Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism In The Gospel Of Matthew -- By: Daniel M. Gurtner

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 22:4 (NA 2012)
Article: Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism In The Gospel Of Matthew
Author: Daniel M. Gurtner

Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism In The Gospel Of Matthew

Daniel M. Gurtner

Bethel Seminary

The appearance of apocalyptic symbols is common in NT narratives, including in the Gospel of Matthew. But the identification and interpretation of such symbols is frequently allusive, indeterminate, and even contradictory in scholarly discussion. The purpose of this article is to offer some methodological controls for interpreting these texts. Drawing on seminal work done on apocalypses as a genre and their constituent features, this article posits that the employment of symbols is a defining element of apocalypses that provides an important point of entry for the identification and interpretation of apocalyptic symbols in the Gospel of Matthew. These symbols can be interpreted in a manner similar to that employed for formal apocalypses, in which interpreters seek to determine the referent of the symbol employed. Yet the distinction in genre between an apocalypse and a bios warrants careful attention to the function of the apocalyptic symbol in the Gospel narrative. This method is demonstrated on a text frequently described as “apocalyptic” (Matt 27:51-54).

Key Words: Matthew, interpretation, apocalyptic, symbolism, Revelation, veil

Author’s note: This paper expands on some hermeneutical underpinnings of my The Torn Veil: Matthew’s Exposition of the Death of Jesus (SNTSMS 139; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). An earlier draft was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (New Orleans, 2009). Thanks to the conveners of the Hermeneutics Section for their invitation to speak on this topic, especially W. Edward Glenny and Jim DeYoung. Thanks also to Darrell L. Bock and Wesley Olmstead, who responded to the paper and offered a number of helpful correctives.


Interpreting apocalyptic symbolism in Matthew seems to be a contradiction in terms. And, ironically, it is precisely this confusion in terminology that has led to confusion in interpretation. Matthew is not an apocalypse1

but a bios, an ancient biography of Greco-Roman form.2 So how can we speak of “apocalyptic” with respect to Matthew’s Gospel? The subject has been variously understood. While many works touch on apocalyptic elements in various places within the Gospel, only a few studies discuss the subject of apocalypticism in Matthew in its own right.3 P. Hadfield calls Matthew t...

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