17 November 2014

The Original "Beatitudes"

Most Christians are familiar with the Beatitudes from the version of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, which were composed to be both uplifting and inoffensive.  Fewer know the other version of these verses in the Gospel of Luke, much more revolutionary and almost certainly the older of the two, for which “Blessings and Curses” is a more apt title.

Found at Luke 6:20-26, the text here is from the New Revised Standard Version:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But cursed are you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

 “Cursed are you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Cursed are you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

 “Cursed are you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

This older version lends credence to the portrait of the historical Jesus painted by Reza Aslan ins his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even this form is probably a revision of what was originally said or written.  In Hebrew (the people, not necessarily the language) literature, coupling and contrasting opposites directly was typical, as in the verse Isaiah 45:7, which forms the core of the Yotzer ohr blessing recited before the Shema: “I form light and create darkness, I make good and create evil.”  The form as originally spoken, presumably by Isho*, and/or as written by the author of the Gospel of Luke, was more likely something like this:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.

“Blessed are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.  But woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.

“Blessed are you who weep, for you will laugh.  But woe to you who are laughing, for you will mourn and weep.

“Blessed are you whom people hate, and exclude, and revile, and defame; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.  But woe to you of whom all speak well, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

(*In Aramaic, the daily spoken language in first century Galilee, the person Americans know as Jesus the Nazarene would have been known as Isho Nasaraya.  The form in the Galilean dialect of Hebrew, by then only used in religious ceremonies, would have been Yeshu ha-Notzri.)

This structure is similar to the passages contrasting what tradition and/or the letter of the Law mandates versus the spirit behind the Law, which, after all, was made for humanity rather than humanity being made for the Law.  These would be the verses structured thus: “You have heard that it has been said…but I say to you…”.

Why the change from the form in the Gospel of Luke to that in the Gospel of Matthew?  In the decades after the Great Jewish War (66-73 CE), in which Jerusalem was indeed “surrounded by armies” before its thorough destruction by those same Roman legions (using prisoners of war) in 70 CE, most of those remaining wished to distance themselves from anything that might be seen as noncompliance with the status quo. 

This was true in particular for the early movement still known as The Way, or the Nazarenes.  Thus, editors or composers of the Gospel of Matthew discarded the social justice message of the original blessings and woes for the comfortable and opiatizing form we know as the Beatitudes, sans “woes”.

We can see that this distancing of the movement from anything even slightly revolutionary was the goal of the gospel’s composer, or of its editor, in the Olivet Discourse, altered from the probably original Lucan version to the later Matthean version.  But that’s another story.

Ask yourself this: which of the two versions sounds more like the real Jesus Christ?  If he were to come back today, would he be gunned down cold by the CIA?  Or Mossad?  Or the FSB?  Or mercenaries masquerading as security contractors for some multinational like Haliburton?  If your answer to the first question was the Matthean version, then you fall in the group which has “forgotten the message and worships the creeds”.

(Note:  The last paragraph is stuffed with references to and quotes from the song “Armageddon Days Are Here Again” written by Matt Johnson and sung by the British punk band The The.)


Anonymous said...

There are some good things in the Bible. I am a total non-believer and it seems odd to me that Christians have a pretty good book in the NT, if you leave out the so-called miracles, and concentrate on the rest. Thomas Jefferson agreed with me on that.

As Yonaguska said, after having some of the Bible read to him: "Well, it seems to be a good book—strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long."

[Seneca chief Red Jacket said to the US Senate, "You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us".]

Chuck Hamilton said...

I agree. Thanks for your insight.