Baker Academic

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

translating Luke's beatitudes

In Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, Francis Watson includes a footnote challenging common English translations of Luke's beatitudes. Watson's challenge coheres with (but is not a vital support for) his larger argument that Luke interprets Matthew, especially inasmuch as, if Watson's challenge stands, Luke's beatitudes show evidence of being originally third-person ("blessed are those who are poor") and only secondarily edited into the second-person ("for yours is the kingdom of God").

The NA28 text of Luke 6.20b reads: Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. (A minority of witnesses, especially among Syriac, and Coptic versions and Marcion [acc. to Tertullian], harmonize Luke to Matthew's third-person beatitudes; the Matthean beatitudes are not subject to harmonization to Luke in this regard.)
The NRSV, ESV, NASB, and NIV all translate Luke's first beatitude as follows: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6.20b). The NKJV, NET, NLT, and the Message all agree with this translation in substance, though there are minor differences in detail. The KJV includes brackets in the first half of the beatitude: "Blessed [be ye] poor: for yours is the kingdom of God." No English translation, as far as I am aware, renders this beatitude, "Blessed are those who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (note the shift from third- to second-person). Does that make sense? The point is, all English translations render the Greek of Luke's beatitude, "Blessed are you who are poor"; none of them render it, "Blessed are those who are poor." The same observations apply to Luke's second and third beatitudes, both of which have third-person parallels in Matthew.

Here is Watson's challenge, which I quote at length (see Gospel Writing, pp. 160–61n. 6):
Luke's μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί ὅτι ὑμετέρα . . . should not be translated, "Blessed are you poor, for yours . . .," as in EVV (my thanks to Mark Goodacre for alerting me to this point). The awkward shift from ostensibly third-person to second-person discourse is a sign of secondariness vis-à-vis Matthew, as in the fact that ὑμετέρος occurs only in Luke among the synoptists (Lk. 6.20; 16.12; cf. Acts 27.34). Cf. GTh 54 as correctly translated by T. O. Lambdin: "Jesus said, 'Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven'" (NHL, p. 124).
The awkwardness is registered by scribes who substitute third plurals for Luke's second plurals: μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί ὅτι αὐτῶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ (Lk. 6.20 W), μακάριοι οἱ πεινῶντες νῦν ὅτι χορτασθήσονται (Lk. 6.21a א*), μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν ὅτι γελάσουσιν (Lk. 6.21b W).
The predicate construction (adjective-article-noun; lit. "blessed the poor ones") does seem to suggest a third-person sense, and the translation "blessed are you who are poor" seems to be suggested by the second person possessive pronoun, "yours" (ὑμετέροι), in the second half of the beatitude. Since there is no verb—whether "you are" (ἐστέ) or "they are" (εἰσίν)—we have to supply a verb in order to complete the sense implied by the Greek construction; the syntax of adjective, article, and noun (including their case) is determinative. As I wondered why I hadn't recognized Luke's shift from the third- to second-person, I realized that I had taken "blessed the poor" (μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί) as a vocative construction and so rendered the words as direct address: "Hey; you who are poor. You are blessed." But the article, "blessed the poor" (μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί), does suggest a nominative case, which I think would support a third-person interpretation.

