In the New Testament, the "Beatitudes" is the name for the opening verses of the "Sermon on the Mount," considered to be the heart of Jesus' teachings. Each Beatitude begins with the words "Blessed are ..." which in Latin is written beati sunt. That's why we call them the "Beatitudes," because they're a list of "beati."
There are two versions of the Beatitudes: one in Matthew 5 and another in Luke 6. Matthew's version is longer and better-known than Luke's (and there are some significant differences that we'll discuss in a minute). Here's the full text of the Beatitudes from Matthew (New Revised Standard Version):
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For nearly 2,000 years, theologians, scholars and everyday Christians have wrestled with these nine "paradoxical" blessings, says Rebekah Eklund, a theology professor at Loyola University of Maryland and author of "The Beatitudes Through the Ages."
The Beatitudes are paradoxical, and even "countercultural," says Eklund, because they go against the standard "wins" of secular culture. Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, not the rich and comfortable. He blesses the meek and mistreated, not the strong and popular.
But if the Beatitudes are commandments, as many Christians have interpreted them, then how are we supposed to follow them? Does God really want us to be poor and hungry? Is it a sin to be rich? Or do the Beatitudes serve a different function? Let's start by taking a closer look at the two different versions of the Beatitudes and where they came from.
The 'Q' Question
The four gospels — the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — each tell the story of Jesus in a slightly different way. Mark and John don't even mention the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount, but Matthew and Luke do. And there's a theory for why Matthew and Luke quote their own distinct versions of the Beatitudes.
"The standard scholarly explanation is that there's some original version of the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke, and the authors of Luke and Matthew made their own modifications to that original text," says Eklund.
In biblical studies circles, that mysterious original text is called "Q," which is short for quelle, the German word for "source." No one has unearthed an actual copy of Q, but it's a handy way for explaining why Matthew and Luke share several key Bible passages like the Beatitudes, while the other gospels don't.
'Blessed Are the Poor' vs. 'Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit'
But if the authors of Matthew and Luke were both referencing the same original text, then why are their two versions of the Beatitudes so different?
Ian Paul at the blog Psephizo provides a good breakdown of all the differences between Matthew 5 and Luke 6, including the fact that there are only four Beatitudes in Luke while there are eight in Matthew. (Some say nine but in general, scholars count the last two as one beatitude). But the thorniest differences for Christians and other Bible readers is the language that Jesus uses to describe the people he blesses.
In Luke, for example, Jesus blesses the "poor" and explicitly casts "woe" upon the rich. But in Matthew, Jesus blesses the "poor in spirit" and makes no mention of the rich. "Poor in spirit" is generally understood as meaning "humble," says Eklund, and blessing people for their humility strikes a very different ethical chord than blessing people for being poor (or at least not being rich).
The same contradiction holds for the verses about hunger. In Luke, Jesus blesses those "who hunger now, for you will be satisfied" and pronounces "woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry." Again, it sounds like the authors of Luke have Jesus talking about physical hunger.
But in Matthew, Jesus blesses "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Hungering for righteousness is not the same as hungering for bread, so which one is right?
"Most modern scholars think that Luke is closer to the original text," says Eklund, "and that Matthew has taken [those 'earthly' blessings in Luke] and spiritualized them."
That would explain why there are so many more blessings in Matthew, if Matthew's authors were indeed expanding and "spiritualizing" the message for their audience. But Eklund also thinks that the differences between the two versions raise some really interesting questions.
"Can the rich really be humble, in a sense? Do material 'lack' and spiritual need go together? Can I really experience 'poverty of spirit' if I'm materially wealthy?" asks Eklund. "There have been a lot of great conversations and meditations over the centuries about how to understand that Beatitude."
What Does It Really Mean to Be 'Meek'?
Of all the verses in the Beatitudes, the blessing on the "meek" is easily the most confounding. That's because in English, calling somebody "meek" is not a compliment. Meek means passive, submissive, timid, even weak. Does Jesus want his followers to be pushovers? Not likely, says Eklund.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek and was first translated and printed in English in the 16th century. In those early translations, the Greek word praus was translated as "meek," but Eklund and other scholars think that "gentle" is a better translation and is closer to the way that ancient writers would have used it.
"In classical philosophical thought, praus is the virtue of knowing how to use anger well," says Eklund. "Aristotle described praus as knowing how to be angry for the right length of time, in the right amount and for the right reasons."
So when Jesus says "blessed are the meek," he's probably talking about people who can rein in a powerful emotion and be gentle, not timid or weak. Jesus himself is described as praus in Matthew 11 and Matthew 21, and in those cases the word is translated as "gentle" and "humble," not meek.
Commandments, Descriptions or 'Invitations'?
While researching her book, Eklund found that there are two main ways the Beatitudes have been interpreted through the ages: as commandments or as descriptions. The commandment angle is easy enough to understand — if Jesus says that being merciful is a "blessed" thing, then I should strive to become more merciful, right?
The idea of the Beatitudes as a "description" also makes sense, especially in the context of Luke's version. In Luke, Jesus spends a lot of time teaching and serving the poor and outcast, who may have been powerless to change their condition.
"In that sense, the Beatitudes aren't commandments — you're supposed to become poor and hungry in order to be blessed, but if you are those things, God is on your side," says Eklund. "God promises special care and concern for you."
For her part, Eklund prefers a third interpretation of the Beatitudes — as an "invitation" to follow Jesus' example and live as he lived.
"In the gospel of Matthew, in particular, Jesus shows in narrative form what all of the Beatitudes look like," says Eklund. "He mourns, he weeps over the city of Jerusalem, he's persecuted, he shows mercy, he shows gentleness. He embodies all of these qualities."
For Christians, the Beatitudes can be a powerful invitation — albeit a paradoxical and challenging one — to be true disciples or followers of Jesus. What that looks like for each person is open for interpretation.