Geza Vermes, historical criticism, and the Sermon on the Mount
During the 20th Century many scholars believed the Sermon to be a collection of discrete sayings, which were then compiled into the current form at a relatively late date (an idea that improved understanding of the Sermon renders increasingly unlikely). They therefore sought to identify the genre of each saying and address the question of whether it
originated with the historical Jesus. These early analyses reached some disturbing conclusions, in part because of their failure to properly
address the issue of cultural context. Although he was still working with the idea of the Sermon as a collection of
individual sayings, Geza Vermes, went a long way toward redressing the failings of earlier studies in his 2004 book, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. Vermes, through his work on the
Dead Sea Scrolls, was well placed to understand the cultural context of 1st Century Palestine, but there are remain places where his
conclusions are open to challenge.
The general conclusion of twentieth-century historical criticism, that the Sermon on the Mount was a later collection of sayings, the majority of which were not attributable to the historical Jesus, deserves to be addressed. Geza Vermes considers that much of the early historical criticism is fundamentally flawed buy its failure to take adequate account of first-century Jewish culture. Hence, he sought to re-assess the historical criticism of the Gospels, but placing more emphasis on Jesus cultural context. This page provides a summary of Geza Vermes’ conclusions concerning the genre of the Sermon on the Mount, its individual sayings, and how much of it originated with Jesus, as presented in his book The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (2004, 419-436). Individual page and point references are given in parenthesis against each passage. Vermes view on each
section is summarised in the text, the passage reference being visually highlighted to reflect this, as follows:
Considered genuine = bold;
Considered probably authentic = bold italic;
Considered editorial or edited = italic.
Overall, Vermes’ approach represents a step in the right direction, but
it remains too pessimistic concerning the authenticity of the Sermon, especially as, where he considers there to be a the lack of explicit evidence, he sometimes assumes a passage must be inauthentic, thereby placing the burden of proof upon authenticity, and defaulting to the position that a text is inauthentic. Most of the issues Vermes raises have been reviewed elsewhere on this site, usually with the result that they appear more likely to be authentic that Vermes assessed (links to the discussion are provided at appropriate points below).
Following codes are used to indicate the genre recognised by Vermes (Vermes 2004, 419-436).
WW = Words of wisdom;
TP =Teaching in parables;
QIS = Quoting or interpreting scripture;
PIR = Prayers and related instructions;
SMS = ‘Son of Man’ sayings;
SAK = Sayings about the Kingdom;
ERB = Eschatological rules of behaviour.
Matt 5:1-2 contain no words attributed to Jesus, so not considered.
Matt 5:3-10 (SAK) are considered along with the other beatitudes at 11-12 to be potentially genuine, but, in
the absence of certain indicators, Vermes considers them more likely to be an edited compilation of original sayings presented in beatitude
format (311-17; 434, point 8:34). However, for evidence that the entire section was originally
a single saying, see Matt 5:3-10.
Matt 5:11 (SMS), concerning persecution because of Jesus, Vermes considers this an anachronistic editorial
supplement (242, 312, 315, 317; 431, point 7:7). However for a contra-perspective see the background
for Matt 5:10.
Matt 5:12 (see Matt 5:3-10 above)
Matt 5:13 (WW), about salt without savour, Vermes seems to consider this as an editorial construct based upon
Mark 9:49-50 (88-9; 424, point 3:11), however see the background
for Matt 5:13 for an alternate perspective that links this to Matt 5:17-20, also the background
for Mark 9:36-50 for comments on that passage.
Matt 5:14-15 (WW), concerning the purpose of a lamp, Vermes considers added by an editor (80-89; 423,
point 3:4). But see the background for Matt 5:14-16 for an alternative
Matt 5:16 (?), verse concerns good works glorifying God, but is not addressed by Vermes.
Matt 5:17-20 (ERB), concerning the enduring nature of the Torah, is considered genuine as it is unhelpful to
the Church(354-6, 379, 407, 436, point 9:16).
Matt 5:21-23 (QIS/ERB), concerning the commandment not to kill, involves hyperbole typical of Jesus (429,
Matt 5:24 (ERB), dealt with along with Matt 5:21-23 and considered genuine (436, point
Matt 5:25-26 (WW/TP/ERB), concerning out of court settlement, Vermes considers added by an editor, but possibly
reflecting an original eschatological parable (424, point 3:13;426, point 4:7; 436, point 9:10). But
see the background for Matt 5:23-26 for an
Matt 5:27-30 (QIS/ERB), concerning adultery, is considered likely to be a genuine hyperbolic interpretation of
the type typical of Jesus, especially as everything is to be sacrificed for the Kingdom (429, point 5:32; 436, point
Matt 5:31-32 (QIS), concerning divorce, Vermes considers this an editorial addition (428,
point 5:6). But see Matt 5:31-32.
