Who Was Justin Martyr?

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

Justin occupies a relatively unique place in the history of Christianity, for not only was he a “mover between many worlds” but he also stood at the end of the apostolic age and the beginning of the apologetic period of early Christianity.[1] Justin provides enough autobiographical detail in his writings to create a fairly strong outline of life and background, although the details of his birth are relatively obscure.[2] What we do know about his early life is that Justin was a gentile—possibly a Samaritan—born in Flavia Neapolis of Syria Palestine, son of Priscus and grandson of Bacchius.[3] Dialogue 1-9 recounts Justin’s education and philosophical background. After finding other philosophical schools wanting in his search for true understanding, Justin became a Platonist.[4] Even post-conversion, Justin’s thought remained largely indebted to Middle Platonic philosophy, a fact which comes across clearly in his own statements (Dial. 2.6. 1 Apol. 20. 2 Apol. 12.1) and through examination of his thought.[5] According to Justin’s telling, he encountered an “old man” who problematized his Platonism—asking how the mind can possibly know God if it has no kinship with God (Dial. 7.1-3)—and led him to recognize the necessity of the Holy Spirit and Christian faith.[6] Justin considered himself a philosopher before and after his conversion to Christianity, and he appears to have spent much of his later life instructing Christians in Rome.[7] According to The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 161-169 CE) Justin and six others (presumably his students) were arrested and brought before Roman prefect Q. Junius Rusticus (r. 162-168 CE).[8] What led to this arrest remains unknown, but Justin was martyred shortly thereafter (c. 165 CE) and subsequently given the name by which he is known to this day.


[1] Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, “Introduction: Justin Martyr and His Worlds” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Craig D. Allert, Revelation, Truth, Canon and Interpretation: Studies in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (SupVC 64, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2002), 27. Michael Slusser, “Justin Scholarship: Trends and Trajectories” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 20. Arthur J. Droge, “Justin Martyr and the Restoration of Philosophy,” Church History 9.1 (1987): 303.

[3] 1 Apol. 1.2, 53; Dial. 41.3. Justin and father’s names are Latin while his grandfather’s name. Allert, Revelation, 28. Paul Parvis, “Justin Martyr,” Expository Times 120.2 (2008): 53.

[4] On Justin’s rejection of the Stoic system of philosophy—though not every facet of Stoic thought—see Runar M. Thorsteinsson, “Justin and Stoic Cosmo-Theology,” JTS 63.2 (2012): 541-559. See also 2 Apol. 4-13. Thorsteinsson’s study reveals that “while Justin greatly admired the morality and moral integrity of (some of) the Stoics, he strongly rejected their doctrines on the nature of God as a corporeal being, on the world-cycles and conflagration, and on fate. In somewhat simplified terms, according to the Stoics, the nature of God is changeable, whereas God’s [sic] [why is the sic here?] judgment is unchangeable.” See Thorsteinsson, “Justin,” 570.

[5] Thorsteinsson, “Justin,” 533-34. Also see the following: Charles Nahm, “The Debate on the ‘Platonism’ of Justin Martyr,” SecCent 9 (1992): 129-51. Carl Andresen, “Justin und der mittlere Platonismus,” ZNW 44 (1952-3): 157-95. J. H. Waszink, “Bemerkungen zum Einfluss des Platonismus im frühen Christentum,” VC 19 (1965), 146-51. Allert, 28-9, 73-4. Erwin R. Goodenough, The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and Its Hellenistic and Judaistic Influences (Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968), 295-320. Rebecca Lyman, “Justin and Hellenism: Some Postcolonial Perspectives” in Justin Martyr and His Worlds (ed. S. Parvis and P. Foster, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 163-4. Slusser, 15. Droge, 304f. Tobias Georges, “Justin’s School in Rome—Reflections on Early Christian ‘Schools,’” ZAC 16 (2012): 76. Evangelia G. Dafni, “Septuaginta und Plato in Justins ‘Dialog mit Tryphon,’” Neotestamenica 43.2 (2009): 451-7. Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr: Apologies (Oxford and New York: OUP, 2009), 59-60n6.

[6] Allert, 152-3. Vladimir de Beer, “The Patristic Reception of Hellenic Philosophy,” SVTQ 55.4 (2012): 379-80.

[7] Georges, 75. Allert, 67.

[8] Allert, 30-1. Parvis, 59. Gianluca Piscini, “L’apologiste Justin et Usbek: une possible citation patristique dans les Lettres Persanes,ASE 32 (2015): 172.

Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism: Introduction

A series on the reception and transformation of Paul in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho

In the 100 years between the time when the apostle Paul wrote his epistles and when a Christian named Justin read those letters, numerous transformations occurred in the community of Jesus followers.[1] Perhaps most important was the shift surrounding the most basic of questions for any group of people: who belonged to the community, in this case, the church? While Pauline Christianity emphasized Gentile inclusion within the people of God, just a few generations later Christians were arguing for the community’s exclusion of the Jews apart from Jesus Christ.[2] Put another way, for Paul the driving questions of the day were if Gentiles could be saved and how that could happen; for Justin the question was whether or not Jews could belong to the community of Christ followers. This paper explores this transformation of community boundaries by tracing the reception of the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) in one writing from a Christian philosopher in Rome (Justin).

In this series, I argue that the reception of Paul’s letters in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho demonstrates a transformation of Pauline concepts of who belongs to the people of God. Although Paul and Justin shared certain foundations—such as the authority of Jewish scriptures and ancestry of Abraham for the people of God—they worked from different contexts and divergent philosophical trajectories—Stoicism and Middle Platonism, respectively. Perhaps most importantly, the different theological grammars of Paul and Justin—influenced primarily by their different cosmologies—led them to conceive of pneuma[3] differently. This ultimately caused Justin to misread Paul on the relationship between the Judaism and the Christian community, thereby deepening the fault which had formed between the two socio-religious movements and leading Justin to argue (contra Paul) that Jews stood outside the covenant of God.[4] After briefly introducing Justin’s background, contemporary scholarship’s discussion of Paul on the Gentile Problem, and Justin’s general knowledge and use of Paul’s letters, this paper examines three realms of Justin’s transformation of Paul: the meaning of belonging to the pneuma, the importance of belonging to the family of Abraham, and the identity of true Israel.


[1] Joseph R. Dodson, “Introduction” in Paul and the Second Century (ed. M.F. Bird and J.R. Dodson, LNTS 412, London: Bloomsbury, 2011), 1.

[2] Jeffrey S. Siker, “From Gentile Inclusion to Jewish Exclusion: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy with Jews,” BTB 19 (1989): 30–36 (30) [Here and throughout the rest of the essay, give full range of articles and essays and then specific page number].

[3] Here and for the duration of this paper, I leave this term untranslated but present the Greek πνεῦμα in Latin characters as pneuma. In so doing, I follow the lead of Robertson in attempting to avoid anachronistic concepts and associations which are often attached to translations of pneuma. See Paul Robertson, “De-Spiritualizing Pneuma: Modernity, Religion, and Anachronism in the Study of Paul,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26 (2014): 365-83.

[4] On the creation of this fault, see Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), and Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

Forgiveness in Matthew: Conclusion and Bibliography

This post concludes our series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The imperative of forgiveness stands at the heart of the Parable of Unforgiving Servant. For Jesus and Matthew, releasing others from sins and debts constitutes an integral part of what it means to be a member of the Christian community and proclaim God’s love and mercy to the world. True forgiveness finds itself rooted not only in God’s forgiveness of our sins—the emphasis of Matthew 18:21-35—but also in the forgiving blood of Jesus, the means by which human sin becomes forgiven. Matthew’s wider theology of forgiveness demonstrates the importance of extending mercy in the Matthean community, as these parables and rules guided practices on the limits of forgiveness and who could be forgiven. May contemporary Jesus-followers continue to heed Matthew’s messages of forgiveness: that we must extend to everyone true forgiveness from the heart.

Bibliography

Ancient Sources

Augustine of Hippo. Sermons. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Community Rule. Translated and edited by Geza Vermes. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

Damascus Document. Translated and edited by Geza Vermes. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

Eusebius of Caesarea. Ecclesiastical History. Translated by G.A. Williamson. Edited by Andrew Louth. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Flavius Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Translated and edited by William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged.  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.

Galen. In Hippocratic sextum librum epidemiarum commentaria. Edited by E. Wenkebach. Corpus medicorum Graecorum. Leipzig: Teubner, 1940.

Hermogenes. Rhetoric. Edited by H. Rabe. Hermogenis Opera. Leipzig: Teubner, 1913.

Hilary of Poitiers. On Matthew. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Irenaeus of Lyons. Adversus Haereses. Translated by Robert M. Grant. Irenaeus of Lyons. The Early Fathers of the Church. London: Routledge, 1996.

Jerome. Commentary on Daniel. Translated by Gleason L. Archer. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958.

