The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) by Dale C. Allison, Jr.

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of Jesus’ five long speeches in the Gospel of Matthew. It is a three-chapter summary of Jesus’ moral instruction. One of its chief subjects is the Law of Moses (Matt 5:17-48). The speech is controversial because it seems to assert, contrary to Paul and most later Christian tradition, that followers of Jesus should still observe the entirety of the Law, which would seemingly include circumcision and dietary regulations (Matt 5:17-20). At the same time, it also appears to dispense with several parts of the Law (Matt 5:31-48). Does the passage contradict itself? Or is it consistent with the perspective of Matthew’s gospel as a whole?

Does the Sermon on the Mount teach that Christians should still observe the Law of Moses?

The six paragraphs addressing the law concern anger (Matt 5:21-26), lust (Matt 5:27-30), divorce (Matt 5:31-32), oaths (Matt 5:33-37), revenge (Matt 5:38-42), and love (Matt 5:43-48). Many biblical scholars label these paragraphs “antitheses,” because in their view Jesus and Moses are at odds with each other. The Law of Moses permits divorce (Deut 24:1-4), oaths (Lev 19:12; Num 30:2-3; Deut 23:22), and retaliation (Exod 21:24-25; Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21). Jesus, with his repeated “but I say to you,” prohibits all of them.

Yet there are problems with supposing that Jesus contradicts the Law of Moses. Matt 5:17-20 says explicitly that Jesus has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. To the contrary, people should obey and teach them. One could scarcely be any clearer. It looks very much as though Matt 5:17-20 is located precisely where it is in order to prevent readers from imagining that Jesus, in the paragraphs that follow, intends to undo the teachings of Moses.

But how can this be, if Jesus abolishes divorce and oaths and forbids retaliation? The problem may be an illusion, if we think in terms of practice: those who obey Jesus’ words will not transgress any law in the Hebrew Bible. Moses may allow divorce, but he does not command it. He may allow oaths, but he does not demand them. And he may allow retaliation, but he does not require it. So shunning divorce, oaths, and retaliation does not violate what the Law of Moses commanded.

This way of looking at things is consistent with the way Matthew, as compared to the other Gospels, treats some matters. For example, in a discussion of dietary customs in Mark 7:1-23, the evangelist Mark comments that Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). Matthew, in his version of the same story, says nothing comparable (Matt 15:1-20). This omission would make sense if the Christian readers of Matthew’s gospel were still expected to follow dietary and other Jewish laws. Similarly, in Mark 13:18, Jesus tells his followers to pray that tribulation not overtake them in winter. In the parallel account in Matt 24:20, Jesus tells them to pray that they not be overtaken “in winter or on a sabbath.” This expanded version seems to assume that the Sabbath still matters for readers of this gospel.

Another striking example is Matt 23:23, where Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees with these words: “Hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” The closing words, “without neglecting the others,” appear to assume the continuing validity of the Law of Moses for followers of Jesus. So it is natural to think of Matthew’s gospel as representing a type of Law-observant Christianity, a Jewish Christianity that wanted to preserve the old traditions along with the new (Matt 8:17, Matt 13:52).

Does the Sermon on the Mount intentionally contradict Paul?

Matt 5:17 appears to rebut a real misunderstanding. That is, Matthew knows somebody who believes and teaches that Jesus came to annul the Law and the Prophets. The text would probably not be so adamant about denouncing a purely hypothetical position, one held by no one. But who is the individual or group to which Matthew reacts? Who taught that the era of the Law and Prophets had come to an end with Jesus? An answer almost inevitably suggests itself: Paul. He taught that it was not necessary for Christians to observe the Law of Moses, and he was, as far as we know, the most famous proponent of that position in the early church. Is he then the object of Matthew’s polemical text? Matt 5:17-20 certainly sounds anti-Pauline.

Many Christians have an understanding of Scripture that rejects the idea that Matthew deliberately opposes Paul. If, however, we think in historical rather than theological terms, it is hard to dismiss the possibility, even if it cannot be proven. This is all the more plausible because Acts, Romans, and Galatians show that Paul’s view of the law was controversial—certain Jewish Christians disagreed with him. Moreover, another New Testament epistle, James, attacks the view that faith without works can save a person (Jas 2:14-26). From the time of Martin Luther on, many have argued persuasively that James takes aim at Paul and his Law-free gospel. It may be the same with Matthew’s gospel, which has many other interesting points of contact with James.

