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Wisdom Literature

Women in the Church: Part 8 – The Old Testament

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Having examined most of the relevant passages in the New Testament, it is now time to look at some of the Old Testament references which can be said to be related, in some way, to our subject. I offer here only a brief survey, to which doubtless numerous other passages and comments might be added. Emphasis is given especially to those sections or examples which were influential on Jewish and early Christian thought, and which may inform the view of women in the New Testament.

The Creation Account (Genesis 1-3)

The Creation narratives in Genesis are, as one might expect, fundamental to Jewish and early Christian views on the role of women and gender relations. There are three steps, or stages, in the overall Creation account, corresponding to each of the first three chapters:

  • 1:1-2:4a—The summary of Creation, the relevant portion being the declaration in vv. 26-27:
    “Let us make (hu)mankind [<d*a*] in our image [<l#x#], according to our likeness [tWmD=]…
    And God created the (hu)man (being) in His image, in the image of God He created him—male and female He created them.”
  • 2:4b-25—The Creation of Man and Woman:
    (i) Creation of the man [<d*a*] (vv. 5-17)
    (ii) Creation of the woman (vv. 18-22)
    (iii) Relationship between man [vya!] and woman [hV*a!] (vv. 23-25)
  • Chap. 3—The rise of the current Human Condition:
    (i) Deception of the woman and man by the serpent (vv. 1-13)
    (ii) God’s curse/punishment on Creation: (a) the serpent (vv. 14-15), (b) the woman (v. 16), (c) the man (vv. 17-19)
    (iii) Establishment of the human condition: (a) names (v. 20), (b) clothing (v. 21), (c) death/mortality, i.e. life-span (v. 22), (d) work and toil (v. 23), (e) separation from divine/eternal life (v. 24)

In the symbolism and language of this narrative, humankind (“Man” [<d*a*]) is first “the man” [<d*a*h*], then is separate into “male and female”, indicated two ways: (a) the narrative image of the joining “rib” (vv. 21-23), and (b) the wordplay of “man” [vya! °îš] and “woman” [hV*a! °iššâ]. This sequence and relational imagery is important for an understanding of subsequent Jewish and Christian thought. Jesus draws upon the Creation narrative (citing 1:27; 2:24) in his teaching on divorce in the Gospel tradition (Mark 10:2-12 par; Matt 5:31-32; Luke 16:18; cf. also 1 Cor 7:10-11). The emphasis is on the fact that humankind is man and woman, male and female, together, as symbolized in society by the marriage bond. Paul’s use (and interpretation) of the Genesis account in relation to gender distinction and the role of women in the Church is more complex, and problematic (from our standpoint today). I have discussed this already with regard to 1 Cor 11:3-9 and 1 Tim 2:11-15 in Parts 1 and 5 of this series. See also the supplemental note on Gen 3:16.

The Law and Israelite Religion

The commandments and legal passages of the Torah as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are instructive for establishing the position and role of women in ancient Israelite society. Many of the underlying ideas and precepts continued on in Judaism through the New Testament and subsequent periods. Due to the complex nature and sensitivity of some of this material, I have decided to address it in a separate supplemental article.

With regard to Israelite religion in particular, the following points may be noted here:

  • The priesthood was reserved for men. Though this is never stated specifically in principle, it is always assumed. The high-priestly office was designated for “Aaron and his sons” (Lev 1:5, 7-8, etc; 8:2 et al; Num 3:1-4ff). Similarly for the Levites—according to the Torah, the males of the tribe of Levi took the place of the firstborn males in Israel, as priests in the service of God (Num 3:5-13, 41-51; 8:5-26).
  • Otherwise, there is no indication that participation in public ritual and worship, including access to the Tabernacle/Temple, was restricted for women. The later Temple design did designate a limitation (partition) for access by women (the “Court of Women”, cf. Josephus Antiquities 15.417-19; Wars 5.192-200; Against Apion 2.103-5; Mishnah Midd. 2.2-5; Sukk. 5.2-4, etc), but this is not specified anywhere in the Torah and represents a subsequent development.
  • Men and women shared in the tasks of building and decorating the original tent-shrine (Tabernacle), according to Exod 35:20-29; 36:2-7.
  • While all of Israel was expected to participate in the sacred festivals (or “Feasts”), there was a specific directive for men—that all adult males would appear at the central sanctuary (i.e. the Temple in Jerusalem) for the three major (harvest) festivals (Exod 23:17; 34:23; Deut 16:16).

