A recently published fragment among the Dead Sea Scrolls contains beatitudes with some striking similarities to the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-3–12) and in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6-20–23)—and also some important differences.
The fragment was published in 1991 by Emile Puech,a my colleague at the École Biblique in Jerusalem. From his analysis of the fragment, Puech claims to have solved a long-time scholarly crux concerning the beatitudes in Matthew and Luke (see sidebars, “The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount” and “The Beatitudes and Woes in the Sermon on the Plain”). Luke’s version has four beatitudes; Matthew has nine (although some scholars count differently and come up with seven or eight). What is the relationship between the beatitudes in the two Gospels? Until now, most scholars have concluded that Matthew is an expansion of Luke, in accordance with the general rule of critical scholarship that lectio brevior melius (the shorter reading is the better one). Applying this rule, Luke’s is the earlier text, substantially glossed in Matthew’s later composition. Puech, however, claims that the beatitudes in this fragmentary Dead Sea Scroll show that Matthew’s beatitudes of nine (eight + one) is the original form of the Gospel beatitudes because this number corresponds to a standard literary form of the time, seven or eight beatitudes.b
Father Puech, one of the new members of the international team dedicated to the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a superb Semitic epigrapher. But his literary analysis permits of other opinions.
There is more to it than this, however. The Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes provide us with an occasion to consider beatitudes in general and to sharpen our understanding of both the similarities and the differences between the scrolls and early Christian literature.
Most Christians assume that beatitudes refers only to those in the Sermon on the Mount—and perhaps also to the Sermon on the Plain. In fact, the beatitude is a not uncommon literary form found in the Hebrew Bible as well as in the New Testament and other contemporaneous literature. It is a short cry of joy like “You happy man!” It can be expanded to include a reason for the person’s good fortune. The word comes from the Latin beatus, meaning happy or blissful. It is to be distinguished from the passive participle “blessed,” which comes from the Latin benedictus. The similarity of the two terms has caused some confusion. Older translations often begin “Blessed is … ” A more accurate translation would be “Happy is … ”c “Blessed” is properly used only of God; it signifies an invocation or wish. “Happy” (beatus) is used of human beings and recognizes an existing state of happiness; it represents an approving proclamation of fact. Although the Gospel beatitudes include a proclamation of congratulation and felicitation, they are also more than this- In addition to a proclamation, they are joined to a promise of future fulfillment. So “blessed” is not a wholly incorrect translation.
Beatitudes in the Hebrew Bible occur primarily in a genre known as Wisdom literature or, as the scholars say, sapiential literature, like Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Job. Wisdom literature is a branch of Biblical writing that deals with how the individual can lead a good life in this world, a life based on fear of the Lord. It expresses itself largely in pithy sayings, such as proverbs, parables, precepts and beatitudes, which together condense centuries of experience and insight into God, nature, humans and the judicial process. Examples of beatitudes from the Hebrew Bible are numerous- “Happy (ashre) is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalms 1-1), “Happy is one who … keeps his hand from doing evil” (Isaiah 56-2), etc. These rewards take place in the here and now. They are not yet understood as a promise to be fulfilled by God in the future, either after life on this earth or at the end of days. In more technical terms, the beatitudes in the Hebrew Bible are not yet understood eschatologically. They are related to a full and happy life on this earth in this life, although they clearly relate to God’s presence- “Happy [or Blessed] are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2-12). “Happy [or Blessed] is one whose sin is forgiven” (Psalm 32-1). “Happy [or Blessed] is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments” (Psalm 112-1).
Over time, we can discern several steps in the development of this literary form. One significant literary step involved the grouping of beatitudes in artistically designed lists. This step occurred for the first time in extant literature about 180 B.C. in Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Ben Sirach 25-7–10; compare also 14-20–27 [see sidebar, “Beatitudes in The Wisdom of Ben Sirach”]).d Together, the beatitudes in a list become a kind of program of life. Incidentally, the Dead Sea Scroll list of beatitudes was composed at just about the same time as the beatitudes in Ecclesiasticus—about 180 B.C.
Another development involved balancing beatitudes with their opposite—the so-called woes. The most famous of these are of course in the Sermon on the Plain, where Luke balances the four beatitudes that begin “Happy [or Blessed] are … ” with four woes that begin “Woe to … ” (Luke 6-24–26). Still another development involves giving a reason for the happiness; a line of congratulations is followed by a line giving the reason for the congratulations.
