The Synoptic Question:
Did Matthew Compose the Sermon on the Mount?

The presence of virtually all of the Sermon on the Mount in the Sermon at the Temple, and therefore in the ipsissima vox, or personal voice of Jesus, will certainly present yet a different set of improbabilities to the minds of many liberal New Testament scholars. It is widely accepted in New Testament scholarship that Matthew gave the Sermon on the Mount its final form, (although there is no consensus about when Matthew worked, how much he wrote himself, or which words and phrases he drew from the variously existing pre-Matthean sources or traditions that scholars hypothesized). Moreover, the early manuscripts of he New Testament are not all identical. Some contain the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark, while others cut it short. Some include the story of the woman caught ini adultery in John 8, while others do not; or they position it somewhere else in the text.

The Book of Mormon, however, presents the reader with a version of the Sermon on the Mount that is substantially identical to the Sermon in the King James Bible and that places this text entirely in the mouth of Jesus in A.D. 34. The idea that Jesus was the author of the Sermon on the Mount, let alone of the covenant-oriented interpretation which the Sermon at the Temple gives to the Sermon, is not likely to find many ready-made adherents among the disciples of Q or other source-critical students of the New Testament. Without purporting to deal with all the complexities of the synoptic question, I will attempt to explain to a general audience some of the very legitimate issues raised by New Testament studies and how the Sermon at the Temple has tended to shape my thinking about these scholarly endeavors.

At the outset, it is worth pointing out that there are no words in the Sermon at the Temple that Jesus could not have said. As discussed in chapter 5, places where scholars have found the strongest traces of later redaction in the Sermon on the Mount are not in evidence in the Sermon at the Temple. Perhaps far more of the Sermon on the Mount was original with Jesus than New Testament scholarship has come to assume; it is certainly too aggressive to date the entire Sermon on the Mount by its latest line.

Moreover, all the themes of the Sermon on the Mount are consistent with the generally accepted characteristics of the very voice of Jesus, even judging very cautiously. Those characteristics of Jesus’ personal words, as they have been identified by Joachim Jeremias,1 are readily visible in the Sermon, namely (1) the use of parables (e.g., the salt, the light, the tree, the house on the rock); (2) the use of cryptic sayings or riddles (e.g., Matthew 5:17); (3) speaking of the reign or kingdom of God (e.g., 3 Nephi 11:33, 38; Matthew 5:3, 10; 6:33); (4) the use of “amen” or “verily” (over 30 times in the Sermon at the Temple); and (5) the word Abba, or Father (Matthew 6:9, and dozens of other times in the Book of Mormon text). One normally presumes that such words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are authentic, the ipsissima vox of Jesus.

For most New Testament scholars, however, the question of authorship in the Sermon on the Mount is likely to be a much greater stumbling block to the Sermon at the Temple than any manuscript or stylistic issue, for it is a very widely held opinion that Matthew wrote the Sermon on the Mount as we now know it, collecting together miscellaneous sayings of Jesus and putting them together into a more or less unified sermon. The presence of this material in the Sermon at the Temple, however, commits the believing Latter-day Saint to doubt such a claim. It seems unlikely for a person to believe that the resurrected Jesus delivered the sermon to the Nephites recorded in 3 Nephi 11—18 within a year after his crucifixion and at the same time to hold that the Evangelist gave the Sermon its basic form and selected its content.

It is thus necessary to ask why many scholars have concluded that Matthew composed the Sermon on the Mount. Are their assumptions and reasons persuasive? The synoptic question, which has driven an enormous amount of New Testament research, cannot be casually dismissed or lightly ignored. How the Gospels were composed, when and why they were written, how they are similar to or different from each other, and what underlying sources they drew upon, are intriguing questions. After a century of work, these issues still remain fascinating to many readers.

Over the years, a steady flow of journal articles and books have advanced various ingenious theories and have marshalled evidence for or against certain positions regarding the composition of the synoptic Gospels. Any thoughtful and well-informed Latter-day Saint can derive a wealth of information from these studies about the subtlety of these sacred records that tell us so much about the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ. But not every proposed theory regarding the synoptic question is equally persuasive. All readers must evaluate and carefully consider the evidence presented. Covert biases and assumptions are sometimes at work, and despite the overwhelming popularity of a particular hypothesis today, it may likely fall into disfavor tomorrow. Surmising, extrapolating, following hunches, and outright guesswork fuel much of this research, foraging for tidbits of information gleaned here and there from among the textual records.

