The Sermon on the Mount

By Hagner, Donald A. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Sermon on the Mount


Hagner, Donald A., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Sermon on the Mount. By Hans Dieter Betz. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995, xxvii + 692 pp.

The publication of this long-awaited commentary must surely be described as an important event in Matthean studies. Its sheer size is intimidating, not to mention the breadth and depth of its content. As Betz cautions at the beginning, this commentary "is meant only of the serious reader, not the superficial `tourist" (p. 4). In no way could the author himself be accused of being superficial. There can be no question but that he is a most impressive master of the terrain. In particular, he brings his exceptional knowledge of Greco-Roman sources to bear on the interpretation of the sermon both in its Matthean and Lukan versions (the latter takes up, however, a mere 70 pages). Learned excursuses enrich the volume and indicate the type of material one frequently encounters (e.g. "Principles for the Interpretation of the Law in Greek, Roman, and Jewish Legal Thought," "Socrates' Defiance of the Law," "Oaths: Their Use and Misuse in Ancient Thought" and "Ancient Greek Theories of Vision"). Material of this kind, which abounds throughout, will indicate that this is a very special commentary.

From the start, the Christian reader will be surprised, for Betz treats the sermon on the mount "as a piece of world literature, not as an exclusive text" (p. 1). Indeed he regards the sermon as an independent epitome of Jesus' teaching akin to philosophical texts that concern themselves with good human living in secular terms: "Enabling one to live life fully, meaningfully, and responsibly is the goal of the Sermons" (p. 4). The sermon, in short, is not about Christian living, but about human living. The discipleship of the sermon is "a call to be human beings in an uncompromising way" (p. 61). What this means for the specifically religious dimensions of the sermon, which are impossible to ignore, remains rather unclear in Betz's exposition.

Betz thus isolates the sermon on the mount from the rest of the gospel of Matthew. This tactic is related to his conclusion, familiar to us from his earlier essays, that the sermon was a preexisting text (from ca. 50) that the authors of Matthew (for Jewish readers) and Luke (for Gentile readers) took up whole and without alteration or redaction from their respective versions of Q. This is an assumption that Betz attempts to prove in the commentary. For Betz, the sermon is thus strictly speaking not a Christian text, but a product of the early Jewish adherents to the Jesus movement. This turns out to be a fateful conclusion, for it naturally affects Betz's exegesis throughout. To my mind, it is a fundamental mistake to attempt to understand the sermon apart from the context of the total gospel. Indeed, without that context, the sermon remains enigmatic at numerous points.

An 88-page introduction provides the reader with a comprehensive and very useful review of "The Major Problems of Research in Historical Perspective." Here Betz examines the study of the sermon from the early church and Augustine down to (mainly) German and British scholarship of this century. This leads to a discussion of the sermons as literary compositions, including a highly detailed analysis of their structure, then to consideration of "the literary genre" and finally to "the literary function."

The commentary proper provides us with an incredible amount of background detail, detailed comparison and analysis. The approach is not exactly user-friendly, however. One must struggle to keep from drowning in the sheer welter of information and opinion. Discussions are often lengthy and complicated, occasionally digressive and the conclusions drawn can be very finely balanced. One will be repeatedly reminded of Betz's understated cautionary words in the introduction: "I have avoided simplifying things unduly.... The Sermons are 'easy' only to the superficial, whether pious or secular. Life is not an easy matter either, and the Sermons are concerned with life.

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