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The Mind Behind the Gospels, by Herbert W. Basser. Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009. 377 pp. $69.00.
In this first of two planned volumes of commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Herbert W. Basser takes up the first half of the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 1–14),expertly highlighting similarities and parallels between Matthew’s Gospel and other pieces of Jewish literature in their interpretations of biblical verses, use of idom and motif, and theologies. In so doing, he persuasively demonstrates the degree to which the earliest layer of the Gospel of Matthew originally derives from a Palestinian Jewish matrix. The result is a contribution that offers a richer and generally more nuanced understanding of the Gospel material.
In the preface and general introduction, Basser explains his methodology, approach, and objectives. The remainder of the volume consists of fourteen chapters—one for each of the Gospel chapters covered by the book. Each chapter opens with a brief summary and preliminary discussion of the salient issues found in the chapter, followed by a systematic verse-by-verse commentary on the Matthean text. The rhetorical styles and forms of the Gospel text that are similar to those found in other Jewish literature are identified; these latter texts then are carefully employed to illuminate the meaning of Matthew’s rhetoric. Basser’s goal is to read Matthew’s Gospel via the lens of other Jewish texts (even much later rabbinic material) that employ precisely the same language and imagery found in Matthew. Quotations from relevant rabbinic texts, from Qumran documents, as well as verses from the Septuagint and Syriac translations of both Hebrew Bible texts and Greek early Christian material, are provided.
Basser deliberately avoids delving deeply into the theoretical debate about how the Gospels affected and shaped one another, nor generally does he engage in form criticism. As a result, synoptic comparisons are infrequent, although they are provided when significant, as are discussions of manuscript variants. Basser argues that for the writing of his Gospel, the author of Matthew—whom he argues was a Gentile—drew on what originally were oral or written Jewish stories about Jesus that circulated before the earliest written Gospels were composed. These stories, likely initially told in Aramaic, were then incorporated and shaped by the author of Matthew to fit his text and message. Basser demonstrates that remnants of the oral traditions can be found in such Jewish literature as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. According to Basser, each of these documents partakes in the use of Jewish idiom, interpretive tendencies, and structures of argument common to Jewish Palestine; in short, they were part of the same cultural perspective and shared the same Jewish “mind.”
Basser demonstrates that Jewish midrashim, in whatever form they now appear, “inform, are informed by, and inform us about the culture upon which the presynoptic stories are predicated” (p. xii). Indeed, as he reveals, Jewish homiletic interpretations can sometimes bring clarity to anomolous statements made in the Gospel. For example, Basser persuasively argues that Matthew’s source for the statement found in 3: 9 to God’s being “able to raise up children from Abraham from these stones here” is based not—as many believe—on a pun on the Aramaic words for stones and sons, but instead on a Hebrew rhetorical tradition that is paralleled in rabbinic texts (pp. 81–83). Basser likewise provides a thought-provoking analysis of Matthew 5: 21–48, often called the “Anti-theses,” by arguing that Jesus was simply “making pronouncements” on these laws “under familiar sciptural headings”—as did certain other rabbis—rather than “attempting to supersede the Scriptures,” or rejecting the traditional understanding of these laws, as is typically argued (p. 131 ff.).
For Basser, the final “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity occurred shortly after 70 CE: this is a considerably earlier date than that given by most modern scholars of Christian Origins. Indeed, Basser boldly states that “Christians were by Matthew’s time quite separate from Jews” (p. 44). The break, he argues, was “precipitated . . . by the rejection of scribal Law and interpretations, leading to the entire abrogation of the Torah’s rituals” (p. 8) on the part of believers in Jesus as Messiah. Yet he also states that “for there to be a break, there need not have been a total abandonment of Jewish Law in all churches and therefore the ambiguity and contradictions within present-day reconstructions of ‘the parting of the communities’ actually reflect the contradictions and ambiguity that ensued in the post-70 era” (p. 7). On the one hand Basser seems to be arguing that an absolute split occurred just after 70 CE based on Christians’ not following the Law. Yet at the same time, he admits that this break is NOT dependent on “total abandonment” of the Law, for, to be sure, certain Christians (including of Gentile background) did continue to observe Jewish rituals. One might ask, then, in the same way that Basser criticizes an argument of Schyler Brown, “how these two claims [as expressed by Basser] can simultaneously be true” (p. 7). Given the complexity of the separation of Christianity from Judaism, which Basser seems to acknowledge, and the nuance with which he argues most other points in this volume, his distinctly unnuanced understanding of the anti-Jewish polemic in Matthew’s Gospel as evidence for a conclusive “break” between Judaism and Christianity, rather than as evidence of what is happening within the particular community of Matthew, is surprising. This is an erudite yet accessible volume, for Basser has tried (for the most part successfully) to make his points transparent, and he is careful to explain meanings of specialized terminology. Unfortunately, typographical errors occur frequently enough to be distracting (e.g., pp. 32; 34; 40; 41; 55; 73; 79, etc.); this is a shame, for the high quality of the content deserved a more careful editorial eye. Basser states that he has “not made the work easy” (p. 13)—and this may be true insofar as this volume is so full of information it makes for a dense read if done from start to finish. But this commentary is worth the effort. By pinpointing the Jewish interpretive strategies and argumentative models behind many of the stories found in the Gospel of Matthew, Basser presents a work that deepens our understanding of the Jewish cultural matrix from which Christianity emerged. This volume is a thought-provoking must-read for scholars of Christian Origins and post-biblical Judaism alike.