Understanding the Beatitudes in Matthew 5
By Ian Paul on Oct 29, 2020 09:37 am
The gospel lectionary reading for All Saints' Day in Year A (this coming Sunday as I write) is Matthew 5.1–12, which is mostly composed of the set sayings of Jesus known as the Beatitudes, a name derived from the Latin translation of the opening term of each, 'blessed' or 'happy'.
These sayings are very well known, often being cited as favourite texts, and yet there are some serious puzzles that they present us with. Why are there nine, with the last one seemingly tagged on at the end? Why is there a mixture of future and present tenses in the sayings? Why is one of the promises (about the kingdom of heaven) repeated—did Jesus run out of other good things to say? Are they encouragements under pressure, or commendations of virtue? More to the point, are they realistic, or are they (with the rest of the 'Sermon on the Mount') setting out an unattainable ideal?
Some of these questions are
answered by paying careful attention to the structure and ordering of the
sayings. Here is the central part of the passage, laid out with a view to its
(The structure is slightly clearer in the Greek text, because of the simpler structure of the verb forms.) This leads to a number of observations:
1. The 'ninth' beatitude does not really belong to the pattern of the first eight, since it is expressed in the second (rather than third) person, and lack the pattern of 'Blessed...for...' We should therefore consider the other eight as a whole.
2. The eight beatitudes can be viewed as two stanzas: the first four beatitudes are 36 words in the Greek (and all begin with the letter pi), the second four are also 36 words. (This contributes to the evidence that Jesus might well have taught in Greek, especially in the bilingual region of Galilee; future blog post to come on this.)
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