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A Critical Book Review of “Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew”

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David Sim’s reconstruction of the apocalyptic eschatology in Matthew’s gospel illuminates our understanding of the time period in which Matthew lived, and also Matthew’s concern in portraying Jesus Christ to his audience. Sim suggests that Matthew did not write to condemn his community, but rather he wrote out of an acute need to protect and enhance his community’s sense of distinctiveness. From a pastoral perspective, Matthew was concerned for the wellbeing of his troubled church.

In his introduction, Sim defines apocalyptic eschatology as “an all-embracing religious perspective which considers the past, present and future within a dualistic and deterministic framework.”(1) Sim defines apocalyptic eschatology in this way to refute the notion that apocalyptic eschatology has only to do with judgment or final judgment. There are three related areas in which Sim says that a document studying apocalyptic eschatology involves: “the content of the apocalyptic-eschatological scheme in question, the social setting which gives rise to it, and the particular functions it serves for the author or group which adopts it.” (2)

Developing from these three areas of study, Sim identifies the aims of his work. The first is his concern to descriptively identify “precisely the nature and extent of apocalyptic eschatology in the gospel of Matthew.”(3) The second is his concern to explain and account for Matthew’s adoption of apocalyptic eschatology. The third is his identifying the practical purposes for Matthew and his audience in adopting apocalyptic eschatology.

Sim begins his work with a brief overview of the historical development of scholarly discussion concerning the apocalyptic eschatology in Matthew’s gospel. He develops his argument from Bornkamm’s work that extends into the work of Trilling and Strecker; in that, eschatology in Matthew’s gospel was to be viewed only in conjunction with or part of Matthew’s ecclesiology (7). Sim describes the drastic movement away from Matthew’s eschatology up to 1980 in H.C. Kee’s quote, “The church of Matthew with the apostolic foundation going back to Peter as sovereign and arbiter… is an established institution, not an apocalyptic sect.”[1]

Sim’s purpose for this work was to provide a larger and more complete treatment of all aspects of Matthew’s use of apocalyptic eschatology and its relation to other apocalyptical-eschatological sources. Certain presuppositions that Sim identifies concerning his work with Matthew’s gospel are that he maintains that the author of the first gospel is not known, rejects the traditional identification of Matthew as the disciple of Jesus, asserts that Matthew was a Jew, dates the gospel around 80 CE and probably written in Syria, and attests to the ‘two document’ thesis that Matthew’s gospel was composed using Mark and Q as its major sources.

Sim uses two techniques to develop his study of apocalyptic-eschatology in Matthew. The first technique he uses is redaction criticism. Secondly, he applies a social-scientific method to determine the influence of the historical, geographical, cultural, and social context on Matthew and his gospel. Sim also employs the movement from description to explanation, and then explanation to function in each section.

Part I: Apocalyptic Eschatology and Apocalypticism

Sim first addresses the problem of terminology. He illustrates P.D. Hanson’s threefold classification of apocalypsis as the view of many scholars. “According to Hanson, we must speak of the literary form as apocalypse, the dominating (eschatological) religious perspective as apocalyptic eschatology and the socio-religious movement as apocalypticism.”(24) Sim argues that the latter two are more closely connected together and that the literary form can be separated from the religious perspective and the socio-religious movement. As a result, modern terminology is used to describe the historical situation. Sim says the use of these modern terms to reflect the historical situation is insufficient. He says,“We must accept that there is apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism outside the apocalyptic genre, apocalypses which have little or no apocalyptic eschatology, and apocalyptic groups which did not produce apocalypses.” (26) He identifies the Qumran community as an example of an apocalyptic group that did not produce new apocalypses.

Even though he sees the current terminology as insufficient in detailing the different parts of the genre of apocalypses, Sim retains the current terminology in his work. Sim makes the distinction of apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism as being separate from the literary genre of apocalypses, so that the reader will recognize the validity of studying apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism in the book of Matthew, which is not a work of apocalypse.

The major characteristics of apocalyptic eschatology

Sim uses the Qumran Community as the strongest evidence for connecting apocalyptic eschatology to the Matthean community. According to Sim, the eschatological themes function under the two concepts of dualism and determinism. The six themes that function under these two concepts are eschatological woes, the appearance of a savior figure, the judgment, the fate of the wicked, the fate of the righteous, and an immanent end expectation. Following a brief overview of the two concepts and six themes, Sim summarizes the apocalyptic-eschatological perspective in a general overview. He begins the summary stating, “Apocalyptic eschatology is a comprehensive religious perspective with a distinctive view of reality.” (53) This sets up for the reader a basic understanding of Sim’s approach to the apocalyptic eschatology in Matthew’s gospel.

The Social Setting of Apocalypticism and the Function of Apocalyptic Eschatology.

Sim depicts the social setting that is apparent with apocalypticism as the rising of minority groups in response to “a situation of great crisis or distress.” (54) He identifies the specific functions of apocalyptic eschatology in five distinct groups that may overlap on certain points: 1. Identification and legitimation, 2. Explanation of current circumstances, 3. Encouragement and hope for the future, 4. Vengeance and consolation, 5. Group solidarity and social control. (64) Sim provides a brief summary of the focal points of both apocalyptic eschatology as a religious perspective and apocalypticism as a socio-religious movement within the historical time-frame of the gospel of Matthew. (70-1)

Part II: Apocalyptic eschatology in the gospel of Matthew

Looking at Matthew’s use of his synoptic sources, Sim identifies the parts that were altered minimally, altered drastically, or altogether supplemented. Sim’s goal in this section is to identify the elements that Matthew utilized from the Christian sources both within and without the synoptic sources, and the themes and motifs he adopted from the Jewish apocalyptic-eschatological tradition. (73)

Dualism and Determinism in Matthew

Sim says that there are temporal and cosmic dualism present in the gospel of Matthew. This mixing of the temporal and cosmic forces is very present in the eschatological judgment. Sim points to the “parable of the tares” in Matthew 13:24-43 as an apocalyptic-eschatological example of dualism in the gospel of Matthew that resembles that of the Qumran community (“sons of light and sons of darkness”). “By using such language Matthew deliberately relates the dualism of the human sphere to the cosmic battle which is being fought between Jesus and Satan.” (79) In the Qumran community Michael was the leader of the cosmic forces of light while Belial was the leader of the cosmic forces of darkness, and in Matthew “Jesus Son of Man, the leader of the heavenly angels, who sows the good seed” while the devil is the one who creates the weeds.

