Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Context of the Beatitudes

In an excellent discussion of Jesus as teacher in the Wisdom tradition, Marcus Borg remarks:
Jesus used these invitational and provocative forms of speech –aphorisms and parables – to subvert conventional ways of seeing and living, and to invite his hearers to an alternative way of life. As a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not primarily a teacher of information (what to believe) or morals (how to behave), but a teacher of a way or path of transformation… [f]rom a life in the world of conventional wisdom to a life centered in God. ”. (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 74).

It is crucial to put the short sayings of Jesus known as the Beatitudes into the wider context of the gospel traditions. These sayings of Jesus, known best in Matthew’s version, have all too often been torn from their context and treated as a unit in themselves, seen as the very essence of Jesus’ message, a kind of epitome of all that he taught. This view became particularly prominent in the mid 19th century as critical studies revealed just how much the developing community shaped and added to what was considered the “original” message of Jesus. It was a complex picture of the N.T. documents that emerged; it became clear that they contained much more than the actual words that Jesus spoke, which scholars like to call the ipsissima verba. Also embedded in the narrative framework were attempts of the community to understand the message in the wider context, firstly of Judaism and then Hellenism; almost certainly it was these varying contexts of first century Christianity that account for the multiple versions of the same saying or parable clearly adapted for different locations, cultures, and decades.

Beyond the issue of the spoken word were the attempts of the early communities to understand both the actions of Jesus and the reactions of various groups: the inner circle of followers, the crowd, the authorities both Jewish and Roman and, above all, the many‘outsiders’ who frequently appear in the text. The gospel accounts that had seemed relatively straightforward were revealed in their bewildering complexity.
That, however, does not complete the factors that need to be taken into account as we try to put the beatitudes in context: not only is there the context of these sayings within the gospel traditions, there is the context of a century or more of the new historical approach to the New Testament documents, the context of a critical examination of all aspects of the documents – their dates, their authors, their religious and philosophical sub texts, their transmission in MS form and so on. A second important aspect of this is that critics and historians (and, of course, scientists, sociologists and, perhaps, preeminently, theologians) bring pre-suppositions, often unnoticed, to their task. One very potent influence in the mid 19th century in ‘Liberal Protestant’ circles was the view that Christianity, beginning as early as the writings of Paul, had turned a “simple ethical” message of a Palestinian holy man into a complicated theological structure on which had been erected an even more top-heavy ecclesiastical structure in the form of Western Catholicism. It was very common to talk of stripping away layers of accretions and arriving at the simple ethical teaching of Jesus. By the beginning of the 20th century more radical questioning began; the need relentlessly to uncover pre-conceptions and to recognize prejudices profoundly altered the approach to N.T. studies. Looking back to the heyday of critical writing, someone said that those early liberal protestant scholars had looked down the well of history to find Jesus and had seen their own reflection.

A more dispassionate study suggested that the simple ethical gospel was a myth; that is not to say that ethical issues are not very important in the gospels, and particularly in some of the Letters, but it is to put the centre of gravity elsewhere. A potent factor in the change in focus has been the remarkable archeological finds of the last century. In 1898 a collection of papyrus fragments was found in Oxyrhynchus: among the hundreds of pages and fragments some two dozen are from the N.T. (e.g. a leaf from Mt 1; short sections of Romans, I Cor. and the Johannine letters). The were also three fragments with sayings of Jesus, but it was not until 1945 that their significance was dramatically revealed. In that year the greatest find apart from the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made in a town known in antiquity as Nag Hammadi (120 m. South of Cairo). Among the books found was one titled The Gospel of Thomas. Like all the books in this collection it was written in Coptic, “a form of late Egyptian written in Greek characters” (H.B.D. p.679), but the Oxyrhynchus papyri were clearly from this gospel and pointed to quite an early date for the circulation of Thomas: an emerging consensus dates it around 140 -180 C.E.

It has become clear that both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are in some measure branches of the same tree, but by the middle of the first century C.E. they were diverging widely. Perhaps Paul’s comment in Galatians 3.28 is the most succinct possible summary of the situation: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”. This is a radical rejection of a religion of exclusivity and represents one of the earliest understandings we have of Jesus’ teaching. After all, Galatians was written fifteen to twenty years before our earliest canonical Gospel.

The wider context is established by the opening verses of St. Mark’s book: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Messiah…[was] John the Baptizer.“ (1.1,4). What follows is a brief description of John reviving the long defunct line of Prophets and, like them, speaking of Yahweh, the LORD, who is to come. Jesus is baptized, that is, anointed, in Jesus’ case not only with water but with the touch of the Spirit of Yahweh), sent into the desert to fast and pray and emerges, says Mark, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (1.14). This sounds more like an eschatological prophet than an ethical teacher and gives us the clue for understanding all that follows, not only in Mark but in all the Synoptic Gospels.


Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is the best known, and it may well be that many assume it is the only recording of the sayings and also assume that they are all the precise words of Jesus, spoken in precisely this order. On the contrary, all but die-hard fundamentalists agree that the sermon is a Matthean creation, a view espoused even by Calvin more than four centuries ago. Matthew places the blessings at the start of a carefully crafted section of his book which begins by placing Jesus on a mountain. This section is known as the Sermon on the Mount and is the first of five collections of sayings that Mathew incorporates into the wider narrative. Mathew is the most Judaic of all the gospels, the mountain of the Beatitudes, for example, is clearly parallel to Sinai, but, at the same time, he is very critical of the legalistic, narrowing elements of official Palestinian Judaism. In spite of his Judaic background, Matthew has understood the radical, even subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching. This is important when we come to the interpretation of the Beatitudes which make little sense unless we read them in the context of Rabbinic precedents, while at the same time (and this is crucial) understand that though using Rabbinical argumentation, Matthew is also transmitting a highly radical message that totally undermines some of the main foundations of first-century Palestinian Judaism.


The sayings of Jesus are found throughout the gospel traditions and this includes many gospels that did not make it into the official list: the sayings found in the synoptic gospels have interesting parallels in the Gospel of Thomas. The words of Jesus in the Fourth gospel are another matter. There are a few that have the same aphoristic ring as the earlier material, but much of what Jesus says here has been shaped by John into a series of long discourses, centered on some saying like “I am the bread of life”.


It seems virtually certain that Matthew and Luke both used an early, possibly very early, Sayings Collection of the same genre as Thomas. This has universally come to be called Q from its original German description as a Quelle, a source; that name left quite open the nature of the material and for over a century biblical scholars have debated, mulled and fought over Q. In the middle of the 20th century, it was impossible to open a Biblical Studies Journal (Journal of Theological Studies, Expository Times and many more) without at least a major article and a series of shorter notes on Q: someone would write “On dispensing with Q”. another “Q as Oral Tradition”, and yet another would counter, “The shape of the Document Q”. In recent decades the deluge has abated, and a majority consensus, (though not an overwhelming one), has emerged that Q most probably represents some oral tradition and one or more written collections of sayings; moreover, it is widely accepted that these are the earliest records that we have of the words of Jesus, and that Luke has more often that Mt preserved the sayings in a form close to the original.


In contrast to the many sayings and parables found in Matthew and Luke, Mark seems threadbare: there is the famous parable of the sower and there are several other agriculture-based parables like the seed growing in secret. There are several sayings collections in Mark in 4.21-25. 8.34-38 & 9.37-50. among these are well-known aphorisms like: ‘Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed’ (note the eschatological emphasis); ‘the measure you give with is the measure you receive’. Almost all this material is incorporated by Matthew and Luke in varying contexts, but it is a relatively short list . Why does Mark have so little of the teaching? The most likely answer is that Q was well known as well established oral tradition or in the form of short written collections and Mark provides the first narrative framework for the sayings.

Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6.20-49, 29 verses in all) is much shorter than Mathew’s Sermon on the Mount (5.3 – 7.29, over 100 verses). and only three beatitudes are found in Lk (and perhaps, therefore in Q?) This suggests that the core of Jesus’ teaching pronounces a blessing on the poor, the hungry and those who mourn. Thomas has the first two almost word for word: “Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to you.” (Thom, 54) and, “Jesus says: Blessed are those who suffer from hunger, so that the belly of the one who wishes (it) will be satisfied.” (Thom, 69:2). Matthew’s final Beatitude, Luke’s third blessing on the persecuted is also found in Thomas – Mt. 5.10-11, Lk. 6.22 [Q], Thom. 68. This data, naturally has led to a great deal of debate about the status of the other beatitudes in Matthew; did he compose them? were they from some other sayings collection? and so on. Much of the discussion has raged round the issue of “authenticity”. This is in many ways a hang-over from the 19th century liberal efforts to strip away accretions and get to the authentic Jesus. I hope I have shown that the complexity of the N.T. documents prevents such an enterprise. What we have in Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching for a specific Christian community towards the end of the first century C.E.. A great deal of evidence suggests that Matthew has, indeed, understood the central core of the radical message of Jesus which turned on its head much conventional wisdom, as Marcus Borg calls it.
Typical expressions of conventional wisdom are, “good people are rewarded by wealth”, “God will accept you if you try hard enough” or “misfortune is a sign of God’s displeasure”. These all represent religious positions, not only of influential strands of Judaism, but universally in all religions, and, perhaps preeminently in the civic religion of the USA. Conventional wisdom, however, covers more than religion, laying down norms for the whole of life: table manners, social address, political issues and much more, all best summed up by saying that conventional wisdom establishes very clear social boundaries which, usually quite unnoticed, rule our lives. Borg writes “[W]hether in religious or secular form, conventional wisdom creates a world in which we live” (op.cit. 77). Conventional wisdom constructs our views of reality and rules us with a rod of iron. It was this conventional wisdom that Jesus overturned both by sayings like the Beatitudes, dealing with religious realities, and his persistent flouting of social convention by the practice of open table fellowship. One might say that the tyrannical rule of conventional wisdom was challenged by Jesus’ core teaching: the Rule of God is upon you. This is the context of the Beatitudes and an essential category in interpreting them.

1 comment:

Cabell said...

Context is essential and Canon Mein gives us a good example of its importance. So much of what is askew in contemporary Christian utterance is an utter lack of context.
It would be useful to apply this to a homily. Any takers?

Cabell