Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Blessed English Translations

The Beatitudes are so called because each one starts with a Greek word, Makarios, which was rendered Beati in Latin and, most commonly, Blessed in English. That being the case you might expect that the underlying word used by Matthew would have something to do with blessings, or with being blessed. Nope. Makarios, the word Matthew uses, is unrelated to the Greek words for either.

A lot of commentaries on the Beatitudes tie themselves in knots attempting to explain why people who are clearly have not been blessed are described by Jesus as being so. They are missing the point. Others treat Jesus' words as if they are a list of things we have to do or be in order to be blessed by God: legalistic nonsense! You'd think there were enough rules and regulations in the Old Testament for anyone (613 is, I believe, the traditional count) without adding more (and Jesus is explicit, later in the sermon, that the Law stands as it is: no adding or taking away from it).

A few English translations render makarios as 'happy' instead of 'blessed'. That too is another word entirely. So what does makarios mean?

Originally makarios simply meant 'free from daily cares or worries' - which has an obvious link with later on in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? ... But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."
But words in all languages are living things, with multiple meanings and implications, and makarios found itself being used in a conventional formula:-
  • "Makarios is the family man with his children" - because they were both his security for old age and the security of his line for future generations.
  • "Makarios is the rich man with his wealth" - because that protects against hard times when they come.
  • "Makarios are the pious on their inward well-being" - because that allows them to face future vicissitudes with equanimity.
  • "Makarios are the religious on their experience of God" - who will presumably ensure their future.
The link to the original meaning is reasonably clear for these, but then the meaning developed a bit further to become something more like 'congratulations' - for a new child, for a profitable business deal, for progress on piety or religion, and so on.

The other link in the chain to the Beatitudes comes with the adaptation of that formula to the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) where it is used (especially in the Psalms) about the peace and security which comes from doing things God's way:
  • Makarios is the nation whose God is the Lord; the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance (Psalm 33:12).
  • Makarios is the man whose hope is in the name of the Lord (Psalm 40:4).
  • Makarios is the man who thinks on the poor and needy: the Lord shall deliver him in an evil day (Psalm 41:1).
  • O Lord of hosts, Makarios is the man that trusts in you (Psalm 84:12).
  • Makarios are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times (Psalm 106:3).
  • Makarios are all they that fear the Lord; who walk in his ways. You shall eat the labours of your hands: makarios are you, and it shall be well with you. Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine on the sides of your house: your children as young olive-plants round about your table. (Psalm 128:1-3).
That final one is a bit longer but gives a nice parallel to the earlier Greek example of the family man and his children.

So the meaning of makarios is somewhere in the range from 'free from care and worry', through 'secure for the future' and 'secure in God' to 'congratulations' (on securing your future).

There is at least one English translation which uses 'congratulations' for the Beatitudes; personally I feel uncomfortable congratulating people on their devastating loss or crushing oppression, however secure their future in God might be.

There is clearly no simple single English word which reflects exactly the resonances of makarios in Matthew's original - never mind Jesus' probable underlying Hebrew word ‘eshrê. So, pre-empting some future posts discussing other parts of the Beatitudes, I am currently inclined to go with 'secure in God', along the lines of:-
  • Secure in God are the spiritually poor, because they are already part of God's kingdom.
  • Secure in God are those who have suffered devastating loss, because they will be comforted. 
  • Secure in God are the crushed and oppressed, especially the landless poor, because they will inherit the land.
and so on.

In the end the Beatitudes are about bringing hope to the apparently hopeless and a future in God to those who feel they have no future.

A final thought: it's the Feast of St Brigit in a couple of days; if you click on the picture above, or on this link, it will take you to a poem called Brigit's Feast, which seems appropriate in a discussion on the Sermon on the Mount.

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