Not a single artist, that I have witnessed, has accurately reproduced the scene of the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain). This maybe not a big deal to most readers but, I believe, it illustrates how readers often miss fine points that are clearly in the text. Some might even come to the bible and think a contradiction occurs between “mountain” and “plain.” However, by knowing something of amphitheaters and especially those during that time and preserved until today, readers are able to reconcile both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts.
Almost everyone knows the audio effect of amplification of sound in an arena, and especially, in a stone arena. This effect was known during the time of Jesus as witnessed by the preserved amphitheaters across the Mediterranean World. A person can talk at normal volume at the base or field while someone in the top seats is able to hear them clearly, while the converse is not true. Therefore, illustrations showing Jesus on a hilltop speaking to those below Him are erroneous. Some also think it is forbidden to depict Jesus regardless whether accurately or not. That opinion may be valid, but, that topic is not the focus of this post. I want to clear up whether the discourse happened on the mountain (Matthew) or a plain (Luke), or, if both could be right.
This physical effect, I believe, may be seen by comparing the texts of Matthew and Luke. Also, the reason why different words (“mountain,” “plain”) were chosen by these authors. Matthew (5.1) records that Jesus went up on a mountain without specifying that He went to the top of it. The NIV at this point states “mountainside” as a possible explanation, or, to rightly harmonize with Luke’s account in 6.17a. Jesus probably went to the top initially according to Luke 6.12: One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God (NIV). Here, I believe, the NIV translates the Greek term “mountain” (oros in both Mt. and Lk.) as “mountainside” without warrant. Later, in 6.17a, the Greek term for descent (katabas) is used to designate going down to a suitable place where His voice could be heard: He went down with them and stood on a level place (NIV).
Could Jesus have prayed on a mountainside and then went lower to a suitable place? This idea is not likely, since, almost universally it seems, that ancient worship centers were at “high places.” Worshippers recognizing that God was in heaven, and wanting to find the closest proximity to Him, would use the highest place. Therefore, it seems best to read the accounts as Jesus praying all night at the top and then later finding a natural hollow or meadow on the mountainside. Apparently, Jesus stood at the base of this inclined plain with listeners finding higher elevations to hear His teaching.
Furthermore, the texts of Mk. 4.1 and Lk. 5.3 has Jesus getting into a boat to teach the crowds. This same physical effect of amplification was probably at play since the lowest point would have been on the surface of the water while the surrounding shore elevated. Also, in this case, the water may have aided the reflection of the sound for all the crowd to hear what He was saying.