The Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon at the Temple: A Study in Rhetorical Contrasts #BOM2016


My scriptures still have green markings in Matthew and 3 Nephi that highlight all of the differences between the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and the Sermon at the Temple (3 Ne. 12-14). I did this on my mission because I thought it was important. “Blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT WHO COME UNTO ME,” says the Book of Mormon, lest we think that actual poverty is either necessary or sufficient. And don’t forget that the BOM doesn’t say “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer. That’s because it already has. These comparisons got me through my mission, a BYU term paper, and the first two times I taught Gospel Doctrine.

It is only recently that I have begun to see what a gnat-straining, camel-swallowing approach to the texts this is. Read from one perspective, of course, the two texts are extremely similar and we can learn a lot by comparing the small differences. From another perspective, however, the texts don’t even have much in common. This other perspective is sometimes called “rhetorical criticism.”

Some background: a rhetorical interpretation assumes that meaning is produced by the combination of a text and a rhetorical context—a situation in which somebody is trying to use language to do something involving someone else. Words without rhetorical context are both meaningless and impossible. There is no such thing as no context; words are always trying to do something, teach something, or persuade somebody.

But the exact same words can shift meaning dramatically when they are placed in different contexts. If I call someone “dad,” it makes a difference if I am talking to a) my father; b) my boss; or c) an older gentleman who is taking too long in the grocery line. My relationship to the speaker, my immediate rhetorical purpose, and our shared context acts on the exact same words to produce very different meanings. This is the major reason that it makes no sense to read the scriptures as acontextual proof texts that “simply mean what the words say.” There is always a context. And it always matters.

The New Testament context for the Sermon on the Mount (and I speak here only of how it is presented in the text, not of a knowable historical situation) goes something like this: Jesus has recently been baptized by John the Baptist and completed a 40-day fast, and now he is ready to start his ministry. He has had already chosen his disciples and attracted some attention as both a teacher and a healer but the Sermon on the Mount is his first big-time gig–a make-it or break-it event that will cement his reputation as a Teacher of the Word. He does not come to the audience with any kind of institutional authority. Whatever authority he ends up with will have to come solely from the power of his words.

Compare this to the Book of Mormon context. Here, people have been talking about him by name, and arguing about his coming, for 600 years. For the last 30 years or so, they have been measuring time by the signs that they saw at his birth. And over the past few days, he has trashed the whole country. Tempests, terrible thunder, the earth divided asunder, Zarahemla burned to the ground, Moroni sunk in the ocean, Moronihah swallowed by a mountain. And then things really start to go downhill. When all of this is over, he descends on the survivors wearing a white robe and glowing in the dark. Nobody has to wonder whether or not he has power. He does not have to persuade anyone to accept his authority.

So here’s my point: given the terrible destruction that has just been visited on the people of the Book of Mormon, and the supernatural effects that accompany his visit, he simply cannot speak to the people the same way he did when he was the carpenter’s kid from Nazareth. Even if the words on the page are exactly the same, both the relationship of the speaker to the audience and the overall rhetorical context could not be more different. In the Book of Mormon, Jesus doesn’t have to display power through his words. Everybody knows that he has power. He is now a God telling his followers what he expects them to do.

So take a verse like 3 Ne 12:12 (Matthew 5:13):

Verily, verily, I say unto you, I give unto you to be the salt of the earth; but if the salt shall lose its savor wherewith shall the earth be salted? The salt shall be thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.

In the Sermon on the Mount, this has a very specific referent. Jesus is talking both to and about the Jews, who see themselves as a Chosen People—the “salt of the earth.” Jesus takes this formulation and hurls it back in their faces, saying that salt does not exist for its own sake, but to improve what it comes in contact with. Jews, in other words, should not consider themselves superior to other people because of their special relationship with God. That relationship means that they have a responsibility to improve their world and benefit others. As John the Baptist has already pointed out (Matt. 3:9), God can make Children of Abraham out of rocks.

The Book of Mormon context is very different. For one thing, there are no “chosen people”—everybody is an Israelite, so the Abrahamic covenant cannot be used to sort people into different piles. Furthermore, a good chunk of the population has already been trodden under the foot, not of man, but of God. When Jesus speaks these words, he is largely explaining something that has already happened, in effect telling the people present that they have passed the test and been judged good salt. And when he talks about troddening, he is not using a metaphor.

