Creating the Sermon on the Mount

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.

The Sermon on the Mount, JesusSome 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?

27 thoughts on “Creating the Sermon on the Mount

  1. Here is my view as presented in a forthcoming book:
    There is a debate as to the relationship of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6). Some feel that Luke’s version is a condensed version, and that the plain is a level spot on the mountain. Others see the differences as too great, believing they are not the same occasion. For sure, the content overlaps. Here we see a feature about the inspiration of God. God allowed the writers freedom to select from Jesus’ teachings and actions and combine them in thematic and non-chronological order in order to communicate theological truth. This selection is guided by the Holy Spirit. It is understandable that when Jesus went place to place, He would repeat the truth in different settings. As a general rule, it seems Matthew records events in thematic units, whereas Luke presents it more chronological or contextual units. However, this does not rule out that what is recorded is one sermon.

  2. To answer your first question, I think it doesn’t matter if Matthew put things different than Luke did, I still believe that it doesn’t lose the authority of Jesus’ words. Jesus’ words are Jesus’ words. There is no change to them rather they appear in Matthew 4 or Matthew 5. They are still Jesus’ words. To answer your second question if we look at 2 Peter 1:21 it says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In my mind while reading that I don’t think Matthew was able to arrange the way Matthew wanted. Matthew wrote what God wanted. So since 2 Peter basically says that Matthew can’t write and rearrange scripture like some say he did, Matthew isn’t able to create other sayings of Jesus.

  3. Mkosten, I like the verse (2 Peter 1:21) you used to affirm the authority of scripture, no matter where that scripture is found, it is all inspired by the Lord. I might also add 2 Timothy 3:16 to confirm this concept.
    Jesus taught many valuable lessons and showed us how to live an honorable lifestyle. It is a wonder whether or not His followers just summarized a lot of these teachings or were very literal with what Jesus spoke. About the Sermon on the Mount, just from a readers view, it at least seems like there was an actual even that Jesus went up on the mountain and taught these things. He may have taught these concepts on many other occasions but this is the spot in the Bible that we have it recorded and can turn to. I went on a trip to Israel with Professor Long in 2013. There we visited a location where it is actually suspected that the Sermon on the Mount took place. With that in mind, it seems to me that there is at least a designated place where this sermon took place. It may have happened more than once, as I’m sure it did so that Jesus could reinforce His teachings, so it seems to be far-fetched to me that the writings of the Sermon on the Mount are just made up and composed of Jesus’ vital teachings.

  4. There is a huge difference in arranging and changing. If Matthew did arrange them instead of it being a one time event, how does that change what Jesus’ said. Matthew could have been stating the place that Jesus went to teach on a regular basis and then arranged the teachings instead of being redundant. Or perhaps this was a one time event, although the other Gospels would lead us to assume not. What Jesus said is still true, because of verse like 2 Peter 1:21, that Mike has used above, but also “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit has revealed to the Gospel-writers what is to be written there and thus inerrancy is not there. Matthew’s arrangement of the Sermon on the Mount would not have changed the authority of Jesus’ words because they are still the words of Jesus. I don’t think we can argue that Matthew created sayings of Jesus from looking at the arrangement of the Sermon on the Mount because the arranging of Jesus’ words is far different than changing Jesus’ words.

  5. It makes sense to me that the Sermon on the Mount could have been a collection of sayings put together by Matthew, and I guess in a way this could logically open up a door for Matthew to have “created” sayings. We credit Voltaire with saying “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This quote actually belongs to Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Other quotes from the past we can get the right person who said it, but misremember the actual quote word for word. “Luke, I am your father,” one of the most famous movie quotes of all time, is not actually the correct quote. The real quote is actually, “No. I am your father.”

    If Matthew was collecting these sayings over a lifetime and putting them together, isn’t there a chance that he misremembered some? It gives me a lot more theological peace to just assume that the Sermon on the Mount was an actual event. However, the goal of this study should be truth, not theological peace, but I can hopefully assume that since I believe and trust in the inerrancy of Scripture, theological peace should theoretically wind up being a byproduct of study.

