The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 2: Historical contexts, audiences, and textual sources

I proposed in Part 1 that we miss the significance of Jesus’ human presence for his own people and for us if we do not recognize the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7, NIV) as storytelling.

The Sermon is not just a set of moral pronouncements for people who await a metaphysical end-time.  The writer of Matthew is teaching living Jewish audiences in the first century by crafting a story about Jesus.  And Jesus is telling stories to his own listeners to help them apply Torah instruction to their lives under the rule of Rome and its Jewish collaborators.

For us to learn from Jesus and from the Matthean narrator, we need to know more about those first audiences.  It helps to understand what those people know of Torah from oral traditions.  It helps to understand how Jesus reapplies those teachings to the lives of his disciples and followers.  Finally, it helps us to consider what contemporary biblical scholarship posits about the gospel’s writer and first audiences, as well as the source materials gathered from first century traditions about Jesus.

Using “reception history” to understand Matthew 5-7

The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christians read the same stories differently (2020), Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi BrettlerIn The Bible with and without Jesus: How Jews and Christians read the same stories differently (2020), Jewish biblical scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler study ten well-known stories or themes from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanach) that are also important to the New Testament.  They consider these topics in three contexts: that of their original composition, that of traditional Jewish interpretation, and that of Christian reinterpretation through the New Testament and later traditions.

We suggest that all of these perspectives—the biblical, the Jewish, the Christian—are important, and all are necessarily partial. The answers we receive, the interpretations we develop, are all dependent on the questions we ask, the experiences we bring, and the preferences we have….

The questions we bring to the text will yield multiple answers, sometimes mutually exclusive and sometimes complementary and even mutually enhancing…. [W]e seek to put these various interpretations into dialogue, for such dialogue helps us understand why, when we read the same text…, we come away with such different views.

The better we can see through the eyes of our neighbors, the better able we are to be good neighbors. The more aware we are of the historical settings of the original texts, as best as we can determine them, the better we can see how the texts might have been interpreted by the ancient audience that first heard them. And the more aware we are of the historical settings of those who interpreted the biblical texts, the better we understand our own religious traditions and those of our neighbors. (x)

Brettler predominantly studies the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Tanakh, while Levine focuses on the New Testament.  Together they examine reception history, “the interpretation of these texts by the communities that hold them sacred.”

Each of our central chapters asks three questions: What did the text mean in its original context in ancient Israel? How do the New Testament authors interpret that text? And how do postbiblical Jews from the time of Jesus (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first-century historian Josephus, and the first-century philosopher Philo) through the rabbinic and medieval Jewish tradition and later Christian traditions understand those same texts? (xi)

In the remainder of this essay, I will revisit the Sermon on the Mount through the perspective of Levine and Brettler’s “Chapter 6: ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘Turn the other cheek’” (pages 212-17).

The background & audiences for Matthew

The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd ed. 2017), Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi BrettlerThe Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd ed. 2017) is an earlier work edited by Levine and Brettler.  The introduction to Matthew by Aaron M. Gale 1 describes “a Greek text written with strong knowledge of and attachment to Jewish Scripture, tradition, and belief.”  Gale proposes the following regarding the sources, dates, and setting for the writing of the gospel:

[Most scholars] agree that Matthew is dependent both on Mark’s Gospel…and on a hypothetical text called Q, from the German Quelle, meaning “source.” This presumed document or source consisted primarily of teaching materials, such as the Beatitudes…, and can be reconstructed from the verses shared by Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark.

The Gospel of Matthew suggests that the Jerusalem Temple has been destroyed…, and thus must date after 70 CE. The earliest reference to the Gospel may be from Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, ca. 110 CE…. Hence, a date for the Gospel of 80-90 CE seems reasonable.  Antioch (in Syria) is a plausible setting for several reasons…. (9-11)

Andrie B. du Toit explores the likely historical context for the writing of Matthew within the early Syrian Christian community of Antioch in his essay chapter on the audience for the Sermon on the Mount. 2 He describes the consecutive circles of audiences for the Sermon.  Inside the text there are the disciples as an inner circle and the crowds as an outer one.  Those in the second circle “function throughout as interested, sympathetic but still uncommitted role-players.”

Yet there is a third circle, “the real-world audience ‘outside’ the text, those for whom Matthew wrote his gospel in the first place.”

Indications are that this real-world audience or readership consisted primarily of Christians living in Galilee, or, more probably, in Syria, particularly in and around Antioch, its famous and populous capital….

The book of Acts tells us of a young and energetic community of first generation Christ-believers in that city (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-4; 14:26-28). Was this youthful vibrancy still characteristic of the Christians in Syria when Matthew wrote his gospel?

In the light of our knowledge of the tensions between church and synagogue in the late first century, as well as certain indications that we can extrapolate from the Gospel of Matthew itself, the situation seems to have changed considerably. These Syrian Christians, a substantial part of whom would have been Jewish Christ-believers, found themselves in a difficult transitional period.

The final separation between synagogue and church was imminent or, more probably, already a reality. In the heated animosity between Jews, and particularly Jewish Christians, certain critical issues came to the fore, some of which would have had a bearing on the message of the [Sermon on the Mount]. (63)

Levine and Brettler add more circles: later traditions of Christian interpretation and, finally, whoever is presently reading the text.  They emphasize that we modern readers come to the text with whatever preconceptions we have absorbed from our teachers and cultures, plus whatever misconceptions and genuine spiritual leadings we carry within.

Part of faithful reading of the text, then, calls for at least some attentiveness to all of these concentric circles.  We use that attentiveness as a way of freeing the story from the text.  Though we are not receiving it now as oral tradition, we can recreate the organic, evocative character of the story.  We do this by listening along with all those other listeners and learning from their perspectives.

In Part 3, we will explore how those listeners traditionally understood the Torah passages Jesus cites, and how Jesus gives those passages fresh significance and urgency by discussing them in the context of his people’s suffering under the Roman occupation and its local collaborators.




  1. Aaron M. Gale is associate professor of religious studies at West Virginia University and director of WVU’s Program for Religious Studies. “ Gale’s research has centered upon the Jewish roots of early Christianity, specifically as it relates to the community associated with Matthew’s Gospel. This research has resulted in various publications including the book Redefining Ancient Borders: The Jewish Scribal Framework of Matthew’s Gospel (T&T Clark, 2005).”
  2. “The Audience of the Sermon on the Mount and Its Bearing on the Sermon’s Content” in Revisiting the Sermon on the Mount : some major Issues, Andrie B. du Toit, Research Fellow, University of Pretoria, Neotestamentica, Vol. 50, No. 3 (2016), pp. 59-91, New Testament Society of Southern Africa. [PDF available through Semantic Scholar:, DOI: 1353/NEO.2016.0019, Corpus ID: 217669649].

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