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How Do We Interpret the Beatitudes? Guest Post by Julius-Kei Kato

Julius-Kei Kato is a member of the blog, a PhD from Graduate Theological Union, an expert on the new Testament, and an Associate Professor in Religious Studies at King’s University College at Western University.  You can learn about him here:  https://jkato.kingsfaculty.ca/about-jk-kato/?mobileFormat=false

Prof. Kato has written a very interesting article for the blog as a guest post, on one of the most familiar and least understood passages in the New Testament, the Beatitudes.  I can’t say that I always agree with those who provide us with guest posts, but oh boy do I agree with this one.  And for my money it gets especially interesting at the end, where he shows how Christians today should understand this most critical teaching of Jesus precisely in light of the fact that the apocalyptic end of the age that he predicted never happened.  Even those of us who are not Christian should see the real merit and strength of this position — it ends up endorsing precisely the vision that many of us have.

Here is the post, in full.   Please feel free to make comments and ask questions.


How Do We Interpret the Beatitudes When Their Original Apocalyptic Context Has not been Realized?


Julius-Kei Kato



The Beatitudes, particularly in their Matthean form in Matt. 5:3-11, are some of the most recognizable and even popular teachings of Christianity and are all usually ascribed to Jesus himself in popular Christian preaching. Who has not heard of them romantically proclaimed as “the moral blueprint” of Christianity or the” epitome of Jesus’s teachings,” or the like? However, upon close exegetical and theological examination, I would say that the Beatitudes present one of the hardest parts of the gospels to interpret in a theological way.

At the university where I teach, it is not difficult to analyze these beatitudes in a literary and historical-critical way. The consensus of many critical biblical scholars about them can be summarized thus: They are found in Matthew 5 as part of the “Sermon on the Mount” and in Luke 6 as part of the “Sermon on the Plain”; they were probably found in the common Q source used by both Matthew and Luke which these evangelists then redacted to conform to each one’s particular emphasis, and so on.

But when the burning theological question is posed, namely, How does one make sense theologically and in the present time of these famous declarations of Jesus about who are “blessed” or “happy” in the reign of God I just find that many standard theological and homiletical explanations of the Beatitudes are just not robust enough because they fail to take serious consideration of what is most probably the original context of these declarations of Jesus—the Late Second Temple Jewish Apocalyptic Worldview which was espoused by a majority of Jews at the time. Needless to say, even the historical Jesus and his disciples lived and breathed in this apocalyptic environment and accepted its main presuppositions. One main foundation of that worldview was the belief that in their immediate future God was going to intervene directly in the chosen people’s history in order to defeat Israel’s enemies and set everything right once again. Fast forward to today. It is plain to see that we who try to interpret the Beatitudes at this point in history would fail to understand their original meaning if we neglect this crucial contextual element.

The Original Beatitudes

A number of important commentators point out that if there is a historical core to the so-called Beatitudes as they are found in Matthew and Luke, the first three beatitudes in Luke 6 would most likely make the cut.[1]

Lk 6:20-22 reads thus in the NRSV:

20 Then [Jesus] (he) looked up at his disciples and said:
[1st] ‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 [2nd] ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
[3rd] ‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

So why would the first 3 Lukan Beatitudes be more historical? The reasons could be summarized thus: Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth had, as primary audience and first concern, the really (and not only spiritually) downtrodden and marginalized classes of his own society who were under various forms of oppression. This audience is more faithfully reflected in Luke 6:20-21. Who were they? They were the truly and materially poor (v. 20), the truly physically hungry (v. 21) and those who were truly and constantly in tears because of their intense suffering and oppression (v. 21). The Beatitudes in Matt 5:3-11 (with the exception perhaps of v. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn…”) also seem to reflect a later process of “spiritualizing” the original message of the historical Jesus as best illustrated in Matthew’s editing the “Blessed are you poor” of Luke into a more spiritual “Blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matt 5:3.

I will concentrate then on the first three Beatitudes in Luke as probably coming from the historical Jesus himself and reflect on a possible theological interpretation of these not-yet-spiritualized teachings of Jesus.

The Great Dilemma

Hence, let us take the plainest meaning of the first three Beatitudes in Luke: The teaching proclaims that the poor, the hungry and the weeping are (in Greek) “makarioi”; “blessed” (traditional English translation), “happy” (more contemporary, plain English translation). The Scholars Bible of the Jesus Seminar renders makarioi into English as “Congratulations,”[2] that is, “worthy to be congratulated.”

