When Did Jesus Call the 12 Apostles, Minister to the Masses, and Teach the “Sermon on the Mount”?

There are at least four portions of Scripture that overlap on various details of Jesus:

  • calling the twelve apostles,
  • healing a crowd, and
  • teaching what is commonly called, “The Sermon on the Mount”[1] [2]

These four sections comprise the columns of the chart below. Each relevant element is on its own row alongside the matching elements within the other passages.

Matt. 4:24 – 7:29 Matt. 12:9-30 Mark 3:1-27 Luke  6:6-7:1
  Healed withered hand on Sabbath Healed withered hand on Sabbath Healed withered hand on Sabbath
Crowds gathered   Crowds gathered  
Went on mountain   Went on mountain, called 12 apostles Went on mountain, called 12 apostles
  Crowds gathered Crowds gathered (again) Crowds gathered
Taught “Sermon on the Mount”     Taught “Sermon on the Mount”
  Controversy with Jews: “house divided” Controversy with Jews: “house divided”  

Studying this chart reveals the following general sequence of events as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

  1. Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath.
  2. After crowds gathered, Jesus ascended a mountain and appointed 12 apostles.
  3. Crowds gathered (again) around Jesus, where He taught the, “Sermon on the Mount,” and responded to antagonistic Jews, saying things like, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

At the end of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on a Sabbath, Matthew writes, “He [Jesus] withdrew from there…” (12:15), and goes on to describe the crowds gathering and the Jews antagonizing Him as events that happen afterwards.  Similarly, Mark ends the story of the healing of the withered hand by saying, “But Jesus withdrew with His disciples,” (Mark 3:7).  He also goes on to say that crowds gathered, Jesus appointed the twelve apostles, and the Jews antagonized Him after the story of the withered hand.  And though Luke does not include time identifiers after the withered hand story, he also follows the same pattern in writing about the other stories after the withered hand was healed.  Thus, it seems safe to mark the healing of the withered hand as happening before the other events.

However, Jesus ascending the mountain, Jesus calling the twelve apostles, and various episodes related to the gathered crowds do not have the same certainty regarding their sequence.  In fact, Mark states clearly that the crowds gathered at multiple times (before and after Jesus ascended the mountain, cf. Mark 3:7, 20).  Similarly, it is very possible that Jesus would have ascended the mountain multiple times, and even that He could have repeated the same teachings multiple times (if there were different people in attendance, for instance).  Thus, we must be content to say that the fluidity of these other events makes it impossible to know exactly what chronological sequence was followed in the stories recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Instead, we can simply say that at around the same time period, Jesus had crowds gather, healed and delivered many, taught the, “Sermon on the Mount,” (and similar teachings), ascended a mountain, and called the twelve apostles to follow Him. 

Recognizing these caveats, we tentatively order these events as:

  1. Crowds gathered around Jesus, and He healed and delivered many.
  2. Jesus withdrew to the mountain, where He called the twelve apostles to follow Him (perhaps the pressing demands of the moment catalyzed this, at least from a natural standpoint).
  3. Jesus and the newly appointed apostles went into a house (Mk. 3:19).
  4. The crowd started gathering again, so Jesus and the apostles went to a level place that was still up on the mountain. 
  5. From this level place on the mountain, Jesus taught the, “Sermon on the Mount.”[3]
  6. Over time (whether hours or days), the crowd would have developed and drawn the attention of antagonistic Jews who gathered to challenge Jesus on some of His teachings and practices.  This could have happened at the same place as the, “Sermon on the Mount,” or in a separate location.

As indicated above, other sequences are also very plausible.

Finally, some may object to our claiming that Matthew refers to the same time period on two separate occasions in his gospel without indicating that the time periods overlap (see chart above, and compare Matt. 4:24-7:29 with Matt. 12:9-30).  However, one author referring to the same event from multiple angles should not be seen as odd when you consider that:

  1. The gospels are filled with repeated content from different angles[, and yet have one author: God.
  2. Paul’s conversion is discussed in numerous places, even by the same author (Luke) at times (cf. Acts 9; 22; 26; Gal. 1), but very different things are emphasized in some accounts as opposed to others,
  3. More currently, three of the popular Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Supremacy [2004], The Bourne Ultimatum [2007], and The Bourne Legacy [2012]) cover overlapping time periods in their stories, and usually focus on completely different aspects in each telling.

Such examples do not show discord or prove they were talking about different events, but reveal that it is acceptable for a writer to do exactly what we submit Matthew as doing in telling the same story multiple times from different angles.

[1] It also may be that Matt. 10:1-4 overlaps these events in its description of Jesus calling the twelve apostles.

[2] This title derives from Matt. 5:1, where Jesus’ sermon contained in Matt. 5-7 is said to be preached “on a mountain,” (Mt. 5:1).

[3] I also think Jesus taught the contents of the “Sermon on the Mount” multiple times, and so do not want to place this preaching in only one location and time.

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