Did Jesus really preach the Sermon on the Mount? There is little doubt that our records of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, or of FDR’s Pearl Harbor Address, or even of Washington’s Farewell Address more or less accurately reflect what was, in fact, said on those momentous occasions. The sources are well attested, not too much time passed between those speeches and their publication in writing, and scads of eyewitnesses were around to attest to the records’ accuracy. But there has long been some question as to whether Matthew’s much beloved account of Jesus’s lengthy speech from a Galilean mountainside is reflective of an actual event in history.
Part of the reason there is some question about this is that much of the substance of Matthew 5-7 can be found in the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6 and most of the rest can be found scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel in other places. You can see the basic data helpfully outlined here. Taken together these data give the impression that in the Sermon on the Mount Matthew has presented sayings and teachings of Jesus which were actually spoken in various and sundry times, places, and circumstances as though Jesus said all of these things at once in a single, extended discourse perched upon a Galilean hilltop. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount was not a historical event as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural was but rather is a product of Matthew’s editing, piecing together, and remixing clips, quotes, and sound-bytes from all over the place in Jesus’s teaching career into the hit single we have all come to know and love.
Such an assessment is a commonplace of modern historical-critical Biblical scholarship. But it would be a mistake to chalk such critical assessments up to biblical scholars’ alleged latent atheism, ”methodological naturalism,” or anti-traditionalism, for the great Reformer John Calvin said more or less the same thing in his Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke. First, Calvin has no time or folks who try to explain away the relevant data by saying Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6 are two different sermons given on separate occasions. He writes,
Those who think that Christ’s sermon, which is here related, is different from the sermon contained in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, rest their opinion on a very light and frivolous argument….
The Gospel writers were not trying to give you precise, straightforward, chronologically ordered history, says Calvin. Rather, he writes:
[The] design of both Evangelists was to collect into one place the leading points of the doctrine of Christ, which related to a devout and holy life.
Their purpose, in other words was more catechetical than historical and the Sermons were constructed not so much to recount what was said in a specific place and time but rather to distill the core of Jesus’s teachings. That they give us the gist of what Jesus generally taught is sufficient. Thus chronological precision is irrelevant here:
Although Luke had previously mentioned a plain, he does not observe the immediate succession of events in the history, but passes from miracles to doctrine, without pointing out either time or place: just as Matthew takes no notice of the time, but only mentions the place. It is probable, that this discourse was not delivered until Christ had chosen the twelve [in Matthew the Sermon occurs before the Twelve are called]: but in attending to the order of time, which I saw that the Spirit of God had disregarded, I did not wish to be too precise.
Note that last line: It was “the Spirit of God” which “had disregarded” “the order of time.” For Calvin the divine inspiration of the Gospels is not in question but is rather assumed. What is in question is not whether the Spirit guided the Evangelists but rather how the Spirit guided them and what the Spirit saw fit to lead them to write. Calvin looks at the critical data of the biblical text and allows that to inform his understanding of the Spirit’s priorities rather than letting his preconceptions about what the Spirit supposedly ought to care about dictate how he deals with the text. Thus, Calvin looks at the Sermon(s) on the Mount/Plain and concludes that, apparently the Spirit doesn’t care too much about chronology or historical detail. This, he says, is the Bible that God saw fit to give us, and that should be good enough:
Pious and modest readers ought to be satisfied with having a brief summary of the doctrine of Christ placed before their eyes, collected out of his many and various discourses, the first of which was that in which he spoke to his disciples about true happiness.
We’ve seen Calvin’s keen critical eye at work before regarding the authorship of 2 Peter and regarding the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1. My purpose in drawing our attention to these features of Calvin’s thought is to remind folks that such historical-critical observations (whether these observations in particular or such observations in principle) are not contrary to the Protestant tradition but are, in fact, very much a part of it.