Ten Tidbits about the Sermon on the Mount

1. The Sermon on the Mount only appears in Matthew’s gospel. In Luke, the sermon is given not on a mountain, but a “level place” (6:17), and is frequently referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. These two sermons share some material, but diverge greatly. Attempts at harmonization argue that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, but most believe that the authors are working from shared sayings that have been put together in different ways. Most of what is in Matthew’s Sermon is found scattered about in different narrative contexts in Luke. Mark and John contain almost none of what is in Matthew’s sermon.

2. In Matthew, the location of the sermon on a mountain is significant for the typological parallel that he is drawing between Moses and Jesus. Luke is not making this parallel at all.

3. The Sermon is not a public address, but is rather given to the disciples away from the “crowds.”

4. The Beatitudes differ between Matthew and Luke in significant ways. In general, Luke’s versions are more concerned with social and political positions of powerlessness, eg., “blessed are you poor….Blessed are you that are hungry.” In contrast, Matthew is generally interested in more spiritualized versions of these sayings, eg., “blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Further, Luke’s version contains a set of “woes” along with the beatitudes that warn against the rich, the full, those who laugh, and the well esteemed (6:24-26).

5. Matthew’s Jesus’ attitude toward Torah/Law is extremely positive, and possibly explicitly anti-Pauline. When Matthew’s Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them,” (5:17), he seems to object to Christians who interpret Jesus’ message as the end of the Law. Matthew goes further with a Jesus who not only upholds the Law, but goes further with it by adding to it. This would certainly include observance of kosher and circumcision, the main issues under dispute in Pauline Christianity. “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)

6. One of the most controversial of Jesus’ sayings in the Sermon is his uncompromising prohibition of divorce (Matt 5:31-32), a saying also known to Mark and Luke (Mk 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). Paul also knows this saying, and is one of the only sayings of Jesus he references, and provides a caveat which essentially nullifies the prohibtion, permitting divorce and providing instructions for those who do so (1 Cor 7:10).

7. The so-called Lord’s Prayer contains some key differences between Matthew and Luke, with Matthew generally expanding on the sayings that Luke records, as he had done with the beatitudes. The conclusion in the KJV of Matthew 6:13b, “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, amen” is most certainly a later addition to the text. Interestingly, 3 Nephi 13:13 includes this line.

8. The culimation to “be perfect” has been interpreted variously. Mormons, like others, have generally taken this commandment as a call to perfectionist legalism, where it is not only possible, but required, to perfectly observe the law. Others have seen it as a call to recognize the impossibility of perfection, even while retaining it as an impossible ideal. Such a view inspires one to an indebtedness to God. For many, the advantage of the latter over the former is a recognition for the necessity of the atonement. What this view lacks is any basis in the text of the Sermon.

9. The Kingdom of God is the central principle in many of the logia that belong to this text. What (and when) the Kingdom is remains a contested question among early Christians. In the briefest sense, for Matthew this is a coming kingdom not yet realized, a future eschatology. The whole sermon should be read in the light of an expected, and impending new order, one which fails to materialize as expected.

10. Many, and possibly all, of the teachings regarding the Law likely belonged to well-known contemporary Jewish thought about the Law. Indeed, many of the sayings of Jesus here are found in other Jewish writings, either apocryphal or Rabbinic. Jesus’ teachings are not unique in this respect, and belong to an internal Jewish debate about the Law and its intpretation. In this sense, Jesus belongs to an interpretive tradition within Judaism, not as a critic raising never before heard objections and regulations.

16 Replies to “Ten Tidbits about the Sermon on the Mount”

  1. One of the great mysteries is what Jesus actually did say. The Gospels were written substantially after his ministry.

    One wonders how close they mirror his actual wording and teachings.

  2. I commonly hear authors and teachers claim that the Beatitudes are ordered in some sort of progression. I just don’t see it — each one seems like a self-encapsulated pearl to me. Do you have any thoughts one way or the other on it?

