ex-

pansion of Mark” (p. 4), though not “an historical novel” (p. 8).

68

 

 


 


     MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY               69

 

his argument.4  Their criticisms are weighty, but Gundry has

replied vigorously to them,5 and much more remains to be

said on the difficult issues involved. One of Gundry's critics,

Douglas J. Moo, has indeed conceded that “to refute this

argument conclusively . . . would require a commentary at

least as long as Gundry’s.”6

But an exhaustive study of all these matters may not be

necessary in order to determine whether Matthew wrote his

Gospel as history or midrash. Largely overlooked in the Gun-

dry debate are the formulas with which Matthew introduces

his “fulfillment quotations,” or “formula quotations,” so

called because these OT quotations are introduced with a

formula referring to the fulfillment of Scripture.7 We would

 

4 See D. A. Carson, “Gundry on Matthew: A Critical Review,” TrinJ NS 3

(1982) 71-91; Royce Gordon Gruenler, New Approaches to Jesus and the Gospels

(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982) 245-51; Philip Barton Payne, “Midrash and

History in the Gospels with Special Reference to R. H. Gundry's Matthew,”

in Gospel Perspectives, vol. 3: Studies in Midrash and Historiography (ed. R. T.

France and David Wenham; Sheffield: JSOT, 1983) 177-215; Douglas J. Moo,

“Matthew and Midrash: An Evaluation of Robert H. Gundry's Approach,”

JETS 26 (1983) 31-39; Norman L. Geisler, “Methodological Unorthodoxy,”

JETS 26 (1983) 87-94; John Nolland, “Recent Studies in Matthew: A Review

Article,” Crux 19 (1983) 25-29, at pp. 26-28.

5 Gundry replied to Carson, Gruenler, and Payne in “A Response to Some

Criticisms of Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art” (an

unpublished paper). He replied to Moo in “A Response to ‘Matthew and

Midrash,’” JETS 26 (1983) 41-56, which was followed by Moo's “Once Again,

‘Matthew and Midrash’: A Rejoinder to Robert H. Gundry,” pp. 57-70, and

then Gundry’s “A Surrejoinder to Douglas J. Moo,” pp. 71-86. Gundry

replied to Geisler in “A Response to ‘Methodological Unorthodoxy,’ ”JETS

26 (1983) 95-100, which was followed by Geisler’s “Is There Madness in

the Method? A Rejoinder to Robert H. Gundry,” pp. 101-8, and then Gun-

dry's “A Surrejoinder to Norman L. Geisler,” pp. 109-15.

6 “Matthew and Midrash,” 38.

7 Different scholars, employing different criteria, give different lists of these

passages. Ten are always included: 1:22-23; 2:15b, 17-18, 23b; 4:14-16;

8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10. Usually one or more of these pas-

sages are also included: 2:5b-6; 13:14-15; 26:54, 56a; cf. 26:31b. We would

look for a statement connecting the events related with the fulfillment of

Scripture. We would thus not include 2:5b-6, 13:14-15, and 26:54, because

these passages record words spoken by persons in the narrative. Also, they

introduce OT texts with words that are significantly different from the for-

mulas used in the accepted passages. But we would include 26:56a because

of its standard formula, recognizing that its general reference to the prophetic

Scriptures precludes the quotation of a specific text. It should be noted that



70               WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

suggest that Matthew’s literary intention can be determined

from these (and two other) passages, because in them he

characterizes the events that he has just related. The manner

in which he comments upon the Gospel events, we will argue,

shows that he understood his accounts to be, and thus in-

tended them to be, strictly historical in character.

When we say that Matthew intended his narrative to be

strictly historical” in character, we are not suggesting that

he undertook to relate everything in exhaustive detail. We

simply mean that he intended his narrative to relate things

that had actually taken place, and only such things. He in-

tended it, down to the last detail, to convey historical fact to

the reader. Historical narration is inevitably approximate in

its language and selective in its content, but this does not in

itself compromise its factuality. Thus, for example, it would

be strictly historical to introduce the substance (or part of the

substance) of a statement with the words “Jesus said,” since

the verb “said” refers only to the verbal expression of a

message, without implying that the message will be quoted

exactly or completely. Similarly, Matthew’s undoubtedly de-

liberate skipping of certain generations in the genealogy of

1:1-17 is consistent with a strictly historical intention, because

when gennao means “become the father of,” “father” includes

the possibility of “forefather” (as is the case with pater).8 A

strictly historical account may be incomplete, so long as it is

factual so far as it goes.

