The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus as the New Moses
Patrick Schreiner • August 15, 2018
When I teach on Matthew, I tell my students that the book can be summarized with one word: fulfillment. The first evangelist presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the long-awaited hopes and dreams of Israel. Although Matthew compares Jesus to many figures, Moses takes a prominent position. Some are surprised to learn that Jesus is never directly given a title such as, “the prophet like Moses” or even “the new Moses.” Some even question whether the Mosaic imagery in Matthew exists.
But to build a case on the explicit references to Moses doesn’t respect the more storied, and sometimes elusive, nature of Matthew’s narrative. Matthew is not giving an argument like Paul; he is telling a story, so he might not come out and explicitly say what he is trying to communicate. In the words of one scholar, there is a difference between “direct definition” and “indirect presentation” within a narrative.
Matthew can give a more indirect presentation because careful readers of the Jewish Scriptures would have already been waiting for the new Moses. There are two foundational passages in the Scriptures that support this. First, in Deuteronomy 18:15–19, God promised the coming of a prophet like Moses.
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. –– Deuteronomy 18:15–18.
The second foundation for the biblical hope of a new Moses is that the future age of salvation is presented in terms of deliverance from Egypt. Redemption and exodus are the main terms that point to Jesus as the new Moses. Isaiah speaks of a future salvation in the imagery of a new exodus.
I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” –– Isaiah 43:15–19
No New Testament author develops the portrait of Jesus as the new Moses quite like Matthew.
"Matthew is gathering Jesus’ teachings together to portray him as the new prophet."
Discourses and Their Connection to Moses
Matthew does quite a number of things to connect Jesus to Moses, but one of the most obvious when reading through the Gospel as a whole is that Matthew presents Jesus as the teacher or prophet par excellence. Unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew has five distinct discourses. In other words, he bunches the teachings of Jesus together into large blocks. Although these discourses are labeled with different titles by different people, it is clear that Matthew is gathering Jesus’ teachings together to portray him as the new prophet.
Chapter : Title
5-7 : Blessings, Entering the Kingdom
10 : Mission Discourse
13 : Parables of the Kingdom
18 : Community Discourse
23-25 : Woes, Coming Kingdom
Even more than that, B.W. Bacon has argued this organization is part of Matthew’s attempt to present his Gospel as the new Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures). Bacon suggested the Gospel was structured by an alternating five-fold pattern of discourses and narrative, which combine to form five “books.”
Bacon’s point was that Mark was motified in Matthew to show that he was the scribe who was teaching through his structure about the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. Bacon’s theory has both defenders and critics. To label chapters 1-2 as a prologue and chapters 26-28 as an epilogue seems to give far too little emphasis to these important sections. Also, Bacon’s assertion that the Pentateuch alternates between narrative and discourse is not entirely convincing.
While it is fair to point out some of these criticisms, Bacon’s fundamental insight is on track. Matthew does gather his teachings into large blocks, and there are examples of other Jewish literature that consciously imitate the Pentateuch’s five book-structure. The point here is just as Moses is dubbed as the teacher of Israel, Matthew presents Jesus’ teaching in a way that parallels him with Moses, the teacher of Israel.
Moses and Setting up the Sermon
While the entire first discourse (the Sermon on the Mount) could be looked at from the perspective of Jesus as the new Moses, I will focus mainly on the set up to the sermon. Four things point to Matthew describing Jesus as the new Moses as he goes up to give the new law.
First, Matthew puts the sermon in the larger context of the coming of a new prophet. Just prior to the sermon in Matthew 4:12–17, Jesus hears John the Baptist has been thrown into prison. The significance of John’s imprisonment can hardly be overestimated. Matthew 3 portrays John as an Old Testament prophet, yet John himself prophecies one greater than he is about to come (3:11–12). Matthew immediately identifies Jesus, through the account of his baptism, as the one who is greater than John (3:13–17).
Readers should then be attuned to the sequence of Matthew 4 into Matthew 5: John, the Old Testament prophet, is arrested, and his ministry ends, and only at that point does Jesus begin his own ministry. Something very important has ended, and something even more important has begun. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets (11:13–14), and when he passes from the scene, an eschatologically new era commences. Now the prophet has come, and he is about to give his first teaching.
Second, the first words of Matthew’s prologue to the sermon also recall Mosaic imagery. The words “he went up on the mountain” are a verbatim quotation of Exodus 19:3. In Exodus 19, the description is of Moses ascending Sinai to receive the law. As others have noted, this particular phrase occurs only three times in the Greek Old Testament. Each of the three times it is in reference to Moses’ ascent to Sinai (Ex 19:3; 24:18; 34:4).
Third, Matthew describes the mountain as “the mountain.” Matthew usually does not use a definite article when referring to a mountain unless a mountain is mentioned in the preceding context (Matt 8:1; 17:9). This would be called the anaphoric use of the article. But in Matthew 5:1, there is no immediately preceding mountain mentioned. This indicates it might point to a par excellence use of the article. Matthew is inviting a comparison with the most prominent mount in the Old Testament.
Finally, Matthew describes Jesus as sitting down to teach. This recalls Moses’ stance when he received God’s law on Mount Sinai. Although the verb in the Hebrew is debated, references in the Talmud show that Jewish interpreters regarded Deuteronomy 9:9 as meaning Moses sat down on the mountain. All three of these details place the sermon under the lens of Sinai. Unfortunately, many note these opening Mosaic parallels and then stop. But the parallels continue throughout the sermon. Matthew’s point seems to be to connect law of the Torah with the law of the new covenant. Jesus delivers the new covenant teaching as the new Moses.
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Matthew is about fulfillment. More specifically, Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses. He does this by presenting Jesus as the teacher of Israel through five discourses. These discourses mirror in some ways the five books of the Pentateuch. Then when Jesus begins his first discourse, there are four pointers to Jesus as the new Moses. He begins his ministry after the last Old Testament prophet (John the Baptist), he goes up on the mountain, it is the mountain, and finally he sits down to teach.
Although Matthew never comes out and explicitly says that Jesus is the new Moses, the imagery he uses is clear. Jesus is the new prophet who establishes the new covenant not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood.
Adapted from Matthew: Disciple and Scribe by Patrick Schreiner, (to be published in 2019). Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.