John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew. Translated and edited by Manlio Simonetti. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

New Revised Standard Version: Harper Collins Study Bible Revised Edition. Edited by Harold W. Attridge. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27. Edited by Kurt Aland. Westphalia: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 28. Online: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2015. http://www.nestle-aland.com/en/home/

NRSV Cambridge Annotated Study Apocrypha. Edited by Howard C. Kee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Papias. Fragments. Translated by Bart D. Ehrman. The Apostolic Fathers: Volume Two. Loeb Classical Library 25. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Plutarch. Life of Antony. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Lives, Volume IX. Loeb Classical Library 101. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Septuaginta: Editio Altera. Edited by Alfred Rahlfs and Robert Hanhart. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006.

Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Translated H.C. Kee. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Volume One: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.

Modern Sources

Abel, Ernest L. “Who Wrote Matthew?” New Testament Studies 17.2 (1971): 138-152.

Allison, Dale C. “Matthew and the History of its Interpretation.” The Expository Times 120.1 (2008): 1-7.

Ascough, Richard S. “Matthew and Community Formation.” Pages 96-126 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. Edited by David E. Aune. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001.

Beasley-Murray, George R. Matthew. London: Scripture Union, 1984.

Black, David Alan and Beck, David R., eds. Rethinking the Synoptic Problem. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.

Brooks, Stephenson H. Matthew’s Community: The Evidence of His Special Sayings Material. Sheffield: JSOT, 1987.

Bronn, William R. “Forgiveness in ‘My Brothers’ of Matthew 28:10 and Its Significance for the Matthean Climax (28:16-20).” Biblical Theology Bulletin 40.4 (2010): 207-214.

Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary: Volume 2: The Churchbook Matthew 13-28. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.

Buckley, Thomas W. Seventy Times Seven: Sin, Judgment, and Forgiveness in Matthew. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Crossan, John Dominic. In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Davies, W.D. and Allison, Dale C. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew in Three Volumes: Volume II: Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991. 

de Boer, Martinus C. “Ten Thousand Talents? Matthew’s Interpretation and Redaction of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-25).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50 (1988): 214-232.

Deidun, Thomas. “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-25).” Biblical Theology Bulletin 6.2-3 (1976): 203-224.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927.

Derrett, J. Duncan M. Law in the New Testament. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970.

Dietzfelbinger, Christian. “Das Gleichnis von der erlassenen Schuld: eine theologische Untersuchung von Matt 18:23-35.” Evanelische Theologie 32.5 (1972): 437-451.

Doriani, Daniel M. “Forgiveness: Jesus’ Plan for Healing and Reconciliation in the Church (Matthew 18:15-35).” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13.3 (2009): 22-32.

Hagner, Donald A. Matthew 1-13. Word Biblical Commentary 33A. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.

–. Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary 33B. Dallas: Word Books, 1995.

Harrington, Daniel J. “Matthew’s Gospel: Pastoral Problems and Possibilities.” Pages 62-73 in The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study: Studies in Memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. Edited by David E. Aune. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001.

–. The Gospel of Matthew. Sacra Pagina Series 1. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Hylen, Susan E. “Forgiveness and Life in Community.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 54.2 (2000): 146-157.

Illian, Bridget. “Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35.” Currents in Theology and Mission 37.6 (2010): 444-450.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Parables of Jesus: Revised Edition. New York: Scribner’s Press, 1972.

–. Unknown Sayings of Jesus. London: S.P.C.K., 1964.

Johansson, Daniel. “’Who can forgive sins but God alone?’: Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism.” Journal For The Study of the New Testament 33.4 (2011): 351-374.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation: Revised Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Kähler, Martin. The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. Translated by Carl E. Braaten. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2009.

Konradt, Matthias. “’Whoever humbles himself like this child…’ The Ethical Instruction in Matthew’s Community Discourse (Matt 18) and Its Narrative Setting.” Pages 105-138 in Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings. Edited by Ruben Zimmermann and Jan G. van der Watt. Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics 2. Tübigen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.

Kselman, John S. “Forgiveness: Old Testament.” Pages II: 831-833 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G). New York/London: Doubleday, 1992.

Lambrecht, Jan. Out of the Treasure: The Parables in the Gospel of Matthew. Louvain Theological and Pastoral Monographs 10. Louvain: Peeters Press, 1998.

Lee, Anna Suk Yee. “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Old Testament Sacrifice.” McMaster Journal Of Theology & Ministry 13 (2011): 24-44

Liddell, George, Scott, Robert, and Jones, H.S. A Greek-English Lexicon (9th Edition). Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 8-20. Hemeneia. Translated by James E. Crouch. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

–. Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Mbabazi, Isaac Kahwa. “The Jewish Background to Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew.” African Journal of Evangelical Theology 30.1 (2011): 15-34.

–. The Significance of Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel. PhD Dissertation. Manchester: University of Manchester, 2011.

