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~ Lost and Found in Translation ~
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying...” (Matthew 5:1-2, NIV). As cited more clearly in other texts, it seems Jesus was avoiding the crowds here as well. Today, our professors stand before their students. In Jesus’ day, a rabbi or teacher would sit, and this would signal to his students that truths were about to be taught.
The truths, in this event, are well known as “The Beatitudes.” In translation, they are comforting. The commentaries on them have been somewhat superficial. Some of the “Blessed are they...” statements seem too trite for a Master Teacher and the Incarnate Christ to utter, such as “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That isn’t much better than the greeting cards that say things like, “The sun is still shining above every storm.”
Some are out of harmony with the context of full Scripture and Gospel teachings. For example, to become a “son [daughter] of God” is clearly through rebirth in His Spirit, a matter of redemptive grace through the atonement of Christ, an unearned and unmerited gift. So how is it that “peacemakers” will earn the blessing of being “called sons of God”? Or how is it that those who are “persecuted because of righteousness” get a ticket into heaven? Haven’t many atheists and Christ-denying people been persecuted due to their solidarity with righteous causes and people?
Whenever I get confused about the record of Christ’s teachings, I found it best to not quibble with others or in my own mind with the translated rendition. Translations are not Spirit-inspired. The apostle Matthew was there at Jesus’ feet. He made the original record. When I checked out his rendition for myself, I was awed by my trite and superficial understanding, overwhelmed by the ramifications of the mystical wisdom imbedded in the original Greek, and upset that I didn’t study this sooner although we all have the resources available, at least those of us who live in technologically saturated nations.
Let’s look at the first beatitude recorded in Matthew 5:3. I must “romanize” the Greek words into the English alphabet, of course. For starters, “blessed” was translated from “makarios” which is a long form of the poetic word “makar” meaning “supremely fortunate.” The “poor” is from “ptochos” literally meaning a cringing beggar. This is a different image in contrast to a person who has little. “In spirit,” as in “poor in spirit,” comes from “pneuma” or “a blast of breath of air.” Pneuma is a consistent metaphor of the Holy Spirit throughout Scripture.
Ok, so far we have something like, “Supremely fortunate are those beggars cringing for a blast of the divine breath air.” Who among us are identifying with that image right now? How many of us can say, “Yes, that describes me”? If you can, then “supremely fortunate” (blessed) are you.
But why? This gets very interesting. “For” or “because” (depending on your translation version) comes from the Greek “hoti” which is a grammatical conjunction that connotes a result. The “they” in “theirs” is “autos,” from the particle “au” which is a pronoun describing a self or selves. The literal English would be, “because or as a result of them.” What’s the result? “Is the kingdom of the heavens.” “Is” translates from “esti” (third person singular) meaning “exists”. “Kingdom” is from “basileia” or “royal realm.” “Heavens” from “ouranos” literally meaning the sky as the abode of God with the implication of happiness, eternity, power, love.
Scripture, for example Psalm 139, is clear that the abode of God is everywhere, that all of creation and beyond cannot contain Him. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, you are there.” But the “royal realm” or “basileia” is the abode of God that we share and to which we are destined by grace.
So now, we have: “Supremely fortunate are those beggars cringing for a blast of the divine breath air; the royal realm of God’s abode results from and exists for them.” I suggest the “them” is spoken of in Hebrews 12 as the “great cloud of witnesses” and “the communion of saints.”
That “God’s abode,” the heavens, exists as a result of the cringing beggars for His blast of divine breath makes sense. Since God doesn’t need an “abode” to house Himself, the heavens are a result of the “autos” who beg and cringe to share His breath. Indeed, Jesus announced “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
How far and deeply more revealing are Matthew’s original recordings than, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”! Yet, I know for certain, there are more profound depths of understanding yet to be explored prayerfully.
So what about those “peacemakers” who “will be called sons of God”? Matthew wrote “eirenopoios” which means “pacificatory” or “subjectively peaceable.” If you, in your heart, subjectively (as opposed to objectively, in your intellect) are “peaceable,” “supremely fortunate (blessed)” are you! The modern culture seeks peace through political correctness...let’s keep the peace by not offending anyone. Objectively we can call a blind person “sight challenged” but subjectively, we know blindness or a handicap (oops, I should say a physical challenge) when we see it and even more when we experience it.