Another important development, as we shall see, involved the transformation of the beatitude from a wisdom (or sapiential) proclamation to an eschatological promise applicable to the end of days or the kingdom of God. In this, the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes stand between the beatitudes of the Hebrew Bible and the beatitudes in the Gospels. This is what we might expect from the date. Although the date of this copy of the Dead Sea Scroll text is between 50 B.C. and 50 A.D. (based on the Herodian script in which it is written), it was probably composed about 130 years earlier than the earliest estimated date for this copy.
This fragment of beatitudes comes from Cave 4, the richest of the Qumran caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. This cave contained over 500 different manuscripts—all in tatters, with most of the pieces missing. This particular manuscript was originally assigned for publication to Father Jean Starcky. Eventually he was able to join ten tiny fragments, thereby recreating several complete lines of text—a rather rare occurrence in the fragmentary material assigned to him. On Starcky’s death, his texts were reassigned to Puech. Puech added more fragments in a remarkable piece of detective work, eventually reconstructing parts of three columns.
The first column (see sidebar, “Puech’s Translation of the Qumran Fragments”) is very fragmentary, consisting of five small pieces forming three clauses at the beginning of the text. This is all that was preserved (for the text and its decipherment I am of course indebted to Puech; this is his work, not mine)-
(1) … e by the wisdom that God gave to him …
(2) … e wisdom and disci … to understand …
(3) … to increase kn …
Rather remarkably, Puech has been able to reconstruct the text as follows (words in brackets are Puech’s reconstruction)-
(1) [Words (or Proverbs) of David (or of Solomon son of David), which he spok]e (or [wrot]e) by the wisdom God gave to him [to …
(2) … to acquir]e wisdom and disci[pline,] to understand [ …
(3) … ] to increase kn[owledge or wisdom] …
From the location, Puech surmises that this column was the beginning of the text. According to tradition, David composed hymns, psalms, etc., and his father, Solomon, wrote proverbs. Most of the psalter is attributed to David, and the Book of Proverbs begins, “The proverbs of Solomon,” so the attribution Puech makes to one or the other of these two kings seems reasonable.
Note that the pair “wisdom and discipline,” found in line 2, is also paired in Proverbs 1-2- “For learning about wisdom and discipline … ”
Clearly, the Dead Sea Scroll text is about Wisdom, or Lady Wisdom as she is referred to in Greek texts, for the word “wisdom” appears twice in the three preserved lines of this column. We are dealing here with sapiential literature.
The second column of the Dead Sea Scroll text contains the beatitudes. At least one beatitude preceded the four that have been recovered. Puech has reconstructed it as follows (again, the part in brackets is his reconstruction)-
“[Blessed (or Happy) is he who speaks the truth] with a pure heart and who does not slander with his tongue.”
The restoration of “Blessed [or Happy]” is obvious- Four additional beatitudes that begin this way follow in the text. The restoration of “who speaks the truth” is not so obvious. Puech makes the restoration on the basis of a parallel with Psalm 15, which is very similar in its style to this recitation of beatitudes, although it does not use the formula “Blessed is … ” In answer to the question “Who may dwell on your holy mountain?” Psalm 15-2–3 tells us- “[Those who] speak the truth from their heart, who do not slander with their tongue.”
Since the Dead Sea Scroll text refers to the “heart” and then goes on to speak of “slander with his tongue,” Puech restored the first part of this beatitude from the parallel line of Psalm 15.
The Dead Sea Scroll text continues with three beatitudes of the same length and a fourth beatitude of much greater length.
The third column of the text is quite fragmentary and difficult to understand; I will not have any more to say about it, although Puech’s reconstruction and translation are included in the box.
The first thing to note about the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes is that they are sapiential, not apocalyptic. They are Wisdom literature. They tell people how to live in the here and now. In this they differ substantially from the New Testament beatitudes. The subject is the pursuit of wisdom. There is here no reversal of fortune, what is classically called peripateia, no poor becoming rich, no paradox. This again is in striking contrast to the New Testament beatitudes. In the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes, the second clause is parallel, but introduced with “not”; the form is “Happy is he who does this (clause 1) and not that (clause 2).” In contrast, in the Gospel beatitudes the second clause is a paradoxical reward clause; for example, “Happy [or Blessed] are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5-5).
