Learning to Read St. Matthew
In his work, Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, Warren Carter develops a reading strategy he calls “authorial intent.” He proposes this method as a means of avoiding two major mistakes in the dominating reading strategies employed in studying the New Testament. The first is a devotional reading which seeks for what the Scriptures say to the reader. While an excellent strategy for allowing the reader to engage with the text as a living, speaking document significant for his or her life, it holds at arm’s length those elements of the text which are foreign to the culture of the reader (Carter 1-2). On the other hand, historical criticism, while endeavoring to understand the original world of the text and seeking to understand all it says, does not allow space for the reader to respond to the text as having relevance for his or her life (2-3). Carter seeks to bring the best of both worlds. He utilizes historical criticism to explore how the original author sought to communicate to the audience, taking into account the language, culture, and historical context of the audience (5-7). By seeking for the way the text moves on an audience, the text is able to speak on its own terms, but also creates space for the reader to place him or herself into the text, hearing what it has to say, and then responding to the text in light of the reader’s own reality (7-8). Personally, I find myself inclined to the second error of historical criticism and struggle in finding ways to appropriately respond to the text or hear how God speaks to me in light of my own cultural context through the original context of the text. Carter’s method places a safeguard around the primary error I am inclined towards, namely undergoing a vain search for what the author intended. “We could speculate on them, but since Matthew is not among us to adjudicate on our varied guesses, our efforts are futile. Moreover, we know from conversation and other forms of communication that what we intend does not and cannot control the response of others” (3-4). While it is impossible to discover all that Matthew thought of while writing his Gospel, it is far more realistic to discern how he intended for his audience to respond and think about his writings by the final form of the text. Listening to the text the way the original audience would have allows the text to speak for itself and leads the reader to respond to what Matthew wrote in light of the reader’s own reality.