Blessed are the Meek
We all have heard the famous beatitudes, offered by Jesus at the opening of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, delivered to his disciples and the gathered crowds at the beginning of his ministry. Jesus begins by blessing the poor in spirit, the mourners, and later the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and finally the persecuted for righteousness. But in between we find:
Μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν.
Matthew 5:5. Blessed [are] the meek, for they will inherit the land.
The word translated as "meek" is πραυς, corresponding to Strong's G4235 or G4239. The standard definition of this word is "meek, humble, gentle, mild of disposition, tame, quiet" with its antonym being "angry, aggressive, resistant, violent, harsh, wild".
Πραυς is likely derived from the Proto-Indo-European *preyH- meaning "to love, to please". It is thus likely related to the Sanskrit प्रिय (priya) "beloved, favored", Old Church Slavonic приꙗзнь (prijaznĭ) “friendship, fidelity”, and, through Germanic languages, to English "free, friend".
In Luke 6:20-22, we find a similar set of beatitudes in the less-famous Sermon on the Plain. Luke's set is shorter and simpler, and less spiritualized than Matthew's version. For example, Jesus blesses the poor rather than the poor in spirit, and the hungry rather than the hungry for righteousness. This overlap extends far beyond this case, where Matthew and Luke contain many highly similar sections not found in Mark. The hypothesized explanation for this is the existence of a now-lost hypothetical document named "Q" (Short for "Quelle," German for "source"). Presumably, the original document would have been more like the simpler form found in Luke, also more similar to some sayings in the non-canonical gnostic Gospel of Thomas (e.g. sayings 54, 68, 69). The author of the Gospel of Matthew chose to fill out his version with the verse in question, found nowhere else.
Or, nearly nowhere else, for a clear parallel can be found in Psalm 37, verse 11
וַעֲנָוִים יִירְשׁוּ-אָרֶץ וְהִתְעַנְּגוּ עַל-רֹב שָׁלוֹם
οἱ δὲ πραεῗς κληρονομήσουσιν γῆν καὶ κατατρυφήσουσιν ἐπὶ πλήθει εἰρήνης (LXX)
But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
Note that the Septuagint translation is very nearly verbatim identical to the words used in the Greek of Matt 5:5. The word being translated is ענו/עני, corresponding to Strong's H6035. Other translations of this word are "poor, needy, lowly, weak, afflicted, humble". Another Hebrew word the Septuagint translates as πραυς is עָנִי, obviously related to the other. The only other occurrence is in Job 36:15, though here the Greek differs substantially from the Hebrew (Hebrew: "He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity." vs. Greek: "Because they afflicted the weak and helpless, and he will vindicate the judgment of the meek.")
One particular usage of πραυς is worth noting, namely Zechariah 9:9, as it is (inexactly) quoted in Matthew 21:5:
גִּילִי מְאֹד בַּת-צִיּוֹן, הָרִיעִי בַּת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, הִנֵּה מַלְכֵּךְ יָבוֹא לָךְ, צַדִּיק וְנוֹשָׁע הוּא; עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל-חֲמוֹר, וְעַל-עַיִר בֶּן-אֲתֹנוֹת
Εἴπατε τῇ θυγατρὶ Σιών, Ἰδοὺ ὁ βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι, πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὄνον, καὶ ἐπὶ πῶλον υἱὸν ὑποζυγίου.
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
As the historical Jesus likely spoke Aramaic rather than Greek (though it's not impossible he knew some Greek), it would be a safe bet that, if the saying in question goes back to the historical Jesus, the word he used was probably ענו/עני, with the aforementioned meaning. This is strongly backed up by the comparison of its usage in the Septuagint.
The only other usages of πραυς in the New Testament are:
Matthew 11:29 "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle [πραΰς] and humble [ταπεινὸς] in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
1 Peter 3:4 "rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle [πραέως] and quiet [ἡσυχίου] spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight."
There are a dozen usages of the related words πραυτης (Strong's G4240) and πραοτης/πραοτητος (Strong's G4240/G4236) both nominalization of πραυς, translated as "gentleness, humility, affliction, meekness, the quality of being πραυς". We can look at the instances below:
1 Cor 4:21 "What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness [πραΰτητος]?"
2 Cor 10:1 "I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness [πραΰτητος] and gentleness [ἐπιεικείας] of Christ—I who am humble [ταπεινὸς] when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!"
Gal 5:22-23 "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness [πραΰτης] and self-control. Against such things there is no law."
Gal 6:1 "My brothers and sisters, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness [πραΰτητος]. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted."
Eph 4:1-3 "I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness [πραΰτητος], with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
Col 3:12 "Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness [πραΰτητα], and patience."
1 Tim 6:9-11 "But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness [πραϋπαθίαν]."
2 Tim 2:24-26 "And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness [πραΰτητι]. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth and that they may escape from the snare of the Devil, having been held captive by him to do his will."
Titus 3:1-2 "Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy [πραΰτητα] to everyone."
James 1:19-21 "You must understand this, my beloved brothers and sisters: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for human anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness [πραΰτητι] the implanted word that has the power to save your souls."
James 3:13-18 "Who is wise and knowledgeable among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness [πραΰτητι] born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be arrogant and lie about the truth. This is not wisdom that comes down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
1 Peter 3:13-17 "Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness [πραΰτητος] and respect. Maintain a good conscience so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil."
This article by Margaret Mowczko offers many usage examples, notably several from Second Temple Jewish literature:
In 2 Maccabees 15:12, which was written sometime between 150 and 120 BCE, Onias the High Priest is presented as “virtuous, good, modest in all things, gentle (πρᾶον/ praon) of manners, and well-spoken.
