Matthew’s world: locating the text historically and socially

In Ian Boxall’s work, Matthew’s world: locating the text historically and socially, he goes to discover the various thoughts concerning the historical atmosphere and the social setting of Matthew’s audience. Considering that theories in the realm of Sacred Scripture are just that, Boxall provides the arguments and the “evidence” that support various scholars. Some claim the question of “status” in regards to the community to which Matthew is writing; whether or not the community is within the confines of the larger Jewish community, or outside the realm, classifying them as almost “reformers” in opposition. These particular scholars, to whom Boxall refers, point to the Sacred Text in order to derive plausible evidence for, let’s say, the “hostility” of the Blessed Lord toward the Pharisees. Conclusions, such as this, lead the reader to think that Matthew is “crafting” his work to fit the experience of these “outcast” Jews.

            I found the article rather static in it’s approach to the Gospel of Matthew. It seemed to place a excessive focus on the questions of time and place, but seemingly not taking into account that, as Hebrews 4:12 states, “the word of God is living and effective” today! (RSV) Are we seeking to be kerygmatic, or in our endeavors in academia, do we end up divesting the scriptures to the bare historical context, by which we begin to read the words on the page as a mere “letter” to first century Palestinians? Yes, the text was written at a particular time in a specific place, however Matthew’s Gospel is the proclaimed Word of God. What did the Word speak to them? What does the Word speak to us? That’s the question.

Parables of Jesus

Chapter 7 of Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth highlights the timeless and multilayered nature of Jesus’ parables.  The depth of meaning in each parable is often elusive and cannot be definitively commented upon by any one method of biblical exegesis.  Many scholars have attempted to produce a definitive formula for reading Jesus’ parables, but the depth and multiplicity of senses in the parables continually breaks any artificial mold.  Ratzinger claims that the central purpose of the parables was to open up listeners to a “hidden and multilayered invitation to faith in Jesus as the ‘Kingdom of God in person.’”

 I enjoyed this chapter because Ratzinger successfully debunks several attempts among scholars to reduce Jesus’ parables to a one dimensional, innocuous interpretation.  He does this by revealing several dimensions of meaning found in the three parables in Luke.  First, he shows the complexity of the characters in each parable and what can be learned from each character.  Secondly, he demonstrates how each parable challenges and calls to conversion both his contemporaries as well as modern readers today.  Finally, he shows how purposefully Jesus transforms Jewish images and motifs to draw his hearers into an encounter with Him as the fulfillment of what they believe. Ratzinger’s exegesis demonstrates how Jesus’ parables prevent a reductionist approach because they all point to the mystery of Himself as their primary lesson.

Characters and Places in Matthew’s Story

            Seeing the Gospel of Matthew as narrative requires an understanding of the effects of setting and characters, starting from the ever-present main character, God, to the crowds and minor characters whose main significance is their interaction with the main protagonist who is Jesus Christ. Noteworthy, just as Jesus has two natures, so does his story. Looking at the supernatural elements of the Gospel of Matthew, Satan enters in order to tempt Jesus while the angels deliver messages throughout the stories from his birth to the Resurrection. Then, looking at the natural world, the political and religious leaders acted as mirror images of Satan with their collective evil as they accused Jesus of blasphemy and murdered other characters involved with Jesus’ mission, including John the Baptist and the holy innocents. The disciples, on the other hand, worked as extensions of Jesus’ mission as they preached and enjoyed the authority given to them, though they often struggled with their faith. Even the places where all this action took place connects the reader to a better understanding of Jesus’ mission, particularly the references to the stormy sea where the reader can notice how symbolically the sea represents chaos, and the shore is where we find peace, receiving the Word of the Lord.

            This selection brought to me a whole new light with which to read and understand the Gospel of Matthew, seeing how the characters work as literary tools telling the story of salvation. I can better see how the stories come together in order to communicate the faith and how we as readers may respond.  

The Sermon on the Mount (Benedict XVI, Chapter 4)

Great stories stay with people, and some may even find their way deep into the hearts of the hearers. The fifth chapter in the Gospel of Matthew focuses on the freedom and happiness found in living out the Beatitudes. Jesus teaches the very truths of discipleship that fulfill the precepts of the Old Testament as well as the longings of the human heart. This great teaching is known as the Sermon on the Mount.

There is a close connection between the Old Testament and the person of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, He portrays Jesus as the New Moses, the intimate intermediary between God and His people, who speaks directly with God and for God. The mountain, like Mount Sinai, is the very place for encounter and union with the Father. The place of Christ’s personal prayer becomes the pulpit for this great teaching.

