Sunday, October 21, 2018

"The meek are makarioi for they shall inherit the earth."

When I entered into the MTC to learn Spanish for my mission I needed a Spanish to English dictionary to help me along. They gave every missionary a standard English-Spanish dictionary with tens of thousands of words in it but what I really needed was a simple picture dictionary so that I could learn the words for simple things like shoes, toilet, fork, restaurant, waiter, faucet, and kitchen sink. Fortunately they had one that I could buy from the bookstore. It proved very helpful for learning a variety of common words that made conversations easier.

When I got it and showed it to the other missionaries I proudly proclaimed, "It has everything! Including the kitchen sink!" As soon as I said this I turned to the page that showed a kitchen with everything labeled with both the Spanish and English words. Sure enough everything was labeled; the toaster, the oven, the oven mitt, the refrigerator, the pots and pans, everything.

Everything that is, except the kitchen sink. There were words for everything else, just not the kitchen sink. We all thought this was exceptionally weird and a tad ironic that my new dictionary had everything except the kitchen sink.

Over the course of my mission I spoke with many native Spanish speakers to try and learn the word for "kitchen sink". Their responses ranged from awkward realization that they had no idea what that thing they had seen their entire life was called, to indignation that I would ask such a silly question.

The best I ever got was from one companion who said he would call it a pila or pileta, which is a general word for a container that holds water, like a baptismal font (also called a pila, a battery is also a pila). But most people just didn't talk about it. They talked about washing the dishes, and washing their hands. They just never thought to mention the thing they did all that in.

To English speakers it may seem odd to not have a common word for something like that, but almost everyone I met had no idea that there was even supposed to be a name for that thing in the kitchen. You did things with it and it had a function all things that they had words for, but requiring that it have a specific name was an idea that was rather foreign to them.

To those who have learned another language being able to understand that these linguistic differences exist is key to understanding how language works. It is common for languages to have words that exist only in that language for objects and concepts that are not shared with other languages. One of the subtleties of learning a different language is not just learning the corresponding word in another language but understanding the words themselves in the context of that language.

When we read the Bible we have to remember that it was not written in English, and sometimes the words used in the original language don't have a direct analog in English. Just like people in Argentina when I asked them what the Spanish word for kitchen sink was and it was in that moment that they realized they had never even thought of having a word for that thing, there are concepts that do not exist in English that exist in Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic.

One such word is μακάριοι (makarioi). In Greek there is a a single word that conveys an idea. In English we have many ways of describing the same idea, and even a few words that are used in a similar way, but every attempt at translation fails in someway. It's not that English speakers have never experienced makarioi, but they may never have thought about it because we don't have a word specifically for that.

In ancient Greek the word makarios (or makar) was used to refer to people who were living a rich life. They were people with a full and satisfying life. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle the term is sometimes translated as "good Sir" or "gentleman" implying someone of nobility with wealth enough that they do not need to labor with their hands. But more than being someone who does not have to constantly worry about their daily bread it is someone who can life a life content with what they are doing.

A philosopher, or statesman, or other rich, noble person may be makarios. But wealth itself was not what made someone makarios. In Greek it also refers to someone who has been favored by the gods. To be someone who was makarios you needed to be living a prosperous life. Someone who could look at their life and be content was makarios.

Thus another translation of makarios is happy. But in English happiness is usually understood to be a momentary emotion. Makarios implies a much more enduring contentedness with your life in general. Generally those who are enduing long term sickness, or hard labor, who must toil cannot have or be makarios. Anciently this was something that only the rich, educated, noble, and powerful could achieve.

In the New Testament the authors turn this around in the Greek version of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus proclaims:
The poor in spirit are makarioi, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn are makarioi, for they will be comforted.
The meek are makarioi, for they will inherit the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are makarioi, for they will be filled.
The merciful are makarioi, for they will be shown mercy.
The pure in heart are makarioi, for they will see God.
The peacemakers are makarioi, for they will be called children of God.
Those who are persecuted because of righteousness are makarioi, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Here those who are makarioi are not the rich, educated, nobles who have achieved a contented state in life, it is the poor, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers.

In English this is almost always translated as blessed. And while that does convey part of the concept there is some confusion since we try to treat blessed as a verb while makarioi is an adjective, meaning we look for a subject and a predicate when there is none. When we read these passages in English we tend to unconsciously think "The poor are blessed. Who blesses them? God of course." But the original concept was not that those who are poor and meek will be blessed by God, but rather the poor and the meek are makarios. That is, the poor, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers are living a full and contented life, not just the rich and powerful.

In the end it is the humble and pure in heart who will prosper and will see God.

Sometimes when we read the scriptures in English we unknowingly miss the original meaning. Sometimes the concepts are missed, not because we are incapable are understanding it or have never experienced it, but because our language just doesn't place emphasis on that. Or our language and grammar demand a particular form. When this happens we may unknowingly give undue emphasis to ideas that where never intended.


Ryan Jones said...

I'm always delighted by delving into greek. It's useful to see how other authors used the word, since it informs the context of the author's use. Aristotle used the word in Nicomachean Ethics, for example. "the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them. [16] Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy." The word "supremely blessed" was makarioi, and reinforces the idea that it references lasting happiness.

Ryan Jones said...

If it interests you, the Perseus Project maintains an archive of ancient texts that are well indexed, so you can look for other examples of a term's use in the literary context beyond the scriptures themselves.

Plato used it a lot, but mostly in the vocative, to butter up the people in his dialogues. "Oh fortunate Crito, let's talk" et cetera.

Epictetus, a favorite of mine, used it to contrast the physical nature of man with the divine reasoning also found in man, and that some embrace the base and miserable aspect, but others embrace the divine and 'makarian' or abidingly happy things.