  6. While reading the Sermon on the Mount, I had assumed that it all occurred at one time due to the beginning verses, “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them” (Matthew 5:1-2). However, reading this blog post and McKnight’s book has caused me to realize that Matthew could have compiled the teachings of Jesus from many different times into a couple chapters of the book of Matthew. McKnight said, “The opening lines about disciples gathering around Jesus with the ending having crowds suggests to many that Matthew has composed a sermon based on sayings given by Jesus about ethics from a variety of his ministry locations” (McKnight, 17). This may lead to some evangelicals to feel like this is could be an attack on the inerrancy of Scripture. The believe that if Matthew was trying to remember all of Jesus’ teachings, he may have remembered one incorrectly or snuck in his own words into the Sermon on the Mount. However, 2 Timothy 3:16 clearly states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (ESV). Every word in the Bible was written by God through men like Matthew. Whether the Sermon on the Mount was one event of Jesus teaching or many events, the words are from God.

  7. After reading the Sermon on the Mount as well as the blog post and the McKnight reading, it is interesting to me that there are different views on whether or not this was taught at one time or if it was a compilation of many teachings. I had always assumed that this teaching was done all at once, considering it was all together in the book of Matthew and Jesus is speaking the entire time. The beginning of the sermon does say that Jesus went up on a mountainside after viewing the crowds and his disciples came to him (Matthew 5:1) and the end states that the crowds were amazed by the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 7:28). When looking at the bookends of the sermon on the mount, it caused me to realize that Matthew could have complied many teaching down to a few chapters. All of these teachings that are in the Sermon on the Mount go hand in hand with one another, so it would make sense if they were placed together. Jesus spends this portion of scripture talking about the character in which he wants his followers to have. Even if they are all compiled into a few chapters next to each other in the book of Matthew, which might look different than the way that the book of Luke puts it, it shouldn’t lose the authority that Jesus has. There are many other times throughout scripture that Jesus states his authority as well. Throughout the translations of Bibles dating all the way back to when the scriptures were first being translated, there could have been a different word that was used. But all scripture is God breathed and so the authority of Jesus is not lost even if Matthew and Luke do not say the exact same thing.

  8. Time difference is a major aspect that comes along when comparing between time frames and how each impact the believers during the time period. The question that has been an ongoing question is was the sermon on the Mount preached at one time. As the article says, Matthew created the Sermon of the Mount by taking various sayings from Jesus on the whole topic of the Law. Luke did the same. But many believe that Luke has the order of it all correct. Matthew and Luke, in this article, are seen as various collections of Jesus sayings  that occurred during different times and places. Which, for me, is weird to think about that one event did not occur all at once, but a long period of times. Jesus’s teaching to all His believers and the nonbelievers were all placed into context and explained to the ones who could not totally grasp the true meaning of the context that was being displayed. I think it is interesting to think about the setting and location that Jesus was at when he was proclaiming the Gospel, and just imagining Him in his true character and nature. I always wonder how many people would gather around, how many thought His teaching was wrong and how many were amazed by the truth he was saying.

    The question based on if one accepts that Matthew arranged the saying of Jesus this way, is the door open to argue Matthew “created” other saying of Jesus?  I think that the book of Matthew contains truth and simply can not twist the words of Jesus because there are many documents of what occurred and what has said and has been documented else where. God’s word has transformed many peoples lives and continues to make a change.

