Surprises in The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes begin the first sermon by Christ in the Bible. The series of eight verses provides much of the context for the teachings that follow. However, the translation that we read in English are somewhat different from what Christ said in the original Greek. 

Each verse describes a category of person who has a particular kind of need or capability as "fortunate." This description is followed by an explanation of why they are fortunate. 

The Pattern of Words

Linguistically, they follow a specific pattern that is somewhat muddled in translation to English. The formula has both a setup and a payoff. The setup is a description of a certain group as fortunate or lucky. The payoff describes why they are fortunate/ A "payoff" is more accurate than a "punchline" because the ending isn't always clearly humorous, though it often is. The repetition of the pattern is clearly important, however, because it allows Jesus to play with the words in interesting ways, evolving is ideas in unexpected ways, The surprise comes from the fact that he changes the pattern after creating an expectation of it repeating,

The pattern can be described as the word "fortunate" by a description of a group of people. The description starts as two words, the definite article and an adjective. The adjective is often formed from a participle "mourning," "hungering," etc. Then the word "because" introduces the payoff. Except for the first and last verse, the payoff starts with the pronoun "they" used as a subject. This is notable because pronouns are not needed in Greek as subjects because the same information is contained in the verb ending. The use of the subjective pronoun is used for emphasis like saying "they themselves." The "they" is followed by a verb that is the final word and usually the surprise. The exception is the first and last verses which end in "the realm of the skies," which can be seen as the general them of the work and the penultimate verse which ends with "sons of the divine."

Thematic Patterns

In these eight verses, we there are several thematic patterns.

The first is a contrast of need and capability. The first four verses are about a lack of something, a need: money, loved ones, strength, and food. The  second four verses describe a capability of something: mercy,  pure feelings, making peace, and perfection.

These four needs can be seen in terms of common symbols that Jesus uses in his teachings.  We have a spiritual need (lacking spirit, pneuma in Greek), emotional needs (those who mourn, kardia in Greek), strength of character (the soft, the pliable, which related to the sense of self, psyche, in Greek), and physical needs (hunger and thirst in Greek soma (body) or sarx (flesh). And this fourth beatitude links physical needs social strength. It isn't just hunger and thirst, but the desire for  "for justice" or "for righteousness."

For more about these four Greek terms for spirit, heart, body, and flesh, see this article on "Life," "Soul," " Mind," "Heart", and "Spirit".

The second four Beatitude represent states of fullness in these four areas. We have spiritual fullness (the merciful), emotional fullness (pure hearts), strength of character and physical strength (peacekeepers). But the symmetry is broken in the last item. In it, a social lack ("being hounded")  is linked to social strength ("justice").

Notice how peacekeeping becomes the opposite of softness, rigidity as the opposite of flexibility. So this is peace-keeping in the sense of law-enforcement rather than preaching peace.

With this in mind, we offer the following revised version of the Beatitudes with links to the discussion of the original Greek.

Fortunate those beggars for spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Fortunate those mourning: for they are being summoned.
Fortunate those soft, for they shall inherit the ground.
Fortunate are those  hungering and thirsting for jistice: for they shall be satisfied.
Fortunate are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.
Fortunate are those whose hearts are un: for they shall perceive God.
Fortunate are those who are powerful enough to halt conflict: for they shall be called the children of God.
Fortunate are those who are hounded for their perfection: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.