Martinez, Ernest R. “The Interpretation of ‘Oi Mathetai in Matthew 18.” Catholic  Biblical Quarterly  23.3 (1961): 281-292.

McKnight, Scot. “Matthew, Gospel of.” Pages 784-800 in The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament: A One-Volume Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Edited by Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Meier, John P. “Matthew, Gospel of.” Pages IV: 622-641 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 4 (K-N). Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York and London: Doubleday, 1992.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Companion on the Greek New Testament: A Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (Third Edition). London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Nel. M.J. “Interpersoonlike vergifnis in Matteus 18:15-35.” Die Skriflig 49.2 (2015): #1935, 8 pages.

Nelson, Randy. “Exegeting Forgiveness.” American Theological Inquiry 5.2 (2012): 33-58.

Reimer, David J. “Stories of Forgiveness: Narrative Ethics and the Old Testament.” Pages 359-378 in Reflection and Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honour of A. Graeme Auld. Edited by Robert Rezetko, Timothy H. Lim and W. Brian Aucker. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Scott, Bernard Brandon. “The King’s Accounting: Matthew 18:23-34.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104.3 (1985): 429-442.

Senior, Donald. “Matthew 18:21-25.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 41.4 (1987): 403-407.

Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 14-28: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament 1b. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Soding, Gerardo. “La ‘Novedad de Jesus’ en sus Parabolas: Una propuesta hermeneutica.” Revista Biblica 1.4 (2010): 151-186.

Soulen, Richard N. Soulen and Soulen, R. Kendall. Handbook of Biblical Criticism: Third Edition, Revised and Expanded. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Thompson, William G. Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Community: Mt. 17,22-18,35. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.

Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. New York: Penguin Press, 1997.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. “Jesus and Forgiveness.” Translated by Josephine Koeppel. Communio: International Catholic Review 11.4 (1984): 322-334.

Williams, Rowan. “The Forgiveness of Sins: Hosea 11:1-9; Matthew 18:23-35.” Pages 214-218 in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007.

Wright, David P. “Day of Atonement/” Pages II: 72-76 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G). New York/London: Doubleday: 1992.

Implications for Matthew’s Theology of Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

But what are the implications and applications of this theology of forgiveness? Ulrich Luz rightly reminds us that, “Biblical texts are meaningful only when they become a part of our life.”[1] While Matthew’s Gospel has been read and interpreted in a variety of ways in the nearly 2,000 years since its composition,[2] the ethical, ecclesiological, Christological, and eschatological ramifications outlined here focus specifically on the messages evident from the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the connected insights on forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers the ethical basis for interacting with other members of the Christian community by calling members to recognize that strict justice cannot govern human affairs[3] and instead live out reconciliation and forgiveness among their fellow believers. Following the principle of imitatio Dei, “as God freely forgives those who have sinned against him, so are disciples to freely forgive those who sin against them…. The community must treat its members as God treats them.”[4] In one sense, there are no limits to this forgiveness, although in the context of Matthew 18 there are clear steps available for the community in instances where correction is not accepted (vv. 15-20).[5] To not forgive another person remains nothing short of extreme hubris, arrogance which will result in dire consequences in the end. The ethical implication of Matthew’s call to forgiveness is that true disciples must always forgive their fellow disciples, no matter how often they have sinned, because of God’s merciful forgiveness granted through the blood of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 offers important ecclesiological insights as well, namely that community and mercy are to stand as the fundamental characteristics of the Christian Church. Not only does the context of the parable emphasize the importance of community,[6] but the parable itself also highlights the role of other believers in promoting forgiveness. The fellow servants play an important role in the parable by holding the unforgiving servant accountable for his lack of mercy and by petitioning the king.[7] It is only through the community that accountability is accomplished (18:19-20, 31), wrongs are righted (18:15-17), and forgiveness is granted (18:18-20). Even when an unremitting sinner leaves the community, they are to be viewed by the community as one worthy of continuing pastoral care, not—it seems—on a strictly individual level, but on a corporate level.[8] The ecclesiology offered through Matthew’s theology of forgiveness is community-centered, using the mechanisms of Christian forgiveness to make love and mercy the governing principles of the new covenant.

