Reviews of

The Sermon on the Mount and Spiritual Exercises

In Brill, George Branch-Trevathan, Gospels, Matthew, Nathan Charles Ridlehoover, Philosophy on October 23, 2020 at 2:54 pm

2020.10.18 | George Branch-Trevathan. The Sermon on the Mount and Spiritual Exercises: The Making of the Matthean Self. NovTSup 178. Leiden: Brill, 2020. ISBN 978-90-04-42444-9.

Review by Charles Nathan Ridlehoover, Columbia International Seminary.

George Branch-Trevathan is Assistant Professor of Religion at Thiel College, Greenville, PA. As a recent graduate of Emory University (PhD), Branch-Trevathan presents in The Sermon on the Mount and Spiritual Exercises: The Making of the Matthean Self a revised version of his doctoral dissertation. The following monograph is an ambitious project. Although Branch-Trevathan begins with a simple enough question (and incidentally ends with the same question): how do people attain rigorous moral ideals? —the answer is much more complicated.

The project is an interdisciplinary approach to the subject in which the fusion of biblical studies and moral theology works toward Branch-Trevathan’s intended conclusion. With assistance from the historian and theorist of philosophy Pierre Hadot, Branch-Trevathan sets out to describe Matthew’s ethic as idealized in the Sermon. More specifically, Branch-Trevathan states, “Matthew implies that one can becomes the self his gospel idealizes through using these sayings [the Sermon on the Mount] in transformative exercises, in which Hadot calls ‘spiritual exercises’” (pg. 45). 

In what follows, Branch-Trevathan arranges his argument in six chapters. The first chapter is an overview of the project. Branch-Trevathan introduces his research question and engages prior studies on Matthew’s ethical ideal. Readers will especially appreciate the engagement with the work of Hans Dieter Betz and his work on the role of the Sermon’s genre. The prior research also introduces the reader to Pierre Hadot. Hadot’s work has been instrumental in investigating transformative exercises in antiquity. Next, Branch-Trevathan argues that the Sermon on the Mount should be understood as a series of gnomic phrases. Gnomic phrases are similar to aphorisms or “sayings collections.” Branch-Trevathan includes a helpful chart to show his analysis of how each section of the Sermon embodies gnomic aspects. Chapter 1 turns to the definition of gnomic phrases and their distinguishing characteristics. After giving an overview of these phrases and their presence and function in the ancient world, Branch-Trevathan focuses in chapter 2 on Epicurus’ moral ideal in the Kyriai Doxai, and Epictetus’ Encheiridion, as gnomic exemplars. Branch-Trevathan uses these ancient writings and their unique characteristics among sayings collections as paradigms for understanding the contents of the Sermon on the Mount. These comparisons are featured throughout the rest of the volume with an enlightening summary in chapter 6. Chapter 3 begins the formal analysis of Matthew’s Gospel and its vision of the ideal self. Branch-Trevathan starts with the fruit/tree metaphor featured throughout the Gospel. His thesis in this chapter is that inner dispositions and intrinsic qualities are prerequisites to right conduct/actions. This discussion broadens to Branch-Trevathan’s discussion of moral duplicity. In chapter 4, Branch-Trevathan considers other evidence that informs Matthew’s moral ideal and its words/deeds theme. This chapter specifically examines Matthew 15:1–20, as well as Matthew 24–25, and the theme of hypocrisy. Again, the emphasis is on the importance of inward characteristics. Branch-Trevathan is careful to insist that Matthew is not an ethical treatise, but rather, as chapters 3 and 4 argue, Matthew weaves his ethical teaching concerning normative human existence within his narrative of Jesus and his followers. After broadly establishing a Matthean moral self, Branch-Trevathan focuses in chapter 5 on the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is consistent with Matthew’s ethical ideal, and as Branch-Trevathan will argue, forms the basis for that ideal. Branch-Trevathan proceeds through the Sermon following a broad outline (5:17–48; 6:1–18; 6:19–7:12). He concludes that the sections respectively address perfection, righteousness towards God, and one’s inner state towards possessions. Branch-Trevathan argues that the Sermon’s declaration of purpose is found in Matthew 7:24–27, concerning the wise and foolish builders. The emphasis in this conclusion is on “doing.” Branch-Trevathan sees in this ordering a perfect corollary to Hadot’s call to spiritual practices. In other words, the listener of the Sermon is given instruction to go and practice perfection and righteousness. External evidence for this claim is the ways in which the Sermon’s material is worked out throughout the rest of Matthew’s Gospel (chs. 1–4 and 8–28). As mentioned earlier, chapter 6 works out the implications of the collective argument. Here, Branch-Trevathan presents a summary of Matthew’s ethic in its ancient context (in comparison with the Kyriai Doxai and Encheiridion) and the history of self-transformation. The chapter concludes with some suggestions for further study and implications for discussion of contemporary ethics.

