Twenty-one years ago, I wrote a paper entitled “Identification of the Bethany Youth in the Secret Gospel of Mark with Other Figures Found in Mark and John.” It was published in the now defunct The Journal of Higher Criticism (Spring 1998) and is still available online at https://depts.drew.edu/jhc/fowler.html.
I have since rethought some of the points I made in that paper and have thought about rewriting it. Not having done so, I will say that my current thinking can best be understood by putting “Bethany Youth” into the context of Professor Scott G. Brown’s Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery, Toronto: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2005. What Brown has to say improves greatly on my own inchoate thoughts in my earlier paper, and it shows where I went wrong or at least where I emphasized notions that might not be correct or at least not accurate.
This post is based on my scholarly work from nearly two decades ago, and it is going to get into the tall weeds in terms, for example, of picky linguistic analysis. That is unfortunate because the virtue of this paper, if I may say so myself, is that it makes a simple point about the meaning of Jesus's saying about a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). The reader might want to skip some of the linguistic analysis. This paper was written when I was studying New Testament criticism, and if you are a normal person, it is safe to say that I have forgotten more about New Testament text criticism and the Greek and Coptic languages than you will ever know, and you may well be better off than I am because of it. This raises the likelihood that some people who do know something about Greek or Coptic or the New Testament might question my critical assertions or my translations and transliterations. I regret that some questions or criticisms might well be beyond my current ability to respond. Suffice it to say that translation between languages is as much an art as a science. Often, two or three translations of a foreign language text will be equally respectable without being the same. (See this as an example.)
As to any theological implications of this paper, I can only say "despair all who enter here" if piety is what you are looking for. I am all over the place in terms of how I regard Jesus, but I never focus on his divinity. This paper was originally published in a journal that was run by what Professor Bart Ehrman calls "mythicists" who believe that Jesus was not even a historical person. The observant reader will notice that I occasionally imply in this paper that Jesus was a real person, though I don't come out and say it that way. Even this implication, if it was noticed by the editor, went against the editorial grain, but he left it in.
I have made “City on a Hill” available on my blog because, for one thing, I think that what this paper says about the rhetorical use of Jesus’s saying about “a city on a hill” has a double meaning, which we fail to grasp at our peril. The traditional meaning of the phrase is that a city on a hill is a shining example, but perhaps what Jesus meant instead (or in addition?) was to warn us that a city on a hill is also a sitting duck. The careful reader of the gospels will notice that Jesus characteristically keeps moving, declining to settle in one place as, for example, he is expected to do at Capernaum (Mark 1:35-39 and Luke 4:42-44).
Matthew 5:14 is made up of two sentences, one about “the light of the world” – which I refer to as 5:14a – and another about “a city on a hill” (or “a city sitting on top of a mountain” in the translation I use here) – which I call 5:14b. In my new title, I change the format from “Matt 5:14b” to “Matthew 5:14b,” which I simply prefer for a title. I also use “Thomas” instead of “GThom” and remove the punctuation before the verse number “32.” For those unfamiliar with the Gospel of Thomas, it has a long and interesting history. Suffice it to say that it is a “sayings gospel” or collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. It is of disputed age, although few will dispute that our only full version of the book is the result of a couple of centuries of textual accretions.
A useful book about the Gospel of Thomas is Professor April D. Deconick’s Recovering the Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth (The Library of New Testament Studies, 2006), which attempts to make an educated guess about the history of the book’s text. It is a book with mixed reliability in terms of recapturing the original sayings of Jesus because, on the one hand, it was probably based on an early first century collection of sayings attributed to Jesus – some of which closely parallel those sayings found in the canonical gospels – and yet, because it was never adopted as canonical, there was no point at which it became fixed so that further changes and additions to the text could be discouraged. It is instructive that while we have the entire text of the Gospel of Thomas in a fourth century Coptic translation, we can compare fragments of the text that were written in Greek near the start of the third century. (Coptic is the Egyptian language, formerly written in hieroglyphics but most recently written in a modified Greek alphabet; the New Testament as well as other Christian texts were translated into Coptic, and a large trove of such books – including the Gospel of Thomas – was found near Nag Hamadi, Egypt, in 1945.) In making the comparison we can see that the later text shows signs of having been tampered with. (Unless, as I think is entirely possible and even likely, the Coptic version is a faithful translation of a Greek version that existed side by side with the third-century version. In other words, the tampering may have happened at an early time so that there would have been multiple versions of the Gospel of Thomas in use by different sects at the same time by the end of the second century.)
Now, without further ado:
City on a Hill: An Interpretation of Matthew 5:14b/Thomas 32 (orig. publ. JHC, Spring 2001, pp. 68-72.)
