The answer to this question may seem obvious, but it isn’t. “Blessed” has a number of meanings, depending in part on its pronunciation. And this has led to confusion about what Jesus was really saying in the Beatitudes.
When used as a form of the verb “to bless,” blessed has one syllable, is pronounced blest, and means treated with great kindness, as in “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us (Psalm 67:6).” When used to refer to God, it means praised, as in “Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore (Psalm 113:2).”
When used as an adjective, however, the word blessed has two syllables, is pronounced bless-ed, and means holy. Thus, Catholics speak of the Bless-ed Virgin Mary.
The problem is that most Catholics and other Christians also use two syllables in quoting the Beatitudes. They say “Bless-ed” are the poor in spirit, the meek, mourners, seekers of justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer persecution.
In this case, the use of two syllables suggests that Jesus was declaring that the poor, the meek, and the others are already holy.
Most New Testament translations use the word blessed in stating the beatitudes but give no indication how the word is to be pronounced. Thus they leave the pronunciation, and therefore the meaning of Jesus’ words, open to very different interpretations.
Some translators, in the interest of greater clarity, have substituted happy for blessed. In other words, they say, “Happy are the poor in spirit,” the meek, and so on. Their justification for doing this is that the Greek word used by Matthew and Luke, makarios, means happy. However, that substitution is problematic: for example, being poor in spirit suggests being the very opposite of happy.
But makarios can also mean fortunate, and that would be a better choice than happy. Saying “Fortunate are the poor in spirit because theirs is the kingdom of heaven” suggests that God looks kindly on them in their misfortune. It also reminds us of the Christian idea that suffering can bring us closer to Christ.
But before you pick up a pen and change the words in your family Bible, consider that Jesus did not express the Beatitudes in English or in Greek but, instead, in Aramaic, and it is therefore possible that neither definition of makarios captures the full meaning conveyed in Aramaic.
That is the conclusion of Melkite Catholic Archbishop Abuna Chacour, a scholar of biblical Hebrew, New Testament Greek, and Aramaic:
. . . When I look further back to Jesus’ Aramaic, I find that the original word was ashray, from the verb yashar. Ashray does not have this passive quality to it at all. Instead, it means, “to let yourself on the right way for the right goal, to turn around, repent; to become straight or righteous.”
In other words, Chacour believes that Jesus was not encouraging acceptance of our present condition in anticipation of a better condition in the hereafter. Rather, He was motivating the poor and disenfranchised to “wake up” to the challenge of being His followers and work for a better society in this life. At the same time He was assuring them support in their efforts.
Here are examples of what Chacour believes are more accurate renderings of two of the Beatitudes:
Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for you shall be satisfied.
Get up, go ahead, move, you peacemakers, for you shall be called children of God.
If Chacour’s translation of blessed is indeed more accurate than the ones that have come down to us over the centuries, then we need to revise our understanding of the Beatitudes and see them as a call for active response to the difficulties of life rather than to passive acceptance of them.
Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved
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