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Church and Community in Crisis

By Menninger, Richard E. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Church and Community in Crisis


Menninger, Richard E., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Church and Community in Crisis. By J. Andrew Overman. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996, x + 437 pp., $28.00 paper.

This work by Overman builds on his conclusions presented in an earlier monograph (Matthew's Gospel and Formative Judaism [Fortress, 1990]), namely that the Judaism Matthew confronts is not a well-organized, unified front but rather a combination of variegated voices vying for the position as the true people of God. The present commentary is the third volume in The New Testament in Context series and proposes to overcome scholarship's misunderstanding and misconstruing of the context and setting of Matthew.

This book is divided into three parts. Part 1, the introduction, sets the tone for the entire commentary as it reveals the direction that Overman's thinking will take in his analysis of the text. Overman concludes that the first gospel was composed around 100 AD for a community in or around the Galilean cities of Sepphoris or Tiberias. This community is in crisis both from without and within. Externally, the Pharisees and the Roman government pressure the church of Matthew. The main opponents are the Pharisees as they engage these Christians over the issue of who is the true leadership of Israel. This contention is seen especially in the debate over the correct interpretation of the law. Also, the Matthean community is vulnerable to confrontation at the hands of the colonial powers. Internally, the church is plagued by the need for church order and discipline.

What Overman perceives is a "Matthean Judaism," an attempt by the first evangelist to promote a competing form of Judaism that is in "utter continuity with the history and eschatological drama of Israel" (p. 23). Matthew's goal is to shape his predominantly Jewish-Christian congregation into a people that uniquely represents the true Israel of God. His blueprint for daily communal living is detailed in the sermon on the mount. The sermon is the "constitution" for Matthew's community and embodies much of what Matthean Judaism is all about.

But the first evangelist also realizes that questions concerning the future of his church must be addressed, especially in light of the hardships the people endure. According to Overman, any persecution suffered by Matthew's church is in fact the beginning of the end. The persecution of Matthean Judaism-at least in Matthew's mind-commenced with John the Baptist, continued with Jesus and is a present reality in the lives of the Christians of Matthew's community. And such persecution is the beginning of the restoration of Israel and hence apocalyptic in nature.

Thus, Overman's assessment of the community of Matthew is one of urgent selfdefinition. The urgency stems from the lateness of the hour as seen in the Fall of Jerusalem (70 AD), the increase in Pharisaic influence and the increasing isolation of Matthew's community. The need for identity and self-definition comes from the controversies and debates with other voices in Judaism as Matthew's church wrestles with the issues that constitute faithful adherence to the will of God. For Overman the church is in crisis.

Part 2 of this book is devoted to an examination of the text of Matthew and consists of more than 380 pages. This section is divided into 15 chapters that cover the entire gospel. Each chapter discusses a particular passage and concludes with a bibliography. Overman does not provide his readers with a verse-by-verse analysis but instead separates each passage into particular themes and topics.

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