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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3–12; Lk 6:20–3, 24–6 )

Mt 5:3–12 Lk 6:20–6
3Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 20Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for thus they persecuted the prophets before you. 21Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the son of man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

The form of a beatitude, announcement of a blessing on certain classes of people, is common in the Bible (see MT 5:3–12 ) and frequently occurs in such groups as the present collections. It is perhaps to be noted that collections of eight occur also in Sir 14:20–7 (with a ninth added as an explanation, just as the ninth in Mt 5:11 provides a transition to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount). In both Matthew and Luke there are clear eschatological overtones, dependent on Isa 61:1 . This text is used elsewhere by both evangelists, especially in Mt 11:5–6; Lk 4:17–21; 7:22–3 . The same eschatological fulfilment of Isa 61:1 featured prominently in the messianic expectation of the Qumran community, 11QMelch 16–18 and 4Q521.

The source of the beatitudes has been much debated. Matthew has eight as opposed to Luke's four beatitudes, but Luke has four ‘woes’ corresponding to his four beatitudes. It has become scholarly orthodoxy to hold that at least the material shared by the two evangelists is drawn from Q, though perhaps from slightly different versions of Q. For many this seems the most important test-case of all. In many of the cases the arguments are evenly balanced, so that it must be admitted that several explanations are possible, though one explanation may be much more appealing than another, and make better sense. If it is possible to show that Matthew's beatitudes form such a carefully composed and engineered whole that they cannot constitute an edition of any previous document, the existence of a Q for this pericope is not merely less likely, but is positively excluded.

If both Matthew and Luke are dependent on Q, Matthew has expanded the original four beatitudes and Luke has added the four ‘woes’. In favour of this position it is obvious that Matthew is more interested in the spiritual dispositions demanded (Matthew has ‘in spirit’, 5:1 ) and brackets the whole with his characteristic ‘kingdom of heaven’ (vv. 3, 10 ), instead of the more commonly found expression ‘kingdom of God’ used by Luke. On the other hand the ‘woes’ show clear linguistic signs of Lukan editing in the repeated ‘now’ and other features which disappear in translation (oi anthrōpoi, kata ta auta), as well as the more obvious Lukan interest in the real poor and hungry, characteristic of his general concern for outcasts, and his repeated warnings of the dangers of wealth and comfort.

It has been suggested that a document underlies them both, to which Luke is the closer (Tuckett 1983 ). In order to exclude the possibility of Luke being dependent on Matthew, Tuckett considers two alternatives, either that Luke uses Matthew only or that he uses Matthew and another source (for the ‘woes’). The parallelism between the woes and the beatitudes is so close that these woes could have had no independent existence, which excludes the latter alternative. The former alternative is excluded—according to Tuckett—by the Lukan use of the word ‘laugh’ (Lk 6:21, 25 ) which does not occur in Matthew's beatitudes and is not a Lukan word, so must be derived from another, non-Matthean source. To this Goulder replies by refusing to attribute to a source all words used only once by Luke. On the contrary, Luke has a large and inventive vocabulary, and in the section Lk 4:31–6:19 (where he is overwriting Mark) among the 606 non-Markan words, 13 are not used elsewhere by Luke. In any case ‘laugh’ is a reasonably common word, and is introduced by Luke as an exact contrast to ‘weep’, as in Eccl 3:4 . That ‘weep’ in Lk 6:21 is a Lukan version of Matthew's ‘mourn’ is clear from the clumsiness with which Luke feels compelled to retain both words in v. 25 . Thus Luke's version can, after all, be explained on the basis of Matthew's.

Matthew's beatitudes form a coherent whole which must have been composed at one draft in Greek (Puéch 1993 ). The question is whether this composition can be a Matthean elaboration of Q. The careful structure of the composition is unmistakable, the principal points being:

  • 1. It is bracketed at beginning and end by the identical phrase ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

  • 2. The word-count of the four pairs of beatitudes is symmetrical: 20–16–16–20. This must be deliberate, for it is achieved not without difficulty; for example the word-count must have dictated the inclusion of the definite article with ‘righteousness’ in v. 6 , and its omission in the corresponding v. 10 .

  • 3. In the first four beatitudes those blessed all begin (in Greek) with the letter ‘p’.

  • 4. The blessings correspond symmetrically: 1 and 8 ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’; 2 and 7 use the same Greek word klēthēsontai; 3 and 6 future active, ‘will inherit’, ‘will see’; 4 and 5 future passive, ‘will be filled’, ‘will be pitied’.

Such careful structure with exact word-count is characteristic of beatitude-collections, as is seen in the Hebrew collections of Sir 14:20–7 and 1QH 6.13–16 and 4Q525. Other features such as the eschatological overtones, the extra, final, transitional beatitude, biblical and Qumranic phrases such as ‘poor in spirit’ (cf. 1QH 6.14; 1QM 14.7; 4Q491.8–10) show that Matthew's composition fits exactly into a familiar pattern. It is difficult to accept that Matthew could have elaborated this complicated structure on the basis of any existing document that also served as a basis for Luke's beatitudes. It would also be a strange coincidence that both these writers should have independently chosen the beatitudes to head their great sermons. Luke's beatitudes and woes may therefore be explained as Luke's own edition of Matthew, rather than as similarly derived from Q. In outline the process would have been: if Luke is dependent on Matthew, it must be held that he cut the eight to four, a favourite number of his, omitting elements concerned with spiritual dispositions (‘the meek’) because he wished to concentrate on the aspect of discipleship and its demands, the Christian vocation to poverty and persecution. Luke elsewhere stresses that disciples must leave ‘all’, so that they are bound to be poor and destitute. Luke likes polar oppositions, so sharpened the reversal of situations to ‘hungry’ and ‘filled’, ‘weeping’ and ‘laughing’, in place of Matthew's ‘hunger and thirst for justice’ and his ‘merciful’ and ‘receive mercy’.

The woes do show significant echoes of Matthew, despite being verbally unmistakably Lukan (plen = ‘but’, Lk 6 .24, used by Matthew 5 times, Mark once, Luke 15 times, and Acts 14 times; ‘woe to’ with dative plural, none in Matthew or Mark, 5 times in Luke; ‘rich’, 3 times in Matthew, twice in Mark, 10 times in Luke; pleonastic ‘all’, as Lk 6:26 , frequent in Luke). The form of a series of threatened woes could be taken from Mt 23 . But whereas Matthew reserves the contrast with the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount until his final discourse, Luke makes the contrast more immediate. There are other traces of dependence of Luke on Matthew in the beatitudes. Lk 6:21 substitutes ‘weep’ for Matthew's ‘mourn’, but in the woes Lk 6:25 includes both verbs. Similarly in Lk 6:26 ‘speak well’ corresponds to Mt 5:11 ‘speak evil’ rather than to Lk 6:22 ‘revile’. Luke's formula in the second person plural (Matthew's eight beatitudes are in the third person) is less consonant with the background formula than Matthew's. It is, however, typical of Luke's immediacy of style (as Lk 6:2; 7:34 compared with their parallels).

In this instance, therefore, it is possible to argue either way, and the solution of the problem must be dependent on the overall solution of the synoptic problem.

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