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Note of the Day – February 1 (Beatitudes)

This second note on the Beatitudes will look at the form and significance of the Beatitude.

The Beatitudes (from Lat. beatus, beatitudo, “blessed, blessedness”) of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5:3-12; Lk 6:20-23) follow a specific two-part structure:

  1. An initial declaration, beginning with the plural adjective maka/rioi (makárioi) “happy/blessed (are the)…”
  2. A clause beginning with o%ti (hóti) “(in) that” [i.e. “for, because”], which states reason or basis for being called “happy/blessed”

A more common form begins makar(io$) o%sti$… “happy/blessed (is) the (one) who…”

From a form-critical standpoint, the beatitude (or “macarism”, from the Greek makar[io$]) is a specific literary genre, sometimes referred to under a wider type called “ascription”. It is attested throughout the Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world, serving as a vehicle for instruction and exhortation in a short, memorable line.

The Greek word ma/kar (mákar) has the primary meaning of “happiness, bliss”, with the adjective maka/rio$ (makários) “happy, blessed”. The adjective o&lbio$ (ólbios) is essentially synonymous with maka/rio$ and appears frequently in Beatitudes. Other related words are eu)tuxh/$ (eutych¢s, “hit by good [fortune]”) and eu)dai/mwn (eudaímœn, lit. “[having] a good daimon” [i.e. “fortunate”]). For a discussion of all these terms, including their earliest usage, etc, cf. Cornelius de Heer, MAKAR-EUDAIMWN-OLBIOS-EUTUXHS: A Study of the Semantic Field Denoting Happiness in Ancient Greek to the End of the 5th c. B.C. (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1969).

Ma/kar/maka/rio$ referred especially to the happiness/bliss of the gods, who, being immortal, would not suffer the needs and wants of ordinary human beings; see, for example, Homer Od. 5.7:

Zeu= pa/ter h)d’ a&lloi ma/kare$ qeoi\ ai)e\n e)o/nte$
“Father Zeus and (you) other happy/blessed gods (who) are forever”

It came to be applied to human beings, particularly those who proved worthy to be like the gods (in the afterlife). This appears to be an important aspect and function of the Beatitude form in its earliest usage in the Ancient Near East. The Greek word ma/kar itself may be related to Egyptian m±r (which has a similar meaning of “happy, blessed, fortunate”); we see it in the context of the deceased person who passes the judgment of God (or the gods, e.g. Osiris) and is declared happy/blessed, worthy to enter ‘heaven’ and share in the divine life. Something of this was preserved in early Greek thought as well; cf. Hesiod Theogony ll. 954-5, Works and Days ll. 141, 170; Plato Laws 947e; Epicurus [in Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers 10.123]; Pausanias Description of Greece 7.5.3, etc.

The language of Beatitude was especially prominent in the mystery cults, where the initiate will be like the gods after death—

o&lbie kai\ makariste/, qeo\$ d’ e&sh| a)nti\ brotoi=o
“Happy and blessed, a god you will be in place of a mortal”
Inscriptiones Graecae 2 XIV, 641, 1 = DK 1 B 18 (& Zuntz A.1, line 8)
(from the Thurii gold leaves c. 4th cent. B.C. [Orphic mysteries?])

but this status is declared already in the present (what we might call “realized eschatology”)—

“Happy [o&lbio$] is (he) who of men upon earth have seen these (mysteries)…”
(Homeric) Hymn to Demeter line 480 [Eleusinian mysteries]

cf. also from Euripides Bacchae lines 73-75 [the Dionysian/Bacchic mysteries]:

“O happy [ma/kar], he who, (having) good fortune [eu)dai/mwn] (and) knowing (the) rituals of (the) gods,
makes holy (his) life and
brings (his) soul (into the sacred) company”

For similar language related to the mysteries of Isis and Osiris, cf. Apuleius Metamorphoses 11.16; and see especially the use of this “mystery” language in a Jewish context in Joseph and Aseneth 16.7f:

Makari/a ei@ su/  )Asene/q, o%ti a)pekalu/fqh soi ta\ a)po/rrhta tou= qeou=
“Happy are you, Aseneth, (in) that [i.e. because] the (mysteries) kept away from (humans) have been uncovered [i.e. revealed] to you…” (compare Jesus’ saying in Matthew 13:16 par.)

The Beatitude gradually entered into use in Greek philosophy and Wisdom literature, for the purpose of ethical instruction. Again, the emphasis is on becoming happy/blessed (like the gods), either in the sense of gaining (divine) wisdom or in living free from passion and care; cf. the saying of Empedocles (frag. 132 DK B 132); Epicurus (in Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Philosophers 10.139); Plato Laws 2.660e; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 10.8 [1178b].

Maka/rio$ and related forms occur in the Septuagint [LXX], usually translating Hebrew rva [pl. constr. yr@v=a^], and often in the form of a Beatitude—cf. Genesis 30:13; Psalm 1:1ff; 41:2; 106:3; 119:1-2; 127:5; 144:15 [LXX 40:2; 105:3; 118:1-2; 126:5; 143:15]; Isa 56:2; Mal 3:12, etc. It occurs frequently in Proverbs (Prov 3:13; 8:32, 34; 14:21; 16:20; 20:7; 28:14; 29:18) and elsewhere in the Wisdom Literature (Eccl 10:17; Sirach 14:20; 25:8-9; 26:1; 31:8; 34:15; 37:24; 48:11; 50:28). Especially noteworthy are the series of Beatitudes in deutero-canonical Sirach 25:7-10 and Tobit 13:15-16; and, even closer in theme and structure to Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew, that of the extra-canonical book of 2 [Slavonic] Enoch 42:6-14. There is also a sequence of Beatitudes (in Hebrew) from Qumran (4Q525, frag. 2 col. II vv. 1-4ff), which parallels those of Jesus at certain points.

In the next note I will examine the Old Testament model a bit more closely, looking especially at the archetypal Beatitude of Psalm 1.

For several references above, and occasionally throughout these notes on the Beatitudes, I am indebted to the outstanding (and encyclopedic) commentary by Hans Dieter Betz (The Sermon on the Mount, Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1995]); I will hereafter reference is as “Betz, Sermon“.

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