Why does the form of the Sermon on the Mount seem fragmented?

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“Why does the form of the Sermon on the Mount seem fragmented?” Tambuli, Dec. 1982, 20–21

Q. The form of the Sermon on the Mount seems fragmented. Are there other examples of this type of literature? Is it simply a seeming disunity? A problem of recording and transmitting?

Dr. Monte S. Nyman, Associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University

Because of the seeming fragmentation of the Sermon on the Mount, a common teaching in the Christian world is that the Sermon on the Mount was not given on a single occasion but is “made up of aphorisms, maxims, and illustrations which were remembered and treasured from many discourses.” (Interpreters Bible, vol. 1, p. 279; see also pp. 155–164.) That this is not the case is shown in the Book of Mormon.

Jesus, upon visiting the Nephites after his resurrection, gave basically the same sermon to the Nephites (see 3 Ne. 12–14) and, upon concluding his remarks, told those assembled that they had “heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father.” (3 Ne. 15:1.) While this statement does not positively declare that the Sermon was given at one time, it does imply such, and the fact that he gave it all at once to the Nephites would further indicate that it had also been done earlier. Why then does it appear to be fragmentary? Some explanations are in order.

While the Sermon has been compared with rabbinical and Greek philosophical writings, it stands as a work of its own. The seeming disunity results from its content. Again this is clarified by the Book of Mormon account, the Gospel of Matthew having obviously suffered the loss of many plain and precious parts. (See 1 Ne. 13:23–29.)That this is the case and that the differences are not just differences between two sermons is shown by the fact that Joseph Smith included the additional teachings from the Book of Mormon sermon in his inspired translation of the Bible. The Sermon need not be excused as a problem of recording and transmitting but should be seen as perhaps one of the texts that suffered from alterations, deletions, and possibly poor translation.

The Sermon is fragmented in the sense that parts of it are addressed to different audiences. The first part (Matt. 5:1 through Matt. 6:24; 3 Ne. 12:1 through 3 Ne. 13:24) was addressed to the multitude that had assembled. In the Book of Mormon, the Savior preceded his remarks to the multitude with instructions to the Twelve. (3 Ne. 11:21–41.) The second part (Matt. 6:25–34; 3 Ne. 13:25–34) was addressed to the Twelve whom he had chosen. The third part is again addressed to the multitude. Thus the three separate sections in the Sermon show the instructions of general application separated by specific instructions directed to the Twelve.

Further fragmentation of the Sermon might be observed in the Matthew account because of its abruptness in changing subjects. The beatitudes, a comparison of the listener to salt and to a light, the fulfillment of the law, and a comparison of the law with Christ’s teachings—all seem to be treated singly and separately in chapter 5 of Matthew. But the Sermon to the Nephites ties all of those subjects to the principle that the Savior introduces as he begins his instructions to the multitude “to come unto me,” making the Sermon as recorded in the Book of Mormon a beautiful rendition of the role of the baptized member of the Church.

The world unfortunately has lost the unifying concept of this masterful Sermon. With this plain and precious truth restored we can gain a fuller appreciation of the Sermon through a study of the Book of Mormon text.