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I'm working through a study on "The Beatitudes" of Matthew 5 and would appreciate any insight into Christ's statement:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ESV

My question is specifically in regard to what "poor in spirit" means, not "kingdom of heaven."

An interesting paradigm shift came to me from Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, 1997, which inverts the apparent formulaic assumption of "poor in spirit" to represent a bad thing. on pg. 99 of his aforementioned book he puts it this way:

[Willard's paraphrase of Matt. 5:3] "Blessed are the spiritual zeros - the spiritually bankrupt, deprived and deficient, the spiritual beggars, those without a wisp of 'religion' - when the kingdom of the heavens comes upon them." ...

... The poor in spirit are blessed as a result of the kingdom of God being available to them in their spiritual poverty.

So, seeing "poor in spirit" turned into a bad thing that the kingdom of heaven's availability turns into a good thing was an interesting idea to me, but Williard fails to provide much objective or external support for this beyond his own reasoning. If you're aware of an objective or external argument supporting this perspective, please share it.

In short, any answers that can expound on the meaning of "poor in spirit" would be greatly appreciated. Please avoid giving me opinions, and please provide references for all answers, if you can. Thanks!

  • I'd have to do some digging, but I read several years ago that the word translated here as "poor" really does refer to poverty, just as this commenter asserts. – Mason Wheeler Dec 24 '14 at 19:16
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Four of the eight beatitudes are found, with some differences, in both Matthew and Luke.

The beatitudes as recorded in Matthew are:

  1. Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
  2. They that mourn: for they will be comforted
  3. The meek: for they shall inherit the earth
  4. They which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
  5. The merciful: for they shall obtain mercy
  6. The pure in heart: for they shall see God
  7. The peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God
  8. They which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The corresponding four beatitudes in Luke are different in meaning, although the words are almost the same:

  1. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
  2. Those who are weeping, for they will laugh
  3. The hungry, for they will be satisfied
  4. Followers of the Son of Man, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

A key difference between the two sets of beatitudes is that Matthew's is spiritual, consistent with the theme of the gospel as a whole, while Luke's is more concerned with problems the poor face, which is also a theme throughout Luke's Gospel. Thus, in Luke's first beatitude, "blessed are the poor," while Matthew's first beatitude says "blessed are the poor in spirit." Most New Testament scholars recognise the four beatitudes common to both Matthew and Luke as coming from the hypothetical 'Q' document (6:20-23), used by both authors as a source for sayings attributed to Jesus, and trace the remaining four back to other sources known to Matthew. When copying from Q, Luke's Gospel is usually considered closer to the original in Q, meaning that "blessed are the poor" is probably the original *.

The meaning of Matthew's "poor in spirit" has resulted in a great deal of discussion, with no consensus on how it should be understood. On the surface, it should be those who are rich in spirit who inherit the kingdom of heaven, but theologians find various innovative ways to explain the apparent contradiction. Thus, we have Williard's hypothesis that you have found lacking in objectivity.

Often these attempts at explanation overlook Matthew's use of Q as the source for the first four beatitudes. Matthew took a source that we also know from Luke and produced a very different beatitude by the addition of two words, "in spirit." Perhaps the answer is as simple as that this was a Matthean elaboration of the original wording in Q, that just did not quite work out.

(*) The Q document is a hypothetical document- i.e. no extant copy now exists, although scholars believe they can synthesise it with reasonable accuracy because of its use in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The standard treatment of the Q document is to give chapter and verse numbers that correspond to the equivalent passages in Luke, in recognition of Luke following the original text more closely than does Matthew. Raymond E. Brown says in An Introduction to the New Testament, page 122, "In the judgment of most, the existence of Q remains the best way of explaining the agreements between Matt and Luke in material they did not borrow from Mark." John Dominic Crossan says in The Birth of Christianity, pages 110-111, that The Q Gospel is a hypothetical document whose existence is persuasively postulated to explain the amount of non-Markan material found with similar order and content in Matthew and Luke. He adds that this postulate does not have the massive consensus that Markan priority has [that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark], but it is certainly a major scholarly conclusion.

