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Monday, August 20, 2012

"Blessed Are" or "Blessed Be"?

A thought has been floating in my head for a few days. In the Beatitudes, the common translation is "Blessed are . . . " Whichever group about which Jesus speaks, he uses the phrase "μακάριοι οἱ . . . " to make a statement of blessing. The Greek does not use a verb of being here, which means the interpreter/translator needs to make a decision. The sentence itself says "Blessed the poor in spirit, because of them is the reign of the heavens." There is no "are" there. Thus, my thought.

My professor of spiritual formation holds the idea that the Beatitudes are not aspirational values, but something more. They're not phrases that say, "You should be poor in spirit, because if you are, then yours will be the reign of heaven." They are statements that, according to this professor, bless people in real, current situations. They reflect this more: "Blessed are those whose spirits are already impoverished, broken, shattered, for they have something more to anticipate in the reign of God." The Beatitudes speak to existing realities rather than a state of being which one ought to seek.

With this in mind, I became curious as to whether the implied verb of being is indicative or an imperative/subjunctive. I have started searching for similar examples, especially those using the phrase "blessed be" and "blessed is/are" in English. Of the six examples I have thus far examined in the LXX (Gen 9.26; 14.19-20; 22.18; 24.27; 27.29; Ex 18.10), they all use εὐλογητός or a derivative thereof. There are quite a few more I have to sift through (no fewer than 20), but the first few all have that word group in common. Also, these six examples are found only using the search terms "Blessed be," without using "is/are."

Realistically, what difference does it make if the Beatitudes are translated "Blessed be the poor in spirit" as opposed to "Blessed are . . . "? If it is the latter, then the blessing has already been bestowed: God's favor has already fallen on the oppressed, which makes sense. The Bible frequently speaks to God's compassion on the disenfranchised. However, many of the finite verbs used are in the future tense. Whether this is near future or distant future cannot be said definitively (unless you know something I don't; I'm eager to hear), but it's still interesting. If "Blessed are" is understood in light of the future tense verbs used, then it might not be appropriate.

"Blessed be," on the other hand, has the ring of Jesus seeking God's blessing on behalf of these people for whom he already has a soft spot. It is not uncommon for a speaker to remind God of his promises and say, in effect, "And remember, God, I'm holding you to this. Seriously. I am." If Jesus is understood to be saying, "Blessed be the mourners, because they will be comforted," then the comfort sounds rather absolute, even if the blessing is not. We tell God, "Bless this meal," not with the sound of an optative verb of request, but with a statement in the imperative. We fully expect God will bless the meal, assuming we think about it beyond something we say at mealtimes. We expect, but cannot be completely certain. If I pray over my fast food chicken, God had better bless it, because there's no other way that stuff could be considered good for me! If it is "Blessed be," then the person in the real situation of pain has something to legitimately look forward to. This may be conveyed through the future verbs in the sentences, as well, but "Blessed be" appears to work in the fashion of an emphatic article or particle: it's not necessary, but it presses the point.

There is research to be done on this on my part. I plan to look up statements of blessing in other Greek texts (at least those which are readily available to me) and see how they compare. Μακάριος isn't too common so far, but εὐλογητός looks like it might be everywhere (see also Eph 1.3). I think there's potential here for one of those small interpretive decisions that does matter, even if only a little. In the meantime, enjoy this video on pre-blessed food.

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