Probably not at the top of your Labor Day list of things to do is planning for the next liturgical year, which begins this coming Thanksgiving Weekend, November 26-27, along with the Notre Dame-USC annual clash. For those of you in catechetical ministry, your “trade papers” will be reminding you shortly. Here at the blog, to the accompaniment of the aroma of pumpkin spiced coffee, we will be marking the beginning of Liturgical Cycle A (the First Sunday of Advent) with the opening of a year-long treatment of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
In advance of that, I am contemplating which text to use for the Tuesday posts at the Café, as well as recommendations for those of you engaging in personal study of what was called “the Church’s Gospel” for many centuries. This morning I did a lot of footwork for you, figuratively speaking, but that’s what I do. Hold your applause till the end.
I searched all of the reputable publishers of biblical scholarship that I know of, and discovered a few I was unaware of. I also discovered an interesting page that deserves bookmarking, Best Commentaries: Matthew. On the preceding link, there are about 100 “commentaries” rated by the editor, though in fairness he does designate some of them as devotionals, others as parts of larger anthologies, etc. This site did take me out of my comfort zone and put me on to some new possibilities.
My search did reveal some curiosities. The massive Catholic University Press has not put forward any single volume studies of Matthew, though it has published commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels together (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). My usual dependable Catholic publishers—Paulist, Liturgical/Collegeville, Michael Glazer—had several, and I was pleased to see that the independent Eerdmans, the publisher of the St. Luke commentary by Joel Green, has another excellent work available on St. Matthew, which I will return to in a moment.
At some point any Catholic book shopper is bound to come across the Zondervan Empire of products, which includes a number of Biblical books. I have seen Zondervan outlets in shopping malls, and my general impression has been that this corporation serves the evangelical Protestant population with a wide variety of teaching products. From its own website, Zondervan defines its publishing mission: “As a broker of ideas, the Zondervan Academic publishing program seeks to reflect the breadth and diversity—both theological and global—within evangelical scholarship while maintaining our commitment to the heart of orthodox Christianity.” In perusing the product line, I came across a family Christianity learning program based upon—are you ready for this—Duck Dynasty. Woe to those who doubt me. The website seems to have pulled the Duck Dynasty Family Bibles, though. Too bad; think of the fun when you bring that text under your arm to parish bible study.
I took notice of an intriguing commentary on St. Matthew by Barbara Reid, OP, a scholar at the Chicago Theological Union. Sister Reid’s recent publications on biblical studies have addressed the texts from a feminist perspective. This method of biblical analysis is hotly disputed, and my reading of feminist theology is not extensive enough to say if this method is critical analysis or contemporary commentary. Both, of course, have their place in the Church. It is certainly a question worthy of study, but I probably would not recommend this text as a first introduction to Matthew.
So, it is time to cut to the chase here. My criteria for recommendations include intellectual challenge, peer-reviewed scholarship, a worthy bibliography, size, and long term benefits, i.e., that the work has the capacity to serve you as a working resource down the road. Size is an issue: a commentary on Matthew of 150 pages will miss the depth of a larger work. Our St. Luke commentary this year ran to about 800 pages. I recommend hard-cover if you can get it; a used edition is not a bad purchase unless someone has littered it with notes. With Amazon, used book sellers are rated for the accuracy of their descriptions of the book for sale. One more thing: a commentary must contain the actual text of the Gospel, not just citations numbers. Some books do not include the Gospel texts themselves in order to save production costs (i.e., the copyright fees.)
There are two works I would recommend. The first is Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew by Father Daniel Harrington. I am very familiar with this work and I reviewed it on its Amazon site on November 1, 2008. (You can compare my writing of some years ago to the blog entries today and decide if I am getting better or worse.) It is not quite as intellectually intense as my next offering below, in part because the author is a prolific writer who cranks out a lot of books, but it reads well and covers all the bases. As of this writing, a used hardcover text can be had for about $16 in the Amazon booksellers’ network.
However, my choice for the Café come November is R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew (2007). This is another volume from the Eerdmans’ series, New International Commentary on the New Testament. This is the same series that gave us Joel Green’s commentary on St. Luke that I have used with much profit this year. The denominational emphasis is Evangelical, though as is often the case, first-tier biblical scholars are remarkably ecumenical. Green, for example, references a number of the best Catholic scholars into his work. I have not yet read France’s work, but if it is of the same caliber as Green’s, I will be very pleased.
This work continues to sell quite well by Amazon’s numbers; it rates as the 110,000th highest seller, a real accomplishment for a book that is neither cheap nor short. (Amazon markets at least ten million books.) If you visit the book’s site, there will be some sticker shock. The asking price through Prime is $52 hardcover, with used copies beginning at $37. The 1200 pages might frighten some souls, too, but a fair percentage of that number is bibliography and footnotes. Remember, too, that you are purchasing a reference text for your work as well as an educational source for yourself, and if you are a paid employee or contractor, the cost is tax deductible.
This brings me to one more point: should you purchase a book like France’s for electronic reading on, say, Kindle? I am of two minds. This summer I continue to read Reformations. (See welcome page.) It is about 1000 pages, and I will admit that reading on the porch or in bed is certainly a lot easier than lugging around this hardcover, so I did buy it on Kindle and am very happy with it. However, I could see that I would be using this book a great deal, for the Café and elsewhere, so I did buy the hardcover, too, for ease in retrieving data and quotes. Keep in mind that you may have a long career in church work and want a good working home library, or you may wish to donate a work down the road, and purchasing a hardcover when available for future distribution may best serve your purposes. But do what suits your needs and your checking account.