Although Christ is not an immediately identifiable character in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (apart from his delivery of the parable itself), this parable does offer insights into Christology. Obviously, a central message of 18:21-35 speaks to the merciful character of God, who in Trinitarian perspective allows us to understand Christ one who extends mercy. Yet to stop there would be to miss how Matthew situates the historical reality of God’s forgiveness. For it is in Christ’s death on the cross that God’s loving mercy becomes personified and concrete.[9] As Hilary of Poitiers reminds us, “all pardon comes from [Jesus]” and the forgiving power of his blood.[10] Without Jesus’ bringing God’s mercy into the reality of this world, forgiveness remains an abstract concept.[11]

Matthean forgiveness expects an incarnation of God’s forgiving mercy, an embodiment which Jesus provides. Christ thus stands as the true forgiver, the one who brings God’s mercy into the world and offers it to those who belong to the community of the new covenant of his blood. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends on an unmistakably eschatological note (v. 35), warning Jesus’ hearers and Matthew’s readers of the impending judgment for not living out true forgiveness. As Buckley notes, this message connects with Matthew’s overarching vision of final judgment wherein men and women answer for how they followed Jesus’ imperative of love.[12] The parable itself, which leads readers to repent for failures in the past and to work to forgive more fully in the future, ultimately makes sense only in light of the cross, where truly significant forgiveness begins. While the main eschatology of the parable is set off in the future, there are inaugurated aspects as well.[13] For it is through forgiveness that the church participates in the reign of God in the here and now, serving all those around us as agents of God’s grace. Christians are thus called to forgive with the end in mind, not only to avoid final condemnation, but also to reveal the kingdom of God now.


[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 13.

[2] For an outline of the Wirkungsgeschicthe of Matthew, see Dale C. Allison, “Matthew and the History of its Interpretation,” Expository Times 120.1 (2008): 1-7.

[3] Thomas W. Buckley, Seventy Times Seven: Sin, Judgment, and Forgiveness in Matthew (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 86.

[4] Hagner, 540-541.

[5] As Illian notes, “Forgiveness in this part of the Gospel of Matthew is conditional; it can be repeated endlessly, but not without repentance.” (449)

[6] Luz, 479-481. Ascough, 115. On the connections between Matthew 16 and 18 regarding the authority of the disciples, see Ernest R. Martinez, “The Interpretation of ‘Oi Mathetai in Matthew 18,” CBQ 23.3 (1961): 281-92.

[7] Hylen, 147, 155.

[8] Although a widely neglected viewpoint, Senior correctly notes that, “If radical action must be taken for the sake of the community, then the expelled member is to be treated as ‘a Gentile and a tax collector’ (18:17)—an intriguing suggestion that may, in fact, be a call for continuing pastoral care even toward the expelled member. In this Gospel, tax collectors are enumerated among the apostles and called the friends of Jesus (9:9-13; 10:3; 11:19), and Gentiles are praised for their faith (8:5-13; 15:28) and become the object of the community’s mission (28:19).” (Senior, 404.)

[9] Deiden, 211.

[10] Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 18.10. Simonetti, 82.

[11] Rowan Williams, “The Forgiveness of Sins: Hosea 11:1-9; Matthew 18:23-35,” 214-18 in Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (ed. Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007), 216. Lambrecht, 63-4. Additionally, there are concerns about the nature of God which Scott (440-1) and others have suggested this parable raises. In its simplest form, this query takes the form of, “Can a God of judgment be the same God who forgives humanity?” The king’s reversal of mercy and enaction of wrath are particularly troublesome for many contemporary readers of the parable. In response to such concerns, warnings of over-examining parables and the consideration of a fully canonical God (that is, one capable of just punishment and undeserved grace) remain the most suitable starting points.

[12] Buckley, 87.

[13] Hylen, 156.

The Parable and the Theology

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant reminds us that the final word on sin and debt in the church must be forgiveness. For if God has forgiven his servants in such magnificence, who are they to not extend that merciful forgiveness to others? This imperative of mercy is not only intimately connected with the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself—but is wrapped up in the character of God. Since God grants forgiveness because He is mercy, so also His followers are called to embody and manifest forgiveness to others. As Daniel Doriani writes, “God has forgiven us a vast debt. As a result, we owe him our mind, our heart, our will. [This] passage summons us to give ourselves to the Lord not through an act of obedience or service, but by letting his mercy sink into our mind and heart. God has forgiven you ‘all that debt,’ not by a mere word, but by the life and blood of his Son. Since the Lord had such mercy on us we must have mercy and forgive others.”[1]

Other insights into forgiveness are gleaned in the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps most importantly, Matthew reveals that it is Jesus’ blood which brings forgiveness of sins. In this view, Jesus came into the world with the purpose of saving people from their sins, a reality which was inaugurated by forgiving death on the cross. From Matthew’s wider narrative, we saw that God possesses the power of forgiveness and that Jesus participated in that power while on earth. Further, there exists an “unforgivable sin,” which in the context of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant seems to be the failure to forgive others as one has been forgiven by God. The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Two Sons reveal that God wishes none from the community be lost and that obedient action rather than lip service constitutes true righteousness. Following the parabolic paradigms, we learned that even a sin as heinous as denying Jesus is a forgivable offense, provided you properly request forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others. Finally, Matthew demonstrates that the blood of Jesus forgives and saves, even to the Jews who seemingly have rejected him.


