Summary: The Sermon On The Mount and Matthew Chapter 7

The Sermon on the Mount has occupied the last three chapters that we have read. I think it’s impossible to write a summary of the chapter without also saying something about the Sermon as a whole. To start, let’s review briefly the content of the Sermon.

Of course we start with the Beatitudes. The significant aspect of this is that we have the promise of a positive reward for privation suffered. Most significant is that this reward will come in an afterlife, in the kingdom of the heavens. From there we go to the salt of the earth and the city on the hill, two nice metaphors that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come next, which is the promise not to drop a single iota/jot from the law. But then he does precisely that, telling us what the Jews of old were told, and then telling us how it stands now. Perhaps he’s not dropping the law so much as he is completing, or superseding, the law. All of this is a completely irrelevant introduction to the next topic, which is doing good in secret, not letting others know. This is the transfer from shame to guilt, external to internal; the ostentatious display of good works is all the reward one gets, whereas the one performing the works secretly will have a reward later, in the kingdom. And this is possibly a shot at Paul, and an echo of the later letter of James, when he says that faith without works is dead. More on James later. Here, Matthew does discuss the proper way to pray–in secret–so that’s not wholly divorced from the Lord’s Prayer. And there is a segue in to the idea of forgiving others so that we may be forgiven, which will help us store treasure in the heavens, rather than here on earth. And that does tie back to the Beatitudes, and does anticipate the them of much of Chapters 6 & 7: do not be concerned with materialism. God will provide; tomorrow should worry about tomorrow.Then we have the non-related contrast of the mote and the beam and the still non-related assurance that the one asking will receive, and the door will be opened if we knock. We conclude with the further assurance that, as we the wicked know how to treat our children well, so much more will God the Father know how to treat us well. That does have a marginal connection with the Golden Rule, but not so much with the narrow gate. Although the narrow gate can, sort of, connect to the idea that the good and the wicked shall be known by the fruits we produce. And in here we are told that even if we prophesy or work wonders in the name of the Lord, that may not actually do us much good when our fruits are being inspected. Which is interesting since the Jesus of Mark was pretty much a wonder-worker. Maybe this actually reflects back to Paul’s great discourse on love; we may prophesy, or do other wonders, but without love we are empty shells. To conclude, Matthew pretty much plagerizes Mark’s line that all who heard were amazed, and that Jesus taught with authority, and not like the scribes.

Coincidentally, today in church the gospel was Mark 1:21-28. It’s the story of Jesus first public act: preaching in the synagogue in Caphernaum, while those who heard him were amazed that Jesus taught with authority, and not like the scribes. So that was good, but what really struck me was the contrast between the way Mark describes the first work of Jesus’ public ministry, and the way Matthew does. For Mark, Jesus’ first act is preaching and exorcising an unclean spirit. This spirit then proclaims Jesus’ identity as the holy one of God, so we the reader have no doubt of who Jesus is. Matthew, in contrast, told us that in the birth narrative, right at the start of his Chapter 1. Then he sort of glides over Jesus being out and about, healing, but this is very brief, and the first real act of Jesus is this Sermon.

There is a dictum in writing fiction: show, don’t tell. Mark tells us that Jesus was a teacher; Matthew shows us by having Jesus teach. Matthew says that Jesus was a healer; Mark shows us by having Jesus heal. Sure, technically, it’s a exorcism, but that’s largely a distinction without a difference. But these are very different emphases. To which the question arises, if Mark says Jesus was a teacher, why doesn’t he tell us what was taught? Especially if the teaching was new, and was taught with authority? That Matthew chooses to emphasize the teachings is thoroughly understandable, epecially in light of the subsequent 2,000 years of Christian history, in which the teachings as reported by Matthew are pretty much what is understood as “Christianity”.

For, with the Sermon on the Mount, we have, I believe, crossed the line into true Christianity. More, in many ways, the Sermon on the Mount–the Beatitudes, in particular–is the epitome of Christianity. Given this, most Christian scholars–indeed, most Christians–would have a very hard time believing, or even accepting that these words are not the words of Jesus. Nearly all Christians have been willing to accept that, somehow, Matthew had a more authentic, a more direct pipeline to Jesus than Mark did, despite the fact that Matthew wrote a generation later. From an historical perspective, that is a tough row to hoe, a really tough sell. To make the sale, scholars have inferred the Q source as a way of providing that direct pipeline to Jesus. And by saying “inferred” I’m being kind; what I really want to say is “invented”.

And yet, reading the Sermon, I was struck several times by the sense that much–even most–of this has the feel of a collection of unrelated sayings. IOW, it feels something very like what Q is supposed to be. Mark Goodacre, one of the leading proponents of the non-Q school, referred to the section of 6:19 to 7:27 as a “grab-bag miscellany”. Oddly, one of the major proponents of Q, John Kloppenborg, was very derisive of this comment. Apparently Professor Kloppenborg doesn’t realize that a grab-bag miscellany is exactly what Q should be. Instead, Kloppenborg argues, or perhaps pronounces, that this is a skillfully crafted and tightly-written piece of prose. He cites examples of scholars who have seen elaborate patterns of construction in the Sermon. Of course, the different scholars see different patterns, which obviously causes problems; should not the ‘pattern’ be fairly obvious to most readers, rather than something buried so deeply that scholars have to tease it out? And, once it has been teased out, should different people find and see different things? He says this because Luke had the temerity to change the order and the organization of the Sermon. So, obviously, Luke was working from Q, and had never seen Matthew; because if Luke had read Matthew, the former would never have messed with the latter’s tightly-constructed, skillfully written masterpiece of prose. Since Luke did change the order, then Luke could not have read Matthew’s gospel. Ergo, Q.

