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The New Testament: Methods and Meanings

The New Testament: Methods and Meanings

by Warren Carter, Amy-Jill Levine


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The New Testament: Methods and Meanings

In this concise, accessible book, Warren Carter and A.J. Levine introduce three aspects of New Testament study: the world of the text (plots, characters, setting, and themes), the world behind the text (the concerns, circumstances, and experiences of the early Christian communities), and the world in front of the text (the meaning for contemporary readers). As students engage the New Testament, they face a central issue that has confronted all students before them, namely, that these texts have been and are read in diverse and often quite conflicting ways. These multiple readings involve different methods: historical-critical, traditional (history of interpretation), colonial, multicultural, and sociological, with feminist and liberationist implications for the first-century readers as well as the ongoing implications for today's reader. For example, Carter and Levine show how a text can be used by both colonizer and colonized, feminist and anti-feminist, or pro- and anti-Jewish. The authors also show how scholarly work can be both constructive and threatening to the contemporary Church and how polemical texts can be used, whether for religious study, theological reflection, or homiletical practice.

"... a brilliant contemporary representative of the biblical discipline of the Einleitung, Introduction. ... In the best tradition of historical-critical biblical scholarship, Carter and Levine advocate a respectful, critical and generous engagement with the texts, involving readers in finding meanings. ... There are many gems in the heart of this book, including excursuses in shaded boxes, and some misguided traditional interpretations are safely despatched. Dagmar Winter, Journal for the Study of The New Testament Booklist 2015

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781630885779
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 11/19/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 375
Sales rank: 593,544
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Warren Carter is Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, with a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Before moving to Brite in 2007, he taught for 17 years at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. His scholarly work has focused on the gospels of Matthew and John, and he has focused on the issue of the ways in which early Christians negotiated the Roman empire. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, he is the author of many books including The Roman Empire and the New Testament; What Does Revelation Reveal?; The New Testament: Methods and Meanings (with Amy-Jill Levine); and God in the New Testament published by Abingdon Press. He has also contributed to numerous church resources and publications and is a frequent speaker at scholarly and church conferences.

Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts and Sciences. An internationally renowned scholar and teacher, she is the author of numerous books including The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. She is also the co-editor of the Jewish Annotated New Testament. Professor Levine, who has done over 300 programs for churches, clergy groups, and seminaries, has been awarded grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Institutions granting her honorary degrees include Christian Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest.

Read an Excerpt

The New Testament

Methods and Meanings

By Warren Carter, Amy-Jill Levine

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-7508-6



Interpretations of texts generally center on either the reader or the writer. The former highlights the experiences and situation of a person or group: What does this text mean to us? Do I accept its claims or resist them? The latter focuses on the identity of the author, the circumstances under which the text was written, its sources and intended audience.

However, there is often overlap between author and reader, origin and reception. Knowing a writer's cultural context and personal agenda can help readers understand what the writer is attempting to convey and why. Knowing the history can help in determining what the original audience might have understood. Knowing the author's concerns might help in determining what passages might speak to all readers and what are specific to the intended audience. Understanding a text's historical context can also help because it serves as a control on solipsism (i.e., "the text means what I want it to mean"). Understanding what a text meant to its first audience can also enhance what it might mean to readers today.

To understand Matthew's Gospel, in this chapter we focus on how the text came into being: who wrote what, to whom, when, where, and why? This cluster of interrelated questions comprises an approach called "historical criticism." The word "criticism" here does not indicate something negative or an attack. Rather, as with the phrase "critical thinking," criticism concerns identifying information, discerning meaning, and evaluating claims. Historical criticism takes seriously the text's circumstances of origin as part of this interpretive process.

Within "historical criticism" fall the subcategories of "source criticism" and "redaction criticism." The former looks at the sources, both oral and written, that the author used to construct the gospel. The latter looks at the author's editorial hand and asks: How were traditional materials reordered to tell a new story? What was added, or omitted, and why? In distinguishing tradition from redaction—that is, in distinguishing received materials from the author's own contributions—we can make good suggestions about the author's agenda.

Like the other canonical gospels, the text we call "Matthew" was originally anonymous. The first author to link the name Matthew with the gospel was the church father Irenaeus, who wrote ca. 180 C.E. (Against Heresies 3.1.1). Nor does the text commend Matthean authorship. The disciple Matthew plays no significant role (he appears eighth on the list of disciples in 10:3). He does not witness Jesus' baptism or transfiguration. He is not at Gethsemane.

