Another reason for Luke to have broken up Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount

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by Neil Godfrey

If the author of the Gospel of Luke knew Matthew’s gospel then how can one explain his decision to break up the aesthetic and noble unity of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? There are responses to this question that do not persuade everyone. (The idea that Luke did not like long sermons runs into a problem when one reads long sermons and speeches in Acts.) If, however, we think of canonical Luke as an anti-Marcionite work (as discussed in recent posts on Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts), then something about the Sermon on the Mount immediately stands out as a problem for an author writing a tract to trounce Marcionism.

Matthew 5:

20. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

21. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22. But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment:

27. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: 28. But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

31. It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32. But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife,

33. Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: 34. But I say unto you, Swear not at all;

38. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39. But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil:

43. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. 44. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

Even though many today read the whole tenor of Matthew’s gospel and the Sermon on the Mount as pro-Torah, the above pattern of sayings cannot help but at the very least suggest a pro-Marcionite teaching about Jesus and the Law. Marcionism taught that Jesus came from a higher god than the Creator god of the Jews, and that the law of that Creator god of Israel was deficient compared with the true teachings of the hitherto unknown god.

Many orthodox interpreters will read the above sayings of Matthew as intending to drive home the message of making the Torah law even stronger and “spiritually amplified”. But it cannot be denied that the same verses are also potentially susceptible to a contrary interpretation — that Jesus’ law is superior to the Torah, and that if Jesus’ appeared at times to uphold and strengthen the requirements of Torah, he was doing so from the vantage point of demolishing the old and bringing in a new commandment that included the best of the old plus a lot more. Marcion would not have had a problem with the latter interpretation.

Look how Luke (think of an anti-Marcionite Luke) treats Matthew’s:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies . . . . (5:43-44)

Luke 6: . . . 27

Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you and cast out your name as evil, . . . .

But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies . . .

The phrases in Matthew that set Jesus’ saying in an adversative (or at least in a sequential) relationship to Torah (You have heard that it hath been said, . . . . But I say unto you . . . .) are dismantled. One of them is used but in a context that drives home to the reader a very different tone from Matthew’s sermon. In Luke, the “But I say to you, Love your enemies” follows (albeit indirectly) the reminder that followers of Jesus will have enemies who will persecute them. The thought is not alien to Matthew, but nor is it what he was expressing. He was, as a Marcionite might justifiably put it, contrasting Jesus’ saying to the law of the god of the Jews.

Luke has removed the “But/and I say unto you” completely from any thought of such a contrast.

Luke has not, of course, completely deleted most of the ethical teachings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but he has filtered out those particles that would appear to be most susceptible to a Marcionite spin.

It would have been possible for him to have kept the same order and much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount by merely deleting those introductory passages, “You have heard that it was said . . .”, But that would also require the deletion of the complementary “Old Testament” commands. And then one no longer has a rhetorical masterpiece, but a series of commands that looks more like a shopping list, another Leviticus 19.

Now if Luke did see this sermon as a broken staff to take to the Marcionite challenge, and if he did toy with the idea of deleting those problematic introductions to each saying, he would surely not have had too many sleepless nights before he hit on the idea of introducing the sayings with alternative anecdotes and contexts.

The argument that Luke did not like long sermons hits a problem when we read some quite long sermons in Acts, and especially when we think of the rhetorical grandeur of the Sermon on the Mount. But if Luke was a theological warrior writing a weapon against Marcionism, then we have a much stronger explanation for why he might have rearranged Matthew’s famous Sermon.

Luke has also deleted some of the more extreme sayings of Matthew’s Sermon:

except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment:

whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

swear not at all;

be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Did these teachings fall into the hands of the Marcionites who practiced a highly ascetic code? Did such teachings as these promote the idea of a Christian code that was qualitatively different from, even aloof from, what could be achieved through an application of the Torah?

If so, the command against swearing oaths does not seem so onerous as to require fleshly mortification, but it does deny absolutely a command to perform oaths in the Torah. As such, one could imagine an anti-Marcionite theologian rejecting this as not serving his pro-Torah purpose at all.

