Hans Dieter Betz and Norman Perrin: The Sermon on the Mount and the Historical Jesus

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by Tim Widowfield

Bloch-SermonOnTheMountAt Ed Jones’ urging, a few of months ago I purchased Essays on the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of papers by Hans Dieter Betz. While reading chapter 4, “A Jewish-Christian Cultic Didache in Matt. 6:1-18: Reflections and Questions on the Historical Jesus” (p. 55), I was alerted to Norman Perrin’s Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus. Betz cites this book as a landmark work in the quest to determine the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings.

I started reading Perrin’s book and came upon a citation of T.W. Manson’s The Sayings of Jesus, which I naturally had to order. Perrin praises this work despite Manson’s denial of form criticism, which surely hobbled his efforts (or at least led him to untenable conclusions). Manson’s book will no doubt lead me to other sources. And so it goes.

I promised Ed I’d have something to say about Betz, the Sermon on the Mount, and the historical Jesus. That’s what this post is about.

The mini-didache in Matthew

Betz’s essay analyzes a series of complex and intricately structured teachings of Jesus found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. We should resist calling this set of instructions a group of “sayings”; Betz shows the intricate, multilayered framework indicates a fairly long literary phase between the written gospel and the (presumed) oral tradition. For example, we can clearly see the difference between an early set of instructions (Matt. 6:1-6) that appear to conform well to Judaism and a later insertion (Matt. 6:7-15) that appears to have come from the Jewish Diaspora.

Betz demonstrates the difference by painstakingly examining the structure of what he calls a didache, using the title of a well-known work from early Christianity. He cites Rudolf Bultmann, who commented that these “rules of piety” resemble a church catechism. At first glance, it may seem as if they’re a series of simple “don’t do that — do this” rules, but they’re far more complex than that.

For example, here’s the “don’t” part:

6:2-4 I. Almsgiving (NASB)
6:2a 1. Statement of the cultic act. So when you give to the poor,
6:2b-e 2. Prohibition of the improper performance of the cultic act.
6:2b a. Imperative (negative) do not 
6:2bc b. Caricature of the conduct to be rejected. sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets,
6:2d c. Statement of the (improper) objective so that they may be honored by men.
6:2e d. Description of the consequences of improper conduct in the form of an Amen-saying. Truly [Amen] I say to you, they have their reward in full.

And here’s the “do” part:

6:3-4 3. Instruction of the proper performance of the cultic act.  (NASB)
6:3a a. Statement of the cultic act. But when you give to the poor,
6:3b b. Description of the proper performance of the act by means of a proverbial saying. do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
6:4a c. Statement of the (proper) objective. so that your giving will be in secret;
6:4b d. Theological justification for the instructions and promise of eschatological reward. and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

(The above tables are based on the text found on pp. 57-59, with the text of the NASB added for clarity.)

The Gospel of Matthew repeats this formula for the act of prayer and the act of fasting. The first half of the cultic instruction is almost identical among them. The Amen-saying, for example, is the same in each one.

ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἀπέχουσιν τὸν μισθὸν αὐτῶν.

Amen I say to you, they have their reward.

A distinct theological outlook

Betz notes that the exhortations in Matthew’s cultic didache have a distinct theological outlook. First, the recipient of these words of wisdom must perform certain actions in a particular way in order to be deemed righteous in the eyes of God. As a result, the invisible, all-knowing God who “dwells in heaven” will see his followers doing pious acts in private and will reward them. God will apportion this reward in public, for all to see.

If I may intrude with my own observation, the mini-didache in Matthew stands in opposition to Paul’s theology of faith. For Paul, we obtain righteousness through God’s mercy and grace by professing faith in Christ. For Matthew, we receive the reward of righteousness by correctly performing acts that demonstrate our faithfulness to God. According to the Sermon on the Mount, righteousness requires action on the part of the faithful. However, these cultic acts, all of which are known to Judaism, have only one correct method of performance, namely (1) with the aim not to impress other people but to please God and (2) in secret so that God “who sees in secret” will reward openly.

Betz concludes that the three sets of the instructions — on alms-giving, prayer, and fasting — do not necessarily imply a Sitz im Leben of the early church. He reasons:

At no point does [the cultic didache] betray “Christian” influence. This is the case with respect to the concept of the hidden God who “sees in secret,” the notion of the heavenly Father, the concept of reward, and the idea of the imitation of God. The criticism of the cult as well (6:2, 5, 16) is an inner-Jewish phenomenon, and is by no means necessarily Christian on account of its critical stance. (p. 62, emphasis mine)

Hence, we’re not dealing with a rejection of Judaism, but a refinement of its practice. Betz notes that it may be anti-Pharisaic in tendency, but beyond that it’s difficult to place the community on the spectrum of Judaism (which, as we know, was fairly broad in the first and second centuries).

Don’t pray like those people

On the other hand, as we said earlier, the parenesis (Betz spells it “paranaesis”) on prayer from verse 7 to 15 is different.

