Good question...

...was the Sermon on the Mount a "plagarism" of Moses on the Mountain?

(created Nov 21, 1997)

I sat in a class today, in which someone asked the lecturer the following question:

I have a lot of interaction with people of a 'liberal' religious background, who assert that Matthew's account of Jesus' going up onto a mountain for the Sermon on the Mount was a fabrication, patterned after the Mosaic accounts, as an 'evangelistic' tool to portray Christ as the 'New Moses'. How would you answer that assertion?

There wasn't time (or actually a forum) in the class for the speaker to address the question, but I think it is a common enough question to lay out some guidelines for Tank readers about such issues. How might one think critically about such assertions of fabrication and/or dependence?


The first thing to do, obviously, is see how substantial the similarities between the exemplar and the alleged borrowing are, and then examine the two for the differences. Since the question was apparently about Moses on Sinai (Ex 19-20), we will use that as the exemplar, against which to examine Matthew 5ff.


In this case, the similarities are actually few:

1. A mountain is somehow involved (!);

2. There are Israelites involved;

3. There is a strong statement of divine law and ethics given;

4. There are strong authority figures involved.

The differences, on the other hand, are very considerable:

1. In Exodus, only Moses was allowed on the mountain; in Matthew, the people go up as well

2. In Exodus, Moses receives the divine law; in Matthew, Jesus gives the law (there is no actual Moses figure in the story at all!) [The repeated refrain 'I tell you' was an implicit claim to divine authority and unthinkable in Judaism of the time--cf. The widespread consensus that this claim to authority is what alienated Jesus from Jewry at the time.]

3. In Exodus, Moses does not address the people until he comes DOWN from the mountain; in Matthew, Jesus addresses the people while still UP on the mountain.

4. In Exodus, the format is covenantal; in Matthew, the format is of blessing formulae.

5. In Exodus, the authority figure has a derived authority; in Matthew, it is non-derived.

Now, actually, this would normally be enough to sink the idea, but in this particular case we can add other arguments (perhaps to illustrate how to approach other similar assertions).

1. Check literary forms. In this case, the opening form is that of a series of blessing formula. The closest parallel to this in scripture, interestingly, is the event in which the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin stand on Mount Gerazim and pronounce the Deuteronomic blessings (Dt 27.12; Dt 28.1-13). This, of course, has even less in common with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, but it does highlight the relative remoteness of the situation from the Mosaic account. (Actually, even this form is not as close. The blessings in the Sermon are closer to those of the Psalms/Wisdom lit: "Happy is the man who..." , cf. Ps 144.15)

2. Check parallel accounts: In this case, the only parallel (presumably) is Luke's account in 6.17ff. The geographical elements are a bit clearer in Luke: Jesus was high on the mountain when he selected his apostles (6. 13-16), and then they went down to a 'level place' on the mountain side (6.17) in order to still take advantage of the elevation for public speaking purposes. This is even less like the Mosaic account than the Matthean account. But for this analysis, what it indicates is the "mountain" reference was an ACTUAL FEATURE of the event, mentioned by Luke without ANY 'messianic intent'. This would certainly count against the assertion that Matthew 'added' this fabrication.

3. Check for other possible 'better' cases of similarity. In Matthew's case the situation in which Jesus goes up to pray on the mountaintop (Mt 14.23) is somewhat closer (e.g. Jesus alone, communing with God), but the entire motif of 'law giving' or 'revelation' is missing. By far and away, the best case for similarity appears in the events of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17.1). Here you have the 'shekinah glory', the divine voice, the mountaintop, only a select group of leaders in attendance, and the command 'to obey' (you even have a cameo appearance by Moses!). This would be a far better candidate for some overt 'pious fraud' attempt, which would weaken the argument that one was being attempted in the "less-good" case of the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Check for pattern uses of the dominant "similarity" word. In this case, the assertion actually argues almost exclusively from the single word 'mount'. So, we look for any patterns in the usage of "mount" or "mountain" by Matthew that might suggest he is using it suggestively. Unfortunately, Matthew's use of this word-complex suggests nothing of the sort: Jesus is tempted on a mountain (4.8), prays on a mountain (14.23), performs healing miracles on a mountainside (15.49), uses a mountain in a parable (21.21), and instructs His disciples to meet Him there after His resurrection (28.16). There is not the slightest suggestion from this pattern that 'mountain' has any obvious suggestive overtones in Matthew. (Only the actual event that occurs there would suggest this--cf. The Transfiguration details)

5. Check for congruity of alleged motive with known authorial motive elsewhere in the literary piece. In this case, we check to see whether Matthew was trying to demonstrate Jesus as the New/Second Moses. And, in this case, it seems clear that he is NOT. Rather, Matthew seems intent on demonstrating the Jesus is the Davidic King--NOT the New Moses. The fulfillment citations of Matthew give ample witness to this, as do numerous details of his text (e.g. 1.1, 20; 9.27; 12.3, 23; 15.22; 20.30; 21.9, 15; 22.42ff). This alone would argue that IF parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and some OT figure exists, THEN we would seek it in the life of David, instead of Moses. (In fact, the New Moses theme IS present in the Gospel of John, but the Sermon on the Mount is NOT used there for supportive data!)

