Hellenism and the Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) has sometimes been put forward as one of those features of Christianity that marks it as distinctive from Hellenism. Traditional Protestant scholarship on the Bible reproduced popular racialized conceptions of culture in their analysis of ancient categories of thought. For instance, Adolf von Harnack distinguished between Judaism and Hellenism in his analysis of early Christianity. To this may be added the idea that Christianity represented something unique and distinct from its surroundings. In this narrative, the unique (=true) form of Christianity faced the risk of being corrupted by influence from Judaism and Hellenism. Harnack mapped all ancient heresies according to how much Judaism or Hellenism they exhibited.

Scholars today have largely abandoned these polar divisions between Judaism and Hellenism, some going so far as to call Judaism itself a Hellenistic religion. This movement has had significant impact on the study of ancient Christianity. Far from imagining Jesus as either ignorant of, or opposed to, Hellenism, we might best think of him as belonging to a cultural complex that represented the confluence of Greek, Israelite, and other cultural contexts. Among these, we can see the SM as part of this confluence, including several Hellenistic elements.

First, New Testament scholars have noted that the genre of the “Sermon” (this particular title for the text is rather late) is best understood as the epitome, a Hellenistic genre of the collections of teachings. The point of the epitome was to provide short, instructional materials for disciples. The closest parallels in genre to the SM are from philosohpical texts like Epictetus’ Encheridion and Epicurus’ Kyriai Doxai. One may add to this other works of Jewish thinkers in Hellenistic contexts, such as Ben Sira, the Wisdom of Solomon, some works by Philo, and others. Even the Hellenistic genre of the rabbinic Pirke Abot, is now widely accepted, and such an epitome bears some resemblance in form to the SM.

To this Hellenistic context, we may take note of a certain stock figures in Hellenistic philosophy that appear in the SM. For instance, the “prudent man” and the “foolish man” (Matt 7:24-27) draw on both the philosophical notions of virtue and the precise language of prudence, phronesis, philosophers used. Like Epictetus’ diatribes, the SM is designed to train disciples in an ethical tradition of the Cynic-Stoic variety.

Going further, the proverb on vision (Matt 6:22-23) is closely in conversation with ancient Greek theories of sense perception. The pre-Socratic philosopher Empidocles first compared the eye to a lamp (no comparison can be found in pre-Hellenistic Jewish literature). Philo expands greatly on this topic.

The sayings on anxiety (Matt 6:25-34) belong to a broad concern in Hellenistic-era literature with the topic. In pre-Hellenistic Israelite literature, there is no concept of anxiety. Hellenistic texts often reflected on providence in relationship to this problem of the human condition. In Hellenistic Jewish and non-Jewish texts on anxiety, the themes and responses are similar.

The “Golden Rule” (Matt 7:12) was already a common proverb for Aristotle (who happens to argue against it). The principle entered into Jewish discussions through Hellenistic-Jewish wisdom literature. Jesus’s most immediate source for the Rule would have been Hillel, but Hillel must have received it from the Hellenistic milieu.

Now, I am out of time so I am going to end this post. But suffice it to say, while the Jewish context of the SM is indisputable, the particular Judaism in the Galilee of the 1st c. CE had extensive Hellenistic characteristics. The SM is most certainly a product of a Hellenistic culture context in its form, examples, and even its specific teachings.

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On Pseudonyms and Insults
John Gee, Biblical Studies, and Credentials
  • kiwi57

    This is very interesting. Not especially relevant to the glaring and evidently irreconcilable contrast between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed, but still very interesting.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TT

    The SM happens to be quite different from lots of other things, including the Sermon on the Plain. Being different from the SM is not a disqualification for something being good. King Follett is different from the the Book of Mormon, which is different from the Book of Abraham–and they are all different from the SM.

    The difference between the SM and anything that is not it is not a particularly useful piece of information, and the choice to contrast it with Nicaea, as if there is some great significance in their difference, is entirely arbitrary (they are not even the same genre).

    As to their irreconcilability, since they are not about the same thing there isn’t really any contradiction between them.

    Differences in and of themselves between different things are not interesting without some interpretive lens. If one were to say that the difference between SM and the Nicene creed is that one is Hellenistic and the other is not, they would be offering an interpretation that is not supportable.

  • kiwi57

    “they are not even the same genre.”
    No, and a physics textbook and a book of poems are likewise not in the same genre. But if someone founds a school to teach poetry, and three hundred years later those in charge start insisting it’s really all about physics, then it’s a bit silly to insist that the change isn’t really a change, or is somehow irrelevant.