Dale C. Allison, Jr., "Sermon on the Mount", n.p. [cited 22 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/sermon-on-the-mount

Contributors

Dale C. Allison, Jr.

Dale C. Allison, Jr.
Professor, Princeton Theological Seminary

Dale C. Allison, Jr. is the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including The New Moses: A Matthean Typology (Fortress, 1993), Studies in Matthew (Baker Academic, 2005), and A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of James (T&T Clark, 2013).

The Sermon on the Mount is a summary of Jesus’ moral teaching that that is in large measure concerned with the question of whether Christians should observe the Law of Moses.

Did you know…?

  • The Sermon on the Mount is only the first of five long speeches of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
  • The Sermon is especially concerned with the Law of Moses.
  • The Sermon seems to teach, along with other parts of Matthew, that the Law of Moses is still valid for followers of Jesus.
  • The Sermon sounds as though it might oppose Paul and his Law-free gospel.
  • The Sermon is not the only New Testament book that sounds anti-Pauline; so does Jas 2:14-16.

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The laws of the Pentateuch (Torah), delivered to the Israelites by Yahweh through Moses on Mount Sinai; "Law of Moses" can also refer to the Torah as a whole, including both the laws and the narratives.

A collection of Jesus' moral sayings, including the Beatitudes and several parables, recorded in Matt 5-7.

Matt 5:17-48

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18For truly I tell you, ... View more

Matt 5:17-20

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18For truly I tell you, ... View more

Matt 5:31-48

Concerning Divorce


31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his w ... View more

A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

dietary laws, dietary restrictions, kosher food laws, kosher.

Also known as the rules of kashrut (the system for keeping kosher), these are the biblical laws that set out what it is permissible for Israelites to eat. The laws appear primarily in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, though a few appear elsewhere.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Christianity as practiced by people who also identify as Jewish and follow Jewish laws; this was the norm in the very early Church, but quickly became superceded by Gentile Christianity.

Matt 5:21-26

Concerning Anger


21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’

22But I ... View more

Matt 5:27-30

Concerning Adultery


27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has alre ... View more

Matt 5:31-32

Concerning Divorce


31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his w ... View more

Matt 5:33-37

Concerning Oaths


33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the ... View more

Matt 5:38-42

Concerning Retaliation


38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if any ... View more

Matt 5:43-48

Love for Enemies


43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those ... View more

Deut 24:1-4

Laws concerning Marriage and Divorce


1Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable abou ... View more

Lev 19:12

12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.

Num 30:2-3

2When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out ... View more

Deut 23:22

22But if you refrain from vowing, you will not incur guilt.

Exod 21:24-25

24eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Lev 24:20

20fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

Deut 19:21

21Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Matt 5:17-20

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18For truly I tell you, ... View more

Matt 5:17-20

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18For truly I tell you, ... View more

Mark 7:1-23

The Tradition of the Elders


1Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,

2they noticed that some of his disci ... View more

Mark 7:19

19since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Matt 15:1-20

The Tradition of the Elders


1Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said,

2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For the ... View more

Mark 13:18

18Pray that it may not be in winter.

Matt 24:20

20Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath.

Matt 23:23

23“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy a ... View more

Matt 8:17

17This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Matt 13:52

52And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure w ... View more

A detailed letter, written in formal prose. Most of the New Testament books beyond the gospels are epistles (letters written to early Christians).

The idea that belief, without accompanying change in behavior, can bring about salvation; criticized in the Epistle of James.

Early followers of Christ or his teachings who were culturally and ethnically Jewish, especially but not exclusively before Christianity (originally a Jewish reform movement) distinguished itself from Judaism.

German cleric usually considered to have formally launched the Protestant Reformation with his list of 95 "theses" itemizing grievances against the Roman Catholic Church, especially its sale of indulgences claimed to absolve individuals' sins.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Matt 5:17

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

Matt 5:17-20

The Law and the Prophets


17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

18For truly I tell you, ... View more

Jas 2:14-26

Faith without Works Is Dead


14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

15If a brother or si ... View more

Jas 2:14-16

Faith without Works Is Dead


14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

15If a brother or si ... View more

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