Women may have taken part in various religious rituals in an official capacity, as musicians, or in other attendant roles, such as indicated by Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22; 2 Sam 19:35; 2 Chron 35:25; Ezra 2:65 (and Neh 7:67), but the precise details are not entirely clear.


Miriam [<y`r=m!] was the sister of Moses and Aaron according to Exod 15:20; Num 26:59 and 1 Chron 6:3. She is presumably the sister mentioned in the infancy narrative (Exod 2:1-10, vv. 4, 7-8). Miriam appears in two important narrative episodes in the Pentateuch:

Exodus 15:20-21

Following the miraculous crossing of the “Reed Sea” (chapter 14), two poetic hymns are recorded in chapter 15—one composed and/or sung by Moses and the people as a whole (vv. 1-18, the “Song of Moses”, “Song of the Sea”), and the other by Miriam (v. 21, the “Song of Miriam”); likely only a small portion of this latter song has been preserved. In verse 20, Miriam is referred to as ha*yb!N+h^, “the (female) prophet” or “the prophetess“, the noun ayb!n` essentially signifying one who functions as a representative and spokesperson for God, who communicates his word and will to the people. Here the context implies that the song she sings is an inspired poem.

Numbers 12:1-16

This wilderness episode is introduced with the statement that “Miriam and Aaron spoke with Moses on account of the Kushite woman he had taken (as his wife)” (v. 1). Their attitude in approaching him on the subject is indicated in verse 2, which summarizes their thought: “Has YHWH spoken only with Moses? Has he not also spoken with us?”. This may indicate that Miriam and Aaron were prophets in their own right, as it is said of Miriam in Ex 15:20; her name comes before Aaron’s here, which may mean that she was a more prominent figure, or simply that she was the older of the two. A kind of sibling rivalry may be reflected, not wishing to be accorded a lower standing of leadership and influence than Moses (note how the three are grouped together as leaders in Mic 6:4). In verses 4-9 God addresses the three together in the ‘Tent of Meeting’ where He confirms that Moses’ stature is greater even than prophets such as Miriam, since he receives revelation from God directly (face to face). The punishment Miriam receives, the whitening of her skin (i.e., ‘leprosy’), is probably related symbolically to the darker skin of Moses’ “Kushite” wife, who had been the reason for the dispute.


Deborah (hr*obD=, lit. [The] Bee) was one of the <yf!p=v) of Israel in the early period. The verb fp^v* refers to the act of rendering a decision, or judgment, i.e. one who presides in an authoritative governing position (judge, ruler, law-giver, etc). Prior to the establishment of monarchy in Israel, persons were chosen to rule over the tribal league only on a temporary basis, usually in the face of a national emergency. Such persons were called fp@v) (usually translated as “Judge”), and their exploits are recorded in the book of Judges. As far as we know, Deborah is the only woman who filled this role in Israel (Judg 4-5). Unlike other <yf!p=v), she did not personally lead the armies into battle (this was done by the general Barak), but it is clear that she served as ruler (or Judge) during the period when Israel was being threatened by the Canaanite king of Hazor (4:1-6ff). It is also said of Deborah that she was a prophetess (ha*yb!n+), like Miriam before her (Exod 15:20); the ancient poem in Judg 5 is attributed to her (together with Barak), presumably as an inspired song. Following the great victory over Jabin of Hazor, the land “was at rest for forty years”. In association with this battle, we may note in passing the role played by another women (Jael) in killing the Canaanite general Sisera (Judg 4:17-22; 5:6, 24-27); according to the cultural sensibilities of the time, this would have been an extremely humiliating way for a military commander to die.

Occasionally (male) commentators have expressed unease at the idea of a woman in such a ruling position, and have sought to explain it in various ways. Often this reflects sexist thinking and prejudice as much as any kind of serious study of Scripture. One is reminded of John Knox’s regrettable “Trumpet-blast” against the “rule of women” in the Reformation period; that he (and others like him) were misguided in their views is confirmed by evidence from history and from Scripture itself. Indeed, women have proven to be able rulers alongside (or in place of) men, as may be documented throughout history, in spite of the added social/cultural pressures they often face. Perhaps the most famous example of the ancient Near East is the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Egypt (18th Dynasty, 1498-1483 B.C.). For every wicked Jezebel or Athaliah there is a virtuous Esther, much as we find in the case of men who rule. The idea sometimes floated, that God only chose Deborah because there were no qualified men available, is as fatuous as it is unwarranted.

