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Wise and Sagacious Vistas: The Past and Future of a Sapiential Reading of Matthew---


earliest memories of serious study of the Gospel of Matthew come from my time
in college at UNC.  There was this book
by a Harvard Professor name Krister Stendahl about the School of St. Matthew,
suggesting that it reflected a school setting, or production in a school.  Little did I realize then I would end up
studying with the man at Harvard some years later when I did my masters work in
the Boston
area.  What came to intrigue me most
about this little book by Stendahl full of big ideas was that it suggested that
scribes had something to do with the production of the Gospel of Matthew.  This was a germinal seed that has grown and
flowered over the years in the work of many Matthean scholars.  What is odd about this, is that in some ways
it has not changed the way scholars have view Matthew’s approach to the Mosaic
Law, or law in general.  But in light of
what we know about scribes it should have done so.  

Yes, there have
been, along the way, revelations that Matthew’s Gospel not only reflects scribal
practices, but more specifically the practices of sapiential scribes. One
thinks for example of the work done on Matthew 11 by Marshall Johnson, or
Elizabeth Johnson, or even Ulrich Luz to some extent.  There has been a recognition as well, however
grudging, that Jesus is, at least in some Matthean passages presented both as a
sage and as God’s Wisdom come in person, but the connection between this fact
and how the Law is presented and viewed in Matthew has seldom been made.  

When I wrote Jesus
the Sage,
some fifteen years ago now, as a sequel to my The Christology
of Jesus,
 what surprised me the most
was the paucity of consistent sapiential readings of so much of the NT, even
though it had long since been admitted that Wisdom literature, in tandem with,
and sometimes in combination with apocalyptic literature had become a dominant
train of thought in early Judaism by Jesus’ day, and indeed even before then.   It was hard to ignore the evidence of Wisdom
of Solomon or Sirach, but many scholars managed to do so, continuing to present
us with an anachronistic portrait of the Matthean Jesus, as if he were like
later post-70 A.D. rabbis with ‘talmudim’ in his teaching and use of the
Law.  Thankfully, Jacob Neusner managed
to convince most of us, that post-70 A.D. Judaism should not be read back into
pre-70A.D. Judaism willy- nilly, and especially not when it came to approaches
to the Law.

It is in light of
this culmination of studies of early Judaism, and Law in early Judaism and our
increasing knowledge about scribes and sages in early Judaism that I set about
to provide a comprehensive sapiential reading of the two Gospels which
naturally lent themselves to such a reading— Matthew and John.  I pursued this agenda by writing commentaries
on the two books, not least because I figured the inch worm approach would help
me avoid oversights or missing something that might be a problem for such a
reading.  These projects were undertaken
in the 1990s and the early part of this century, in the case of Matthew, with
interesting results. 

Had I to do it over
again, one thing I would certainly now do is take full advantage of the
landmark work of Karel van der Toorn on Scribal Culture and the Making of
the Hebrew Bible,
2007).  Had this work appeared soon
enough it would have provided far more ammunition for my thesis about scribes
and sages in regard to Matthew’s production and its presentation of Jesus as
the ultimate sage and God’s Wisdom.  
Going forward, someone needs to take full stock of this work for
Matthean studies.  Here I only have room
for a précis or brief summary of some of the things he says of relevance.  Lets start with a few basic assertions and

Firstly the
culture into which Jesus was born and which produced the Gospel of Matthew was
a Jewish oral culture.  Clearly, an oral
culture is a different world than a largely literate text based culture, and
texts function differently in such a world.  
All sorts of texts were simply surrogates for oral speech, and this
statement applies to most of the Biblical texts themselves, including Matthew’s

is hard for us to wrap our minds around it, but texts were scarce in the
Biblical world, and often were treated with great respect.  Since literacy was largely a skill only the
educated had, and the educated tended to be almost exclusively from the social
elite, texts in such a world served the purpose of the elite–conveying their
authority, passing down their judgments, establishing their property claims,
indicating their heredity and the like. 
But since all ancient people were profoundly religious, the most
important documents even among the elite were religious texts, sacred
texts.  And of course the most literate
of all in such a culture were scribes, whose stock and trade was the copying
and composing of documents.  We can make
a distinction between sages as the oral carriers and conveyors of the wisdom
tradition, and scribes who were the recorders and enhancers and consolidators
and preservers of such a tradition.  In
such a setting Law was viewed as part of the larger corpus of divine wisdom
which came from God.  Torah was revealed
by Wisdom to God’s people, and as wisdom for God’s people.  This becomes especially clear in a book like
Sirach, who far from dividing the Pentateuch from the Wisdom tradition, reads
the Pentateuch in light of, and as an expression of the Wisdom tradition.  This is a typical conservative scribal
approach, seeking to synthesis the tradition, or at least make it coherent and
consistent throughout.

