Since Jesus began his ministry of casting out demons, healing diseases, and preaching about the Kingdom of God, quite a crowd has begun to follow Jesus. People from as far as Tyre and Sidon are traveling to Galilee to be exorcised, to be healed, and to hear Jesus. At least that is according to the Bible.
Still early in His ministry, Jesus delivers perhaps His most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. However, close scrutiny in this study will reveal that this epic speech is likely nothing more than a fictitious construct.
Beating Up the Beatitudes
Anyone familiar with Christianity can likely recall the Sermon on the Mount. Not all of the words of the sermon, but the situation, and particularly the rhythm of the Beatitudes. That is the section of “blessed are the … for they will …” statements. However, what you remember is probably wrong; wrong on multiple levels.
For example, did you realize that it was not a general sermon to the crowd which was following Jesus? That is the way it is portrayed by the preachers and the movies, but it is not what the Bible says. In fact, it may not have even been on a mountain. Let us take a closer look.
Matthew 5:1-12 contains the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the section known as the Beatitudes. Matthew 5:1-2 reads:
“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 saying:” NIVSo when Jesus saw the crowds which had started following Him, He climbed a mountain to get away from them for a little while. He sat down, which is not a posture which would be used to address the crowded public below. When His disciples came to him, then he taught them, with “them” being the disciples. This was not a public address, but rather a message to a private audience.
While you will not often hear this from the pulpit, Biblical scholars are well aware that Luke 6:20-26 contains a version of the Beatitudes as well. Luke 6:17-19 sets the stage that Jesus was in a level field, not up on a mountain, and was surrounded by a large crowd of His disciples and lots of other people seeking to be healed by Him. Yet again, in Luke 6:20, we see that Jesus is giving this message to only His disciples.
Many Biblical scholars say that Matthew and Luke are simply recording two separate occasions of Jesus teaching the same thing. On the surface that seems reasonable. You would expect Jesus to repeat Himself from time to time, especially with new audiences. However, that is not exactly what we see here. Let us look at the corresponding verses side-by-side in the NIV translation:
5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."
6:20 … "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God."
5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
6:21 … "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh."
5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
6:21 "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." …
5:11 "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in Heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
6:22 "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 6:23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in Heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets."
A cursory look makes it obvious that these statements originated from the same source. The sentence structure is almost identical. The message, particularly in the first and last verses, is almost identical. However, the similarities dissolve under closer scrutiny and in perspective of their contexts.
In Matthew's version, it seems to be a general address with a very spiritual take. The phrases of “the poor,” “those who mourn,” and “those who hunger and thirst” are so open that they could apply to anyone. It is easy to see why some scholars would mistake this to be a sermon to everyone around Jesus at the time. In particular, the phrases “poor in spirit” and “hunger and thirst for righteousness” belie that Jesus is not referring to worldly need or comforts, but rather a humble desire for God's righteous spirit. One Hebraic scholar observes that the eight blessings made in Matthew's version are more likely four blessings made in poetic couplets, which was a typical style for Hebraic poetry, and that the blessings all carry the spiritual relevance noted above.
Luke's version is quite different. Instead of Matthew's open-targeted phrases, we see “you,” “you,” and “you.” We know from the beginning of Luke 6:20 that “you” refers specifically to Jesus' disciples. More significantly, there are no words in Luke's version which impart a spiritual intent. Instead, the message seems much more physical in purpose. Luke's message is a pep talk to the troops. Luke has Jesus say something to the effect of “I know things look bad right now. You are poor, hungry, and mourning now, but it will not be that way in the future. Keep the faith.”
Just to strengthen His point (which coincidentally reinforces the idea that Luke's Jesus is referring to the physical world), Jesus goes on to pronounce corresponding woes in Luke 6:23-26. Jesus condemns the rich, the well fed, and the happy as already having their rewards, and destined to have their circumstances reversed. If these woes had a spiritual meaning, Jesus would essentially be saying that anyone who already has a good relationship with God will soon find themselves cast out by Him. Instead, looking at Luke's verses, you could build a strong case for Christian asceticism.
So it appears that Matthew's and Luke's accounts are actually two different messages, but that is not quite right either. The similarity between the two message structures bond them together. Moreover, the linchpin verses Matthew 5:11-12 and Luke 6:22-23 match in both structure and meaning.
Based on these similarities, it is probable that both Matthew and Luke were working from a similar source, but that Matthew (or a precursor to Matthew) modified the message. Perhaps Matthew was uncomfortable with the idea of asceticism, or simply wanted to give Jesus' message more of a spiritual intent. Either way, at least parts of Matthew's account are likely to be fiction.
Why does Matthew bear this label of falsehood instead of Luke?
For starters, Luke's message appears more internally consistent. It is one solid message saying that the physical suffering of today will be replaced by the joys of the future, and visa versa. It seems like a message specifically aimed at His disciples, just like how the message is framed.
Beyond that, the rest of Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount appears to be a multi-chapter idealized sermon of Jesus' philosophy. It is the type of sermon which would have left a lasting impression and would have been full of reference material for founding the central tenets of Christianity. However, this epic, world-changing speech is not mentioned or recorded in any of the other Gospels.
Mark shares some topics, and Luke shares many more, but they are instead mostly dispersed throughout their respective Gospels than collected in one speech. Plus, the Gospel of John, which is known for its profound and lengthy teachings of Jesus, does not cover a single topic in the same manner in which Matthew covers in this sermon.
It appears that Matthew has forcibly cobbled together a wealth of philosophical teachings attributed to Jesus into one convenient section, an act which smacks of a fictitious construct. As we have seen here, it seems likely that Matthew modified the original message. If Matthew was willing to edit and append to Jesus' message, then any teachings which occur exclusively Matthew should be subject to extra scrutiny, such as Jesus' teachings on anger, bound on earth/bound in Heaven, and the parable of the talents.