by Jim Forest
The word “blessed,” the first word of each Beatitude, isn’t an everyday word. What do”blessed” and “beatitude” mean?
“Beatitude” comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the Greek gods, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word St. Jerome opted for in his Vulgate translation of the “blessed are” verses.
“I would expect that, like so many other Latin writers, Jerome was assuming that the meaning would enlarge within its textual context,” Latin scholar Harold Isbell tells me. “However don’t overlook the possibility that because Greek is a more nuanced language, it conveys degrees of meaning that the hard headed Roman would not suspect. Then there is ‘beatific,’ as in ‘beatific vision,’ which in the Christian tradition of the west refers specifically to the vision of God, an entirely appropriate but quite unmerited fruit of God’s creative act.”
While most English Bibles use “blessed,” a few modern translations have preferred “happy”: “How happy are the poor of spirit…”
“‘Happy’ isn’t good enough,” Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild once told me. “The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobs, maybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings. The problem is that, if you decide you don’t like ‘blessed,’ there isn’t a single English word that can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin, by the way, means being off the track, missing the target. Being ‘blessed’ means you aren’t lost — you’re on the path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging ‘blessed’ for ‘happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like, ‘Have a nice day’.”
“Happy” in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is “hap,” the MiddleEnglish word for “luck.” The word “happen” is a sister word. A “happenstance” approach to life is to let things happen as they will, to depend on the roll of the dice. To act in a “haphazard” manner is to do things by chance. To be “hapless” is be unlucky, but to have good luck is be a winner. The lucky person, the happy person, has things going his way. We say certain people were born under a lucky star — they seem to get all the breaks, everything from good looks to money in the bank.
The founding fathers of the United States, in declaring independence from Britain in 1776, recognized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights. For them, the pursuit of happiness meant each person had the right to seek his own good fortune and not simply be the servant of another. In our era, in which happiness is somewhere between a human right and a social duty, many people feel guilty for failing to be continually happy.
But what about the word “blessed”? This was the word chosen by the translators of the Authorized Version in the seventeenth century. Since at least medieval times, “blessed” meant something consecrated to God or belonging to God.
There are several Hebrew words which have been translated as “blessed,” beginning with baruk, as in the verse: “And God blessed them [the first man and woman], saying, Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen 1:28) Baruk is linked to kneeling — a blessing would be received while kneeling in a posture of respect and submission.
“Baruk is frequently applied to God, indeed the berakah is the characteristic Jewish prayer,” Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of the Monastery of St. Andrew in Manchester explained to me. “The typical Jewish prayer begins, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God…’ There is even a ‘berakah’ for forgetting the correct berakah. This has been taken into Christianity, in particular into Orthodoxy, where no service can begin without a ‘berakah’ — ‘Blessed is our God now and forever and unto the ages of ages,’ or ‘Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…’.”
Ashre is another Hebrew word that has been translated as “blessed.” It’s an exclamation — “O the good fortune!” The root meaning is “to go straight, to advance.” The person of whom one can say ashre ha-ish is one for whom things are on the right track, going along a straight way, going forward, making headway. It is often used in the Book of Psalms, as seen in the first psalm: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” The next verse offers a metaphor of what it is like to be blessed — such a person “is like a tree planted by streams of water.”
There is the similar Hebrew word ashar. In the Book of Proverbs it is used in a passage describing the ideal woman: “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.” (Prov 31:28)
All the authors of the New Testament wrote in Greek, even when it wasn’t their first language. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo, literally, “the saying of a good word” — an action associated with praise, thanksgiving and consecration, and therefore used in liturgical contexts. For example: “And as they ate, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘Take, eat, this is my body’.” (Mark 14:22)
Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is the word makarios that is used again and again in the Beatitudes. We hear it also in such texts as, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” and, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (Mt 13:16, 16:17)
In classical Greek makar was associated with the immortal gods. Lari means fate or death, but with the negative prefix ma the word means being deathless, no longer subject to fate, a condition both inaccessible and longed for by mortals. It was because of their immortality that the gods, the hoi Makarioi, were the blessed ones.
“The interesting thing about ashre is that it is never, so far as I know, applied to God,” Archimandrite Ephrem points out. “On the other hand the Greek makar starts life as precisely something that the gods are, though the related adjective makarios is more commonly applied to humans.”
In Christian use, makarios came increasingly to mean sharing in the life of God, the ultimate joy, a happiness without the fault lines of happenstance running through it. What a gift! Weare not simply capable of an abstract awareness that God exists or of studying God as an astronomer might study the night sky, all the while knowing the stars are unbridgeable distances away and that their light may be years or centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being filled with qualities that humanly seem impossible.
Jim Forest is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. This is a shortened section from
The Ladder of the Beatitudes, published by Orbis Books in the US and Alban Books in Great Britain.