  • RaymondSwenson

    Or is Hellenistic culture partly derived from the Semitic and Egyptian cultures of earlier civilizations? The Philistines were descendants of the same Sea Peoples that settled Greece, and feature in some of their legends. Association of a sphinx with a city called Thebes occurs in Egypt and Greece–which was more likely to be the original? A serpent wrapped on a staff is both a healing instrument for Moses that is kept in the tabernacle, and the emblem for a mythical Greek healer. The Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians as a derivation from the phonemes of various Egyptian hieroglyphs. Don’t you think that the Greeks got that alphabet in the form of books? Greeks from Sparta and other cities worked as mercenaries for Egypt and Persia for hundreds of years before Alexander.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TT

    I am not saying that it is not different, nor that it is not a change. I am saying that Jesus did not say his followers can only speak in “poetry” or any other genre. We cannot think that changes in and of themselves are bad. Jesus didn’t speak in Proclamations to the World or in revelations or in translations of lost ancient works or in missionary discussions in the SM either. Difference from how Jesus spoke in one gospel is not the standard for truth.
    I happen to not be a Nicene Christian, but rather hold to a pretty standard Mormon orthodoxy on Christology. I just think that disagreements about Christology should be based on the substance of those arguments, not some idea that it is different from the SM or that one has more dirty Greek stuff in it.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TT

    Of course there was cultural exchange all across the ancient world. However, this is a fanciful solution to the issue of Hellenism and the SM that the evidence does not support.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    I am of the group that believes the Sermon was a re-presenting of the law…of Moses.

    Only this time (that time) it was given real teeth. A much harder version.
    “If you LOOK at a woman in that way, you are guilty of adultery.” “If you are angry with your brother, then you are a murderer.” “You must be perfect…”

    It was a word, not to make us better, or to spur us on to greater heights…but to kill us off to any notions of attaining any righteousness by what ‘we do’…or ‘don’t do’.


    And immediately after the Sermon. Jesus runs into a leper (the epitome of a sinner) who asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus says, “I will.”

    There it is. The law/gospel paradigm.

    The law to kill. The gospel to forgive and make alive again. To restore.


  • Jerry Lynch

    Though raised a Catholic, or because of that, I did not start to regularly read and study the Bible until I was so angry at the Church I could spit. My motivation was to find the inconsistencies and contradictions that I could use to attack and defeat any Christian I happened to bump into. That was in 1986. Over the course of two years, without any guides, I discovered what I took to be pretty straightforward verses that clearly challenged church tradition and dogma, which I found out later were the same challenges others have found and argued. I appeared to be good at this Scripture-reading business. It is important to note that at the same time I was looking into Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Mystics of every tradition.

    I mention all of the above because when it came to my study of SM, it seemed clear to me that it was not a new ethos, a re-wording of the law, or a set of instructions for disciples: it was merely a description of the truly righteous. Blessed ARE, not Blessed will be or could be or should be. It was a fait accompli. “You ARE the light of the world.”
    Nothing in the SM can be practiced: you either are or aren’t poor of spirit. And being poor of spirit, 4-11 follows naturally. This is the character of the saint. The ones who are poor of spirit have allowed themselves to become a “living sacrifice.” SM shows the results of dying to self, not a path to it.

  • Neo

    Confucius espoused the “Golden Rule” so that has zilch to do with Hellenism and Greek thought. And I agree with the above comment on the Law/Grace narrative. Jesus was teaching the Law and upping the ante in a message solely intended for Jews yet can be secondarily applied to the Christian life as a means for wisdom, like Proverbs.

  • Jerry Lynch

    From what I understand of Mormonism, it is thoroughly ill-equipped to understand or accept mysticism. In Mormonism, it seems the self is not meant to die but to continually gain in strength and virtue. The SM, ergo, is beyond a Mormon’s ability to see.

  • kiwi57

    I’d like to know who, if anyone, is relying upon that idea. I know that I’m not.

    Perhaps the most valuable piece of knowledge to come out of Nicea is not the Creed, but the observation that it may be a greater miracle to make a philosopher shut up than to make a stone speak.

    Here is a thought experiment I’d like to invite anyone to try. Pretend you’ve never heard the following incomplete statement:

    “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if…”

    Now, try to complete that statement as if it came from the author of the Sermon on the Mount.

    Then, try to complete it as if it came from the author(s) of the Nicene Creed.

    Which result more closely resembles the original? See John 13:35.

  • kiwi57

    Thank you, Steve. The logical result of that view is that “real” Christians would never dream of actually trying to follow what Jesus taught. In fact, anyone who does so is therefore guilty of something called “works-righteousness,” the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of some, and richly deserves to spend all of eternity being the guest of honour at their own barbecue.
    Or something.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TT

    Kiwi, I think we are both making totally different points and just talking past each other.

    But I will say that if the saying you started were in the SM (it is not, as you know), it would end with “love your enemies,” not, “love other disciples” as John puts it. The point being that John and Matthew have a very different ethic for how love should be practiced. They offer quite different versions of who Jesus is, what he did, and what he taught. In fact, the contradiction between them is far greater than between the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed.

    If it came from the authors of the Nicene creed, it would be identical to the Sermon on the Mount, because those authors accept the Sermon on the Mount. There is no conflict between the two, just as there is no conflict between Mormon Christology and the Sermon on the Mount. The reason is because Christology asks a different question that the Sermon on the Mount, which is why a different answer is required.

  • kiwi57

    Yes, going by your expressions of high dudgeon on Dan Peterson’s blog, that talking past each other thing seems to happen a lot. After all, I did invite you to indulge in a “thought experiment,” but you immediately — and apparently without taking very much time for thought — reverted to arguing about why you were right and everyone else was wrong.

