Question: Matthew 5:1-2 begins the account of Jesus’ sermon "On The Mount," but the account in Luke 6:17, 20 seems to place same the event “in the plain.” Why?
Both Matthew and Luke refer to the same event. The confusion over whether Jesus’ famous teaching took place on a mountain or in the plain comes from the translation process, not from the original language.
The phrase translated into English as “into the mountain” (KJV) or “on the mountainside” (NIV) is the Greek phrase “eis tau oros.” The term does not imply that Jesus climbed a specific mountain, followed by his disciples and the crowd of thousands. “Oros” can mean “mountain,” or it can mean “hilly area,” “mountain region,” etc. The exact same phrasing (tau oros) is found in Matthew 14:23, 24:16, and is alternately translated as “mountainside” or “the mountains” (i.e., hill country), depending on the context.
The context helps place the meaning accurately. Chapter 4 locates Jesus in the town of Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee (4:13). There Jesus selected his first inner circle of disciples (4:18-22). Using Capernaum as a launch point, Jesus and his disciples travelled throughout Galilee spreading the news of the coming Kingdom of God, accompanied by miraculous healings and spiritual deliverance (4:323-25). This drew large crowds from well beyond Galilee who followed him wherever he went (4:25).
Thousands of people packing the streets and camping out as Jesus moved from town to town and synagogue to synagogue (4:23) created a major difficulty. So Jesus left Capernaum and the heavily populated towns and relocated his base of ministry to the hill country west of the Sea of Galilee. And, as Jesus expected, the crowds followed him there as well.
When we view the same scene through the Gospel of Luke, a few more details emerge that help clarify the picture. According to Luke, once Jesus had relocated to the hilly region on the other side of the lake, he continued to travel each Sabbath to the synagogues to teach (Lk. 16:1-9). After returning from one such outing, Jesus returned to their encampment in the hills, and left the crowd to spend a night alone in prayer (16:12). The next morning he rejoined the crowd, picked out several of them to join him separately, and from that number officially appointed his core group of 12 disciples (13-15).
Jesus then “went down with them and stood on a level place” (NIV). There he began to teach what we now call “The Sermon On The Mount.” Jesus was still located in the hill country with the crowd, but he found a level spot from which to teach.
The King James Version translates the Greek word “pedinos” (i.e., “level place”) as “plain,” giving modern readers the image of a wide prairie of the Old West. All that the word really conveys in the original language is a relatively flat spot compared to the surrounding area.
Once again, a little study in biblical context and word usage clears up confusion and apparent contradiction. As the Scripture testifies of itself:
Ps. 12:6 And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.