All very good. As a final step, I consulted my ragged copy of Blass, Debrunner, and Funk's A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, fully expecting the authorities that be (viz., BDF) to confirm this observation. Alas, they did not (see BDF §147, p. 81):
Even where the nominative is still formally distinguished from the vocative, there is still a tendency for the nominative to usurp the place of the vocative (a tendency observable already in Homer). In the NT this is the case (1) generally with adjectives used alone or without a substantive where the vocative is clear; (2) with additions of all kinds to the vocative (Attic σὺ ὁ πρεσβύτερος, Πρόξενε καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι), especially with participles (§412(5)) which hardly ever form the vocative. (3) Attic used the nominative (with article) with simple substantives only in addressing inferiors, who were, so to speak, thereby addressed in the 3rd person (Aristoph., Ra. 521 ὁ παῖς, ἀκολούθει). The NT (in passages translated from a Semitic language) and the LXX do not conform to these limitations, but can even say ὁ θεός, ὁ πατήρ, etc., in which the arthrous Semitic vocative is being reproduced by the Greek nominative with article.
In the list of examples of (2) ("with additions of all kinds to the vocative, especially with participles which hardly ever form the vocative"), BDF offer Luke 6.25: οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, οἱ ἐμπεπλησμένοι ("Woe to you, you who are satisfied"), which of course belongs to the same context as the Lukan beatitudes. It hardly matters that the first beatitude has an adjective-article-noun construction, while the second and third woes (and also the second and third beatitudes!) have participles. The point is that the entire context—from the possessive pronoun ὑμετέροι, the personal pronoun ὑμῖν in the second and third woes, the verbs in the second and third beatitudes and in the first three woes—support the reading that μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί in Luke 6.20b is a vocative phrase and not nominative.

Therefore, Watson (and Goodacre) are wrong to insist on translating the Lukan beatitudes, "Blessed are those who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." More importantly, perhaps, they are wrong to see in Luke's beatitudes any awkward shift from a Matthean third-person construction to a now-redacted Lukan second-person construction. The entire beatitude is a second-person construction: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Even if Luke is interpreting Matthew (a position I am not interested to refute here), the first Lukan beatitude does not preserve evidence of Luke's redactional work on Matthew's blessings.


  1. Watson's last sentence in the quote mentions the scribes of Sinaiticus and Washingtonius shifting to third person in the Lukan beatitudes. What's interesting is that when we look at the whole verse in each manuscript, neither is a wholesale attempt to harmonize to Matthew.

    For example, several dozen scribes harmonized Luke 6:20b to Mt 5:3 by adding "in spirit" to poor, and by changing "kingdom of God" to "kingdom of heaven." (You have to look at the IGNTP volumes on Luke to see this since they're not all noted in NA28.) But W doesn't make either of these changes in Luke 6:20b towards the Matthean beatitude, only the more subtle change from "yours" to "theirs."

    And conversely, it's also interesting that of the several dozen mss (mostly minuscules, but a few majuscules) that add "in spirit" or change "of God" to "of heaven," only 2 mss (903, 2487) also change "yours" to "theirs." And those are the only three Greek mss (W, 903, 2487) to have the reading "theirs" in Luke 6:20b (acc. to IGNTP).

    In other words, Greek scribes rarely (only 3 mss noted in IGNTP) changed "yours" to "theirs" in Luke 6:20b, but they quite often added "in spirit" or changed "of God" to "of heaven" to harmonize to Mt 5:3.

    1. Thank you, Jeff. This is really interesting. I thought it was also interesting to note the (relative) stability of the Matthean beatitudes vis-à-vis Luke's (according to my NA27). Given the consistency of scribal reproduction of Matthew's beatitudes and the (relatively) less consistent reproduction of Luke's, in conjunction with noting that most (all?) of the variants in Luke harmonize toward Matthew in some way (though not consistently, as you note), it's hard to attribute scribal changes to Luke as a reaction to any supposed awkwardness of Luke's text.

      (I should add that Luke's beatitudes are also fairly stable in the mss tradition, compared to other, more significant variants. We should not give the impression that the mss, especially the Greek witnesses, diverge significantly at Luke 6.20b–21.)

  2. Thanks for your enjoyable post, Rafael. I don't think I agree with you that I am wrong here. The point of my analysis was to note that if one translates the opening beatitude differently in Matthew, Luke and Thomas, then one runs the risk of accentuating the differences between the three texts. This is disastrously illustrated in Crossan's comparison between different translations of Matthew / Luke (RSV, Blessed the / Blessed you) and Thomas (Lambdin, Blessed the), which he uses to mock the idea of Thomas's familiarity with the Synoptics.