Female Prophets and Joel 2:28-32

In addition to Miriam (Exod 15:20) and Deborah (Judg 4:4), several other female prophets are mentioned in the Old Testament: Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and the woman mentioned in Isa 8:3 who is otherwise unidentified. Such instances are relatively rare, perhaps, but they clearly indicate that women could serve (and be chosen by God) as prophet (ayb!n`)—that is, as a spokesperson who represents God before the people, and who communicates his word and will. Female prophets are known throughout the ancient world, the most famous certainly being the oracle of Delphi and the Roman Sibyls. While the priesthood in Israel was reserved for men (cf. above), women could function equally as prophets.

This egalitarian principle is confirmed in the (eschatological) prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 [Hebrew 3:1-5]:

“And it will (come to) be after this
(that) I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh
and your sons and daughters will speak (on my) behalf [WaB=n] i.e. prophesy]…
And also/even upon the (male) slaves and the (female) house-servants
will I pour out my Spirit.”

In the ‘end times’ (or the Age to Come, etc), God’s Spirit will come upon all people (“all flesh”)—men and women alike, even for the lowest of society (slaves and servants). This basic idea is reflected elsewhere in the Old Testament, as in the declaration (by Moses) in Numbers 11:29: “And who (would not) give that all the people of YHWH (should be his) spokespersons [<ya!yb!n+ i.e. prophets], and that God (would) give his Spirit upon them!” The prophecy in Joel 2:28ff came to have enormous influence on early Christian thought, being cited in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (Acts 2:14-36 [vv. 17-21]), following the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4ff). Admittedly, specific evidence for female prophets even in the New Testament is relatively slight (Acts 21:8-9; 1 Cor 11:2-16; and cf. chaps 12-14), but this may be due (in part) to historical circumstances. Other women function as prophets in the Gospel tradition, including Anna (Luke 2:36), Elizabeth and Mary (1:41-45, 46-55, cf. also v. 25); the latter oracle (the Magnificat) in particular is similar to the (inspired) poetic utterance attributed to Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10.

Women in the Prophets and Wisdom Literature

Female imagery and character-types appear frequently in the Old Testament Prophets and Wisdom Literature, the most common type being that of the virtuous woman, which has its practical ideal in the wise, faithful, and dutiful wifePsalm 128:3; Prov 5:18; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; 21:9 (25:24); 27:15; Eccl 9:9; and, especially, Prov 31:10-31 (cf. also Sirach 26). This same basic type also serves to personify virtue (righteousness) and wisdom itself. This was altogether natural, since the Hebrew word hm*k=j*, like the corresponding Greek sofi/a, is feminine in its (grammatical) gender. Similarly, and by contrast, folly and wickedness are often portrayed as a prostitute or “loose” woman. For the use of these two types, cf. Prov 1:20-2:22; chap. 5; 6:23-29; 7:1-8:21; 9:1-6, 13-18; Eccl 7:26. True wisdom is also divine—it is a manifestation of the character and power of God, cf. Prov 3:19-20; 8:22-31, etc. For similar passages in the important deutero-canonical books of Wisdom and Sirach, cf. Wis 6:12-25; 7:22-8:21; chaps. 10-11; Sir 1:14-20; 4:11-19; 6:18-31; 15:1-10; 24:1-22. We can see how this basic type relates to some of the other female imagery found in the writings of the Prophets:

Concluding Note on Female imagery and Sexuality

It is interesting how rarely the actual relationship between man and woman (husband & wife) is emphasized, especially in terms of sexuality. Obviously, marital/sexual relations are a key element in many of the historical-traditional narratives in Genesis, etc., and often in such accounts the woman makes for a highly sympathetic figure in her own right (cf. the examples of Sarah, Hagar, Dinah, Tamar, etc). But throughout most of the Old Testament—especially in the Prophetic and Wisdom literature—sexuality is largely presented from a negative standpoint, as symbolizing sin and false worship (idolatry), under the euphemistic images of prostitution and adultery (cf. above). And, somewhat unfortunately perhaps (from our vantage point today), in this imagery the woman is typically seen as the source of error and deception (i.e. seduction). This is already evidenced in the Creation account (cf. above), and vividly depicted in the famous (though highly complex) narrative in Numbers 25. On the other hand, this negative type is counterbalanced by the contrasting image of the faithful and virtuous woman (wife), as discussed above.

