Matthew Chapter 5:1-10

Here we begin the Sermon on the Mount. Most of the next two or three chapters are Jesus speaking. This is where, I think, the idea of Q came from. Where was all this speech in Mark? As noted at the end of the last commentary, Mark introduced Jesus’ public ministry with a healing that was also a slap at the existing religious authorities. As such, it was something of a revolutionary moment. This is a much gentler Jesus, less overtly provocative. I think for this reason the Q believers, and a lot of Christians in general would like to see this as representing the “real” Jesus, that this speech represented the core of the teaching of the historical Jesus. That it did not make it into Mark was a problem. Matthew post-dates Mark; if Mark does not have this, then doesn’t this imply that, possibly, much of the content of this speech does not trace back to Jesus?

This quandary is neatly and effectively solved by Q. With Q, this can be the authentic tradition that was passed down in a source that did not survive, except in excerpt into Matthew and Luke. Certainly, many Classical Greek authors or thinkers are only known this way. But this is not the place to discuss the Q question; that will come. For now, suffice it to point out that Q satisfies an ardent desire of many Christian thinkers: it lets the thoughts expressed in the next few chapters of Matthew represent the real Jesus, and it provides a vehicle for the transmission of these thoughts by way of a written source, thereby providing a measure of confidence that Jesus actually spoke these words. As such, the idea of Q seems a little too tidy for my historian’s training. It seems a bit too much like, if Q didn’t exist, it became necessary to discover it between the lines of the texts that we do have.

1 Ἰδὼν δὲ τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνέβη εἰς τὸ ὄρος: καὶ καθίσαντος αὐτοῦ προσῆλθαν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ:

Seeing the crowds, he went up the mountain. And he being seated, his disciples approached him.  

To a certain degree, this corresponds to the beginning of Mark 3. There, pressed by the crowd, Jesus put out into a boat and preached from there. Here the logistical problem is solved by Jesus ascending (at least partway) a mountain, using that as his raised podium. [ Note: Kloppenborg agrees that this is where one might reasonably expect the Sermon on the Mount should be located had Mark included it. Always nice to have one’s inferences & judgements corroborated. ]

In many ways, some of the questions raised here should have been discussed during the reading of Mark. But we had no point of comparison like we do now, so the “compare and contrast” technique suggests itself. The base question is “why didn’t Mark report what Jesus taught?” And that is a truly penetrating question that gets to the heart of the intent of the different evangelists. It’s also not a question I’ve encountered in the scholarly literature; I’m sure it’s addressed. Somewhere. I’m sure that the fault is entirely mine for not having widely enough. But it’s strange to note that this question does not come up in the discussions about Q. And that, indeed, may be legitimate; the case for Q may not be the appropriate venue for discussing why Mark did not report the teaching.

Matthew’s reason for reporting it, OTOH, is entirely pellucid, as my fourth year Latin prof used to say. As noted in my intro above, Matthew wanted to present this as the core of Jesus’ teaching, so it’s really the first significant act of Jesus’ public ministry that he reports. That Matthew uses this, rather than the healing of the man’s withered hand in the synagogue on a Sabbath puts forward a very different Jesus than Mark did. Perhaps this Jesus is just as revolutionary; indeed, he may be more revolutionary.  

1 Videns autem turbas, ascendit in montem; et cum sedisset, ac cesserunt ad eum discipuli eius;

2 καὶ ἀνοίξας τὸ στόμα αὐτοῦ ἐδίδασκεν αὐτοὺς λέγων,

And opening his mouth, he taught them, saying,

Yes, it is necessary to open one’s mouth to teach and speak. At least we can be sure that Jesus did not impart his message telepathically. 

2 et aperiens os suum docebat eos dicens:

3 Μακάριοιοἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, that of them is the kingdom of the heavens.

Looking at the Greek here, I’m wondering about the “in” spirit. It’s a dative, but there’s no preposition to provide any clues as to how this should be rendered: by, with, in…And the Latin is no help because there is no preposition there, either. There’s nothing wrong with “in”; it makes a lot of sense in English. The point though, is that it’s a consensus translation rather than something that’s absolutely in the Greek. I suppose we can assume the sense was passed along from the beginning by people who spoke the language, but, again, just want to point this out. It’s important to realize when a translation is secure, and when it’s a little bit loose.