Eschatological woes and the coming of the Son of Man are important for Matthew’s apocalyptic eschatology. Sim points out that Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term parousia. For Matthew, when the Son of Man comes two things will take place before the final judgment, the general resurrection of the dead and the recreation of the cosmos. Matthew points out certain events that will transpire before the Son of Man appears, the breakdown of the social order and the natural order described in 24:4-31. A possibility of the social breakdown for Matthew could consist of the Roman and demonic forces forming an alliance. (103)

Matthew depicts Jesus Son of Man, who is now at the right hand of God, returning as the Son of Man like a military commander leading the armies of heaven. Sim identifies Matthew intensification of Mark 13 in this motif. In the New Testament, only Matthew and Revelation depict Jesus and his angels militarily. Matthew also depicts Jesus Son of Man as a judge, whereas, Q and Mark depict Jesus solely as an advocate in the eschatological judgment. The arrival of Jesus Son of Man is during the final battle between the righteous and the wicked, but Matthew does not describe a battle. Instead, Matthew moves directly into the judgment which could indicate the immediate surrender of the evil forces upon the arrival of Jesus Son of Man.

Sim argues, quite convincingly, that Matthew acquired his “Son of Man” language from a common source that was used also by the writer of the Parables of Enoch. The Son of Man language in both traditions is considered to be a reinterpretation of “like a Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13-14. Sim makes the point that Matthew edited his Jewish sources just like he edited his Christian traditions.

Sim also argues against the thought that Matthew was not concerned with specific elements of judgment and especially the outcome of the final judgment. He makes two points. First, Sim argues that the varying accounts of Matthew’s descriptions that seem to communicate the final judgment are not to hinder Matthew’s concern for the final judgment because Matthew was not a systematic theologian. Second, Sim argues that the accounts of the final judgment and its aftermath are not as inconsistent as some claim. (146) Sim argues that Jesus Son of Man, not simply as advocate, but as judge in the eschatological judgment assumes the greatest importance in Matthew’s overall apocalyptic-eschatological scheme. Sim says, “the material delineating the respective fates of the righteous and the wicked is therefore the climax of Matthew’s particular scheme to which everything else points.” (147)

Whether or not Matthew considered the end as imminent is highly contested among scholars. According to Sim, most scholars do not consider Matthew’s view of the end as imminent. However, Sim argues for an earlier view of interpreting Matthew’s writing in light of his apocalyptic-eschatology and an imminent end. Sim addresses three texts to argue for the imminent view of the end in Matthew’s gospel (10:23; 16:28; 24:34). (155) Sim spends most of his work on the latter two passages and attest to Matthew’s own eschatological timetable being constructed in 24:4-14. (174)

Part III: The social setting of the Matthean community and the function of apocalyptic eschatology in the gospel of Matthew

Sim depicts the Matthean community as facing a number of related crises pertaining to the Jewish War during the years 66-70 CE. According to Sim, there was no indication of economic oppression in the Matthean community like that of the community in which the author who wrote the book of Enoch addresses. Even the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem was not directly the cause of crisis for the Matthean community (Matt. 22:7). (181) Sim depicts Matthew’s response to the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem as an appropriate response from God for rejecting the Messiah. Matthew’s community was affected by a combination of factors stemming from the aftermath of the events from 66-70 CE. These factors included conflict with Jews, Gentiles, and the wider world of Christians. Matthew’s community was considered to be withdrawn from society as an entirely alienated group. (182)

The Function of Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew

In commonality with other apocalyptic-eschatological works, Matthew constructs a “symbolic universe” that conflicts with those of the wider societies from which his community is alienated. “While he doubtless rejects out of hand the gentile world view, Matthew also dismisses the respective world views of the Jewish parent body and the law-free and dominant wing of Christianity, and replaces them with one which reinforces and legitimates the beliefs and hopes of his own group… By adopting the gospel genre from Mark, Matthew uses no less a figure than Jesus the messiah, son of God and Son of Man to convey and authorise this new symbolic universe.” (222)

Sim concludes by revisiting the five general functions of apocalyptic eschatology, and showing how they all play a part in Matthew’s scheme. These five functions of apocalyptic eschatology provide identity and legitimacy (dualism), explanation of the current circumstances (determinism), encouragement and hope for the future (determinism-earlier predictions were fulfilled), vengeance and consolation (fate of the wicked), and group solidarity and social control (free will for the individual, but two edged sword of judgment). (222-41)

Conclusion:

Sim does an excellent job arguing the need for better terminology in associations made within the apocalyptic genre. He argues that apocalyptic-eschatology (a religious perspective) and apocalypticism (a socio-religious movement) are not necessarily dependent upon apocalypses (literary works), and that the gospel of Matthew is a great example of this. Also, Sim provides adequate historical background for understanding apocalyptic eschatology so that the reader is able to associate the religious perspective’s proper interpretation within Matthew’s gospel. By addressing in detail the contrasting views of his argument, Sim provides a systematic methodology to determine that the contrasted view is insufficient or possibly incomplete.


[1] Kee, Christian Origins, p. 143.

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