            Overall, the following volume is a welcome addition to a re-emerging field of study. Since the publication of Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996) over twenty years ago, very few publications have attempted to cover the same ground until recently. William Mattison’s The Sermon on the Mount and Moral Theology (2017) and Jonathan Pennington’s The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (2017) have signaled a return to placing the Sermon on the Mount at the center of discussions concerning exegetically driven moral theology. It is interesting to note that with the publications of Mattison and Pennington’s work alongside the current volume, studies in Matthew’s ethic have begun to focus on human interiority and virtue perspectives. These studies are swinging the pendulum of Matthew’s ethic away from previous volumes that concluded that the Gospel’s ethic is law driven. Alongside the emphasis of interiority in Branch-Trevathan’s work, one will find several other valuable insights. Branch-Trevathan does an excellent job acknowledging the prominence of hypocrisy and other mini-threads throughout the Gospel. Specifically, chapters 3 and 4 take the reader to the outsides of the Sermon in preparation for a thorough examination of the Sermon’s specifics. I am curious to see how other threads figure into Branch-Trevathan’s conclusions. Specifically, Matthew has mini threads about temptation, Jesus’s authority as a teacher, and covenant.

Another huge takeaway of the following study is the thorough engagement with Betz’s discussion of the Sermon’s genre. Branch-Trevathan is able to draw the gnomic aspect away from Betz’s analysis without embracing all of his idiosyncrasies. Contrary to Betz, Branch-Trevathan sees more continuity within Matthew’s Gospel between the Sermon and its context, as opposed to the Sermon as an outside interpolation. Additionally, Branch-Trevathan’s wholistic approach to the Sermon, both in its final form and place within Matthew’s Gospel, is a welcome addition to Sermon studies. 

In terms of disagreement, I will only note two problems. One is a minor observation, while the other is a question of methodology. First, it is interesting to note the prominence of “evil” language throughout Matthew. Specifically, Matthew 7:23, in connection with Matthew 5:13–16, notes that “evildoers” will be judged accordingly. The word is more accurately translated “workers of lawlessness.” This etymological acknowledgement does not mitigate against Branch-Trevathan’s conclusions, but it does recenter some of the discussion on the value of following God’s commandments. Branch-Trevathan addresses this concern in his section on Matthew 7:21–23, but the passage appears to place inner dispositions alongside law-keeping. While I do not disagree with Branch-Trevathan’s conclusions regarding the importance of inner dispositions as a source for right action, I wonder if Matthew balances the two conditions throughout his Gospel.

Second, one wonders whether both the comparisons with the Kyriai Doxai and Encheiridion and Hadot’s paradigm are necessary. The conclusion that the Sermon is paradigmatic obviously is warranted and Branch-Trevathan’s analysis makes that point. The evidence suggests that the same conclusion could have been reached with recourse to only one of the paradigms. Does Hadot’s insights help arrange the material in a manner that is significantly different than the comparisons with the Kyriai Doxai and Encheiridion? Further, in his comparison with the Kyriai Doxai and Encheiridion, Branch-Trevathan concludes that the Sermon does not have the outside corroborating evidence for its memorization and exercise. To the contrary, I would argue that the presence of Sermon teaching throughout the rest of the NT means that later writers saw the Sermon as paradigmatic and were memorizing and exercising its ethical vision. Branch-Trevathan notes the Sermon teaching throughout the rest of Matthew, but this teaching also appears in Paul, James, and Peter (also John but more implicitly). 

Notwithstanding these small critiques/questions, this book is a must for readers of Matthew. Branch-Trevathan’s comparisons are excellent and his attention to the “so what?” question is impeccable. Those who are choosing to engage in Biblical ethics will have to take this book seriously not only for its analysis of ancient ethical norms, but also its exemplary implementation of methodology.

Charles Nathan Ridlehoover
Columbia International Seminary
nathan.ridlehoover [at] ciu.edu

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