Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Beatitudes and Isaiah 61

In his superfantastic book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict makes the case that the Beatitudes are represent a "sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus" (p. 74). Here are the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men
persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The Pope lists many of the ways the Beatitudes can be seen as fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

"Blessed are the poor"... Jesus is poor, having "no place to lay his head" (Matt 8:20)

"Blessed are the meek"... Jesus says, “Come to me. . . for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:28-29)

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"... Jesus says, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18)

In sum, the Beatitudes point us to Jesus: He is the merciful Son of God, the true peacemaker, who suffers for righteousness sake.

But more than that, there's another way to see this passage as describing the "Messiah". Scholars point out numerous similarities between the Beatitudes and Isaiah 61.

Isaiah 61 begins:

"The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted" (Isa 61:1-2).


A few things can be noted here. The word here for "anointed" is, of course, מָשַׁח, mā∙šǎḥ, or "messiah". That the "anointed" one here was understood by first-century Jews as not only an anointed one, but as the Messiah is clear from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q521), which uses this passage in connection with a description of the coming of the Messiah.

Also familiar should be the fact that this "messiah" comes "to bring good tidings". The Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses a verb here euangelizō (εὐαγγελίσασθαι). The word is where we get the English, "Evangelist". The noun form of this Greek word is euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον)--and it is translated "Gospel" in the New Testament.

In other words, Isaiah 61 describes a "messiah" who brings the "Gospel".

Right before Matthew 5, which begins with the Beatitudes, Matthew 4 closes by telling us how Jesus went through all Galilee "preaching the gospel of the kingdom" (Matt 4:23).

It is striking then that the Beatitudes closely resemble Isaiah 61:

"Blessed are the poor [πτωχοὶ] in spirit" (Matt 5:3) is echoed in Isaiah 61:1: "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor [πτωχοῖς]".

"Blessed are those who mourn [πενθοῦντες], for they shall be comforted [παρακληθήσονται]" (Matt 5:4) evokes, Isaiah 61:2, "‘to comfort all who mourn’ [παρακαλέσαι πάντας τοὺς πενθοῦντας]"

"Blessed are the meek [poor; πραεῖς] for they shall inherit the land [or 'earth'; κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν]" (Matt 5:5) mirrors Isaiah 61:2, "‘to preach good news to the poor [Heb. anawim; Grk. πραεῖς]" and Isa 61:7: “in your land you shall possess a double portion”. Of course, the language of "double portion" is closely tied to inheritance in the Old Testament (cf. Duet 21:27).

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matt 5:6). The word translated "satisfied" is literally "to eat one's fill" (χορτάζομαι; chortazomai; cf. Matt 15:33; John 6:26). Righteousness’ occurs three times in Isaiah 61 (v. 3. 8, 11). Strikingly in Isaiah 61:6: God promises that his people will "eat the wealth of nations".

"Blessed are the pure of heart (οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ), for they shall see God" (Matt 5:8) echoes Isaiah 61:2, which explains that the Messiah is sent to "to heal the brokenhearted" (συντετριμμένους τῇ καρδίᾳ).

"Blessed are those that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (5:10) can be said to mirror the entire point of Isaiah 61--the Messiah is coming to announce that the "good news" that Zion's persecution has ended. The Kingdom is coming.

Finally, "Blessed are you when men revile you… rejoice and be glad (ἀγαλλιᾶσθε) (Matt 5:11-12) has a parallel in the language of Isaiah 61:10: "Let my soul be glad (ἀγαλλιάσθω) in the Lord".

In sum, for first-century Jews Isaiah 61 could be read as describing the coming of the Messiah. The Beatitudes draw heavily on this description of the Messiah and what he would do for God's people--he will make his people a messianic people. Jesus in the Beatitudes then is calling His disciples to be that people by imitating Him. He is the Messiah come to bring the "good news". He calls us to be a truly messianic people.

1 comment:

Davies Hall said...

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