Matthew within Sectarian Judaism

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John Kampen
The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Stated simply, in Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, John Kampen uses a social scientific framework to read the Gospel of Matthew as an expression of 1st-century Jewish sectarianism. The author demonstrates his case by analyzing a selection of passages from Matthew: the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 3), the wisdom-related discourse in Matt 11 (chapter 4), the discussion of communal structure and organization in Matt 18 (chapter 5), the conflicts of Jesus with his opponents in Matt 23–27 (chapter 6), and the commission Jesus delivers in Matt 28 (chapter 7).

Throughout these chapters, Kampen argues that the most credible way of reconciling Matthew’s designation as the “most Jewish” gospel in the New Testament—with its remarkable animosity toward certain Jewish groups and customs—is to regard it as an expression of Jewish sectarianism, animated by concerns of difference in relation to, antagonism toward, and separation from other Jewish groups. Kampen increases the credibility of his arguments through citations of comparanda from other Jewish sectarian groups in the Second Temple period, with a special focus on literature from Qumran.

Within the Sermon on the Mount, for example, the Beatitudes (Matt 5:1-12) can be read as identifying the proper beliefs and behaviors of Jews “who constituted themselves as followers of Jesus at the end of the first century CE” (111). Such Jews are merciful, hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on. This focus on distinctive behaviors comprises, Kampen suggests, an expression of this group’s differences in relation to other Jewish groups. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount exhibits all three features of sectarian literature that Kampen foregrounds; it also expresses antagonism toward other Jewish groups vis-à-vis “the expected response of defamation and persecution by other groups; and separation in their claim to the exclusive authority of Jesus as the representative of the will of God to the exclusion of other sources of wisdom from the Divine” (85).

Likewise, Matthew’s treatment of topics related to wisdom and knowledge evinces features characteristic of sectarian discourse. In Matt 11, several of Jesus’s pronouncements are consistent with sectarianism: for example, Jesus is the sole mediator of knowledge of God (Matt 11:25-27), and Jesus, identified with wisdom, claims to be vindicated by deeds (Matt 11:19)—deeds performed in cities near the Sea of Galilee whose residents nevertheless did not repent (Matt 11:20-24). Kampen, accordingly, reads these pronouncements as indicating antagonism toward other groups (i.e., those who do not repent after witnessing Jesus’s deeds) and also separation from them (i.e., due to the exclusivity of the revelation through Jesus).

Guidelines are detailed in Matt 18:15-20 regarding the procedure for reproving members of the community who commit certain offenses: first approach the offender alone, then do it again with additional witnesses, and finally bring the issue before the whole community. These procedures are remarkably similar to those outlined in the Dead Sea Scrolls (especially in the Community Rule [1QS] and the Damascus Document [CD]), with all of these injunctions, including Matthew’s, apparently rooted in an application of Lev 19:17-18. In Matthew, as in the Qumran community, the procedures for reproof function to reinforce the community’s difference in relation to other Jewish groups and, by implication, separation from them.

As the narrative drama builds to a climax, the gospel also heightens the contrast between followers of Jesus and other Jewish groups—not only Pharisees but also Sadducees, chief priests, and elders. Jesus’s diatribe in Matt 23, for example, functions to undermine the legitimacy of rival Jewish groups—here scribes and Pharisees—through charges of hypocrisy and violent opposition. This passage, of course, evinces unambiguous antagonism. Similarly, Kampen observes, the followers of Jesus have been given exclusive “wisdom to understand the nature of the present age and the contemporary struggles of Israel” (182), wisdom that entails apocalyptic framings of the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem—an exclusivity that emphasizes their separation from other Jewish groups.

Jesus’s commission at the conclusion of the first gospel (Matt 28:16-20) is animated by sectarian concerns regarding Jesus’s disciples’ difference in relation to other groups and their separation from them. The distinction derives from their beliefs and practices rooted in the teaching of Jesus (28:20), the separation from their designation of Jesus—and now, through succession, his followers—as exclusive bearers of insight regarding God’s will (28:18, 20). Moreover, Kampen reads this commission in relation to Jesus’s earlier commission in Matt 10:5-6. Both, he says, communicate that “gentiles have an integral place in the apocalyptic eschatology of the Jewish world in which Matthew and that community resided” (186). In this reading, the “exclusive inclusivity” of Matt 28 is a narrative recapitulation, not a development.

In all of these ways, Kampen argues for reading Matthew within sectarian Judaism—differentiated from other expressions of Judaism in the ancient world, but not evincing “a move away from the Jewish community” (205, emphasis original). The credibility of this argument comes from his use of social scientific insights into sectarian religious movements and through comparisons of Matthew with (especially) writings from Qumran that exhibit similar sectarian features.

Nevertheless, I expect that some readers may suggest that demonstrating the compatibility of Matthew’s presentation with a sectarian framework does not disqualify a supersessionist reading of Matthew. Indeed, an argument detailing the ways in which Matthew’s Gospel is inconsistent with supersessionism would have been a helpful addendum to Kampen’s work. Moreover, such a discussion would be instructive regarding the study of other early Christian writings vis-à-vis Jewish sectarianism—it could be that it is more credible to regard all early Christian writings as Jewish literature exhibiting various degrees of sectarianism toward other Jewish groups. The question, of course, is where to draw the line between sectarianism and supersessionism. Be that as it may, Matthew within Sectarian Judaism is an erudite study that, I expect, will compel many interpreters to reframe how they think about Matthew’s Gospel—and perhaps about early Christian literature as a whole.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Christian Studies at Hunan University’s Yuelu Academy.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Kampen is Van Bogard Dunn Professor of Biblical Interpretation at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.


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