Translating the Beatitudes from the Aramaic

Neil Douglas Klotz Translating the Beatitudes from the Aramaic

The translation of the Beatitudes that we are using this Sunday is from the New Revised Standard Version, copyrighted in 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. It’s an upgrade of the RSV version published in 1952, and the revision copyrighted in 1989 was made by the Revised Standard Version Bible Committee, a continuing body of thirty scholars from a wide-ranging ecumenical background, including a Jewish and Eastern Orthodox member, several Roman Catholics and a variety of Protestants. Why keep revising you might ask? Partly it’s because scholarship continues to identify mis-translations from the past, perhaps because of the difficulty in reading early texts, scribal errors, the lack of punctuation, the lack of vowels in Hebrew texts, and so on. Fragments of early Greek gospels continue to be discovered and studied, and some of these are identified as earlier, or more likely to be a record of lost originals.

Now let me read you a very different translation of the Beatitudes by Neil Douglas-Klotz:

Tuned to the Source are those who live by breathing Unity: their “I can!” is included in God’s.

Blessed are those in emotional turmoil: they shall be united inside by love.

Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within; they shall receive physical vigour and strength from the universe.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for physical justice; they shall be surrounded by what is needed to sustain their bodies.

Blessed are those who, from their inner wombs, birth mercy; they shall feel its warm arms embrace them.

Aligned with the One are those whose lives radiate from a core of love; they shall see God everywhere.

Blessed are those who plant peace each season; they shall be named the children of God.

Blessings to those who are dislocated for the cause of justice; their new home is the province of the universe.

Renewal when you are reproached and driven away by the clamour of evil on all sides, for my sake…

Then, do everything extreme, including letting your ego disappear, for this is the secret of claiming your expanded home in the universe.

For so they shamed those before you:

All who are enraptured, saying inspired things – who produce on the outside what the spirit has given them within.”

This translation comes from one of the most fascinating spiritual books in my collection, “Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus” by Neil Douglas-Klotz. It contains multiple alternative translations of the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, and three sayings of Jesus, based on Jesus’ own language, Aramaic. The original source for the Aramaic text is the Syrian Aramaic version of the Gospels known as the Peshitta version, which the church of the East regards as one of the oldest and most authoritative versions of the Bible, or at the very least, much closer to the thought forms of Jesus than the Greek versions on which our translations are based. One of the problems with what we call a literal view of Scripture is that it doesn’t take into account the complexities of translation, which with Jesus’ words, has multiple phases, from the original spoken Aramaic, to spoken Greek, to written Greek, to various English versions. Further complications are added when you consider that before the Reformation produced translations into the common languages of different countries, Latin versions of Scripture were considered authoritative, and influenced the perspective of scholarship. Across time and cultures there are great differences in the context and implications of words. Neil Douglas-Klotz explains some significant differences between Aramaic and the Greek of the New Testament. I’m quoting from his introduction to the book, pp 2,3:

Unlike Greek, Aramaic does not draw sharp lines between means and ends, or between an inner quality and an outer action. Both are always present. When Jesus refers to the “kingdom of heaven,” this kingdom is always both within and among us. Likewise, “neighbour” is both inside and outside, as is the “self” that we are to love to the same degree as our “neighbour”. Unlike Greek, arbitrary borders found in Greek between “mind,” “body,” and “spirit” fall away.

Furthermore, like its sister languages Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic can express many layers of meaning. Words are organized and defined based on a poetic root-and-pattern system so that each word may have several meanings, at first seemingly unrelated, but upon contemplation revealing an inner connection. The same word may be translated, for instance, as “name,” “light,” “sound,” or “experience”.” (end of quote)

Douglas-Klotz also describes a tradition in Middle Eastern and Hebraic mysticism “that each statement of sacred teaching must be examined from at least three points of view: the intellectual, the metaphorical, and the universal (or mystical).” Our modern Western view of Scripture has been locked into the first of these, often called “literal” meaning, but even that aspect has multiple choices if you consider the linguistic and cultural aspects that influence translation.

I’ve only given you a taste of the complexity that lies behind the difference between the NRSV Beatitudes and the various poetic translations that Douglas-Klotz provides. There’s a richness of spiritual wisdom in his translations, his textual notes, and the body prayers that he suggests, again consistent with Middle Eastern tradition. Let’s focus on the different understandings he provides for the first word of each phrase. He uses the ones we are familiar with “happy” and “blessed,” but he also suggests these alternatives: “healthy”, “healed”, “aligned with the One”, “tuned to the Source”, “integrated, resisting corruption or delusion”, “renewal”. I find these options give me a more complete understanding of what it means to be blessed. That’s doubly helpful, because Jesus’ description of who is blessed is counter-cultural, almost the opposite of what our society and his would have regarded as people who are blessed: they are not the rich and famous, or the powerful or the party animals, or those with notable families, but the poor, the meek, those who mourn and are persecuted. How are these people “happy”? Not in our fleeting sense of entertained, high spirited or lucky. They are happy in being in relationship with God, and moving towards wholeness, integration and renewal. That’s the blessing that those who are spiritually mature are seeking, and that I long for, beyond the ups and downs of emotions or circumstance.