The Beatitudes: Introduction

This study series focuses on the Beatitudes of Jesus, beginning with several introductory notes, and then treating each beatitude individually. It was originally created as a series of daily notes (for the previous Biblesoft study blog), and is being re-posted here in a new and improved format.

The Beatitudes of Jesus, in their best-known form, are part of the collection of teaching commonly referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7—Beatitudes, 5:3-12). This collection is similar, in both content and arrangement, to the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49 (Beatitudes, 6:20-26). In both, a group of Beatitudes head the collection (in the position of an exordium), introducing the teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples. This being the case, in discussing the Beatitudes, it is necessary first to examine the relationship between the Matthean and Lukan collections (or “sermons”), touching upon matters of Source Criticism and the so-called Synoptic Problem.

In both Gospels (Matthew and Luke) this material is presented as though delivered as a connected ‘sermon’; however, it seems clear enough that this is principally a literary framing device (cf. Matt 5:1-2; 7:28; Lk 6:17ff, 20; 7:1), and that the “sermon” is better understood as a collection of sayings and teachings, originally spoken on different occasions, and brought together as a way of summarizing or epitomizing how Jesus instructed his disciples. This has been recognized by critical commentators since at least the time of Calvin (cf. his Gospel Commentary [Harmony], on Matt 5:1).

As the “Sermon” on the Mount/Plain contains material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not (for the most part) in the Gospel of Mark, it is technically part of so-called “Q” (for German Quelle, “source”). One may speak of “Q” loosely (simply as reflecting common/shared traditions, whether written or oral, i.e., the “double tradition”), or strictly (as a specific written document). Nearly all critical scholars mean it in the latter sense, as an actual source document—an early Gospel, contemporary with (or prior to) Mark, which no longer survives. Most scholars (including a fair percentage of traditional-conservative commentators) adopt some variation of the Two-Source hypothesis—that Matthew and Luke, in fashioning their own Gospels, each made use of Mark and so-called Q for the core collection of traditions as well as the basic narrative framework. Traditions and material unique to Matthew or Luke are typically labeled “M” and “L” respectively; these labels may also be understood to represent actual source documents, or simply as a way to describe a set of traditions used by the Gospel writer.

With regard to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (and its relation to “Q”), there are several critical theories:

  • The Lukan “Sermon on the Plain”, being considerably shorter, more or less represents the collection as found in “Q”; Matthew has modified/expanded this material (from other traditions, i.e. “M”) to create the “Sermon on the Mount”
  • Both Matthew and Luke have significantly modified (redacted) a simple core “Sermon” which was part of “Q”
  • The differences between the Matthean and Lukan “Sermons” are primarily the result of different versions (recensions) of “Q” (call them QM and QL) used by Matthew and Luke respectively.
  • A variation of this last theory would be that the Matthean and Lukan “Sermons” reflect different versions of a source collection of traditions/sayings (the “Sermon” as such) separate from so-called “Q”

I would say that the second and fourth options are more likely to be correct. The arrangement of material is similar enough that a core collection of traditions must lie behind both versions. This collection (the core “Sermon”) may (or may not) have been part of a separate “Q” document. I suspect that, as a clearly-defined collection, it is extremely old, perhaps going back to the earliest layer of Gospel tradition. Scholars debate whether the “Sermon” (and/or “Q”) existed in Aramaic (being subsequently translated into Greek), or whether the earliest written form was already Greek. It is usually assumed that (most of) Jesus’ original teaching was in Aramaic; but how this relates to the Greek forms recorded in the Gospels (and their sources) remains an open (and much disputed) question.

Here is an outline of the portions of the “Sermon” Matthew and Luke share:

Matthew includes much which is not in Luke (or is found elsewhere in Lk), and Luke, too, has some sayings not in Matthew; however, the portions they share (in the same order, and often in similar wording) are significant enough to indicate a common source.

It should be noted that, even if one accepts the general critical view of the Sermon on the Mount/Plain as a traditional collection of sayings and teachings which has been modified/redacted in different ways, there is little reason to doubt, on objective grounds, that the sayings/teachings themselves are authentic. In other words, while not necessarily reflecting full-fledged sermons delivered by Jesus, they must, in a fundamental sense, accurately reflect his teaching.

In the first article of this series, I will address the basic form and significance of the Beatitude.

This series is available for use in Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible program (Version 5 or OneTouch) [find out more]

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