With regard to the composition of the Sermon on the Mount in particular, the assertion of Matthean authorship is not a simple one. It is difficult to attack in large part because it is not very focused. The reasons for seeing Matthew’s hand in the text of the Sermon on the Mount are vague and broad. They can scarcely be negated because they can hardly be verified. The theory has spawned numerous books and dissertations, developing and applying the hypothesis, but the results are still far from conclusive. Consequently the discussion here will be brief. Only general attention to broad rationales can be given, and possible Latter-day Saint approaches or responses proposed. I advance these thoughts only as ruminations. Limited to the methods of critical biblical studies, I can no more purport to prove that Matthew did not write the Sermon on the Mount than others can show that he did.

First, not all scholars agree on any particular theory of Matthean composition of the Sermon on the Mount, for

the Sermon on the Mount presents unusual complications in the matter of sources. . . . Of the Sermon’s 111 verses, about 45 have no obvious parallels in Luke, 35 have loose parallels, and 31 have parallels which are close both in content and in phraseology. The curious feature of this evidence is [that] . . . the close parallels are unusually close, and the loose parallels are unusually loose!2

With this array of mixed evidence, it is not surprising that nothing approaching unanimity exists over how much of the Sermon on the Mount Matthew wrote himself, or how much he took from an existing pre-Matthean source or sources. For those who have concluded that Matthew had documents at his disposal from which he drew, there is even less consensus about where those records came from or for what purpose they were written or used in the earliest Christian communities. The trend in recent years has been toward seeing somewhat less Matthean influence in the composition of the Sermon on the Mount itself and toward dating large sections of the Sermon on the Mount back into the first decades of Jewish Christianity. Hans Dieter Betz, in particular, has advanced the theory that the Sermon on the Mount was a composite of pre-Matthean sources, embodying a set of cultic instructions that served the earliest Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem as an epitome of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which Matthew later incorporated into his Gospel.3Obviously, the jury is still out on this issue.

I am attracted to several aspects of Betz’s thesis for many reasons. One of them is the support I find for it in a simple examination of the vocabulary of the Sermon on the Mount. When one compares the Greek words in the Sermon on the Mount with those used by Matthew in the rest of his Gospel, some sharp contrasts emerge. Of the 383 basic vocabulary words in the Sermon on the Mount, I count 73 (or 19% of the total) that appear only in the Sermon (sometimes more than once) and never elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew (and often are never used again in the entire New Testament). In some cases, words used in the Sermon on the Mount, such as doma (“gift,” Matthew 7:11; cf. Ephesians 4:8, quoting Psalm 68:18), appear un-Matthean, for on all nine other occasions outside the Sermon on the Mount when Matthew speaks of “gifts,” he prefers to use the word dōron (“gift”), even where the context is similar to that of Matthew 7:11 (see, e.g., Matthew 2:11; 15:5). Only two words in the Sermon, geennan (“hell”) and grammateus (“scribe”), are used by Matthew in greater preponderance than other New Testament writers, and in only one case, rhapisei (“smite,” Matthew 5:39; 26:67), is Matthew the sole New Testament writer to use a Sermon on the Mount vocabulary word outside the Sermon.

Thus on the level of mere vocabulary, the Sermon on the Mount appears to be unlike Matthew’s writings. Although this kind of word study is not conclusive of authorship, especially since the textual sample involved is statistically small, the result seems to me to be indicative.4 If Matthew’s hand played a significant role in drafting, selecting, or reworking the contents of the Sermon on the Mount, it seems odd that nearly every fifth vocabulary word is one that Matthew never had occasion to use again in his Gospel.

Nevertheless, the issue is not cut-and-dried. I am confident that New Testament scholars are doing about the best they can with what they have. If it were not for my acceptance of the material contained in the Book of Mormon, I would readily agree with many of their conjectures. They have three synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and it is entirely indeterminable in most passages which Gospel is the oldest or reflects the most accurate or original image of the historical Jesus. Sometimes Luke appears to give the better view, other times Mark, and still other times Matthew. Discussion and resolution of the problem, however, are prejudicially circumscribed by the documents permitted into consideration. For example, if the Gospel of Thomas, or another newly discovered text, were to be accepted as a very early source, it would have a tremendous impact on the question of which sayings of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels people would accept as authentic.