Let us now examine the remarks with which Matthew in-

troduces his fulfillment quotations. In his account of the birth

of Jesus (1:18-25) Matthew comments, after relating that Mary

was found pregnant and that in a dream an angel dissuaded

Joseph from divorcing her, “Now all this took place [gegonen]

 

 

2:23b probably does not actually quote an OT text, either. For literature on

Matthew's fulfillment quotations, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the

Messiah (New York: Macmillan, 1977) 119-20.

8 The expression “all the generations” in v 17 does not refer to all of Jesus’

ancestors along the male line, but rather to all those actually listed in vv 2-

16. The word oun in v 17 shows that Matthew is drawing a deduction from

the previous verses, not making an independent statement concerning Jesus’

racial history.



     MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY         71

 

in order that what was spoken by the Lord through the

prophet might be fulfilled” (1:22), whereupon the prophet

Isaiah is quoted in v 23 and the narrative is resumed in v 24.

On the face of it, the words “all this took place” in v 22 would.

seem to mean that everything related in vv 18-21 actually

occurred in the course of history.9 Gundry accepts that gegonen

means “happened” and that Matthew is referring back to “all

the items in the preceding context,”10 but without offering

any explanation for the statement as a whole, he denies that

the account to which it refers was meant to be historical.11

Similarly, in 21:4 Matthew inserts into the synoptic account

of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem this comment on what

he has just related (i.e. in 21:1-3): “Now [all] this took place

[gegonen] in order that what was spoken through the prophet

might be fulfilled.”12  Gundry again recognizes that gegonen

means “happened” and that Matthew is referring back to the

events just related,13 but he does not explain how Matthew

could say “this happened” when he knew that “this” was not

strictly historical.

Once more, in 26:56 Matthew comments on the events just

related (in vv 47-55, probably): “Now all this took place

[gegonen] in order that the Scriptures of the prophets might

 

 

9 So Wilhelm Rothfuchs, Die Erfüllungszitate des Matthäus-Evangeliums

(BWANT 88; Stuttgart: W. Kohlthammer, 1969) 35-36: “Gewiss drückt sich

hier—recht verstanden—das mt Interesse an der ‘historisch-biographisclhen

Faktizität’ der evangelischen Überlieferung aus” (quoting G. Strecker's

expression). (By “recht verstanden” Rothfuchs means, “Dieser Aspekt darf

aber nicht isoliert und absolut gesetzt werden" [p. 36n.]. See below, n. 32.)

Josef Schmid, in Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (RNT 1; 5th ed.; Regensburg:

Friedrich Pustet, 1965) 44, similarly comments: “Mit aller Bestimmtheit er-

klärt Matthäus hier ausserdem, dass er das von ihm Erzählte als wirkliche

Geschichte verstanden wissen will.” Most commentators simply take this for

granted, rather than belabor the obvious.

10 Matthew, 24. By “all this” (touto holon) we should understand (with Gun-

dry) “this in its entirety,” not “this on the whole.” That is, holon strengthens

touto.

11 Matthew, 20-24.

12 The reading “all this” is supported by MS B and the Byzantine tradition,

but most of the non-Byzantine manuscripts read “this.” The same events

would be covered by either expression.

13 Matthew, 408.



72                    WESTMINSTER 'THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

be fulfilled.”14 According to Matthew, then, everything related

in 26:47-55 “took place.” He evidently understands his nar-

rative to be strictly historical, down to the last detail. Gundry

recognizes that gegonen here means “happened,” 15 but once

again he does not explain how this fits in with his notion of

a midrashic Matthew.