Sexuality on its own is really only dealt with in the Song of Songs, a collection of poems written in the manner and style of ancient Near Eastern love poetry (numerous examples survive from Egypt and Sumer). The specific language and metaphor used is foreign enough to our culture today that the erotic nature of the Song is not always apparent on a casual reading (in translation). It has, of course, been interpreted various ways, but the underlying traditions which inform the material are purely those of Near Eastern love poetry. There would seem to be at least one main female protagonist in the Song, as well as a number of subsidiary characters.

Perhaps the most complete and well-rounded female character in Old Testament narrative is that of Ruth (tWr), central figure of the book which bears her name. It remains one of the most appealing and attractive of the Old Testament stories (for modern readers), with positive ‘role-model’ characters in Ruth and Naomi, as well as the central male figures; the scenes between Ruth and Boaz and tenderly depicted. Ultimately, of course, the primary purpose of the tale was to introduce the lineage of David (4:13-22), but we can be grateful that the rich and detailed narrative was included for men and women of all ages to enjoy.

Note of the Day – February 2 (Beatitudes)

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This is the third in a series of daily notes on the Beatitudes. The first touched upon introductory critical matters related to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6:20-49); the second examined the Beatitude form in particular. By way of supplement, and to conclude these three introductory notes, I will be discussing the best-known Beatitude in the Old Testament: that of Psalm 1.

In the discussion below, “Dahood” refers to Mitchell Dahood’s Commentary Psalms 1-50 (Anchor Bible vol. 16, 1965). His observations remain distinctive and noteworthy in the extent to which he relies upon old Canaanite (Ugaritic) parallels in vocabulary and word usage.

The first Psalm begins: rv#a& vya!h*Áyr@v=a^ “Happiness of (the) man who…”, which the Septuagint (LXX) renders as maka/rio$ a)nh/r o^$…—a common beatitude form. Maka/rio$ (makários) is the same word used to begin Jesus’ Beatitudes, and occurs frequently in the Psalms and Wisdom literature (see the previous day’s note on these points). The terms “happy” and “happiness” have come to carry a trite meaning in modern English, so, in these contexts, most translators prefer to use “blessed”; however, this risks confusing ma/kar-/rva with eu)log-/irb, which are typically translated “bless, blessing”, etc. Hebrew yr@v=a^ (°ašr¢y) is a plural construct form which is actually difficult to render into English—literally, something like “Happy (thing)s for the man who…” It is also possible to understand it as an intensive plural, i.e., “How happy is the man who…!” The expression can be found numerous places in the Old Testament—1 Kings 10:8; 2 Chron 9:7; Job 5:17; Isa 30:18; 56:2, and frequently in the Psalms (Ps 2:12; 32:1-2; 33:12; 34:8; 40:5; 41:2; 65:5; 84:5-6, 13; 89:16; 94:12; 106:3; 112:1; 119:1-2; 127:5; 128:1; 137:8-9; 144:15; 146:5) and Proverbs (Prov 3:13; 8:34; 20:7; 28:14).

Verse 1: “Happiness of (the) man who has not walked in (the) counsel of wicked ones, and in (the) path of sinful ones he has not stood, and in (the) sitting-place of (those) mocking he has not sat (down).”

This verse describes the characteristics of the person declared “happy/blessed” in negative terms. There are three expressions, each of which contains: (1) a q¹tal (perfect) verb governed by a negative particle al), (2) a construct noun with locative preposition B=, and (3) a plural noun describing a negative class of person.

Three Verbs: (a) El^h* (h¹lak “walked”), (b) dm^u* (±¹mad “stood”), (c) bv^y` (y¹ša» “sat”). The last verb bv^y` can also have the sense of “set down, dwell”—there would seem to be a progression of sorts, from walking to sitting down.

Three Construct Nouns: The construct form attaches it to the following noun in each case. The preposition B= here indicates a consistent locative sense: that is, “in” a particular location.

  • The first noun hx*u@ (±¢ƒâ) generally means “counsel, advice”. This can be understood two ways: either (i) walking in [i.e. according to] certain counsel, or (ii) walking in a place of counsel [i.e. council, circle of advisors]. The latter sense is to be preferred.
  • The second noun Er#D# (derek) is usually rendered “path, way”, either in a concrete or metaphorical sense. It derives from a verb ird which has the basic meaning “to tread, step, march”—i.e., a place trodden down, where people have (repeatedly) stepped. It can be used in a transferred, metaphoric sense as “habit, custom, manner of being/acting”, etc., but here a concrete “path” better fits the context. Dahood draws attention to Ugaritic drkt “dominion, etc”, which also would fit the political (royal) imagery in the verse. Perhaps the rendering “domain” would be appropriate—i.e., the place belonging to the wicked/sinners, where the (wicked) activity occurs. To “stand in the path/domain” implies a participation, that one belongs to this place.
  • The third noun bv^om (môša») is derived from the same verb bvy (“sit [down]”) used in the phrase; it literally means a “place-of-sitting” (i.e. “seat”). Probably a royal seat (or “throne”) is implied, parallel to the earlier expressions “domain [or ‘path’]” and “council [or ‘counsel/advice’]”. To “sit [down] in the seat” means to identify oneself entirely with the “domain” and/or its rule; there may also be the connotation of a more permanent residence (“sit down” = “set down, dwell”).