Where aphorisms attributed to Jesus are attested in more than one of the New Testament gospels they are often used differently by each evangelist, evidently having been taken from oral – or lost written – aphorisms and put together to reflect the interpretations characteristic of each evangelist’s community. Consider, for example, Matt. 5:13-16:
13You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its zing, how will it be made salty? It then has no further use than to be thrown out and stomped on. 14You are the light of the world. A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket but on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house. 16That’s how your light is to shine in the presence of others, so they can see your good deeds and acclaim your father in the heavens.
The obvious explanation for the arrangement of most of these aphorisms is word association, some being about salt while others are about light. Salt and light are not logically connected to one another, but the first saying about salt and the first one about light follow a similar formula: “You are the salt of the earth (Greek: ge)” (5:13a), and “You are the light of the world (kosmos)” (5:14a). These two sayings are without synoptic parallels [that is, there are no closely similar verses in Mark and Luke], although the Fourth Gospel [another name for the Gospel of John] does identify Jesus, if not his followers, with light (compare John 3:21). The last verse, Matthew 5:16, is not an aphorism at all but an interpretive summary tying together the unrelated aphorisms into a semblance of coherency. Matthew’s arbitrariness in his arrangement of these aphorisms is underscored when we compare his use of them to their use by the other evangelists, who, where they know these aphorisms at all, arrange their parallel verses in different order and separate them at intervals:
Matthew 5:13a (no parallels)
5:13b (parallels at Mark 9:50 and Luke 14:34-35)
5:14a (no parallels)
5:14b (parallel at Thomas 32)
5:15 (parallels at Thomas 33:2-3, Mark 4:21, Luke 8:16, 11:33)
5:16 (no parallels)
The image of Christians setting themselves up as examples to a non-believing world is uniquely Matthew’s and sounds like an exhortation to the persecuted but evangelistic church to which the author of Matthew must have belonged. It takes a defiant, defensive, yet assertive posture. Retaining the notion of duty, but with less and less implication of persecution, Americans from John Winthrop to John F. Kennedy have used Matthew’s “city on a hill” as a metaphor for a New World community setting an example for humanity. I would suggest that the original version of this aphorism was more ambivalent than the Matthean and neo-Matthean interpretations. Compare the two versions of the aphorism that have come down to us:
Matthew 5:14b: Ou dunatai polis krubenai epano horous keimene.
A city sitting on top of a mountain can’t be concealed.
Thomas 32: Legei Iesous polis oikodomemene ep akron horous hupselou kai esterigmene oute pesein dunsatai oute krubenai.
Jesus said, “A city built on a high hill and fortified cannot fall, nor can it be hidden.”
The meaning and even the word order of the above Greek version of Thomas 32 is virtually identical to the Coptic version of Thomas 32, allowing for the considerable differences between the two languages [Greek belongs to the Indo-European family of languages while Coptic, though written in a modified Greek alphabet, is in the Semitic family], and there are many similarities between Matthew 5:14b and Thomas 32. For example, the Greek oros and the Coptic toou are both translatable as “mountain” or “hill.” While Matthew uses keimene (“set,” “sitting,” [or “lying” in the sense of covering, or standing on, a spot]), Greek Thomas uses oikodomemene (“built”), which “is supported by the Syriac version [of Matthew] and Tatian, Diatess[aron]. viii.41, which all have ‘built’ not ‘set’.”
Aside from different word choices by evangelists and translators, the most significant difference between the two versions of the aphorism is the added information in Thomas about the city being fortified and incapable of falling. Because esterigmene, used by Greek Thomas to mean “fortified,” can mean “established” or “strengthened” (as can the Coptic tajreu, as well) it is just possible that Thomas does not mean fortified in the military sense, but, rather, “fixed” and therefore unable to topple or slide down the hill. However, this too literal interpretation would make no sense of the city’s not being concealable. The implied relationship between falling and hiding [could, however] support a military interpretation.
Although Funk concludes that “[s]ince the original context has been lost, we cannot determine what it meant on the lips of Jesus,” he also notes that the sight of a city built on top of the mounds of earth and rubble of previous cities is common in the Near East. Such “tells” can tower above otherwise relatively flat terrain. An invading army would have its work cut out for it to capture such a fortress-city, and yet, such a city would also be difficult for the invader to miss. Its capture would even be a tempting challenge to the prideful conqueror. Thomas’s version of the saying, in contrast to Matthew’s, makes the aphorism a paradox: a fortress-city, protected by its position atop a great tell, is nearly impregnable to direct attack but is also a glaring target for the ambitious commander of an army with enough supplies to lay siege and make life miserable – or even impossible – for people inside the city.