    The broader translational issue, therefore, is to use the translation that best allows any ambiguity to be preserved for those who are using the English rather than the Greek, which "Blessed are the poor . . . " does. (You imply that I use "Blessed are those who are" in your discussion, which I don't think is accurate, though I could have missed this).

    I don't think it's right to say that "Blessed are the poor" is wrong, though there is a good case for allowing the context to interpret the meaning here, and it's the context that has of course provided the "Blessed are you . . ." Your quotation of BDF makes this point to the extent that Luke 6.25 is unambiguous, unlike Luke 6.20, which is why English translations differ.

    Glancing through some English translations, Lexham & Young's Literal both go with "the poor" rather than "you poor." Given that these are attempting to be rather more "literal" translations, it tends to confirm my point that there's a choice of where one wants to go on the literal / contextual spectrum. I think if I were translating into good modern English, I might allow the context to determine "you poor," but I think for scholarly purposes of rendering into the best English to help us to convey the exegetical / Synoptic issues to students without Greek, "Blessed are the poor" is still best.

    1. Thank you, Mark. I should probably walk back my claim that you are wrong here; instead, I think Watson is wrong to use your translational suggestion to try and identify evidence of Luke's (fatigued?) redaction of Matthew's beatitude.

      Although, I should perhaps add that I do think "blessed are the poor" is a wrong translation of Luke 6.20b, which the context suggests is a vocative phrase (and so, "blessed are you poor") rather than a nominative phrase. This is easily missed since the nominative plural and vocative plural masculine suffixes in the second declension are identical. But even if the endings are identical, we ought to allow the context to guide how we parse nominal endings. As an example, these two sentences both use "fine," but it isn't hard for us to recognize the very different meanings of fine and fine:

      "My wife says she's fine, but she still seems mad."
      "There's a fine line between love and hate."

      In a similar way, Matthew's and Luke's μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί may look identical, but Matthew's is clearly nominative, while Luke's is no less clearly vocative.

    2. I'm just glad that I'm not the one who is wrong this time.

    3. Blogger comments need a Like feature.

  3. Next: so what does helping the poor mean? Who is poor? And how are they to be helped. If at all.

    The "poor in spirit," might mean the downspirited, who are uplifted by inspirational talk. With no mention of material support or say,food.

    Where is the kingdom, and promised rewards: on earth or heaven? Or who even are the addressees?

    All things are hinted at in our religion. But finally no really firm, unequivocal, unambiguous promises at all are made in the Sermon on the Mount. It is all poetic sleight of hand. Some THOUGHT they were promised something.... But nothing ever firms up. The text is deliberately suggestive, but finally nebulous in the final details. There are a dozen equally-probable readings of any given lines in the beatitudes. The ambiguity is deliberate.

  4. So sure maybe I'm not an NT scholar ... and maybe I can't read Greek even if it bit my posterior ... but I do like blogs that are written in the pro-vocative rather than the vocative form. :)

    1. The fact that our best scholars cannot produce a definitive translation, is support for the also scholarly line of thinking that sees the NT as deliberately poetic or evasive/obscurantistic.

      The solid discussion from - and definitive indecision of - recognized linguistics experts, leaves the door open here, and even offers support for, those interdiscipinarians who would be able to use that linguistic data in supporting larger ethical implications.

  5. This post is a great example of the way that social media is taking over as the place for discussing interesting blog posts. Those who have not been on Facebook will not have seen the most interesting and lively thread there. One element from that discussion that I think is pertinent is the issue of whether οἱ πτωχοί in Luke can be regarded as vocative. I am not persuaded of this point and I struggle with the translation. Would it be "You're blessed! You poor"? The key thing that would settle it for me would be some parallel examples of a vocative used in this way with a predicate.

  6. Taking the beatitudes and woes in context, Occam''s razor would seem to require the vocative interpretation of oi ptochoi.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.