Some of the other injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount appear to have been less problematically re-ordered into more economical or coherent chunks of sayings:

  • Thus Matthew’s sayings about being a “light of the world” (5:14) is placed beside his later saying about the “lamp of the body” (6:22) — Luke 11:33-36. (It may be going too far, but maybe not, to think that Luke’s intent was also to place both sayings about light together beside a pericope about “seeking a sign”.)
  • Luke may have removed Matthew’s command to be reconciled quickly to one’s enemy from its original context, where it stood as part of a contrast with the “Jewish law”, and placed it, logically, in a section on eschatological judgment (Luke 12:54-58).
  • And conversely, Luke may have brought together and trimmed down for rhetorical balance in 6:20-26 Matthew’s disparate beatitudes (Matt. 5) and woes (Matt. 23).

Luke has not obliterated all trace of the Sermon on the Mount. His Sermon on the Plain maintains the same basic structure of Matthew’s, with similar bookends of beatitudes and the admonition to build on a rock.

And the question is more complex still when one considers the possibility of a pre-Marcionite “original Luke”, as discussed in my previous posts on Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts.

I have for most part limited myself here to looking afresh at the question Why would Luke break up the Sermon on the Mount from within the model of canonical Luke being an anti-Marcionite work.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • anonymous
    2008-10-28 09:47:08 GMT+0000 - 09:47 | Permalink

    If this were the case, why would Marcion have not used Matthew rather than Luke as his basis, or be accused of so doing? It could more easily be said, therefore, that Luke inherits a Macrionite removal of reference to the Law, that whereas Matthew had Jesus correct the Law, Marcion in his gospel ignores it completely, and the later editor of Marcion’s gospel (“Luke”) did not perceive this and therefore left the sermon on the Mount in the Marcionite form! I’m not fully convinced that any of this Luke derived from Macrion stuff is correct, but if it were, I find this scenario more plausible.

  • 2008-10-28 10:58:04 GMT+0000 - 10:58 | Permalink

    What evidence is there that Marcion knew Matthew? There is no reference to this among any of the extant evidence, and it would seem unusual for Marcion to have used a gospel like Matthew that had surely so much in it that would have to re-write or ignore.

  • anonymous
    2008-10-29 03:30:21 GMT+0000 - 03:30 | Permalink

    If Matthew were written post-Marcion, it would surely not include an antithesis-like sermon on the mount. That must place Matthew before Marcion.

  • 2008-10-29 07:19:30 GMT+0000 - 07:19 | Permalink

    Are you saying the Sermon on the Mount is in some sense Marcionite-like or consistent with Marcionism? If so, I would have to strongly disagree. The SM has Jesus fulfilling and enhancing the Law and Prophets, and pronounces dire divine judgements on the reprobate, and upholds works (or “fruits”) as the key to salvation. All of this is contrary to everything we understand about Marcionism.

  • anonymous
    2008-11-04 05:13:06 GMT+0000 - 05:13 | Permalink

    I’ve seen present day Christians accused (by Calvinists) of being Marcionites merely for asserting that we should go to the NT first for our morality and then to the OT when necessary to define a term (like idolatry or sexual immorality, see Acts 15). The Calvinists assert is that the OT law was perfect in its morality and that Christians have every right to fight in war, or to execute blasphemers. True Christians point out that the OT has been replaced by the NT and the only use for OT with regard to law is to define idolatry and sexual immorality, not to lay down punishments nor to overturn Jesus’ teachings of non-violence. For this they are accused of being Marcionites, although they have not introduced any extra gods or denies that Christ’s body was of flesh nor denied the bodily resurrection. I see many parallels between the Calvinists of today and the Catholics of Tertullian’s, and I suspect that Marcion probably did not teach half of what Tertullian and others say he did. His position was probably exactly that which I have outlined here. But because they wanted a state-church merger where the church could use violence and murder to suppress dissent, they like the theonomist Calvinists of today (and Calvin himself) teach a view of the Law that allows it to override Christ’s teachings whenever it is in their political interests to do so.

  • anonymous
    2008-11-04 05:14:57 GMT+0000 - 05:14 | Permalink

    and (I forgot to make this point explicit) they made up false accusations against Marcion to suppress his true position by accusing him of asserting multiple gods, which he probably never did.

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