[1] Doriani, 31.

The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 2)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

The second narrative insight into Matthew’s theology of forgiveness centers around the interactions between Pilate, Jesus, Barabbas, and the crowd in Matthew 27:15-26. Although the events surrounding Jesus’ death took place around Passover, the scene before Pilate would have reminded Matthew’s Jewish readers of a different Jewish feast: Yom Kippur, the Festival of Atonement. During this festival, two goats would be brought before the assembly, one of which was released and the other which was killed for the sins of the people.[1]

When the crowd chooses to release Jesus Barabbas and crucify Jesus Son of the Father, they unwittingly elect to sacrifice the one whose blood would actually supplant the blood of sheep and cattle. 27:24-25 are verses long abused by Christians with anti-Semitic tendencies who desire to punish the Jewish people for their role in crucifying Jesus.[2] And, on a face-value reading of the passage, these verses do seem to absolve Rome of any guilt for Jesus’ death while laying blame solely at the feet of the Jews.

Yet in light of Matthew’s theology of forgiveness—especially the fact that Jesus’ blood grants forgiveness of sins (26:28)—there is more to this passage than first meets the eye. For when Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood (another event recorded only in Matthew), he actually washes off that which forgives sin. And when the people—presumably in bloodlust—cry out for Jesus’ death, they actually ask to receive that which grants forgiveness and salvation. Through a theological reading of this passage, therefore, Matthew simultaneously subverts Roman power—now sanitized from the saving blood—and offers redemption to the Jews—who are covered in Jesus’ forgiving blood. Matthew, who wrestled with how to forgive his Jewish neighbors for their willingness to crucify Jesus, urges his community do recognize that the Jews are already forgiven in Jesus. Lest they too become unforgiving servants, followers of Jesus are therefore urged to extend forgiveness to the Jews.


[1] David P. Wright, “Day of Atonement,” 72-76 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G) (New York/London: Doubleday: 1992), 3. Lev. 16.20-22.

[2] Harrington, 20-21. Hagner, lxxii.

The Narrative of Matthew and Forgiveness (Part 1)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

It has often been suggested that the canonical gospels are passion stories with long introductions,[1] that the narrative of the crucifixion, death, and resurrections form the crux of the gospel message and is supplemented by what comes earlier in the gospels. Insofar as this is true of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, this principle also applies to Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, for it is during the passion narrative that Matthew’s dual theological emphases on forgiveness come to a head. The first stream involves Matthew’s perspective on the limitlessness of forgiveness applied to the actions of Peter and Judas; the second involves the climax of the gospel message—that forgiveness of sins comes through the blood of Jesus.

In chapters 26 and 27 Matthew casts Peter and Judas in the paradigm of the Parable of the Two Sons, two workers who say one thing and do another and are both in need of forgiveness. In 26:14-16, 47-50, Judas takes the place of the first son, the one who claims that he will follow Jesus but instead betrays him. In 26:31-35, Peter follows the example of the second son, saying that he will never betray Jesus. But then in 26:69-75 he fails to follow through and denies Jesus three times. Matthew portrays Peter as clearly contrite for his actions (26:75), but it does not take away from the fact that he has sinned by changing his mind.

What then of Judas? Again using material that no other evangelist provides, in 27:3-10 Matthew recounts Judas’s post-betrayal actions. 27:3 records that when Judas saw that Jesus was condemned, he “repented” (μεταμεληθεὶς), the same term used for the second son who “changed his mind” (μεταμεληθείς ) and did his father’s will in the Parable of the Two Sons (21:29). He then confessed his sin to the priests—at least part of the required atonement for sin (Lev. 4:27-35)—and paid thirty pieces of silver—the price of a slave’s life (Exodus 21:32). Since one can sin against the Son of Man and still receive forgiveness (12:32), until this point Judas stands as one capable of being forgiven by God, of being the son who did the will of his father.

Unfortunately, the priests then fail him by failing to forgive him and he goes off and hangs himself.[2] Although Peter’s post-denial repentance and Judas’s post-betrayal forgiveness add a twist, Matthew’s account of these two workers’ actions employs the Parable of the Two Sons paradigm. The message to his community is, quite shockingly, to be more like Judas than Peter, for it is better to ask for forgiveness for betraying Jesus than to say you will not deny him and disown him three times. In Matthew’s Gospel, even a sin as heinous as denying Jesus is a forgivable offense, provided you properly request forgiveness and extend forgiveness to others.