Why the gospel was assigned to "Matthew" and not "Peter" or "Mary Magdalene" can only be answered, tentatively, through internal evidence. Perhaps the apostle Matthew provided the tradition on which the text rests, although he was probably dead by the time of composition. In Greek, "Matthew" (Matthaios) sounds like the word for "disciple" or "learner" (math((t((s), so perhaps the name signifies the gospel's ideal reader as one who learns from Jesus. Yet a third possibility: in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27, Jesus commissions a tax collector named "Levi," who becomes one of the Twelve Apostles. In Matthew's version of this account (9:9), the tax collector is "Matthew." Luke (6:15) and Mark (10:3) do note a "Matthew" among the Twelve, so the name was already associated with Jesus' disciples. Perhaps early copyists, noting the distinction in names of the tax collector, thought that "Matthew" had put in a correction.

Concerning dates, Matthew likely used Mark's Gospel as a source (90 percent of Mark appears in Matthew, often in the same words and same order) and so must post-date Mark. Both internal and external evidence commend a date toward the end of the first century. Matthew's parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14) states that the king sent troops to destroy the city of those who refused to attend, a response decidedly out of proportion to declining an invitation (22:7). Matthew may have added this reference to make a theological point: in the evangelist's view, Jerusalem was destroyed because its population refused Jesus' invitation to follow him. This redactional element suggests a date following 70 C.E., when Rome destroyed Jerusalem. Luke's version of this parable (Luke 14:15-24) lacks this detail. In turn, the earliest quotations of material in Matthew's gospel appear in Christian writings from around 100 C.E.: the Didache quotes Matthew's form of the Lord's Prayer, not Luke's, and Ignatius, a bishop from Antioch, refers in several letters to details that appear only in Matthew (for example, the star at Jesus' birth; Jesus' comment to John the Baptist at 3:15).

The location of composition is also a matter of speculation. Some scholars suggest Antiochon-the-Orontes in Syria, since Ignatius of Antioch knows Matthew's Gospel. Antioch was also home to a large Diaspora Jewish community, and Matthew, as we will see, manifests several concerns that indicate connection to that community. Further, Matthew has a particular interest in Peter, who was active in Antioch (see Gal 2:11-14). Again, internal evidence supports the external: Matthew 4:24 refers to Jesus' fame spreading "throughout all Syria," although the narrative has so far restricted him to Galilee (4:23, 25). This reference is Matthew's redaction (cf. Mark 3:7-8).

In determining provenance, date, and authorship, we inevitably risk a circular argument. We construct our conclusions substantially from evidence in the gospel, and then we interpret the gospel in light of the context we have determined. External support for conclusions about setting and authorship are helpful checks, but they cannot be determinative. In the end, doing history is often a matter of making the best argument; absolute proof can remain elusive.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been known, since the work of David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century, as Synoptic Gospels; the Greek term literally means to "see" (as in "optics") together ("syn" as in "synthesis" or "syncopation"). The three gospels are often very similar in wording and in the order in which they present material. Matthew contains all but some 55 of Mark's 661 verses, while Luke has just over half of Mark.

John's differences from the first three gospels are numerous. Instead of a Galilean ministry and then a final journey to Jerusalem, John's Jesus goes back and forth between the regions. John has distinctive characters (Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman), distinctive vocabulary and style (Jesus' long monologues), and distinctive themes (Jesus "coming down" from God; the relationship of Father and Son). We reserve discussion of John for chapter 4 and concentrate here on the relationship among the Synoptics.

Although they "see alike," the Synoptics have substantial differences. For example, Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, Matthew with a genealogy, and Luke with the announcement of John the Baptist's conception. The challenge of determining the literary relationship among Matthew, Mark, and Luke—accounting for their similarities and differences—is known as the "Synoptic Problem."

Arguments against Matthean priority have prompted scholars to seek another solution to the Synoptic Problem. Today's dominant theory, called the "two source theory" or "four source theory," is that Mark's was the first gospel to be written. Subsequently, both Matthew and Luke made independent use of Mark's text, redacting and expanding it with additional sources. This view still makes Mark the middle term, but here Mark is the source rather than the summary of Matthew and Luke.