On two occasions Matthew attaches to his narrative the

remark that “then” Scripture “was fulfilled,” followed by a

quotation from Jeremiah. After relating how Herod slew the

infants of Bethlehem, he comments: “Then [tote] was fulfilled

that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet” (2:17).

And after, relating how the chief priests purchased the potter’s

field, he again adds: “Then [tote] was fulfilled that which was

spoken through Jeremiah the prophet” (27:9). In both pas-

sages the word “then” refers to the past time of the events

just related, thus, it would seem, indicating that they took

place in the course of history as related. The words “then

was fulfilled” in 2:17 and 27:9 are therefore equivalent to

now all this took place in order that ... might be fulfilled”

in 1:22; 21:4; 26:56. They would seem to indicate that the

accounts’ in view are historical.16

Gundry does offer a comment on tote in 2:17, saying that

it “carries on the story line,”17 but the narrative does not, in

fact, continue at that point. Vv 17-18 constitute a comment

 

 

14 Matthew’s comment corresponds with Jesus’ elliptical statement in Mark

14:49, “but [you have seized me] in order that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.”

Probably because of this passage, some commentators have supposed that

Matthew’s comment in 26:56 is spoken by Jesus. But since it closely follows

the pattern of Matthew’s comments in 1:22 and 21:4, it should likewise be

understood as Matthew’s comment on the events narrated (though evidently

reflecting the tradition represented by Mark 14:49). Matthew puts Jesus’

statement concerning the fulfillment of Scripture a little earlier in the nar-

rative (at v 54), “and here substitutes his own comment,” according to Alan

Hugh McNeile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew (London: Macmillan, 1915)

396. Matt 1:22-23 must also be understood as Matthew’s comment, rather

than as the words of the angel speaking in vv 20-21, both because of the

formula used to introduce the OT quotation and because of the discontinuity

in subject matter.

15 Matthew, 540.

16 So Rothfuchs, Erfüllungszitate, 39: "Offenbar sollen auch in Mt 2, 17 and

27, 9 einzelne Fakten des Lebens Jesu fixiert werden."

17 Matthew, 35.



   MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY                    73

 

inserted into the narrative, not a continuation of it. The story

line continues in v 19, after the OT quotation in v 18.

On six other occasions Matthew simply appends this pur-

pose clause to his narrative: “in order that what was spoken

... might be fulfilled,” followed by the appropriate OT quo-

tation. He relates that Joseph took his family into Egypt and

remained there “in order that what was spoken by the Lord

through the prophet might be fulfilled” (2:15). And upon

returning to Israel, Joseph made his home in Nazareth “in

order that what was spoken through the prophets might be

fulfilled” (2:23). Jesus moved to Capernaum “in order that

what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be ful-

filled” (4:14). He cast out demons and healed the sick “in

order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might

be fulfilled” (8:17). He ministered as he did “in order that

what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet might be ful-

filled” (12:17). He spoke in parables “in order that what was

spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled” (13:35). Not

one of these statements has a counterpart in the parallel ac-

count of either Mark or Luke (where there is one). Each one

is Matthew’s own comment on that portion of the Gospel

history which he has just recorded. The formula used in these

passages is the same as that used in 1:22; 21:4; 26:56, except

that “now all this took place” is omitted and the remaining

purpose clause is added directly to the narrative. Thus, it is

taken for granted in this elliptical construction that the events

narrated took place. Therefore, we have good reason to un-

derstand from these passages, as from the others discussed

above, that Matthew has undertaken in the previous narrative

to relate events that actually took place in the course of history.

Gundry at one point in his commentary addresses the prob-

lem that the fulfillment quotations present to his theory of

Matthean midrash. “It may be asked,” he says, “how Matthew

can put forward his embellishments of tradition as fulfillments

of the OT.” His answer is, “We will have to broaden our

understanding of ‘happened’ as well as of ‘fulfilled’ when

reading that such-and-such happened in order that so-and-

so’s prophecy might be fulfilled.”18 He insists that the mean-

 

 

