Synoptic Problems and The Sermon on the Mount

Mark Goodacre has things to say about Brandon Wason’s synoptic problem poll, and so does April DeConick, suggesting that Mark and others “get real” about what the poll results tell us. I once did a poll about the shifts in thought between Galatians and Romans, and found the results to be congruent with where I sensed the academy was leaning. So I agree with Mark that these biblioblog polls, while unscientific, can give a certain “feel” to movements in the academy — provided most of the blog-readers (voters) are academically-oriented. One sometimes wonders. With April I’m surprised at the high number of votes that came in for the Augustinian hypothesis.

On a more specific track, I’d like to comment about those like Steve Walton who remain “completely unconvinced that Luke used Matthew” on account of huge differences between the Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain.

“The comment ‘unscrambling the egg with a vengeance’ applies so powerfully to Luke’s treatment of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, scattering it in bits all over Luke’s Gospel – I can’t imagine why someone would do that.” (Walton)

Mark dealt with this objection in his treatise against Q, and one of his especially persuasive (though unorthodox) arguments — to me as both a film buff and novelist — was in the chapter on “The Celluloid Christ”. Matthew’s version of the sermon actually begs for unscrambling, and I think everyone knows it, whether or not they know they know it. In his survey of Jesus-films, Goodacre shows how filmmakers have gone out of their way to chop, dice, and reorganize Matthew’s sermon. They don’t care for his early placement of it; they shorten it — even Pasolini, whose film slavishly follows Matthew, shortens it by more than half — they restructure it; and enhance it with other elements (see The Case Against Q, pp 124-129). Just like Luke did. However consciously they’re aware of it, they know Mt 5-7 is a cumbersome wreck crying out for decimation.

The Sermon on the Mount isn’t the literary gem Q-adherents often imply that it is, just because of its “artistic” placement within the 5-block “Torah” units. Matthew’s artistry actually leaves a lot to be desired. I suppose reading Mt 5-7 is a lot like reading parts of the Torah: ethically sharp, literarily onerous. If I had nothing but the gospel of Matthew in front of me, and had to write a new and improved gospel, my sermon would end up looking very different. But then, like Luke, I was always a bit too ambitious and sure of myself.

3 thoughts on “Synoptic Problems and The Sermon on the Mount

  1. I have remained interested in Biblical history questions through the years although I don’t think I would fair to call myself “academically-oriented.”One thing strikes me about discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem. It is how much of the argument is phrased in terms of artistry and personal credulity. One man’s aesthetic perfection is guaranteed to be another’s awkward construction, especially when viewed across the centuries. While Mark Goodacre makes a good point about the <>possibility<> of viewing the Sermon on the Mount as cumbersome by documenting the artistic differences modern filmmakers have with the Sermon on the Mount, this is a flimsy bit of evidence. If the evidence were a bit Nessie footage or a marking on a JFK bullet, it would be one thing, but these arguments often start with “I can’t believe that …” In the end, when honest investigators can disagree over the very existence of an item of evidence in their dispute, that evidence is no longer useful. Please forgive any lack of clarity. For those of us who do not spend their days committing their thoughts to “paper” in a clear and concise way, expressing complex thoughts can be an exercise in humility.

  2. There are some surprising macro-structures in the Torah – notably even Leviticus, described by Milgrom as a wheel if I remember correctly (Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus (3 Volumes), The Anchor Bible Commentary). Have you ever looked for macro structures in Matthew? Is it as cumbersome as implied? (I haven’t)

  3. I am a newcomer to this business, but I suggest that Luke is doing more than the research and recapitulation he claims in his preface. I have noticed that Luke can order his material in such a way as to add his own comment. A striking example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As far as I know, this is the only case where Jesus’ teaching contradicted the Written Torah and it is presented as intending to do so. (Mk 10:2-9; Mt 5:31-32, 19:3-9) Recounting that teaching (Lk 16:18), Luke omits Jesus’ statement contrasting his teaching with the Torah, but places it immediately after Jesus’ statement that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” (Lk 16:17[NRSV] cf. Mt 5:17-18)This can only be intentional. My guess is that Luke was attempting to write a Gospel that would supersede those already in existence. Since promoting faith in Jesus, not recording history, was Luke’s purpose, he smoothed as many rough edges as he could for the naive (and Gentile) reader, who, if he does not know or recall the explicit authorization of divorce in the Torah, sails right past the contradiction. Placing the two teachings in adjacent verses, however, rather than separating them as in Matthew, points out the contradiction for the more thoughtful reader to ponder.My point is that Luke’s reordering may reflect more than merely literary, aesthetic concerns, so his spreading out Matthew’s material is not in itself a strong argument that he had a source other than Matthew.

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