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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 2 - Sacred Texts 


Poetic Verse in the Greek Testament--The Beatitudes

The gospel writers sometimes quote the words of Jesus, or of his associates, in the form of Hebrew verse. These sayings were preserved in poetic form because poetry is easier to remember than prose. Therefore, almost universally, poetry emerges before prose within the literary tradition of a people.

Poetic verse can be achieved in a variety of ways. Western literature frequently relies on rhyme, word stress, numbered feet, or alliteration. In the Psalms, the Jews relied on parallelism, the technique whereby two half-lines or lines are linked to each other by meaning. Synonymous parallelism means that the second verse repeats the thought of the first, but in different words. Using this form of Hebrew verse, the gospel writers quote Jesus as saying, "Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat / nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, / And the body more than clothing" (Lk 12:22). On the other hand, when the second verse expresses a thought opposite to that of the first, antithetical parallelism occurs. Matthew uses this verse form when he quotes Jesus as saying, "Every sound tree bears good fruit / but a bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit / Nor can a bad tree bear good fruit" (7:17). Tautologic parallelism happens when the second verse takes the thought of the first to a climax: "He who receives you receives me, / And he who receives me receives him who sent me" (Mt 10:40).

Examples of these poetic parallelisms, and variations of them, are evident in the Beatitudes ("blessings)," drawn from chapter 5 of Matthew's narrative. The translation cited below is from The Revised English Bible (1989).

The Beautitudes

And when he saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. There he sat down, and when his disciples had gathered round him he began to address them. And this is the teaching he gave:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit:
the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are the sorrowful:
they shall find consolation.
Blessed are the gentle;
they shall have the earth for their possession.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail;
they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are those who show mercy;
mercy shall be shown to them.
Blessed are those whose hearts are pure;
they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers;
they shall be called God's children.
Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right;
the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are you, when you suffer insults and persecution and calumnies
of every kind for my sake. Exult and be glad, for you have a rich
reward in heaven; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you."

Questions for Discussion

  1. How do the ideals defined in the Beatitudes contrast with those suggested in the classical epics?
  2. Is it possible to live up to all the lofty ideals suggested by the Beatitudes? Why or why not?


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The Parables of Jesus
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Sermon on the Mount

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