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Note of the Day: The Beatitudes

(This Note was intended to be posted earlier in the month of February)

The Beatitudes of Jesus, which occur at the very beginning of both the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) and the parallel ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (Luke 6:17-49), must surely be regarded as one of the most famous (and extraordinary) portions in the entire New Testament. The contexts of the two accounts are similar, but different enough to lead more traditional-conservative commentators at least to regard them as separate sermons, preached on different occasions. Critical scholars, on the other hand, generally view them as two versions the same basic sermon (or collection of sayings), derived from a traditional source common to both Matthew and Luke (so-called “Q”, Quelle, source). On the whole, I find this latter view more likely. But, if so, then either Luke reduced the material considerably, or Matthew expanded it (most of Luke 6:27-49 can be found in Matthew as well); or, perhaps both took place. Part of the inspired, creative process in composing the Gospels involved incorporating authentic traditions and sayings of Jesus into an original arrangement, within a specific narrative framework. That details occasionally differ are not necessarily indications of ‘errors’, nor do they always need to ‘harmonized’—in most instances they are literary, not historical, differences.

Consider, in particular, the so-called Beatitudes (beatus, beatitudo, “blessed, blessedness”), or, more properly, Macarisms (from the Greek maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”). It is here that we find the greatest differences between the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and the ‘Sermon on the Plain’, most significantly:

  1. Luke’s account (6:20-23) is considerably shorter, containing just four beatitudes, compared to nine in Matthew (5:3-12)—Luke’s four are paralleled in the 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 9th of Matthew
  2. Luke includes a series of corresponding ‘Woes’ (6:24-26) not found in Matthew
  3. For the first two Lukan beatitudes, the parallels in Matthew have qualifying phrases—”poor in the spirit” instead of “poor”, “hunger (and thirst) for righteousness/justice” instead of “hungry”

I wish to focus on this third aspect, especially as it relates to the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). Some scholars have thought that Matthew modified the ‘original’ saying (preserved in Luke), softening or ‘spiritualizing’ a harsher statement. If Matthew indeed modified the saying, it was more likely for the purpose of clarifying and providing deeper insight into the meaning of the terse statement. A comparison (points of difference italicized):

Luke:      Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/, o%ti u(mete/ra e)sti/n h( basilei/a tou= qeou=
“Happy the poor (ones), that yours is the kingdom of God
Matthew:  Maka/rioi oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati, o%ti au)tw=n e)stin h( basilei/a tw=n ou)ranw=n
“Happy the poor (ones) in the spirit, that theirs is the kingdom of the Heavens
[1. I have left “spirit” in lower case for the moment; 2. o%ti introduces a reason/purpose clause, conventionally translated “for, because”]

It should be noted here in passing that, while the text of the Beatitudes (in both Matthew and Luke) is fairly certain (there are few substantive variants), it abounds with difficulties of interpretation. The following questions can be raised:

  1. The “poor” (oi( ptwxoi)—what sort of poverty is meant: physical, material, spiritual, or some combination? and in precisely what sense?
  2. Does “spirit” (pneuma) refer to: physical life, the spirit (spiritual component) of a human being, or the (Holy) Spirit of God?
  3. Is the dative case (tw=| pneu/mati) instrumental (“by the spirit”) or locative/referential (“in the spirit”)?
  4. How seriously should we take the differences between Matthew and Luke—how, indeed, should we understand them?

I offer the following brief comments for consideration:

1. The Poor—What sort of Poverty?

In the case of Luke, especially in the context of the four beatitudes together (“poor, hungering, weeping”), along with the Woes (ou)ai\ u(mi=n toi=$ plousi/oi$, “woe to you the rich [ones]!”), it is hard to avoid the conclusion that here Jesus is speaking of real physical and material poverty. Certainly, throughout the Gospel, Luke gives special emphasis to the poor and outcast. This can be seen already in the Infancy narratives—especially the canticles—with strong parallels to the so-called ±an¹wîm piety of late pre-Christian Judaism and early Jewish Christianity: God looks upon the poor and humble, rescuing them and lifting them up from oppression and suffering. The same theme runs through many of Jesus’ most famous parables (10:25-37; 15; 16:19-31; 18:1-14, etc). However, before continuing, it is necessary to address the second and third questions.

