Did Jesus actually say the Golden Rule as found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; the saying is in Matt. 7:12). I have talked about the Sermon and why it is so important for Matthew’s Gospel (in a previous post: Little-Known Aspects of the Golden Rule as Found in the Sermon on the Mount) and now it is time to say something controversial about it. I don’t think Jesus ever gave the Sermon on the Mount.
That’s not just a crazy idea I came up with one day. It’s a widespread view among historical scholars, for reasons that would not be hard to figure out. Just think about the logistics of the issue for a second. The Sermon goes on for three entire chapters. These are not concise chapters; in our Bibles today, they are 111 verses in total (48 + 34 + 29) – saying after saying after saying, one after the other, some one-liners, some extended instructions, some parabolic-like illustrations.
It is an amazing collection of Jesus’ teachings, by far his most famous set of teachings in the Bible, probably the most famous set of teachings to come down to us from all of antiquity. I am not at all interested in detracting from its beauty and importance.
According to Matthew, this is Jesus’ first public address. It happened at the very beginning of his ministry. By standard calculations, that would be about 27 CE or so. The sermon is found nowhere before Matthew – it’s not in Mark or, obviously, the writings of Paul – or, for that matter, anywhere else in all of ancient writing. It is just in Matthew.
Let’s think about that. Historical scholars almost universally think Matthew was written after Mark, probably in the mid-80s or so (for reasons I won’t go into here: but I’ve discussed it on the blog before and in my books and online courses). That means that the first instance we have of the sermon is 55-60 years after it was delivered.
Matthew was not from Israel, he did not know Jesus, he is writing in a different language from Jesus, basing his account on what he has heard and read from others. And so my question is: how could Matthew possibly know what was in the lengthy sermon that Jesus gave 55-60 years earlier in a different part of the world speaking a different language? There was no audio recording, and there were no stenographers. Those who would have been listening to it (if he gave it) would not have thought that this is a sermon that would be around for 2000 years. They were just listening for the first time to a teacher whom they had just heard about, as he was giving a talk.
Even if Matthew HAD been there (how could he have been? Think about life expectancy in antiquity), how would he remember exactly what Jesus said? Not just in *general* but in *specifics* — saying by saying by saying, word for word? If you believe that Matthew was divinely inspired to record what Jesus actually said, fair enough. That’s a conversation stopper. But if you like to think in historical terms, well, it just ain’t credible.
My 19-20 year old students sometimes have difficult accepting that. Hey, why couldn’t he just remember it all? Why not??? So I say to them, OK, did you hear Joseph Biden’s inaugural address a couple of years ago? Great. Write it down.
And that was two years ago. So let’s make it more applicable to the situation of the Sermon on the Mount. In 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the first State of the Union address to be televised. Millions of us were alive then. Many millions of people heard it. We have records of it, reports of it, and, of course, recordings of it. Some of you heard it at the time. Please write it down for me.
Havin’ a problem with that? Exactly.
So, did Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount? Well, he certainly may have given some sermons on tops of hills at times. I rather doubht there would have been multitudes and multitudes of people there for any of them (as indicated by Matthew) or, if there were, that very many of them could have heard him very well without a sound system. (If you haven’t seen the opening scenes of the Life of Brian, you really *have* to. This is not just a funny movie, it is *brilliant* in its depth of understanding of the historical situation of first-century Israel — and the Sermon on the Mount is just the start of it. For what it’s worth, the Sermon is the only scene in which Jesus himself appears in the movie. And the listeners can’m make our what he’s saying: Blessed are the Cheesemakers! And Blessed are the Greeks!)
It is obviously quite possible (probable, I’d say) that Jesus may well have spoken at times to groups. And he certainly may have delivered many of the sayings we find in the Sermon on the Mount today, probably onnumerous occasions. But the collection of the sayings into a single Sermon is almost certainly Matthew’s own construction.
I’ve indicated that Luke has a lot of the sayings from the Sermon as well, but they are scattered throughout his Gospel (and often come with different wording, sometimes significantly different wording). Some show up in Luke 12, for example (teachings about not being anxious), and Luke 11 (the Lord’s Prayer), others here and there, but especially in Luke 6, the “Sermon on the Plain.”
Most people haven’t heard of the Sermon on the Plain (called that since it’s a sermon not from the top of a hill but … on a plain! Luke 6:17). This sermon is much shorter than the Sermon on the Mount: instead of three chapters of 111 verses it is just part of one chapter with 30 verses (Luke 6:20-49). But most of those verses are like what you find in the Sermon on the Mount, even though many of them include important additions and some other changes.
Luke’s version of the sermon, for example, starts with “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God,” obviously very similar to the more familiar phrasing of Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” But there’s a big difference between living in poverty (being “poor”: Luke) and being humble (being “poor in spirit”: Matthew). (And there are obviously smaller differences between the verses as well, that also matter).
Moreover, after three “blessings” (i.e., “beatitudes”) Luke, unlike Matthew, continues by pronouncing “woes” to those who are experiencing/enjoying life the opposite way, e.g.: “But woe to you rich, for you have (already) received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). This is an apocalyptic “woe”: you’re gonna pay the price later!
In any event, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is much shorter than Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, lacking a lot of the familiar material; it has different forms of the sayings of Jesus; it’s delivered at a different point in Jesus’ ministry (after Jesus called the Twelve, for example, rather than before), and – an important issue I won’t be addressing just here at any depth – it does not delve into a lot of the key issues Matthew does, including the relationship of Jesus’ followers to the Jewish law.
Matthew sets up his entire Gospel by showing that Jesus is a new Moses come to give the law of God — in possibly to be seen as a fulfillment of Moses’ law; or as a further extension of the law; or as a deeper interpretation of the law; r as a more adequate expression of what is meant by the law, or a combination of all or some of these things. In Matthew’s sermon, Matt. 5:17-20 are absolutely key. Jesus came not to abolish the law of Moses but to fulfill it, and his followers have to fulfill it too, even better than the most strict Jewish teachers (the Scribes and the Pharisees) do. Luke doesn’t have that bit. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about his disciples’ relationship to Jewish practices. Those too are not found in Luke’s version. And Jesus ends his statement of the Golden Rule (“Everything you want people to do for you, likewise do for them”) with a rationale related to the Law: Because “This is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Luke doesn’t have that.
Luke is far less concerned that Jesus’ followers keep the Law. He is interested in them living for God, without an eye on the law itself. Jesus himself, of course, does fulfill the Law in Luke as the Jewish messiah come to the Jewish people. But for Luke, Jesus’ ethical instructions are not about how to fulfill the law or delivered in relation to the law. They are for all people, Jew or Gentile, about how to please God. The law doesn’t have much to do with it.
In that context, though, Luke does have the Golden rule, in a slightly different form: “Just as you want people to do for you, do for them likewise” (Luke 6:31).
Thus Matthew and Luke both have the saying (worded a bit differently). They would have gotten it from the Q source. Did Jesus say it? I’ll discuss that in the next post on the matter.