Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Beatitudes of Jesus

I originally wrote this paper in March 1976, in my junior year at Princeton, for a Religion course taught by Prof. Philip H. Ashby. Prof. Ashby liked the paper a great deal, and since he was a recognized authority on the history of religion, I was greatly honored.

The Beatitudes—or Blessings—of Jesus Christ are the core of the Sermon of the Mount, and therefore they’re the foundation of Christianity. Like Matthew 25, they are the foundations of Christian humanitarianism and are probably the most beautiful part of the religion.

A note of explanation: I talk about "the Q document." When Biblical scholars analyzed the New Testament, they noted that the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which all tell the same story) shared some passages that were identical. From this, scholars deduced that there must have been a written record of Christ's teachings and acts that was circulated among the primitive Christian community before the authorship of the New Testament, and the three Gospels all copied passages from this Quelle, or Q document, as it came to be called ("Quelle" is German for "source").

At the end of this essay, I append John Donne's great Christian poems, "Annunication" and "Nativity," which I've always thought are the quintessence of Christian art, and which capture so much of the ecstatic joy, beauty, and transcendence that are present in the best of Christianitya religion that, unfortunately, gets hijacked from time to time by an unloving, intolerant band of fanatics.

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Matthew 5:3-12

[3] Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

[5] Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Of Barney Fife, Don Knotts' character on "The Andy Griffith Show," Billy Bob Thornton said, "Don Knotts gave us the best character, the most clearly drawn, most perfect American, most perfect human ever." This may seems like an astonishing statement to make at first glance, but think about it—was Don Knotts ever cruel or unpleasant to anyone in his onscreen roles? He was always a kind, giving, loving person whose gentleness was mistaken for weakness—like Prince Myuskin in Dostovevsky’s The Idiot, he was a perfect representation of the Lamb. In real life, he was alleged to be exactly the same

[6] Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

[7] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

[8] Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

[9] Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

[10] Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The children of Auschwitz

[11] Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

[12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.


In The Gospel According to Matthew 5:3-12, Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with a recitation of the Beatitudes. They go as follows:

3 How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth as their heritage.

5 Happy those who mourn; they shall be comforted.

6 Happy those who hunger and thirst for what is right; they shall be satisfied.

7 Happy the merciful; they shall have mercy shown them.

8 Happy the pure in heart: they shall see God.

9 Happy the peacemakers: they shall be called sons of God.

10 Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Warsaw ghetto

11 Happy are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account.

The Warsaw ghetto

12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you. (1)

Although it is not within the scope of this short paper to judge whether Jesus actually did utter these words or not, the author of the Beatitudes certainly had as his ultimate object nothing less than a major revolution in the ethics of his time and place. "Jesus clearly expects his teaching to be put into practice." (1) For the sake of simplicity, I will call the author of the Beatitudes Jesus, for even if the historical Jesus did not make the above pronouncement, the religious construct of Jesus as presented in Matthew certainly did.

The Beatitudes are so-called because they are Christ's penultimate blessings upon mankind. (In the King James Version, Christ begins them with the invocation of "Blessed are..." rather than "How happy are...") In effect, they are the headlines of his Good News.

The King James Version

[3] Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
[5] Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
[6] Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
[7] Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
[8] Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
[9] Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
[10] Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[11] Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
[12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Taken together, the Beatitudes represent perhaps the single greatest break Jesus made with the accepted morality of his age. How revolutionary they are can only be understood by first comparing them to three similar moral codes, the Ten Commandments of Moses, the Beatitudes as recounted in Luke 6: 20-23, and the Tao-Teh-King of Lao-Tse.

To comprehend the difference between the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments, one must first realize the different circumstances in which they were formulated. Moses was a tribal leader laying down a stringent moral code in a time of severe crisis. In an age of cults and religious cosmopolitanism, Jesus was a self-proclaimed prophet who sought to revitalize Judaism, which he believed had strayed from its original intent, in the framework of his own radical interpretation of the Law. As a result, the Ten Commandments govern external modes of behavior, where the Beatitudes demand the presence of internal values to produce spiritual blessings. (2)

The Beatitudes of Luke vary from those of Matthew in two details; they are in much shorter form (lacking Matthew 5:4 and 7-10), and those blessed are referred to in the first person rather than the third. Their abbreviated form possibly indicates that Matthew drew and elaborated upon the same Q document of the sayings of Jesus as Luke; however, this is uncertain, and Matthew may have recalled details forgotten by Luke and the author of Q.

Certainly the terms in Matthew’s Beatitudes ("the gentle," "the peacemakers," " righteousness") reflect authentic Jewish religious concerns that Jesus could well have voiced. We cannot discount the authenticity of the Beatitudes that Matthew includes and that Luke lacks, because Matthew's aim is simply to stress Christ's continuity with Hebrew tradition, for Luke 6:33 goes out of its way to have Jesus tell his followers that in suffering for his cause, they will be following in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets; presumably Q does this as well.

As for the change in persons between the two versions of the Beatitudes, in Luke, they are almost incidental remarks Jesus makes to his apostles; by changing the person and lengthening the list of those blessed, Matthew turns the Beatitudes into a wide-ranging liturgy of almost ceremonial solemnity that amounts to a dramatic statement of doctrine. In Luke, the Beatitudes are the seeds of an explosive idea; in Matthew, they flower.

Some five hundred years before Christ. Lao-Tse, the founder of Taoism, wrote a passage of the Tao-Teh-King that amazingly parallels the Beatitudes in "structure, subject, and spirit," (3) A sample will serve to illustrate the striking resemblance:

Whoever adaptheth himself shall be preserved to the end.
Whoever bendeth himself shall be straightened.

Whoever empieth himself shall be filled....

Whoever exalteth himself shall be abased. (4)

As one can see, the similarity between the two moral codes is amazing. Both Lao-Tse and Jesus see humility as the key to an exemplary life. It is in what the end result is of the adherence to such a life that the two differ. Lao-Tse sees humility as a private quality one should cultivate as part of one's personal responsibility.

In order to insure social harmony. Jesus urges us to practice the virtues of the Beatitudes in order to attain bliss with the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus' message is eschatological; and the incentive he gives for one's leading the Christian life is for one to survive the Apocalypse. Where for Lao-Tse Taoism is its own spiritual reward, for Jesus post-millennial salvation is the reward for observance of the Christian virtues.

The entire thrust of the Beatitudes is eschatological. They are structured simply to drive home Christ’s apocalyptic point. In addition to the fact that "they are poetic in form" (5) and that "Even the long ninth beatitude may be in accordance with the conventional forms of Jewish poetry," it is most important to note that every Beatitude is stated in a rigid two-part liturgical form. The first proclaims the virtue Christ favors; the second asserts how that virtue will rewarded when the Kingdom of God arrives.

Their message is plainly understandable; all those who follow Christ will survive the coming apocalypse, and those who do not will be annihilated. As bland as the verities Christ blesses may seem to us, the terms he used had powerful connotations for his audience; and they knew full well that what they were witnessing was a total overthrow of their existing ethical structure.

The first Beatitude (Matthew 5: 3)—“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—is unequivocal. The poor are spiritually blessed because, being poor, they have spiritual values that the wealthy, lacking the hardship that can induce compassion, are without. Jesus' was well-known for his sympathy for the economically oppressed of Palestine (as shown in the story of the widow's mite) and well-known for his antipathy for the comfortably rich (as seen in the story of the rich young man, Matthew 19: 16-22). His attitude was in complete opposition to the scorn the Hebrew religious hierarchy had toward the local peasantry, calling them "the folk of the soil."

This declaration repudiates the standards of his time that Jesus makes in subsequent Beatitudes. The poor are, of course, to be members of the kingdom of God to come upon earth, by virtue of their oppressed status. Jesus accepted the poor not only to enlarge his movement with the masses of the outcast. Because he was a radical interpreter of the Law who wished to return Judaism to what he thought were its traditions, he literally believed the Hebrew idea that all men are equal before the eyes of God, and so he believed they should have an equal opportunity to enter His kingdom.

"The gentle" of the second Beatitude (Matthew 5:4), "the meek" in the King James and RSV Bibles, are described in Psalm 37: 11; they are those whose natural spirit of temperance restrains them from pride and arrogance. However, Jesus takes this perfectly orthodox Old Testament term, well-known to his audience, and with it makes an astounding assertion; the gentle will inherit the earth not through force but by virtue of their gentleness, as a reward for their virtue at the End of Days.

Warsaw ghetto

In the third Beatitude (Matthew 5:5), "those who mourn" are those who do not ignore the sorrows of the world, but instead accept it; "they shall be comforted," presumably at the End of Time, when the other rewards are meted out. This Beatitude fits in perfectly with Christ's acceptance and endurance of human suffering, symbolized most directly by his Passion.