History is always vulnerable to the inherent weaknesses of its records. For example, newspapers once reported that a cannon mounted on a monument erected by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers in Farmington, Utah, could not have been brought across the plains, since its serial number and an 1864 date stamp indicate that it was cast in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War.5 If this were the only information known about the famous pioneer cannon, we would be tempted to reject out of hand the mind-boggling stories about dragging a cannon all the way from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City in 1847 through the mud and over hundreds of trackless miles. In this case, however, the 1847 diary of Charles C. Rich removes any doubt: There was a cannon that his company fired regularly as the wagon train moved across the prairie, even though the Farmington monument may not have the right one. This serves as a sobering reminder of our inability to date historical details conclusively by relying solely on the earliest surviving artifact.

The question of which sayings of Jesus are authentic usually turns on certain assumptions people have made about which parts of the Gospel accounts were early or which came later. For example, if a person holds to the premise that Jesus neither ordained apostles nor formally organized a church in Palestine, then it is a foregone conclusion that the person will strongly discount any sayings with ecclesiastical content in the Gospels as being later additions by someone belonging to the settled church later in the first century. Of course, such issues are complex and deeply interwoven with other historical and literary strands. My point is that the discussion of the Matthean composition of the Sermon on the Mount begins, and to a large extent ends, with the same sort of preassessment of source documents and their possible provenances.

These points are relevant to our discussion of the Sermon at the Temple. Most scholars are willing to change or modify their old opinions when new, credible evidence is discovered. My personal verdict is that the Sermon at the Temple constitutes such evidence. If admitted into evidence, it becomes a major factor in settling the question of who wrote the Sermon on the Mount. The problem, of course, rests in determining whether the Book of Mormon should be allowed to contribute any primary evidence in this discussion. Of course, for Latter-day Saints, who are convinced on their own grounds, the Sermon at the Temple will figure as one of the main determining documents in their discussion of the issue of who composed the Sermon, rather than as a text whose character is judged as a by-product of that discussion.

Others will likely reject the Sermon at the Temple and the Book of Mormon as such evidence, but that rejection will usually be made on other religious or theological grounds, not on the alleged Matthean authorship of the Sermon on the Mount. It would be circular, of course, to disallow the Sermon at the Temple as evidence against Matthean authorship by rejecting it simply on the ground that Matthew wrote the Sermon on the Mount, for that is the very question about which one seeks the further documentary evidence in the first place.

Limited to the sources in the New Testament, scholars advance several reasons for the proposition that Matthew wrote the Sermon on the Mount. I have not found any of these presumptions or hypotheses compelling enough to discredit the Sermon at the Temple.

For example, many scholars assume that the sayings of Jesus started out short and simple and that they grew in complexity as they were collected, grouped, and handed down in lore and tradition until his followers canonized them. Hence, Jeremias reasons as follows: “The Sermon on the Plain [in Luke 6] is very much shorter than that on the mount, and from this we must [!] conclude that in the Lucan Sermon on the Plain we have an earlier form of the Sermon on the Mount.”6 This view receives some support from the fact that pithy sayings of Jesus were collected elsewhere by Matthew into single chapters (as in the Parable Sermon of Matthew 13), and thus one infers that the same thing occurred with the Sermon on the Mount.7

This inference is not compelling, however. What apparently happened in the case of Matthew 13 need not have happened for Matthew 5—7. Moreover, it seems more characteristic of movements as dynamic as early Christianity that they do not begin with a sputtering start. Great religious and philosophical movements typically begin with the monumental appearance of a figure who captures the spirit of his followers and galvanizes them into dedicated action. It seems more likely to me, as a hypothesis, that the words and discourses of Jesus started out profound and already well developed, than that they began as disjointed sayings or fragmented maxims. Day in and day out, Jesus spoke to his disciples and to the multitudes who flocked to see him. I doubt that they came out to hear a string of oracular one-liners. What they heard were coherent sentences projecting a vision and world-view. The Sermon on the Mount would reflect such wisdom and perspective, making it just as likely that the abbreviated excerpts of it that are scattered elsewhere in the synoptic gospels are its derivatives.

One can hardly be unaware of the vast amount of effort that has been spent searching for Q and for the original words of Jesus.8 In this quest some scholars will conclude that a saying in Mark or Luke was earlier than the parallel saying in Matthew. But this discipline is far from objective or certain. For example, many have often argued that Luke 6, the Sermon on the Plain, was earlier than the Sermon on the Mount and that Matthew used the Sermon on the Plain as one of his sources in compiling the Sermon on the Mount. It is also possible, however, that Luke 6 was dependent on the Sermon on the Mount. The debate tilts both ways: Some articles advance reasons for seeing the Matthean Beatitudes and Lord’s Prayer or other formulations as bearing the characterisitics of earlier sayings,9 while a minority of others advance reasons for Lukan priority of the same material.10 These arguments revolve around a number of assumptions about the kinds of words, expressions, themes, or issues that Jesus would most likely have used or that would have concerned him. Much of this is sophisticated, technical guesswork.