18 Ibid., 37.



74                    WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

ing of gegonen and tote “must be judged in accordance with

the most natural understanding of the contextual and com-

parative data.” 19 In other words, since his research ostensibly

indicates that Matthew did not intend to record only what had

happened” in history (i.e. “then”), seemingly straightfor-

ward statements to that effect must be reinterpreted to mean

something else, even though this requires that words be given

meanings otherwise unknown to biblical and other Greek lit-

erature. One wonders what Matthew could have written that

would not be subject to such dogmatic interpretation. If Mat-

thew had said, “This is all history,” would Gundry be telling

us that we must “broaden” our understanding of the word

history” so as to yield “midrash”? He answers this question

in the affirmative.20 But surely such arbitrary redefinition of

words has no place in serious exegesis. The meaning of the

words “took place” (gegonen) and “then” (tote) in these pas-

sages is quite clear (whatever the obscurity of “fulfilled” may

sometimes be).21 We have no warrant to “broaden” their

meaning merely to accommodate a literary theory otherwise

contradicted by them.22

Gundry’s argument presupposes that the meaning of a word

may depend upon the literary genre in which that word occurs.

But we see no basis for such an assumption. The literary genre

of Jonah is disputed; some say it is historical narrative, while

others say it is pious fiction. But the meaning of not one word

in that book depends upon the resolution of this dispute. A

determination of a narrative's genre will indicate whether its

writer is relating real or imaginary events, but what he says

about them would be the same in either case. Thus, Matthew's

statement that certain events “took place” would mean pre-

cisely the same thing in history, midrash, fiction, or whatever.

He is saying that they happened, or occurred, in the time and

place presupposed by the narrative. Rather than dispute the

 

19 Letter from Gundry to the present writer, August 8, 1984 (quoted with

permission).

20 Ibid.: “The answer is yes, at least to the extent that midrashic technique

has entered Matthew's gospel.” Gundry qualifies his answer because he pre-

fers to describe Matthew as a mixture of history and midrash. Cf. n. 1, above.

21 See BAG, s.vv. ginomai, 3.a, and tote, l.a.

22 Furthermore, as D. A. Carson points out (in “Gundry on Matthew,” 910),

it may be sufficient to enlarge our understanding of what ‘fulfill’ means with

the result that it is not necessary to expand the meaning of ‘happens.’



    MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY                    75

 

meaning of gegonen and tote, Gundry should be arguing that

Matthew is referring to the occurrence of midrashic events,

not of historical events. This line of argument will be consid-

ered shortly.

Gundry goes on to assure us that “two features of Matthew’s

practice save him from fantasy.” First, “his embellishments

rest on historical data, which he hardly means to deny by

embellishing them.” 23 But when Matthew says “all this took

place,” he surely means more than “all this rests on historical

data.” Gundry also claims that “the embellishments fore-

shadow genuinely historical events such as the vindications

of Jesus as God’s Son in the resurrection and in the calamities

befalling the Jewish nation after Jesus’ lifetime.”24 But the

question is whether they refer back to historical events, not

whether they look forward to future events.

As we have indicated, Gundry ought to argue that Matthew

is referring to the occurrence of midrashic events when he

says “all this took place” (or the like) in introducing his ful-

fillment quotations. Within a midrashic narrative events would

be understood to have occurred in the imaginary (though

historically based) world presupposed for the purpose of the

literary form. Now it is certainly true that within a midrashic

narrative references to events would naturally pertain to mid-

rashic events. Thus, we could argue nothing about the his-

torical character of Matthew’s Gospel on the basis, of Jesus’

words in 13:14, “And the prophecy of Isaiah is being, fulfilled

in them,” since this statement is part of the narrative and

therefore must be understood within the context of its perhaps

midrashic world. But we have drawn attention only to passages

that are not, properly speaking, part of the Gospel narrative

(though, of course, they are closely connected with it). They

are interpretative comments inserted parenthetically by Mat-

thew between sections of narrative.25 Gundry himself recog-

 

23 Matthew, 37.

24 Ibid.

25 So Rothfuchs, Erfüllungszitate, 30-31, noting that “jene Zitate eine Art

‘Kommentar’ zu den jeweils berichteten Geschehen darstellen and damit eine

Beurteilung der erzählten Begebenheit bieten.” This perception of the “Er-

füllungszitate” lies behind the older (i.e. pre-Rothfuchs) German term for

them, Reflexionszitate (in contrast to Kontextzitate; see p. 20).



