Apocalyptic Eschatology in the Gospel of Matthew (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series)
“To demonstrate that Matthew thoroughly shares the worldview of apocalyptic eschatology (although his work is not an apocalypse), S. usefully identifies eight characteristics common to apocalyptic eschatology in Jewish and Christian texts: dualism, determinism, eschatological woes, the appearance of a savior figure, judgment, fate of the wicked, fate of the righteous, and expectation of the imminent end. The first two help form the conceptual framework of apocalyptic eschatology, and the other six are widely occurring eschatological themes. S. helpfully identifies the repeated occurrence of these characteristics in Matthew, drawing many comparisons with other apocalyptic eschatological literature, notably Revelation, the Qumran literature, and the Enochic literature.” Kathleen Weber, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly
This study marks a significant stage in a long-held interest in the eschatology of the synoptic gospels and their sources. My interest in Matthew’s eschatology was sparked by a Master’s thesis on the eschatology of Q when, in the course of reconstructing the text of this hypothetical source, I was struck by Matthew’s constant insertion of apocalyptic-eschatological themes. I was then of the opinion that this phenomenon had never been adequately explored or explained, and I decided that my doctoral research would be devoted to this important and neglected subject. The present study is a revised version of the witer doctoral thesis which was undertaken at King’s College London and submitted in October 1992.
The apocalyptic-eschatological sections of the gospel of Matthew continue to fascinate the specialist New Testament scholar and general reader alike. Throughout the gospel the Matthean Jesus prophesies the arrival of the Son of Man who would sit on his throne of glory and preside over the final judgment. The fate of the wicked in particular is recounted in the most graphic terms. They will weep and gnash their teeth as they burn forever in the unceasing fires of Gehenna. While this sort of ‘hell-fire and brimstone’ material appeals to some Christians, for others it is a source of acute embarrassment which should be either ignored or downplayed considerably. Yet this sort of approach is clearly unsatisfactory since it avoids rather than confronts the problem. A better policy is to acknowledge that this apocalyptic-eschatological material is an important component of Matthew’s gospel, and then try to understand why this is the case.
Before specifying the primary aims of this study, a few brief comments on the term ‘apocalyptic eschatology’ are in order. Since many scholars equate ‘apocalyptic’ or apocalyptic eschatology merely with speculation about the final judgment, it might be thought that such a study need involve little more than an assessment of the gospel’s judgmental material. This view would be very much mistaken, however, for an identification of apocalyptic eschatology merely with the notion of judgment is simplistic at best and inaccurate at worst. A detailed analysis of the concept of apocalyptic eschatology will be provided in Part I, but it can be said at this point that it is an all-embracing religious perspective which considers the past, present and future within a dualistic and deterministic framework. Apocalyptic eschatology is thus far broader in scope than mere speculation about the judgment and its aftermath. It follows from this that the notion of the future judgment is merely one component of apocalyptic eschatology, albeit an extremely important one, which must be approached in conjunction with the other components of this religious perspective and not in isolation from them. A further point to note at the outset is that the latest studies of apocalyptic eschatology accept that this perspective does not arise in a vacuum. Its comprehensive and distinctive world view has an identifiable social setting, and its acceptance and promotion by authors or groups serve a number of specific functions in response to that social setting. Consequently, the study of apocalyptic eschatology in any given document necessarily involves three related areas – 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.
This observation brings us to the three specific aims of the present study. The first of these is basically descriptive and is concerned with identifying precisely the nature and extent of apocalyptic eschatology in the gospel of Matthew. To what extent does Matthew embrace this schematic world view and how is it presented in his gospel? How does the gospel’s scheme compare with contemporary apocalyptic-eschatological schemes and are there any direct points of contact between them? The second aim is primarily explanatory and attempts to account for the evangelist’s adoption of this particular perspective. What were the historical and/or social conditions which prompted Matthew and his community to adopt their particular apocalyptic-eschatological vision of reality? The third aim follows on from the first two and is concerned with identifying the practical purposes of this religious perspective. What are the precise functions of apocalyptic eschatology in the gospel of Matthew?