Thursday, March 20, 2014

Part XV- Matthew: Understanding the Sermon on the Mount: Conclusion

by John Shelby Spong

Jesus never preached the Sermon on the Mount! That needs to be said again and again until it is embraced as a fact. The Sermon on the Mount was composed by the author of Matthew’s gospel in order to fill out his interpretive portrait of Jesus, not only as the messiah, but also as the expected prophet of whom Moses spoke and even one who was thought to have relived the life of Moses. This suggestion will be startling to some, which is why I have been so deliberate in developing the background material. Biblical ignorance is not a virtue, especially when the background material that I have cited has been known in the world of biblical scholarship for at least the last 200 years.

The facts supporting these ideas are plentiful. Nowhere else in the New Testament was Jesus ever said to have preached the Sermon on the Mount. If, as Matthew suggests, it was such a climactic moment in Jesus’ life, does it not seem strange that this event did not make an indelible impression on anyone else in the developing Christian tradition? Paul, Mark, Luke and John never mention it. In fairness, let me say that some of the material included in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount is also included in Luke as part of Jesus’ preaching on the plains, but it is not nearly so beautifully set forth or dramatic. Luke’s Beatitudes, for example, are shortened to four and are accompanied by a series of four woes, portraying neither the grandeur nor the depth of Matthew’s sermon. Indeed, it appears to be derivative.

Some scholars adhere to what is known as “the Q hypothesis.” They believe that both Luke and Matthew had an additional, now lost, common source other than Mark, which they have called “Quella,” the German word for “source,” which was quickly abbreviated to Q. Q, they argue, contained a number of the sayings of Jesus and is used to explain the similarities between Matthew and Luke that are not derived from Mark. Other scholars who deny the Q hypothesis, and I am increasingly one of them, argue that what has been called “the Q material” is really Matthew’s midrashic adaptations written on the text of Mark, and that Luke had both Mark and Matthew before him when he wrote his gospel. Thus Luke incorporated into his gospel some of Matthew’s adaptations and additions to Mark. This, rather than a speculative, now lost document, would account for the sometimes almost identical non-Marcan passages found in both Matthew and Luke. This would mean that Q is nothing but Matthew’s adaptations to Mark, which were then incorporated into Luke.

The Q hypothesis has been a standard assumption of New Testament scholars for at least the last 150 years, but I find a theory based on a lost document to be a rather weak argument and I am delighted to see confidence in the Q hypothesis begin to wane, although that waning is more obvious among scholars in the United Kingdom than it is among scholars in the United States. In the Jesus Seminar, a scholarly think tank made up primarily of American scripture scholars, the Q hypothesis has achieved the status of an almost unchallenged dogma. In that body I was a lonely voice of one, who was never convinced of the accuracy of the Q hypothesis despite the complete confidence of the Seminar’s other fellows in it.

My reasons for this skepticism are located in the Jewishness of the gospels in general and the Jewishness of Matthew’s gospel in particular. The Sermon on the Mount is the cornerstone of my dismissal of the Q hypothesis The more one understands that the organizing principle behind each of the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) is not the remembered life of Jesus, but the pattern of synagogue worship in which the Jesus story was told and retold during the first two to three generations of Christianity’s life, the less need one has for the existence of a lost source called Q. As we look at the Sermon on the Mount from a Jewish perspective, the more this Jewish liturgical background becomes both apparent and appealing. Indeed the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the festival observance of Shavuot is only the first of these connections, which I will set opposite one another as we walk through the rest of Matthew’s gospel. It is on these connections that in my mind the necessity for the Q hypothesis disappears.

What the Sermon on the Mount is to Shavuot the crucifixion will be to Passover, and between those two great celebrations Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Dedication will all be related to significant and appropriate Jesus stories. In this analysis, literalism as a viable way of reading the gospels will quite simply die and we will begin to see new dimensions in the Christ portrayal, which will enable us to lay a new claim on our faith story. To begin this process we must make sure that the connection between the Sermon on the Mount and the celebration of Shavuot is clear. If you notice that I am repeating some ideas from the column last week, be assured that it is on purpose. New ideas have to be repeated until they find permanent lodging in our minds.

