During my theology class, we studied the sermon on the mount. The essay we were reading on the topic asserted that the sermon on the mount had not occurred, and that most likely Matthew just compiled a collection of saying from Jesus and organized them into what is Chapter 5 of his account. Some of the students were a bit saddened by this revelation by this author, Fr. Daniel Harrington S.J., so I gave them another side to the debate–Pope Benedict XVI.
One thing that has been frustrating to me about the course is the selection of readings that appear to indicate a finality on topics, which have none. As one who has a degree in history, studied oral history, studied written history, etc; I would certainly assert that there is a great possibility that there was certainly a sermon on a mount.
The class that I was out of my mind to be so bold. How could I challenge the opinion of an essay written by a priest?
I said to them, “Well, don’t take my word for it, take Pope Benedict the XVI’s word.” Father Benedict explains, “The Evangelist does not tell us which of the hills of Galilee it was. But the very fact that it is the scene of Jesus’ preaching makes it simply “the mountain”–the new Sinai. The “mountain” is the place where Jesus prays–where he is face-to-face with the Father. And that is exactly why it is also the place of his teaching, since his teaching comes forth from this most intimate exchange with the Father. The “mountain” then,is by the very nature of the case established as the new and definitive Sinai. “And yet how different this “mountain” is from that imposing rocky mass in the desert! Tradition has identified a hill north of Lake Genesareth as the Mount of the Beatitudes. Anyone who has been there and gazed with the eyes of his soul on the wide prospect of the waters of the lake, the sky and the sun, the trees and the meadows, the flowers and the sound of birdsong can never forget the wonderful atmosphere of peace and the beauty of creation encountered there–in a land unfortunately so lacking in peace. “Wherever the Mount of the Beatitudes actually was, something of this peace and beauty must have characterized it.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 66-67.)
There is a particular point I’d like to highlight from Father Benedict, He indicates that it was most likely a hill and that we may not know the exact location, but from the reading, Father Benedict does indicate that there was truly a hill where Jesus sat and did preach the Beatitudes.
The teacher then replied, “So does it really matter if there was sermon as opposed to a collection of sayings.” As a student of history, I was a bit appalled by the question. I explained that it is a complex answer rather than a simple one. In regards to what Father Benedict is speaking about withChrist giving the Beatitudes on a mount and defining his authority in regards to the Kingdom as the living Torah. It certainly is important to a degree. Of course, from a historical perspective, did Christ give the exact words of Matthew Chapter 5? He most likely did not; however, it is very likely from a historical perspective if Matthew took different teachings and a sermon from a mount and simply paraphrased them from memory.
So why did I object so much to these proposed ideas? It’s simple, Jesus is a historical figure, which is one of the motives of Benedict for writing his three volume set on Jesus of Nazareth. In a world that only values evidence, it does matter for some events to be historical. There is certainly a danger from this half-hazard theology, and the danger is Christological heresy.
Christological heresy! What does he mean! After folks in the class became comfortable with the idea that the only thing that mattered was Christ’s teaching, I asked them how far are you willing to go with that idea? If the message is the only concern when it comes to Jesus and Catholicism, and not the actual actions of Christ, the incarnate Lord. How is this belief different than the Christological Heresies that claimed Christ only to only appear, for example, Docetism? Is this now a concern in the modern church?
Regardless, Christ had to be physically here. He had to be an actor on the historical stage. If it doesn’t matter that the Sacred (God) became Man, (Profane) that God ate on the earth or felt pain and joy on the earth like man, then Christ would be nothing more than a great human philosopher. However, he was the divine that became flesh for our salvation, the savior of the world.
There is a great danger for the souls of the charity of Christ in ‘critiquing’ away historical events by theologians using Biblical criticisms. The danger is allowing the belief that the living and breathing actors actions do not matter within the frameworks of the history of salvation—a sentiment that Pope Benedict XVI would agree with being a danger from his Jesus of Nazareth series, as he explained that its the reason why he wrote his book. (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2007), xii.) Father Benedict writes, ““The first point is that the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith—is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events…Et incarnates est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history…“If we push this history aside Christian faith such disappears and is recast as some other religion…then faith must expose itself to the historical method—indeed, faith itself demands this.(Ibid, xv.)
“The historical-critical method—let me repeat—is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith…but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God.” (Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth Part One (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), xvi.)
A better articulation of this concern is to give an example. So if there are those convinced by the explanation there was no actual sermon of the mount. So What other events can the next theologian claim are not historic? Perhaps, Theologians will “evolve” into claiming the resurrection of the incarnate Lord didn’t really happen– at least, not in the way the Gospel is written. Instead of Christ appearing in the flesh to the Apostles as they walked to Emmaus, they simply “felt” that he was there as if he was resurrected. We’d hope the Church Magisterium would correct this error, but it seems they allow a lot of freedom.
Of course, without the physical crucifixion and resurrection of the body, there would be no salvation.