New Testament Christology

By Pilgrim, Walter E. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

New Testament Christology


Pilgrim, Walter E., Journal of Biblical Literature


New Testament Christology, by Frank J. Matera. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999. Pp. x + 307. $26.00 (paper).

This is neither a quest for the historical Jesus nor a critical assessment of NT Christology. Rather, the author, professor of NT at the Catholic University of America, seeks to uncover the various Christologies within the NT. It differs from 0. Cullmann's seminal volume, which focused on titles and the growth of Christology, and other recent studies by adopting what it calls a narrative approach. This "new" methodology looks for the explicit and implicit "stories about Christ" found within each writing. Within these stories, particular attention is paid to Jesus' relation to God and humanity, his life, death, resurrection, and christological titles. The result, under the author's knowledgeable hand, is the best compendium of NT Christology available today.

The first two chapters survey the Synoptic Gospels. Chapter 1 ("Crucified Messiah") follows the literary outlines searching for the distinct Christologies. In Mark, the evangelist defines messiahship in terms of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, not traditional views. The "messianic secret" concerns Jesus' sonship, not messiahship. And the enigmatic Son of Man defines Jesus' destiny as the suffering and coming one. Matthew retells the Markan story focusing on the abiding presence of Jesus, the obedient Son of God. And he writes to a community that awaits his return as the glorious Son of Man.

Chapter 2 ("Messiah and Lord of All") surveys Luke and Acts. The Lukan story gives new emphasis to Jesus' prophetic ministry and the divine plan with universal implications. While Matera admits that Luke is ". . notoriously reserved about the salvific dimensions of Jesus' death, especially when compared to Paul" (p. 62), he still thinks Luke assumes its saving significance (p. 268 n. 43). Many would disagree. Acts completes the story of Jesus with the story of the church. Matera concentrates on the speeches of Peter and Paul and Stephen's story recounting Israel's history of prophetic rejection. Both volumes present Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's messianic hope, now complete in Christ.

In chapter 3, the authentic Pauline letters are discussed under the suggestive title "The Climax of Israel's Story." In concert with J. C. Beker, he finds coherence amid the contingencies of the letters in the Pauline gospel: "the good news of what God has done in his Son, Jesus Christ: reconciled the world to himself through the death and resurrection of Christ" (p. 83). Here too Matera adopts a narrative methodology, in contrast to those who focus on titles or soteriological terms. This involves two things: the underlying "Christ story- and the "grammar" of Paul's thought. By the latter, he means the particular way the Christ story functions in each letter. Matera provides a synthesis of the Pauline Christ story at the outset that relates to God, Israel, and humanity. Then he looks for elements of this story in each letter. Overall, the letters depict Paul reinterpreting the story of Israel in light of what God has done in Christ.

Despite my initial reservation, I think that the narrative approach flourishes under the author's observant eyes. Due weight is given to the distinct christological and soteriological features of each letter. Yet Matera also sees the broader picture of the Christ story in Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians. The chapter concludes with seven statements on Paul's Christology useful for teaching.

Chapter 4 ("The Revelation of the Mystery") surveys the Deutero-Pauline letters: Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals. While recognizing new themes, Matera regards them as authentic developments of Pauline Christology. …

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