Shavuot, as noted previously, is a festival coming 50 days after Passover and observed in the synagogue with a 24 hour vigil. For this vigil Psalm 119, the longest Psalm in the Psalter was specifically written. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is modeled on that psalm. Psalm 119 provides a psalm reading for the eight segments of the 24 hour vigil. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount reflects this psalm in many ways. It too is divided into eight segments. In Matthew’s introduction to the Sermon on the Mount he frames eight verses in such a way that each begins with the word “Blessed,” causing these verses to be named “the Beatitudes.” In the introduction to Psalm 119 two of the eight verses begin with the word “Blessed.”

Matthew’s sermon is then made up of eight commentaries on each of the eight Beatitudes, but he will do these commentaries in reverse order; that is, his first commentary is on the eighth Beatitude and his last commentary is on the first Beatitude. Psalm 119 in its entirety is a hymn to the beauty and wonder of the Law, the Torah. Among its words are these: “Blessed are those who walk in the law (the Torah) of the Lord.” “Let me not wander from your commandments (your Torah).” “Blessed are thou, O Lord; teach me your statutes (your Torah).” “I am a sojourner on earth; hide not your commandments (your Torah) from me.” “I will run in the way of your commandments (Torah) when you enlarge my understanding.” We could continue this kind of quotation with many, many references out of that Psalm’s text.

Psalm 119 was clearly created to serve the liturgical needs of the synagogue during Shavuot’s 24 hour vigil. Both Matthew and his readers would know this and would recognize that the Sermon on the Mount was patterned after Psalm 119, the psalm of Shavuot.

It was not a foreign practice for the Jews at the great celebrations of their liturgical life to read the biblical passages that tell the story behind the celebration each year. Liturgy is, after all, the act of recalling the historical moments in a nation’s sacred history. The book of Esther had been written to be read at the Feast of Purim, to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews from genocide in the days of the Persians. The book of Lamentations had been written for the Ninth of Ab, the day when the Jews recalled the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians. The basis of the celebration of Shavuot would be the Sinai story from the book of Exodus in which the Torah was given to Moses, so this was the Torah lesson that was always read at this celebration.

Before we can understand the Sermon on the Mount we must understand its Jewish antecedents. The Torah began with the Ten Commandments and Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount touches on each of the Ten, some quite overtly, but not missing any of them. Matthew’s readers would also recognize how the Sermon on the Mount was modeled on Psalm 119, the Psalm of Shavuot. That was how they understood Matthew’s gospel. From about 150 CE on, however, the Christian Church became a Gentile movement, so the Jewish background to the gospel’s Jesus stories was unknown. More than that there was an active and virulent anti-Jewish prejudice that was operating in this Gentile Church. So it was that the Jewish meaning behind the gospel stories was lost. That meant that for the next 2000 or so years of Christian history the only people who read, studied, taught or wrote commentaries on the gospels were Gentiles who were ignorant of and prejudiced against their original Jewish frame of reference. In that process symbolic Jewish stories were read as if they were literal history.

Biblical literalism is at its heart a Gentile heresy, born in the ignorance of the Jewish background to the gospels. To recover the essential meaning of our own gospels we must learn to read them through a Jewish lens or with Jewish eyes. We must understand the Jewish context in which and for which the various segments of the synoptic gospels were written. We must be able to identify what I call the “Gentile Captivity of the Christian Story.” It was in the service of Gentile ignorance that Christians were taught first that the Bible must be understood literally; later it was the 4th century Christians were taught that the creeds had to be believed literally, and finally in the 13th century Christians were taught that worship forms were handed down from on high and were, therefore, not subject to change.

The future of Christianity depends on breaking this stranglehold of imposed literalism, based on Gentile ignorance of Christianity’s Jewish roots and origins. I seek to counter the ignorance of literalism week by week in this study of Matthew’s Gospel. It is the celebration of Shavuot that makes the Sermon on the Mount what it is– deeply true, but not literal history.

Stay tuned! The narrative becomes more and more exciting as its organizing secret is revealed.


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