  9. I do not think we should be surprised that Matthew and Luke would utilize the same sayings of Jesus. I think about the first chapter in “Four Portraits” when Strauss explains how each gospel writer paints a unique portrait of Jesus in their own way. Matthew and Luke would have heard and interpreted Jesus’ messages differently. There would be different striking points for each individual as they heard Jesus speak and I believe they would emphasize in their gospel what struck them hardest. Finding unity between the two gospels does not come as a surprise either, because they were following and writing about the same Savior. In comparing Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” we are clearly shown the diversity between the two writers, but we can also clearly see the unity between them and the one thing they had in common; loving Jesus and wanting to share about Him. Therefore, I do not believe that it negatively impacts the authority of the gospels. Rather, I think it provides authority even more so. Yes, it is possible that they may have misinterpreted or remembered a saying incorrectly after time passed because they were flawed vessels, but the Word of God is exactly how God wanted it to be.

  10. Throughout Scripture there are a few accounts as to where Jesus is preaching and people came and heard Him speak. We have the story in the book of Luke (5:1-11) where Jesus is basically being pushed off of the beach because the crowd was so big. Although I have only listed one example, we should already know about the different stories/ or different accounts of Jesus doing so. Another example is the Sermon on the Mount. Where Jesus has gone up onto the mountains to teach His disciples. Originally I had thought that these sermons were taught over a period of time however after reading the Sermon on the Mount, and reading this blog I am realizing that it would make sense that this would have been preached all together. In 2nd Timothy 3:16-17 it is written that “ALL scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching….” So whether or not this Sermon on The Mount was taught at the same time, or different times it still serves a purpose for all of us and the rest of the Bible. Even if some of the Sermon on the Mount is found in the book of Luke, it still has a purpose even if I was found in a different book. Looking at it, to me it would seem that the parts fond in the book of Matthew fit for that section being taught in Matthew and so on for the book of Luke. These words and the Sermon still have authority because we do know that they came from Jesus himself. Even if Matthew was the one who recorded them, they still have authority because we know that Jesus was the one who in fact sat down and had taught His disciples. One last example of this would be from the book of 2nd Peter verses 1:20-21, that “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy spirit.” I really think that it is so unfortunate that man has twisted scripture around, and that we all have so many different opinions on how scripture should go, that man itself has lost the authority of scripture. If these are “collections of Jesus” how can we get these things wrong? In the Blog post it talks about the fact that these sayings were collected and placed in some sort of context. They had a purpose.

    • Hey Brian, I totally get where you are coming from when you stated ” I really think it is unfortunate that man has twisted scripture.. that we have so many different opinions on how scripture should go.. that man himself has lost authority of scripture”. And I agree with you completely.The Sermon on the Mount being told in different authors view points is damaging to the reader. ts not a matter of who said what but that the Sermon is reaching people man years after the words have left Jesus’ mouth. The Bible is meant to help guide us and the placement of every word is exactly the where God intend it to be. Every word serving its purpose in the growth of Christianity this far and it should not be debated. Thanks for sharing!

  11. When it all comes down to it, Matthew just seems to indicate that this all happened at one time but it is also possible that it is just an oversight on his part. After reading the article, I’m still sitting here scratching my head wondering what everyone is so worked up about. But that being said it is perfectly reasonable to imagine that Jesus said the same things to different people at different times. Also, it is perfectly understandable that although the main points might be the same, but two people can hear the exact same sermon and have totally different elements stand out to them. Add that to the fact that Luke was a young Roman doctor and it becomes fairly obvious that he was hearing about these sermons from a second-hand source when he writes about the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. But as I mentioned earlier does it even matter? I believe the whole Bible is true and the fact that Matthew who was a tax collector, (I’m speculating here) and likely a numbers guy and not exactly the best author, made a mistake and didn’t clarify if all the sermons were from one spot or not. Just because something is unclear doesn’t mean it is a lie or an inconsistency. That being said it is a good thing to be aware of because up until now I just assumed it had all happened at once. Now I am aware of the debate and can approach the issue more well informed, even though at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. What would it change?