6. Check for exegetical clues as to authorial 'highlighting' of the similarity word. In other words, are there clues in the passage that should tip the reader off to 'notice' the similarity word. In this case, is there anything in the passage that suggests that 'mountain' is being so used? Again, there seems to be nothing present--the word is not emphasized through word order, extra particles, separated constructions, word-plays, repetition, and the such. There are simply no textual clues that something 'odd' is going on here (as opposed to the use of the innocent 'food' in John 6--a New Moses passage).

7. Check for exegetical clues as to why the main 'similarity' word is even present in the text. In this case, it seems obvious--it functions topologically to explain how Jesus could address such a large crowd. Mountainsides (with low grades) provided standard speaking forums (cf. Mars Hill) in the ancient world, and the comment that Jesus 'sat' while teaching, recalls the standard method of Rabbinic instruction of the day.

8. Check for OT prophetic links to the overall incident. In this case we MAY have a clear OT foreshadowing, although it is not as obvious from Matthew's usage. In Isaiah 2.2-3 we read: "In the last days the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. " While this MIGHT be in Matthew's mind, it is certainly not obvious--and, given that Matthew often makes these types of links obvious through fulfillment citations or references, that he does NOT here lends support that this is no more than a background association (if that).

9. Check for 'clues' as to fabrication. In an accusation of 'pious fraud', one needs evidence to support the accusation. The mere possibility of fraud does not in itself provide any evidence for it! In this case, there is nothing in the Sermon that:

  1. Is uncharacteristic of Jesus' known words/ministry;
  2. Suggests a non-historical basis for the account (i.e. the background data is all reasonable);
  3. Seems to answer 'later problems' (indeed, the Sermon raises more problems than it solves!)
  4. Suggests a carefully designed motive (In other words, the material is BOTH generally offensive to its original hearers--and therefore less useful for 'evangelistic' purposes--AND difficult to understand. This would simply not be likely to occur in passages fabricated for polemical, apologetic, or evangelistic reasons).

10. Check for how easy fabrication might have been. In this case, we have strong data that suggests that fabrication of such an event would be difficult, if not impossible, within the existing situation of literary production. [I have discussed the data already in the analysis of Matthew's borrowing of pagan ideas, Question Four.]

We simply do not have any strong/reasonable grounds for doubting the authenticity of the passage.

Now, even after all of the above, it might STILL be maintained that there is some deliberate similarity in the two situations, but it should also be realized that some similarity can be ascribed to Jesus' choices anyway.

At the barest minimum, Jesus considered Himself a prophet in the great prophetic tradition (cf. 13.57; 21.11; cf. Luke 13.33!), and as such would deliberately repeat and expand upon the great prophetic themes of His predecessors. OT prophets routinely developed and focused prior prophetic material for their ministry for YAHWEH. [Compare Isaiah's use of Amos, and Nahum's literary use of Isaiah.]

If, as many hold, Jesus considered Himself to be the Davidic Son (Mt 22.42-45), and set out to fulfill deliberately what He considered to be the messianic conditions (e.g. Matt 5.17; 26.54; Luke 18.31; 22.37; 24.44), unless we assume that He was incompetent in the extreme(!), then we would expect that He would engineer some situations to reflect messianic themes and conditions from the OT.

The implication for us is obvious: the appearance of such a similarity cannot a priori be attributed to the author of the account, but it must be at least entertained that Jesus may have deliberately engineered the situation to fulfill His self-understanding as prophet, messiah, and Son of God. This means that similarity by itself cannot be the criteria by which 'fabrication' is detected.

So, where does this 'net out'?

Summary points:

1. The points of similarity between the two cases is insubstantial.

2. The points of dissimilarity are quite considerable.

3. There are no real clues in the text, context, authorial intent, and background that suggests the original assertion.

4. There are better ways of understanding the phenomena (i.e. topographical, speaker setting).

5. We have no reasons for suspecting fabrication.

6. We have reasons to suspect authenticity (esp. the difficulties raised by the teaching of the section!)

7. What similarities MIGHT BE there are likewise possible to understand from the self-consciousness of Jesus.

Accordingly, the original assertion seems unwarranted by the data.

Hope this helps,

Glenn Miller

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