Three plural nouns: As with the verbs, there would appear to be a progression involved: (a) <yu!v*r= (r®š¹±îm) “wicked, evil” persons in a general, unqualified sense—the construct expression is “in the council/counsel of wicked (person)s”. (b) <ya!F*j^ (µa‰‰¹°îm) “sinful, errant” persons, in the more specific sense of those who err and transgress the Law (of God)—”in the path/domain of sinful (person)s”. (c) <yxl@ (l¢ƒîm), a participle meaning persons who are “mocking, deriding, scoffing”—”in the seat of (those) mocking”. Finally, a specific kind of wrong-doing is specified, located at the very heart (the “seat”) of the wicked domain.

Verse 2:instead, his delight (is) in (the) Instruction of YHWH, and in His Instruction he mutters by day and night”

If the first verse declares what the happy/blessed person is not, v. 2 indicates what he is. The two italicized words above are difficult to render literally in English. The opening expression <a!ÁyK! (kî-°im) is a compound particle which can be used in a variety of ways; it is frequently used in oath formulas, and often means something like “indeed if…” or “except that…”. The idea here would seem to be that, if the man does not do the things described in v. 1, then he will do (instead) only thus… The focus of this verse is the hr*oT (tôrâ) of God (YHWH); hr*oT is usually translated “law”, but more properly means “instruction”. Sometimes this is regarded as synonymous with the Pentateuch (and the Law code[s] at the heart of it), but the word itself (and the metaphor expressed by it) can have a wider meaning as well—i.e., all that God commands and teaches. There are two aspects emphasized here:

  • His delight [Jp#j@] is in the Instruction [Torah]
  • In the Instruction he mutters [hg`h*] by day and night

The translation “mutters” sounds almost derogatory in English, but it is perhaps the best approximation here of the verb hgh “to growl, groan, moan, mumble”, i.e., the ineffable sounds made by animals, mourners, magicians, etc. It is also used in a figurative sense, which we might translate something like “ponder, imagine, meditate”. The common translation here of “meditates” is rather misleading, perhaps suggesting something like silent reading and prayer; in the ancient world, texts and material for instruction were not so much read as recited (from memory). The verb here perhaps indicates a deep, intense, utterance of God’s Word. For an interesting parallel (of sorts), see Romans 8:26f.

Verse 3: “and he will be like a tree (trans)planted upon streams of water, which gives his fruit in his time, and his leaf will not drop (off), and every(thing) which he does will succeed.”

This verse gives the reason or basis for the person being called “happy/blessed”, and corresponds generally to the o%ti-clause in the Beatitudes of Jesus. With many similar Beatitudes, it expresses something of the future (eschatological) state of the righteous one who passes through Judgment and enters into (heavenly) bliss; but also, it would seem, reflects the present condition of the person as well. The righteous/believer as a tree which produces (good) fruit is a common religious motif—of many examples, see Jesus’ teaching in Matt 7:17-19; 12:33 & par; cf. also Jn 1:48, 50; 15:1-2ff. Similarly, life-giving water as an image of heavenly/eternal life is widespread. The verb lt^v* (š¹¾al) indicates a plant or shoot which is transplanted—i.e., removed from one location and set into a new, better location.

Verse 4: “(It is) not thus (for the) wicked ones!—instead, (he is) like the chaff which (the) wind drives about;”

Verses 4-5 describe the wicked person, that is, the opposite of the happy/blessed one; it is the second, negative side of the Beatitude formula. Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew have no such specific negative formulation, but comparable statements are found in the “Woes” of the Lukan Beatitudes (Lk 6:24-26). Verse 4 presents a simple, striking contrast with the fate of the blessed person as a tree upon life-giving waters—instead, he (the wicked) is the chaff (Jm)) which the wind blows about. The wicked person as worthless chaff/dust is a fairly common metaphor, as expressed most famously in the Synoptic account of John the Baptist’s preaching (Matt 3:12 par).

