Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King: In Search of "The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel."

By Campbell, D. Keith | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King: In Search of "The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel."


Campbell, D. Keith, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King: In Search of "The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel." By Joel Willitts. BZNW 147. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007, v + 270 pp., $141.00.

Joel Willitts's Matthew's Messianic Shepherd-King is a revised version of his 2006 Ph.D. dissertation submitted to Cambridge University under Markus Bockmuehl. The thrust of Willitts's work is to identify the referent in Matthew's twice-used phrase "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:6; 15:24). He argues that "the way forward in ascertaining the meaning of [this] phrase is within the trajectory of the Jewish Shepherd-King traditions surrounding King David" (p. 31). Willitts demonstrates this trajectory within ancient Judaism and examines its impact on Matthew's Gospel, specifically in its bearing on Matthew's "lost sheep" phraseology. Willitts perceives and seeks to correct four weaknesses in current scholarship concerning this phrase: (1) a failure to examine fully the phrase both within its Jewish eschatological context and within its Matthean narrative framework, including Matthew's geographical orientation; (2) a tendency to generalize the referent of the phrase as "all Israel"; (3) a tendency to accept a salvation-historical explanation of the phrase that "seems to ignore the political nature of the eschatological expectations surrounding the Davidic shepherd tradition"; and (4) a tendency to assume that Matthew's narrative simply reflects his community's present activity (pp. 28-30). In contrast to these weaknesses, Willitts attempts "to understand the phrase on its own terms within the particularities of the Matthean narrative," not by starting with the Great Commission, as some do, but with the Gospel's beginning. Willitts suggests that this is the most natural way to proceed through the First Gospel (pp. 28-31).

In order to correct these weaknesses and to prove his thesis that the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" refers to an Israelite remnant residing in the former Northern Kingdom, Willitts takes an eclectic methodological approach, including genre, composition, and (Matthean) authence-oriented criticism (p. 221). He furthermore assumes that the goal of the modern exegete should be to read Matthew's Gospel "as it was intended to be read [and not from the perspective of the] . . . [Matthean] community" (p. 30, italics his). Thus Willitts distances himself from the reader-response criticism of some scholars.

Willitts divides his book into three parts, each successively and intricately dependent on the preceding. Part 1 (chap. 2) considers the Messianic Shepherd-King motif within its native Jewish context, namely, within the Jewish Scriptures, the DSS, and the Psalms of Solomon. Willitts concludes that this motif "in ancient Jewish thinking functioned polemically and carried political freight" (p. 90). Polemically, it "was a useful vehicle for some Jewish writers to express both their protest against the present religiopolitical situation and their idyllic visions of Messianic restoration" (p. 90). Politically, it "conjured up in the minds of hearers or readers . . . hope for national revolution" (p. 92). These conclusions form the "baseline of comparison, as well as a context within which to place Matthew's composition" (p. 222). In the remainder of his work, Willitts argues that Matthew used this motif within this conventional understanding of it.

In part 2 (chaps. 3-6), the broader Matthean use of the Messianic Shepherd-King motif is discussed. Willitts first establishes the three criteria that he uses to demonstrate the motif's presence in 2:6, 9:36, and 26:31: (1) the text must contain specific shepherd/ sheep terminology; (2) it must occur within a political context that exhibits despair over and/or critique of the leadership of Israel; and (3) it must contain a reference, citation, or direct allusion to a Davidic Shepherd-King prophetic text.

Willitts uses a fourfold procedure to examine each text. …

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