Positing Mark's primacy does not explain all the connections among the Synoptics. There are about 100 elements—many of them sayings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes (for example, "Blessed are ...") and the "Lord's Prayer"—shared by Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark. These elements suggest a second source, today known as either a "Sayings Source" or as "Q," probably after the German word for source, Quelle. No ancient copy of Q exists, but scholars have attempted to reconstruct it on the basis of the material common to Matthew and Luke. That we have the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, confirms that some of Jesus' followers collected sayings detached from any narrative frame. We saw earlier how Matthew and Luke both present the parable of the Wedding Feast, but with different details. The consensus is that Matthew "redacted Q" by adding the line about the troops burning the city. Thus, the "two source" theory indicates that Matthew and Luke are formed on the basis of two sources: Mark and Q.

About 20 percent of Matthew and 30 percent of Luke find no parallel in the other Synoptics. Scholars suggest therefore that Matthew had access to further material, which is designated as "M." Similarly, it is highly plausible that Luke used another source, known as "L." Examples of M and L material would be the nativity accounts, the genealogies, and the resurrection appearances. Hence there are four sources: Mark, Q, M, and L. Whether these sources were oral or written remains debated—as the question must, since M and L, like Q, are hypothetical.

Any solution to the Synoptic Problem has weaknesses. Among the many, here are three that need to be considered as we move to discuss Matthew's own agenda. First, we have to distinguish tradition (what the sources said) from redaction (how the evangelists edited those sources). Material that we think derives from M or L might actually be from Q, with either Matthew or Luke omitting it.

Second, material we assign to a source might actually come from the redactor's hand.

Third, the solutions all have ideological components to them. The argument for Matthean priority, already for Augustine, supported the needs of the church, with its emphasis on Peter's role and references to the "church" and church discipline (see Matt 18). But Marcan priority, a thesis developed in late eighteenth- / early nineteenth-century Germany, served that cultural setting. Mark's omission of the nativity accounts and consequent de-emphasizing of the Virgin Mary fit the needs of a country divided between Catholics and Protestants. All Christians could agree on the importance of Jesus, but Catholic Mariology was incompatible with the Protestant focus on Scripture alone. Further, Mark's downplaying of anti-Jewish polemic as compared to Matthew allowed for greater assimilation of Jews, even as Mark's comparative disinterest in Jewish ritual practices was more palatable to Germans unhappy with Jewish emancipation from the restrictions on residence and employment. German Protestants who embraced Marcan priority had the added benefit of Mark's not-always-complimentary picture of Peter, in contrast to Matthew's promotion of him. As is often the case, much biblical scholarship, whether recognized or not, is influenced by, and has implications for, religious confession and cultural concerns.

Three sources—Mark's Gospel, a collection of sayings (Q), and a collection of other material (M)—most likely supply the building blocks for Matthew's Gospel. At times the author we call Matthew preserves the material unchanged; at times additions appear; this gospel also dispenses with 55 verses of Mark (that is, if we accept the idea that Matthew had more or less the same version of Mark that scholars have determined is close to an original). This process suggests that traditions about Jesus were not fixed. Changing circumstances needed new stories.

We can observe Matthean redaction by comparing Matthew's Gospel to Mark's Gospel and to (a reconstructed) Q. Redaction occurs in one of five ways: adding, omitting, reordering, abbreviating, and rephrasing. By attending to the changes, we see Matthew's nuances.

Mark's Gospel begins with Jesus' baptism by John (1:2-8) and then his ministry (1:14-15). For Matthew, Jesus' public activity does not begin until 4:17. From 1:1 to 4:16 this gospel carefully defines who Jesus is and thus indicates the major themes to sound in the remainder of the narrative.

The Gospel of Matthew begins by describing Jesus as "Son of David" and "Son of Abraham" (1:1). This opening line, lacking any Marcan or Lucan parallel, links Jesus with the biblical accounts of God's promise to Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3) and of David's commission as king to manifest God's benevolent rule (Ps 72). For Matthew, Jesus is both in continuity with and the fulfillment of Israel's Scriptures.

While chapters 1 to 2 are sometimes called a "birth narrative," they actually give little attention to Jesus' birth (2:1a). The genealogy (1:1-17) locates Jesus within Israel's history; structured in three groups of 14 generations, which verse 17 summarizes as encompassing Abraham to David (1:2-6a), David to the deportation to Babylon (1:6b-11), and the return from exile to the coming of the Messiah (1:12-16), it suggests God's orderly arranging of history. In 1:18-25, Matthew shows how Jesus' conception is the result of divine activity; the description of a virgin birth, as opposed to a virginal conception, appears in extant written sources first in the post-NT text known as the Protoevangelium (that is, pre-gospel) of James. Matthew's second chapter displays Jesus' threat to Rome's ally, King Herod.

