The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:8

Matthew 5:8

The sixth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:8) is one of the most striking:

Maka/rioi oi( kaqaroi\ th=| kardi/a|, o%ti au)toi\ to\n qeo\n o&yontai
“Happy the (ones) clean in the heart, (in) that they will see God”

The adjective kaqaro/$ (katharós, “clean, pure”) is the key characteristic in this beatitude, and it derives from the context of religious ritual. In ancient and traditional religions worldwide, a basic concept was that, in order to maintain the proper relationship between human beings and God (or the gods)—whether at the individual or societal level—religious ritual and sacrifice must be performed in a state of purity. This purity, with related cleansing in cases of pollution or impurity, was itself maintained through a specific set of rules and ritual (“purity laws”). Purity begins with those invested with handling the sacred things and working in the sacred place(s), but ultimately extends to the entire community. For the religion of Israel, this is expressed throughout the Levitical law code (i.e., the book of Leviticus, esp. the “Holiness Code” of chaps. 17-26), according to the fundamental revelatory principle: “you shall be holy, for I am Holy—YHWH your God” (Lev 19:2, cf. Matt 5:48). The word translated “holy” is vodq* (q¹dôš, “separate, set apart, sacred, holy”), while the Greek term kaqaro/$ usually translates rohf* (‰¹hôr, “clean, pure”); other conceptually related words are yq!n` (n¹qî, “free, empty, clean”), Ez~ (zak, “bright, clear, clean”), rB^ (bar, “shining, clear, pure”), and <T* (t¹m, “complete, pure”). God is called “holy” (vdq/a(gio$), but the term “pure” (rhf/kaqaro$) normally only applies to humans in relation to Him (but see Psalm 12:6; 18:26).

“Pure/Clean in the Heart”

An important religious and spiritual principle is that purity in ritual must be accompanied by inward purity—for both priest and people—involving (a) one’s intention regarding the religious activity, and (b) one’s religious/spiritual condition attending the activity. The Old Testament Prophets, in particular, deliver a fierce condemnation to those who regularly engage in wicked thought and action but yet still participate in the religious ritual (with superficial piety) as though nothing were wrong (see esp. Isa 1:12-20; 66:1-6; Jer 7:1-15). The corruption of the priesthood was also a frequent theme (Mal 1:6-2:16) which would carry into later Jewish thought (emphasized by the Qumran community) and in the New Testament (see my earlier note on Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple); indeed, the priesthood and religious ritual itself was in need of thorough cleansing (see Isa 52:11; Ezek 43:20-23; Zech 3:4; Mal 1:11; 3:3).

The phrase “pure in heart” in  this regard goes back to Psalm 24 (esp. verses 3-4):

3Who shall go up in/on the hill of YHWH, and who shall stand in His holy standing-place?
4(The one) free/clean [yq!n`] (in his) two hands and shining/pure [rB^] of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to emptiness and has not declared seven-fold [? i.e. sworn] to deceit

It is perhaps not inappropriate to say that “clean of hands” suggests ritual purity, while “pure of heart” reflects inward purity. An equivalent phrase is also found in Psalm 51:10 (“a clean [rohf*] heart create for me, O God…”), and in Psalm 24:4; 73:1, 13; Prov 20:9; 22:11 (cf. also at the beginning of the Qumran Beatitudes fragment 4Q525 line 1). This ethical sense of purity (before God) would become an important theme in Wisdom Literature (see Job 4:7; 8:6; 11:4; 15:14-15; 25:4-5; 33:9; Prov 16:2; 21:8; Wis 1:1; Sir 51:20; there would seem to be an echo of Psalm 24:3 in Job 16:17; Sir 38:10). The emphasis on purity of soul (over and above ritual purity) is found also in Greek philosophy and the mystery cults—cf. Pindar Pythian 5 l.2; Plato Phaedo 65e-69d, 80d-83e, 108a-c, 113d, 114c; Laws 4.716d-e; Republic 6.496d; Theophrastus “On Piety” frag. 8, 9; and the Orphic gold plates [DK frag. 32, 33] (for these and other references [and bibliography], see Betz, Sermon, pp. 134-136). For a similar idea in Hellenistic Judaism see Epistle of Aristeas §2, 234; Testament of Benjamin 6:6; 8:2-3; Josephus Antiquities 18 §117 [regarding John the Baptist]; Philo On the Special Laws 1 §257-260; The Worse Attacks the Better §17ff; Noah’s Work as a Planter §62-64; The Life of Moses 2 §24;  (cf. TDNT III.416-417).

Elsewhere in the New Testament the word kaqaro/$ is used in Jesus’ disputes with scribes and Pharisees (related to purity laws and traditions, Matt 23:26; Lk 11:41), and is used to indicate the true cleansing of the disciples (by Jesus’ word) in John 13:10-11; 15:3. In Acts, it (translates an idiom which is) used by Paul to indicate that he is “innocent, free from guilt” (Acts 18:6; 20:26). In the Pastoral epistles, we find the same idiom as in the beatitude (“pure in heart”, 1 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 2:22, also “pure conscience”, 1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim 1:3; Tit 1:15; and cf. 1 Pet 1:22; Acts 15:8-9); while similar ethical instruction occurs in James 1:27 (cf. the examples from Wisdom literature above). The related nouns kaqaro/th$ (katharót¢s, “cleanness, purity”) and kaqarismo/$ (katharismós, “cleansing, purification”) are used in the New Testament for cleansing in either the outward ritual sense (Mk 1:44 par; Lk 2:22; Jn 2:6; 3:25) or inward ethical/spiritual sense (Heb 1:3; 9:13; 2 Pet 1:9). The verb kaqari/zw (katharízœ, “make clean, cleanse, purify”) occurs more frequently, also in both outward (ritual) and inward (spiritual) senses; in the latter usage, especially, it is synonymous or parallel with a(gia/zw (hagiázœ, “make holy, sanctify”).

For more on the “heart” as an ethical and spiritual symbol in Jesus’ teaching, see Mark 7:6, 19-21 par; Matt 5:28; 6:21; 12:34 pars; Lk 8:15; Jn 7:38; and elsewhere see in Lk 2:35; Acts 5:3-4; 8:21-22; Rom 2:29; 6:17; 8:27; 1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 5:12; Eph 6:5-6; Col 3:22; 1 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 2:22; Heb 4:12; 8:10; 10:16, 22; James 1:26; 3:14; 4:8; 5:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:4, 8; 1 Jn 3:17-21. The heart is viewed as the center of belief (Rom 10:9-10) and focus of unity among believers through the Spirit (Acts 4:32; Rom 2:29; 5:5; 8:27; 2 Cor 1:22; 3:2; 6:11-13; 7:2-3; Gal 4:6, etc.). There are two sayings involving the heart, used by Jesus, which may be understood as relating to the Beatitude in Matt 5:8:

In particular, I would affirm a parallel with the expression in Matt 5:3—”the poor in the spirit” / “the pure in the heart”.

The second portion of the sixth Beatitude will be discussed in the next article.

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