Sitting at Jesus’ Feet during the Sermon on the Mount

photo-1474367658825-e5858839e99d_opt The question is about where to sit so one can get the best view of Jesus and hear every word.

This is what Jonathan Pennington is doing in his new book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing.

I like Pennington’s book because it makes me think and because it takes direct aim at a subject — the Sermon and virtue ethics — that is far more often simply assumed rather than discussed. After all, since “everyone” is a virtue ethicist, or since it’s what everyone today thinks, so Jesus must have too. Did he?

When I wrote my commentary on The Sermon on the Mount I argued that Jesus was not a virtue ethicist but no one had argued it as Pennington now has so there is more room for discussion, and since this is the major section I disagree with the most (I endorsed this book without qualm) I want to offer a summary of his view and then push back some.

photo-1462219157779-8a35f2687626_optFirst, in contrast to Kavin Rowe’s new book (One True Life) Pennington argues for an encyclopedic approach. (Against the genetic and Rowe’s traditioned approach.) What does he mean? (Glad you asked.) Pennington thinks we are to become the “Model Reader” who knows two big traditions coming together — like two big rivers — into the Sermon on the Mount: the Story of Israel with a wisdom (and apocalyptic) tradition as well as the Greco-Roman virtue ethics tradition.

Eco is a heavyweight thinker who steps into the ring of a heated, long, and highly publicized fight between theorists on how to interpret literature and how meaning occurs. At the risk of oversimplification, in one corner are those who emphasize the role of the author who produced the original text. In the other corner are those who suggest that the reader plays the determinative role in meaning production. Again, with some unfortunate but necessary oversimplification, this could be called the difference between objectivism and subjectivism or modernism and postmodernism, between authorial intent and reader response, when these categories are applied to the interpretation of texts (hermeneutics). 20

Yet in contrast to much of literary theory today, Eco insists on the importance of intention in the creation of a text and on the historical situatedness of the author, who exists in a particular time and place. 21

Communication and texts come from real people in real situations, complete with cultural assumptions and evocations; communication does not exist outside of these historical realities. 21

He emphasizes that texts are not just words, which means we need a dictionary approach, but embedded in cultures, which means we need an encyclopedia approach. Rowe over cooks the boundaries between traditions too much but in this book Pennington blends what I’m not so sure can be blended as smoothly as he believes. Yes, basically this is correct in his adaptation of Umberto Eco:

Every text is not just language but is also an actualization of some aspects of the cultural encyclopedia in which it was created. And because texts are created in real situations and have an intention, through historical, cultural, and literary analysis a good reader can actually ‘isolate a given portion of the social encyclopedia so far as it appears useful in order to interpret certain portions of actual discourses (and texts).’ 22

The Model Reader then, for Eco, is the one who sits at the juncture where the particular text connects with the cultural encyclopedia in the most coherent and economic way possible.23

More specifically, I will argue that the form, material, and verbiage of the Sermon reveal that it lies at the nexus of two seemingly opposed but providentially coordinated contexts—the Second Temple Jewish tradition and the Greco-Roman virtue tradition. 24

First, I like his use of wisdom literature and the wisdom tradition, but I would have sketched the wisdom tradition quite differently. Instead of quoting secondary literature, we need to examine such texts as Proverbs 1:1-7 or Sirach or Wisdom of Solomon (and less so Ecclesiastes and Job and Song of Solomon). But I do like this wisdom tradition approach. I’m not as convinced of how he approaches — again through secondary literature — of the apocalyptic tradition for he tends to synthesize it down to inaugurated eschatology while apocalyptic — we are back now to the debate between the apocalyptic approach and the eschatological approach as seen in Campbell and Wright. Neusner is fine but much better are Leo Perdue, Ellen Davis, and Roland Murphy. Then, too, Ben Witherington’s own stuff on wisdom shows how Jesus adapts wisdom. And I’m a bit nervous about Pennington’s use of “imminent” in the eschatology of Jesus and the Sermon for I want to know what he means by “imminent.”

Second, that Hellenism impacted Judaism is undeniable (Martin Hengel is the right scholar he points to); that therefore Hellenism’s virtue ethics tradition is justified because Hengel, Betz, and Meeks argue for a similar-to-Hengel Hellenism theme just doesn’t cut it for me. I want to see the Aristotelian theory of virtue ethics spelled out from Nicomachean Ethics and show that the terms and thought patterns of this virtue tradition line up with the Sermon’s terms and thought patterns. Again, not secondary literature — I can appeal to a host of scholars who think the Sermon is Jewish and not Greco-Roman virtue ethics — but Aristotle and Epictetus and Seneca. Plus, one needs to define the cultural and social contexts of virtue ethics: that of “friendship” in Aristotelian and Ciceronian contexts, a friendship of elite males who have the leisure to promote mutual growth in virtues.

So, while I would agree with the general description of virtue ethics he offers, the question for me is Whether or not Jesus taught that habits form a character that form a character-who-acts virtuously. I don’t see that habit of thought for Jesus.

So, too I can agree with this in general but I wouldn’t put the emphasis on what he does: “Namely, the Sermon is offering Jesus’s answer to the great question of human flourishing, the topic at the core of both the Jewish wisdom literature and that of the Greco-Roman virtue perspective, while presenting Jesus as the true Philosopher-King” (36).

Thus, too, I don’t agree: “Thus, to conclude this discussion we can arrive at an important point and depict this dual context intentionally. The point is that both of these contexts overlap in their goal of and emphasis on whole-person human flourishing, but the basic orientation of the Sermon is first and foremost that of the eschatological story of Israel, the coming of God’s reign/kingdom with Jesus as the King. This redemptive-historical perspective greatly shapes and modifies the virtue vision of the Sermon relative to its otherwise similar approach in Greco-Roman philosophy” (38).

So, to the point directly: Pennington finds Solomon or David behind the Sermon more than I would and he does not find Moses enough. Nothing is more clear from Matthew’s text than Mosaic themes in 5:1 with 7:28-29 and the whole — yes the whole — of 5:17-48. Not enough Moses, too much Solomon/David, and too much Aristotle. My contention is the Sermon has three plus more angles: an ethic from Above (God’s revelation as with Moses), an ethic from Beyond (eschatology of judgment/prophets) and an ethic from Below (wisdom tradition), plus christology and plus ecclesiology and plus Spirit.

To date, Pennington’s approach is the best virtue ethics approach.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.