Second, I should have pointed this out earlier: Matthew prefers to call it the kingdom “of the heavens” (plural). Now, this doesn’t have to mean anything different than the singular; I tracked this for a while before giving up on it as a false distinction. For example, in English, we have the expression “and the heavens opened”, meaning that it started to rain like fury. It’s hard to explain why Matthew choses to use this term, rather than “kingdom of God”, or “kingdom of heaven”.  Now, in English, “heaven” would mean the abode of the divine used in however trivial a manner; hence, “heavenly hash” ice cream. OTOH, “the heavens” is generally a synonym for “the sky”. But this is 21st Century English usage, it’s not First Century Greek usage. So chances are there’s no significance that we can determine from the remove of two millennia. 

Now, considering that this is the opening of the speech, we are probably justified in taking this as a thesis sentence. This is what Matthew believes Jesus said to introduce the concept of the kingdom. But how likely is it that this is how Jesus began? Quite unlikely, in my opinion. Here’s the situation: it’s perhaps fifty years after the fact. There may–or may not–have been a written source that recorded the words. But, even assuming there was, did one of the disciples act as stenographer, taking notes as Jesus spoke? Something like, “poor in spirit>>kgdm hvn”? Probably not. So, if there was no one on the spot taking notes, how much time elapsed between Jesus speaking the words and the words being written down for the very first time? A month? A year? More like five? My bet would be that none of this was written during Jesus’ lifetime. Rather, it only began to be written down after Jesus died, because only then did it become essential to remember what Jesus said and did. More, if Jesus died very suddenly as I expect he did, then this unexpected departure may have caused a burst of writing down what the master had said.

And here’s the other thing. Jesus taught, repeatedly, over a period of time. Did he have the equivalent of a politician’s stump* speech? A speech, a set of teachings that he repeated over and over? Perhaps. Does the text here represent that speech? Now recall the context: Matthew says that Jesus traveled all over, to Syria, the Decapolis, etc. Did he do that before this moment? Or was that a summary of Jesus’ entire career? If the former, did he use those travels to work out the essentials of his message? If so, does that mean that his message changed over time? Or that the repetition allowed him to get the meaning across in an economical, efficient manner. IOW, a set-piece stump speech.

Is that scenario possible? Possibly. Is it likely? That’s really hard to say; more, I think it would have to depend on, to some degree, the length of his ministry. The more time he spent preaching, the more consistent his message would be.  He would start off saying different things in different ways, but eventually he’d hit on a phrase that worked particularly well, and that would become the standard. As he began his ministry, he probably tossed things off under the inspiration of the moment. Bur further reflection he would probably consider some of these inspirations truly a good thing, while others would fall by the wayside because they were unable to stand up to further reflection. Is this the metaphor for the sower and the seed? So, with time, the message would become more refined, more consistent in both content and language. So that’s the genesis of the set-piece stump speech.

More on that later. For now, our concern is to figure out what Matthew sees as the message, what message he wants to convey. The maxim presented here is familiar to even the most casual Christians, I believe. Anyone who’s been to church over a period of time has probably heard this sentiment. As such, we all know what the implication is. Now, think about it, the poor, but only in spirit. Recall Mark’s axiom about the rich man and the camel and the eye of the needle. What we have here is very different. Perhaps Mark’s message was a bit more of “expropriate the expropriators”, but this only requires that one be poor in spirit. That is, wealth, per se, was not an obstacle, so long as one maintained the outlook of the poor. Among the upper class, but not of it. Mark’s statement has implications for social revolution: the rich are to be excluded from the kingdom. This is not necessarily true here.

As such, I believe that this represents a belief, or a teaching, that has evolved over time. What this entails is that it’s not very likely that Jesus actually said these words, words which, in a very real sense, provide a deep insight into the meaning of being a Christian.

I have just learned from Kloppenborg’s Q: The Earliest Gospel that Luke says “blessed are the poor”. Of course, since this whole speech is not in Mark, the immediate inference is that this speech comes from Q. And, the fact that Like has simply “the poor”, and “the hungry” is taken to mean that Luke records the more “primitive” version, that his version is more faithful to Q, and so is more likely to be what Jesus actually said. And I have to admit that this is the first “argument” for Q that really made me sit back and wonder if there might not be something to the whole Q premise. Mind you, I’m not convinced, but it’s a point that I have to consider. Again, I will explain the reasons I don’t buy into Q in a separate post, or series of posts.

