The Beatitudes and Other Sayings
When it comes to "what Jesus really said", unraveling
the text of the Gospels into "bare bones" history isn't easy. Most of the
time it's not possible to know Jesus' exact words. Historical
investigation is at one level a matter of estimating probabilities and
that's what comes into play here.
Chapter 5 begins one of several sections in his Gospel which purport to
relay to his readers "what Jesus really said". All reputable scholars -
that is, apart from the few who say that the Bible is inerrant (in which
case the New Testament's record is precisely "what Jesus really said") -
now agree that Matthew did not and could not write history as we know it
According to J C Fenton, the first section
of Matthew's Gospel (chapters 5-7) deals with what Matthew thought is the
way of life which should be followed by those who want to enter the
Kingdom of Heaven ("God's Imperial Territory" or "God's Empire"). The
scheme adopted by the author of Luke's Gospel differs. Chapter 4.14-9.50
tells of Jesus' work in Galilee. G B Caird thinks that Luke divided this
into sections:  How popular Jesus was;  How Jesus got into conflict
with some religious authorities;  The new Israel;  Love in action;
 Wandering;  The disciples.
may not reflect exactly the intention of Luke's author. But he's correct,
as most commentators agree, in concluding that the gospel authors arranged
their material into theological schemes according to their interpretation
Because of the way the gospel authors
thought about authority and truth, they felt free to use what we would
call "unhistorical material".
material from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). It also included
teachings of the early Jewish community who in the Acts of the Apostles
are called followers of "The Way" - which most scholars call the early
Church. The authors included this material because they were
convinced it had been validated from the Hebrew Bible. He and his fellows
thought, for example, that if a prophet or great figure in the Old
Testament predicted something it could come true in later times.
not correct, I think, to condemn the gospel authors for "falsifying" the
historical evidence. They didn't think as we do about history and can't be
blamed for that. Nevertheless, if we're trying to think
historically we are required to do everything possible, in a hard-headed
way, to sort out "what Jesus really said" in historical terms, from "what
Jesus said" according to the first-century Gospel authors.
It seems to
me that the most solid saying we have in Matthew and Luke's Gospels is
"Love your enemies". Typically of high-probability sayings by Jesus, this
one is a paradox. For if one loves an enemy in this way, he or she ceases
to be an enemy in the usual sense of the word.
Jews thought that loving
behaviour was generally necessary only towards other Jews and therefore
that non-Jews could be subjects of revenge. In addition, ancient cultures
seldom if ever promoted anything except negative responses to enemies. All
this makes it highly possible that a saying such as this could very easily
have been excised from the tradition during the course of its transmission
to the Gospel authors because it is so contrary to current norms. That it
has survived despite going against what most people thought is excellent
evidence of its authenticity (a point made by J P Meier in A Marginal
On the other hand, some sayings, like "You are the light of
the world" (Matthew 5.14), are unlikely to be "what Jesus really said".
And yet the second half of the same verse can be regarded as quite
possibly a genuine saying. Why one and not the other? Because a judgement
call has to be made in this as in every consideration of historical
There is good evidence that the phrase "light of the
world" was widely known in other contexts in Jesus' times and was taken up
as a metaphor by the early Christian community. In John's Gospel, for
example, the author writes for Jesus, "I am the light of the world"
(8.12). So Jesus may have used the phrase - but the early Church
definitely did. Therefore I have come down on the side of removing
this phrase on the grounds that Matthew is likely to have inserted it to
make a theological point.
The "city on a hill" aphorism (Matthew 5.14),
on the other hand, has few parallels in ancient literature that I know of.
It's just the kind of open-ended thing one would expect Jesus to have
said. So although I think it's likely he said this or something close to
it, I don't know for sure what he meant by it (although I might take a
One of the indications we can use to query the authenticity of a
saying is to ask, "Is this the kind of addition which might have been made
in order to explain or refer to a religious virtue?" If it might
have been so used then the probability of its authenticity is reduced when
trying to arrive at "bare bones" history.
So, for example, I prefer to
translate the Greek of the first so-called Beatitude in Matthew's Gospel
as "Good for the poor" and take out "in spirit". We know that the first
followers of The Way came from the very poor. Later, when wealthier people
came along, it makes sense to suppose that a reference to "in spirit"
could have been used to soften a difficult original version. In addition,
Luke's version, does away with this "spiritual" reference, as does the
version in the Gospel of Thomas (Thomas 54). The simple version is more
likely to reflect the earlier tradition.
So also with the "hunger"
Beatitude. Sayings which refer to real hunger and poverty are easily
"spiritualised" by religious people. In this we have to remember that
adding things to texts wasn't thought of as wrong, provided there was good
authority from someone or some written source for the addition. Finally,
we know from the Old testament and other sources that the Jews thought
that riches, not poverty, were a sign of God's favour. The unvarnished
version is just the sort of thing Jesus seems to have been saying when he
set about turning upside-down some conventional social values of his time.
The other beatitudes are taken out of Matthew and Luke because they differ
in kind from the those which have been retained. To commend the poor,
the hungry and the grief-stricken is in a different category from
commending the spiritual virtues of meekness, mercy, love of peace and
spiritual innocence. Jesus may have said these things - but it
seems more likely that they are editorial insertions by the Gospel
If one compares the Lukan Beatitudes with Matthew's version,
the editing of each author becomes plain. But it's also clear that each
author retains similar words and phrases. It's not as though the changes
are so radical as to entirely obscure the original material. Whatever some
scholars may claim, we don't know for sure if the differences are the work
of each Gospel author, or if they reflect different oral traditions.
example: Luke 6.30 reads, "Give to everyone who asks you for a
favour," while Matthew 5.42 reads, "Give to one who asks a favour
from you." The Lukan version is somewhat stronger and may therefore be
more accurate. But it's also possible that he used one verbal source and
Matthew another. Most people think that they used the same version (the
so-called Q-source) and then made their individual changes. Some (I think
rightly) suppose that Luke's version is the more primitive.
likelihood of these sayings being close to the words of Jesus as
remembered by the early Jesus communities is increased by the fact that a
version is also contained in the Gospel of Thomas. Some think that parts
of this Gospel are among the earliest verbal records we have.
To sum up:
The Beatitudes appear only in Matthew, Luke and Thomas.
Each Gospel author has "massaged" the original oral material
according to his understanding of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas shows
fewer signs of editorial intervention, but more signs of distortion in
the process of verbal transmission.
In opting for those sayings which are "bare bones history" and
which reflect "what Jesus really said", it's best to take out sayings
which show signs of having been softened by being "spiritualised".
Though one should always be on the lookout for residual meaning.
When there are clear indications of material which reflects the
agenda of early Christian communities, we should be wary of assuming
that the material reflects accurately the original words of Jesus.