Parables and Rhetoric in the Sermon on the Mount: New Approaches to a Classical Text

Written by Ernst Baasland Reviewed By Gregory E. Lamb

It is a joy to read a work that is the fruit of a lifetime of study. Parables and Rhetoric in the Sermon on the Mount by Ernst Baasland is such a work. In this monograph, Baasland (retired professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology) argues that an application of the insights of parable theory opens up the way for “a new approach to the Sermon on the Mount” (p. v).

Baasland’s study has dual foci: investigating both the parables and rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount (SM) (p. v). Baasland laments that although “more than one third” of the SM consists of parables, “scholarship has too often neglected this important issue” (pp. v, 584). Baasland’s work seeks to fill this lacuna.

Baasland takes an inductive approach in writing this monograph. Chapter one surveys the history of interpretation of the SM (since Jülicher); then, in chapters two through eight, Baasland meticulously analyzes the text, saving his core argumentation for the conclusion of his book in chapter nine. This allows his readers to consider all the evidence presented to make an informed decision regarding the validity of Baasland’s thesis, which can be stated thus:

The parables and rhetoric of the Sermon on the Mount illuminate its religious and philosophical setting. The Jewish background for the Sermon is often investigated and this task is continued here, but simultaneously with more emphasis on the parallels in the (Greek) Hellenistic literature. Through the parables and rhetoric in the Sermon and its parallels in Jewish and Graeco-Roman Literature we obtain a better understanding of the philosophy of life in the Sermon…. The rhetoric of the SM wants to persuade the would-be disciple to move in a certain direction. The extensive use of parables demonstrates that the SM seeks to shape the follower’s lifestyle according to a profound wisdom [i.e., a lifestyle reflecting superabundant generosity]. (pp. v, 490, 630)

It is helpful to understand Baasland’s a priori assumptions in approaching the text of the SM. Baasland assumes that both the SM and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain share common sources in Mark, the hypothetical “Q” document, and a certain Vorlage consisting “most likely” of a deliberative speech within Q, which Baasland labels the “Inaugural Speech” (pp. 36–37, 594, 598). Baasland is also influenced by Kennedy’s rhetorical work on the SM (George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1984]), and he follows Kennedy’s conclusion that the species of rhetoric employed in the SM is deliberative, rather than judicial or epideictic (pp. 32, 599). Baasland’s rhetorical outline of the SM is as follows: Exordium (5:3–12); Propositio (5:13–20 or 5:12–20); Argumentatio I (5:21–48); Argumentatio II (6:1–18); Argumentatio III (6:19–34); Argumentatio IV (7:1–12); and Peroratio (7:13–27).

There is much to commend in Baasland’s work. It is meticulously detailed (perhaps too much so as the fourth chapter alone has 850 footnotes), exudes erudition acquired over a lifetime of scholarly inquiry on the topics at hand, and the comprehensive treatment of each passage (including the surveys of the various schools of interpretation) is worth the price of this book.

As good as Baasland’s work is, it is not without faults. First, the book is not accessible (neither in its content or price) to non-specialists. Baasland’s assumption of his readers’ fluency in German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Coptic, and Aramaic makes for a steep climb up the SM. Second, and more systemic, is the fact that Baasland tends to contradict himself at different points. Regarding his structural outline (p. 33) Baasland initially claims that Matt 5:12 is part of the exordium, but later apparently changes his mind and labels it as part of his propositio (p. 599). Baasland is also imprecise and inconsistent in his claim regarding the amount of parabolic material in the SM. He initially claims that “more than one third” of the SM consists of parables (p. v), then later changes this language to “about one third consists of metaphorical sayings” (p. 584). This is important because Baasland seems to distinguish between “parables” and “metaphorical sayings” as do other parables scholars (pp. 4–5, 13–17). Baasland’s work would have been improved had he attempted to clearly define what he means by the term “parable.” Third, Baasland’s classification of the SM as deliberative rhetoric and his rhetorical outline remain unconvincing. Baasland concedes that there is evidence of judicial and epideictic rhetoric throughout the SM (p. 599). Perhaps it is best to see the SM as “Christian rhetoric” in which Matthew/Jesus employed rhetorical devices in innovative ways to best communicate the Christian message, rather than following a strict, formulaic outline.

In sum, Parables and Rhetoric reveals the complexity in contemporary approaches to the SM and the parables of Jesus. While some of Baasland’s conclusions are unconvincing, he does succeed in demonstrating that the parables and rhetoric employed in the SM “illuminate its religious and philosophical setting” (p. v). Despite the steep climb and price, Baasland’s work demands a hearing from serious students of the SM.

Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory E. Lamb
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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