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[Book Review] Israel, Church, and the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew

Matthias Konradt, Israel, Church, and the Gentiles in the Gospel of Matthew. Translated by Kathleen Ess. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. Pp. xii + 485. $79.95 (hardcover).

Konradt provides a stimulating reconsideration of the gospel of Matthew in order to determine the correct motive for the transition from Jesus’ exclusive ministry to Israel in 10:5-6 to the nations in 28:19. He challenges the traditional “rejection in Israel—turn to the nations” schema in favor of a more positive theological conception that is founded on Matthew’s gradually unfolding narratival Christology. The shift, he argues, is not a hard “break” from Israel to the nations as a consequence of Israel’s rejection, but an organic and “integral aspect of the narrative concept in which Matthew unfolds his Christology” (14). It is not a matter of replacement or supersession, but supplementation and expansion (86-87).

In fact, the very opening statement of the gospel—prior to the rejection of the Christ by some within Israel—already has the nations as its ultimate goal and aim, linking the gospel with the universal promises still unfulfilled in redemptive-history. Thus, the opening up of salvation to the nations was not because of a failure on the part of Israel, for they had not yet failed within the story, but because of the nature and identity of Jesus Christ as the son of David, the son of Abraham (1:1). Konradt will specifically uncover the Christological foundation of this transition to be Matthew’s integration of Jesus’ identity as the Davidic-Messianic shepherd of Israel and the Son of God.

Yet, the rejection of Jesus is not negligible, but significant to the narrative. In order to integrate both the positive Christological construction of the transition and the negative rejection of the Christ by the religious authorities and Jerusalem, Konradt makes a couple of helpful distinctions that seem to be inherent to the gospel itself. First, he distinguishes between the “nations” and the “church”—two separate entities that are often conflated or thought of as interchangeable. By distinguishing them it becomes apparent that the relationship between Israel and the nations is not the same as the relationship between Israel and the church.

Second, he differentiates within Israel between the Jewish crowds, who respond positively to Jesus’ ministry as the one sent to the lost sheep of Israel, and the religious leaders who outright reject and oppose him at every point, even persuading Jerusalem (itself a character in the story distinguished from the crowds of Galilee and not to be confused with Israel as a whole) to have him crucified in the end. This guards against a collective view of Israel’s rejection of the Christ and helps to show how the church was initially formed within Israel by the replacement of the religious authorities with Jesus’ own disciples, which organically leads to salvation extending to the nations.

Konradt develops his thesis in three steps: “Jesus mission to Israel, Israel’s reaction, and the possible consequence of a negative reaction” (14). The first step is taken in chapter 2, in which he argues that Matthew “systematically sculpted the orientation toward Israel, formulated programmatically in the mission logion in 15.24, as an essential feature of Jesus’ earthly ministry” (85). This is evident in the “altering of geographical details (4.23-25; 15.29-31)” and the editing of texts in which Jesus’ ministry towards various Gentiles (8:5-13, 28-34; 15:21-28) is presented as “exceptions” to the pre-Easter situation (74, 85), for the καιρός when salvation would extend to the nations had not yet come and would only come post-Easter. The central reason, however, for Jesus’ Israel-oriented ministry was Christological, that is, it was founded upon his identity as the Davidic-Messianic shepherd of Israel. This title integrates both the healing and teaching aspects of his ministry, and its positive connotation reveals that he carried it out not for the sake of justifying his denunciation and rejection of Israel, but positively to fulfill Israel’s promises of salvation (86).

In chapter 3, Konradt highlights the differentiated reaction to Jesus in Israel, which he believes Matthew intentionally draws out by distinguishing the authorities and the crowds from one another (135). Maintaining his Christological focus, he notes that the conflict revolved around his authority as the Davidic Messiah, which the crowds recognized in his healings, but the religious leaders directly opposed. Likewise his teaching on the proper understanding of God’s will, i.e., the Law and the Prophets, also proved a dividing line. “To speak of healing and teaching is to speak summarily of the central aspects of Jesus’ ministry (cf. 4.23; 9.35; and 21.14 + 21.32a), and so the opposition against Jesus directed itself against his ministry as a whole” (136). In short, the division between the crowds and authorities was Christological. And this division remained a reality throughout Jesus’ passion, including 27:25. So, argues Konradt, Matthew does not have in view a collective rejection of Jesus in Israel; instead, Jerusalem is now included in the battle lines, which was anticipated in 2:3 and in Jesus foretelling his death (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). It was not Israel as a whole, but the authorities and the people of Jerusalem who decided against their Messiah (27:25).

In chapter 4, Konradt looks at the same issue of differentiation now with regard to Jesus’ pronouncements against Israel—are they also to be distinguished? Konradt argues against the popular notion that Jesus rejected Israel wholesale and defends this against interpretations of various passages that have been used to support “the thesis that Israel as a collective entity will be punished or has forfeited her position” (263). When Jesus climactically declares that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a people producing its fruit (21:43), Konradt sees this as fulfilled in the replacement of the current religious authorities with his disciples, not the replacement of Israel with the Gentile nations (352). The pronouncements against this generation (11:16-19; 12:38-45; 23:34-36), the destruction of Jerusalem (22:7; 23:37-39), and the parable trilogy all confirm a differentiation that takes place within Israel. This is in keeping with Konradt’s thesis that the transition is founded on positive Christological grounds. While the religious authorities are rejected, those within Israel replace them and are enabled for the task by the authoritative and true teaching of Jesus.

Chapter 5 unfolds how the above conclusions relate to “the inclusion of the nations in salvation and the formation of the ecclesia” (264). The turn towards the nations cannot be owing to “the (collective) rejection of Jesus in Israel, the failure of his mission to Israel, or Israel’s guilt and condemnation” (265). The universal intention of salvation is evident from the beginning of the gospel and is founded upon a Christological foundation, anticipated in 1:1 and made a reality following the endowment of the resurrected Christ with universal authority. “In this the ministry of salvation to the nations presumes the ministry to Israel. It is the salvation made known to Israel in which the nations participate” (324). According to Konradt, this corresponds with Matthew’s integration of Jesus’ dual identity as the Davidic Messiah (Israel-specific) and the Son of God(universal).

Having confirmed the organic and supplemental nature of the transition from 10:5-6 to 28:19, Konradt takes up the relationship between Israel and the church in chapter 6. Since there is a positive Christological conception that motivates the transition, it is incorrect to associate the church with the nations as if it replaced Israel. The church is not conceived by Matthew to be “the new or true people of God, as opposed to Israel” (352). Rather, the church is first formed within Israel as Jesus replaces the religious authorities with his disciples, who have been entrusted by him with the true teaching of Israel. The church, then, is the “community of salvation that has emerged (and is still emerging) from Israel and the (other) nations” (353). This community is commissioned to incorporate the nations, of which Israel is now a part.

In chapter 7, Konradt concludes by noting that past socio-historical approaches have been essentially guesswork and have been unable to integrate all of the elements and motifs present in Matthew’s gospel. This approach, therefore, should be considered subordinate to the theological approach that Konradt has undertaken, which, in turn, may provide constructive lines for the socio-historical approach to follow.

Konradt’s work exhibits numerous strengths that make his basic thesis of grounding the transition from 10:5-6 to 28:19 upon a positive Christological foundation compelling. First, his historical-critical exegesis allows for a truly constructive interpretation that builds on the text, rather than a source-critical or socio-historical methodology that aims at mere reconstructive purposes that only (subjectively) arrive at the text (see esp. 10n35). While some of Konradt’s conclusions are based on the assumption of Matthew editing or redacting Mark and Q, his methodology leads him to integrate major elements and motifs in the gospel, to see the uniqueness of Matthew’s gospel, and to engage in careful and critical exegesis.

Second, he makes a compelling case for a positive Christological foundation which corresponds with other Matthean studies that have focused on the narratival unfolding of Jesus’ identity as a central goal of the gospel. He consistently and clearly relates each chapter to this basic point of his thesis.

Third, he reads the events of the gospel not as abstract soteriological datums or general moralistic axioms, but redemptive-historically. This enables him to see the universality of God’s intentions in Christ as inherent from the beginning since he comes to fulfill promises that have already been given to Abraham and to David. “Matthew anchors the extension of the ministry of salvation to the nations in Israel’s history of salvation by indicating that God’s history with Israel was aimed toward this goal from the very beginning” (307). He is also able to make historical distinctions within the gospel itself between pre- and post-Easter, which illumines the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Fourth, he makes a host of helpful distinctions where the tendency in the past has been to conflate or confuse. This is especially the case with his distinction between the nations and the church, which seems obvious, but is often not made. This allows for a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between Israel and the church and Israel and the nations.

This work can also be critiqued or improved upon in a few places. First, while Konradt tries to integrate Jesus’ son of David and son of God titles in a way that provides a Christological foundation for an organic transition from Israel to the nations, he seems to maintain too strong a distinction between them prior to this integration. For example, he writes, “While the focus on Israel in Jesus’ earthly ministry correlates with the emphasis on his Davidic messiahship, the extension of salvation to the nations is connected with the salvific death, resurrection, and exaltation of the Son of God” (310; also 324). This is problematic because universal, eschatological dimensions are inherent to the Davidic title (2 Sam. 7) as well as to Jesus’ title as the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1; Gen. 17:4-6; Rom. 4:13). In addition, the son of God title has Davidic Messianic connotations (e.g., Ps. 2). It seems it would be better to formulate Jesus’ identity as the Eternal Son and as the Messianic Son in an archetype-ectype schema in which the ontological is the ground and source of the redemptive-historical. It may, however, be countered that this would be more of a theological rather than narratival construction.

Second, in arguing for a positive Christological motivation for the transition, Konradt downplays the significance of Israel’s ignorance of Jesus’ true identity. This takes away from Matthew’s concern to show that Israel must be reconstituted in Christ (e.g., Matt. 2:15). The continuity between Israel and the nations is not found in some of Israel not rejecting him, but in Christ alone as he gathers a people around himself. The children of Abraham have always been those of faith.

Finally, it would have be interesting if Konradt had interacted directly with dispensational formulations of the Israel-nations relation. This, however, is not a fault of the book since it was not necessarily the focus of the study.

Overall, I would recommend this book to pastors and scholars who plan on preaching or teaching through the gospel of Matthew. Whether you agree with all of Konradt’s conclusions or not (I, for one, did not), he forces you to wrestle with what exactly is the unifying theme and purpose of Matthew’s gospel as well as its driving theological motivation. This will prevent piecemeal interpretations that analyze only the trees, but miss the forest of the gospel.


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