2. The “Spirit”

The phrase in Matthew (oi( ptwxoi/ tw=| pneu/mati) is difficult; it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, and this occurrence is virtually unique in the Greek language. The term pneu=ma more literally and concretely would be translated “breath, wind” so here it could simply be another way of referring to physical poverty (we might say, “short/faint of breath”), which would accord well with the context in Luke. There are also Old Testament and other Semitic parallels—jwr rxq, vpn rxq (“short of breath” or “short in soul/spirit”) that may relate. However a more direct Greek parallel is oi( tapeinoi\ tw=| pneu/mati, “the (ones) low/humble in the spirit” (see the LXX Psalm 33:19), which conveys a different sense (referring to the human soul/spirit), and that has a parallel in the Qumran texts jwr ywnu (1 QM 14.7; 1 QH 5.21-22, etc) which almost exactly matches the expression in Matthew. The phrase, then, most likely reflects a certain humility—a humble nature, recognizing one’s own weakness and mortality, faithfully and patiently enduring whatever hardship or suffering might come to pass.

3. “In” or “by” the “Spirit”

Given the likely reference to the human “spirit”, an instrumental sense for the dative is not likely. A locative or referential sense of “in the spirit” is better, locating the center of the poverty in a person’s own spirit or soul. But this is not so much a matter of anthropology (the nature of man as a created being) as it is of psychology (how one understands his/her created nature in relation to God). Is the poverty voluntary, or is it, like most instances of material poverty, the product of external conditions forced upon a person? Given the original setting of the Beatitude form (a pronouncement set at the last judgment), and the ethical context of Jesus’ teaching to his followers, the poverty should be understood primarily as voluntary, though often involving a willing response to conditions around us. The words of John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel (3:30) come to mind e)kei=non dei= au)ca/nein, e)me\ de\ e)lattou=sqai (“it is necessary for that one [i.e. Jesus] to grow, but for me to become less”); or Jesus’ own prayer to the Father on the eve of his death ou) ti/ e)gw\ qe/lw a)lla\ ti/ su/ (“not what I wish, but what you [wish]”; Mark 14:36 par.).

4. The Differences between Matthew and Luke

So what of the differences between the two forms of the Beatitude? One ought not gloss over them, or rush to harmonize in a facile manner, in order to avoid possible discrepancies. Rather each form should be studied carefully and prayerfully, with the understanding that they both stem from authentic sayings of Jesus. And, if one studies Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels, several clear facts emerge: (a) those who follow Christ faithfully will live modestly, without attachment to worldly possessions, and they are also likely to live in some form of poverty due to oppression or persecution; (b) we are called to follow like children, in innocence and humility, avoiding evil (both purity and poverty are a kind of “emptiness”); (c) our real poverty stems from our relationship to God, according to Christ’s own incarnate example (2 Cor 8:9; Phil 2:1-11). Both forms of the beatitude surely can be read in this light.

For an outstanding critical treatment of the entire Sermon on the Mount (and the Beatitudes), see especially Hans-Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (translated in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press, 1995), which includes many useful Classical parallels and references.

The Greek word maka/rio$ (from ma/kar), “happy, blessed”, may derive from the Egyptian m±r. The Beatitude form is attested early in Egypt and came to be widespread, particularly in Ancient Near Eastern Wisdom literature (including the OT, see Psalm 1), as well as in the Greco-Roman world, and both Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism (Qumran). Originally, the Beatitude had a ritual setting—a declaration of the “blessed” state of the worthy deceased person in the Judgment. For the initiate in ancient “mystery” religions, this eschatological sense was transferred toward the present, along with a promise of future blessedness. Gradually, within Greco-Roman philosophy and Jewish teaching both, Beatitudes came to serve more as a teaching tool—an exhortation to wisdom and ethics.

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