76        WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

nizes this fact,26 which can hardly be disputed. After each

comment is finished (usually with an OT quotation), the nar-

rative resumes at the point at which Matthew left it. Since

these comments are not made within the narrative, they do

not presuppose its frame of reference. Instead, they presup-

pose Matthew’s personal frame of reference in the real world.

In these passages, then, Matthew adopts an objective stand-

point outside his narrative, not a subjective one within it. But

a narrator so speaking would still refer to the events of his

narrative as they are predicated in that narrative. When Jesus,

speaking in the real world of Luke 10:36, asks for an evaluation

of certain people in the parable that he has just told, he

naturally refers to them as imaginary characters. Similarly,

when Matthew says that “all this took place,” he may mean

that the events in view took place in the imaginary world of

his midrash, quite apart from what may or may not have taken

place in the real world of history.27

In such a circumstance the reality of that to which a narrator

refers can be determined from his statement only by exam-

ining what he says about it. If he related the events of his

narrative to other events, we would infer that the former

events belonged to the same world as the latter. Thus, if he

related the events of his narrative to, say, earlier historical

events, it would follow that the events of his narrative be-

longed to history, too.

And this is precisely what we find Matthew doing in the

statements introducing his fulfillment quotations. He says that

the events of his narrative have taken place in order that

prophetic Scripture might be fulfilled, or that when they did

take place, Scripture was fulfilled. In other words, he asserts

a temporal and logical connection between the historical

prophecies of the OT and the events of his narrative. Those

 

26 Gundry to Scott, August 8, 1984: “It is true, of course, that the intro-

ductory formulas, along with the fulfillment quotations that follow them, lie

outside the narratives proper.”

27 Gundry would prefer to say that the events to which Matthew refers

took place partly in the world of his midrash as well as in the world of what

we moderns call ‘history’ ” (Gundry to Scott, August 8, 1984). But how can

an event take place partly in the real world and partly in an imaginary one?

A narrative of events can be partly historical and partly unhistorical, but

events themselves can only be one or the other.



   MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY                     77

 

events, therefore, must have taken place in the real world in

which and of which the prophets spoke from God.

Surely no one would claim that events merely predicated

in the imaginary world of midrash have taken place in that

world in fulfillment of the OT Scriptures. As R. T. France

has asked, “What would be the point of proclaiming ‘then

was fulfilled . . .’, if nothing in fact happened ‘then’, nor at all

outside the author’s own mind?”28 What interest could the

prophets have had (or could Matthew have imagined them to

have had) in the tales (and especially the embellishments) of

a future midrashist? Within the world created by a midrashist

it could be said, as part of the story, that something has

happened in fulfillment of a prophecy that is made part of

that world. But in our passages, where Matthew is speaking

independently of his narrative, he certainly has in view the

real prophets of biblical history. And they certainly looked

forward to historical fulfillments of their words. Their God

was the God whose powerful word would determine the

course of human history, not a god whose word would find

artistic “fulfillment” in the imagination of a future midrashist.

The prophets spoke concerning the historical Christ (Luke

24:25–27; 1 Pet 1:10–12), not in any respect concerning an

imaginary one.29

The implications of Matthew’s appeal to OT prophecy need

not be denied because one has, like Gundry, embraced re-

daction-critical methods of interpretation. These implications

are evident to one of the pioneers of modern redaction crit-

icism, Willi Marxsen. He declares that “Matthew writes as a

historian, as his Old Testament quotations in particular

show.” 30 According to Marxsen, Matthew brings prophetic

passages “to bear upon the fragment of tradition itself,” some-

 

28 “Scripture, Tradition and History,” 252.

