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- Published on Amazon.com
In the world of Biblical Studies Graham Stanton requires little introduction. His accolades are impressive, to say the least. He was a long time professor at King’s College London (21 years) and held the esteemed Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge for near a decade. He served as President of the prestigious Society of New Testament Studies and was a long-term editor of its journal, New Testament Studies. And if you don’t feel dwarfed yet, he also served as a long-term editor of the celebrated International Critical Commentary Series (personally overseeing a dozen volumes). This formal introduction only scratches the surface of the productivity and quality of Stanton’s work. He published countless articles and numerous books, rightly becoming recognized as one of the heavy weight New Testament scholars of the late 20th century.
In honor of both the man and the scholar, Markus Bockmuehl and David Lincicum have put together a fine collection of 26 of Stanton’s most prominent essays. Though they center on the Gospel of Matthew, many more issues related to the New Testament and the first few Christian generations are given treatment. For example, a substantial unit of seven essays deals with “Justin Martyr and Early Jewish-Christian Encounters”. All those interested in the development of orthodoxy and the formation of early Christian identity will glean many keen insights from Stanton’s research. Particularly impressive was his cumulative case for recognizing ‘God-Fearers’ as a legitimate, if not somewhat fluid, category.
The seven chapters dealing with Stanton’s primary subject matter, the Gospel of Matthew, offer a wide-range of provocative discussions. Of great interest to me was Stanton’s argument for Matthew as the first Evangelist to understand his work as a “Gospel”. Thus, if Stanton is correct, it is very early on in the Christian movement that a distinct literary genre is crafted. Which, following Hurtado, lends evidence to early Christian (scribal?) devotion. Stanton also treats the important question of the Matthean community. He suggests that Matthew’s community has, at the time of the Gospel’s writing, had parted ways with the synagogue, and that it was now viewed as an “alien institution” (pp. 110). One that was perceived as a “continuing threat of hostility and persecution” (pp. 112). Yet, we can also infer “that the evangelist and the recipients of his Gospel were also at odds with the gentile world” (pp. 112). Thus, Matthew’s church holds an ambiguous position – ambivalent toward both non-believing Jews and Gentile pagans. Stanton sums it up well when he says,
The Matthean communities, just like Pauline and Johannine communities, had an ambivalent attitude toward society at large: They were committed to the task of evangelism “to all nations,” but saw themselves as a group distinct from the “alien” world at large. (pp. 113)
Some of Stanton’s more speculative claims I find questionable, however, overall he is a very reasonable and judicious scholar, choosing modesty over innovative conjecture. While the press may find this sort of modesty unappealing, I admire its honesty and faithfulness to the text.
Lastly, there is a chunk of essays dealing with general matters in New Testament studies at large. Stanton’s essay on “Presuppositions in New Testament Criticism”, following Gadamer, defends a mediating position between a radical, nihilistic hermeneutic and a naïve, Modern stance. A position that has found wide acceptance today (near identical to the “Critical realism” espoused by Meyer). Stanton also mounts a strong, if not dated, case against form-criticism – exposing many of the faulty assumptions foundational to the whole approach.
Perhaps my favorite essay in this portion of the collection was Stanton’s “The Gospel Traditions and Early Christological Reflection” (one of four essays treating Christology). This quote won my applause:
If then, the primitive church included a sketch of the character of Jesus in its preaching, it had a stake in transmitting and using traditions which it understood as referring to the past of Jesus; it was also much more aware of the distinction between the ‘past’ and the ‘present’ of Jesus than many scholars have recently argued, and it was therefore less likely to confuse its own understanding and experience of the risen Christ with its account of who Jesus of Nazareth was. (pp. 206)
While Stanton’s assumption that we can get to an unmediated Jesus is problematic, I resonate deeply with his concluding comments,
But we may be sure that traditions about the life and character of Jesus played an important part not only in the preaching of the primitive church, but also in its Christological reflection: both began with Jesus of Nazareth. (pp. 208)
Many of the essays have gone unmentioned here, however, the examples should assure readers that they all achieve a high level of scholarship. The collection is consistently erudite and stimulating. Students of the Gospels and Christian Origins will be fortunate to get their hands on this volume.
Bockmuehl and Lincicum have offered a great tribute to an even greater scholar.
(The price is incredibly unfortunate - availability will be limited to libraries)
NOTE: This book was recieved free of charge in exchange for an honest review.