13 Sep 2017
A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:1,2. Is the Sermon authentic?
The Sermon on the Mount occurs only in the first Gospel (Matthew’s). In the third Gospel (Luke’s) there is a similar sermon, sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain’ (Lk.6:17-49). Luke says it was delivered ‘on a level place’ to which Jesus ‘came down’ after having gone ‘into the hills’ to pray (Lk.6:12, 17). But the apparent difference of location need not detain us, for the ‘level place’ may well have been not a plain or valley but a plateau in the hills.
A comparison of the contents of the two sermons reveals at once that they are not identical. Luke’s is considerably shorter, consisting of only 30 verses in contrast to Matthew’s 107, and each includes material absent from the other. Nevertheless, there are also obvious similarities between them. Both sermons begin with ‘beatitudes’, end with the parable of the two housebuilders, and in between contain the golden rule, the commands to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek, the prohibition against judging people, and the vivid illustrations of the log or speck in the eye and of the tree and its fruit. This common material, with a common beginning and ending, suggests that the two are versions of the same sermon. What, however, is the relation between the two? How are we to explain the combination of similarities and variations?
Many have denied that the Sermon on the Mount was ever in any meaningful sense a ‘sermon’ preached by Jesus on a particular occasion. It is a well-known feature of the first evangelist’s editorial practice to bring together into a collection some of the related teachings of Jesus. The best example is his series of seven of our Lord’s parables (Mt.13). Some have argued, therefore, that Matthew 5 to 7 represent an accumulation of the sayings of Jesus, skillfully woven into a form of a sermon by the evangelist, or by an early Christian community from which he took it. Even Calvin believed this: ‘The design of both evangelists, was to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ which related to a devout and holy life’. As a result, the Sermon is ‘a brief summary…collected out of his many and various discourses’.
Some modern commentators have been more outspoken. One example may be sufficient. W.D.Davies calls the Sermon ‘merely a collection of unrelated sayings of diverse origins, a patchwork’, and after a rehearsal of source criticism, form criticism and liturgical criticism, he concludes: ‘Thus the impact of recent criticism in all its forms is to cast doubt on the propriety of seeking to understand this section…as an interrelated totality derived from the actual teaching of Jesus.’ He later concedes that the tide has turned towards so-called redaction criticism, which at least credits the evangelists themselves with being real authors who shaped the tradition they preserve. Nevertheless, he remains skeptical as to how much original teaching of Jesus is contained in the Sermon on the Mount.
How one reacts to this kind of literary criticism depends on one’s fundamental theological presuppositions about God himself, the nature and purpose of his revelation in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit and the evangelist’s sense of truth. Personally, I find it hard to accept any view of the Sermon which attributes its contents rather to the early church than to Jesus, or even regards it as an amalgam of his sayings drawn from various occasions. The main reason is that both Matthew and Luke present their material as a sermon of Christ, and appear to intend their readers to understand it as such. Both give it a precise historical and geographical context, ascribing it to his early ministry in Galilee and stating that he delivered it ‘on the mountain’ or ‘on a level place’ in the hills. Matthew records the astonished reaction of the crowds when he had finished, especially because of the authority with which he had spoken (7:28, 29). And both say that, when it was over, ‘he entered Capernaum’ (Mt. 8:5; Lk.7:1).
This does not mean, however, that both evangelists give us the *ipsissima verba* of the whole sermon. Clearly they do not, for in any case Jesus spoke in Aramaic, and both gospels provide a Greek translation. Besides, as we have seen, their versions differ from each other. There are several possible ways of explaining this. Either both give their individual selections and translations, whether from a common source or from independent sources. Or Luke gives a briefer summary, omitting a good deal, while Matthew records more if not most of it. Or Matthew elaborates an originally shorter sermon, enlarging it by adding from other contexts authentic and appropriate utterances of Jesus. We could still assert that the Holy Spirit directed the selection and arrangement.
For myself I prefer a suggestion which Professor A.B.Bruce made in his commentary of 1897. He believed that the material contained in Matthew 5 to 7 represents the instruction ‘not of a single hour or day, but of a period of retirement’. He conjectured that Jesus might have had his disciples with him on the mountain for a kind of ‘holiday Summer School’. So he referred to these chapters not as ‘our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount’ (an expression first used by Augustine) but as ‘the teaching on the Hill’. Moreover, the Sermon as recorded in Matthew would have lasted only about ten minutes, so presumably what the evangelists give us is their own condensed summaries.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:1, 2. Is the Sermon relevant.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.