The Sermon on the Mount,  a question of genre


The genre of a text describes the kind of literary work it represents and can tell us something about the situation in which it was intended to be used (which is known as its sitz im leben, or setting in life). For example:

Identification of a text’s genre can tell us a lot about how we should interpret that text. For example, a poem about an event should be interpreted quite differently to a historical account of that event.

Whilst genre is usually discussed with reference to written material it can apply to any type of creative endeavour, thus the concept also applies to art, music and even oration. For example:

Generic hybrid genre

Some life events give rise to easily recognised and relatively simple genre, e.g. consider how providing for your heirs results in the genre known as a Last Will and Testament, holding a bank account gives rise to the genre of bank statement, or how a marriage results in the genre of wedding photo album. All three tend to be instantly recognisable documents and their contents usually have recognisable features that aid their interpretation (e.g. the signatures of witnesses, income and expenditure columns, or the central focus on the bride and groom). By contrast, there are some settings in life that consistently give rise to speeches or texts which fuse traits from various genres. Such creations have attracted the name “generic hybrid.” The election campaign speech is a classic example of such a generic hybrid.  It’s setting in life is the periodic election process and its aim is to ensure that the candidate gets elected. However, to do so it must routinely address a range of tasks. It must encourage existing supporters to work for the goal, set out the benefits of doing so, discourage waverers from defecting, expose the weaknesses of the opposition’s case, sell the benefits of the the candidates party (or the candidate themselves), keep the audience engaged long enough to hear the speaker out, and contain memorable statements that people will continue to think about. To achieve this it must bring together elements from assorted genre, such as rhetorical argument, humour, criticism and exhortation.

The genre of the Sermon as a whole

What is the genre of the Sermon on the Mount? If you view the Sermon as a coherent discourse then it should have a single setting and associated genre. Yet, even if you side with those who see the Sermon as a collection of sayings, then it remains valid to ask the question, for the gospel’s editor may have their own reasons for imposing a specific genre upon their redacted speech.

As a whole, it is clear that the Sermon is a speech delivered to a group of supporters. However, is it possible to be more specific as to the type of oration this was? In taking a scriptural passage and expounding upon it, it lives up to the title that Augustine bestowed upon it, for it does indeed resemble a sermon, or more specifically an instance of rabbinical preaching (whose distinctive signature is found in the Golden Rule). However, behind its sermon-like façade, Jesus’ words have shades of another distinctive genre, the campaign rally speech. Like such an address they include: 

A rallying speech is just the sort of genre that one might expect to find on the lips of Jesus at the outset of his Galilean ministry. Nor would he be the last preacher to interpret scripture in a manner that exhibited such political overtones. 

The political aspect of the Sermon is apparent in the language some scholars use to describe its elements. For example, Vermes (2004, 311-2) sees in the Beatitudes a “manifesto for the seekers of the kingdom” and in a sense he is quite right to do so, for embodied within them are God’s promises of the difference that returning to the way of righteousness would make. Thus, within their context, the Beatitudes were every bit as political as Mandela envisaging a South Africa without apartheid or Ghandi envisaging an India free from British imperial control. 

The genre of the individual sayings

If one believes a later editor has composed the Sermon from a range of sayings, each dragged from their original context, it becomes particularly pertinent to assess the genre of each in turn. However, even if the Sermon was delivered as a single entity, as the evidence would seem to suggest, the extensive re-use of its sayings within parallel passages means that many of them also effectively stand alone and therefore have a genre in their own right. 

Geza Vermes, as part of his form-critical assessment of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings, has undertaken to assign a genre to each saying found within the Synoptic Gospels. The following is a summary of his conclusions, as far as they concern the Sermon (Vermes 2004, 419-436):

Vermes provides further detail on this assessment, but from the summary above, it is clear that he considers the bulk of the Sermon’s sayings to be words of wisdom, interpretations of scripture and eschatological rules of behaviour.