In English the first verses of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the beatitudes.” The traditional Russian phrase is “the commandments of blessedness.” The first word of each beatitude isn’t an everyday word. We have to ask ourselves before going further what blessed and beatitude mean.
Beatitude comes from the Latin word beatus, meaning happy, fortunate, blissful. In the context of the gods in Elysium, it meant supremely happy, in a state of pure bliss. In the late fourth century, beatus was the word Saint Jerome opted for in his 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 which 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,” some modern translations prefer “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 which can take its place. You might use a phrase like ‘on the right track’ or ‘going in the right direction.’ Sin 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 Middle English word for “luck.” The word happen is a daughter 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 to be unlucky, but to have good luck is to 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, 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. Blessed meant something consecrated to or belonging to God.
Several Hebrew words 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 Saint 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 which has been translated as “blessed.” It is 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, 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 Gospels were first written in Greek. In those passages where “blessed” is a verb, the Greek is eulogeo (“to bless”) — 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’.
Where “blessed” is used as an adjective, it is a translation of makarios. It is makarios which is used throughout the beatitudes. We also 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. Kari 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 which 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. There is no higher gift. We are 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, that their light may be centuries old by the time it reaches our eyes and that the objects which produced the light may no longer exist. The blessing extended to us is participation in the communion of the Holy Trinity, sharing in God’s immortality, and being blessed with qualities which seem humanly impossible.
[This is an extract from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, 1999; not to be published without the author’s permission]