The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (Companions to the New Testament)

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Too often the Sermon on the Mount has been interpreted as though it were a book itself rather than a portion of a book. Dale Allison insists on the contrary that the full meaning of these chapters in Matthew's Gospel can be seen only in relation to the broader literary context of the Gospel as a whole, with its Jewish Christian orientation. Indeed, the Sermon and the moral imperatives it contains must be understood: 1) in relation to the example provided by Jesus' words and deeds elsewhere in the Gospel; 2) with reference to the community of believers that constitutes the intended audience of Matthew's Gospel; and 3) in terms of what the Gospel says elsewhere about the end of the age. The Sermon does not present a simple set of rules, perhaps only intended for a small and select group within the Christian community, but seeks to instill a moral vision and to inspire the moral imagination of all who would follow Jesus.

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About the Author:

Dale C. Allison, Jr., is Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

Some people would say that the Sermon on the Mount (SM) is the quintessence of Christianity. I am not among them. The erroneous conviction comes from the unfortunate habit of viewing the SM in isolation. Readers, especially modern readers, have again and again interpreted Matthew 5-7 as though the chapters were complete unto themselves, as though they constituted a book rather than a portion of a book. Symptomatic is the occasional reprinting of the SM in anthologies of literature. But the three chapters that constitute the SM, chapters surrounded on either side by twenty-five additional chapters, neither summarize the rest of Matthew nor sum up adequately the faith of Jesus, much less the religion of our evangelist. How could anything that fails to refer explicitly to the crucifixion and resurrection be the quintessence of Matthew's Christian faith? Here context is everything. Any credible interpretation of Matthew 5-7 must constantly keep an eye on Matthew 1-4 and Matthew 9-! 28. For the part (the SM) loses its meaning apart from the whole (Matthew's Gospel). The SM is in the middle of a story, and it is the first goal of this little commentary to interpret the discourse accordingly.

There is a second way in which this commentary seeks to place the SM in context. All too often in the past--the strategy goes all the way back to Tertullian and Augustine--the SM has been read against Judaism. That is, the superiority of Jesus and the church over against Judaism has been promoted by arguing that this word of Jesus or that expression of Matthew brings us, within the world of first-century Judaism, something startlingly new, or even impossible. Most such claims, however, do not stand up under scrutiny. What we rather have in the SM is the product of a messianic Judaism; and, as we know from the writings of Friedlander (1911), Abrahams (1917, 1924), and Montefiore (1927, 1930), most of the sentiments found in the SM already appear, at least here or there, in old Jewish sources. It is primarily the relationship of those sentiments to one another and, above all, their relationship to the person of Jesus and his story that gives them their unique meaning for Christi! ans. So responsible exegesis will seek to highlight the continuity between the SM and Jewish teaching, whether within the Hebrew Bible or without, and moreover the immense debt of the former to the latter. The time of polemic against Judaism is over. So too is the time when Christians could pretend, in the words of Adolf Harnack, to find in the SM teaching "freed from all external and particularistic features."

I have yet a third goal herein, and that is to avoid isolating the SM from the history of its interpretation. Too many modern commentators seem to have read only other modern commentators. But the text has been pondered for almost two thousand years, and it is terribly unfortunate that the treasures of the past are so often neglected, and precisely by those who are the heirs of such wealth. Perhaps the explanation is sloth--Do we not have enough contemporary literature to read without the burden of the past? Or maybe it is ignorance--Can anything said so long ago still be interesting or relevant? Or perhaps some arrogance is involved--Does not exegesis progress like the hard sciences, so that today's work makes yesterday's obsolete? In any event the present commentary continually engages patristic sources, medieval theologians, the Protestant reformers, as well as more recent works, critical and otherwise.

One result of my attention to older interpreters is that I have much more to say about traditional exegetical options than about important contemporary issues. I have, for instance, been unable to consider how modern ethical debates in philosophy impinge upon our understanding of the SM. I do, however, take some comfort in the fact that the series in which this book appears requires that I focus first upon the text in itself, not issues of the moment or contemporary application. Beyond that, no interpretation can be comprehensive. I indeed wholly agree with Daniel Patte, who in his recent work on the SM argues that competing interpretations can be legitimate: there is no one right way to construe the text. This is hardly a post-modern insight. Rabbinic literature regularly offers multiple interpretations of a text without establishing one and only one as correct ("These and these are both the words of the living God"). Similarly, Aquinas, in his commentary on the Lord's Prayer! , sometimes records various interpretations and refrains from selecting one over the others, finding rather truth in each. It is not false modesty that moves me, then, like Augustine at one point in his Retractions, happily to acknowledge that my discussion ought not to suffice, and that readers should--as my bibliographies imply--consult other accounts that deal with the SM in different and perhaps better ways.

Dale C. Allison, Jr.

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