            How then did a sacred text function
in an oral and rhetorical culture?  For
one thing it was believed that words, especially religious words, were not mere
ciphers or symbols.  They were believed
to have power and effect on people if they were properly communicated and
pronounced.  It was not just the sacred
names of God, the so-called nomina sacra, which were considered to have
inherent power, but sacred words in general.  
Consider for example what Isaiah 55.11 says: “so shall my word be that
goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall
accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to
do.”   The Word or words of a living and
powerful God, were viewed as living and powerful in themselves.[2]  You can then imagine how a precious and
expensive document, which contained God’s own words would be viewed.   It would be something that needed to be kept
in a sacred place, like a temple or a synagogue, and only certain persons, with
clean hands and a pure heart would be allowed to unroll the sacred scroll and
read it, much less interpret it. 

From what we can
tell, the texts of the NT books were treasured during the first century, and
were lovingly and carefully copied for centuries thereafter.  There is even evidence beginning in the
second century of the use of female Christian scribes who had a ‘fairer’ hand,
to copy, and even begin to decorate these sacred texts.[3]  But make no mistake–even such texts were seen
to serve the largely oral culture. Before the rise of modern education and
widespread literacy, it had always been true that “In the beginning was the
(spoken) Word.”[4]  All of this has implications for how we
should approach the NT, and especially a Gospel like Matthew, which was, from
what we can tell, by far the most popular Gospel in early Christian history,
and the most copied. How then would a better knowledge
of both the Jewish sapiential culture and scribal culture help us better
understand Matthew?  Consider for a
moment the remark of  Van der Toorn—

Our concept of the author as an
individual is what underpins our concern with authenticity, originality, and
intellectual property. The Ancient Near East had little place for such notions.
Authenticity is subordinate to authority and relevant only  inasmuch as it underpins textual authority;
originality is subordinate to the common stock of cultural forms and values….To
us it would seem wrong to credit an editor with the work of an author. The
author in our mind, is the intellectual source of the text, whereas an editor
merely polishes; the former is the creative genius, the latter merely the
technician. This distinction was obviously less important to the ancients. They
did not place the same value on originality. To them, an author does not invent
his text but merely arranges it; the content of the text exists first, before
being laid down in writing. [5]


It is the premise
of van der Toorn that scribes manufactured what Christians call the OT, and in
particular scribes in Jerusalem who were
employed by the Temple,
or perhaps in some case by the rulers who lived there. “They practiced their
craft in a time in which there was neither a trade in books nor a reading
public of any substance. Scribes wrote for scribes….The text of the Hebrew
Bible was not part of the popular culture. The Bible was born and studied in
the scribal workshop of the temple. In its fundamental essence, it was a book
of the clergy.” [6]  

While this thesis
certainly can be debated, let us assume for a minute it is true about the
OT.  This immediately raises the
possibility that the NT is something quite different than the OT in this
regard.  The NT seems, on the surface to
have been produced by and large by various non-Jerusalem persons who were not
themselves scribes. They seem on occasion to have used scribes such as Paul
used Tertius, but they do not seem to have been scribes, even in their
pre-Christian lives, with one possible exception— Matthew’s Gospel. 