    Evidently you think that “love one another” contradicts “love your enemies.” In your mind, the two concepts are incompatible. I’ve always thought it was possible to do both; and at the same time, too. Silly me.

    However, you seem to have admitted, however reluctantly, that whether recorded by Matthew or John, the key test of discipleship is still going to be about love. Whether or not the churchmen at Nicea accepted Matthew (or John, for that matter) the fact remains that they had a very different idea of what made someone a disciple of Christ, i.e. a Christian. For them, it was all about propositional orthodoxy; that was the sole purpose of the Creed they hammered out.

    So if you were to try my thought experiment honestly, you would realise that the authors of the NC would have come back with something a lot like, “If ye consent that the Father and the Son are of one substance.”

    Perhaps you think that is closer to the Sermon on the Mount than, “If ye have love one to another.” How you come to that conclusion is a mystery to me, but I’m sure you can come up with a convincing argument therefor. See “make a stone speak,” above.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com/ Steve Martin

    Not really. The law acts as a mirror and shows us that none of us is up to it.

    That’s why Jesus’ parable of the scumbag tax collector vs. the good religious guy (Pharisee) in the Temple is so instructive.
    One thinks he is doing pretty well. The other knows how much he has blown it. And Jesus tells us that it is the scumbag (who knows his great need of a Savior because of the fact that he is totally unable to keep the law) is the one who goes away justified.

    Does that mean that we ought not even try? Of course not! It just means that we know that our best isn’t good enough, either, to meet God’s demand of “perfection”.

    Thanks so much for the opportunity.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/ TT


    Whatever you think of my exchange with Peterson, I am neither a jerk nor an idiot, and the irony of your lectures about the love command while trying to insult me is getting old.

    Let’s start over. Let us see if we can figure out what, if anything, we disagree on. Is it the turn of events in the conversation with Dan that you want to talk about, or is there something substantive here you are trying to say?

    I am going to assume that you have something substantive to say (though if your real beef is about the other conversation, we can talk about that too). It is not clear to me that you have understood my point. I am going to try to do my best to articulate what I think your point is, and respond as best as I can. If you could do me the courtesy of restating what you think my point is, then perhaps we can see where we are disagreeing and reducing the talking past one another.

    Let us leave aside the question of Johannine intramural love versus Matthean extramural love. This is a well known problem in NT ethics, but I don’t ultimately think your point is about reconciling these two views or producing a harmonization of the evangelists.

    So, with that said, we can focus on Nicaea and the Sermon on the Mount. Is there a difference between them? Yes. Is one about ethics and the other about establishing orthodoxy? Absolutely. Is one earlier and the other a later development? Of course. On these points, I think we are both in complete agreement. I may even venture to say that we do not disagree that one is more “Hellenistic” than the other.

    Are the two “irreconcilable” or is there some contradiction between them? Here is where I think we disagree. For me, the answer is no for two reasons. First, there is no obvious contradiction between ethics and orthodoxy. As LDS, we have lots and lots of orthodoxies, and some are even similar to the creeds. Just as we see no contradiction between “consider the lilies of the field” and the Articles of Faith or the temple recommend questions, believing that there is one correct way of understanding God is not irreconcilable with anything in the Sermon on the Mount. They are so different that no one could say a contradiction exists, just like peanut butter and chairs accomplish two totally different things that no one could ever say they are irreconcilable in the same world. I can sit on a chair and eat peanut butter without thinking twice about it. This is why I keep insisting that they are a different genre, not about the same thing, etc. I can talk about love one day and talk about something else the other day without contradiction, just as Jesus did. Since everything that is not the SM is definitionally different from it, not being it cannot be thought to be a contradiction.

    Second, it turns out that we Mormons have pretty clear ideas about the nature of God and Christ. Article of Faith 1 is almost a summary of Nicaea, and JS thought the issue of the nature of the Godhead was important enough to put first. These ideas are a bit different from Nicaea, but they certainly belong to the same conversation. There is nothing forbidden about defining the nature of the Father-Son relationship. Certainly, these are not questions addressed in the Sermon on the Mount, but so what? The Sermon on the Mount is not the standard by which all things are judged. There are lots and lots of important, maybe even essential, things that are not in it, like, say, the Atonement (and even grace, in spite of the attempts to read Pauline concepts into the Sermon). It turns out that LDS ideas about the Father-Son relationship are structurally identical to the creed. By rejecting the creed, we in effect establish an orthodoxy too. Orthodoxy is always about excluding other options, and we do that all the time. My point being that we have pretty clear ideas about the nature of Christ, we establish them through the discourse of orthodoxy, and in this way we are not really doing anything all that different from the Nicene Creed.

    [Edit: I am going to add a quick third point. I think that setting up the SM as the standard against which things should be compared is entirely arbitrary. It does not occupy any special place in the gospels. It only shows up in Matthew and is spread out in part in Luke. Mark and John never heard it. It should not occupy the central role in establishing who Jesus really was or what he was all about, and doing so inevitably distorts the image of who he was.]

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    A very good and informative article on the influence of Jewish thought on Greek culture (not vice-versa) can be found here: