The Beatitudes—the collection of sayings that introduce the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matt 5, with their parallel in Luke 6—are amongst some of the most memorable of the teachings of Jesus. They are often cited as favourite texts, and are referred to as a key element of Jesus’ (challenging and puzzling) radical social ethics. But most people have an easy grasp of them, as David Wenham explored in a paper that he gave to July’s Tyndale NT Study Group in Cambridge:
The Beatitudes that open the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel are some of the best known and most loved sayings in the Bible. But, although they are full of great phrases and attractive resonances, aren’t they a bit of a mess, a rather jumbled-up collection of blessed thoughts? There are nine of them: there is repetition with two of them having the identical promise ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ – did the author run out of promises? The promise with those two is in the present tense, but in all the others is future, e.g. ‘they will be comforted’. There is duplication, with two of the beatitudes speaking of the same group – the persecuted. Most of the beatitudes are in the third person, e.g. ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’, ‘they will be comforted’, but the last is in the second ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you’. Some of them seem to be encouragements to people under pressure, (e.g. the persecuted), others to be commendations of the righteous (e.g. the pure in spirit).
David explored the common explanations for such inconsistencies, which often involve theories of composition based on the hypothetical common source for Matthew and Luke (the so-called and non-existent ‘Q’) but then went on to make his own observations about the structure of the text as we have it in Matthew.
(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:
- 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.
- The first beatitude has a promise in the third person ‘For theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ and so does the last beatitude. It is wholly unlikely that this repetition is the result of editorial fatigue with the writer having run out of promises, and very likely that it is deliberate, creating an inclusio. This suggests the not very surprising conclusion that the beatitudes and indeed the Sermon on the Mount, to which they are a prelude, are about the kingdom of heaven.
- The other six beatitudes have a variety of promises with a future tense, so that we have in the first half, one present tense + three future tenses, and in the second half the mirror image with three future tenses + one present tense. This makes sense given what we have already suggested about the first and the last forming an inclusio. It also suggests that in fact all the beatitudes are promising the kingdom of heaven to people, with beatitudes 1 and 8 making the promise in general terms, beatitudes 2-7 unpacking that general promise in concrete ways appropriate to the people concerned (hence most clearly ‘those who mourn…will be comforted’, ‘the merciful…will receive mercy’. The kingdom of heaven belongs now to the people whom Jesus describes, but fully entering into the inheritance and experiencing the practical blessings of the kingdom, i.e. the comforting, the seeing God, etc., still lie in the future. So the Beatitudes reflect what we see elsewhere of NT ‘partially realised’ eschatology.
- The emphatic focus of the Beatitudes is that of ‘righteousness’, which in Matthew means holy and ethical action, and is a non-negotiable sign of the kingdom of God—see, for example, two key texts: 5:20 ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’ and 6:33 ‘Seek first the kingdom and his (i.e. God’s) righteousness’. This is a distinctive theme of Matthew, who repeats the term seven times in all.
David then goes on to explore in depth the significance of the two halves of the structure, and justifying his view:
The conditions described in beatitudes 1-4 – poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness – all suggest need of some sort, with the possible exception of no 3, ‘the meek’, which could be seen as more ethical; the conditions described in beatitudes 5-8 all suggest people living positive kingdom lives – being merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers, and righteous.
And out of all this analysis David notes that ‘the beatitudes are carefully constructed and are a prologue and introduction to the Sermon that is to follow.’ And he also observes how these sayings accord with the NT’s theology of grace:
The argument for the two stanza structure has been made, and is strong. But still how do the two stanzas relate to each other? They are both about people to whom the kingdom of heaven is given and belongs. The first stanza portrays them as people who are under pressure and hungry for God’s righteousness and justice to come, i.e. for his kingdom to come and his will to be done; the second portrays them as people whose lives are already demonstrating the kingdom and the will of God being done – by being merciful, pure and peace-making. The relationship of the two stanzas has often been explained in terms of dependence on God and his grace on the one hand, the starting-point of kingdom of heaven membership, and of transformation and kingdom living in love on the other. The Sermon on the Mount will develop and explain the second theme at length – living kingdom righteousness – but before that it is important to recognize the starting point of grace.
This reading connects the Beatitudes in Matthew with Is 61, which is more explicitly connected with the Beatitudes in Luke—though of course Matthew does cite Is 61 later in Jesus answer to John the Baptist (in Matt 11). ‘The parallels are not total, but there is what we could call an Isaianic logic to the shift of focus in beatitudes 5-8, which also prepares us for the Sermon on the Mount, which is going to describe much more fully what kingdom righteousness and following Jesus look like.’ David concludes his paper (to be published in a collection in honour of John Nolland in LNTS):
We are now in a position to answer our question about the purpose of the beatitudes: what are these blessed sayings doing? What does Matthew think Jesus is doing? The answer is threefold: first, he is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, identifying and congratulating those who are coming to him and coming into the kingdom and who will receive its amazing blessings . Jesus is thus fulfilling Isaiah 61 with its description of the Spirit-filled one proclaiming good news to the poor and to those of God’s people who mourn. Secondly, he is describing those to whom the kingdom of heaven is given, and their characteristics. The beatitudes highlight first their need, their sadness and their longings for justice, but then sum up what their lives as disciples and kingdom people will (and should) look like – merciful, pure in heart, peace-makers. Thirdly, the beatitudes form a brilliant preface to the Sermon, putting it in the context of the good news, introducing us to the key themes of kingdom of heaven and of righteousness, which the sermon will then expound.
I think David’s exploration of the Beatitudes is both fascinating and persuasive. But I am also fascinated by some of the implications of his study for our own wider approach to reading the NT and following the example of Jesus’ teaching.
First, despite many centuries of comment by others, it is actually possible still to make genuinely new observations about the text of the NT and of Jesus’ teaching. How can this be possible? In short, because all commentators bring to the text (ourselves included) their own presuppositions and assumptions, and so a close, disciplined reading of the text itself—allowing it to shape us, rather than the other way around—always has the potential to yield fresh insights. I have found this repeatedly in my reading of Revelation; too many commentators try to fit the text into pre-determined schemes, knowing what the text ‘must’ mean, rather than letting it speak for itself.
Secondly, David is here demonstrating what it means to enter into the world of the text. This was a world where numbers mattered, and where people paid very close attention to individual words and phrases. We should therefore not be surprised to find—either in Jesus’ own teaching (which he might have given in Greek…?) or in Matthew’s summary of it—careful numerical structure and balanced composition, making it easier to memorise.
Thirdly, this in turn says something about our own reading and attention to the text for our own understanding and devotion and (if we are in a position to do so) our own preaching. There is a right move to consider texts in their wider context, and a wariness of a focus on too much detail which misses the wider picture. But Jesus’ teaching is full of pithy apothegms and memorable sayings, which often summarise or anticipate his other teaching. So we do need to attend to the detail—though without losing the bigger picture.
Fourthly, if carefully crafted, memorable sayings were important for Jesus and his teaching, shouldn’t ours be? Why shouldn’t I work on developing a memorable, structured, rhythmic saying for each of my sermons, which sums up the main points of application in a way that people can remember—or perhaps Tweet about later?
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