From the Preface to The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple
This essay is from the preface to John W. Welch, The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple (Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2009). It is reprinted courtesy of the author and by permission of Ashgate Publishing Limited.
From the Preface to The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple
John W. Welch
This book sets out to show that
the Sermon on the Mount is best understood in a matrix of temple themes. Temple
vocabulary and allusions saturate every stage of this text. This consistent
confluence of temple themes, which gives the Sermon on the Mount a unified
rhetorical voice and a powerful sense of authority, explains what it is that
makes and has always made this text so ethically compelling. However, no
systematic analysis of Matthew 5–7 has previously attempted to connect
the Sermon on the Mount so thoroughly with the temple. No sustained commentary
has ever before suggested that the totality of the Sermon on the Mount is
viewed most clearly when seen in the light of the temple.
The temple in Jerusalem was an
overwhelmingly dominant presence in Judaism during the life of Jesus, as many
scholarly studies have recently recognized. No Jewish institution at that time
was richer than the temple in tradition, ritual, and symbolism; in power,
wealth, and influence; or as a monument of architectural splendor, as a marker
of ethnic identity, and as an awe-inspiring source of spiritual elevation. The
temple tied together all aspects of life, be they religious, economic,
ideological, political, or cultic. One may safely posit that temple theology
was therefore profoundly influential, whether as type or antitype, in the
earliest stages of formative Christianity.
Accordingly, this book assumes
that the temple was likewise of utmost interest to Jesus and his initial
followers, as reflected in the Sermon on the Mount. All four New Testament
Gospels locate the epicenter of Jesus’s Judean activities in or around the
temple. Whenever he was in Jerusalem, he was in or about the precinct of the temple. His self-proclaimed mission was not to tear down or
destroy, but to fulfill and to fill full all things, including the temple.
Jesus yearned for the restoration of an earlier, ideal temple-centric culture.
Of course, he objected vehemently to the temple’s economic dereliction of the
poor, and he prophesied that the temple would be destroyed; but he prophesied
this in tears, wishing that it could be otherwise. For these and other reasons,
Jesus’s most persistent opponents were not the ordinary Jewish people, with
whom he had much in common, but rather the temple’s few entrenched chief
priests and their elite professional cohorts, the scribes.
at the same time, Jesus’s most ardent followers were deeply impressed that he
spoke “as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew
7:29). Something about what Jesus said, particularly in the Sermon on the
Mount, drew from deep wells of power and authority that his listeners somehow
recognized. This book strives to establish a prima facie case that the Sermon
on the Mount’s main source of compelling coherence is to be found by hearing
its temple register.
Conditions are currently ripe for
reading the Sermon on the Mount in a temple context. The recent decade has seen
a dramatic rise in scholarly interest in temple studies. The number of books,
articles, conference sessions, and academic papers about temples, temple
rituals, and temple themes has sharply increased. Yet the Sermon on the Mount
has been almost entirely overlooked in these studies.
The prominence of temples has been
recognized not only in biblical societies but also in Egypt, Mesopotamia,
Greece, Rome, Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica, and throughout the ancient world.
Modern scholars, working in a secular culture that is fundamentally divorced
from all the sacral institutions that permeated every ancient civilization, are
reawakening to the realization that very little from antiquity can be fully
understood without seeing it in relation to temple settings. The same can now
be said of efforts to understand early Christian theology, worship, community,
and mission, as well as central Christian texts such as the Sermon on the
many reasons, a temple reading of the Sermon on the Mount is amply needed.
Without a unifying foundation, the Sermon on the Mount collapses into a
fragmented heap of randomly disjointed sayings. As is shown in chapter 1, all
previous efforts to digest or explain the Sermon on the Mount completely and
consistently have been unsatisfactory. Perhaps a new approach will prove to be
approach offered in this book takes its first cue from the setting of the
Sermon on the Mount: “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up into the mountain,
and when he was seated his disciples approached him, and opening his mouth he
instructed his disciples” (Matthew 5:1–2). The image evoked here is
not one of an ordinary hillside but of “going up into the mountain.”
The Greek expression here is the same as that used of Moses going up into the
mountain with seventy elders. As chapter 2 explains, the imagery of Mount
Sinai, Mount Zion, the temple mount, and the cosmic mountain of God all lead
into temple realms.
