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Reading the Sermon on the Mount

Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5–7

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"In this gem, veteran New Testament scholar Charles H. Talbert brings his expertise and maturity to [the Sermon on the Mount]. The result is one of the most helpful volumes on the Sermon one is likely to find anywhere."--Donald A. Hagner, Interpretation

"Turn the other cheek"; "Love your enemies"; "Pray in secret"; "Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth"; "Do not worry." These are just a few of the famous dictums found in the Sermon on the Mount. But what is the primary purpose of the Sermon?

Most interpretations treat the Sermon as an ethical text--concerned about the way Christians behave. Charles Talbert, however, argues that it is more concerned with character formation and ethical decision making. He argues that it is a text about covenant fidelity to God and to other humans, in which Jesus seeks to affect perceptions, dispositions, and intentions.

Talbert sets the stage for his reading of the Sermon by investigating Matthew's relation to Judaism and exploring the composition of the audience that received Jesus's charge. He also takes into account the order of Jesus's discourse, the distinction between character formation and decision making, and the question of whether or not the Jesus who speaks in the Sermon is a legalist.

In the commentary proper, Talbert attends to six large units of thought in Matthew 5-7. Section by section, he analyzes form and content, comparing Jesus's directives with similar statements in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. The result is a superb commentary on the Sermon that will be of value to anyone studying this core passage of Scripture.  


"Reading the Sermon on the Mount is vintage Talbert: lucid, logical, with mastery of the commentary tradition and intimate knowledge of primary sources. The author's emphasis on the Sermon's role in the formation of character is a most welcome gift to specialists and general readers alike."--C. Clifton Black, Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

"Charles H. Talbert's expertise regarding the relevant ancient sources, whether Greco-Roman or Jewish, is matched by his thorough familiarity with recent critical study of the Sermon on the Mount. He is also theologically sensitive and hermeneutically sophisticated. The result is a lucid and sure guide to the minefield that is the Sermon on the Mount."--Dale C. Allison Jr., Errett M. Grable Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Early Christianity, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

"Charles H. Talbert has made a wonderful contribution to the study of the New Testament and ethics. He writes with his characteristic decisiveness and clarity and brightly illumines the Sermon on the Mount from his deep grasp of the pertinent Greco-Roman and Jewish sources, the entire New Testament, and vintage scholarly literature."--Robert J. Karris, The Franciscan Institute, St. Bonaventure University

The Author

  1. Charles H. Talbert

    Charles H. Talbert

    Charles H. Talbert (1934-2021; PhD, Vanderbilt University) was distinguished professor of religion emeritus at Baylor University. He wrote many books, including Ephesians and Colossians in the Paideia series, Reading the Sermon on the Mount,...

    Continue reading about Charles H. Talbert


"Despite its broad popularity, the Sermon on the Mount is often poorly understood when one begins to consider concrete practicalities--and, of course, that is what the Sermon is ultimately all about. What does this remarkable ethical instruction really mean in everyday practice? In this gem, veteran New Testament scholar Charles H. Talbert brings his expertise and maturity to this material. The result is one of the most helpful volumes on the Sermon one is likely to find anywhere."--Donald A. Hagner, Interpretation

"This is a book that takes the text of Matthew 5-7 seriously; that takes Christ in the text seriously; that takes Matthew himself seriously as a narrative theologian; that takes life in the kingdom of heaven seriously. . . . Talbert's book will be a great help to those who pay attention to the text, in its context, with Christ at the center (as well as the acme or the apex) of the text and life in heaven's kingdom as the existential (experimental/experiential) outcome. . . . Reading this book will be dangerous. You will even have to think about the alteration and transformation Jesus is bringing into history. And, if you are a preacher, you will have to change the way you preach the [Sermon on the Mount]--all this so that you and your congregation will live out the [Sermon] in the church and in the world. . . . Talbert takes us through each of the six units of the Sermon. It is this feature which makes the book worth the price. His outlines of structure and delimited units/subunits are superb and stimulating. Pastors and students of the [Sermon on the Mount] will appreciate this break-down of preaching/teaching units."--James T. Dennison Jr., Kerux

"A very important and suggestive study."--Fred W. Burnett, Religious Studies Review

"[Talbert] gives many beneficial insights into the text of Matthew. Several critical issues for interpreting the Sermon on the Mount are engaged."--David H. Wenkel, Christian Library Journal

"Talbert's volume presents a good mixture of scholarly analysis and practical application and will prove useful in multiple teaching environs."--Michael Bird, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Booklist

"Talbert illumines the Sermon by extensive references to Greco-Roman and Jewish sources. He concludes the study by giving a helpful two-page overview of the Sermon's more than a dozen challenges. . . . This book is a welcome and unique addition to the plethora of studies on the Sermon on the Mount."--Roy B. Zuck, Bibliotheca Sacra

"Perhaps the genius of this work is that the author consistently interpreted Jesus' intention in the Sermon to be the exposure of His disciples to the necessary ingredients of godly character and to prepare them for being moral agents conscious of God's original intention in much of the moral law of the Old Testament. . . . This is a plausible key for understanding the whole Sermon on the Mount."--William E. Goff, Southwestern Journal of Theology

"Much exegetical detail is presented, and the author interacts with commentaries and international scholarship. . . . Recommended."--International Review of Biblical Studies

"The value of [Talbert's] approach is especially seen in the application of the ethically difficult passages in the Sermon like turning the other cheek and lending to anyone who makes a request to borrow from one. One of the strengths of this volume is that it deals directly with Matthew's text as an authoritative source of teaching for Christians today. . . . Another important strength of the book is Talbert's excellent grasp of the literature of Jews, pagans, and Christians just before and after the beginning of the Common Era and his skillful presentations of parallels in these writings to the words and ideas of the Sermon on the Mount. . . . Talbert's basic approach to the ethics of the Sermon is sound. The Christian reader will often find himself or herself searching the heart and reflecting on how the teachings of the Sermon ought to be applied in character, thinking, and living. Most of Talbert's conclusions ring true. . . . [This volume] has great value in personal Christian character-building and understanding of the meaning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Preachers will find the book helpful in preparing sermons and lessons."--Donn Leach, Stone-Campbell Journal

"Without dispute, Talbert's work is an important entry to the study of ethics and the New Testament. It is well structured and . . . a well-written work. Talbert has put up a strong case for seeing a link among the various thought units by looking beyond their apparent meanings for the divinely-enabled higher righteousness. . . . The number of ancient sources referred to in this book is impressive. . . . These ancient sources, ranging from the Old Testament Apocrypha to the later rabbinic materials, provide critical background information to fuel the discussion and often clarify the meaning of words and phrases that otherwise may be obscure to modern readers. . . . Talbert's contribution to ethical and biblical studies is definitely welcome and enlightening. . . . Any student of the Sermon and the Gospel will definitely learn from it."--Francis Pang, Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism