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Getting started on ancient Greek
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6 Beatitudes

Our final example of Greek subjects and complements is from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Knowledge of Greek can help to illuminate an otherwise puzzling feature of some translations. If you turn to the King James Version, you will find:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:3-5

Modern printing conventions imply that the words in italics should be spoken with emphasis, even though ‘are’ does not appear to be an especially significant word. To understand the purpose of the italics, it is necessary to check the translation against the Greek text.

The first half of the first line reads:

μακάριοι (blessed) οἱ πτωχοὶ (the poor) τῷ πνεύματι (in spirit)

  • Vocabulary
  • μακάριος        blessed, happy, fortunate
  • πνεῦμα, -ατος, τό   wind, breath, spirit
  • πτωχός, -οῦ, ὁ     beggar

Activity 7 Examining the translation

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In the translation ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, which English word has no counterpart in the Greek text?

Discussion

The verb ‘are’.

If the word ‘are’ had been present in the Greek text, what form would it have taken?

a. 

ἐστίν


b. 

εἰσίν


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

As the subject is plural, the 3rd person plural form is required.

With the verb εἰσί supplied, what kind of sentence pattern is this?

a. 

Subject Verb Object


b. 

Subject Verb Complement


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

With two nominative cases and a linking verb, this is a Subject + Verb + Complement sentence. To be exact, it is a Complement + Verb + Subject pattern, as the complement appears first, creating a repetitive, almost hypnotic arrangement of eight consecutive lines, each starting ‘Blessed are the [or they who] …’.

Italicisation has been used to mark words in the English translation that are not present in the Greek. This is a good example of the difficulties of translating from one language into another. As you saw with καλός inscriptions, the omission of ‘is’ or ‘are’ comes naturally and idiomatically to Greek. It does not work at all in English, which is why the translation needs an additional word. In the King James Bible the translators have scrupulously marked these additions with italics. Italicisation does, therefore, mark emphasis, but of a rather unusual kind.

Perhaps you know the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount as ‘the Beatitudes’. The term comes from the Latin ‘beatus’ (‘happy’ or ‘blessed’) and describes a statement that begins ‘Blessed is the one who …’. ‘Beatus’ was a translation into Latin of the Greek word μακάριος. Another word for a ‘beatitude’, derived from Greek, is a ‘macarism’.