Friday, June 12, 2009

Looking at the Beatitudes

Last week a friend on published an article about the Sermon on the Mount and asked what certain phrases really meant. As someone who reads Koiné Greek and who has also been involved with Biblical Studies for a good long while, I thought I'd lay out some of the things I've come up with, and also discuss some of the existing scholarship on these.

First some decisions had to be made. My friend was dealing specifically with some of the Beatitudes, so I decided to keep it at that rather than tackle the whole Sermon on the Mount. There are also two versions of this sermon, one in Matthew 5 and the other in Luke 6. I chose to go with the Lukan version. Both versions are obviously derived from a common source; they share intent and in places identical wording.

Most contemporary Biblical scholars accept the existence, based on internal textual evidence, of a common "Sayings Gospel", a basic list of the words of Jesus as remembered by those who were around and which were passed down (orally at first) in the early Christian community. Early German scholars called this the "Q" document, from the German word Quelle - source. The authors of Luke and Matthew seem to have shared this document as their primary source.

I'm going with Luke for the Beatitudes rather than Matthew because the author of Luke seems to have stuck closer to the source; the wording is simpler and more terse in Luke while the author of Matthew seems to have done some serious editing, adding to the verses shared with Luke, adding whole new verses, and leaving out other, and in my view very crucial, verses. Luke follows classic Jewish oratorical style - reversal: positive/negative, praise/condemnation, congratulating/warning. The author of Matthew eliminates the reversal pattern by leaving out the negative and ignores the whole original point.

So let's go to the text. First, here's Luke 6:20 - 26 in the original Greek:

20) και αυτος επαρας τους οφθαλμους αυτου εις τους μαθητας αυτου ελεγεν μακαριοι οι πτωχοι οτι υμετερα εστιν η βασιλεια του θεου
21) μακαριοι οι πεινωντες νυν οτι χορτασθησεσθε μακαριοι οι κλαιοντες νυν οτι γελασετε
22) μακαριοι εστε οταν μισησωσιν υμας οι ανθρωποι και οταν αφορισωσιν υμας και ονειδισωσιν και εκβαλωσιν το ονομα υμων ως πονηρον ενεκα του υιου του ανθρωπου
23) χαρητε εν εκεινη τη ημερα και σκιρτησατε ιδου γαρ ο μισθος υμων πολυς εν τω ουρανω κατα τα αυτα γαρ εποιουν τοις προφηταις οι πατερες αυτων
24) πλην ουαι υμιν τοις πλουσιοις οτι απεχετε την παρακλησιν υμων
25) ουαι υμιν οι εμπεπλησμενοι νυν οτι πεινασετε ουαι οι γελωντες νυν οτι πενθησετε και κλαυσετε
ουαι οταν καλως υμας ειπωσιν παντες οι ανθρωποι κατα τα αυτα γαρ εποιουν τοις ψευδοπροφηταις οι πατερες αυτων

And then here's my own translation of the Greek:

20) And he raised his eyes to his listeners and preached: Congratulations, you poor, for God's domain belongs to you.
21) Congratulations, you who starve now, for you will be filled. Congratulations, you who weep and wail now, for you will laugh.
22) Congratulations to you when people detest you and exclude you, and rail at you and drive you out and call you evil because of the Son of Man!
23) Rejoice on that day and leap for joy! Behold, your reward in heaven will be abundant. Remember that their ancestors treated the prophets the same.
24) But beware you wealthy, for you've already received your consolation.
25) Beware you who are filled now, for you will famish. Beware you who laugh now, for you will mourn and wail aloud.
26) Beware whenever everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors regarded the false prophets.

This is much easier to understand than the version in Matthew, because the full pattern of reversal language used in Luke is absent in Matthew. This is the full "the last shall be first and the first, last" treatment laid out loud and clear. You lucky man, you're poor, and that means that God is going to give you everything. But you rich guy, you've already gotten all you're going to get. This is classic Jewish prophetic oratory. It rings like a bell!

