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The Sermon on the Mount : The Matthean Jesus Is Not the Historical Jesus

The Sermon on the Mount : The Matthean Jesus Is Not the Historical Jesus

Introduction

The Sermon on the Mount is certainly the most famous passage of Matthew’s gospel. The discourse is presented as the first and defining moment of Jesus’ teaching. We address this discourse, covering the span of three chapters.  To understand the theological leanings of the unknown author schooled in the Jewish Christian scribal tradition, the Sermon on the Mount is central. In this first of a total of five composed speeches in his work, the author interprets Jesus’ proclamation for a Jewish Christian community. Much of the material in the sermon is drawn from a source that parallels Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17-49), but Matthew’s discourse is much more extensive, gathering other material and adding his own expansions and editing. 

The Sermon on the Mount: An Exegetical Commentary

This article is based on New Testament Scholar Georg Strecker’s book The Sermon on the Mount: an Exegetical Commentary. Professor Strecker observed that “no proper exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount can ignore the results of more than two hundred years of historical-critical research into the New Testament.” One of these results is the determination that the Sermon on the Mount in the First Gospel is not a speech made by Jesus, but the literary work of the Evangelist who wrote Matthew. Only three beatitudes, three of the antitheses, and the Lord’s prayer (and assorted other bits and pieces) can be traced back to the historical Jesus. Utilizing the finest contemporary scholarship, Strecker demonstrated how the words spoken by Jesus became written and interpreted by the author decades later. 

Georg Strecker, The Sermon on the Mount, An Exegetical Commentary, Nashville : Abingdon Press (1988)

Archive Book Link: https://archive.org/details/sermononmountexe0000stre/mode/2up

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George Strecker (born 1929) was for many years a Professor of the New Testament in the Theological faculty at the University of Göttingen, Germany. His principal works include “History of New Testament Literature,” “Theology of the New Testament,” and commentaries on the Johannine Letters and the Sermon on the Mount. He was a member of the Synod Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hannover, and member of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Society.

Luke is exemplary of a common primitive source Q

In Strecker’s introduction to his book, he refers to a hypothetical source Q which is assumed to pertain to the content shared by both Luke and Matthew. In referring to Q the author repetitively affirms Luke most closely conforms to the more primitive original language of Q while Matthew is typically expanding and embellishing upon this common source. 

The basic content of Matthew 5-7 can be traced back to the Q source, as a comparison with the Lukan parallel, the Sermon on the Plain of Luke 6:20-49, will demonstrate. Not only the framework (setting and epilogue) and the basic elements of the composition, but also above all the essential units of tradition in the Sermon on the Mount (the beatitudes, the commandments to love one’s enemy, the Golden Rule, the closing parables, and more) are passed on by Matthew and Luke. If we compare the outlines of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain, the far-reaching correspondences will become clear. (p.11-12)

Here is an outline of the correspondence between the Sermon on the Mount with the Sermon on the Plain and other passages in Luke:

  • Matthew 5:1-2 vs. Luke 6:12, 20, Setting
  • Matthew 5:3-4, 6, 11-12 vs. Luke 6:20-23, Beatitudes
  • Matthew 5:39-40, 42-48, 7:12 vs. Luke 6:27-36, Love of enemy, Golden Rule
  • Matthew 6:9-13 vs. Luke 11:2-4, Instructions on Prayer
  • Matthew 6:25-34 vs. Luke 12:22-31, Do not be anxious
  • Matthew 7:1-5 vs. Luke 6:37-38, 41-42, On judging
  • Matthew 7:16-21 vs. Luke 6:43-46, On good and bad trees
  • Matthew 7:24-27 vs. Luke 6:47-49, Closing parable
  • Matthew 7:28 vs. Luke 7:1 Epilogue

These correspondences are not coincidental. They necessitate a commonly written source document featuring material common to Matthew and Luke.  Strecker points to Luke as exemplifying the more primitive Q tradition and further adds that regarding Matthew, multiple layers of tradition are united in one text. That is, the text takes an earlier tradition of the content matter and adds to or modifies it in numerous ways. Matthew historizes the traditional material in light of a new situation.

