Welcome to healthytheology.com

Biblical Criticism And The Sermon: “Literal” As Problematic

Biblical Criticism And The Sermon: “Literal” As Problematic

Students today wishing to do graduate study in religion will often find “theology” and “biblical studies” to be two different options, on two different tracks. It is fairly standard these days to ask a professor whether she is a “biblical scholar” or a “theologian.” There is a long answer as to why this is so, and I would love to get on my soapbox to express my displeasure over the divide. But it will be helpful to explain briefly how the discipline of “biblical studies” (in the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment periods) brought up new questions in how one reads the Sermon on the Mount.


You may have noticed that pre-modern interpreters seem to deal with the sermon collectively (as a unit), and seek spiritual application often by—and through—reading the sermon as literal injunctions, intended to apply to contemporary readers. The rise of biblical criticism, however, gave interpreters reason to pause and reconsider several of these assumptions.

For example, is the Sermon on the Mount really a collective unit? Jean Calvin had already raised doubt about the sermon in this regard, declaring it a collection of teachings or sayings symptomatic of Jesus’ entire preaching career:

The design of both Evangelists [Matthew & Luke] was, to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life…Matthew takes no notice of the time, but only mentions the place. It is probable, that this discourse was not delivered until Christ had chosen the twelve…Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses, the first of which was that in which he spoke to his disciples about true happiness.[1]

If the sermon was not, originally, a structured sermon given by Christ on a particular historical occasion, how might that affect the weight we give to the structure and order of the teachings? Does a verse just prior give meaning, setting, and explanation for the next verse—if they were originally two distinct teachings? If the sermon is a collection of Jesus’ “greatest hits” (so to speak), would that heighten or lessen the claim that these are “commands to be obeyed” or “virtues to embody” or “illustrations of a life which only Christ can fulfill”?

Suppose it is a compendium of various teachings: does that mean it was brought together to show us the central ideals of the Christian faith? This is a popular view, and might be an underlying assumption in the long history of interpretation. But there are difficulties that come when one ignores the historical setting of a particular section of Scripture, or assumes it is lost to us. Dale Allison, a contemporary biblical scholar, raises a serious challenge against those who think the Sermon on the Mount is the “quintessence of Christianity.” “How could anything that fails to refer explicitly to the crucifixion and resurrection be the quintessence of Matthew’s Christian faith?,” asks Allison.[2] Robert Guelich shares a similar concern:

The Beatitudes…along with the Ten Commandments, represent for many the essence of the Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, understood in their total context, this viewpoint contains a large element of truth. Yet, in another sense, divorced from their intention and context, such a view represents a great distortion.[3]

So the historical setting of the sermon is not inconsequential; and raising the question as to its original audience, setting, purpose, and scope (along with any changes due to an author’s re-arrangement) might lead to a dramatically different interpretation.

“Biblical criticism brought about a new set of questions which pushed both toward “literal” readings (in the sense of original context) and away from “literal” readings (in the sense of modern day application).”

Consider another question raised in biblical criticism: what is the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and Judaism? Some scholars in the vein of Luther see a dramatic break, propelling them to embrace a “law vs. gospel” reading of the sermon. Others note that the strong connection between the sermon and the book of Isaiah, along with Jesus’ claim not to “abolish” but to “fulfill” the law, suggests a strong continuity between the sermon and the teachings of Judaism. Several authors, including the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, claim that virtually every injunction in the sermon is simply a call to take the original intent and heart of Judaisms teachings more seriously.[4] If there is continuity, asks Dale Allison, how can one adopt a strong Anabaptist position (forbidding oaths, participation in military, and so forth) which is not in continuity with the position on such subjects in the Hebrew Bible?[5] So, once again, how you conceive of the relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Old Testament profoundly affects interpretation.

Then we could ask the “then vs. now” question. How do you know if a teaching given to “them” was intended to be a teaching for you “now”? Scholars of various stripes have claimed the sermon was intended just for the apostles, or just for Jewish Christians of the first century, or just for any and all who lived before the inauguration of the kingdom. Think about it: the great commission was given to the apostles (Matt 28:18-20), the same audience told that they could move mountains (Matt 17:19-21) or could handle deadly snakes without fearing death (Mark 16:15-18, in some versions). The rise of biblical criticism sought to seriously challenge us to state clearly why we think a certain passage—given to the apostles, or given to a first-century audience—has immediate or even minimal direct application to us today.

Consider the immediate social context addressed in the sermon. “When you pray…give…[and] fast” are not simply statements of a general nature; they speak to a very specific religious context that involved a Temple, Pharisees, food laws, tithes, and taxes. “If someone compels you to go one mile” was not a general saying about facing pressure, but a concrete reality in which Roman soldiers were allowed, by law, to require a person under their authority to serve as a load-bearer for up to one mile. If you wish to make “literal” readings and “literal” application, how can you do this consistently in a modern cultural context where such is no longer the case?

Consider literary criticism: what do you do when you uncover what appears to be hyperbole, metaphor, simile, or analogy in the sermon? If Matthew 5 describes “plucking out one’s eye” or equating “lust” with adultery, should those be read “literally”? If not, then how can one know if other passages in the chapter are meant to be literal injunctions or equations?

