The Real Beatitudes
May Change Our Attitudes

It only takes a cursory look at the two different versions of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to plant the idea that the Evangelists may have used a common source. Called Q by scholars (for quelle, German “source”), this long lost, if hypothetical, Aramaic document may have been the first written “Gospel”– although in its original form it may have more resembled one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament than our four canonical Gospels. A few scholars even go so far as to claim that this prototypical Gospel might be that penned by the real apostle Matthew, who according to the Early Church Fathers was the first to write down Jesus’ sayings in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language. (Note: Jesus spoke Aramaic, the language of his native Palestine, not English, and the Four Gospels were composed in Greek. So the words of Christ that appear in our English Gospels are perforce a translation of a translation.)

Yet comparing the two versions of the Beatitudes as presented in Mt 5:3-12 and Lk 6:20-26, one notes as many differences as similarities. It is often explained that, being a Jew, the writer of Matthew used an Aramaic copy of Q and made his own, somewhat freer, Greek translation, while Luke, a Gentile, would have depended on a Greek translation of Q currently in circulation.

Translation from one language into another is hardly an exact science. Rather, the translator is often pressed to look for “dynamic equivalents”; that is, instead of rendering a phrase literally into another language (“functional equivalence”), he tries to think as a speaker of that language and to express the same thought, although in different words.

Sometimes in translating or editing Q, Matthew and Luke expand or condense a saying in an effort to elucidate the meaning for their particular audiences, or they may substitute a word for the sake of clarity. Again, the goal being, not a wooden, word-for-word rendering, but a faithful representation of what they believe is the intended thought or meaning. Sometimes, where the two Evangelists disagree in their translations of Q, the problem can be traced to an original Aramaic word with multiple meanings, or to the peculiar thematic emphasis they wish to give the text.

To account for the discrepancies between their respective Beatitudes, some scholars have assumed that Luke, whose version is more concise, gives a more faithful or literal rendering of the original Aramaic, while Matthew tends to expand the text, at times perhaps for liturgical purposes (as with his Lord’s Prayer). Of course, it may be that each depends upon a different textual tradition of Q. (Since three or more decades might have elapsed between the composition of Q and that of their own Gospels, we must allow for the possibility of the development of manuscript “families” or traditions.)

As the late renown Aramaic scholar and textual critic Matthew Black writes in his seminal work An Aramaic Approach to the Gospel and Acts, “That our Lord’s Beatitudes were originally cast in poetic form, in Hebrew or Aramaic, is obvious from the parallelism of lines and clauses still discernible in Matthew and Luke….” (Black, AAGA, p.156). Parallelism is of course the most striking and common element of ancient Hebrew poetry: instead of rhyming couplets, as in English poetry, we have pairs of verses which mirror each other, the second repeating the first thought, though in different words, or building upon it. For example,

“I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.

Those who look to him are radiant;

their faces are never covered with shame.

This poor man called, and the LORD answered him;

he saved him out of all his troubles.”
(Ps. 34:4-6, TNIV)

According to Black, for example, there is strong textual evidence for taking Matthew’s first and third beatitudes together. Note that even the Aramaic words for “poor” and “meek” mirror each other (both come from the same root which means “to be bowed down, afflicted”).

Blessed are the poor [Aram. ‘anayyin],
for theirs is the kingdom of God [or heaven].

Blessed are the humble [Aram.
‘anawin],
for they shall inherit the earth [land].
[brackets mine]

At least hypothetically, therefore, and based on what we know of 1st-century Palestinian Aramaic, it may be possible to continue to reconstruct the Beatitudes as Jesus may have originally spoken them, and Black is able to do this for eight beatitudes, making a series of four stanzas consisting of two verses each.

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are ye that weep now,

for ye shall laugh.


Blessed are the merciful,

for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they shall be called the sons of God.


Blessed are ye that hunger,

for ye shall be filled.

Blessed are ye that thirst,

for ye shall be sated.

Although Black goes no farther, we also ought to include the blessings of purity and persecution, which could form the fifth and sixth final stanzas. Purity of heart is mentioned in Psalm 24, along with “clean hands,” as a qualification for those who would enter God’s sanctuary and stand in his presence. If there was originally a parallel verse to Matthew’s “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” it may have been lost. But it is also possible to pair the verses in other configurations to avoid this conclusion.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, insult you and reject you
because of my name.

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,

because great is your reward in heaven.

For that is how they treated the prophets.

