Basic New Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount

Discussion of John W. Welch. The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009. xii + 254 pp., with
bibliography and indexes. $99.95.

Basic New Perspectives on the Sermon on the Mount

Reviewed by George L. Mitton

Professor John W. Welch of
Brigham Young University recently published an important new study that
should enhance our understanding and appreciation of the Sermon on the Mount.
The sermon has, of course, had very wide influence; it is a Christian text of
great significance. Although it has been much studied, vexatious questions have
remained on which scholarly consensus has not been possible. These questions
include such basic things as the sermon’s purpose, where and to whom it was
given, and whether it has a unifying theme or structure or is merely a
collection of isolated sayings. The question also remains as to how it would
have been understood by those who first heard it. Welch proposes that many such
uncertainties can be removed by considering the ancient temple of
Jerusalem—its practices, vocabulary, and imagery—as a primary
influence reflected in the sermon. He argues that the Sermon on the Mount, when
looked at in the light of temple ritual and ritual theory, seems to have served
to instruct and guide the earliest Christians in their own ritual performances.
In treating these matters, Welch’s book affords many insights and suggests a
richer meaning and understanding of numerous passages in the sermon.

We provide here two pieces to
help our readers sense the purpose, scope, and import of Welch’s work. The
first is an excerpt from Welch’s preface to the book. It provides an
explanation and overview of the book’s contents and appears here, with slight
modification, courtesy of the author and the publisher. The second piece is a
book review by Professor Gaye Strathearn of BYU’s Department
of Ancient Scripture. A specialist in the New Testament and in Christian
origins, she also provides insight into the significance of Welch’s study for
Latter-day Saints.

This book is published in the
monograph series of the Society for Old Testament Study, under the editorship
of Margaret Barker, a scholar who has written extensively on the ancient temple
and its importance for the understanding of Christian origins.1 One
may question whether Welch’s book belongs in that series, but it is not
inappropriate considering the comprehensive work in the Old Testament and
related sources that Welch had to undertake to learn of the temple. This
becomes evident when we see the remarkable number of Old Testament quotations
or allusions in the Sermon on the Mount as adduced by Welch, especially in the
temple-related psalms. These psalms are considered in the ancient Greek
Septuagint version, which was used by the New Testament writers.

As this is being written, it is
much too early to assess the scholarly response to Welch’s study and concepts.
Preliminarily, there is reason to hope that the work will receive careful and
respectful attention. We have at hand two reviews in scholarly journals that
point to this. The first is provided by David Scott, an
editor of Letter
& Spirit
, a Catholic journal of biblical theology.2 This reviewer finds that “Welch sees a strong Temple motif underlying the
central presentation of Jesus’ teaching, and his book gives us a fine reading
of the Sermon on the Mount that stresses its covenantal and liturgical
dimensions,” adding that “throughout, Welch makes a convincing
argument that Jesus’ vocabulary and thematic concerns—mercy, enemies,
righteousness, glory, rejoicing, love, meekness, forgiveness, purity—are
directly related to the themes of the psalms and Israel’s Temple liturgy.”
The study even suggests to him some additional dimensions for consideration, “which
would only reinforce Welch’s findings in this fine book.”

Another review of Welch’s study
comes from A. E. Harvey, a distinguished scholar of the New Testament. It
appears in the Journal of Theological Studies, published
by Oxford University Press.3 Harvey discusses the idea “that the sermon is a unity, and that it has a
seamless structure that can be clearly traced when the many subtle allusions to
Temple practice and ideology are recognized.” He describes this as “a
bold claim.” He also sees that Welch “offers what he claims is a new
reading of the Sermon in its entirety, arguing that it is the programme for a
consistent progress towards initiation into a company worthy to enter the holy
presence . . . and [that] the Sermon takes the hearer or the reader through
progressive stages of that ‘higher order of righteousness and consecration’
which is demanded of those who have entered a new covenantal relationship with
God . . . to draw near to him in a new temple community . . . as priests drew
near to him in the Holy of Holies” of the ancient Temple. He finds that
this “thesis is attractive.” “If the author,” he comments, “has
indeed made a discovery that has lain hidden for centuries the reader must be
prepared to recognize that the evidence for it lies deep below the surface of
the text.” However, I cannot help but observe that if the case were more
obvious, it would have been obvious to everyone long ago.

A. E. Harvey thinks Welch’s
thesis “leads to intriguing results” but raises questions that should
be addressed. These will doubtless be discussed as Welch’s work is
considered—a process that must take place in the introduction of any new
and fundamentally different concept. Although such questions may be raised in
the minds of readers, Harvey concludes that “this will not prevent them
from having been alerted by this well-presented argument to new possibilities
of interpretation that seem, in some instances, to have much plausibility.”
In light of Harvey’s comment, it appears to me that even if Welch’s thesis only
has “much plausibility,” it follows that a new and enhanced
understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is both possible and perhaps
warranted. From an LDS perspective, this would be desirable.


1. See the discussion of her
book Temple
Themes in Christian Worship
in FARMS Review 21/1 (2009):

2. Letter &
5 (2009): 271–73.

3. Journal of
Theological Studies
. Advance Access published 15 March  2010,