Posted by: mattcolvin | February 15, 2013

The New Perspective on the Beatitudes (or “What Jesus Really Said”)


Above: The opening of the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-4), taken from the Book of Kells.

It is disappointing when an otherwise excellent commentary neglects the one crucial piece of background that is the key to understanding the entire passage.

An example is the treatment of the Beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-10) in Frederick Dale Bruner’s outstanding Matthew: The Christbook. Bruner spends many pages trying to pin down what πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι means: is it talking about the physically poor or the “spiritually poor”? Does it mean those who are without resources, or those who are humble? Thus he manages to miss what for Jesus’ hearers would have been the dominant note in the Beatitudes: namely, Jewish eschatology.

To catch this main theme of the Beatitudes, we need only consult the margins of NA27, which list the passages that are parallel to, or echoed by, the main text. For πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, these marginal notes rightly direct us to the latter chapters of the prophet Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah 57:15-18:

“…Prepare the way,
Take the stumbling block out of the way of My people.
For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
I dwell in the high and holy place,
With him who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
For I will not contend forever,
Nor will I always be angry…
I was angry and struck him;
I hid and was angry,…
I have seen his ways, and will heal him;
I will also lead him,
And restore comforts to him
And to his mourners.”

This is a prophetic hymn about the end of exile, about the consolation of Israel, the return of YHWH to dwell with a repentant and chastened people. “Prepare the way” should remind us of Isaiah 40:3, which Matthew applies to John the Baptist’s activity of readying Israel to receive its King.

Thus, when Jesus speaks of “the poor in spirit” and says that “theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” this latter phrase should be understood as the kingdom that everyone was expecting and waiting for: a concrete, historical event, with a definite date. It is not a general benediction upon the impoverished of the world in all ages – however attractive that might be, especially to liberal interpreters.

Similarly, in 5:5, Jesus pronounces benediction on the meek (οἱ πραεῖς). This unusual word is taken directly from Psalm 37:9-11:

“For evildoers shall be cut off;
But those who wait on the Lord,
They shall inherit the earth.
For yet a little while and the wicked shall be no more;
Indeed, you will look carefully for his place,
But it shall be no more.
But the meek (LXX: οἱ πραεῖς) shall inherit the earth,
And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”

Psalm 37 is a Psalm of David about the reign of the wicked and the oppression of the weak. It assures us that this will be ended when YHWH acts and overthrows the wicked. Then the righteous will “dwell in the land and feed on His faithfulness.” This clears up an uncertainty that has puzzled some interpreters: namely, how can one “inherit” the earth? From whom would one inherit it? Psalm 37 makes clear that the meek inherit it from the people who were previously oppressing them. That is what is meant by “evildoers shall be cut off”: they shall be left without descendant. Psalm 37 teaches the same thing as Proverbs 13:22: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.”

The phrase in Matthew 5 is “inherit the earth (τὴν γῆν),” but it could just as well be translated “inherit the land.” But it is of little consequence, for the promise of the land was understood by the NT’s writers to entail the gift of the entire earth in due course: so Paul says (Romans 4:13) “for not through the Torah was the promise to Abraham or to his Seed, that he was the heir of the world (κόσμου).” Again, think back to Abraham’s situation: the land that he had been promised was overrrun and swarming with wicked Canaanite tribes. God promised that they would be no more, and that the land they owned would be handed over to the descendants of righteous Abraham.

For Jesus’ hearers as he sat upon the Mount, these echoes of Isaiah and the Psalms would have stirred up the prophetic expectations in which they had been steeped for the hundreds of years since the exile.

The reading of the Beatitudes for which I am arguing here — and I admit I have not yet done the grunt-work to establish it for all of them — has the great virtue of making that passage fit in a satisfying way with the previous words Jesus uttered — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” It also appears to match with Jesus’ words at his inaugural synagogue sermon in Luke 4:

And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Thus both Matthew and Luke begin their accounts of Jesus’ ministry with an occasion when he used words from Isaiah to describe Himself as the one in whom YHWH was fulfilling these prophecies of the end of exile. That is what is meant by “the acceptable year of YHWH.”

A concluding, provocative thought: it seems to me that the prophecies of Isaiah occupied a central place in His understanding of Himself and of His mission. They, more than any other locus of Scripture, provided Jesus with both the story of exile and deliverance and the imagery of YHWH’s relationship to Israel that He used as the source for His own stories and acted prophecies. And He did so from the very beginning of His ministry. Thus, it would be fair to say that the prophecies of Isaiah were “self-fulfilling,” inasmuch as they caused the young Jesus to understand Himself and His vocation to be and to do what only YHWH could be and do for Israel. I realize it is speculative whenever we get into Jesus’ self-understanding, but the more I ponder it, the more convinced I am that it is the only way to avoid a Docetic Jesus.

It seems to me that we must understand the Beatitudes in light of OT prophecy, or else we will fail to understand them at all.



  1. The Gospel of Matthew does emphasize the fulfillment of OT prophecy, and includes numerous quotes and allusions to Isaiah. Yet the fulfillment of those passages brings a new level of reality, beyond what was expected. Thus the danger of focusing on OT prophecy as the primary context for understanding Jesus misses the newness Jesus brings with his kingdom and its blessings.
    I think the context of Matthew itself sheds more light on the beatitudes than does Isaiah. For example, Mt. 3-4 has shown Jesus anointed by the Spirit (from heaven) as the new king, who is then led by the Spirit to suffer hardship in the desert; after calling some disciples to follow him (and form the nucleus of his new kingdom) by giving up prosperous work to follow this poor Messiah (king), he then speaks the first blessing to these disciples. That context suggests it is best translated: Blessed are the poor in the Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of (and from) heaven.

    • I don’t think attempting to understanding Jesus’ words in the same way as his original hearers causes anyone to miss the newness, Lucas. Indeed, I would think it is the necessary first step to determining what is new and what is not.

      For the meaning of “kingdom of heaven”, see NT Wright’s _Jesus and the Victory of God_. It is simply and wholly a pious circumlocution for “the reign of God.” Compare the prodigal son’s words, “I have sinned against heaven and against you” (= “against God and against you”).

  2. […] beatitudes should be read in the light of Old Testament prophecy. In Matthew’s gospel the beatitudes are alone in chapter 5, with corresponding woes in chapter 23 […]

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