I would like to point this out here as the theological interpretive crux of the problem. Why did Jesus proclaim the poor, the hungry, and the crushed-to-the-point-of-weeping people as worthy of congratulations? At first blush, Jesus’s proclamation just does not make sense. When and where in normal human circumstances have the poor, the hungry, and those broken by sorrow ever been deemed as blessed? The answer is: Never! Nowhere! So why did Jesus have the gall to make this declaration? Taken in its plainest sense, Jesus’s declaration seems like the proverbial “pie in the sky,” (that is, something that never happens in real life). If you dangle such a ‘pie in the sky’ to the starving without offering any real food, your declaration becomes a cruel, insensitive, even offensive statement to people who do not need to have their difficulties further exacerbated. So, was Jesus such a cruelly insensitive rabbi?

One of the most common ways that interpreters deal with this interpretive dilemma is to say that the Beatitudes describe an “eschatological” and not really “normal historical” order. And herein lies the key to theologically interpreting the Beatitudes.

The Original Context of the Beatitudes

As mentioned briefly earlier, the notion of the beatitudes-as-eschatological is connected to its historical context. That context would be the apocalyptic hope of late Second Temple Judaism. It is seldom explicitly stated that the Beatitudes make historical sense only when they are set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic-eschatological “reversal of fortunes.”[3] In effect, that means that the historical Jesus as well as the original audience to whom the Beatitudes were directed, were hoping for an imminent world-changing intervention of God (also known as “the coming of God’s reign”) into their historical world. That would then create a new world order where, the (really) poor, the (literally) hungry, the weeping ones would be the beneficiaries of this reversal of fortunes brought about by divine action and will be truly (and not only spiritually) “blessed,” thus, truly worthy of being “congratulated.”

When the Original Context is Gone

Now when this suggested original context of first century apocalyptic hope is neglected, the Beatitudes can pose a daunting challenge for theological interpretation. Bereft of its original apocalyptic context, the declaration of “blessedness” can become just a cruel and unrealistic paean to an impossible utopic dream.

Of course, the apocalyptic eschaton, in the form in which many first century Jews believed it would come, never actually came. Where does that leave us in terms of theologically interpreting the Beatitudes? Are we condemned to make the Beatitudes part of the “opium” of the people by explaining that the promised rewards would be in a deferred state called “heaven” (as has happened in effect for most of Christian history)? Do we just ignore the elephant in the room that is actually screaming that the promised blessed state according to the Beatitudes is an impossible dream this side of the grave? Do we just turn the Beatitudes into profoundly spiritual-sounding platitudes that, again, are just not founded on the ordinary experiences of those they profess to congratulate?

How to Interpret the Beatitudes Theologically when Apocalypse Has not Come?

When the Christian communities realized that the expected imminent intervention of God was not so imminent after all, they started to re-consider some teachings of Jesus that directly hinged on an imminent coming of God’s reign. These efforts to interpret the beatitudes in a post-imminent-apocalyptic world are already found for example in Matthew’s redactional efforts to spiritualize the Beatitudes.

I’d like to propose that the fact that the Beatitudes’ original context of apocalyptic-eschatological hope has not been realized should be made clearly and explicitly the starting point of any theological way of interpreting the Beatitudes so that the resulting interpretation would avoid—what I mentioned as—unhelpful and irrelevant treatments of the topic. And in that vein, I’d like to take some important hints from liberationist, postcolonial and minoritized (such as Asian/Asian-North American) biblical hermeneutical principles and practices. To put it simply: In the wake of the original apocalyptic context of the Beatitudes being unrealized, they should now be theologically interpreted through the lens of a realized, collaborative, incarnational eschatology by which the promised rewards of the Beatitudes no longer depend on an apocalyptic intervention of God but on the followers of Jesus (or practically anyone else [even agnostics/atheists] who think that Jesus was a great teacher) taking on a liberative praxis to create in some way and realize a new social order where the really poor, the truly hungry, the weeping and marginalized ones really come to experience now (not later in some heaven) some measure of the blessedness that God’s reign should bring with it.

In other words, I think that the way forward in interpreting the Beatitudes theologically today would be to understand them as a concrete call to action to realize a better local and/or global order in which the poor, the hungry, as well as the weeping, the excluded, the marginalized and disadvantaged ones are made the preferential recipients of distributive justice so that they would truly be “blessed” and worthy of “congratulations.” This is “theological” in a very broad sense where we can even take “theology” to refer humanistically to the finest aspirations and hopes translated into concrete efforts of humans to be compassionate and (distributively) just.

Needless to say, it is something that Dr. Ehrman in his noble efforts to provide for the needy (through this blog!) is definitely doing and, thus, he and all the blog members are in a deep way practitioners and realizers of the beatitudes!