Even more wonderful, the prayer of Jesus before the Father involves each of us, for all of humanity is held within the heart of Christ. Pope Benedict writes, “The individual Beatitudes are the fruit of this looking upon the disciples… They are poor, hungry, weeping men; they are hated and persecuted.”[1] And this brings every Christian closer to Christ, for He becomes poor and persecuted. In this way, the Beatitudes allow mankind to see things through the eyes of God, who teaches that love is not self-seeking; but rather, it is an emptying and exodus out of oneself.

Although I found Pope Benedict’s presentation of the Beatitudes unsystematic, he does show how each one is interconnected with the other. They all converge in Christ. The kind of love called for in the Sermon on the Mount is costly, because it is the Cross of Jesus. It seems to me that such an astonishing lesson awakens the stubborn heart to its deepest desire, namely Christ Himself.    

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 71.

Chapter five “The Lord’s Prayer”

The chapter entitled “The Lord’s prayer” is part of the first volume in Doubleday’s first edition of the three-part work, entitled Jesus of Nazareth (May 2007), by Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Bishop emeritus of the city of Rome. The time frame for this volume (I) includes Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with Christ’s baptism of the Jordan up to and including the Transfiguration of the Lord. This book too advanced to be considered an introduction to the New Testament studies, nor would one study Jesus of Nazareth without someone prior knowledge of Christology. That said any reader might gain spiritual fruit from this theological literary vineyard. My comments here are based on a cursory reading of a review in Booklist:

The passage discussed in each chapter are interpreted within the prophetic context fo the continuous document that contains them, the Bible. The meanings of Jesus’s words, deeds, and person are always educed with the aid and understanding of the religious thought and practice of the preceding Hebrew Scriptures. (Olson, Ray Copyright © American Library Association. All right reserved).[i]

Benedict’s approaches the Lord’s prayer from the Matthean perspective: Jesus’ audience already know how to pray; it needs to experience prayer daily, integrally. Jesus, the new Rabbi, calls the Israel of old to new ways of approaching Yahweh in prayer; now they have permission to call God “Father,” “Abba.” Thus  the Pope is our 21st-century rabbi/philosopher who tells us to approach God heart, mind, and soul.

There are two ideas that are constant through the Chapter. One the importance of being in a constant communication with God through prayer. Following the example of Jesus, and that the result of prayer is, as he writes “overcomes all boundaries, and make us one family” (Ratzinger p.141). Ratzinger shows the Our Father to be a progressive prayer, with a structure, an introduction, and seven petitions. This structure gives readers, the idea that the author would like to let us know that this prayer comes from Jesus who is in constant communication with the Father. We the readers who desire to pray, have to let Christ pray in and through us, this means that the act of prayer comes from the individual and leads to the communal., to daily experience: I am not alone in this Journey a journey that leads us “Our Father/ not simply my Father, who is in Heaven.

Forever a teacher, forever a pastor, Benedicts provides two things here: a chapter of instruction; a chapter of inspiration. The author’s attitude/tone in Jesus of Nazareth is scholarly and pastoral: he desires, more than anything else, that his students, readers, parishioners grow in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. Our author hails from the Post-Vatican II Church of a more open, yet more scholarly approach to scripture and spirituality, honed from his association with thinkers like Karl Rahner and Has Kung.  



Jesus of Nazareth Chapter 2: the Temptation in the Desert

In chapter 2 of Pope Benedict XIV’s Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict talks of the temptations that Jesus face and how they correspond with our own faith. He tells us how at the heart of it all, the concept of placing God as secondary in our lives is the central point of these and all temptations. He then goes on, telling how in the first temptation, the turning of stone into bread, is done in both the multiplication of loaves and the Last Supper because of the belief of the people who pined for God. He then discusses the importance of proper Scriptural interpretation via the second temptation, telling how misinterpretation of the Scripture misinterprets who God is, thus pushing him aside. Finally, by way of the last temptation, we see how all that the devil offers, no matter how glamorous it may be, it will fade away, as all earthly things do, and that the only thing that will last is the heavenly kingdom. I found it to be a fantastic read. Never before had I considered the premises that the temptations Jesus encountered could have so much meaning globally; rather, I had seen them being each person’s own struggle with faith. Yet, Pope Benedict XVI show they are both at the same. If you have the chance, I recommend that you read it too.

Imprisoned but still ministering

In chapter 12 we begin with an explanation of what a life in chains was like for Paul in Rome.  We are told of a life that is much more like what might imagined for a guest in bondage than a criminal locked into a dungeon and forgotten.  People regularly came and went, discussions were had about how and what the young church should be doing, and letters were sent giving directions and guidance.  During his confinement he was chained to one guard during the day and two at night.  The author asserts that these guards might have even been an aid to spreading the faith throughout Rome. 

