Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew

Daniel Gurtner has a helpful essay in the most recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (BBR)[1], titled “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew.” The goal of the essay is to outline a methodology for interpreting “apocalyptic symbolism in Matthew”[2] (I would say after reading the essay this could be applied to the other Gospels as well). After briefly summarizing the apocalyptic interpretation in Matthew he concludes that some, such as David Sim, place too much emphasis on “Matthew’s community”. While recognizing that apocalyptic literature typically arises out of an oppressed community he argues that Matthew’s gospel is not an apocalypse but rather a bios with apocalyptic imagery woven in. It is better to understand Matthew’s use of apocalyptic to “convey the meaning of history more profoundly than would be possible from a straightforward narrative” (544). Therefore, one loses sight of the reason Matthew is using apocalyptic writing when they tried to establish a community in which Matthew is writing in.

Gurtner says that the one aspect that is similar in all types of apocalyptic writing is symbolism. Since symbolism is present in post apocalypses (literary genre) and other genres that contain apocalyptic language (i.e. the Gospels) then this should be the interpreters entry into studying the apocalyptic writing of the Gospels. In order to identify and interpret these symbols he uses the interpretive methods G.K. Beale uses in understanding Revelation:

  1. When the symbol is not clearly identified by the author the interpreter must look at a “known commonplace association of a picture” (shared corpus)
  2. If the first option is not identifiable the interpreter should look at the “literal subject itself” (534). Gurtner notes that symbolic does not necessarily mean nonliteral. He gives the example of the exodus and the resurrection. Both events are highly symbolic (exodus = salvation/deliverance) but they are both understood to be literal events.

The rest of the essay provides an example using Gurtner’s interpretation of the tearing of the temple veil in Matthew. He has already done many studies ( dissertation, essay in JETS) but the purpose of this essay is to show the methodology of his interpretation rather than shed new light on the text.

Not having much history with apocalyptic writing I found this essay helpful as an entrance into the world of apocalypticism in interpreting the symbolic nature of the writing. The essay is worth a read as a helpful example of working through an apocalyptic writing within the Gospel narrative.

  1. Gurtner, Daniel. “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 525–546.  ↩

  2. Gurtner acknowledges that the term “apocalyptic symbolism” is a “contradiction in terms. And, ironically, it is precisely this confusion in terminology that has led to confusion in interpretation” (525)  ↩