John Nolland’s Matthew (NIGTC) reviewed
At a time when the study of Greek is being curtailed in many schools of theology, we hope that the NIGTC will demonstrate the continuing value of studying the Greek New Testament and will be an impetus in the revival of such study.
This is a welcome series to those who want assistance in making good sense of the Greek text.
R.T. France’s volume in NIGTC (Mark) is not only one of my favorite commentaries of all time; it’s one of my favorite books. (I note it briefly here.) And Paul Ellingworth’s Hebrews volume greatly helped me through an exegesis course covering that epistle.
This is how Nolland describes his commentary:
My central concern in this commentary is with the story Matthew has to tell and how he tells it. Though the reader will recognise that I have been influenced by some scholarly methods more than by others, my work is committedly eclectic.
In other words, Nolland looks at Matthew via redaction criticism, language, rhetorical criticism, and more. Though the series does not seek to be devotional, per se, and though NIGTC Matthew is not an application commentary, Nolland is consistently sensitive to the broader context of Matthew and his aims. (Nolland says he cares about “a close reading of the inner logic of the unfolding text.”)
Nolland’s Introduction to Matthew
The introduction includes the following sections (the bullet points below are all the author’s words):
- authorship of the Gospel
- the sources for the Gospel
- the prehistory of the sources
- the date and provenance of the Gospel
- the kind of document the Gospel intends to be
- the state of the Greek text of the Gospel
- aspects of the author’s narrative technique
- the Gospel’s use of the OT and of other Jewish tradition
- and the theology of the Gospel of Matthew.
Like R.T. France, Nolland would rather elaborate on certain points in the body of the commentary itself, which makes the introduction accordingly shorter. I experienced this as a relief, because (a) I could get into the commentary itself sooner and (b) when primarily coming to the commentary with a specific passage in mind, I found quite a bit of substance in the commentary proper, without having to go back to the introduction.
That Matthew was actually the author of this Gospel seems to Nolland to be “most unlikely,” though I would have liked to see more support for Nolland’s conclusion. He doesn’t offer much. The “majority” (though not all) of sourcing for Matthew is attributed to “Mark and Q materials.” Refreshingly, Nolland has this to say about the idea of a historical Jesus:
These considerations do, however, suggest that we may have considerable confidence that the Jesus with whom the Gospels connect us is, and is in detail, the Jesus who actually operated in Palestine in the first century and not some mythical construct. The Gospel writers and those who supplied them their raw materials wanted people to get in touch with Jesus because of his potential significance for them, but they would feel no need to apologise for failing to meet all the needs of our historical curiosity.
Though aware of Gentiles, too, “Matthew writes for Jewish Christians who are very conscious of their Jewish identity.” Nolland writes, “Matthew seems to have understood himself to be creating a foundational text to which people would feel the need to return again and again.”
Nolland on Matthew’s Use of the OT
There is more of note in the introduction, but “Matthew’s Use of the OT” is probably the most exceptional section. It details both (a) what text forms Matthew might have had and (b) how he used them. Nolland lists 14 (!) “different approaches to the generation of the wording of the quotations.” And yet, amid the detail, he can conclude:
Though some of Matthew’s text forms come to him straight from the Gospel tradition, the overall impression is of a man who freshly scrutinises, at least on many occasions, the OT texts to which he appeals, and is able to do so in Greek, Hebrew (not always the Hebrew of the preserved MT), and occasionally in Aramaic. When it suits him to do so, he produces translations that reflect influence along more than one track of tradition.
Nolland then identifies eight different ways in which Matthew uses the OT. This section of the commentary alone is worth half the price of the commentary. A nearly 20-page “Annotated Structural Outline of Matthew” at the end of the introduction is quite impressive (and maybe even worth the other half of the price of the commentary).
The Author’s Translation of Matthew
Nolland admits that his translation of Matthew (located at the beginning of each section) “may at times be wooden,” and this woodenness is noticeable in a number passages. For example, the genealogy reads: “Abraham produced Isaac; Isaac produced Jacob….” Nolland acknowledges the “unfortunately impersonal and nonbiological” implications of that translation. Indeed, a better word is needed.
And for the Beatitudes (where the Greek μακάριος is admittedly difficult to translate), he has, “Good fortune now to….” I liked the “now” part of this (it carries an “implied sense of immediacy”), but the more traditional “blessed” still seems to leave room in English for the divine blesser, who should be kept in view here. “Good fortune now” seems to miss that.
Finally, the regular use of brackets in the translation made it read even less fluidly than it already did in places. As in: “It is no more fitting that people should light a lamp and put it under the peck measure; rather, [they put it] on the lampstand, and it shines out for all in the house.”
The above is all to say: a more readable translation would not have compromised Nolland’s aims in producing a fairly literal rendering of the Greek. It wasn’t an enormous distraction from a well-written commentary, but it stood out, nonetheless.
The Commentary Proper
It would be impossible for Nolland to be comprehensive at every turn. There were some Greek words or passages of Matthew where I had hoped for more detail, but on the whole, Nolland is thorough.
For instance, in the narrative of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4, Nolland writes of verse 1:
The opening ‘then’, the role of the Spirit, and the Son of God language to come in vv. 2 and 6 create a strong link between 4:1–11 and 3:13–17.
Because of the agency of the devil (and the specific temptations to come) πειρασθῆναι has been translated ‘to be tempted’, but there is in fact a play on the two senses of the πειραζ- root: ‘test’ or ‘tempt’.
This commentary matches literary sensitivity and Greek analysis with conclusions that can easily lead the reader to application. In the same passage: “[T]he devil suggests that sonship is a privilege to be exploited, that Jesus should use his opportunities to see to his own needs.”
Nolland often presents multiple scholarly interpretations of a given passage before offering his own–and even then, he does it humbly (though not unconvincingly). In the Beatitudes, for instance, he notes 11 different understandings of “poor” and four different understandings of “in spirit” for Matthew 5:3. One gets the sense that the author is just as interested in historical interpretation of given passages as he is with his own. This is a good thing.
Despite the technical nature of the commentary (which I appreciated), the writing style is engaging and accessible, even inspiring in places. I loved this:
Jesus proclaims the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven. God now intends to establish afresh his rule among his people. If people are to be ready for this development, then repentance is urgent. Only a fundamental change of life direction will match the needs of the moment.
The bibliographies are a gold mine. One wonders if there’s any journal article or monograph on Matthew that Nolland hasn’t examined. Even so, he says in his preface that he had to trim his listing to accommodate the requirements of the editors!
My critique of the author’s translation notwithstanding, Nolland’s Matthew is a magnificent work, probably even one of the very first places one should go when doing in-depth study of Matthew’s text. Nolland does not disappoint in his technical analysis of words and passages, and yet he somehow is able to keep the Gospel as a whole before him and the reader as he expounds on its component parts. The reader cannot help but be impressed throughout the commentary, both with Nolland, and with Matthew’s Gospel which he describes.