Coupling the verses in this manner would seem to make sense of the different versions in the two Gospels (Matthew has nine beatitudes; Luke four). Luke also includes what looks like an original series of woes (Lk 6:24-26), which in turn mirror the blessings– woes being a common element of Hebrew prophetic poetry.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

It is important to keep in mind (as both Mt & Lk emphasize) that Jesus was speaking directly to his disciples on this occasion. Indeed, in Luke the Lord addresses both the Beatitudes and woes in the second person plural, while Matthew uses the third person. Did Jesus use both? Verbs in Hebrew poetry often shift between persons (e.g., from third to second and back again). This shift may seem awkward or odd to us in English, but ancient Hebrews no doubt considered it elegant. So it is possible that the Evangelists chose one of the other while writing in Greek.

You say, well this is all very interesting. But what does it tell us about the Beatitudes, about Jesus, about God’s kingdom? Much indeed.

First, it shows us a Jesus whose teaching is more firmly embedded in the OT prophetic traditions and Hebrew poetry than is suggested by the Greek translation.

Second, as Black points out, Isaiah 61 (which according to Luke he preached in Nazareth) would seem to figure even more prominently in the background of the Beatitudes. Note the parallelism here, and how “poor” and “brokenhearted” are used almost synonymously (cf. Matthew’s “poor” and “humble”), as are “mourn” and “grieve.”

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair….

Third, it is all the more clear that through his coming kingdom, God has identified himself with the poor and oppressed. Very often, preachers tell us that being “poor in spirit” means having a contrite attitude, one of brokenness before the Lord (cf. Isa. 66:2), and has nothing to do with being financially rich or poor. This is partly true. The Isaiah 66 passage (“These are the ones I look on with favor/those who are humble and contrite in spirit/and who tremble at my word”) is definitely in the background here, as Matthew tries to bring out by adding “in spirit.” However, the main point Jesus makes in the Beatitudes is that real poverty and oppression, emptiness and need put one in an advantageous position for entering God’s kingdom, for generally speaking, the poor and oppressed (like little children) know they are helpless, unlike the rich and powerful who oppress them.

It has become an accepted claim among many scholars that, in adding “in spirit,” Matthew, writing for a relatively affluent community, felt compelled to make the verse relevant to wealthy people (who were also beggars before God). This explanation may sound a bit cynical, but there may be some justification in it, as Matthew may be merely emphasizing what is inherent in the text. Surely, Jesus is not saying that poverty of itself admits one to the kingdom, for pride and self-reliance do exist among the poor. Rather, Matthew highlights that it is the humble and broken attitude of the poor, who approach God from a posture of weakness and need, that makes them prime candidates for receiving the kingdom (as in Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector in ch. 18). Thus, while it cannot be said that poverty itself is the E-ticket in the kingdom, there are advantages that the poor share in direct contrast to the rich. Ultimately, however, it is those who know their utter poverty and helplessness before God who gain the kingdom.

Matthew’s turn of phrase may not have been motivated merely by economics. For in writing his Gospel he seeks to prevent many in his largely Jewish community from lapsing back into Pharisaism (hence the heavy invective that pervades the book). Indeed, from Jesus’ perspective in the Gospel, it was the Pharisees’ pride and reliance on keeping the rabbinical oral law and their peculiar interpretation of the Law, which effectively sought to put God in their debt, that made entering the kingdom so difficult. It may be this debate within Matthew’s community, rather than their supposed wealth, that forms the backdrop for his choice of words here.

In addition, in the context of Isa. 61, Matthew’s hungering and thirsting after “righteousness” would be a poor translation, if we are looking for its original intended meaning. For Greek dikaiosyne also means “justice.” It is the poor and oppressed who suffer the worst injustices, but God has come to turn the entire world system on its head– the Jubilee year of the Lord. God commanded Israel to celebrate a jubilee every 49 years, and during that year all land debts were to be canceled, Hebrew slaves released, and land returned to its original owner. It is this very language that Isaiah employs (ch.61), referring to the Lord’s release of Jews from Babylonian captivity as a jubilee par exellence. Jesus too, quite appropriately, both in his Nazareth preaching (Lk 4) and the Beatitudes, interprets Isaiah’s verses messianically and eschatologically, drawing a parallel between the jubilee year and God’s kingdom. And this is not merely “pie in the sky when we die,” to quote Wobbly Joe Hill; rather, the wonderful news (terrifying for some) is that God’s kingdom is already present.

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2 Comments

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  1. Bravo! This is very cool. Your comments about the rich/poor is confirmed in James 2:5, where James is admonishing the churches for showing favoritism to the monetarily well-off."Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?"

  2. p.s. Oops! I forgot James 1:9- another Kingdom view of wealth/poverty."Those in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their position. But those who are rich should take pride in their low position, because they will pass away like a wild flower."

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