[1] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (trans. Carl E. Braaten, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 80n2.

[2] The failure of the priests could very well be interpreted as an anti-priesthood sentiment, perhaps influenced by the Sitz im Leben of Matthew’s community. Alternatively, it could simply be another indication of the consistent rejection of proper righteousness by this priests in particular. We leave aside questions of forgiveness for suicide, as this is beyond the scope of this paper.

The Parables of Matthew and Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

These general literary-theological insights concerning Matthew’s theology of forgiveness find additional explication in two additional parables of Jesus: the Parable of the Lost Sheep (18:10-14) and Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32).

In the Parable of the Lost Sheep—which occurs only a few verses before the Parable of Unmerciful Servant and in the context of discussions about the nature of the community—a distinction is drawn between those who have gone astray (τὸ πλανώμενον) and those who are not lost. Verse 14 serves as the connection of this parable to its context, namely, that the Father desires that not one of His sheep, those who belong to him (τῶν μικρῶν τούτων), be lost.[1] In the context of the Jesus-community, this suggests that God desires none of His people ever be lost, and that if they do wander away for a time, He wants them back. This is the type of inclusion and forgiveness that the People of God are taught to show one another.

Like the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, the Parable of the Two Sons occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel. Placed within the context of Holy Week, the vineyard (ἀμπελών) of this parable and the immediately following Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-44) should be understood as references to the same thing: the land, specifically the places where father of vv. 28-31 and landowner of vv. 33-40 operates.[2] The basic message of this parable is that those who do the will of the Father—even after initially rejecting his commands—are closer to the way of righteousness than those who disobey after saying they will obey. Action trumps speech and constitutes true obedience. For Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, these parables reveal that God wishes none from the community be lost and that obedient action rather than lip service constitutes true righteousness. These parables and their teachings prove paradigmatic for properly understanding Matthew’s narrative of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus.


[1] On the motif of the People of God represented as sheep (πρόβατα), see Ez. 34.1-31, Ps. 23, and 1 Enoch 85-90.

[2] Harrington, 299.

Answering God with the Psalms

I recently finished reading Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as a Tool for Prayer. Peterson is best known for The Message Bible translation and well known among pastors (at least the circles I run in) for his calls to obedience to Christ and the interior life. I’ve been on a protracted Peterson kick for the past four years, taking my time to read through as much of his work as I can (and recently finishing Winn Collier’s excellent biography on Peterson, A Burning in My Bones).

Peterson is like a breath of fresh air for my cloudy and polluted mind. He seamlessly weaves together biblical wisdom with striking prose, and it’s illuminating. I leave the story of his life challenged and I leave his own writing inspired and encouraged, challenged and convicted. It’s a delightful experience every time I pick up one of his books.

The major premise of Answering God is that the Psalms are our answers to God: our prayers in response to who God is and what He has done. For Peterson, the Psalms should form and forge our life of prayer, as everything from the words and scope to their order and system bear meaning for our walk with the Almighty. (There are lots of other things worthy reflecting on too, but this is the main message.)

This struck a chord with me as there have been several times in my life when the Psalms have formed the core part of my prayer life with God. When I left home for the first time to attend my gap year at Summit Semester, I read and prayed the Psalms each morning. While I was studying overseas at Oxford, following the death of my grandfather, and during a rough season in grad school, the Psalms were my lifeline of prayer and faith. Not that I haven’t read the Psalms at other times—only that these turbulent times stand out in my mind as seasons when the Psalms were particularly helpful for putting into words what I was feeling and struggling with.

The other season when I’ve relied heavily on the Psalms is, of course, right now. As I’ve struggled mightily since January with my physical and mental health, the Psalms have formed the core of my prayer life. When I don’t know what to say (or even what to focus on), the Psalms have been there to provide my words to God. Relatedly, I’ve taken up praying the Daily Office, which is filled with (among other Scriptures) the Psalms.

And so as I make my way through this persistent season of exhaustion, pain, and anxiety, I’ll continue to turn to the Psalms—to run to them, to pray them, to cling to them, to learn from them, and to answer God with them. For what else can I do?

I lift up my eyes to you,
    to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    till he shows us his mercy.

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
    for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
    of ridicule from the arrogant,
    of contempt from the proud.

~Psalm 123

Matthew’s General Theology of Forgiveness

This post is part of an ongoing series on Forgiveness in the Gospel of Matthew.

While increased attention has been paid to Matthew’s overarching theology of forgiveness in recent years, no study has comprehensively treated this theme.[1] Here, we begin the process of tracing Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, considering literary-theological passages, parables, and narrative insights into the importance of forgiveness for the Christian community.