6:7-15 C. A paranaesis on prayer (NASB)
6:7-13 I. Prayer  
6:7a 1. Statement of the cultic act And when you are praying, 
6:7-8a 2. Prohibition of its improper performance  
6:7a a. Imperative (negative) do not 
6:7a b. Caricature of the conduct to be rejected and comparison of non-Jewish practice of prayer use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do,
6:7b c. Description of the theory of prayer underlying the non-Jewish practices for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
6:8a d. Warning against assimilation to the non-Jewish practice So do not be like them;
6:8b-13 3. Instruction in the proper performance of the cultic act  
6:8b a. Theological justification for the instruction for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
6:9a d. Statement of the cultic act Pray, then, in this way:
6:9b-13 d. Citation of the Lord’s Prayer as the authoritative example of prayer ‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
(10) ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
(11) ‘Give us this day [e]our daily bread.
(12) ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
(13) ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil [or “the evil one”].’
6:14-15 II. Forgiveness of sins
(a “sentence of holy law” formulated in antithetical parallelismus membrorum [cf. Jeremias, Theology]
(14) For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (15) But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. 

(The above table is based on the text found on p. 63, with the text of the NASB added for clarity.)

Here we have a caricature not of Jewish, but of Gentile practice. The focus has switched from an internecine squabble (i.e., within Judaism) to a polemic against Gentiles, mocking the practice of useless repetition in prayer. The ridicule of Gentile behavior combined with the warning (see verse 6:8a) — “do not be like them” — suggests this section was composed within the context of the Diaspora (see p. 64).


  • The intricate, heavily layered structure shows that this passage has been worked, reworked, molded, and added to over time. It will be quite difficult to extract original, authentic sayings.
  • The cultic didache, on the whole, fits comfortably within Judaism, albeit a sect whose conceptions about how to worship and how to achieve the reward of the just appears to have differed from the Pharisees and Sadducees.
  • Given its good fit within Jewish thought, we cannot use the criterion of dissimilarity to determine authenticity. [Note: At this point Betz cites Perrin’s Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, which I hope to cover in future posts.]
  • Although the passage fits within Judaism, we can’t rule out the possibility that it was also Christian. That is, it could have been a product of Jewish Christianity  Betz reminds us that we should not blindly equate Christianity with Gentile Christianity and then assume that any teaching that doesn’t look like Gentile Christianity must be strictly Jewish.
  • The cultic didache could easily have originated with Jewish Christianity. However, we can’t know for certain if the teachings were pre-Christian or even pre-Jesus, and later assimilated into Christianity.
  • The Lord’s Prayer, as it appears in Matthew, “is most likely a product of Diaspora Judaism.” (See the opposition to Gentile behavior and the warnings against assimilation above.)
  • True, the Lord’s Prayer is multiply attested, but the context around it in Matthew is not. (Cf. the odd reference to John the Baptist in Luke’s version. [Luke 11:1-4]) Hence, multiple attestation doesn’t help us here. In other words, the core of the Lord’s Prayer could be authentic, but Matthew or an earlier redactor has inserted it into inauthentic material.
  • Can we fall back on Jeremias’ “Amen sayings” criterion of authenticity? Betz says no. “[T]he sayings in our text can only be regarded as imitations like those found in the Gospel traditions. They offer no proof of the authenticity of this passage.” (p. 67)
  • The passage is all about personal piety; the temple and its trappings are ignored. (Note: Does this mean we’re dealing with a sect similar to the Qumran community, or does it mean that the temple has already been destroyed? Betz brings up neither possibility, but instead offers up Vermes’ “charismatic Judaism” for consideration.)

In the end, Betz concludes “the pericope cannot be used to reconstruct the message of Jesus” (p. 65) and the section “cannot be attributed to Jesus.” (p. 67) Such a verdict raises many questions (for example, why did Matthew think Jesus said these things?) but as far as the question of authenticity goes, the cultic didache cannot be traced back to Jesus.


I’ve been reading lots of conservative authors lately, so this essay hit me like a blast of fresh air. Betz honestly analyzes every facet of Matthew’s didache and assesses the probabilities of authenticity. Note, of course, that Betz has concerned himself with the question of authenticity, not historicity. For the overwhelming majority of scholars, historicity is presumed and off limits; however, questions of authenticity are safe for discussion. Still, it’s refreshing to read an author who sticks to his criteria and pronounces his verdict.

This degree of honesty is refreshing, perhaps because it is so rare. I hope to cover more of Betz in the future, but before that I’d like to take a side trip over to Perrin, because his form-critical approach to authenticity provides the basis for many of Betz’s conclusions with respect to the Sermon on the Mount.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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0 thoughts on “Hans Dieter Betz and Norman Perrin: The Sermon on the Mount and the Historical Jesus”

  1. Tim, As you might expect I am a bit overwhelmed for this. To have the Sermon on the Mount named in a title here is, to use your words, “like a blast of fresh air”. It is somewhat curious that you begin your comments on the SM citing the Cultic Didache (Matt. 6:1-18), the portion which raises the larger question of authenticity, I commented to this on your post Blogging Again with a quote from page 91.

    I say no more now as I await your further Posts with real anticipation. Betz is quite capable of making the case for the SM, “the alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the the letters of Paul and the Gosspels, as well as the later writings of the New Testament.”

    1. The reason I started with the Cultic Didache is that in this essay Betz reveals his reliance on Norman Perrin’s methodology, and I think it’s important to understand this foundation first before proceeding.

      It is one thing to make a strong case for an alternative to Gentile Christianity (viz., Jewish Christianity), but it’s quite another to be able to prove what material (if any) from the SM goes back to a historical Galilean teacher named Jesus.

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