               Through his letters Paul extorts the various communities to show unity, especially in Paul’s absence.  He asks them to greet all fellow Christians with respect, and to show courtesy and respect even when they feel someone has slighted them.  He also addresses’ questions on the nature of Christ and the angels, affirming that Christ is above the angels since they proceeded from him in the creation of the world.  Throughout his confinement he repeats his message of unity calling for all who follow Christ to act as one family regardless of where they came from – physically or spiritually.  The most important thing for Paul is that the communities maintain their faith in the morality and teachings of Christ Jesus.

               I appreciated the explanation of the bondage that Paul was placed under.  In my mind I’ve always imagined something more akin to a dungeon with visitors speaking through a barred window than what we are presented with here.  The description of the guards who are basically forcibly catechized by being chained to Paul also gives me a new understanding of the way the Gospel spread throughout the empire.  It was interesting to read through the chapter, reading summaries of Paul’s letters, about how the challenges faced by the Christians in the 30 or 40 years after Christ’s death are often the same as those faced today – don’t try to add to the faith with elemental spirits and treat each other nice.  The only thing I found a little confusing was the opening paragraph.  I’m guessing that Mr. Callewaert was trying to set the scene but it seemed to be less relevant than most of the other material.  I also felt that he spent too much effort trying to dismiss the importance of the Roman writers of the time.  If you didn’t believe that Paul was greater than those writers, then you aren’t likely to have ever picked up this book in the first place.  

               Finally, I would definitely recommend this book to my family and parishioners based on this chapter.  It’s not a heavy duty examination of the details of Paul’s letters, pick up a bible and read the letters for yourself and your likely to get a deeper understanding of what Paul was saying.  A heavy duty examination is often less accessible and a brief examination like this can ignite the spark of curiosity that leads people to want to examine the full message.

Voyage to Rome Crossing and Shipwreck

A reading of chapter 11, Voyage to Rome, Crossing and Shipwreck, provides a wealth of historical detail surrounding St. Paul’s voyage to Rome. St. Paul appealed to Caesar, a right he enjoyed as a Roman citizen, not against Rome, but rather to defend himself against the Jews’ stubborn insistence that he (Paul) was guilty and needed to be punished.

This chapter begins with prisoner Saint Paul being brought to Rome by ship to defend himself. Since it was late September and the autumn storms were fast approaching, they had pulled into a port called “Fair Heavens.” The weather was always a concern, they held a council meeting on whether to stay in the port or try to sail onward.

Saint Paul who had traveled extensively and had been shipwrecked numerous times, recommended that they stay in port; otherwise, there would be injury to lives and damage to the ship. However, the Captain decided to move forward with their journey.

Since their destination was only a few hours away, they proceeded with their journey. A storm pursued which resulted in the crew throwing both cargo and rigging overboard. Everyone on the ship, 266 people, felt they were all going to die. Everyone was exhausted since many days had passed since they had left the port.

At that point, Saint Paul rose and addressed everyone on the ship stating, “I now bid you take heart; for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ Exactly as Saint Paul stated is what occurred.

They landed on the island of Malta, where Saint Paul healed many of their infirmities. This chapter ends with Saint Paul being brought to Rome and presenting his cause before many. Following his explanation to the people of Rome, some became believers and some did not. Saint Paul was permitted to stay in Rome for two years, in lodging that he rented, and he was permitted to proclaim Christ’s teachings to all of the many who came to him.

These passages relate important events in the history of Christianity and the spread of the Word of God. The historical details are rich in excitement and seem to provide wonderful material for a film depicting the importance of the early Christian period. I would recommend this chapter as beneficial reading and very  important information for the young adult and, certainly, anyone interested in, or perusing higher studies on the life and times of St. Paul. 

Chapter 10 – Paul’s Arrest Defense and Journey to Caesarea

Chapter 10 – Paul’s Arrest Defense and Journey to Caesarea



This chapter begins with Paul arriving in Jerusalem, and immediately meets with James. James presents an issue to Paul regarding the Pharisees questioning Paul’s adherence to the law. For Paul was teaching his followers that they did not need to follow some aspects of the law of Moses. James also proposes a solution. Paul would submit himself and 4 Nazarites for purification in the temple, and as an act of charity Paul would also pay the Nazarites expenses. All this was all meant to show that Paul does observe and follow the law.

However James’s plan did not work. In fact those who saw Paul in the temple now accused him of teaching against the law and also of defiling the temple by bringing a Greek pagan into the temple. Paul had not done this but it was an accusation that stuck, and a plan that worked for Paul’s accusers, who planed to lynch him and stone him to death.

However Paul skilled in the art of rhetoric because of his Greek heritage, offered his own defense first by speaking in Greek to the local Tribune who allowed Paul to speak to the people. Then Paul spoke in Hebrew to the people, at first the crowd was silent as he told them of his heritage as a Pharisee, but later the crowd became agitated when he spoke of leading the gentiles to Christ.