Matt 5:33-37 (QIS/ERB), concerning swearing falsely, is likely to be genuine interpretation as it contains
typical hyperbole (429, point 5:33;436, point 9:19).
Matt 5:38-42 (WW/QIS/ERB), concerning an eye for an eye, is likely to be genuine as it is typical hyperbole,
though Vermes associates this with the cited passage’s primary occurrence, rather than its use in the punishment for a false witness. (424,
point 3:14; 429, point 5:21; 436, point 9:11).
Matt 5:43-48 (WW/QIS/ERB), concerning love for neighbours and enemies, is likely to be genuine (except for the
reference to tax collectors) as the emphasis on generosity is typical hyperbole (424, point 3:15; 429, point 5:22; 436,
Matt 6:1-4 (ERB), concerning avoiding ostentatious piety, is considered genuine on the grounds of its god
centred focus (436, point 9:19).
Matt 6:5 (PRI) is likely to be a genuine because the ideas of trust and privacy were characteristic of Jesus (430,
Matt 6:6 (QIS) is an editorial elaboration (429, point 5:34).
Matt 6:7-8 (PIR) concerning the correct approach to prayer is likely to be genuine (considered with Matt 6:5) (
430, point 6:7).
Matt 6:9-13 (PIR), the Lord’s Prayer, is a likely to be genuine as it shows ideas typical of Jesus.(430,
Matt 6:14-15 (PRI) concerning forgiveness is likely to be a genuine as it shows Jesus’ characteristic
generosity toward offenders (Vermes 2004, 430, point 6:2).
Matt 6:16-18 (ERB) concerning fasting is considered genuine because it is self-denial in disguise (436,
Matt 6:19-21 (WW) concerning laying up treasure is likely to be a genuine due to its emphasis on the importance
of the Kingdom of Heaven (424, point 3:16).
Matt 6:22-23 (WW) contrasting good and evil eyes but Vermes considers it contains nothing specifically
attributable to Jesus and so classifies it by default as editorial (424, point 3:17). But, for the appropriateness of this text to Jesus' theme, see comments on Matt
Matt 6:24 (WW), concerning Mammon, is likely to be genuine for its God centredness precludes divided loyalties
(424, point 3:18).
Matt 6:25-34 (WW) are likely to be genuine words of wisdom about trust in the heavenly father because both the
ideas and the style of this passage are characteristic of Jesus (424, point 3:19).
Matt 7:1-2 (WW) concerning measure being given for measure is a likely to be a genuine because such hyperbole
about excessive generosity typified Jesus (424, point 3:7).
Matt 7:3-5 (WW) is a likely to be genuine as it contrasts hypocrisy with simplicity in Jesus characteristic
style (424, point 3:20).
Matt 7:6 (WW) is likely to be a genuine as the metaphors of pigs and swine exhibit typical Jewish exclusivity (425,
Matt 7:7-11 (SAK) concerning the power of prayer is considered genuine on account of its emphasis on
unconditional trust (434, point 8:35).
Matt 7:12 (WW/QIS) the Golden Rule is likely to be genuine it is a variant of a widely accepted
traditional saying(424, point 3:21 & 429, point 5:23).
Matt 7:13-14 (WW) concerning the narrow gate is likely to be genuine as it is portrays those whom Jesus
addressed as the few elect (424, point 3:22).
Matt 7:15 (WW) concerning sheep amongst wolves is likely to be genuine word of wisdom because it predicts Jesus
role at the final judgement (425, point 3:28).
Matt 7:16-20 (WW) concerning good and bad trees is likely to be genuine as it was a well accepted contrast to
which Jesus introduces his own message (425, point 3:24). .
Matt 7:21 (SAK) concerning the conditions for entering the Kingdom is a genuine saying at the heart of an
editorial conception that runs to verse 23. (434, point 8:36).
Matt 7:22-23 (SAK) concerning the conditions for entering the Kingdom is material added by an editor to conclude
a conception that started with an original saying in verse 21.
Matt 7:24-27 (WW) concerning building on the rock, Vermes considers to be based on a popular simile and may
have been adopted by Jesus, but here it is formulated as editorial metaphor of the kingdom (424, point 3:23; 426, point 4:8).
Matt 7:28-29 contain no words attributed to Jesus.