Matthew’s theology of forgiveness begins at the beginning of his gospel, when at the annunciation Joseph is told that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.”[2] Thus from the start readers of the First Gospel are alerted to the fact that Jesus’ salvific import coordinates with the removal of sins—an act of merciful forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus petitions that God forgive us as we forgive others (6:12), continuing after the prayer with the explanation that, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:14-15). This postscript is found neither in Luke 11:1-4 nor in Mark 11:25.[3] The theme of “forgive in order that you may be forgiven” that occurs in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant stands in coordination with this petition from the Lord’s Prayer.[4] Even more important for Matthew’s theology of forgiveness, however, is his affirmation of the Jewish conviction that Yahweh is the one who effects the forgiveness sin.[5]

Matthew continues the development of this theme in 9:1-8, where Jesus confirms his power to forgive sins—just like Yahweh—in the healing of the paralyzed man. The next encounter with forgiveness occurs in Jesus’ discussion of spiritual powers in Matthew 12:31-32, where he speaks of the unforgiveable sin of speaking against the Spirit (εἴπῃ κατὰ τοῦ πνεύματος, 12:32), where to “speak against” conveys not only actual speech, but also general transgression of the will of the Spirit.[6] Less frequently noted is this passage’s differentiation between the Son and the Spirit. Whereas sins against the Spirit are unforgiveable, general sins and even speaking against the Son of Man will be forgiven (ἀφεθήσεται). Scholars have spilled no little ink over attempting to determine what this unforgiveable sin might be.[7] In light of Matthew 18:21-35 and Matthew’s other insights into instances of unforgiveness, it seems plausible that not living out the Spirit’s forgiveness could in fact constitute “speaking against” the Spirit. That is, for Matthew, the unforgiveable sin for Christians is not extending the forgiveness of God to others, thereby transgressing the Spirit of God.

The final literary-theological insight on forgiveness involves the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:26-30, where Jesus announces that it his blood which, when poured out, provides for the forgiveness of sins (εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν). While Mark 11:22-25, Luke 22:15-20, and Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) all record this all-important scene—including the institution of the supper and the inauguration of the new covenant—no other account of the Lord’s Supper indicates that Jesus’ blood is for the forgiveness of sins. Unique to Matthew’s Gospel, therefore, is the continuation of the Jewish belief that without the blood there is no forgiveness of sins[8] and that is it Jesus’ blood in particular which forgives human sinfulness. These literary-theological insights reveal that, for Matthew, Jesus came into the world in order to save people from their sins, that God (alone) possesses the power to forgive, that Jesus too has been given the power to grant forgiveness, that sins against the Spirit are unforgiveable, that sins against the Son are forgivable, and that Jesus’ blood brings forgiveness of sins.


[1] Bronn, 208-209, notes connections between 5.21–24, 6.15, and 18.15-35, but no other passages. Even Mbabazi’s careful consideration of Matthew’ concept of forgiveness overlooks many of the contributions to Matthew’s overarching theology. See Isaac Kahwa Mbabazi, The Significance of Interpersonal Forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel (PhD Diss., Manchester: University of Manchester, 2011), esp. 57-67.

[2] Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 27 (ed. Kurt Aland, Westphalia: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2011), 2. αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

[3] In the petition, Jesus uses the imperative (ἄφες)—conveying request—and in the explanation he employs the subjunctive (ἀφῆτε)—indicating the conditional nature of the forgiveness.

[4] Bronn, 208-209. Bronn concludes that, “Not only is it clear that Matthew has a special interest in forgiveness but, looking back, we see that he speaks of forgiveness almost exclusively in terms of brotherhood.”

[5] John S. Kselman, “Forgiveness: Old Testament,” 831-833 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: Volume 2 (D-G) (New York/London: Doubleday, 1992), 831. Cx. Ex. 34.6-7, Num. 14.8, 30.6-13. Daniel Johansson, “’Who can forgive sins but God alone?’: Human and Angelic Agents, and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism,” JSNT 33.4 (2011): 351-374.

[6] The phrase “εἴπῃ κατὰ” is not extant in any literature prior to Matthew’s Gospel. On use of term, see Galen, In Hippocratis 17b.96.7 and Hermogenes, Rhetoric 1.50.

[7] See Luz, 206-210 on the history of interpretations of this passage, ranging from Origen to modern scholars.

[8] Ex. 30.10, Lev. 2.9. 3.5, Ez. 45.18-20. See also Heb. 9.22. Anna Suk Yee Lee, “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Old Testament Sacrifice,” McMaster Journal Of Theology & Ministry 13 (2011): 24-44, esp. 25.