For today, the Revised Nonstandard Version of several of the Beatitudes. Before sharing this enlightenment, I’ll remind everyone that The Beatitudes is the traditional name for part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Christian Bible, Matthew 5 – 7; you can read the lovely King James Version on Bartleby if you don’t have a Bible handy), a litany of “blessed are”s describing the kind of person Jesus (and thereby God) approves and would like to encourage: collectively, a kind, patient, tolerant, selfless, and spiritually hopeful person whose deprivations on earth will be rewarded by a grateful Father in Heaven (and possibly also by the endorsement of similar individuals on earth).
The Beatitudes was one of the Bible excerpts in my World Lit I anthology, and I thought we had a nice discussion of the style, the message, and the ways in which the message compared with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, and several other Eastern texts. Later in the semester one of my students was moved to incorporate the Beatitudes in a paper, and here are the ones he thought were particularly noteworthy:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because there is a kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are the gentile, because they shall inherit the earth.”
“Blessed are they who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they shall be feed.”
To be fair: The Norton Anthology didn’t use the King James Version. Also to be fair: my student is not quoting the version the Norton did use, either.
Now, let us take a look at these words of direction and comfort.
The poor in spirit are blessed by the fact that there is a kingdom of heaven. As far as my student is concerned, this seems to be the most Jesus is willing to promise; no guarantees or even suggestions that the poor in spirit will actually go to the kingdom of heaven, let alone inherit it.
There’s no ambiguity or confusion about the next point: the gentile will inherit the earth. King James says the “meek” shall inherit the earth, but the translation the students read said the “gentle” would inherit the earth. Why do students have so much trouble with words that begin “gent” and have an “l” somewhere later? We have all, I’m sure, seen bizarre statements about the “genitals” by writers who were probably writing about “gentiles”…and vice versa. And here my student must have thought he was talking about people who were meek, gentle. But he didn’t write that. I’d hate to think AutoCorrect has become so cynical, so “now,” as to assume that nobody ever means to write “gentle” anymore; but if I can’t blame AutoCorrect I’m going to have to blame my student. I certainly hope he didn’t actually mean “blessed are the gentile” here, because if so he was seriously disenfranchising the Jewish people, who were not only Jesus’ people and his principal audience but also the people who had been promised back there in the Hebrew Bible that they had been chosen by God to be his people. Now suddenly Jesus is promising the whole earth to the gentiles? Actually, the word “gentile” per se doesn’t occur in the Jewish or Christian bible, or in the Qur’an; it is a word from the Latin originally meaning “people” or “ethnic group” and applied in Latin translations of the Bible to mean “non-Jew” (people who don’t get a very good rap there, especially in the Old Testament). English translations, generally from the Latin texts, continue this usage, and more largely in English translations of other cultural texts it also stood in for “infidels,” or “non-believers (in ______ [your faith here]).” When the Qur’an says “gentiles,” it means non-Muslims. And this continues even in texts originally English: To a Mormon, it can mean “non-Mormons.” Anyway, whoever these people are, like a doting lover Jesus is giving them the earth. The chosen-people-of-your-choice must be pretty frustrated.
Finally, those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are not going to get righteousness; they’re going to be turned into some kind of Soylent Green for those who, presumably, are less urgent about their desires. (My student might have meant “paid a stipend,” as in “feed” as the past form of “to fee,” or to pay. But I really don’t think he did mean that. How often do you hear college students use “fee” as a verb?) No, Jesus must have been giving the needy some straight talk: The rich get richer, and the full get fuller by munching their feed, those hungry-thirsty people. Literally serves them right, get me?