Dr. David L. Turner, professor of New Testament here at GRTS, will participate in a panel called “Matthew Within Judaism” at the upcoming meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. He will be in conversation with other scholars who study the relationship between Israel and the Church in the Bible, which informs Jewish-Christian relations today. We asked Dr. Turner about his work in this area and about its importance for contemporary Christian practice.
AK: What is it about Matthew’s Gospel, and the current interpretive landscape, that gives rise to this conversation?
DLT: Matthew and John are generally understood to be the most Jewish of the Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew in particular insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel, especially of its history and law, but it also emphasizes how Jesus came into sharp conflict with Israel’s entrenched hierarchy and how this led to his crucifixion.
Through the centuries, many in the church have understood this as proof that God was done with Israel, and that the church was now the sole people of God (see, supersessionism/replacement theology)—that the Church replaced Israel. Matthew as a whole, especially Matthew 23 and Matthew 27:25, was often interpreted to support that theology. Happily, a good number of recent scholars have taken a different view.
AK: You recently published a major work titled “Israel’s Last Prophet: Jesus and the Jewish Leaders in Matthew 23” (Fortress, 2015). How does your work, and this project, contribute to this conversation?
DLT: My book stems from my studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, a school that trains rabbis for reform Judaism and also provides M.A. and Ph.D. programs for interfaith students. I thought HUC was the best of settings for studying Matthew 23. In the book I trace Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a Jewish prophet, indeed as Israel’s ultimate prophet. His denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees is founded in the woe oracles of the Old Testament. Far from being an outsider announcing Israel’s end, Jesus is calling, like all the biblical prophets before him, for Israel’s repentance and renewal. My session at SBL will explore how Matthew conceives the future relationship of Israel, the Gentiles, and the church.
AK: How does Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus contribute to a biblical theology of Israel?
DLT: What did the angel mean when he said to Joseph, “he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 2:21)? Who are the people of God? According to Matthew, many who have Abraham’s DNA will ultimately not be regarded as God’s people, and many who do not have it will be so regarded (Matt 3:9; 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 21:31-32; 28:19-20). All of Israel’s prophets, including Israel’s ultimate prophet Jesus, called upon Israel to return to the law of Moses, the Torah. At the core of his ministry is Jesus’ call for Israel to repent, and he also opened the kingdom to Gentiles (Matt 4:15-16; 12:21; cf. Isa 9:1; 42:1-7; 49:6). Those original Jewish followers of Jesus became the nucleus of the church from all the nations.
AK: How does this conversation relate to the one taking place within Pauline studies?
DLT: The current “new perspective on Paul” attempts to understand Paul in his own original setting without reading medieval and reformation controversies back into his letters. We do not have to agree with all the conclusions of scholars who identify with the new perspective in order to appreciate their emphasis on understanding Paul historically. As a faithful Jew, Paul was not attempting to start a new religion for Gentiles.
Rather, he understood himself to be at the vanguard of a new move of God which renewed Israel and extended the blessings of Abraham to the Gentiles through the gospel of Jesus (Gen 12:1-3; Rom 4). Paul’s apparent criticisms of the law in books like Galatians are not directed against the law in its own right but against Paul’s opponents who mistakenly wanted Gentile followers of Jesus to observe the law in order to be assimilated into the Jewish-Christian congregations.
AK: It seems that this project would have some significant implications for contemporary Christian practice. What are some of those?
DLT: First, this understanding of Matthew ought to encourage Christians to read and appreciate the Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus. All too often Christians neglect the OT due to a well-intentioned but mistaken view of “law and grace.” Matthew presents Jesus as the one who came to fulfill (not cancel!) the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17-48; 28:20). Studies such as this also caution Christians against viewing the Jewish people as God-forsaken, replaced by the church. Such a view is tantamount to, or at least complicit with the racial bigotry of anti-Semitism. Rather, Israel is the source of the church, or, put another way, the church is an extension of Israel, reflecting God’s plan to bless all nations through a descendant of Abraham (Matt 1:1; 28:19).
Paul also spoke concerning these things, warning Christians not to view the Jews arrogantly (Rom 11:17-21) and teaching that the church now shares in the prophetic promises originally given to the Jews (Eph 2:11-22). More positively, the cliché “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” is absolutely correct! The largely Gentile church of today owes its existence to the original twelve Jewish apostles of Jesus. Ultimately, this is a lesson that the church must be global in vision, mission, and congregational life, offering the gospel to all people and assimilating them in congregations that include, as much as possible, “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9; cf. Matt 28:19-20; Gal 3:28).
ABOUT DAVID TURNER
Dr. David Turner is professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He completed his Ph.D. studies at Hebrew Union-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. Dr. Turner has published numerous articles and books, including two commentaries on Matthew, one in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series (2008) and the other in the Tyndale Cornerstone Biblical Commentary series (2006). His most recent book is “Israel’s Last Prophet: Jesus and the Jewish Leaders in Matthew 23” (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).