Matthew 5:1-2 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying…
The Sermon on the Mount is the first of five sermons in Matthew. Notice that the first and the last are given “on a mountain,” all of them are addressed to the disciples, although in the case of the Sermon on the Mount there is a crowd that is listening to the teaching.
The five teaching sections in Matthew form a chiasm. The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is about the law and the Olivet Discourse, another “sermon on a mount,” but this time the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem (chapters 24-25, similar to Mark 13 and Luke 21). Chapters 10 and 18 are shorter sermons on discipleship. In the central position is a collection of Parables of the Kingdom, similar to Mark 4.
Some of the material in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is found in Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6:17–49) and other material is sprinkled throughout Luke (for example, Matt 5:13 = Luke 14:34–35; Matt 5:14 = Luke 11:33). This common material is usually designated as Q, a hypothetical “sayings gospel” that predates Matthew and Luke.
Was the Sermon on the Mount preached at one time, or is this a compendium of the teaching of Jesus? This is occasionally a controversial topic because Matthew begins the section by stating “Jesus went up on a mountainside and began to teach….” This implies that there was a single occasion when Jesus gathered his disciples and taught them this material. To many scholars, including evangelicals, Matthew has “created” the Sermon on the Mount by taking various sayings of Jesus on the topic of the Law and arranging these sayings thematically. Luke did the same with the sayings source, except he placed the material in different locations throughout his Gospel. Luke is often thought to have preserved the order or Q, but that is not a critical point.
This means the “Sermon on the Mount” as we know it is ultimately the literary product of the first evangelist. Robert Stein, for example, thought the “Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-7:29) and the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49) are literary creations of Matthew and Luke in the sense that they are collections of Jesus’ sayings that were uttered at various times and places and have been brought together primarily due to topical considerations” (Luke, 198). This is not to say the gospel writers created sayings of Jesus, but rather they collected the sayings of Jesus and placed them in some sort of context. Jesus probably often sat on a hillside to teach the disciples with the crowds listening as well.
Other evangelicals find this sort of suggestion to be an attack on the inerrancy of scripture. For example, Robert Thomas says “If Jesus did not preach such a sermon on a single occasion, why would the gospel writer mislead his readers to think that He did? This question has no plain answer” (Robert L. Thomas, “Evangelical Responses to the Jesus Seminar,” Master’s Seminary Journal 7 (1996): 88-89). For Thomas, the idea that Matthew collected sayings of Jesus and placed them into an artificial context strikes at the heart of inerrancy and challenges the authority of the Bible.
Is this the case? If Matthew collected genuine sayings of Jesus and placed them into a context different than Luke, would the authority of Jesus’ words be lost? If one accepts that Matthew arranged the sayings of Jesus this way, is the door open to argue Matthew “created” other sayings of Jesus?