Did the Gospel Writers Make a Mistake?

Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.

– Eusebius Jerome

Possibly the most beautiful, serene place in all of the Galilee is the Mount of Beatitudes (or Mount Eremos in Greek, meaning “solitary” or “uninhabited”).

Rising some 300 feet above the Sea of Galilee, this hill on the Galilee’s northwestern shore between Capernaum and Gennesaret commands a stunning view of the sea and the surrounding area.

It is believed to be the place where Jesus chose twelve disciples to be named apostles and where he delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount.

The question is: who was the audience of his sermon?

Who heard the Sermon on the Mount?

The reason for this question is that Matthew 5:1 seems to contradict Matthew 7:28–29.

Note the italicized words:

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to teach, saying…  (Matthew 5:1ff, emphasis mine)

Matthew closes the pericope this way:

When Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28–29, emphasis mine)

So which was it? Matthew 7 indicates multitudes, but Matthew 5 just the twelve.

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It gets even more complicated when you read Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Luke says that just before Jesus gave this sermon he had been praying on a mountain and

. . . came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. (Luke 6:17–18)

Up or down? On top of the mountain or at the base of it? In front of thousands or twelve?

Could Matthew or Luke (or both) have made errors?

Clues from topography

Some commentators say these passages are referencing the same event1 while others note they could be two similar sermons preached at different times.2

Perhaps Jesus spoke his sermon from the top of a mountain once, and on another occasion, from a “level place” somewhere on that same mountain.

But rather than trying to decide when and where and how many times, I’d like to explore the topography on and around this hillside and how thousands of people could have heard what Jesus was saying without a microphone and amplifier—whether he said it once, twice, or ten times.

In the entire Galilee area, the slope of the Mount of Beatitudes is the one place with perfect acoustic conditions for such an event.

The slope forms a natural bowl-shaped amphitheater, similar to a Roman theater.

Looking down the Mount of Beatitudes toward the Sea of Galilee

But there’s another unique phenomenon to consider.

In a previous post, I talked about the Via Maris highway (the Way of the Sea in Isaiah 9:1) at the base of the cliffs of Mount Arbel, which formed what is known today as the Valley of the Doves (or Valley of the Wind). This valley runs east to west and leads to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Via Maris runs below the cliffs of Mount Arbel, creating a valley that
naturally funnels wind into the Galilee area.

From this valley, air from the Mediterranean blows toward the Sea of Galilee and, combined with other topographical features of the area, can result in storms that arise quickly on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35–41).

But a breeze from the Mediterranean coming through this valley could also have served as a natural amplifier for Jesus’ voice.

The Church of the Beatitudes on top of the mount was built on the traditional site of Jesus’ delivery of the Sermon on the Mount. The natural acoustics formed from the sea and surrounding hill make this area a possible site for Jesus’ message.

Testing the acoustics

In the 1970s, archaeologist B. Cobbey Crisler and professional sound engineer Mark Miles set up equipment at a cove on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to test this phenomenon.

They investigated the natural terrain and whether it acted like an auditorium with Jesus at the “stage” (in their study, a boat in the Galilee) and the crowd in the “seats” (the slopes).

It did. 

But Crisler and Miles unexpectedly found that the reverse also occurred: speech from the “seats” was clearly heard at the “stage.” 3

Natural amphitheaters, it turns out, exist all along the shores of the Sea of Galilee—and Jesus used them as “public address systems” to teach the crowds.4

It’s possible the crowds stood below Jesus as he taught from atop the hill.

It’s also possible Jesus stood on a “level place” at the bottom of the mount with the crowds listening from above.

But the crowds could have heard Jesus teaching from a boat as they listened from the shores of the Galilee, too:

So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. (Luke 5:1–3)

The Galilee terrain was perfectly fashioned for throngs of people to hear Jesus’ message from any of these locales—long before sound systems were an option.

It was the perfect place for Jesus to preach the most important sermon of all time.

No wonder Jerome referred to the land of Israel as the fifth Gospel.

***

Read more about natural amphitheaters along the Sea of Galilee in the award-winning Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels.

Karen Engle received her MA in Biblical Studies and Theology from Western Seminary. She is an editor for Faithlife and regularly takes groups to Israel.

  1. Clarke’s Commentary: Luke. Wesleyan Heritage Publications, 1998,
  2. Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Luke. Eerdmans, 2015. (See 1 Peter 3:14, 4:14; Barn 19:4; 1 Clem 13:3; Polycarp Phil.2:3; Did 3:7; Gos Thom 54, 68, 69; Clement of Alexandria, Protr. 10:94.4)
  3. Beitzel, Barry. Lexham Commentary on the Gospels. Lexham Press, 2018. (See the full article: “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine.” The Biblical Archaeologist, 1976: 128–141. Read online at  http://doi.org/10.2307/3209424. Accessed 4 February 2019.)
  4. Ibid.

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