It can be shown that the layers of tradition are manifold, that many of the developmental tendencies that characterize Matthew’s Gospel belong to a pre-Matthean tradition, and that the way “back to Jesus” cannot be traveled without taking into account the various layers of tradition that are united in one text. (p. 13) 

 

Sermon on the Mount Overview

Section-by-section overviews regarding the origin and changes to the text of the Sermon on the Mount are summarized in the section below. For more detail refer to the book referenced: Georg Strecker, The Sermon on the Mount, An Exegetical Commentary, Nashville : Abingdon Press (1988)

The commentary addresses what Professor Srecker thought was the original sayings material and what is a later innovation associated with a later tradition or by the author of Matthew, who expanded upon and altered the source material. In the book, numerous comparisons are made between Matthew and Luke and between Matthew and Mark, and between Matthew and hypothetical sayings source Q (exemplified by Luke). Also discussed are motives the author of Matthew likely had in constructing the sermon as he did. 

Matthew 5:1-2, Setting (p. 24-26)

Only Matthew localizes Jesus’ speech to the mountain. The mountain motif in this passage is that Jesus is presented as the one who teaches and is sitting in the typical posture of a teacher among Jews and Greeks. The teaching on the mountain suggests the speech involves “divine epiphany” and “eschatological revelation”. The concept of a mountain signalizes a suitable place for an epic event. Here God’s revelation makes itself known. Here Jesus appears as the revealer.  So, also says Matt 15:29: the sick are healed by Jesus on a mountain. And according to Matt 28:16, the resurrected one appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. 

Matthew 5:3-12, Beatitudes (p. 29-47)

The oldest accessible version results from a comparison with Luke 6:20-23. This tradition goes back to the Q model that Luke and Matthew together presuppose.  This includes part of Matt 5:3, a version of Matt 5:4, and part of Matt 5:6. Coming later as a unit, likewise common to Matthew and Luke, is the beatitude of the persecuted (Matt 5:11-12 vs. Luke 6:22-23). The ethical beatitudes of Matt 5:7-9 expand the original tradition. Besides the blessing of the sufferers come now the doers of the word. Matthew placed these mutually conflicting arrangements of two traditional units of beatitudes to fit his conception. Comparison with the Lukan parallel shows that the text in verse 3 and verse 6 was redactional altered, and verse 10 was added to Matthew.  In this way, the first Evangelist impressed an ethical intention even on the original beatitudes, as detailed exegesis can demonstrate.

Matthew 5:13-16, The Nature of Discipleship (p. 47-52)

As synoptic comparison shows, this section goes back to isolated words of Jesus in the primitive tradition. Thus, Mark 9:50 identifies verse 13 as an originally independent saying. The text on the light of the world and the city on a hill (v. 14) seems to be an addition, whose unskilled placement points, nonetheless, to a pre-Matthean origin. Verse 16, on the other hand, is a redactional formation. The language is Matthean. This verse brings the application of the foregoing images, and at the same time provides a transition to what follows.  In terms of form history, Matthew 5:13-15 deals with image sayings. An abstract truth is poured into the form of an image. Originally, the third person was appropriated to such image sayings. The Evangelist probably introduced the second person as an accommodation to what proceeds and is preparation for what follows. 

Matthew 5:17-20, The New Righteousness, (p. 52-61)

As the conclusion and climax of the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, verses 17-20 show especially strong evidence of redactional intrusion. Both verse 17 and verse 20 were composed by Matthew, as can be argued on linguistic grounds, but one must also deal with Matthean’s influence in verses 18-19. 

Matthew 5:21-48, The Antitheses (p. 61-97)

In the next section, Matthew reports six antitheses, and thus adopts a figure of speech coined in the Jewish tradition. It is characterized by a thesis, in which a statement of dogma is cited, and an antithesis, in which the cited doctrinal view is contradicted. In the investigation of the primitive tradition, we must distinguish between the antithetical framework and the substance of the antithesis. In the Lukan Sermon on the Plain, the only parallel is in Luke 6:27-36 (cf. Matt 5:39-48). This means in the Q tradition common to Matthew and Luke, there was no antithetical formulation… Through the composition of three more antitheses, the Evangelist expanded the series of two times three (equals six) antitheses. 