[1] John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Volume IV Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), 613-15. Also: Robert Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say? (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993); Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus after 2000 Years (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2001).

[2] Richard L. Pervo, The Gospel of Luke (The Scholars Bible) (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2014), 69.

[3] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 143 (142-145). Also Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), 152-53.

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  1. epicurus
    epicurus  June 24, 2020

    Great post! Personally, I have long had difficulty thinking of Jesus as a great teacher since I believe he got the most important part of his message wrong – that the world would end within a generation.

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    AstaKask  June 24, 2020

    Luke also famously contains the “woes” (malattitudes?)

    Luke 6;24-26
    “But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
    Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
    Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
    Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

    Do you think these are also historical?

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Good question! I didn’t have enough space to deal with the woes. One can make a case for them being historical because they are part of the “reversal of fortunes” theme that is connected with the coming of God’s reign.

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    DoubtingTom  June 24, 2020

    Even when I was a Christian, I was never a fan of liberation theology. It amounts to redistribution to those running the government, while the oppressed remain so.

    I don’t see how the Beatitudes are anything but a cruel joke. God isn’t going to rescue anyone, it’s up to us to help each other.

  4. Avatar
    jscheller  June 24, 2020

    Great post Dr Kato! As a preacher/pastor, I couldn’t agree with you more. I like how it is put in the Letter of James: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

  5. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  June 24, 2020

    Dr, Ehrman, I want to donate some money to the blog. I am unsure how to donate exactly. How do I donate? I do not have alot of money, but I want to be a member of this great movement.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      Thanks! On the landing page you’ll find a link that says “Donate to the Blog.” Click that!

  6. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  June 24, 2020

    Bart, did you write this? I do not believe you wrote this. Did Julius write this with a PhD?

    If you dangle such a ‘pie in the sky’ to the starving without offering any real food, your declaration becomes a cruel, insensitive, even offensive statement to people who do not need to have their difficulties further exacerbated. So, was Jesus such a cruelly insensitive rabbi?

    It is called hope. Cruel? How? At least someone believed that anything could happen. Believe without seeing while god sits naturally in our mind. Hope is what keeps people going. I personally believe without seeing. Even giving a homeless man or woman money. I make sure to say, ” we haven’t forgotten about you”. Cruel? I do not understand that point of view.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      Yes, Julius wrote this.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks, SonofZeus1, for your comment. I wrote that part echoing the famous words in the letter of James, chapter 2 where the author says:

      14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

      In short, if Jesus had told hungry people (Luke 6:21) “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” although there was no real hope of “being filled,” then that is, in a sense, cruel. What I’m saying though is, in the case of the historical Jesus, that WAS NOT SO – HE WAS NOT CRUEL. Why? Because, as an apocalyptic preacher, he was hoping for an imminent coming of God’s kingdom into history and when that happens, the hungry will truly be filled. If we put in Jesus’ apocalyptic expectation into the equation, these declarations of his are, I’m saying, powerful messages of realistic hope.

  7. Avatar
    timcfix  June 25, 2020

    You have a better case than my ’argumentum ad absurdum’. I see now that his audience was not interested in a series of one-liners. CS Lewis wrote that it was the difference between a Christian going to judgment in a criminal court with a pardon in hand and the a Jew going to judgment in a civil court expecting a large settlement.

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    janmaru  June 25, 2020

    The poor, the meek in the New Testament are a social category, a caste system where rarely people could run from. There’s something intrinsic in being poor, something that is attached to people by birth. Being poor is a disgrace, a disease.
    Hence, to the limits brought by society, the only answer is “salvation” and freedom through belief.

    But, if you observe today in Nigeria people addicted to cough syrup, in the banlieues enslaved to religious abstraction, in the Asian region to questionable rhythmic Bollywood movies and their plots, the problem is the opposite. It’s the excessive freedom.
    As Umberto Eco in his famous novel stated: “It is not about the truth that makes us free, but about the excessive freedom that wants to become true.”

    The message of Beatitudes today speaks differently and is heard differently. Quality of living organism, so something beautiful.
    But also, I am afraid, a bad category in the wide ocean of monotheistic religions: relativism.

