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How Honorable! How Shameful!
A Cultural Analysis of Matthew's
Makarisms and Reproaches

Fortress Press
P.O. Box 1209
Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209


The formulaic character of makarisms (or "beatitudes") and reproaches (or "woes") has long been recognized; but often commentators and translators have neglected to take these insights into account. Furthermore, their cultural and theological functions have been largely misconstrued. These forms are part of the word-field and value system of honor and shame, the foundational Mediterranean values; they exemplify the agonistic nature of Mediterranean culture. I propose the translation of "How Honorable" for ashręe one who is not scandalized by me" (Matt 11:6; par. Luke 7:23). Like those in the Old Testament, one finds makarisms pronounced both upon specific persons (e.g., Matt 16:17; Luke 1:45) and more generally upon those who uphold the values of the Christian community (e.g., Rom 14:22; Rev 1:3). The connection to values is made especially clear in the fact that makarisms often occur in series: e.g., Ps 32:1-2 (par. Rom 4:7-8); Matt 5:3-10 + 11-12; Luke 6:20-22; Rev 1:3a, 3b; Sir 14:1-2; 25:8-9; 2 Enoch 42:6-14; 52:1-14; T. Jac. 2:12-23; Gos. Thom. 79a-c; Thom. Cont. 145.1-7.
Luke 11:27-28 provides an interesting juxtaposition of a third person singular makarism (referring to Jesus' mother), countered by a third person plural makarism (spoken by Jesus): "And it happened as he said this, a certain woman called out from the crowd: 'O how Honorable [makarios] is the womb who bore you, and the breasts you sucked!' But he said: 'Rather—O how Honorable [makarios] are the ones who hear God's word and keep it!'" (compare John 13:17). The woman's makarism, while in third person form, retains the personal and dialogical character of honoring (positive challenge), as already seen in 1 Kgs 10:8. Their juxtaposition, then, emphasizes the shift of esteem from the particular (Jesus' mother) to the general (all who obey God's word). One could also read this as Jesus' positive response to a positive challenge: she honors him and his mother, and he in turn honors all those responsive to God's word.
An example of how the Greek use of makarios fits in with honor/shame and community ideals is found in Josephus's account and explanation of Judah Maccabee's speech to his troops before battle. Here he positively challenges the soldiers' honor in order to motivate them (although makarios is used as a simple adjective):
      "Since, therefore, at the moment it lies in your power either to recover this liberty and regain a prosperous [eudaimona] and Honorable [makarion] life"—by this he meant one in accordance with the laws and ancestral customs—"or to endure the shame [aischista], and to leave your people without descendants by being cowardly in battle. You yourselves must fight, then, since those who do not fight will also die; believing that suffering for such great causes—freedom, patrimony, laws, worship—secures you perpetual honor [eukleian]" (Ant. 12.7.3 [§ublic ministry, and the reproaches close it. The makarisms thus encourage aspiring to the positive ideals of the kingdom— which will unfold throughout the story of Jesus' ministry. The reproaches reflect back upon the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes.
      Figure #3 clarifies the antipodal character of the makarisms and reproaches. It also highlights the distinction between theses forms and blessing and cursing.

      FIGURE #3: Blessings and Curses; Makarisms and Castigation


      Identifying the makarisms and reproaches throughout the Bible, as well as those in other early Judean and Christian literatures, allows us to see them more clearly in their cultural perspective. Most previous discussions have failed to see their large numbers and their common perspective on honor and shame. The primary conclusions can be summarized as follows: 1) Makarisms and reproaches are thematically related to formal blessings and curses, but linguistically and contextually distinct from them. Consequently, makarisms should not be translated "blessed." The translations of "happy" or "enviable" for the makarisms are also inappropriate since they do not refer to either human emotion or the evil eye. 2) Makarisms and reproaches are value judgments, which can be uttered by sages, prophets, or anyone in the community. They should be translated in keeping with value judgments: the makarisms with "O how Honorable" or "How honored"; and the reproaches with "O how Shameful" or "Shame on." 3) Makarisms and reproaches are comprehensible only in terms of Mediterranean honor/shame values and the challenge-riposte transactions. Thus they describe and challenge values, but also call for a response. 4) Matt 5:3-12 provides the introduction to Jesus' public ministry and Matt 23:13-31 its conclusion. Consequently they form an honor/shame inclusio around Jesus public teaching. Furthermore, the evangelist has not only employed them as formal and semantic antitheses, but has paralleled key-words throughout their formulations.


      1. This paper was first delivered in Portland, Oregon, on March 25, 1990, to The Context Group: Project on the Bible in Its Cultural Environment. I would like to thank the members of that group for their suggestions, especially Jerome H. Neyrey, S. Scott Bartchy, John H. Elliott, Bruce J. Malina, and Vernon K. Robbins. David Seeley also offered helpful suggestions.
      2. The texts which employ these variations are: Singular noun: Isa 56:2; Ps 1:1; 32:2; 33:12; 34:9[8]; 40:5[4]; 84:6[5], 13[12]; 89:16[15]; 94:12; 112:1; 127:5; 144:15a, 15b; 146:5; Job 5:17; Prov 3:13; 8:34; 28:14. Plural noun: 1 Kgs 10:8a, 8b; Isa 30:18; 32:20*; Ps 2:12; Prov 20:7; 2 Chron 9:7a, 7b. Singular participle: Ps 32:1; 41:2[1]; 128:1; 137:8, 9; Dan 12:12. Plural participle: Ps 84:5[4]; 106:3; 119:1, 2. Singular pronominal suffix: Deut 33:29; Qoh 10:17. Plural pronominal suffix: Isa 32:20*. Finite verb: Ps 65:5[4]; Prov 8:32. Relative pronoun: Ps 146:5. Isa 32:20 (*) combines the plural suffix and the plural participle forms, but is listed only once. In four texts ashrę