When you have a
group of writings produced in a variety of places by a variety of persons, the
notion of central control of the sacred text, much less scribal control, would
seem to go right out the window.  Thus
while it can be argued that the story of the making of the OT portion of the
Bible can be said to be the story of the scribes behind the Bible,[7]
this thesis seems far less plausible, much less compelling when it comes to the
NT.   Yet van der Toorn is right to
emphasize the fact that prior to the Hellenistic era  (i.e. 300 B.C.) there seems to have been no
such thing as books, as we know them, nor a trade in books, nor a book buying
public. “Insofar as literature reached a larger audience, it was by way of oral

Scribes in antiquity
were not just secretaries copying documents. 
They were in addition the scholars of their world.  They were usually recruited from the upper
echelons of society, and far from just copying and preserving documents they
created and interpreted them as well. [9]  They were also the lawyers of their day,
which is to say the interpreters and adjudicators of the Law but they had a
variety of other functions as well. This becomes important not only to the
study of Jesus’ interchange with scribes and Pharisees in various places in
Galilee and Judea, but even more tellingly it becomes possibly important when
we are told in Acts 4-6 (see especially Acts 6.7) that various priests and
Levites in Jerusalem were converted to the following of Jesus. If this is true,
we may assume of course they brought with them not only their own literacy but
probably also various scribes with them. This would explain then the production
of some Christian documents in Jerusalem
by James for instance (see e.g. Acts 15.23, and perhaps also the letter of
James).  And this brings us to the
production of Matthew’s Gospel itself.   Who produced it and how? 

Firstly, scholars
have quite rightly pointed to Mt. 13.52 as a clue about the person who produced
this document. This saying follows the parable of the net, which speaks about
the sifting process necessary for fishermen, which leads to this saying about
the discerning teacher of the Law who brings out of his storeroom treasures
both old and new.  What is being
described here is scribal practice. It is possible that Jesus is referring to a
scribe schooled both in the OT and the new wisdom of the Kingdom, and so he is
able to produce both sorts of wisdom, comparing, contrasting, combining them.
Notice here the reference to ‘every scribe’, which likely includes our
Evangelist.  Just as Jesus is an example
of adopting and adapting old and new wisdom, written Torah wisdom and oral
wisdom, so also the Evangelist. Notice that Mt. 23.24 suggests that there were
scribes who were followers of Jesus.

Now it stands to
reason that this Evangelist is not expecting everyone in his audience to become
a scribe or scholar, only those like the Evangelist himself who was a converted
scribe, perhaps one who formerly worked for the Pharisees or Sadducees or both.
  Possibly then the Evangelist has
included this saying and the parable before it as a justification or
legitimization of how he has put his Gospel together, critically sifting,
weighing, limiting, combining OT material with the Jesus tradition.  This saying of course comes at the very end
of the third discourse in Matthew and at a climactic position after a
considerable discussion of discipleship. 
It suggests that one form of discipleship was continuing one’s scribal
activities in the service of the Gospel and the Kingdom it spoke of.  And this brings us back to the school of St. Matthew notion of Stendahl’s.

The rise to
prominence of the already extant Hellenistic schools used to train scribes in
how best to use papyrus and scrolls coincides with the rise of the Roman empire, an enterprise which required many documents
and long paper trails.  And Jews realized
they needed to respond to the propaganda of the Republic and Empire, especially
once they became a conquered and dominated people.  So it is of interest for our study that there
was a rise of Jewish schools in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Already around
180 B.C. we hear of the school of Ben Sira (Sir. 51.23), and one Talmudic text tells us
there were some 480 schools in Jerusalem
alone (J.T. Meg. 73b). Doubtless this is an exaggeration even in the
post-second Temple
era, but there is no reason to doubt there were many such schools. Van der
Toorn stresses “These Jewish schools arose in part in response to the
Hellenistic policy of establishing Greek schools in conquered territories. As
the tuition fee for the schools was substantial (Sir. 51.28) formal education
was restricted to the well-to-do. Under the guidance of their teachers,
students could familiarize themselves with the classics–Homer in the Greek
schools; the Law and the Prophets in Ben Sira’s bet midras (Sir. 39.1-3).”  
Furthermore, it was possible for a Greek-speaking Jew like Paul or a
‘Matthew’ to get training in rhetoric in Jerusalem
itself. We must not underestimate the extent of Hellenization in the Holy Land and the length it had had its effect on early
Judaism before we reach the time of the production of NT documents.[10]