Verse 5: “upon this [i.e. therefore] (the) wicked (one)s will not stand up in the Judgment(-place), and (the) sinful (one)s (will not stand) in the appointed-place of the righteous (one)s.”

Dahood suggests that fP*v=m! (mišp¹‰), is not simply the Judgment, but implies specifically the place of Judgment, i.e. the heavenly Court. This would seem to be likely with the parallel use of the preposition B= (as in v. 1, see above). Similarly the hd*u@ (±¢dâ) signifies not so much the just/righteous persons (the appointed gathering), but rather the appointed place (where the righteous gather); as such, it would be parallel to the heavenly place of Judgment. The scene, of course, is eschatological—the final Judgment before God. Just as the righteous do not belong in the place of the wicked (v. 1), so the wicked do not belong in the place of the righteous. Indeed, the <yq!yD!x^ (ƒadîqîm), the “just/righteous/loyal (ones)”, are the very ones declared happy/blessed. For more on the eschatological context of the early Beatitude form, see the previous day’s note.

Verse 6: “For YHWH knows (the) path of (the) righteous (one)s, but (the) path of (the) wicked (one)s will pass away [i.e. perish].”

The entire Psalm is summed up in the final verse, where the “path” (Er#D#) of the righteous and wicked is juxtaposed. Here the word Er#D# is used in a wider sense than in v. 1 (see above)—it covers the entire “way” (including the habits, mode of behavior, etc.) taken by the righteous and wicked, respectively. That of the righteous is characterized by God’s knowing it (the participle u^d@oy yôd¢a±); without this knowing by YHWH, the path wanders off (db^a*) and leads to destruction (cf. Matt 7:13-14).

This Psalm (and verse 6 in particular) had an enormous influence on the “Two Ways” theology (or ideology) in subsequent Judaism and early Christianity. Several of the Qumran texts display a strong sense of dualism—light vs. darkness, truth vs. deceit, which distinguishes the righteous (identified with the Qumran community) from the wicked (virtually everyone outside of the community) with their respective destinies. In addition to the ethical aspect of this dualism, there are cosmological and soteriological components as well; see especially the “Treatise of the Two Spirits” in the Comunity Rule [1QS] 3:13-4:25, and cf. also 1 QH 6:29-30; 14:11-12; 1 QM 1:1ff; 13:9-11, etc. Similar imagery is found in the Gospel of John: light/darkness, above/below, of-the-World/not-of-the-World, from-God/not-from-God. Paul makes frequent use of ethical and psychological dualism—spirit/flesh, freedom/slavery, inner-man/outer-man, new-man/old-man, etc.—which is representative of early Christian teaching.

There is some indication that the Christian movement initially referred to itself as “The Way” (see Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4); cf. the use of Isa 40:3 (a verse used as a point of identification at Qumran as well) in Mark 1:3 par., and also note John 14:5-6. The “Two Ways” concept was prominent in early Christianity, and is used as the framework for exposition in the so-called Teaching (Didache) of the Twelve Apostles (chaps. 1-6) and Epistle of Barnabas (chaps. 18-20). The Didache begins (1:1):

“There are two Ways—one of Life and one of Death—but there is much difference between the two Ways”

The instruction which follows (in both the Didache and Barnabas) is heavily dependent upon Jesus’ teaching, especially that in the Sermon on the Mount. Besides the “two paths” in Matt 7:13-14, Jesus speaks of “two masters” (Matt 6:24), “two trees” (Matt 7:15-20), and “two builders” (Matt 7:24-27). An ethical dualism, of sorts, is implied throughout the “Antitheses” of Matt 5:21-48. The “way of the wicked” is only implied in the Beatitudes (i.e., the opposite of what characterizes those called happy/blessed), but this is spelled out in the Lukan version with the “Woes” of Lk 6:24-26.

February 2 is also the traditional date commemorating the “Purification” of Mary, as recorded in Lk 2:22ff, forty days after Jesus’ birth (cf. Leviticus 12). Luke combines it with the “Presentation” of Jesus (apparently tied to the “Redemption” of the Firstborn, cf. Exodus 13:2, 11-14), setting the stage for the encounter with Simeon (and Anna) in the Temple precincts (Lk 2:23-38). I have previously discussed this episode in the context of the Lukan Infancy narratives (see on Dec 31), as well as the oracle[s] of Simeon (on Jan 1), and the specific prophecy to Mary (verse 35a) last Good Friday.

Note of the Day – February 1 (Beatitudes)

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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“.