Scholar presents examination of Matthew


COLUMBIA — For the seventh annual address for the Nadine Beacham and Charlton F. Hall Sr. Visiting Lectureship in New Testament and Early Christianity, the Rev. Charles Talbert a distinguished professor of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, spoke on the Gospel of Matthew. He presented “Is Matthew a Legalist? Indicative and Imperative in Matthean Soteriology” at the University of South Carolina’s Russell House Ballroom on March 21.

Talbert, an international acclaimed New Testament scholar who has written 11 books, almost 100 articles and more than 100 book reviews, has served as president for the Catholic Biblical Association, National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, and the Southeastern and Southwestern regions of the Society of Biblical Literature.

His talk was more a defense of St. Matthew, who some scholars have said does not clearly link together the indicative action (God’s gift to humanity) with the imperative (divine demand) in his writing, being called a “legalist” by some of his contemporaries. The charge of legalism here means they feel Matthew, in his presentation of the Gospel, implied that “one gets into the covenant of God by works of law” as opposed to “grace and obeys the law thereafter out of gratitude.” Talbert believes the debate is better phrased by asking if Matthew’s ethics is a “legalistic covenantal nomism” (where “one gets in the covenant relation by grace and then stays in it by grace and gets into the age to come by works of law).”

Talbert is not alone in his defense of Matthew, other biblical scholars such as Hubert Frankemolle, David Kupp and W.C. van Unnik, have set out to show how Matthew does weave the indicative and imperative action of God by looking to the Old Testament reference of “God-with-us or in your midst.” Some examples given by Talbert that illustrate the connection of that phrase with the action of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament were Exodus 3:12, “God will be with Moses; Numbers 11:17, “the Spirit is upon Moses”; 1 Samuel 18:12,14, “the Lord was with David”; and 1 Samuel 16:13, “the Spirit came upon you.”

From these kinds of Old Testament phrases that appear more than 100 times in the texts, “one can see how God is present in Jesus (1:23); how Jesus is present with the disciples or in their midst; how this presence enables both church discipline (18:20) and mission (28:20),” according to Talbert.

Although this defense is a good one, it cannot be applied to all of Matthew’s text; so Talbert went further in showing the indicative by examining the narrative approach used by Matthew and giving one technique employed by that approach.

“Matthew begins and ends his Gospel with narratives that attest repeated divine breaks into human affair. Here God very much has the initiative and human response,” Talbert said, but added, “the main body of the Gospel that contains the five big teaching sections (chapters 5-25) is narrated in a different way.” Talbert proposes, as seen in the Old Testament and other New Testament passages, Matthew uses a narrative form where God is “omnipotence behind the scenes.”

The technique Talbert expounded on was the significance of “being with Jesus,” using the image of Jesus as teacher and king. He first examined what it meant to be called a teacher, a title that philosophers, sages, interpreters of Jewish law, prophets and seers all shared.

“The closest analogy to the teacher Jesus would have been a philosopher and his disciples,” explained Talbert. He said that a philosopher gathered his followers and they gained benefits from just being with their teacher, simply through their association with him.

Biblical and secular understanding of this association was well-documented by Talbert, who gave numerous examples and quotes that illustrated how “the disciples ‘being with’ Jesus speaks of more than their imitation of him.” For example, from the book, Rewards and Punishment, “to gaze continuously upon noble models imprint their likeness in souls which are not entirely hardened.”

In Matthew, the image of Jesus as king, also “enables the disciple to live a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20) because they were in the company of Jesus, one who fulfilled all righteousness (3:15).” Virtuous kings and rulers had historically been given certain transforming abilities over their subjects, which are noted by ancient writers such as Plutarch.

Matthew also illustrates clearly the divinity of Jesus that carries with it an even more profound meaning to “being with Jesus,” as did “being with God” in the Old Testament.

Talbert admits that although these justifications may be subtle, they still show the action of God working behind the scenes. “Matthew just uses a different conceptual repertoire. Surely he cannot be faulted for that!” concluded Talbert.