Jesus' ministry,  origin of the sermon

Picturing Jesus

Red and yellow icon of Christ set amidst a marble structure
Icon below the Eastern Orthodox altar on Calvary (Golgotha)
© user Adriatikus / Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

The Gospel of Matthew, home of the Sermon on the Mount, claims to be an eye-witness account of an individual whose words have shaped history, but whose physical features remain cloaked in mystery. Beyond the controversial image on the Turin Shroud, no other candidate for a contemporary portrait of Jesus exists. The Bible tells us that his physical appearance had nothing about it to particularly commend him, but that did not stop Jesus becoming a favourite subject of later artists. Their images are, as in the case of this icon, often heavily influenced by the Shroud.

In Matthew’s account, the words of the Sermon on the Mount are attributed directly to Jesus. So it is not unreasonable that churchmen down the ages have assumed that the Sermon was delivered, as the gospel depicts, by Jesus, and toward the outset of his itinerant ministry in Galilee.

Until relatively recently nobody saw cause to question the traditional position, and, elsewhere on this site, you will find much to commend it. Yet in the nineteenth century scholars began exploring theories on the origin of the Gospel of Matthew and in the twentieth they became concerned to test its historical veracity by the application of analytic techniques. Struck by parallel passages in Luke’s Gospel, where similar sayings occurred in different contexts, they sought to analyse the Sermon in terms of its basic units (known as pericopes), assessing the genre and authenticity of each.

That these early studies were fundamentally flawed (because of their inadequate contextual framework) is now clear, but at the time they proved influential, convincing many that the Sermon on the Mount had little to do with the historical Jesus. Moreover, by treating the Sermon as a series of individual sayings, they encouraged the view that it had been compiled by a third party, and was therefore a product of the early church. Given the rising tide of scepticism during that period, they advocated what many wanted to believe.

More recently, further critical analysis of the Sermon on the Mount has restored confidence that the majority of the Sermons sayings originated with Jesus, whether or not the aggregation of them was then a gospel author’s work. Analysis on this site carries this trend further. By taking account of the Sermon on the Mount’s apparent cultural setting, it finds considerable support for the traditional position that both the content of the sermon and its current structure originated with Jesus. Furthermore, it reveals the Sermon on the Mount as a finely crafted and politically nuanced speech, and one that is entirely appropriate to the context in which Matthew’s Gospel sets it.

So, given this restored confidence that Jesus was the originator of the Sermon, what was he like? We know that he was a first-century Israeli Hebrew from the tribe of Judah and the village of Nazareth, but beyond that the answer depended upon where you stood. Amongst the people of first century Palestine he was variously looked upon as:

So much for what Jesus contemporaries thought of him, but examining the gospel accounts highlights several features of Jesus’ ministry that are particularly significant for interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Firstly, Jesus appears quite happy for people to address him as ‘Rabbi,’ a title applied to clerical teachers within his culture, and one which suggests that Jesus adopted his culture's familiar form of teaching. Aspects of this rabbinic approach can be clearly seen within the Sermon In that age, when lessons were learnt by memorizing what you were told and copying what you saw done, a rabbi typically employed discipling techniques to ensure the survival of their teaching. In the Sermon we find Jesus teaching his disciples, and, as the introductory verses confirm, doing so in a typically rabbinic way.  A rabbi would often take a passage of scripture one just read in a synagogue, and expound upon its meaning and application, before rounding off with a brief summary. Internal evidence, such as the setting of the Sermon (on a mountain) and the nature and position of the Golden Rule (a rabbinic summary), suggests that this was precisely what Jesus was doing in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, albeit within a context that lent his words a distinctly political edge. Although Jesus’ source-passage is not mentioned, so many of the Sermon's points tie into the ten commandments that such a conclusion seems inescapable.

A rabbi’s lessons were often taught by commenting on life situations or in response to a specific question, both techniques that the gospels suggest Jesus used repeatedly. , A question, when asked by a Rabbi, was often intended to evoke a question in response, so it was designed to challenge the questioner’s thinking, help them understand the answer for themselves, and to prove they had understood by the appropriateness of the response. So, as we read the words of Jesus, we need to think ‘what does he want me to ask?’ Similarly, a Rabbi’s teaching would often take the form of statements, the full implications of which were designed to become apparent only as their disciples applied their knowledge of the scriptures to what had been said. Consequently, the simple straightforward interpretation is not necessarily the one the Rabbi intended. Rabbinic teaching was designed to be thought about and interpreted in the light of the Hebrew Bible and that is how, ideally, it should be approached. It is useful to remember this, especially when considering some of the Sermon’s more difficult passages.

Jesus' ministry suggests that his agenda was taken directly from precedents established in the Hebrew Bible and that he did little that was not rooted in his understanding of them. So we will also need to ask what, if any, precedents the Hebrew Bible provides for the early part of Jesus ministry, and how a speech such as the Sermon on the Mount relates to them. Yet the gospels also suggest that Jesus shared some of his early agenda with that of John the Baptist, the prophet who came to ‘prepare the way.’ The possibility of this having influenced the content of the Sermon on the Mount  also has to be considered.