Similarly, how do you reconcile Luke’s claim that Jesus pronounces blessings on the “poor” and “hungry”, while in Matthew’s version Jesus speaks to the “poor in spirit” and those who “hunger and thirst after righteousness”? Once you discover that “righteousness” is a very important term in Matthew’s gospel, and that economic concerns weigh heavily in Luke, what should you conclude? How does the way Matthew or Luke frame the sermon(s) affect one’s interpretation of the sermon(s)?

It becomes clear that biblical criticism offered up a new set of questions which, over time, yielded a field of study which often differed (and conflicted) with those asked and answered by systematic theologians.

“It is important to note that pre-modern interpreters thought that ‘literal’ and ‘spiritual’ readings were not enemies, nor were they intended to be divorced from one another. Such an assumption became highly questioned (especially among heirs of Luther) in the modern era of biblical criticism.”

But biblical scholars are not immune from the need to make application. The more one moved toward a “then and there” approach to the sermon, the less inclined they were to make a 1:1 literal application for today. It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that much of the German scholarship producing early biblical criticism operated out of a Lutheran background, where direct, immediate literal application was neither expected nor desired. Perhaps one fueled the other, or perhaps it was only within this theological framework that such criticism could find its just fulfillment. The truth is probably more complicated than just these two options.


In any event, I would like to highlight three “readings” that came about through the rise of biblical criticism.

First, some scholars saw the sermon as a historical phenomenon dealing with a specific time period, and one far removed from our own. They judged the sermon to be providing an “interim” ethic: a way of life for those (who, like John the Baptist) were “waiting for the kingdom of God.” Before the inauguration of the kingdom, before the Spirit was poured out, and the new covenant came into effect, Jesus pronounced a radically high ethic for living “between the times.”

Second, our inability to make 1:1 literal application of the sermon suggests a strong emphasis on internal rather than external righteousness as the key to interpreting the sermon. Joachim Jeremias, one of the great New Testament scholars of the 20th century, claimed the sermon delineated the “Lived Faith” (gelebter Glaube). For Jeremias, the sermon is not law, but gospel:

The law leaves man to rely upon his own strength and challenges him to do his utmost. The gospel, on the other hand, brings man before the gift of God and challenges him really to make the inexpressible gift of God the basis for his life.[6]

The message is one of freedom and redemption:

You are forgiven; you are the child of God; you belong to his kingdom. The sun of righteousness has risen over your life. You no longer belong to yourself; rather, you belong to the city of God, the light of which shines in the darkness. Now you may also experience it: out of the thankfulness of a redeemed child of God a new life is growing.[7]

Jeremias combines his Lutheran theology with the results of biblical criticism of his era, claiming this helps us understand the incompleteness of the sermon.

What Jesus teaches in the sayings collected in the Sermon on the Mount is not a complete regulation of the life of the disciples, and is not intended to be; rather, what is here taught is symptoms, signs, examples, of what it means when the kingdom of God breaks into the world which is still under sin, death, and the devil. Jesus says, in effect: I intend to show you, by means of some examples, what the new life is like, and what I show you through these examples you must apply to every aspect of life.[8]

Third, a break from the “historical situation” and the “modern day application” gave rise to existential readings of the sermon, such as that of Soren Kierkegaard.[9] We will have more on this in a later post.

In summary, we can see that Protestant biblical criticism in the Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment periods brought about a new set of questions which pushed both toward “literal” readings (in the sense of original context) and away from “literal” readings (in the sense of modern day application). It is important to note that pre-modern interpreters, as a rule, thought that “literal” and “spiritual” readings were not enemies, nor intended to be divorced from one another. This post shows that such an assumption became highly questioned (especially among heirs of Luther) in the modern era of biblical criticism.


[1] Jean Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Trans. William Pringle, Vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), p. 258-259 [Matt 5:1].

[2] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: Crossroad Publishing / Herder & Herder, 1999), p.  xi.

[3] Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), p. 109.

[4] Pinchas E. Lapide, The Sermon on the Mount: Utopia or Program for Action?, trans. Arlene Swindler, rev. ed. (Orbis books, 1986).

[5] Allison, pp. 8-9.

[6] Joachim Jeremias, The Sermon on the Mount, Facet Books, Biblical Series 2, trans. Norman Perrin (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 34.

[7] Jeremias, p. 35.

[8] Jeremias, p. 33.

[9] Soren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses: and the Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air; and Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).


The Complete Art of Happiness: Sermon On The Mount Intro–Part 1

The Devil’s Masterpiece: Sermon On The Mount Background–Part 1
Literal When Possible: The Sermon’s Earliest Reception: Background–Part 2
Not Problematic…Paradigmatic: Later Patristic Readings: Background–Part 3
The Middle Ages: Virtue, Vice, Mendicants & Moral Manuals: Background–Part 4
Protest and Dissent: Reformers Read the Sermon on the Mount: Background–Part 5

Beyond the Binaries: A Return to Wisdom and Virtue: Background–Part 7
photo credit: Ghirlandaio, Jesus Commissioning the Twelve Apostles (1481)

Categorized: Biblical Studies , Sermon On The Mount
Tagged: , , , , , ,

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave A Reply