"Those who hunger and thirst for what is right" of the fourth Beatitude (Matthew 5:6) manifest a physical desire for spiritual needs. However, as the eschatological second part of the liturgy makes clear, "what is right" ("righteousness" in other versions, and loosely translated as "equity and humanity" and "justice held in love”) cannot be obtained through force. Like the gentle, the spiritually hungry will be rewarded by the grace of Christ in the Last Days because they exhibit Christian virtues with sincerity. (9)

"The merciful" of the fifth Beatitude (Matthew 5:7) pity the unfortunate and put their mercy into practice. This is perhaps the most revolutionary of all Jesus' teachings, for in his time, the Stoics, the Romans, and the Pharisees (see Matthew 23: 23) all ridiculed compassion as a sign of weakness. (10) But as Jesus makes clear, the merciful "shall have mercy shown them" during the Reign of the Lamb. As for "the pure in heart" of the sixth Beatitude (Matthew 5:8), both purity and heart carried sharp meanings in Christ's time. Purity was a single-minded purpose to perform God's will. "'Heart' in Semitic speech includes the mind as well as the emotions." Therefore, Jesus here was preaching to his audience to carry out with fanatic zeal God's will, which was, since Jesus indicated that he was probably God (“I’m not the , his own teachings. As a reward, the faithful "shall see God" when Christ's heavenly kingdom is fulfilled according to eschatological timetable.

Again, with "the peacemakers" of the Seventh Beatitude (Matthew 5:9), Jesus uses a loaded term. In the Old Testament, peace meant personal and social harmony brought about by "trust, love, and obedience toward God." The peacemakers then are those who strive for peace through personal action by involving themselves in the world. They shall be called the sons of God because they will love their enemies, just as He is generous to all his creatures, one of Christ's favorite themes. And when will they be called the sons of God? Come the Apocalypse, in return for their Christian faith.

Just as "the peacemakers" are "the pure in heart" who have put their "hunger and thirst for what is right" into terms of action, "those who are persecuted in the cause of right" in the seventh Beatitude (Matthew 5:10) are these same Christians, whose fate Jesus foresees, and whom he reassures. They are to suffer the injustices visited upon them for their faith because like the rest of the virtuous, they shall be rewarded in the kingdom of heaven, when the Lord sweeps away this earthly veil and in abolishing chronometrical time institutes hermeneutical time, or interpretive time.

The Mourning of Christ by Giotto

Jesus elaborates on this theme in the eighth and last Beatitude, whose first part is Matthew 5:11 and second part 5:12. Essentially it is the same as its predecessor, in praise of martyrdom for Christ, except that in Matthew 5:12 he makes an important addition; in linking the eschatological reward of his followers with the persecution of the renowned prophets from the Hebrew tradition, he is making a powerful claim that he has come to fulfill the promise of the Messiah foretold by the prophets and so close the book of Jewish temporal existence. (In the Lukan version of the Beatitudes Jesus does the same.) The message for his followers is clear; by making themselves microchristi, or imitata of Christ, they can participate in this great eschatological venture, and by following the moral dictates of the Beatitudes, become part of the post-millennial world Jesus is proposing.

Indeed, Jesus was able to create a new moral ethos out of the Palestinian Judaism of his environment, as we can see by examining the Beatitudes as a microcosm of the teachings of his ministry, but only by plucking terms out of the Old Testament ("the gentle," "righteousness," "the pure in heart," "the peacemakers," "the sons of God") and integrating them into his personal religious vision, whose elements of mercy, unqualified acceptance of the poor, and belief in the inevitable eschatological victory of humility ran directly against the teachings of traditional Judaism, contrary to his own belief.

Convinced he was the Messiah come to end time, he sought to impose his revolutionary worldview in absolutist terms on a social complex that, due to such forces as the Roman occupation and the rise of institutionalized priestly class of the Pharisees and Sadducees, had evolved far beyond that of the world of the traditional prophets. For that reason he was crucified.

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The Yellow Christ by Paul Gaughin



  1. George A. Buttrick, Exposition, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," The Interpreter Bible, Vol. VII (New York, 1951), p. 200.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Joyce O. Hertzler, The Social Thought of the Ancient Civilizations (New York, 1937), p. 211.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Buttrick, op. cit.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 282.
  10. Ibid., p. 284.
  11. Ibid., p. 285.
  12. Ibid., p. 286.


Buttrick, George A. Exposition, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," The Interpreter Bible, Vol. VII. New York, 1951.

Hertzler, Joyce O. The Social Thought of the Ancient Civilizations. New York, 1937.

The Jerusalem Bible. New York, 1969.

John Donne (1572-1631


Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.


Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.