29 It is no answer that, say, Hosea could not possibly have had in mind the

Messianic interpretation of Hos 11:1 put forward in Matt 2:15. Matthew

introduces this prophecy with the explanation that it was “spoken by the

Lord through the prophet.” That is, the Lord had Jesus Christ in mind when

he spoke the words of Hos 11:1. We do not know whether Hosea understood

the Messianic reference of this prophecy, yet we are told that the prophets

knew in general that their prophecies had a Messianic orientation (see 1 Pet

1:10-12).

30 Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968) 157.



78        WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

times altering it. “This makes Matthew’s ‘historicizing’ of the

tradition very plain: what originally served the purpose of

direct proclamation is now considered from the standpoint

of what actually happened. What happened must correspond

with ‘prophecy’, as otherwise the proof from Scripture would

not be convincing.”31 Without endorsing Marxsen’s entire

argument, we would concur with him that Matthew’s appeal

to prophetic Scripture manifests his concern to write “from

the standpoint of what actually happened.”32 As France puts

it, “At least for the person who makes the claim, the ‘fulfilling’

events must be factual, otherwise the argument is meaning-

less.”33

Finally, it should not be overlooked that the word gegonen,

used in 1:22; 21:4; 26:56 and implied in 2:15, 23; 4:14; 8:17;

12:17; 13:35, is in the perfect tense. Burton asserts that Mat-

thew regularly (i.e. also in 19:8; 24:21; 25:6) uses the perfect

of ginomai aoristically, even though the other writers of the

NT (possibly excluding Mark) do not,34 but Blass/Debrunner

are noncommittal (except on 26:56, where gegonen is “quite

correct”),35 and Moulton, Robertson, and Moule argue that

Matthew uses gegonen as a true perfect.36 It would be wrong

 

31 Ibid., 148. Marxsen’s remarks would seem to be influenced by Georg

Strecker, Der Weg der Gerechtigkeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,

1962), esp. pp. 49-122.

32 Georg Strecker, in “The Concept of History in Matthew,” JAAR 35 (1967)

219-30, similarly observes that there was “a ‘historicizing’ of the traditional

material by the redactor Matthew” (p. 219). This may be seen from his

handling of OT quotations, which exhibits “the historical-biographical tend-

ency of the redactor” (p. 222). Rothfuchs (in Erfüllungszitate, 89) agrees that

the fulfillment quotations “an äussere Gegebenheiten des Lebens Jesu an-

knüpfen,” though he questions Strecker’s “Heranziehung der Erfullungszi-

tate zur Begriindung einer ‘historisierenden’ Tendenz des ersten

Evangelisten." Strecker adds that what Matthew really produces is “an expres-

Sion” of his “theological self-understanding,” not (as he thought) “an au-

thentic presentation of the life of Jesus” (p. 228).

33 “Scripture, Tradition and History,” 252.

34 See Ernest De Witt Burton, Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament

Greek (3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1898) § 88, at p. 43.

35 See BDF § 343(3); cf. Gundry, Matthew, 24.

36 See James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. 1:

Prolegomena (3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908) 145—46; A. T. Rob-

ertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research

(4th ed.; Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 900; C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book of



   MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY                     79

 

to deny that the preterite force is predominant in 1:22; 21:4;

26:56, as the use of the aorist eplerothe in the equivalent formula

of 2:17; 27:9 suggests. Nonetheless, the consistently perfective

force of gegonen in the other NT writings, and, indeed, else-

where in Matthew,37 indicates that such a force is probably

present here.

Matthew’s point in using the perfect instead of the aorist

would thus be that the events in view have a present aspect

to them. The present aspect of past events must consist at

least in their factuality and historicity.38 A. T. Robertson brings

this out when he interprets gegonen in 1:22 as “stands on record

as historical fact.”39 It is of course true that all past events

have a present historical character, but this is not ordinarily

worth pointing out. Matthew apparently wants to draw atten-

tion to the present significance of certain events, and that

significance is no doubt to be found in their connection with

prophetic Scripture.40

 

New Testament Greek (2nd ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1959) 15;

cf. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New

Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927) § 184(4)ii; Maximilian Zerwick, Biblical

Greek (E.T. of the 4th ed.; Rome: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1963) § 289.