Even if we did not have 'Q' as a major scholarly conclusion for sayings material that does not come from Mark's Gospel, we would still need another explanation for the material, given the very strong consensus that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were substantially based on Mark's Gospel. Uta Ranke-Heinemann says in Putting Away Childish Things, page 218, that Matthew takes over almost all Mark's material, Mark's sequence of events and, for the most part, Mark’s wording. It is incomprehensible that an eyewitness (the Apostle Matthew) would choose to depend so radically on a non-eyewitness (the author of Mark). She adds that the real author of Matthew is unknown. In that regard, it is important to note that all the New Testament gospels were originally anonymous and were only attributed to the persons whose names they now bear later in the second century.

  • Sources would be greatly appreciated for: 1) "Most New Testament scholars recognize the four beatitudes common to both Matthew and Luke as coming from the hypothetical 'Q' document..." 2) "Luke's Gospel is usually considered closer to the original in Q..." Also, your concluding sentence seems to dismiss the question altogether, accusing Matthew's gospel of being mistaken in its accuracy of Christ's words. I understand that this is historically possible, but what might an answer be for those who cannot dismiss a text as erroneous, i.e., adherents to the inerrancy of scripture? Thanks! – Levi Dec 25 '14 at 3:58
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    @Levi Done! I have added an explanation of Q as an appendix, since it consists of explanations for readers not so familiar with NT scholarship, rather than being part of my main answer to your question. I hope this is what you were looking for in your comment. Please do not think of any of this as accusing Matt as being mistaken - a second-hand source, as Matt has been demonstrated, can be an excellent source for events that occurred, but it is scarcely possible that the author could know, word for word, what Jesus actually said. – Dick Harfield Dec 25 '14 at 6:38
  • Fantastic edit! Thanks for the appendix! As soon as I get one more rep point I'll be able to give you a well deserved +1. – Levi Dec 25 '14 at 10:21
  • @DickHarfield. I see no discrepancy between Luke and Matthew. Being poor meant (and still does) that all the laws cannot be followed. (No money to buy kosher food - cheaper non-kosher is fine.) The monetary poor are therefore poor "in spirit" - they cannot buy the or pay for the spiritual. (temple tax, circumcision etc) They do not have to keep the laws that costs money so they will go to heaven easier. Re-look at the rich young man. – gideon marx Dec 26 '14 at 8:45
  • @gideonmarx 'The meaning of Matthew's "poor in spirit" has resulted in a great deal of discussion, with no consensus on how it should be understood ... but theologians find various innovative ways to explain the apparent contradiction.' – Dick Harfield Dec 26 '14 at 20:24
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The Old Testament and Hebrew linguistic background of this passage should be kept in mind. Recall:

  • Matthew (or his source) was likely translating words that were spoken in Hebrew or Aramaic.
  • Both Jesus and Matthew likely had a Semitic mother tongue.
  • The Hebrew bible (both in its Hebrew and Greek forms) was frequently referenced explicitly by both, and in many more cases provided unstated background.

The term used is οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, (hoi ptōchoi tō pneumati) – "the poor in [or with respect to] spirit". The dative translated "in" has a broad range of meanings; this needs to be determined from context. A few relevant points of context from the Hebrew scriptures:

  1. The Psalms, regarding poor.

    The word ptōchos is the preferred (thought not exclusive) translation of the Hebrew עני (ʿānî) which carries the basic idea of "lacking" – at times in the sociologic sense (lacking property), but more often in the Psalms it denotes "neediness" with reference to God. See especially Psalms 10 and 72, where it is also sometimes translated "afflicted". As far as I see, in all of its 31 appearances in the Psalms ʿānî is used in a positive sense, characterizing those who recognize their need of God. 1

  2. Psalm 51:17,* regarding spirit.

    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
       a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

    The "spirit" here is pneuma in the Greek Septuagint, the same word used in Matthew 5. This provides a background for the idea that having a pneuma that is "compromised" in some way is a rhetorical indication of humility toward God.

