This commentary was originally published in 1999 under the title, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. It was updated and republished in 2009 as part of Ben Witherington’s socio-rhetorical commentary series. Socio-rhetorical analysis is a fairly recent addition to New Testament studies (mid- to late-20th century), which offers a multifaceted approach to understanding a text and its context. Often a number of different disciplines (sociology, rhetorical, historical etc.) chime in to help students of Scripture come to grips with the text.
Craig Keener’s commentaries are especially valuable on matters of historical background, and this commentary on Matthew is no exception. If you are teaching a Bible class on the gospel of Matthew or you are interested in historical information pertaining to the setting of Scripture within the ancient world, then this is the commentary for you. Keener displays extensive knowledge of both Greco-Roman and Rabbinic literature. The reader will find helpful background material on Roman centurions (264-265), tax collectors (291-292), the coin with Caesar’s inscription (524-525), the trial of Jesus (644-673), and the crucifixion of Jesus (677-680). This material could be especially beneficial for the thoughtful Lutheran pastor, who is preparing his Lenten preaching and devotional life.
After summarizing the evidence we have on Galilee’s economy during the time of Jesus, Keener offers this insight on the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35): “the poor man owes the king more money than existed in circulation in the whole country at that time!” (458-459). “The parable emphasizes that no one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God. The parable accordingly underlines the magnitude of God’s forgiveness” (458).
Some have explained Jesus’ famous saying that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24), as referring to a very small gate. Keener has exhaustively studied all the ancient sources. He finds no evidence of any such gate. “Some commentators speculate that ‘the needle’s eye’ referred to a low gate in Jerusalem peasant homes into which a camel could enter if it cast off its load; there is no evidence, however, for such a gate, and a ‘needle’s eye’ meant then essentially what it means today” (477).
Background material is valuable, but the reader needs to decide which background material is actually relevant to the text. In a few rare instances, I felt that Keener suggested background material which was not relevant to the text or the conclusion was dubious. For example, Keener says that when John the Baptist calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7), “Matthew may allude to a fairly widespread ancient view that vipers were mother killers” (122). By “calling them ‘offspring of vipers,’” John the Baptist “accused them of killing their own mothers, indicating the utmost moral depravity” (122-123). I remain skeptical whether that particular picture was in John the Baptist’s or Matthew’s mind.
The value of Keener’s commentary, however, goes beyond mere historical background. He also makes helpful observations about the text itself. In one instance Keener notices the significance of the fact that it was Joseph of Arimathea, rather than Jesus’ own disciples, who buried his body in Matthew 27:57-61. “The identities of the actors in this narrative are significant. Because John’s disciples took great risk and buried their teacher (14:12), the reader may expect at least as much courage from Jesus’ disciples here… But Jesus’ disciples disappoint us, leaving the task to characters readers would not anticipate apart from having heard the story before” (688). A preacher who is preaching on the gospel of Matthew could profitably read Keener on the pericope appointed for that Sunday. Interacting with a commentary of this quality spurs the preacher on in his own thoughtful analysis. Another helpful feature for preachers is that Keener lists the main points of each passage and highlights them in bold.
At several points in the commentary Keener displays his genuine Christian faith. Sometimes commentaries of this academic caliber have a low view of the historical reliability of the miracles reported in the text. By contrast, Keener believes strongly in the supernatural and miraculous nature of Jesus’ ministry. He clearly believes that Jesus really did calm the storm in Matthew 8:23-27 (278). He also affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an historical fact (713).
In a few places I did disagree with Keener’s interpretation of a passage. One of those places is Keener’s interpretation of the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. Keener writes: “That the bread ‘is’ his body means that it ‘represents’ it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3… : ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt’” (631).
Lutheran pastors will respectfully disagree with Keener here. The earliest interpretation of the words of institution is Paul’s inspired explanation of them in 1 Corinthians 10-11. Only the Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence accounts for everything Paul says about the Lord’s Supper: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). “So then, whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).
That disagreement aside, this commentary is a treasure chest of information. Keener presents a masterful combination of the highest academic learning and an unashamed Christian faith. A pastor who has this volume on his shelf and goes back to it year after year as he preaches and teaches the gospel according to Matthew will never stop learning from this commentary.
Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. His other books include Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts and Acts: An Exegetical Commentary.