New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul

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

New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul


Young, Richard A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul. By Frank J. Matera. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996. 325 pp., $20.00.

Matera does not directly engage the hermeneutical problem of applying NT ethics to contemporary life. His project is different. He probes each writing to find how its ethical vision functioned. Matera finds that the ethical teaching of the NT is inextricably bound up with the message of salvation and can be understood fully only in that light. For Jesus the ethical vision is rooted in the proclamation of the kingdom and for Paul in the "announcement of God's saving justice in Christ" (p. 9). Matera reasons that if the ethical vision of the NT cannot be separated from the message of salvation, then it should not be imposed on those outside the community of faith. As the church addresses contemporary issues, its moral vision "must ultimately be rooted in the New Testament" (p. 10).

Before engaging in his project, Matera discusses various approaches to NT ethics.

The diachronic method seeks to dig through the layers of traditions to the moral teachings of Jesus. Matera's main objections to this approach are that it fragments the NT witness and tends to devalue later NT writings. The synchronic method seeks to listen to the NT as a whole to find unifying themes that can provide a singular moral witness. While this approach preserves the integrity of the NT, it tends to silence individual voices. Matera approaches the task by assuming that the object of NT ethics should be the ethics of the writings themselves, rather than a historical reconstruction or theological synthesis. His method focuses on the literary and rhetorical aspects of each writing; that is, he offers a close reading of the texts in light of their ethical content and evaluates them on how they function to persuade audiences to live a moral life.

The book is not a comprehensive treatment of NT ethics; it does not discuss the ethics of Acts, the general epistles or the Apocalypse. The book's subtitle limits the discussion to the ethical legacies of Jesus and Paul. This means that Matera concentrates on the ethics of Jesus as portrayed by each gospel writer and the ethics of Paul as represented by each letter traditionally ascribed to Paul. The disputed letters of Paul are included in Paul's legacy, as Paul "undoubtedly provided the inspiration for those who wrote in his name" (p. 208).

Matera's treatment of the gospels is representative of his method. He explores the ethical teaching of Jesus as presented individually by each gospel writer rather than the historical Jesus. Since Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke, all three have similarities, such as the moral example of Jesus and ethics being rooted in the gospel of the kingdom. However, since each confronted a different situation and had different sources, each presents a distinctive portrait. For example, in contrast with the Markan Jesus, the Matthean Jesus creates a moral universe through the kingdom parables, and the Lukan Jesus links the kingdom with a new age of salvation marked by a reversal of fortunes. …

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