Many scholars have also often assumed that Jesus said something only once, or said it in only one form. Hence scholars launch prolonged odysseys, such as the one to ascertain the “original form” of the Beatitudes or of the Lord’s Prayer. This quest, however, assumes that Jesus blessed his disciples using the words of the Beatitudes only once and taught his followers to pray using the words of the Lord’s Prayer on only one occasion. If this assumption fails, then two different iterations (even though closely related to each other in form) could both be original sayings.

It should also be noted that the most persuasive evidence for the synoptic problem comes from parallel reports of events rather than sayings. In the case of singular events, which logically can be assumed to have happened only once, the differences in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are very telling. But the same logic does not necessarily carry over into the reported speeches, all or parts of which could very well have been repeated more than once and not quite the same each time.

Others argue that if the Sermon on the Mount had been in existence before the writing of the Gospel of Matthew, then Mark and Luke would also have used it. This, however, is an argument from silence. Mark’s and Luke’s purposes were different from Matthew’s; they included different sorts of speeches and information. In Mark’s case, there is reason to believe that he consciously chose not to include all that he knew of what Jesus had said.11

Certain passages in the Sermon on the Mount seem likely to postdate Jesus’ lifetime, such as those that reflect anti-Pharisaical, anti-gentile, or anti-Pauline sentiments, and possibly the designation of Jerusalem as the city of the Great King. These passages have been pointed to as sure signs of late composition of the Sermon on the Mount. Strecker, for example, argues that “Matthew does not reflect a historically faithful picture” because he distinguishes between the Pharisees and scribes, when “in truth one cannot differentiate stringently between scribes and Pharisees.”12 However, such verses alone may simply be later additions. They need not point to a late composition of the bulk of the Sermon on the Mount. As discussed above, all of these elements, which may be strongly suspected of being late intrusions, are absent from the Sermon at the Temple.

Finally, some scholars point to the possible presence of Greek concepts in the Sermon on the Mount and argue that only Matthew could have inserted them. These points of possible Hellenistic influence are far from certain, however; and even if they are present in the Sermon on the Mount, it is equally possible that Jesus would have known them from his own cultural surroundings. Nor must these ideas be understood exclusively as Hellenisms in any event. These are the kinds of arguments, generally speaking, that have been advanced supporting the theory of Matthean composition of the Sermon on the Mount.

In addition to the rebuttals made above, several affirmative reasons can be adduced for believing that the Sermon on the Mount was not written by Matthew but existed as a pre-Matthean source. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is in tension in places with the major themes of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. Kingsbury, for example, finds that the Sermon presents Jesus in one direction as a conciliatory “teacher” and a new Moses, whereas “the driving force of the plot [of the Gospel of Matthew] is the element of conflict,” culminating in this other direction in the the passion narrative.13 As discussed above, Betz and others have marshalled considerable evidence that the Sermon on the Mount is the kind of document used as a cultic text or to instruct or remind initiates of church rules, and it makes the most sense for the Sermon to have been used in that way before the time when the Gospel of Matthew was written.14

I would add that verbal and conceptual similarities between the epistle of James (which I believe to be early) and the Sermon further indicate that James knew the Sermon on the Mount when he wrote his letter. Compare, for example, James 5:12 with Matthew 5:33—37 on oaths; James 3:11—12 with Matthew 7:16—22 on knowing a fig tree or vine by its fruit; James 1:13 with Matthew 6:13 on being led into temptation; James 4:11 with Matthew 7:1—2 on judging a brother; and many other similarities.15 Jeremias has also noted that James and the Sermon on the Mount share the same character as “the classical example of an early Christian didache,”16 and this rings true in light of the way the early Christian Didache, discovered in 1873, quotes extensively from the Sermon on the Mount. It seems quite evident that the epistle of James was consciously drawing on a known body of basic Christian teachings, already known and used in the church as persuasive, authoritative sayings. Thus it seems unlikely that James could have written as he did unless something like the Sermon on the Mount was already considered scriptural. In that case, is it possible that Matthew could have written the Sermon on the Mount late in the day and have pawned it off in James’ community as an original? At the time Matthew wrote, people were still alive who remembered Jesus. One must ask how a totally new sermon of Jesus, compiled and advanced by Matthew, would ever have been accepted.