Regardless, this statement is a very sophisticated, subtle, and nuanced thought. Now, Kloppenborg says that “poor in spirit” is just a synonym for “humble”, in the sense of “humility”, but that doesn’t change the beauty of the thought expressed. What I get from this is that Matthew was capable of some penetrating and poetic thinking. That is, he was able to re-interpret “the poor” as those “poor in spirit”. This implies no small measure of creative thinking and imagination. In short, it shows that Matthew is very capable of making stuff up. And this, I think, puts rather a different spin on the composition of the second gospel.

In the literature, one finds reference to special material that is unique to Matthew, and to the source M that lies behind the special material unique to Matthew. In addition, Kloppenborg even tries to tease out which of this material was actually part of Q that Luke omitted for reasons unknown. This desire to attribute Matthew’s new material to a source Q or a separate source M overlooks the possibility that Matthew may have been a religious thinker of the first order. There is no reason why Matthew did not write the stuff attributed to M. (There is also an hypothetical source L for the material unique to Luke.) There is no reason he did not create this material himself. There is one very big reason to insist that it was not created by Matthew. By attributing it to Q or M, the ultimate source can ultimately–if only tenuously and hypothetically–be traced back to Jesus. If we admit that Matthew may have created it, then we have lost that link to the living Jesus. As a theological position, this makes a lot of sense; as an historical position, it has very little to recommend it.

The Q/M/L material may have originated with Jesus. It may have been transmitted more or less faithfully. But those are contingent probabilities; the second rests on the first, and if you know how probability works, you will realize that each contingent probability decreases the chance of occurrence. A one-in-three chance based on a one-in-two chance becomes a one-in-six chance. So this double contingency reduces the chances of the statement accurately describing what actually happened. And there is no evidence to support either of these conditions. As such, it is just as likely that the material originated later, after Jesus’ death, or that it originated with Matthew. Or, more technically, to the author of the gospel attributed to Matthew. In fact, a case could be made that the last is the most likely scenario, since there is actual evidence to support it. This cannot be said of the other two possibilities. Of course,  this has serious ramifications of a theological/religious nature, but that does not affect their likelihood in historical terms.

I keep getting sucked into discussing the likelihood of the existence of Q. Part–more probably most–of the reason for this is that it’s what I really want to discuss. But, let’s stay on task, which is “poor in spirit”.  I mentioned that this may be a synonym for “humility” and then went off on a tangent. Yes, it can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. Rather, the sentiment can just as easily express an attitude towards money. It can express the admonition not to value wealth over other matters, not to feel the need to lord it over one’s neighbors because one has money. In which case the bottom line is that it’s an acknowledgement that wealth is not a problem per se; one can have wealth and yet be “poor in spirit”. That’s very different from what Mark said about the rich, and very different from what Luke will say in the tale of Dives and Lazarus.

So this tells me that Matthew is making excuses for the wealthy members of his community.  Why? That’s hard to say without further information, but I believe my inference is valid. As such, and if so, this indicates that perhaps Matthew’s community was rather more well-off than some of the other ones.

Regardless, given Mark’s attitude, and Luke’s to come, this different slant of Matthew perhaps does indicate that he is the deviation from the tradition of the attitude towards rich and poor. As such, we can infer that the teaching of Jesus had something to say about these differences in wealth. And we can probably say that Luke presents a more faithful account of that tradition when he says, ‘blessed are the poor’. But that is not to say that it in any way provides proof for the existence of Q. Recall, the whole point of Q is that it was a written document. No such document is necessary for the transmission of an attitude towards wealth. Oral tradition can account for that. However, I do believe that the variance between Matthew and Luke may make a pretty strong case that Jesus, indeed, had a less-than-favourable attitude to wealth; or, at least, to the way wealth was used.

(* For non-Americans, the term refers back to the mythological 19th Century practice that politicians supposedly had of standing on a tree stump to deliver a speech during the campaign for election. The speech would have been delivered repeatedly during the course of the campaign, as the candidate traveled to different places, so it came to mean something routine, well-worn, and often-repeated that summarized the candidate’s opinions, credentials, whatever. 

3 “Beati pauperes spiritu, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum.

4 μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται.

Blessed are the weeping, that they will be consoled.

Like the previous verse, this indicates a concern for the downtrodden.