Scribes did not
generally see themselves as modern authors would. They saw themselves as the
midwives of an ongoing process, their job being to deliver to the next
generation the current and previous wisdom. 
When they produced documents, they were of course not mere editors, but
they did not see themselves as authors either. They would ascribe their
documents to their patrons, or their most famous sources.  This, I would suggest, is exactly what we
find in the First Gospel.  Assembled by a
scribe, possibly in a Jewish school setting in Galilee or Antioch, much as the Didache probably was,
the most famous source for this Gospel was an important, literate early apostle
named Matthew. Possibly the special M material in this Gospel and/or possibly
the so-called Q material went back to him and his own assembling of Gospel
traditions.  And so the final composer
and editor of this document ascribed the Gospel to its most famous
contributor–not Mark the non-apostle non-eyewitness who was the other notable
source for this document.  But rather
Matthew himself.



There is much more
that could be said along these lines, and many good dissertations are waiting
to be written about reading Matthew in light of sapiential literature and early
scribal practices but I must conclude with a few final comments.  Firstly, I think we have been thinking about
the issues of authorship, when it comes to the Gospels, in the wrong way, and
without regard to the probable social contexts out of which such composite
documents arose–a scribal context. 
Rethinking is needed.  Secondly,
it is a consummation devoutly to be wished that some scholars would pursue more
extensively than I could in my Matthew commentary the fact that the whole of
this Gospel is a sapiential take on the Jesus tradition, not just containing
wisdom’s bits and pieces from the words of Jesus.  If we want to unlock the treasuries of this
Gospel and produce things of lasting value, then we need to approach its
treasures like the wise men of old. 
Thirdly,  a sapiential reading of
this Gospel unveils how Jesus is presented as both sage and Wisdom throughout
this Gospel, not just here and there. 
The Emmanuel theme frames this Gospel with good reason. 

Fourthly, the
approach to Torah in this Gospel is like unto the approach of that earlier
Jesus- Jesus ben Sira, which is to say that Law is viewed as a part of, and in
light of the larger Wisdom tradition, which had already been combined with the
apocalyptic tradition, such that there was both revelatory wisdom that came
down from above, but also wisdom to be learned from studying nature and human
nature.   Indeed, Law is viewed as part
of the new covenant, for this Evangelist is not just suggesting that Moses’ is
reaffirmed for the new community.  To the
contrary, some of Moses has been fulfilled and is finished, some of it has been
carried over into the new covenant, and some of the new covenant wisdom is
indeed new. In Mt. 13.52 we also find then an eschatological hermeneutic that
reveals how the Law was approached in an early Jewish Christian community.  Jesus is not viewed as merely the prophet
like unto Moses who fulfills the Law.  He
is Wisdom come in the flesh, and with new and sometimes radically new things to
say.  He offers six discourses when Moses
only offered five, he not merely delivers them from Pharaoh, he saves them from
sin, which is why Matthew suggests that the sagacious should still seek
him.  If we will pursue some of these
leads more carefully and thoroughly, we scribes of the twenty-first century
will have a chance to bring out of our own storeroom, something old, something
new, something borrowed, and something true.[11]


Dr. Ben Witherington, III
Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary
Wilmore Ky.
Doctoral Faculty St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews University, Scotland





[1] On
levels of literacy and the creation of ancient texts see Harry Y. Gamble’s Books
and Readers in the Early
Church. A History of
Early Christian Texts
,  (New Haven: Yale U. Press,
1995),  pp. 1-41.

[2] See my The
Living Word of God
,  (Baylor Press,

[3] See K.
Haines-Etzen, Guardians of Letters, (Oxford:
U. Press, 2000).

[4] It is
interesting that an important literate figure like Papias of Hierapolis who
lived at the end of the NT era repeatedly said that he preferred the living
voice of the apostle or one who had heard the eyewitnesses to a written document.
In this he simply reflected the normal attitude of ancient peoples, literate or

[5] K. van
der Toorn, Scribal Culture, (Harvard, 2007), pp. 47-48.

[6] Van der
Toorn, Scribal Culture, p. 2.

[7] IBID.

[8] Van der
Toorn, p. 5.

[9] Van der
Toorn, p. 6.

[10] Van der
Toorn, p. 24.

[11] See in
detail B. Witherington, Matthew, (Smyth and Helwys, 2006).

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