In the temple, or on the mountain
of the Lord, God opens his mouth and is heard. There he reveals his word and
teaches his law; there the teachings of the law and the words of the prophets
coalesce. As chapters 3–6 thus undertake to show, the Sermon on the Mount
then unfolds in a series of twenty-four stages, all related to the temple or
temple themes. Item by item, these stages progress from an initial set of
ultimate blessings, to the covenantal formation of a righteous community, to a
series of cultic regulations about the proper worship and service of the one
true God, and finally to a section of instructions that endow and prepare
people to withstand divine judgment and enter into the presence of God.
In seeking to uncover the temple
backgrounds of the Sermon on the Mount, these chapters employ several tools.
Vocabulary and idiomatic expressions are often very telling. Technical
terminology and words or phrases that were predominately used in temple
contexts give strong signals of temple implications. These indicators come
especially from the Psalms, whose words were well known as hymns strongly
associated with the temple. Whether the Sermon on the Mount was originally
given in Greek or Aramaic, the only version of it that has survived from the
first century is in Greek. Thus, I have relied most heavily on the words and
phrases of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of the Psalms, which is most
pertinent in analyzing the Greek New Testament. Septuagint readings that differ
significantly from the Hebrew are so marked, but even in unmarked cases the LXX
has been consulted. Otherwise, the Revised Standard Version has been used,
including its chapter and verse numbers. Whether the Greek text of the Sermon
on the Mount preserves its original language or reflects its translation into
Greek soon after it was initially given, the pervasive use of expressions from
the Psalms in the Sermon on the Mount significantly reflects its originally
intended temple orientation.
Using a listener response
analysis further exposes the likely rhetorical impact of these coded
expressions on its earliest hearers. Most people who hear the Sermon on the
Mount today immediately recognize its words as coming from Jesus or from
the Gospel of Matthew. One must wonder, however, how its words would have
sounded to a person who had never heard the Sermon on the Mount or the Gospel
of Matthew before. To a person steeped in contemporaneous Jewish culture, many
of the buzzwords in the Sermon on the Mount would have had a very familiar
ring, and most of that familiarity would have been associated with the temple.
After recognizing the first dozen of these loaded expressions in the first few
verses of the Sermon on the Mount, listeners would have been attuned to
recognize the many other temple references as they came along.
Anyone who had heard Jesus speak
on other occasions would have known of his tendency to speak in veiled
language. The parables of Jesus, which were often critical of powerful
opponents, masked deeper and more esoteric messages from the gazing crowd.
Likewise, his ethical teachings that can certainly be read at one level as
ordinary moral statements could just as well have enshrouded holier and more
mystagogical instructions that were intended to be fully understood only by
those insiders who had been given ears to hear and eyes to see. Insights from
Jewish, Hellenistic, and early Christian literatures strengthen the consistent
temple signals sent by many of the otherwise disparate sayings in the Sermon on
Another tool that has proven
useful in excavating a stratum of temple discourse in the Sermon on the Mount
is ritual theory. Anthropologists and other scholars who study religious
rituals from a social scientific point of view have improved our capacity to
identify texts that were originally associated with rituals in one way or another. Temples being quintessentially
ceremonial and ritualistic, programmatic allusions to temple features alert
listeners to possible interpretations and meanings that point beyond mere
theoretical discourse to repeated application and ritualistic implementation.
These rituals comprise a heavenly model upon which earthly society should be organized.
While the approaches used in this
book are somewhat eclectic and variegated, and while the detection of allusions
and subtexts is always intriguingly debatable, the cumulative weight of
evidence that emerges from this examination—and I emphasize the word cumulative—is
more impressive than most people would think possible at first blush. Even if
one discounts some of this evidence or resists some of the assumptions at work
here, enough remains to give assurance that this approach is asking the right
sort of questions. Often, asking the right question is half the answer.
Following the stage-by-stage
examination of the Sermon on the Mount, chapter 7 briefly explores some of the
implications and potentialities of this study. If this approach to the Sermon
on the Mount is persuasive, it stands to contribute in many new ways to ongoing
studies about the sources and authorship of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as
about the synoptic question and the historical Jesus. It can also shed light on
the extensive use of materials that parallel the Sermon on the Mount in the
four Gospels, the Epistle of James, and several writings of the apostolic
fathers; illuminate the presence of temple themes in Acts, 1 Peter, and in the
mysticism of Paul; and help explain early Christian initiation rituals, the
formation of utopian societies, and a persistent patristic envy of the temple.
It can also uniquely explain the perceived power and authority of the Sermon on
the Mount, answering questions about what kind of text it originally was and
what it potentially still can be.
Above all, seeing the Sermon on
the Mount in the light of the temple inseparably situates this text together
with its Old Testament background.