Today marks the move into the exegetical chapters in the book, and I must admit it is a nice change from the prior entries. The first entry is by Joel Willitts, who is a professor of New Testament at North Park University.
New Testament studies is not my strong point, so I will leave my analysis to be relatively superficial. The entry is technical, but does not involve much in the way of Greek (a good thing, given the intended audience of the book). Willitts opens his chapter with a brief recounting of an experience presenting this argument to a room full of Matthean scholars. He recounts a question by established Matthean scholar Donald Hagner, who wondered if Willitts is a dispensationalist. One wonders what the purpose of this story is in the flow of this essay. However, I think that the way it finishes serves to answer. He comments that a former professor of his from Dallas Seminary (read: A rabid dispensationalist), Harold Hoehner stepped up to defend him by noting that this was not a fair question, because him being a dispensationalist has nothing to do with his argument.
However, that could not be further from the truth. What unfolds through the rest of the essay demonstrates that our presuppositions often drive our arguments. The framework we start with, often determines the result of our efforts.
A few examples:
On page 109, Willitts argues that “Matthew’s Gospel is not about the territorial restoration of the land of Israel.” However, the remainder of the essay seems to argue that the territorial restoration of the land of Israel is a primary theme of Matthew’s writing. This is somewhat masked, I think, by the idea that Willitts is only trying to correct the error of completely ignoring the theme of land, but it seems to me that it is an over correction given his explicit statement that this theme is not what the evangelist was writing about.
He proceeds to say that “Nevertheless, whatever we are to discern about Matthew’s theology of the land, it will have to be read between the lines, so to speak (110).” Now, as a Systematic Theologian, I appreciate the idea that we sometimes have to synthesize theology by means of good and necessary inference, but for an exegete to say he is going to do so strikes me as a fundamental error in method.
Another example is found in his first major heading. Titled Matthew’s Early Jewish Context, he opens the section by asserting “Matthew is a Jewish text of the late Second Temple period (112).” Now, this could mean many things, but my first thought was “Matthew is a Christian text, not a Jewish one.” I have a difficult time thinking that a rabbinical scholar who was an expert in second temple Judaism would agree with this assessment. However, since the basic conclusion of the chapter that Willitts is driving at is roughly “Of course Matthew cares about the land, what kind of 1st century Jew wouldn’t care about the land?”, it is vital for his argument to treat this as a Jewish work, rather than as something distinctly Christian.
Furthermore, his primary examples of its Jewishness only contribute to his thesis if you presuppose certain things. Namely, they only contribute to his thesis if you start with the dispensationalist hermeneutic from the previous chapter. Hence why the question of him being a dispensationalist is not only fair, but necessary.
The third section falls prey to some of the same kind of issues. Titled Matthew’s Davidic Messianism, we see again that the assumption that references to Israel, or in this case the Davidic nature of Christ’s rule, are references to a geo-political entity which occupies a specific tract of land. If you eliminate this hermeneutical starting point, then the argument falls apart rather quickly. If, for example, you begin with the starting point that the Covenantal hermeneutic is correct, you come to a rather different conclusion. The real question then is “which hermeneutic is the hermeneutic of the apostles?”
I could continue, but I don’t think that is necessary. Willitts’ arguments are compelling if you grant him his presuppositions, but if you do not do so then much of what he concludes is an exercise in question begging. I think that Willitts recognizes this, and that is the purpose of his story in the opening pages. Just like Hagner, I am left wondering “Are you a dispensationalist?” However, unlike Hoehner, I recognize that this question is absolutely fair, especially given the fact that one of the main theses in the book is that this system being put forward is not dispensationalism.