37The perfective force seems clear enough in 19:8, “but from the beginning

it has not been [gegonen] so,” and in 24:21, “great tribulation, such as has

not been [gegonen] from the beginning of the world until now.” But it is open

to dispute in 25:6, “But at midnight a cry went out [gegonen].” The verb here

could be understood aoristically (so Burton, Moods and Tenses § 80; BDF

§ 343), but it could just as easily be, understood as a dramatic perfect, not

unlike the historic present (so Moulton, Prolegomena, 146; Robertson, Grammar,

897; cf. Dana and Mantey, Manual Grammar, § 184(4)ii; J. B. Lightfoot, On a

Fresh Revision of the English New Testament [London: Macmillan, 1871] 90).

38 The verb ginomai, in the perfect tense, is often used of an event of the

immediate past which is still vivid (see, e.g., Mark 5:14, 33; 14:4; Luke 2:15;

Acts 4:16, 21, 22). However, we must reject Lightfoot's rather fanciful sug-

gestion (in Fresh Revision, 91; cf. Moule, Idiom Book, 15) that the perfect tenses

in 1:22; 21:4; 26:56 “preserve the freshness of the earliest catechetical nar-

rative of the Gospel history, when the narrator was not so far removed from

the fact,” if only because the event to which 1:22 refers occurred over thirty

years before the earliest catechesis could have been formulated.

39 Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1930—33) 1.11.

Similarly, McNeile (with the approval of Moule, Idiom Book, 15) comments

(in Matthew, 9) that gegonen here "denotes that the event stands recorded in

the abiding Christian tradition."

40 Zerwick (in Biblical Greek, § 288) aptly observes “that the choice between

aorist and perfect is not determined by the objective facts, but by the writer’s



80        WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

       Matthew’s use of the perfect tense form gegonen does not

in itself prove that he is writing history. One could, by entering

into the imaginary world of one’s story for the purpose of

interpreting it, speak of an event in it as having a present

reality.41 But Matthew’s use of the perfect tense in connection

with the fulfillment of prophetic Scripture shows that he is

operating in the real world of history, from prophecy to ful-

fillment to the present. Historical events that have fulfilled

Scripture have a present significance that is well worth un-

derlining with a perfect tense.

In addition to the formulas introducing Matthew’s fulfill-

ment quotations, two other passages merit our attention. In

the first one Matthew introduces his first account of the Gospel

history (after the genealogy of 1:1-17), that of the birth of

Jesus (1:18-25), with these words: “Now the birth of Jesus

Christ was [en] as follows” (v 18a). According to this statement,

the event of Jesus’ birth, already mentioned in v 16, “was,”

i.e. “took place,”42 in the manner about to be related. Matthew

would seem to be saying, in a straightforward way, that his

account will be historical. Gundry, however, without explain-

ing this introductory statement, informs us that Matthew has

taken “a historical report” relating both the birth of John the

Baptist and the birth of Jesus (as later recorded by Luke),

fused the two accounts together, and drastically transformed

them into “a theological tale” having only minimal connec-

tions with history.43 A narrator could not honestly claim that

such a story relates how the birth of Jesus took place, unless

by “the birth of Jesus Christ” he meant not the actual birth

of the historical Jesus, but rather the birth of a similar char-

acter posited in the imaginary world of a midrashic narrative

about to unfold. Nothing in v 18a disproves such a subtle

interpretation, but what simple (or not so simple) reader or

 

wish to connote the special nuance of the perfect; if this be not required,

the aorist will be used.” The use of the aorist egeneto in John 19:36 in a

statement quite similar to the formula employing the perfect gegonen in Matt

1:22; 21:4; 26:56 is in this way to be explained, not by John's greater distance

from the gospel history (contrary to Lightfoot, Fresh Revision, 91) or by an

aoristic force of gegonen in Matthew.