  3. Isaiah 66:2, regarding poor in spirit.

    All these things my hand has made,
       and so all these things came to be,
       declares the LORD.
    But this is the one to whom I will look:
       he who is humble and contrite in spirit
       and trembles at my word.

    The word that the ESV translates "humble" is ʿānî (see #1, above), and "spirit" is translating ruach, the normal Hebrew correlate of pneuma. Here "humble and contrite in spirit" is helpfully restated: "trembles at my word."

*All quotes are ESV.


Note
1. In this way, Luke’s "poor" that parallels Matthew’s "poor in spirit" (Luke 6:20 // Mat. 5:3) may carry the same sense (or even translate the same Semitic term?), despite the fact that the Greek ptōchos itself more often refers to economic disadvantage.

References
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Eerdmans, 2007).

Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1999).

William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

The links in the body of the answer are to older lexicons, provided for convenience because they are freely available. It is the newer lexicons cited here that were used to inform this answer.

2

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?

Mat 5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

poor = ptōchos =

Thayer Definition: 1) reduced to beggary, begging, asking alms 2) destitute of wealth, influence, position, honour 2a) lowly, afflicted, destitute of the Christian virtues and eternal riches 2b) helpless, powerless to accomplish an end 2c) poor, needy

A distinction is made in "poor" such that the widow with two mites is called poor (pentichros) as needy but with some meager resources. The poor of "ptōchos" have nothing and no hope of anything. I once talked with a Greek scholar about the word "ptōchos" and he said that the sound of the word was the sound made when you would spit on someone and he thought that was the origin of the word.

Barkley describes a progression in the meaning of the word from one having no resources or hope of resources to having deep faith as a result of having nothing else in which to hope. If this is correct, one might see the addition of "in spirit" in Matthew not as an error or addition, but as an expansion that reflects this use of the word "poor".

1

The word ptōchos used means absolute poverty.

Spiritually speaking, the poor in spirit are those who recognize their utter lack of the Spirit. This is the first step one must recognize during conversion - that he lacks and need the Holy Spirit. Thus the poor in spirit are the ones who are blessed, because, unlike the proud Pharisees, they recognize with the help of God their utter poverty, and receive the help they need.

Couple this with the second verse "blessed are those who mourn." The word penthéō is a type of deep grieving like there is a death in the family. Christians are not called to be unhappy people, but only those who recognize their need of the Holy Spirit can then see their sins so clearly that they mourn sin.

Finally Revelation 3:17-18 further expands the need of recognizing that we are poor:

17 Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— 18 I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.

1

Poverty of spirit is nothing more than humility.

"First He lays down humility as a foundation," writes Theophylact.1

Since Adam fell through pride, Christ raises us up by humility; for Adam had aspired to become God. The "poor in spirit" are those whose pride is crushed and are contrite in soul.2

"The pauper in spirit," wrote the 19th century Russian preacher John of Kronstadt, "is the person who sincerely admits he is a spiritual pauper, with nothing to call his own."3

He waits for everything form God's mercy alone, he is convinced that he can neither think nor wish anything good if God does not give him a good thought or a good impulse, he knows that he cannot perform even one truly good deed without the grace of Jesus Christ. He considers himself worse, more sinful, and lower than everyone else; he always blames himself and does not judge anyone; he acknowledges his soul's raiment to be foul, dismal, stinking, and good-for-nothing; and he does not cease to implore the Lord Jesus Christ to enlighten the raiment of his soul, to clothe him in the imperishable garment of righteousness. He runs unceasingly to the shelter of God's wings, not having any safety in the world save for the lord. He considers all his inheritance to be God's gift and earnestly thanks the Giver for all good things for it, and gladly gives a part of his inheritance to those who ask it. This is who is poor in spirit.4


1 The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, p.44
2 Ibid.
3 Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes (Cornerstone Editions, 2003), p.26
4 Ibid., pp.26-27

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