While there are differences, there are also similarities—in addition to the fact that all are beatitudes. Both the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes and the first eight Matthean beatitudes speak in the third person- “Happy [or Blessed] are the … ” (In Luke, as well as in the ninth Matthean beatitude, they are in the second person- “Happy [or Blessed] are you … ”)
The Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes oscillate between singular and plural. Both the Matthean and Lucan forms are in the plural, however, which gives them a more social or collective character. This character is consistent with the apocalyptic concerns of the New Testament beatitudes, in comparison with the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes, which are Wisdom texts telling us (as individuals) how to live.
That both the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes and the Gospel beatitudes share a structural norm, however, is indicated by the fact that in each case the last beatitude is a much longer one. In Luke there are three short beatitudes and then a fourth longer one; in Matthew there are eight short beatitudes and one longer one. In this Dead Sea Scroll fragment, we do not know how many there were in the original because not all of them have survived, but we do know that they end with four short ones and a longer one. In each case the last beatitude breaks the pattern of couplets.
Puech argues that there are four missing beatitude couplets from the Dead Sea Scroll text. This would give it eight beatitude couplets and a ninth longer one. Puech bases this on the fact that Matthew has eight plus a ninth longer one, and on the fact that the Book of Ecclesiasticus includes eight short beatitudes (14-20–27). In addition, Puech reconstructs a psalm found among the Dead Sea Scrolls to contain seven beatitudes.e On this basis, Puech contends that eight was a fixed literary pattern at the time and that therefore four beatitudes are missing from the Dead Sea Scroll text. The final step in Puech’s argument is that Matthew’s version of the beatitudes is an original, integrated, unitary composition, rather than an expansion of the beatitudes in Luke. Unfortunately, this argument rests on too slender a base to be very convincing. What is certain is that the Dead Sea Scroll fragment began with more beatitudes than we at present possess.
As for the relationship between Matthew’s beatitudes and Luke’s beatitudes, most scholars will continue to regard the former as a later expansion of the latter. They see a later “spiritualizing” tendency in Matthew’s version—a decided change from Luke’s concern for the socioeconomic circumstances of early Christians. Thus, where Luke tells of the rewards that will be reaped by the “poor,” in Matthew the reference is to the “poor in spirit.” Luke is concerned for those who “hunger”; whereas in Matthew it is those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Both Matthew and Luke, however, share an apocalyptic outlook. Both are concerned with the kingdom of God. It is this theme that most clearly distinguishes the beatitudes of Jesus from those found at Qumran. The eschatological references to “afflictions,” etc., in the Dead Sea Scroll beatitudes and the Gospel beatitudes thus reflect two different perspectives- One looks primarily at what men can do in the present, the other at what God will do in the future, for the hungry and downhearted, even if they are not morally or intellectually worthy.
Psychologists tell us that people need to live in the present, but they also need a motivating hope so that they can move into the future. Both perspectives are present in the Hebrew Scriptures—for example, in Proverbs (present-oriented) and Daniel (future-oriented)—as well as in the new beatitude text and in the New Testament. The two perspectives are complementary. The new beatitude text helps to sharpen our focus on the familiar beatitudes in the Gospels by setting them in their original context.
a. See Emile Puech, “4Q525 et les péricopes des Béatitudes en Ben Shira et Matthieu,” Revue Biblique 138 (1991), pp. 80–106.
b. In the catechetical tradition, there are eight Matthean beatitudes. Modern literary analysis separates Matthew’s ninth beatitude from his first eight, putting it off into a new literary unit.
c. The destination is found not only in Latin, but in Hebrew and Greek as well beatus (Latin) = ashre (Hebrew) = makarios (Greek) = happy (English); benedictus (Latin) = baruch (Hebrew) = eulogetos (Greek) = blessed (English).
d. The Book of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) is part of canonical or inspired scripture for Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, who follow the longer canon or list of the Greek Bible, but not for Jews or Protestants, who follow the shorter canon of the Hebrew Bible, though the Talmud quotes the book with respect. Much of the book’s Hebrew text has been recovered over the last century. The book is useful for reconstructing the development of Jewish ethical thought in the centuries just before the birth of Jesus.
e. The relevance of the number seven is that it shows that there was a pattern of longer lists of beatitudes as opposed to single isolated beatitudes, which are most common in the Hebrew Bible.