In sum, these brief comments on the synoptic question are not intended to be conclusive. By offering these thoughts, I acknowledge the vast amount of literature that exists concerning the questions of the historical Jesus and the authorship of the Sermon on the Mount. I find the questions fascinating and engaging, but most of them still remain questions. I know of no reason why Jesus could not have said all the things contained in the Sermon at the Temple or on the Mount, the many theories and treatises to the contrary notwithstanding.

 


1.   New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1971), 29—37; see also John Strugnell, “‘Amen, I Say unto You’ in the Sayings of Jesus and in Early Christian Literature,” Harvard Theological Review 67/2 (1974): 177—90.

2.   McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount, 22.

3.   Betz, Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, 1—15, 55—76. Alfred Perry, “The Framework of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 103—15, similarly finds evidence that Matthew worked from a written source “that he regarded so highly that he used it for the foundation of his longer Sermon, even in preference to the Q discourse” (ibid., 115). On the conjectured existence of other pre-Matthean sources, see Strecker, Sermon on the Mount, 55—56, 63, 67—68, 72.

4.   Goulder comments that “word-counts can be used in a much more sophisticated way than is usual. . . . Over a longer passage, say the Sermon, such counting would be significant.” M. D. Goulder, “The Beatitudes: A Source-Critical Study,” Novum Testamentum 25/3 (1983): 211.

5.   Deseret News (August 5, 1989), B1.

6.   Jeremias, Sermon on the Mount, 15.

7.   See, e.g., ibid., 13.

8.   For the present state of the art, see John S. Kloppenborg, Q Parallels: Synopsis, Critical Notes and Concordance (Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge, 1988).

9.   Guelich, “The Matthean Beatitudes,” 416—19; Michael D. Goulder, “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer,” Journal of Theological Studies 14 (1963): 32—45; Ernest Lohmeyer, The Lord’s Prayer, tr. J. Bowden (London: Collins, 1965), 27—28; and Raymond E. Brown, “The Pater Noster as an Eschatological Prayer,” in New Testament Essays (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1965), 244. Erik Sjöberg, “Das Licht in dir. Zur Deutung von Matth. 6,22f Par.,” Studia Theologica (Lund: Gleerup, 1952), 5:89, finds that there “can be no doubt that the Matthean formulation is the original” of Matthew 6:22, as compared with Luke 11:35—36. D. Flusser, “Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit,” Israel Exploration Journal 10 (1960): 11, concludes that it is “certain that Matt. v, 3—5 faithfully preserves the saying of Jesus and that Luke vi, 20 is an abbreviation of the original text.”

10.   McEleney, “The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain,” 7—8; and Robert A. Guelich, “The Antitheses of Matthew V. 21—48: Traditional and/or Redactional?” New Testament Studies 22 (1976): 446—49.

11.   See the discussion of the Secret Gospel of Mark, in chapter 3, concerning 3 Nephi 12:48.

12.   Strecker, Sermon on the Mount, 59.

13.   Jack D. Kingsbury, “The Place, Structure, and Meaning of the Sermon on the Mount within Matthew,” Interpretation 41 (1987): 132—33; he also points out that the depiction of the disciples in Matthew 5:11—12 and 7:15—23 has “no place in the picture the narrator paints of the disciples during the earthly ministry of Jesus.” Ibid., 135. See Charles E. Carlston, “Interpreting the Gospel of Matthew,” Interpretation 29 (1975): 3—12, for a more harmonious view of the unique traditional and ecclesiastical interests of Matthew. See, generally, C. J. A. Hickling, “Conflicting Motives in the Redaction of Matthew: Some Considerations on the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 18:15—20,” Studia Evangelica 7, in Texte und Untersuchungen 126 (1982): 247—60.

14.   Betz, Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, 55—70; Davies, Sermon on the Mount, 105—6.

15.   These are mentioned in John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the New Testament,” in Chiasmus in Antiquity, ed. J. Welch (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981), 212; see also the recent dissertation of Patrick John Hartin, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, on James and the Q Sermon on the Mount/Plain. John Gee has observed further connections between Matthew 5:48 (teleios) and James 1:4 (teleion); asking of God (James 1:5—6; Matthew 7:7—11); “blessed” (makarios) in James 1:12 and the Beatitudes; lust (James 1:14—15; Matthew 5:28); good gifts and perfect (teleion) offerings (James 1:16; Matthew 7:11); anger and insult (James 1:19—20; Matthew 5:22); doing the word (James 1:22—25; Matthew 7:21—27); and several others.

16.   Jeremias, Sermon on the Mount, 22.