At this pint Paul is brought before the local Tribune again, but this time Paul declares that he is a Roman citizen. Because of his citizenship they can not punish him, but instead the Tribune orders that Sanhedrin meet to learn exactly what charges Paul was accused of. The next morning a group of Jews plotted to kill Paul, but the plot is discovered by Paul’s nephew and the Tribune wanting to make sure a Roman citizen was not lynched on his watch, immediately transports Paul to Caesarea where he will be brought to Felix the local governor.

Paul testified before Felix, but Felix wanted to wait for the Tribune to come to Ceasaera before proceeding with this case. While Paul waits he was granted freedom and given a roman guard as an escort. Ironically this arrangement continued for some time, and gave Paul immunity form further harassment by the Pharisees and allowed him to continue working and evangelizing.
Some time later Felix was called back to Rome and a new Governor was appointed Festus. When talking with Festus Paul requested an appeal of his case before Caesar. The chapter ends with this request be granted, but before Paul left he was brought before King Agrippa where he talked again and Agrippa quipped that in a little more time Paul would make a Christian of him.

While reading this chapter a though kept reoccurring that this was presented in a way that in some respects parallels how the Pharisees harasses and tried to trap Jesus and kill Jesus by what he said and did.

I do like this book and its narrative style. The narrative follows the journey of Paul as described in the Acts of the Apostles but tells the story in a more colorful and enjoyable way. I would truly like to read this book in a more leisurely at a latter time. It also includes more background information. For instance the description of how Herod had transformed the village of Strato’s Tower into the city called Caesarea

I would also recommend this book to others especially if they where looking for a text to bring more light to the book of Acts. Also I think it may be a good book to use in group bible study of Acts. The extra insights of Paul’s journey I think may help generate a lively discussion of Paul’s his skill as an evangelist.  

Chapter 9, The Ascent to Jerusalem, Kathy Ross

        Chapter 9- The Ascent to Jerusalem

       During Paul’s missionary travels, he wrote two important letters, one to his beloved people of Galatia and the other to the Romans, a people unfamiliar to him. In Galatia, the Judaizers were doubting the teachings of Christ. Major disputes were erupting regarding dietary laws and circumcision. The Galatians questioned the teaching of Paul as the true Gospel. Paul’s response was highly emotional, “For in Christ Jesus…faith working through love” ( Gal 5:6). Paul lists fifteen faults of the Galatians and insists on his own authority by divine revelation. Paul exhorts God’s people to “love their neighbor as themselves” and ends this letter, to the Galatians, with a blessing.  The Letter to the Romans is Paul’s longest letter, as a sort of final will and testament. Two themes were relayed. The first addressed the stormy relationship between the Judaizing Christians and the Gentile Christians, and the second sought to obtain financial help for a missionary trip to Spain. Paul stressed the great importance of salvation for all through the “freedom of Christianity,” through Jesus Christ. “The gospel…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Gal 1:16). In the second part of this letter, the moral piece, Paul focused on “a life based on love.” (pg. 137) With his words, Paul found a way to unite the disagreeing parties. All are one in the Body of Christ. Paul’s letters were building the universal beliefs of Christ’s Church, trusting that each church area would financially support other distant churches in Christ’s Name. “None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself” (Romans 14:7). The inclusive nature of the church, as determined by Jesus, welcomed all of the faithful. 

               In both letters, Paul’s words were strong and persuasive. His intent could not be mistaken. When problems arose, Paul’s responses presented a clear direction for the people in Galatia and Rome. Although all discussion or dissension needed to be heard, Paul assured all of the faithful that “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Paul’s words encouraged the faithful to “Bear one another’s burdens, so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). His words could not be mistaken as a gentle reprimand for poor choices or flagrant sin. There was no doubting the strength of Paul’s words. The fulfillment of the Old Testament came through Jesus Christ in the New Testament. People needed to hear and then choose to live as Christ instructed. These communications helped the faithful by illuminating their misperceptions and strengthening their faith. The Letters of Saint Paul gave clarity and purpose to the people. 

            Historically, the travels of Saint Paul are interesting. He journeyed by boat and on foot, avoiding places of danger and plots to have him assassinated. Paul hoped  to arrive in Jerusalem by the Pentecost celebration. He travelled from Asia to Assos, the Isle Lesbos, Isle of Chios, Samos, Miletus, Island of Cos, Rhodes, Port of Patara, Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea Maritima, and then Jerusalem. Certainly, Saint Paul was a man with a mission. His zeal for spreading the Word of the Lord was enthusiastic and heartfelt. Paul’s words should be read by all. His later life portrayed his great love of Jesus.  Nothing “else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord” (Romans 8:39).