For those of a traditional persuasion, the question of the authenticity of the Sermon on the Mount does not arise. Matthew’s Gospel is part of the canon of inspired scripture, so, if it says the Sermon originated with Jesus, then it did, in its entirety. The scholar who believes that Matthew was composed before the other Synoptic Gospels and was apostolic in origin may easily adopt a similar position. However, for those who accept Mark as the first Gospel, or who see Matthew as a post-apostolic composition, the question of authenticity becomes more acute.
When an academic approaches the synoptic problem from the perspective of a two-source solution and assumes that Matthew’s Gospel originated within the post-apostolic church, they are effectively forced to consider it an editorial compilation. If they then lean heavily on the relative silence of the synoptic gospels (which are set primarily in Galilee) concerning festivals (which happened further south in Jerusalem), they will probably conclude that Jesus ministry lasted less than a year. Geza Vermes, who falls into this camp (Vermes 2004, 371), correctly observes that this leaves a problem, for, in different places within the synoptic gospels, Jesus appears to approach the same topic quite differently (Vermes 2004, 370). Vermes, for one, believing it difficult to accommodate these differences of approach within the short timespan he envisages for Jesus ministry, is forced to conclude that a substantial part of the gospel material originated with a later editor rather than Jesus. Arising out of this conclusion, Vermes, and others who share his academic stance, find themselves in a quest to sift the historically authentic Jesus from all that they consider later Church accretions.
The form-critical approach
The quest, that Vermes continues, originated with Rudolph Bultmann’s pioneering application to the gospels of form-critical techniques (Bultmann 1963). Therefore, to sort his sheep from goats, Vermes adopts a variation on Bultmann’s approach. First he dissects the synoptic gospels into a series of component sayings. The multiplicity of attestation through parallel passages provides significant input to this process and, as a result, he chooses to consider the Sermon a compilation of sayings rather than a single discourse. His fragmented, view of the Sermon contrasts sharply with the idea, as presented on this site, that it was a coherent discourse with a single sitz im leben (setting in life). Next, he assigns the resultant shards to an assortment of genres, with some falling into more than one. Finally, each saying is assessed against a set of criteria which he considers indicative of the saying having originating with Jesus. In most cases a saying receives a binary status, either it is an editorial creation or it is likely to be genuine, but at times he concludes that they are a bit of both.
Bultmann’s choice of criteria, as Vermes observes, “ipso facto leads to rejection of the genuineness of a substantial amount of material attributed to Jesus by the evangelists” (Vermes 2004, 373). Vermes considers those criteria unreasonably restrictive and therefore attempts to be more circumspect in his approach, taking greater account of the historical and religious context of the material, and thereby seeking to mitigate Bultmann’s failings. By approaching the synoptic gospels in this manner, Vermes provides useful insights on the Sermon’s individual components and a revised form-critical assessment of their likely authenticity.
The results, from a form-critical perspective
In total Vermes considers thirty-two sayings genuine, or probably so, ten as editorial additions or modifications and two remain unclassified (though note that there is some overlap). However, form criticism places the burden of proof upon the text, declaring its editor guilty of intervention until they are proven innocent, so where Vermes can find no features that he considers evidence of originality he defaults to assuming the possibility of editorial composition (e.g. in his treatment of the Beatitudes). Such an approach is always vulnerable to underestimating the proportion of sayings that are original.
In contrast to the conclusions of earlier critical scholars, Vermes’ assessment suggests that the bulk of the Sermon originated with Jesus. Nevertheless, his vision of the Sermon as an editorial casserole, cooked to near perfection for a post-apostolic church, remains a far cry from the intricately interwoven and politically charged oration that one encounters on this site, an inaugural speech fit for an early 1st century Judean prophet, especially one seeking to turn his people back to the way of righteousness.