Matthew 6:1-18, On Almsgiving, Praying, and Fasting (p.96- 129)

The introductory verse was conceived by Matthew as a heading for the entire section. The redactional composition can be demonstrated linguistically. In particular, the designation of God as the “Father who is in heaven” and the concept of righteousness, or “piety” are typically Matthean, so there can be no doubt.  With verse 1 Matthew leaves Luke and their common Q tradition, whose material he draws on in this section only in the text of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) and again starting with verse 19. On the other hand, the continuing line of the Q tradition that was abandoned after Matt 5:48 is not picked up again until Matt 7:1ff (cf. Luke 6:37ff.).

In all probability, the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer is generally closer to the oldest layer of tradition, for it is revealing that the whole of the Lukan text of the Lord’s Prayer fits into the Matthean version. This is also true of the five petitions; the expansions in Matthew belong to a later stage of tradition. (p. 107)

Matthew 6:19-7:12, Individual Directives (p. 130-155)

In the following section, Matthew joins sayings of various content from the Q tradition. 
 
Matthew interprets the Golden Rule in an especially penetrating manner by freeing it from its original literary context and placing it at the close of the main section of the Sermon of the Mount. With such a central position, it points back to the theme of the Sermon on the Mount, the demand of righteousness (Matt 5:17-20), which is taken up here again in a summarizing and concluding fashion, since in the following verses only final warnings and parables appear. The redactional ‘all things therefore whatsoever’ makes clear the summarizing function. Above all, the closing formula ‘for this is the law and the prophets,’ which on linguistic and material grounds goes back to the Evangelist. (p. 154)
 

Matthew 7:13-27, Closing Admonitions and Parables (p. 155-173)

The presence of this image saying in Q (Matt 7:13-14) can be presumed from the parallel Luke 13:23-24, even if the Lukan text is in the form of a school dialogue and exhibits many Lukan traits. The admonition in Luke to enter by the narrow door reflects the substance of the saying, but for the most part, it is found in its original form in Matthew. 
 
The literary criticism of Matt 7:15-20 is especially complicated. Even a first comparison with the parallel Luke 6:43-45, however, will show that Matthew took the theme of the false prophets from an older Q pericope, whose tradition he also used in Matt 12:33-35, bound it with partially disparate material, and placed it independently in the middle of his section. The literary criticism of Matthew 7:21-23 is also not without complication.
 
As the parallel of Matt 7:24-26 with Luke 6:47-49 demonstrates, in the Q source the double parable of the wise and foolish builders already stood at the close of the speech. Its form of faultless antithetical parallelism places an impressive capstone on the structure of the Sermon on the Mount.  

 

Regarding the epilogue of Matt 7:26-28, with the solemn ‘and it happened,’ borrowed from the language of the LXX, Matthew returns to the situation described at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount… The first Evangelist combines Q and the Markan tradition.

 

Conclusion

The Matthean Jesus is not the historical Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount, in the First Gospel, is not a speech made by Jesus, but the literary work of the Evangelist who wrote Matthew. Matthew ethicizes and historizes the traditional material in light of a new situation. Regarding the emphasis of the Law of Matt 5:17-20 in the Sermon on the Mount, these verses are largely Matthean compositions.

Through probability judgments… the oldest material in the Sermon on the Mount can be shown to be a component of the proclamation of the historical Jesus… This historical core is… not as encompassing as presupposed in conservative-fundamentalist interpretation. Included above all are the three oldest beatitudes, a series of three antitheses, the Lord’s Prayer, and other verbal material that in the course of tradition history has experienced manifold changes before the redactor Matthew put it into its final form. (Georg Strecker, The Sermon on the Mount, An Exegetical Commentary, Nashville : Abingdon Press (1988), p. 174)