    • Hey Ben, I really stuck out to me when you said that “Also, it is perfectly understandable that although the main points might be the same, two people can hear the exact same sermon and have totally different elements stand out to them.” Jesus was preaching to a big crowd and it’s incredible that even though they were all hearing the same exact words, they all interpreted it differently because no one is the same and we all have unique experiences that can change our point of view.

  12. Alan Kasten. this is a cool thing to think about, did Jesus give all of the wisdom that he gave all in one setting? or is this text taken from over the course of His whole ministry? I believe that the Bible is fully inerrant/ without fault. I do however know that there is nothing in the Bible that is not supposed to be in there. I can, however, see some peoples problem because it does say in Matthew 5:1 “seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him”. so it does make sense that people would get upset, but at the same time people in that time did not have television, or phones or things like that, so there “Fun time” would be to watch people talk. it was what they did, so there may be so much different content topics in these chapters because Jesus may have been talking for most of the day, there may have even been more in that day, and the disciples may have just joined their notes and that’s what we have. the thing we need to remember is that the Bible is exactly what God wants in there, so if God wanted more he would have put more in there and if the Bible says he preached it all that day Jesus probably did.

  13. As I read the Title “Creating the Sermon on the Mount” I had to stop and think deeply about what is the Sermon on the Mount. After reading both the chapters and the blog, I realized that the Sermon on The Mount is so crucial to Christianity. During Jesus’ speech on the mountains, he creates guidelines and sets law for the crowds and the other generations who choose to follow Him.

  14. The fact that the sermon on the mount encompasses everything that Jesus wanted people to remember after he was gone leads many to believe that it was not all preached at one time. The sermon could have been a lot for people to take in all at once and even to hear if the crowd was very large. If it was in fact pieced together from things that Jesus said often then the mystery is did Matthew leave anything out? The hope that we have to answer this question is that everything in the sermon goes with Jesus previous teaching.

  15. When asking a group of 4 year olds about a movie they just watched there are two keys that will help us know if they’re saying the truth about the movie or not. First, their stories match. Lily and Robert both agree that Nemo was caught by a diver when swimming too close to the surface and taken to the dentist’s fish tank . Second, the information shared about the movie must be something they could not have come up with themselves. Example, if Andy says that Nemo then turned into a big unicorn and flew to the moon where he found Dory he most likely did not watch the whole movie, because this plow sounds more like a made up story from a 4 year old. [I apologize in advance for the use of Finding Nemo in this serious theological debate, it’s for the sake of explaining my point].
    Going back to the Bible, I believe both keys are part of the Sermon on the Mount for Matthew. First, the stories match. Roughly 27 percent of Matthew’s teachings are found in Luke 6:20-49, with another 33 percent scattered throughout other parts in Luke (France, 154). This indicates that 60% of these teachings are shared. Even if this sermon is indeed ”a compilation of the sayings of Jesus by the evangelist, rather than something spoken by Jesus on a single occasion” (Hagner, 83), the fact that two individuals are reporting the same information gives the story credibility. Secondly, the information shared is definitely something a human being couldn’t make up. The standards set during the Sermon on the Mount is “nothing less than perfection” (France, 154). In my opinion, the information exposed during this sermon had to come from someone that is more knowledgeable, someone that has more authority and knows exactly where humans tend to fail. It had to come from someone other than Matthew. It had to come from Jesus.
    In conclusion, whether the Sermon on the Mount was preached in one sitting or throughout a longer period of time does not affect the credibility and the fact that it was clearly Jesus’ teaching.

    • That is a good analogy, Luci. There are studies on memory and how people recall things which apply to this problem. Groups do tend to keep traditions more or less on track in the exact way you describe with Nemo. Minor variants may appear, but major changes to the story would not be tolerated. Another similarity is repetition. Most kids I know did not watch Finding Nemo once, they probably watched it over and over again until they knew the dialogue by heart. Same with the disciples, they heard Jesus teach often, and I am sure Jesus taught similar things in different places (perhaps with slight variations).