4 Beati, qui lugent, quoniam ipsi consolabuntur.

5 μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν.

Blessed are the meek, they that (lit = that they) will inherit the earth.

There isn’t even much to quibble about in the Greek. OTOH, one really has to stop for a moment to let the thought sink in: “inherit the earth/world”. That is a pretty radical statement for the late First Century CE. The idea of the meek inheriting anything would have been considered ridiculous in many circles. The Roman ideal was of a manly man, “vir“, as in the root of “virile”. Nor did the Greeks consider self-deprecation to be particularly virtuous. 

It’s interesting to a certain degree that the meek only get the earth, while the poor in spirit get the kingdom. Is there a difference? That’s a really interesting question. To us, there certainly is, but then if you read Revelation, maybe there isn’t. But “kingdom of the heavens” from verse 3 seems reminiscent of 1 Thessalonians 4, when the anointed one comes down from heaven–meaning the sky. The problem here is very similar to that of the sacred breath. Does ‘heaven’ ever become Heaven? I suspect not, at least until Revelation. Even, “our father who is in the sky” is perfectly plausible. And this is not too big a step from Zeus Sky-Father. It’s just that we have endowed the word with special meaning, like we have done with baptism or Holy Spirit, whether Matthew meant it or not. Now, it’s worth noting that “the heavens” gets translated as “heaven” in my four crib translations. But it is a lower-case ‘heaven’. It could just as easily be “the sky”.

5 Beati mites, quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram.

6 μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες καὶ διψῶντες τὴν δικαιοσύνην, ὅτι αὐτοὶ χορτασθήσονται.

Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for justice, they that will be fed.

Again, Luke has this as those being hungry. The idea, there, of course, is a much more straightforward than it is here. Now, the thing is, did Luke copy from Q more faithfully? Or was the idea of the virtue of the poor more of an issue for him? Matthew uses the word five times; Luke uses it twice as much. Given that, I think that Luke may have been more interested in the fate of those who were actually poor, and actually hungry than the poor in spirit and those hungering for justice. Maybe this is my proletarian radar picking up a false signal, but I get the sense that Matthew is trying to let the wealthier members of his community off the hook. Yes, the sentiment he expresses is more poetic than Luke’s, but it’s also thereby less direct. I’m not so sure that the difference reflects a “more primitive” version of Q as much as a real difference in attitude between the two evangelists.

6 Beati, qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam, quoniam ipsi saturabuntur.

7 μακάριοι οἱ ἐλεήμονες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ ἐλεηθήσονται.

Blessed are the merciful, they that will be compassioned.

Sorry about “will be compassioned”, but it’s a verb in Greek, and a passive at that. It’s a very technical translation. Not sure I have anything more useful to say.

7 Beati misericordes, quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur.

8 μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ, ὅτι αὐτοὶ τὸν θεὸν ὄψονται.

Blessed are the pure in heart, they that will see God.

I realize that there are a lot of novel formulations here, that say a lot about the novel mental state expressed. However, rather than say the same thing several times, I am deferring to a single treatment at the end of the section.

The idea of “seeing God” represents a major step forward in the proto-Christian doctrine. I’ve commented several times about the vagueness of the benefits to be conferred for following Jesus. Here we have a very concrete one. It is a benefit and the implication is one of an afterlife, I think. This is one of the first times we’ve really had something so definite. OTOH, is this so very different, from the implication of the anointed coming down from the sky in 1 Thessalonians 4? After all, the clear implication there is that the faithful will see the anointed. Now, is the anointed to be conflated with God, or are the two separate there? Are the two separate here? Here, I think they are. I think “God” means something different from the Christ. 

8 Beati mundo corde, quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt.

9 μακάριοι οἱ εἰρηνοποιοί, ὅτι αὐτοὶ υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται.

Blessed are the peacemakers, they that will be called children (lit = “sons”) of God.

Comment deferred

9 Beati pacifici, quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur.

10 μακάριοι οἱ δεδιωγμένοι ἕνεκεν δικαιοσύνης, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Blessed are those persecuted on account of righteousness, that of them (will be) the kingdom of heaven.

Comment deferred

10 Beati, qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam, quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum.

This, strictly speaking, is the end of the Beatitudes. The blessings will continue in the next section, but the presentation changes so this is probably a good time to break. However, there are a number of things to be noted here. Reading them one-by-one they all sounded very straightforward, but noting them in sequence some things pop out at me.