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    peterstone  June 25, 2020

    I’m not trying to be nasty in saying this, but this is precisely why I don’t take theology at all seriously. If I tell you, “Let’s meet up next week, and we’ll go kayaking,” and then we don’t wind up meeting up, there’s no need to invent some new interpretation about my kayaking remarks. Jesus said there was going to be an imminent apocalypse, it didn’t happen, therefore the good things he was predicting would happen for the poor, oppressed, etc. aren’t going to happen. End of story. Why does one need to invent a “theological” interpretation for this passage that somehow makes it come out correct? You can certainly claim that we need to help the poor and downtrodden in this life, but I have no need to consult the New Testament to find reasons for doing that. The entire enterprise–and again, I do not say this to be nasty–sounds completely pointless to me.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for your honest thoughts about “theology”. Believe me, on some days, I really feel just like you do about it. “Theology” though has other dimensions and it is still quite important to people who believe that they have to grapple with what their ancestors believed about life and especially about God in the past (just like me) — because that has influenced so many people throughout history and continues to exert an influence on many people up to today. Hence, people will still try to “make sense” of what the historical Jesus taught and how his followers throughout the ages interpreted and re-interpreted those teachings to make them relevant to their particular contexts … It’s like a history of religious teaching and thought, if you will.

    • Avatar
      crt112@gmail.com  June 28, 2020

      I’m with you Peter.
      If Jesus was saying the apocalypse will see the poor and oppressed rewarded, and it didnt happen, then whatever preferrable reinterpretation we put on it is irrelevant. The image of a gracious Jesus on the mountain telling the poor they will be blessed in the afterlife is not an event that happened. It’s quite possible it was indignant Jesus telling them the poor their time had come.

  10. Avatar
    tadmania  June 25, 2020

    The famous musician, Neil Young, once said (highly paraphrased here) of certain cultural aspirations common to himself and his contemporaries, “We were’t mistaken that art can change people’s minds. We were wrong to think people want to change.”

    The same seems true of those living in ancient times. The historical Jesus may have purposed himself to redress the order of his world via the reversal of social hierarchies, as many claiming to adhere to his teachings have done since the first century. But, like a piece of art, even the ‘word of God’ can’t overcome the slightest avarice of most human beings when it comes to true socioeconomic revolution.

    I resound in your praises of Dr Ehrman’s efforts and intent. We should count ourselves fortunate that he wended his way out of Christian faith, as it has helped establish a foundation for real ‘Jesus’ work in the actual world.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Your comments are particularly poignant in the midst of the present social unrest!

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    nackynicky  June 25, 2020

    Hello Prof Kato,

    I was told that a lot of seminaries are into social justice. The pastor who told me that seemed a bit uncomfortable about it. At the time, I didn’t really understand why that would be, but your post has clarified that for me.

    Would you say that the version of the Beatitudes in Luke being attributed to the historical Jesus is what is taught in most seminaries or is this your personal opinion or that of a few others? Also, do most seminaries teach that Jesus failed to predict the second coming and therefore the reason for The Beatitudes in Matthew being written the way they are, or do they include it with other ideas such as Jesus really referring to the Transfiguration, a future generation, etc? Thank you.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for this. I was once an active Roman Catholic priest (no longer now) so I could only speak about my limited experience concerning seminaries. Many “ordinary” seminaries, I have the impression, tend to be on the conservative side, so topics like these which make church officials uncomfortable are not too emphasized. I think that the “standard” seminary style (apart from avant-garde seminaries) would be to attribute everything to Jesus. What is more, even if many ministers or priests studied avant-garde things in the seminary, when they find themselves in a parish or church, they become afraid the “rock the boat” and disturb the “ordinary believer.” Thankfully, I have also seen a good trend in seminaries I know toward an emphasis on social justice!

  12. Avatar
    MS53051  June 25, 2020

    This is a very interesting, thoughtful observation that I had to read very slowly. My observation for Professor Julius-Kei Kato is to work on your writing style. I had to chuckle over your 120-word sentence that begins, “To put it simply…” Professor, that is not a simple sentence. As a former college professor from a niche academic discipline, I worked hard to make my writing accessible to those not part of my inner circle. And this was in the pre-blog era. You obviously have terrific insights that are of interest to people outside your academic orbit (like me). Writing in a more accessible style will help more people benefit from your scholarship. I’ve never seen an instance where someone was criticized for writing that was too prosaic.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      too true… too true … Let me blame an education that included classical Latin from 13 years old onwards (lol!), then also Greek later on. Maybe I should ask your help now because I’m writing a book that, I hope, would be more accessible to non-academics! Thanks for this.

  13. Avatar
    RickR  June 25, 2020

    Great post. Thank you. I’m always curious that while the majority view is that Jesus had an apocalyptic worldview, there are many respected scholars (Jesus Seminar, etc.) who believe otherwise. If it’s so clear that Jesus had an apocalyptic worldview, how come a strong minority of scholars believe differently? I assume this question can’t be answered with a brief reply, but it has always bothered me.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks! One major reason that the Jesus Seminar thought the historical Jesus was non-apocalyptic was their analysis of words/teachings of Jesus which they judged to be coming from Jesus himself or very close to words Jesus expressed. A surprising number of these (especially parables) dealt with very this-worldly things. For example, Parable of the Mustard Seed, Parable of the lost sheep… That analysis led a number of scholars to say that the historical Jesus was more like a wisdom teacher rather than an apocalyptic prophet.

