Reviews of

Matthew’s New David at the End of Exile

In Brill, David (king of Israel), Intertextuality, Matthew, Max Botner, Messianism, Nicholas PIOTROWSKI, Scripture on May 31, 2017 at 2:00 pm

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2017.05.11 | Nicholas G. Piotrowski, Matthew’s New David at the End of Exile: A Socio-Rhetorical Study of Scriptural Quotations. NovTSup 170. Leiden: Brill, 2016. ISBN: 9789004326781

Reviewed by Max Botner, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main.

Matthew’s use of the Jewish scriptures—particularly his fulfillment citations—has long perplexed modern readers. Has the evangelist ransacked his scriptures in a contorted effort to justify his Christology? Or is there another principle guiding his selection of scriptural source material? In this revised version of his 2013 Wheaton College dissertation “Scripture and Community: The Socio-Rhetorical Effect of Matthew’s Prologue Quotations,” Nicholas Piotrowski mounts a fresh and compelling argument for the latter. His thesis is that “the prologue-quotations, individually and collectively, select a frame that evokes one pervasive OT subplot: «David/end-of-exile»” (p. 4).

Chapter one sets out the book’s rationale and method (pp. 1–32). Despite the surfeit of studies devoted to the scripture citations in Matthew’s prologue, Piotrowski detects several lacunae: first, the majority of these studies attend primarily to the text-forms, and only secondarily to the evangelist’s wider theological agenda; second, “Christology alone,” the typical explanation for Matthew’s selection of texts, “does not seem to be a sufficiently broad enough category” (p. 10); and, third, the sociological function of Matthew’s scripture citations remains underdeveloped in the secondary literature. Why then, Piotrowski asks, does Matthew cite these particular scriptures (p. 11)?

In order to address this question, Piotrowski adopts what he refers to as a “socio-rhetorical” approach, appealing in particular to the seminal work of Vernon K. Robbins (p. 22). As one reads on, however, it becomes evident that the methodological underpinning of Piotrowski’s study is not “socio-rhetorical criticism” (however defined), but Umberto Eco’s concept of the “Model Reader” (pp. 24–27). For Eco, the Model Reader is a textually-derived construct whose competence in the “encyclopedia” (i.e., the storehouse of a culture’s social conventions, presuppositions, shared history, and so forth) allows him to select the appropriate “frames” for reading (see The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979]). Piotrowski proposes that the formula citations in Matthew’s prologue envisage a Model Reader whose competence in the Jewish scriptures and broader Second Temple Jewish milieu allow him to trace the inner logic of citations, “actualizing” those elements of the encyclopedia that the text authorizes and “narcotizing” those that it does not (p. 27).

He launches his study of Matthew’s scripture citations, in chapter two, by examining the citations of Isa 7:14 and 8:8 in Matt 1:23. Matthew’s interest in this Isaianic oracle is not myopic, Piotrowski argues, but is guided by the grander themes of the end of exile and the restoration of David’s house (cf. Isa 7–12). Two observations seem to support this inference. First, Matthew’s genealogy frames the story of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, with reference to the Babylonian deportation and the house of David (pp. 34–37). Second, the wider context of Isaiah 7–8 is about YHWH’s faithfulness to the Davidic house, which, when actualized, will bring about salvation for those who follow the chosen heir to David’s throne (pp. 42–53). “Thus, Mary’s virginity is not an end in itself,” Piotrowski concludes, “but a vehicle to evoke images of Yahweh’s promise to David. The virgin points to something about David’s house: in Isaiah 7–8 it is the narrow escape from death; in Matthew 1 it is the restoration to life after death” (p. 54).

Chapter three shifts to the citation of Mic 5:1, 3 [EB 5:2, 4] in Matt 2:1–12. As with the context of Isaiah 7–8, Piotrowski observes that Micah 5 is concerned with a future Davidide in a restorationist context. Yet, it is not entirely clear why this observation warrants the conclusion that the citation of Mic 5:1, 3 in Matt 2:6 generates all of Micah 3–5 (p. 83). Could not, for example, the Model Reader make sense of Matt 2:1–12 with recourse to Mic 5:1–3 alone? Failure to justify this interpretative move leaves portions of the chapter open to the charge of being an exercise in question-begging. I would also question Piotrowski’s proposal that the literary structure of Mic 4:8–5:1 implies a movement away from the Jerusalem temple to worship in Bethlehem (p. 85, 229). This may make for a convenient segue into his interpretation of Matthew, but it is not what Micah says.

In chapter four, Piotrowski steps away from Matthew to examine the concept of exile in the Second Temple encyclopedia. This chapter is valuable, in so far as it charts the various and sundry ways in which Second Temple authors retrieved scriptural language about “exile.” But there are several issues. For one thing, its placement in the middle of the study seems odd, not least because Piotrowski draws a number of substantial conclusions about Matthew’s engagement with the concept of “exile” in chapters two and three. For another, as Piotrowski himself concludes, what ultimately matters for interpreting Matthew is not how other Second Temple authors handle scriptural promises about “David and the end of exile” (though the question is interesting in its own right), but that the frame is present in Matthew’s encyclopedia via the Jewish scriptures (p. 113). This undermines the necessity of having access to “a taxonomy of exile in the late Second Temple cultural encyclopedia” for interpreting Matthew’s use of the Jewish scriptures. Finally, there are issues of interpretation, the most significant of which is Piotrowski’s contention that the general attitude toward the Second Temple was negative (p. 108). Not only does this (largely Protestant) caricature fly in the face of the evidence we have from Josephus and others, it also severely misconstrues the evidence we have from the Qumran library (see esp. Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionsim in the Study of Ancient Judaism [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006]).

