The 2001 Translation

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2001 Translation


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    Matthew 5:3 – ‘humble’ or ‘poor in spirit?’

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s first word (in most Bibles) are:

    ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ –Matthew 5:3, KJV

    What does it mean to be ‘poor in spirit?’ Many writers have speculated different things. For example, the website says:

    ‘To be poor in spirit is to recognize your utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. It is understanding that you have absolutely nothing of worth to offer God.’

    Another view is:

    ‘Jesus wants us to humbly accept that in and of ourselves, we are not enough.’

    Further, the New Living Translation words the verse in a way that has nothing to with spirituality:

    ‘God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him.’

    Yet another translation says:

    ‘Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need.’

    Perhaps one of these versions is correct. However, there is some information that these writers and translators may not know. What?

    While many people know that Jesus likely spoke in Aramaic, few people are aware that back then there was a common Aramaic saying: to be ‘high in spirit.’ Jesus could have been contrasting being ‘high in spirit’ with being ‘poor in spirit.’

    So what did the expression mean? Well, the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon Project, has documented the expression ‘high in spirit’ several times in ancient writings. It appears to mean ‘insolence’ and ‘ostentatiousness.’

    What is insolence? It is a bold, disrespectful, and arrogant attitude.

    What is ostentatiousness? It is to be pretentious, showy, pompous, and egotistical.

    Does this description remind you of anyone? It’s a perfect description of the religious leaders that Jesus condemned, the Scribes and the Pharisees! They were absolutely arrogant show-offs.

    So if being ‘high in spirit’ describes those religious leaders, what would the opposite, being ‘poor in spirit,’ describe? Would it not be humility instead of arrogance? Would it not be discretion instead of being a show-off? The English word ‘humble’ captures this well.

    So did Jesus mean, ‘Blest are the humble?’ If that is what he meant, it would fit perfectly with the other things he said in the same sermon:

    ‘Blest are also the meek’ —Matthew 5:5

    ‘If you aren’t more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees, you won’t enter the Kingdom’ —Matthew 5:20

    ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness before other men so that they can see what you’re doing’ —Matthew 6:1

    ‘...don’t pray like the hypocrites do... standing in their synagogues and on the corners of the main streets, so that people will notice’ —Matthew 6:5

    ‘Also, when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites do, because they contort their faces to make sure that everyone knows they’re fasting.’ —Matthew 6:16

    You may also be reminded of when Jesus taught that we should be as humble as young children:

    ‘I tell you the truth; Anyone that doesn’t welcome the Kingdom of God like a young child won’t ever get into it.’ —Mark 10:15

    Therefore, it seems that ‘poor in spirit’ (humble) may well have been used as a contrast to being ‘high in spirit’ (arrogant), and this in full accord with the rest of Jesus’ teachings.

    Further, ancient Christian writers linked ‘poor in spirit’ with being humble. Around the late 2nd century, Tertullian commented on the expression like this:

    ‘No one, assuredly, is “poor in spirit,” except he [that is] humble.’

    Also Origen, probably writing in the early 3rd century, links being ‘poor in spirit’ with being ‘meek’ and obedient:

    ‘...those who have been obedient to the word of God... are said to deserve the kingdom of that heaven or heavens; and thus the prediction is more worthily fulfilled, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;” and, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven’

    So it seems that in early times, Christians understood that ‘poor in spirit’ meant to be (1) ‘humble’ and could be likened to (2) being ‘meek’ and to (3) being obedient to the word of God. So we have: humble, meek, and obedient.

    So why not just say ‘meek’ all the time? Why did Jesus use an expression? There is a subtle distinction. The Greek word used for ‘meek’ literally means to be gentle, while the Aramaic word means to be low, soft, or mild – which could also mean gentle.

    1. Meek means to be soft, gentle, and lowly.
    2. Poor in spirit means the opposite of being ‘high in spirit’, or an arrogant show-off; in other words, humble.

    Therefore, at Matthew 5:3 this translation says:

    Blest are the humble; For theirs is the Kingdom of [God].’

    We are not alone in reaching this conclusion. In 1933 the Lamsa Bible was published by George M Lamsa. While he was a controversial figure, he was also a native Aramaic speaker who could understand the subtle idioms of the language. He translated the words like this:

    ‘Blessed are the poor in pride, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’