My own reconstruction of the saying, based on the apparent meaning, is, “A city built on a hill and fortified is impregnable but cannot be hidden.” As formidable as the city might be, its inhabitants’ enemies always know where to find them. An army able to surround the city and prevent anyone from going in or out of it could use the mass and isolation of the city against it so that the fortress would become a prison or, worse, a death trap. The aphorism can be seen as a warning to those who set themselves up in a powerful but conspicuous and static position.
If the answer to the question of the meaning of this aphorism is made any clearer by this interpretation, the question of whether Jesus or someone else first uttered it is less clear. Thomas 32 is striking for its use of paradox, a common trait of many aphorisms attributed to Jesus, but it is also striking for its military acumen. One might expect to find something like it in Flavius Vegetius’s De re militari (Concerning Military Matters) or Sun Tzu bing fa (The Art of War) rather than among the sayings of the “Prince of Peace.” Could the origin of the aphorism have been military? There is the implication that whoever first said it had learned from experience that a direct assault almost never succeeded, but a long siege often did. In very ancient times, armies had greater difficulty in overwhelming a well-fortified city by direct attack; but long before the time of Jesus “the eastern peoples of whom we hear in the Old Testament were capable of both reducing cities by starvation and of attacking fortifications.” Short of the discovery of a parallel aphorism in an ancient text on warfare, I doubt that even someone versed in military history could throw light on the origin of this saying.
Fortunately, an exclusively military and non-metaphorical interpretation of the aphorism about a city on a hill might be unnecessary. The true problem posed by the aphorism is that there is no escape from defeat for the fortress-city, which will either be overwhelmed by a well-equipped assault-trained army or besieged and forced to surrender by a well-supplied one. The only way to win is not to set oneself up in the manner of an impregnable fortress in the first place. This message would be consistent with the stance of voluntary poverty, pacifism, and itinerancy characteristic of the earliest missionary phase of the movement identified with Jesus. It is also consistent with other aphorisms attributed to Jesus that suggest it is better not to “acquire possessions here on earth, where moths and insects eat away and where robbers break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19).
I suspect that Thomas 32 is closer to the original aphorism than Matthew 5:14b. Being a paradox, Thomas’s version is sharper and more striking than Matthew’s. Perhaps the aphorism had been shortened already by the time that Matthew heard or read it; or we might guess that, though he knew of the paradoxical version of the aphorism, the author of Matthew deleted words from it and fashioned new associations with other sayings about salt and light. These connections Mathew either invented or took from other sources or both, thereby allowing him to change the meaning of the saying about a city on a hill from a warning against settled materialism into an exhortation and compliment directed toward the loyal members of his own self-consciously Christian community.
 See Robert Funk and Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), pp. 10-13 et passim. All quotations from gospel texts used here are from Funk unless otherwise attributed.
 Matthew 5:14b and 5:15 are in much the same order as Gospel of Thomas 32, 33:2-3. Is this a coincidence, or did Matthew consult a version of the Gospel of Thomas? In any case, Matthew’s arrangement and even his use of one of these verses remains unique among the synoptic gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke].
 “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us – and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill – constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.” “Address of President-elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 9, 1961.” https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/massachusetts-general-court-19610109
 The word order of each version of Thomas 32 is similar. Greek: “Jesus said, ‘a city built on top a high hill and strengthened can’t possibly fall or be hidden’.” Coptic: “Jesus said, ‘a city built on a high hill, being strengthened, can’t possibly fall or be hidden’.” The Greek of the Matthew 5:14b, in contrast to Thomas 32, is closer to “(One) cannot possibly hide a city set on a hill.”
 Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, Sayings of Our Lord, Egypt Exploration Fund (London: Henry Frowde, 1897), p. 15. The Coptic kot also means “built.” See Richard Smith, compiler, A Concise Coptic-English Lexicon (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 16. [Grenfell and Hunt discovered Greek fragments of what turned out to be the Gospel of Thomas in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century, though exactly what those were fragments of did not emerge until more than four decades later when the Nag Hamadi find revealed a full text of the Gospel of Thomas. The Diatessaron was a second-century harmony of the four canonical gospels edited by Tatian and written in the Syriac language, which is closely related to Aramaic.]
 Smith, pp. 49-50.
 Grenfell and Hunt use the archaic word “stablished,” while Fitzmyer has “made fast.” See J.A. Fitzmyer, “The Greek Gospel of Thomas: Papyrus Oxyrhyncus 1” [In my original paper, I cited a now defunct website] Based on Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Oxyrhynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel of Thomas,” Theological Studies, 20, 1959, pp. 505-560.
 Funk, p. 492.
 John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), p. 17.