The Sermon on the Mount
in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Interpretation

RELS 438-301 2020A
University of Pennsylvania
Spring Term, 2020
[words in Sermon on the Mount]

A. Course Description

This seminar introduces participants to the development of Christian biblical interpretation by focusing on ancient, medieval, and modern interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is part of the Gospel of Matthew and is often considered to summarize the essential teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Participants will encounter a variety of important interpreters (including Origen, Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Clarence Jordan, and Hans Dieter Betz), guided by appropriate secondary materials.

This course has no prerequisites. The readings will be made available in English. The class will utilize a combination of lecture, discussion, student presentations, reports, close reading, and a research paper. Participants in the seminar will be encouraged to do original research in the primary sources.

B. Contact Information

Class sessions: Mondays & Wednesdays from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.
Class location: (to be determined)
Instructor: Jay C. Treat, Ph.D.
Email address:
Course Website: RELS 438 Canvas site

C. Objectives of the Course

  1. To read and become familiar with the Sermon on the Mount and related materials;
  2. To become familiar with significant interpretations of the Sermon and its overall history of interpretation by reading primary sources (in English);
  3. To become familiar with some of the most significant approaches to interpreting Christian scripture;
  4. To gain first-hand experience using tools and methods of critical historical research into Christian literature;
  5. To analyze thoughtfully other people’s views regarding the Sermon on the Mount;
  6. To present one’s own insights about the Sermon on the Mount intelligently in an academic environment;
  7. To contribute to a web of materials summarizing, evaluating, and commenting on the early sources and contemporary scholarship.

D. The Subject

The course examines the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) and its interpretations through the centuries. At first glance, this would seem to be a very simple task. These three chapters contain teachings that often seem impractical or difficult, and Christian interpreters have wrestled with them through the centuries to understand them. Many of these interpretations undercut the apparent meaning of the original text. Therefore, Christian (and post-Christian) interpretations of the text often vary enormously. We will examine several significant interpretations available in English, applying modern critical methods and standards for historical research.

E. Textbooks

The instructor’s annotated bibliography of useful books related to the Sermon on the Mount is available online: (

Each participant will need a Bible in modern English (including both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures). The Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and New International Version (NIV) are particularly useful translations — especially in editions that include annotations, cross-references, and other help for participants.

In addition, each participant will need access to the following recommended textbooks:

What are They Saying About Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, by Warren Carter. Paulist Press, 1994. ISBN: 080913473X.

Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4. Augsburg Fortress, 2003. ISBN: 0800683242.

Some participants may wish to purchase the following:

The Sermon on the Mount: the Modern Quest for its Meaning, by Clarence Bauman, Mercer University Press, 1991. ISBN: 0865541132.

St. Augustine: The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, tr. by John J. Jepson, with an introd. and notes by the editors. Gardiner Press, 2007. ISBN: 140677166X. (William Findlay's translation of Augustine's text is available online.)

Most of the above books will be available in the Rosengarten Reserve area in Van Pelt Library. Those who wish to purchase any of them will find them at the Penn Book Center (at 130 South 34th Street). The last two books in the list must be special-ordered. All of these books (in various editions) are also available used and new from

The instructor will make several readings available in class, especially those that are out of print or difficult to obtain. In addition, several other useful books have been placed on reserve in Van Pelt Library.

F. Evaluation and Required Work

The requirements for the course include regular participation in class, up to three class presentations, and a research paper on a topic chosen by the participant with the approval of the instructor. Participants may expect to read 100 to 150 pages per week in preparation for class discussions. Work will be graded as follows:

30% of grade: class participation and class presentations
30% of grade: weekly assignments
40% of grade: research paper

This class puts a high premium on independent work and on cooperative effort. Consultation and collaboration are encouraged. Plagiarism and cheating will not be tolerated.

G. Tentative Class Schedule and Readings

The seminar's schedule (with a list of assigned readings) will be available on the course website. The schedule and the interpreters covered will be adjusted according to the interests of the participants and the progress being made together. Here is a tentative schedule.

Date Subject
1/15/2020 Introduction to course
1/20/20, 1/22/20 Reading the text and parallel material
1/27/20, 1/29/20 Critical approaches in contemporary scholarship
2/3/20 Word Studies
2/5/20 Exegetical study of the Sermon
2/10/20, 2/12/20 Student presentations of exegetical study of the Sermon
2/17/20, 2/19/20 Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa on the Lord's Prayer
2/24/20, 2/26/20 Augustine: his interpretive theory and his commentary
3/2/20, 3/4/20 John Chrysostom: homilies
3/9/20, 3/11/20 (Spring Break: no class)
3/16/20, 3/18/20 Thomas Aquinas: his interpretive theory and his Catena aurea
3/23/20, 3/25/20 Martin Luther: homilies
3/30/20, 3/32/20 Tolstoy: What I Believe
4/6/20, 4/8/20 Dietrich Bonhoeffer
4/13/20, 4/15/20 Clarence Jordan and other modern interpreters
4/20/20, 4/22/20 Other modern interpreters
4/27/20, 4/29/20 Student presentations of research
5/4/20 (date of final exam: all work due)

Other possible interpreters include John Calvin, John Wesley, Leonardo Boff, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Howard Yoder.