So why the blessing? You have a kinship (Greek: “huios”) with the heart of God and you will be “called” or “kaleo” which means a calling aloud. It doesn’t seem that Matthew is quoting Jesus as saying peacemakers will be called sons of God, a problem we dealt with earlier. Jesus is saying those sharing a kinship with God through their heartful peacemaking way of living will be called loudly by God. Called to do what or to be what? Does that matter? What a blessing, what a supreme fortune, to be personally called upon by God for any reason! A scary thing, though. Prophets were always called. Isaiah said, “Here I am! Choose me” and Jonah said, “Here I go! Find somebody else.” And James reminds us that a prophet, using the great prophet Elijah as an example, “was a man just like us” (5:17).
How about the blessing on those who mourn? The English translation “will be comforted” comes from the Greek, “parakaleo” meaning “to call near or be invoked.” Those who grieve in the spirit will be called and invoked by God into His presence. Now that’s a better definition of “comforted”! Even more blessed if we heed His call and invocation and respond!
And the “pure in heart” who “will see God”? The Greek word translated as “pure” is “katharos” which is the basis for the English term “catharsis” or cleansing, cleaning out of junk. “Heart” was from “kardia” (English “cardiac”) meaning our thoughts and emotions. Those who have cleaned their thoughts and emotions “will see God.” “Will see” comes from “optanomai” (from where our English “ophthalmologist” derives) which is a long form of “optomai” meaning “to gaze at something remarkable, an earnest, intense, continued inspection, in contrast to casual, passive or voluntary vision.” This is something we can gaze upon here on earth as well as in the heavens. The Scriptures are quite clear on how to clean our thoughts and emotions. Why hesitate?! Divine optanomai awaits!
And the blessing upon “those who are persecuted because of righteousness”? The Greek translated into “being persecuted” is “dioko” which is a prolonged, causative form of the primary verb “dio,” meaning to be in flight from or pursuit from. Thus persecuted because of what? “Righteousness” came from the Greek “dikaiosune” meaning “equity of character or action and justification.” Such “justification” is a product of grace and the redemptive work of Christ, for we certainly cannot “justify” ourselves. It is the experience of all in pursuit of salvation, of the narrow road, of “justification by faith,” of ongoing conversion and sanctification that follows, in one term, “righteousness” (“not of ourselves, but of God”), to encounter “dioko” or flight from that which impedes our spiritual growth. The apostle Paul wrote quite definitively on this flight from “the flesh” and evil. This insight from the original writings of Matthew casts a far superior and personal picture of “persecution because of righteousness” than our prevalent images of somebody sitting in jail because of a “righteous” and “moral” stand he or she took in the name of a cause, even one in the name of Christ.
What about all this? Is this translation better than that of the saints and scholars upon whom I rely? By no means. It is largely a matter of marketing. For example, the Amplified Bible version is the most true to the original languages, but even that version must take liberties. The Amplified Bible is not used in public readings because it is laborious, yet the most accurate. If it were to expound on every word in the original languages, it would be much too ponderous to cover the costs of publication. Only biblical scholars would use it, and, as it stands, these scholars don’t need it because they have the original texts available, as we all do.
Then we are confronted with the emotional loyalty to certain translations. Some denominations accept nothing other than the King James version of 1611 as “gospel” though its translation scholarship is in question, which I can document. The New International Version (NIV) is teased by some denominations as being the “Nearly Inspired Version.” As I compare it to the original languages, I am persuaded to continue using it as my main quoted version in these Reflections, as you undoubtedly noticed. But you also noticed how I put that version, among all others, aside in this Reflection. They pale as colorless as the face of the blood-drained dead in the light of the resplendent depths of the original languages.
How about “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”? The Greek behind “hunger” is “peinao,” craving due to famish. “Thirst” from “dipsao” or literal and figurative famish for water. Are you famished for “dikaiosume”? The justification that comes from God alone? Blessed, supremely fortunate on a continuing basis are you! For you will be “filled”...actually, “chortazo” or gorged. Your “chortazo” will be in proportion to your “peinao.” How famished, to the point of fainting from “peinao” or hunger, are we for the “dikaiosume” or justification of God? Supremely and eternally fortunate are those who are! They will be gorged with dikaiosume.
“For because of them, the kingdom of heaven exists.”
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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