While the claims of three series of 14 generations are not historically accurate, they nevertheless underscore two Matthean interests. First, the division of history into ages was conventional in Jewish literature. Daniel 2 and 7 present history in four eras, at the end of which God would intervene. The pseudepigraphical books of 1Enoch and 2 Baruch employ 10 ages and 12 plus 2, respectively. This ordering demonstrates God's control especially when the world seems chaotic. Matthew presents three lots of 14 generations to show God's purposes will be fulfilled, despite exile and the world's ongoing evils. Perhaps that missing 14th generation in the last series indicates Matthew reading the period of the church into history. Since for Matthew, Jesus is "Emmanuel," "God with us" for eternity (1:21; 28:20), time has reached its culmination. And yet Matthew still can make time, as it were, for the Parousia, Jesus' return at the final judgment and the subsequent eternal period of peace and justice.

Second, although Matthew writes in Greek, the genealogy provides an example of Hebrew numerology (gematria ). In the Hebrew language, letters double as numbers, with each consonant having a numerical value. The number 14 is the sum of the 3 consonants in the name David: D + V + D = 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. The focus on David in verse 1 is reinforced by references to him in 1:1, 6 (twice), and 17 (twice). David was Israel's most famous king, and 2 Sam 7 promises to him a dynasty; Matthew introduces Jesus as a king (2:2) and Matthew proclaims that Rome crucifies Jesus as a king (27:11, 37, 42). David's kingdom represents God's reign in terms of justice for the poor and defense of the needy (see Ps 72), and throughout the gospel, people in need of healing address Jesus as "Son of David" (9:27-28; 15:22; 20:30-31). Only in Matthew's Gospel do we have the detail that Judas Iscariot hanged himself (27:5); his death matches that of Ahithophel, David's advisor who betrayed him (2 Sam 17:23). Thus Matthew's Jesus is a new David, announcing a kingdom (4:17) manifested in actions and words.

Matthew's genealogy also signals redactional interests by including five women: Tamar (1:3a; see Gen 38), Rahab (1:5; see Josh 2), Ruth (1:5; see Ruth), the wife of Uriah (1:6, the unnamed Bathsheba, 2 Sam 11–12), and Mary (1:16). The inclusion of women in a genealogy is not unique, and in the book that bears her name, Judith herself is accorded a genealogy tracing her ancestry back to Jacob's son Simeon (see Gn 4), but it is uncommon in antiquity to record women in genealogies, for descent was typically traced through male lines.

We can eliminate one old explanation, namely, that the women are included because they are sinners, guilty especially of sexual sins. Women have no monopoly on sin; the inclusion of David and Manasseh makes that clear. Moreover, Rahab is a model of faith (Heb 11:31), Tamar of righteousness (Gen 38:26), and Tamar is positively linked with Ruth (Ruth 4:12).

There are more likely explanations for the women's presence. One centers on their ethnic identity. Rahab was a Canaanite, as probably was Tamar. Ruth was a Moabite. Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite, and it is Uriah's name, not Bathsheba's, that Matthew records. Their inclusion shows the blessings promised through Abraham to all peoples. Abraham, a Gentile, was regarded as the first Hebrew, and so for Matthew's first-century readers, as the first Jew. Thus the women indicate that the message of God, for Matthew, is not restricted to Jews. However, since there is no evidence in Matthew (or history) that Mary was a Gentile, and since the Jewish tradition understood these women either to be Israelites or proselytes to Judaism, other explanations have been sought.


Excerpted from The New Testament by Warren Carter, Amy-Jill Levine. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents


1. Matthew,
2. Mark,
3. Luke,
4. John,
5. Acts,
6. Romans,
7. 1 Corinthians,
8. 2 Corinthians,
9. Galatians,
10. Ephesians,
11. Philippians,
12. Colossians,
13. 1 and 2 Thessalonians,
14. The Pastorals: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus,
15. Philemon,
16. Hebrews,
17. James,
18. 1 Peter,
19. 2 Peter and Jude,
20. 1, 2, and 3 John,
21. Revelation,

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