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Coming to Terms with Our Cultural Blinders: The Beatitudes as a Case Study

By Mother Miriam, CSM

Recently, we encountered once more the Beatitudes, which comprise the traditional gospel reading at Mass for All Saints’ Day. On that day, we celebrate the miracle of untold numbers of saints who have been blessed for embodying the Beatitudes. One could say the celebration is bound up in one word, famously translated as “Blessed.” In Greek it is an amazingly simple word (if you are a Greek): makarios. But English does not have an equivalent single word. This has serious implications for the Christian life, because we have difficulty describing or even identifying something for which we do not have a word.

Let’s go deeper into the challenge of culture and language translation in looking at the Beatitudes in English.[1] Behind the word makarios remains a complex structure of cultural values, assumptions, and habits of mind that do not translate easily, if at all. If we fail to recognize this — and we very often do — we risk misreading the Bible by importing our own foreign assumptions into it.

In Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that people who are poor in spirit, who mourn, are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers and persecuted for righteousness’ sake are makarios. Translators, and then commentators, have struggled for centuries to find the right word for this. What word do you use to describe how you feel when you are happy, contented, balanced within yourself, and harmonious with all around you? Makarios encompasses just such a feeling.

Modern standard American English uses idioms to make up the deficit in the word “blessed.” We say, “My life has really come together.” or “Life has been good to me.” We are not really discussing the details of our life; we are trying to describe a feeling we have. Happy sounds trite, so we avoid it. My community struggled in editing our Monastic Diurnal Revised because we wanted to follow the 1979 Prayer Book Psalter, except when the editors decided to translate the Hebrew esher in the Psalms as “happy” instead of following the Septuagint Greek translation of makarios to the English “blessed.” I remember in a master’s class on the Sermon on the Mount, Garwood Anderson’s conclusion was that the best English translation would follow the Latin and say “felicitous.” The Latin is beatum, hence, the name Beatitudes. Of course, the problem is that few people use “felicitous” in ordinary conversation these days. The strength of “blessed” is that it implies a source behind the felicitous status, which, while not semantically native to makarios, is central to the worldview of the Sermon. “Blessed” is to be understood as “enjoying divine approval and favor” — frequently with the added nuance of “despite appearances to the contrary.”

Thus, we have “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but mean “Actually enjoying divine approval and favor despite possible appearances to the contrary are the poor in spirit.”

Our language describes reality as we have grown to understand it. Western readers typically believe that if something is important, then we will have a word for it. And the more important something is in our culture, the more likely we are to develop specialized language to describe it. An ordinary word such as “car” has many descriptors because automobile manufacturers have a marketing team to develop language to attract buyers. It can be a compact, subcompact, economy, sedan, wagon, coupe, convertible, SUV, pickup, or hybrid. This is not merely a matter of vocabulary but of values.

What does this have to do with the Bible? Problems arise for interpretation when another language has several words for something, and ours has only one. C. S. Lewis made the following example famous in his book The Four Loves. Greek has four words for love: agape, philia, eros, and storge. Or perhaps the better way to say it is that English has only one word for four different kinds of love. This may explain why Americans are vulnerable to confusion in their relationships, and Hollywood has made billions on the comedies of errors played in the movies. We also assume the opposite is true: if we do not have a word for something, then it is likely not especially important to us. Where does that put makarios and “blessed” in our cultural understanding?

People who speak only one language, which is the situation for many Americans, including myself, often assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between languages.[2] Our assumption derives from how we understand reality. We assume that everyone interprets reality like we do. So when we run across a concept in a foreign language that describes an experience that is familiar to us, we assume that they mean what we mean. That is another assumption that may not be true. Again, is our concept of “blessed” too small to fit the relationship that God wants with us?

We do not make these assumptions consciously, but it shows how thoroughly our language (even the grammar which we might not be able to explain) affects the way we think. I had passive voice writing beaten out of me in business school. Memos needed to be clear, concise, and one page. Passive voice makes business people think the author is trying to be vague, artsy, or confusing on purpose. However, biblical writers often use the passive voice. Depending on context, Western scholars call this the “divine passive.” Whenever you see a phrase in the passive with no subject, you may be seeing the Hebraism of never speaking the name of God out of awe, respect, fear and trembling, Blessed be he!

Lastly, the position of the Beatitudes is also significant. By placing them at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is simply telling us who his true disciples are. The implied challenge is “Are you one of them?”

Serious misunderstanding can occur when we fail to recognize all that goes without being said behind language and how we use it.[3] There is no real substitute for becoming familiar with the Bible’s original languages. But we can become sensitive to the difference a writer’s language makes and ponder the possibility of a deeper meaning than one we have thought about many times before. One way of doing that is by reading from a variety of translations. Translators have different goals. Some English translations follow the grammar, syntax, and voice of the original languages as faithfully as they can while still rendering readings that make sense in English. Other translations are more concerned that the text be readable, comfortable, idiomatic English, and become more paraphrases than technical translations.

Here’s a good example using Matthew 5:3.

NIV “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
NLT “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
Holman The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Amplified “Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous—with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit, (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!”
CEB “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

If we want to “sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,” to be makarios, follow Jesus faithfully and help others do the same, we will spend the rest of our lives pondering the meaning in the saintly minds who wrote and translated the Bible.

Mother Miriam, CSM is the ninth Mother Superior of the Eastern Province of the Community of Saint Mary.

[1] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 70-90

[2]Ibid., 76-83.

[3] Ibid., 88-90.


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