This is the entire basis of the “argument” for Q. Heck, it’s pretty much the entire argument for Q.

Kloppenborg, Burton Mack, and others have constructed–they might claim “resurrected”–the “authentic” text of Q through scrupulous textual analysis of the “double tradition” material. That is, the material that Matthew and Luke share, but that is not present in Mark. This “double tradition” material is, more or less, Q. If they both have it, and Luke didn’t read Matthew, then Q must exist. The interesting thing is that a very substantial chunk of this earliest “stratum” of Q deals with topics that relate to poverty. By “poverty”, I mean the idea that we should turn away from material goods, we should turn our backs on our families and who we were and let the dead bury the dead, should leave without turning back to say good-bye, should venture out without a thought about how we will provide for our daily needs because God cares for the sparrows, so of course God will care for us, too. More, the Q text is seriously devoid of miracles, healings, or exorcisms. It is lacking in references to Jesus as a divine personage. Overall, it tells of a Jesus very different from the Jesus Mark portrayed. How is this later tradition the more authentic, the earlier, truer story?

While reading Mark, I frequently mentioned two traditions: that of the wonder-worker and that of the Christ. Of all the traditions that we can actually point to, that we actually have evidence for, the earliest is the Christ tradition. We know this is the earliest recorded tradition because we have the record. It’s Paul’s message. Then, later than that we have a tradition of a wonder-worker. We know this because we have Mark’s message. It’s not until we get to Matthew that we come across the counter-culture Jesus, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. But wait. This latest tradition is actually the earliest! How do we know this? Well…um, it turns out we don’t. We infer it. We believe it. But we have absolutely no evidence to support this.

Look, it has never been proven that Mark wrote first. It cannot be proven, unless we dig up something like a letter of Matthew’s stating that he read that other gospel written by a dude named Mark. However, if you read the two with anything like the approach taken by historical, rather than textua, criticism, it is just completely obvious that Mark is the older tradition. It’s the story before it had accrued too much elaboration. It didn’t have a birth narrative. It doesn’t have much of a resurrection story. It’s missing big chunks of teaching, but the story isn’t about a teacher. Not really. It’s about a wonder-worker. Paul’s Christ wasn’t really a teacher, either. He was the Christ, the one raised from the dead. Once more, this tradition doesn’t appear until Matthew. And yet, we are to believe it’s the more authentic tradition. It’s the earliest one. How do we know this? Because Q was written very, very early. How do we know this? Because it had to be written that early, or it wouldn’t be the earliest tradition; it wouldn’t be traceable to Jesus.

So, we have the counter-cultural Jesus and the teacher-Jesus showing up for the first time in Matthew. And yet, this is the earliest tradition because it was transmitted by a document that we do not possess. It was transmitted by a document that no ancient source has ever mentioned, or even alluded to. But it existed. It had to.

Think about it: Matthew = Mark + teachings of Jesus. From the historical point of view, I cannot stress sufficiently how odd it is to have an entirely new aspect appear so late. From the legend point of view, OTOH, it makes perfect sense. And it makes even more sense if we toss out the idea that the teachings Matthew has recorded came from James, and not from Jesus. I have mentioned this point several times, but it bears repeating: James was the leader of the Jesus movement for ten times as long as Jesus was, given the traditional dates for both, It is impossible that James was the leader for that much time without leaving an indelible mark on the nascent church. And since the teachings of Jesus are what separates Matthew from Mark, it is eminently reasonable to infer that this teaching came from James rather than Jesus via Q. The thing is, James is an attested fact; Paul tells us this, and the early leaders of what was then the Church agree that James was in charge for a period of time. And many of these early leaders were bishops of Rome, who had a vested interest in stressing the prominent role of Peter, and downplaying James.

I have asked several times how Mark could have been so utterly unaware of the Q material. If this is what Jesus was known for, how could it have so completely bypassed Mark? I have never read anything from the Q school that even acknowledges that this is a question that should be asked; so the Q school has made no attempt to answer this question, as far as I know. Until about two weeks ago, I had no answer either. But now I have an hypothesis. Mark knew the Q material, but he chose, deliberately, not to record it. Why? Because Mark had a good inkling that the Q material did not originate with Jesus. Rather, Mark knew that most of it came from James.

Consider the chronology. Mark wrote within a decade of James’ death; that was not sufficient time for the influence of James to percolate throughout the entire community of the Jesus movement. A generation later, enough time had passed for the assimilation to occur. And maybe enough time had passed for the fact that this teaching came from James, and not Jesus, to recede into the background. And let’s face it: there is nothing in Mark or Paul that comes close to the counter-cultural, social justice message of the Sermon on the Mount.

So Matthew in general, and the Sermon in particular, represent an entirely new level, and layer of meaning and belief and action to the Jesus movement. The Sermon is the point where we leave the Jesus movement behind, and enter the world of Christianity.




About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 4, 2015, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Q, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Excellent summary!

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