    1. Dane, it is an interesting proposition, but I agree with you. First, the beatitudes are different in Mt and Lk, and I think the order has to do with the tradition behind the sayings rather than a progression or hierarchy. Second, the Lukan version, which I think are probably the earlier tradition (not that that makes them truer or better), speak to actual categories of poverty, hunger, and persecution, not spiritual qualities. So, I don’t think that it was believed that these temporal conditions were cumulative, as spiritual traits may be.

      narrator, I have no strong opinions about how to understand the presence of the SoM in the BoM. Whatever it is historically, it represents a separate interpretive tradition and should be analyzed as such.

  3. Steve,
    Personally, I am a minimalist when it comes to this issue. I think that Luke more accurately preserves the Q sayings, but I don’t think that gets us any closer to the historical Jesus, since even Q (let alone some of the efforts to divide Q into multiple historical strata) is already an interpretation. For me, there is no real access to the historical Jesus, and we are left with multiple traditions. I’m fine with that. Unlike positivists and fundamentalists, I don’t think historicity is determinative of meaning or value.

  4. This is great TT, look forward to more. I really like what you say in comment about historicity and truth. Was it Levi-Straus who called history the modern myth? We too often equate historicity and Truth.

  5. Hey TT,
    These are great. I wish that you would say more about what you mean by “spiritualized” in your #4. What exactly does it mean to be “poor in spirit” or to “hunger … for righteousness”? If these are people who have not been treated righteously, and so hunger for it, then they would seem to me to be just as socially powerless as those addressed in Luke.

  6. Jacob,
    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that to “hunger and thirst after righteousness” can be translated as a hunger for justice, and that in this sense it still speaks about a category of oppressed/disadvantaged persons. I like that suggestion. In any case, being hungry and being hungry for justice are still different, even if “spiritualization” doesn’t necessary speak to that difference. And I’m not sure that it is an equal designation between the hungry and the hungry for justice, even if both are oppressed.
    I’d say that the macarism about persecution is probably changed in a similar way, in Luke speaking to those who are persecuted, and in Matt only those who are persecuted for their righteousness are blessed. Perhaps “spiritualization” also isn’t the exact category for this change.
    How would you describe the differences between Matt and Luke on this issue?

  7. Re tidbit #4, isn’t the “spiritualized” theory now considered out of date? See for example this except from the Word Biblical Commentary:

    hoi ptochoi to pneumati, lit “the poor in spirit,” the subject of the first beatitude, refers to the frame of mind characteristic of the literally poor. Thus, by the added “in spirit,” Matthew or the tradition before him has not “spiritualized” the Lukan (and probably original) form of the beatitude (so too Guelich, Sermon). He too means the literally poor, but he focuses on their psychological condition or frame of mind. The poor are almost always poor in spirit; the poor in spirit are almost always the poor (cf Broer [71], who notes that the two phrases were synonymous in the Judaism of Jesus’ time). In Israel, especially in the post-exilic period, poverty and piety often went together, the poor (Luz refers to the “déclassé”) having no other recourse than their hope in God. The poor were driven to complete reliance upon God, and the righteous poor were thought especially to be the objects of God’s special concern (cf Pss 9:18; 33[34]:18; 40:18; Isa 57:15; Jas 2:5).

    I’ve often wondered if moderns (and Mormons especially?) are prone to seeking ways to disregard the frequent commendation of poverty in holy writ.

  8. Secco,

    One of my favorite pasttimes is watching members scramble to defend the rich and distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor when such scriptures come up.

  9. Chris @ 13.
    I totally get you. My favorite pass times is watching liberal internet mormons scramble to defend morally debased committers of moral sin and distinguishing between the conservative members judgement of the behavior as wrong as the liberals condemnation of the conservatives as “their moral duty.” It’s always nice to be able to judge others in our own hypocritcal, self righteous way, isn’t it? So nice to know we share so much in common.


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