This is just one example, but they are throughout the text. When we look at the tremendous contextual differences between Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 12-14, we can’t come away with the idea that Jesus preached the exact same (or even nearly the same) sermon in the Book of Mormon that he preached to the people in Galilee. Nothing at all about these two sermons was the same except for the words. And words are only a small part of what we talk about when we talk about meaning.


  1. Love, love, love this. Thanks so much. More please! Context is so important. I had never thought of this idea of virtually identical sermons being given in drastically difference contexts, and thus a new set of meanings. What is interesting is that we read both sermons out of our own cultural, religious, racial, and political contexts as well.

  2. I don’t think it will matter much for your point that the Israel-Bountiful contexts were very different, but the time between the destruction where the Nephites and Lamanites lived and the appearance of Christ to them was almost a year. 3 Nephi 8:5 says “there arose a great storm” “in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month,” then we are informed that “in the ending of the thirty and fourth year … soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them” in 3 Nephi 10:18. The people DID hear a voice in the darkness toward the end of the three days of destruction, so obviously you are correct that nobody has to wonder about his power and authority when they hear another voice several months later (I wonder what sorts of discussions were going on as they cleaned up the terrible mess in the intervening time – 3 Nephi 11:1-2 needs a lot more detail). Though Jesus did descend out of heaven and was wearing white, there’s also no indication that he was glowing in the dark. It seems like the first visitation occurs during the day. Again, I’m not sure that it matters much, but I always feel compelled to note that the artistic portrayals of the scene that influence OUR context so much may or may not be accurate.

  3. Villate is right. There are “automatically converted” people, but survivors who may be picking up where they left off before the destruction. It can’t be assumed that only the wicked were killed, nor only the righteous spared. It also can’t be assumed that everyone who was left heard Jesus. Even when word was sent out so as many as could come (who would come) could be there, it wouldn’t have been from very far with the highway system broken up the year before.

    So we sill have salt which could have lost its savour, Nephites who still think they are the “chosen people” (especially if they survived while others “less worthy” did not), and a people still trying to recover from an apocalypse. The circumstances may be different from Israel, but these aren’t wasted words.

  4. anitawells says:

    Have you read Jack Welch’s book about this? Putting the Nephite version into the temple context yield some fascinating insights as well.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    Great point Villate. I think our art often undermines our reading of scripture more than it helps. Especially for more casual readers.

    I’d add that if one buys a limited geographic view that there would still be believers vs. unbelievers. Perhaps the main trading partners are all converted but there would still be in-group and out-group divisions. The big difference to Palestine is that in Palestine you’re in Roman occupied Israel. Further even among the Jews you are starting to have a schism within the chosen people. It’s that Jewish schism that’s more missing along with the occupation.

  6. Good stuff again, Michael. But it makes me wonder. If the contexts are so dramatically different, why the same words? Something doesn’t fit here.

    Also, “troddening”? I think the word you’re looking for is “treading.”

  7. As Anita points out, the temple context does actually add meaning — both to the Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount. In addition to the LDS-oriented book edited by John W. Welch that she linked, see also John W. Welch’s book written for a general audience called The Sermon on the Mount in the Light of the Temple (London, Routledge: 2009).

  8. I haven’t read either of those books by Welch, but the idea of it being in the context of the temple makes sense. “Yet have heard that it has been said by them of old time” has to be referring to the old temple law and tradition, doesn’t it?

  9. *Ye

  10. Any chance you can hurry up and post something for the next two or three lessons really quick? We’ve combined several and now we’re two weeks ahead of you, and I am missing having these great posts to think about when I prepare my lesson!

  11. He didn’t trash the country just a few days ago. It had been a year….

    3 Ne 8:5 – “And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the FIRST month, on the FOURTH day…..”
    3 Ne 10:18 – “And it came to pass that in the ENDING of the thirty and fourth year, behold, I will show unto you that …. soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them”.

    Apparently “soon after” is about a full year. There has been substantial time between the destruction and the visit of Christ. Perhaps the reason 3 Ne 11 starts with people marveling at the changes is because they were pilgrims arriving for a holy feast or something to that effect, meaning that even though a year has passed, they are seeing it for the first time.

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