It's also a vision of Jesus that many Christians are afraid to deal with. It exalts the poor and powerless and it warns those who are complacent with the status quo that they're heading for a fall. This vision of Jesus condemns the disparity between rich and poor and calls Christians to fix that disparity. If you're the kind of Christian who goes to church every Sunday, tithes, maybe even serves on the church board or the altar guild, and thinks this is all it takes to be a "good Christian", then this vision of Jesus will scare the willies out of you. There's nothing smug or self-satisfied about what he calls his followers to do. He wants to shake things up, turn the world upside down and give it a good tumbling. Stasis, status quo, are the enemies of the spirit; so says this vision of Jesus. A friend of mine who was an Episcopalian priest who considered Daniel Berrigan his role model used to say: "If you're a minister of God and you're not in trouble with the authorities, you're not doing your job."

On the other hand, this vision of Jesus also doesn't sit well with the Christian Right, and you won't notice people like Pat Robertson or James Dobson or any other of their gang preaching this vision of Jesus. Why? Because the very people they condemn, the Jesus of this vision raises up. And what they have become are the very things this Jesus warns to beware of. No, I doubt you'll ever hear James Dobson preach this Jesus. I also think Mr. Dobson would probably be very frightened if this Jesus ever appeared on his doorstep.

That's what I think the whole point of the Beatitudes is - to point out that the world is out of balance and needs to be re-balanced. It gives the poor and oppressed a source of hope, and it warns of disaster for the rich, the powerful, and the complacent. And what more appropriate message for the times we now live in?

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. Interesting post, Roy. I don't read or speak Greek, so I read your translation and then had a look at the translation in the NIV Bible. It had never occured to me to compare the 2 passages in Luke & Matthew (don't know why.) The difference is quite startling. No wonder we have modern day teachings like the 'Prosperity Gospel' if people are concentrating more on the passage from Matthew. Wonder why that writer left out the 'downside' whilst the writer of Luke put it in? Different emphases for different audiences?

  2. Hey Roy! Excellent post! Have you ever read Eugene Peterson's "The Message"? I love your translation, btw...
    Luke 6:20-26 (The Message)

    You're Blessed
    17-21Coming down off the mountain with them, he stood on a plain surrounded by disciples, and was soon joined by a huge congregation from all over Judea and Jerusalem, even from the seaside towns of Tyre and Sidon. They had come both to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. Those disturbed by evil spirits were healed. Everyone was trying to touch him—so much energy surging from him, so many people healed! Then he spoke:

    You're blessed when you've lost it all.
    God's kingdom is there for the finding.
    You're blessed when you're ravenously hungry.
    Then you're ready for the Messianic meal.

    You're blessed when the tears flow freely.
    Joy comes with the morning.

    22-23"Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don't like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.
    Give Away Your Life
    24But it's trouble ahead if you think you have it made.
    What you have is all you'll ever get.

    25And it's trouble ahead if you're satisfied with yourself.
    Your self will not satisfy you for long.

    And it's trouble ahead if you think life's all fun and games.
    There's suffering to be met, and you're going to meet it.

    26"There's trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests—look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.

  3. This was truly a refreshing post, Roy.

  4. I'll be back. This was very interesting, but I have to digest it a bit...

  5. I love the balance. The positive and negative; congratulating-warning; praise-condemnation. Kind of a call and response. Lovely photo.

  6. I will have to read this to Lee. He is all about balance.

  7. I enjoy your take on the beatitudes.

    that jesus, he was one hell of a community organizer!

  8. Your comment that this is classic Jewish prophetic oratory reminds me of a book I read, "Liberating the Gospels," by Spong. He evaluated the gospels in terms of their history, preaching, as they were at first, to a Jewish audience. It was a fascinating read.

  9. Excellent cut on the beatitudes. It made me stop and think about the true meaning of Christ's words. Thanks.