Hellenism and the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) has sometimes been put forward as one of those features of Christianity that marks it as distinctive from Hellenism. Traditional Protestant scholarship on the Bible reproduced popular racialized conceptions of culture in their analysis of ancient categories of thought. For instance, Adolf von Harnack distinguished between Judaism and Hellenism in his analysis of early Christianity. To this may be added the idea that Christianity represented something unique and distinct from its surroundings. In this narrative, the unique (=true) form of Christianity faced the risk of being corrupted by influence from Judaism and Hellenism. Harnack mapped all ancient heresies according to how much Judaism or Hellenism they exhibited.

Scholars today have largely abandoned these polar divisions between Judaism and Hellenism, some going so far as to call Judaism itself a Hellenistic religion. This movement has had significant impact on the study of ancient Christianity. Far from imagining Jesus as either ignorant of, or opposed to, Hellenism, we might best think of him as belonging to a cultural complex that represented the confluence of Greek, Israelite, and other cultural contexts. Among these, we can see the SM as part of this confluence, including several Hellenistic elements.

First, New Testament scholars have noted that the genre of the “Sermon” (this particular title for the text is rather late) is best understood as the epitome, a Hellenistic genre of the collections of teachings. The point of the epitome was to provide short, instructional materials for disciples. The closest parallels in genre to the SM are from philosohpical texts like Epictetus’ Encheridion and Epicurus’ Kyriai Doxai. One may add to this other works of Jewish thinkers in Hellenistic contexts, such as Ben Sira, the Wisdom of Solomon, some works by Philo, and others. Even the Hellenistic genre of the rabbinic Pirke Abot, is now widely accepted, and such an epitome bears some resemblance in form to the SM.

To this Hellenistic context, we may take note of a certain stock figures in Hellenistic philosophy that appear in the SM. For instance, the “prudent man” and the “foolish man” (Matt 7:24-27) draw on both the philosophical notions of virtue and the precise language of prudence, phronesis, philosophers used. Like Epictetus’ diatribes, the SM is designed to train disciples in an ethical tradition of the Cynic-Stoic variety.

Going further, the proverb on vision (Matt 6:22-23) is closely in conversation with ancient Greek theories of sense perception. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empidocles first compared the eye to a lamp (no comparison can be found in pre-Hellenistic Jewish literature). Philo expands greatly on this topic.

The sayings on anxiety (Matt 6:25-34) belong to a broad concern in Hellenistic-era literature with the topic. In pre-Hellenistic Israelite literature, there is no concept of anxiety. Hellenistic texts often reflected on providence in relationship to this problem of the human condition. In Hellenistic Jewish and non-Jewish texts on anxiety, the themes and responses are similar.

The “Golden Rule” (Matt 7:12) was already a common proverb for Aristotle (who happens to argue against it). The principle entered into Jewish discussions through Hellenistic-Jewish wisdom literature. Jesus’s most immediate source for the Rule would have been Hillel, but Hillel must have received it from the Hellenistic milieu.

Now, I am out of time so I am going to end this post. But suffice it to say, while the Jewish context of the SM is indisputable, the particular Judaism in the Galilee of the 1st c. CE had extensive Hellenistic characteristics. The SM is most certainly a product of a Hellenistic culture context in its form, examples, and even its specific teachings.

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