41 Cf. Luke 10:36.

42 The RSV reads, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”

43 Matthew, 20.



    MATTHEW'S INTENTION TO WRITE HISTORY                    81

 

hearer of Matthew’s Gospel could possibly have been ex-

pected to discern it? In the absence of a contrary indication,

anyone would naturally assume that Matthew had something

to tell about the real person Jesus Christ; that he actually had

a story to tell about a similar imaginary character would have

been guessed by no one. It is useless to argue, as Gundry

does, that Matthew’s first readers knew Mark and Q (and

Jewish midrashic practice) well, and would quickly have re-

alized by his divergences from these accounts that he was

writing midrash,44 for their alleged knowledge of these works,

one of which may not yet have been written, and the other

of which may never have been written, is simply a gratuitous

assumption on Gundry’s part. Furthermore, it is incredible

to think that Matthew would have introduced his first account

with a statement that would be so misleading to everyone who

did not have that knowledge.

This argument is not weakened by the fact that en is found

in the opening sentence of a few parables (i.e. in Matt 21:33;

Luke 16:1, 19; 18:2), because in those instances the verb is

part of the parabolic narrative, and thus functions within the

imaginary world of the parable. But in Matt 1:18a en is part

of a statement introducing a narrative, and thus stands in-

dependently of it.

The narrative parables are significant, however, in another

respect. Matthew (and, for that matter, Mark and Luke) pre-

sents each one with a clear indication of its nonhistorical

character. That is, each one is described as a parable and/or

begins with a parabolic formula.45 In contrast to this, Matthew

does not indicate in 1:18a, or in any other of his comments,

that his accounts are anything other than historical reports,

This contrast does not prove that Matthew presents his Gospel

as an historical narrative, but it is suggestive.

 

44 Ibid., 634-35.

45 See Matt 7:24; 13:3, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 53; 18:23; 20:1; 21:28, 33;

22:1, 2; 25:1, 14. Gundry (in Matthew, 629) quotes the initial words of three

parables outside Matthew’s Gospel (i.e. Mark 4:3-4; Luke 10:30; 16:19-20)

as evidence that “even language that seems historical at first . . . may, on

close inspection, look unhistorical.” But the parable in Mark is explicitly

introduced as a parable (in v 2), and the two in Luke begin with the fairly

common parabolic formula, “a certain man” (see also Matt 18:12; Luke 12:16;

14:16; 15:11; 16:1; 19:12; 20:9 [perhaps]).



82              WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

Our final passage is 28:15b, where Matthew, after relating

in vv 11-15a how the chief priests bribed the soldiers who

had been at Jesus’ tomb to say that his body had been stolen,

comments: “And this story has been disseminated among Jews

down to this day.” Matthew here indicates that the story of

the stolen body presented in v 13 is factually related, since

he is referring to historical Jews, who could hardly be said to

have perpetuated a piece of Matthean midrash. We should

infer from the declared historicity of v 13 that the account in

which it is given is also intended to be historical, for if the

account as a whole were midrashic, so that its events were

predicated only in an imaginary world, Matthew would not

have treated part of it as historical.46 And if 28:11-15a  is

historical, we can hardly limit the extent of Matthew's histor-

ical report to these verses.

We are now ready to consider Matthew’s Gospel as a whole.

We have every reason to think that Matthew, like any other

writer, would have dealt with his subject matter in a consistent

manner throughout his narrative. It would be absurd to sup-

pose that he switched back and, forth between strictly historical

and freely midrashic accounts. He comments that certain

events are historical not to distinguish them from the events

related in his other accounts, but (ordinarily) simply to des-

ignate them as events that fulfilled (or led to the fulfillment

of) OT prophecy. Since Matthew characterizes many portions

of his Gospel as strictly historical, and none in any other way,

we must infer that he would have characterized his entire

Gospel in this way.

On the basis of Matthew’s own characterization of his nar-

rative in 1:18, 22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4;

26:56; 27:9; 28:15, then, we conclude that he intended his

Gospel to be strictly historical in character. Gundry’s theory

of Matthean midrash is contradicted by Matthew himself and

must therefore be rejected.

 

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46 Gundry (in “A Response to Some Criticisms,” 17) concedes that v 15b

favors an historical substratum” underlying the “embellished” account, but

it clearly favors more than that, namely a fully historical account.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:                   z

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            2960 W. Church Rd.    Glenside, PA  19038      www.wts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu

            Thanks for proof reading by Larissa Boehmke.