      • Avatar
        RickR  June 28, 2020

        Thank you so much. It answers a question I’ve been wondering about.

  14. Avatar
    veritas  June 25, 2020

    Some Canadian viewpoints, how sweet *EH*. Julius I lived in London for 20 years and Western is regarded as one of the best. I thought Bart’s wife studied there, but he boisterous exclaimed the UK! The teaching you present very well,is a message of unity, how to behave/act today in helping those in need. I think most people do something/anything to help those in need. This ties in well with effective altruism. I have always been surprised by people in poverty in a great country like Canada. How could this be? We have everything here one needs to make it ago,yet some struggle. If I witness this here, I cannot imagine what its like in parts of the world where poverty is fervent with no opportunity! Still, in all our efforts, this is a plague, imo, that is difficult to overcome despite our best intentions. The reason foremost; it must be a collective undertaking, including government and noble leaders, who truly believe and want to eradicate poverty and consider humanity equal. Approximately, 50 million people die every year and 140 million are born, thus our world will potentially reach over 10 billion by 2050 and poverty? Sustainability?

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for your thoughts … yes, poverty is one of those great, systemic problems that are really difficult to solve. It so much easier “to discuss” poverty than to solve it. I grew up in a developing country (the Philippines) and I’ve seen real material poverty – up, close and personal. I have your same concerns. Thanks for saying “Western” is one of the best … hmmm… last time I checked it was more or less rated #10 in Canada …

  15. Avatar
    FredLyon  June 25, 2020


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    GeoffClifton  June 25, 2020

    Absolutely brilliant!

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    brenmcg  June 25, 2020

    I think Luke is more likely to have changed the original to “Blessed are the poor”. He has made all his blessings to contrast with his woes. But his woes are out of place in the sermon on the mount/plain which is all about encouragement to the righteous followers to continue on the right path despite the difficulties. Not promises of punishment to the those who are unrighteous.

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for this. Yes, this is also a possible analysis. This is how the craft of history works – putting forward different possibilities. That’s why we biblical scholars still have jobs! 🙂

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    Nichrob  June 25, 2020

    With the presumption that Mathew was written before Luke, is there push back with the argument that Luke is more historical? Had Mathew wrote Luke’s verbiage and Luke wrote Mathews verbiage, would the argument be “stronger”….? Finally, loved your post. Thank you….!!!!

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks! The question of whether Matthew was written before Luke has never been conclusively settled although I have the impression that many scholars think so. I’m not so sure myself. The historicity of either Matthew’s or Luke’s versions of Jesus’ teaching has to be decided on a case-to-case basis. In this case, I think Luke’s version reflects more faithfully the historical Jesus’ words.

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    Truncated  June 25, 2020

    I like your post and definitely agree with your conclusion. My question is, what do you make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will always have with you, a but you will not always have me” and John 12:8 “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” ?

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for this fantastic question! My first reaction and response would be: I personally think that the historical Jesus thought he was the messiah. In short, I think the historical Jesus had a messianic self-consciousness (that’s not saying of course that he thought he was divine). If we consider Mt 26:11 or John 12:8 as historical (that warrants another discussion), then we could say – perhaps the historical Jesus thought that fulfilling his messianic mission took precedence over any ministry to the poor (which was also important for Jesus but less important than fulfilling the messianic mission). However, the two said verses could be later additions of the early Christians to what they imagined were “the words of Jesus” and they function as highlighting their faith that Jesus was the messiah and, therefore, more important than any other concern, even the ministry to the poor. My two-cents worth!

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    NancyGKnapp  June 25, 2020

    This is the most credible and inspiring explanation of the beatitudes that I have seen. Together with Matthew 25:31-46 we have the mandate to bring about the kin-dom. The historical Jesus emphasized deeds not creeds. This message is especially timely now. We must work to end systemic poverty and structural racism. Those of us who have silently benefited from white privilege, have to stand with the oppressed and work for a kin-dom where all belong. I applaud Dr. Ehrman’s work to end hunger and homelessness. I support the blog with an additional recurring donation and urge all who are able to do the same

    • Avatar
      jkkato  June 27, 2020

      Thanks for your comment! This theme takes on a greater urgency with all that is happening there in the US now about racism and how that is a systemic issue that also spawns poverty!

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