      Two things: first, how this works out for Matthew’s version of the first beatitude is important. Does he add “in spirit” for theological reasons? Or is he remembering what Jesus meant by “the poor”? Is that a “minor change” or did he spin the words of Jesus away from their original meaning? (Why yes, there is another post on this issue…)

      Second, how does the commitment and beliefs about Jesus from the original disciples affect their memory? If the twelve really believed Jesus was the Messiah, would they be more motivated to recall his words accurately? In your analogy, the kids do not believe God has given the revelation in Finding Nemo (or at least I hope not).

  16. In recent classes, I have heard various arguments on Matthew, Mark and Luke, and who may have come first, worked from the writings of another, and many other points, but there are two things that came to my mind while reading this post. Yes, there are instances of overlap between the writings of Matthew and Luke, but we do see at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus went up to the mountain and saw the crowds (Matt. 5:1), and at the end, it is noted that the crowd was astonished (Matt. 7:28), indicating to me that Matt. 5-7 takes place through the duration of the sermon, rather than piecing together different teachings of Jesus from different times and places. Another thing that I wonder between Matthew and Luke is that maybe both were there, but I know that my note taking will be very different than the person next to me, more detailed or more brief, but the ultimate teachings are still present. I do not believe that the authority of Jesus’ words are lost here, and will not be anywhere within the Scriptures, as the Bible is the Word of God, and we know by the nature and character of God, that He cannot lie or have error (Heb 6:18), so these teachings still hold their authority and are without error.

  17. If Matthew was to collect genuine sayings of Jesus and placed them into a different than what Luke is doing. I would think the authority of Jesus would be lost because now more than himself and one person or spreading his word with a few changes. Authority is important as well because it is a strong characteristic. I would agree if someone was to accept the word of Matthew than there would be a contradiction because they lose trust and if Matthew was lying or not. I also think if Matthew and Luke are spreading the word of Jesus and not mentioning where it is coming from at least people will hear what is needed to be heard.

  18. When I think of “The Sermon on the Mount,” I think of one sermon. I don’t think of a series of sermons that was preached. Matthew 5 shows lust, anger, retaliation, and loving all your neighbors as sermons that were preached. I thought it was extremely interesting that it was multiple. For example, Matthew 5-7 is multiple sermons about how we as Christians need to act. I look at the Sermon on the Mount as what we as Christians should do and how we should act. It clearly shows what is right and what is wrong.

  19. I think largely this problem of “did the Sermon on the Mount happen at one time or throughout multiple teaching experiences” is only a problem to the modern reader. I would make the argument that the modern reader applies their expectation of writings to the text. We live in a day and age in which it’s expected to site sources and have completely accurate accounts of events. We have a time stamp on everything we text, send, post, and watch. This means that we can accurately record events in order. This was not the case for the ancient world. For us to expect the text to be time stamped, in order, is to impose our modern expectations on events that happened and didn’t have access to the technology that the modern reader takes for granted. The gospel writers would have not been concerned with remembering exactly the order of each teaching but rather communicating the message of the teaching. Let’s give a scenario to better help understand how this might play out. If you are going to tell a story about a vacation or something that happened a year or more ago then you would communicate all the highlights from the trip like the places you ate, things you saw, and the place you stayed. However, when telling this story you might forget the order of events or maybe you had two trips to the same place and the stories start to blend together and you share two different events from two different trips as if they both happened on the same trip. This is similar to what might have happened with the sermon on the mount. The modern storyteller has one advantage of technology over the biblical writer, pictures, and timestamps. When you are telling your story about the vacation you might pull out your phone and show a picture of you on the trip and notice that it has a timestamp on it. This precise of a time log is not a luxury the gospel writers had access to so for us to impose this expectation on the gospel is not appropriate. Therefore, we should continue to try to understand the order of the Sermon on the Mount but recognize that if it all took place at once or throughout several teaching times it doesn’t affect the accuracy or legitimacy of the story or its importance in Christian life.

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