Chapter five examines Matthew’s citations of Hos 11:1 in 2:15 and Jer 31:15 (LXX 38:15) in 2:18. Piotrowski cogently argues that Matthew’s use of Hosea 11 draws correspondences between Moses/Israel and Jesus to evoke the frame of a “new exodus” (pp. 116–22). Moreover, he makes a compelling case that Matthew’s citation of Jer 31:15 evokes the wider context of the oracle, again, to elicit the frame of “new exodus/end of exile” (pp. 130–38). These two intertexts (Hos 11 and Jer 31), Piotrowski suggests, frame the Model Reader’s horizons moving forward (p. 143).

In chapter six Piotrowski treats Matthew’s most obscure scripture reference—the claim that the “prophets” foretold that the messiah would “be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:23). After entertaining the possibility that Nazōraios is a word-play on “Nazirite” (naziraios; cf. Judg 13:5, 7; 16:7), he arrives at what seems to be the most plausible account: Nazōraios offers a subtle gesture toward the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is the “shoot [nēṣer] of the stump of Jesse” (cf. Isa 11:1f.) (pp. 158–61). He draws a number of inferences from this observation, some of which are highly tenuous. For example, he equates “shoot” (nēṣer) and “branch” (ṣemach) of David, such that the potential presence of the former gives license to draw in everything the Prophets say about the latter (pp. 161–66). Moreover, he then concludes that this subtle reference “is tantamount to calling him [i.e., Jesus] the house of David rising from the shame of national exile, and standing as a sign to Israel and the nations to travel along the end-of-exile highway” (p. 169, his emphasis).

Chapter seven explores the citation of Isa 40:3 in Matt 3:3. Here, again, the context of the Isaianic oracle is an announcement of the end of exile, and Piotrowski plausibly proposes that this context frames Jesus’s baptism as one of a messiah who heralds Israel’s deliverance (pp. 178–83). Whether one can extend this to suggest that the citation evokes “the content of Isaiah 40–55,” however, needs to be demonstrated rather than asserted (p. 190). Moreover, such an argument would need to address the marked absence of a hope for a “new David” in Second Isaiah. A potential starting point might be Matthew’s understanding of the identity of the servant of the Lord in Isa 42 (cf. Matt 12:15–23).

In chapter 8, Piotrowski assess the final prologue citation, Isa 8:23–9:1 (EB 9:1–2) in Matt 4:15–16. He notes that the Isaianic macro-context is one of restoration under a descendent of David (pp. 205–211), and observes that the placement of the citation at this point in the Matthean narrative forms an inclusio with the citation of Isa 7:14 in Matt 1:23 (p. 211). Recognition of this inclusio carries significant interpretative weight: “Matthew 1:1–4:11 says all are in exile and only Jesus has come out. He is the eschatological Davidide and the true Israelite who has already gone on his (second) exodus. Now begins the new David’s mission: gather others—Jews and Gentile—to join him in encompassing the remnant of OT Israel” (p. 212).

Piotrowski concludes his study by “testing” the coherence and cogency of his account and by exploring the socio-rhetorical effects of the scripture citations on Matthew’s audience. He argues that his account is both coherent and cogent on the grounds that: (1) all seven scripture citations come from contexts concerned with David and/or exile; (2) the placement of the citations in the prologue appear to structure narrative development; (3) the motifs encompassed in these scriptures recur throughout the rest of Matthew’s narrative; and (4) it is historically plausible that Matthew reads these scriptures as presaging the end of exile, since many of his contemporaries did the same. Piotrowski closes by suggesting that Matthew’s prologue citations shape a particular type of community, whose identity lays hold of Israel’s heritage through the community’s allegiance to the rightful Davidic heir who brings about the end of Israel’s exile (p. 244).

This study offers a welcome addition to the growing body of literature surrounding Matthew’s scriptural hermeneutic. Piotrowski’s careful analysis of scriptural source texts in their respective macro-contexts is commendable, just as his detection of an underlying hermeneutical coherence guiding Matthew’s handling of his source material is largely persuasive. Nonetheless, I do have some lingering concerns. First, while perhaps a minor point, the subtitle of the book is a bit misleading: there is very little in this study that merits the label “socio-rhetorical.” Second, given the extent to which Piotrowski’s study assumes the probity of Richard Hays’s approach to the Jewish scriptures (e.g., Echoes of Scripture in Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989]), it is surprising that he never substantively engages Hays or his detractors (given the book’s release date, it is understandable that Piotrowski does not engage Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016]). Third, there are points at which one gets the sense that Piotrowski’s agenda has shifted from trying to demonstrate his thesis to trying to demonstrate that Matthew never violates an author’s “original intent” when citing the Jewish scriptures (see, e.g., pp. 124–130). While such an exercise is not without merit, it potentially distracts from the running argument of the book. Fourth, while I share Piotrowski’s conviction that Eco’s semiotics offers a compelling model for interpreting texts, his appropriation of the Model Reader verges on becoming an exercise in question-begging. That is, he frequently assumes that if he can detect points of thematic coherence between Matthew and the wider context of a scriptural source text, then he has done enough to demonstrate that the Model Reader should interpret Matthew in light of the source text’s macro-context, sometimes including large sections, even whole books, of the Bible. Thus, in a stroke, Piotrowski asks his readers to leap from the realm speculation to embracing definitive claims about historical plausibility and authorial intent. I suspect this will be a leap too far for some. Fortunately, these concerns do not undermine the cogency of Piotrowski’s central thesis: Matthew’s Jesus does indeed appear to be a “New David at the End of Exile.”

Max Botner
Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
botner [at] em.uni-frankfurt.de

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