First, I have to point out that these seven verses, in many ways, are the epitome of Christian behaviour. At least, this is what I think of when I want to describe Christian behaviour. I aspire to behaving in this manner. I don’t want to be smug or judgemental; I want to be meek, poor in spirit, pure in heart. As noted, they all carry some notion of concern, and ultimate victory, for the downtrodden. I believe we are to take this much in the sense that we do take it: the kingdom is the reward/validation that there, the social

IOW, this section is programmatic. It describes the behaviour to be followed. It is very, very different in many ways from the moral code of much of the Graeco-Roman world, even if it’s not entirely a radical break from the Jewish ideals of social justice that we find in places like the Book of Ezra, or the Qumran scrolls, for example. Nor is it all that radically different from much of the moral code that we will encounter in much of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; however, this latter book did not appear until nearly a hundred years later, so the question of who influenced whom may be legitimate.

But now let’s think back to some of the questions I’ve asked. Paul talks about being pure for the day of the lord, and Mark has a few strictures for proper behaviour. However, in both cases I repeatedly asked what, specifically, Paul meant by “being pure”, or exactly what sort of behaviour Mark had in mind. And then the question of “what happens then?” has arisen more than once.

Here, for the first time, those questions are answered, I believe, in a very direct, concrete, and specific manner. This is how we are to behave. Our reward will the kingdom of heaven, or to see God, or to be called children of God. We will have compassion and mercy shown to us, we will be satisfied and consoled. There it is: quid pro quo. For the first time, the essence of what it means to be Christian, and what we get in return is spelled out for us.

The first time.

I repeat, “the first time”.

What I’m suggesting is that these seven verses were 40 or 50 years in the making. They represent the point when followers of Jesus became Christians. As such, they represent a culmination, a climax. They are not a genesis.

What am saying is that Jesus never said these words. I think that Matthew helped create them. He, or his community arrived at these sets of verses to help them explain, to themselves as well as to others, what it was that they believed. They believed in a moral code described in these seven verses, and they believed that they would see God as a result. They would be children of God, just as Paul said we are. They would, in fact, be sons of God, and I want to stress the gender of the noun because Jesus was also the son of God. We would have something very significant in common with Jesus.

This is a very radical idea. I do not know if this has ever been suggested in quite this manner. However, given the way that the message has evolved over time, from Paul through Mark to this moment in Matthew, I believe that this conclusion is justified.

It is important to understand that the words in these seven verses are what came to separate Jesus from the other wonder workers of the time. Paul said that the gift of performing wonders was given to some members of the community of Corinth, and he didn’t sound all that impressed by the idea. For Paul, Jesus was the Christ, and for Paul this belief was enough. He did prescribe the conventional Jewish moral code derived from the Ten Commandments. Of course, Jesus was the Christ for Matthew as well, but the conception of what this means has grown; it has developed. Matthew takes the ideas introduced by Paul–whether or not he got them from Paul–and expanded on them while simultaneously shaping them into something that can be part of the everyday world.

Of course, my conjecture here completely blows the idea of Q out of the water. It heretically claims that Jesus did not say these words. These are not the words of Jesus, but of Christians. The ideas expressed here developed, they grew, they expanded. There is nothing like this in Paul (well, maybe the description of love in 1 Corinthians), and certainly nothing like this in Mark. How is that possible? What we have here is the essence of Christianity. If Jesus spoke them, how is it possible that Mark didn’t bother to record them? How did Mark, or Paul, not know of them? The proponents of Q have never given a satisfactory answer to that question. In fact, it seems rarely to be addressed.

And yet, the idea that these seven verses are the essence of Jesus’ teaching is the foundation stone of Q belief: that these words capture what Jesus said. And yet Mark didn’t know about them? Or think them important enough to set down? That’s simply mind-boggling. Kloppenborg says that an hypothesis has to have explanatory power, and he says that the weakness of the Q deniers is that they cannot explain, in a consistent and coherent hypothesis, why Luke deviates from Matthew the way he does. And yet, he makes no attempt to explain how these incredibly crucial words completely passed by Mark. He whiffed on them completely.

Sorry, that’s really hard to believe if this was the core of Jesus’ teaching.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 28, 2014, in Chapter 5, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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