The Case for the Sermon on the Mount

A few posts ago, I explained how the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew could not have appeared in the Book of Mormon without using Matthew as its source material.  My statement that it’s implausible that Jesus delivered the same sermon twice because he never delivered the sermon in that order to begin with, however, creates theological discomfort not just for Mormons, but also for fundamentalist Christians who hold a quasi-Mormon view of divine inspiration.

While the view that the sermon in Matthew is a verbatim record of the actual sermon preached by Christ on the Mount of Olives is as equally flawed as the Mormon’s, it does raise some valid questions: If we can prove from parallel passages in Mark and Luke that the content in Matthew is a composite from various sources, then how do know there ever really was a Sermon on the Mount?  And if the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are just random compilations, then how credible is that account of the life of Christ?

The above fundamentalist position (which for simplicity is associated with fundamentalism here, even though it is not necessarily shared by all fundamentalists) is a lazy defense against the slippery slope of questioning the historical Jesus, but it’s not just unliterary and illogical, it’s also unnecessary.  The answer to satisfy textual criticism doesn’t need to be sought historically or archeologically, there is suitable intertextual proof to point to a historical sermon close to the form found in Matthew.

A little known fact about the Epistle of James is that it’s essentially a transcribed sermon, but what makes it unique in Christian history is that it’s really a sermon on a sermon.  James not only has many parallels to Christ in Matthew, it is in fact an expository sermon about the Sermon on the Mount.  Starting in James 1:2,

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds”

compared to Matthew 5:11,

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Parallels abound (James 2:10, Matt. 5:19; James 2:13, Matt. 5:7; James 5:2, Matt. 6:19-20, to list a few) and continue throughout the book up to a direct quote of Matthew’s “simple ‘yes’ or ‘no'” (Matt. 5:37, James 5:12).  But while it encompasses much of the same content that we find in Matthew, we can clearly see it does not follow the same order.  Admittedly, that in itself doesn’t necessarily refute the Book of Mormon version since it only works on the assumption that the sermon in James was preached in order, which preachers are not always prone to do.  However, we now have four parallel contemporary sources in the Bible, none of which share the exact same order.  The only logical conclusion about the perfect clone of Matthew found in 3 Nephi is that its source material was in fact Matthew, and that can only be if Joseph Smith was its actual author in the 19th century.

Furthermore, while the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew has parallels in Mark and Luke 6 and 11-12, the only overlap common to James is the Luke 6 content.  Finally, the Luke 6 “woes” are evident in James, but not found in Matthew (woe to the rich, Luke 6:24, James 5:1, laughter turning to morning: James 4:9, Luke 6:25).  This suggests that there was a collected sermon comprised of content now found in Matthew and Luke that was in circulation before the gospels were written and used by James.

From this we can conclude that the sermon in Matthew 5-7 is not just a compilation of random fragments of teachings, but an approximation from a source that was known to both Matthew and James.  So what about the Mark parallels?  Or the content unique only to Matthew?  Or the Luke material in James?  How much is the “original” Sermon on the Mount?  Such is the dilemma of speech re-creation in the first century; there was no way to effectively record or transcribe a spoken lecture 2,000 years ago.  Speeches were usually re-created by authors trying to summarize the speaker’s message, but Matthew goes above and beyond such liberties, instead showing evidence of scholarly integrity to preserve the message from the available sources.   The sermon spoken on the mount was for the audience that received it, what remains in writing may have some additional content than what was given then and some less.  It should not be mistaken for a word-for-word account of the speech delivered on the Mount of Olives, but as a faithful literary version of that speech.  It’s pointless to discuss trying to find an “original” Sermon on the Mount even if I thought that could be approximated through textual analysis.  The “real” Sermon on the Mount is the version recorded for us in Matthew.

This conclusion is earth-shattering to the hyper-literalist, who erroneously believes scripture to be something it is not: literal, exact wording of spoken events.  But for those who read scripture as it is–as literature–there is no inconsistency in this reading.


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