In the Testament of Abraham 1.3, possibly written in the first century CE, it is said that Abraham lived all his life “in quietness (hēsuchia) and gentleness (πραότητι/ praotēti) . . .”  (Cf. 1 Peter 3:4.)
In Against Appion 1.29 §267, Josephus (b. 37 CE) used the word praoteroi/ πρᾳότεροι to describe the attitudes of people who had been badly treated by the king of Egypt; they had a reason to be angry and hateful but had rather grown “milder.”
In Jewish Antiquities 19.3 §330, Josephus describes Herod Agrippa’s manner as “mild” (πραῢς/ praus). He then explains how Agrippa is praus: he was “equally liberal to all men. He was humane to foreigners, and made them sensible of his liberality. He was in like manner rather of a ‘gentle and compassionate’ (chrēstos kai sympathēs) temper.” In §333, Herod Agrippa addresses a man who had slandered him and speaks to him “quietly (ērema) and gently (πρᾴως/ praōs).”
From all these examples, we can be confident to state that, strictly from the textual evidence in the New and Old Testaments, the word πραυς (and related terms) has the connotation space of "gentle, humble, meek, mild, lowly, peaceful, courteous, respectful, yielding, forgiving, merciful, patient, longsuffering, forbearing, returning good for evil, submissive and obedient to a higher will." If we take it as a Greek translation of ענו/עני (as well it may be, given that it is a near-verbatim duplicate of Psalm 37:11), then it would mean "poor, needy, lowly, weak, afflicted, humble." The Hebrew word has a somewhat different meaning, but the Greek is not too dissimilar. For contrast, the meaning is antithetical to "aggressive, violent, arrogant, ambitious, retaliatory, haughty, selfish, harsh."
How and why will the meek inherit the earth? Clearly not because they will conquer it themselves. Instead, they will inherit the earth in one of two circumstances: (1) the advent of a just world-order built from the bottom up by human beings or with God's help in which all will be or become meek and live in peace and goodwill, or (2) the advent of the End of Days, the Eschaton, in which God will destroy or reform the wicked and invite the righteous meek, led by Jesus, the Meek King himself, into the inaugurated Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem (as in Revelation 5:10). Any suggestion that "the meek" are themselves the conquerors is incoherent. Importantly, they will "inherit" as in "be given". They will not win it for themselves and will not have to.
As a final note, "Blessed are the meek" does not imply that everyone is or even should be meek (no more than "Blessed are those who mourn" implies we all should mourn) but rather that there is something positive to being meek. It does not necessarily imply "Un-blessed are the un-meek." There may well be a way for the non-πραυς to get some other blessing or benefit or even the same blessing by another means.
Translations in Other Languages
Let's look at how this specific verse has been translated into other languages.
English translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "meek, humble, gentle" the Amplified Bible gives the full "gentle: kind-hearted, the sweet-spirited, the self-controlled."
The Vulgate translates πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "mitis" meaning "mild, mellow, light, calm, gentle, placid, peaceful" when applied to non-humans, but specifically "meek, peaceful, gentle, mild, tolerable, soft, harmless" when applied to humans.
Italian translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "mite"="mild, moderate, meek" or "mansueto"="tame, gentle, docile".
French translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "doux" meaning "soft, sweet, mild, gentle, meek quiet genial" or "débonnaire"="kind, gentle, good (weak-willed, soft)".
Spanish translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "humilde"="humble, low" or "manso"="tame, meek, non-threatening". These are substantially the same as the words used in Portuguese translations.
Romanian translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "blând"="mild, tame, gentle, harmless, kind, calm".
German translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "auf Frieden bedacht" = "intent on peace" "Sanftmütig" = "gentle-minded, gentle, meek".
Dutch translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "vriendelijk en geduldig"="friendly/kind/obliging and patient" or "zachtmoedig"="mild, gentle, meek".
Swedish translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "ödmjuk"="meek, submissive, humble, unobtrusive, modest" or "saktmodig"="sweet/soft-minded, meek, gentle" or "milda och anspråkslösa"= "gentle and unassuming".
Norwegian translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "ydmyk"="humble, meek" or "saktmodig"="meek, gentle". The Danish translations are substantially the same.
Serbian translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "кротак"= "meek, tame, gentle, pacific". This is substantially the same as the Russian word used in their translations: "кро́ткий"="gentle, meek mild", and the Bulgarian "кро́тък"="gentle, meek"
Polish translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "cichy"="quiet, silent" or "pokorny"="humble, modest".
Hungarian translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "szelíd"="gentle, meek, empathic, tame" or "alázatos"="humble, submissive, servile."
Arabic translations "مُتَوَاضِع"="humble, modest; insignificant; condescending."
Chinese translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "谦和" = "modest and gentle" or "温和" = "mild, temperate" or "温柔" = "gentle". This is basically the same as the Japanese translation "柔和な"="meek, bland, gentle, mild-mannered."
In Tagalog, "maaamo"="gentle, tame, docile, domestic" or "mapagpakumbaba"="humble, modest, lowly."
In Thai, "อ่อน น้อม"="meek, docile, submissive, biddable, tame." or "ใจอ่อนโยน"="gentle".
In Punjabi "ਦੀਨ"="forlorn, humble, indigent, lowly, meek, miserable, needy, poor".
Hindi translations translate πραυς in Matt 5:5 as "नम्र" = "gentle, mild, subservient, humble, meek."
These are quite consistent, giving a consensus connotation of "gentle, meek, humble, mild-mannered", as can be expected from an honest and accurate translation of the Greek.
Aristotle and other Extra-Biblical Comparanda
A primary reference for the application of this term before Jesus is Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (book 4 chapter 5, or Bekker page 1125b and 1126). There, he defines the virtue of πραότης (gentleness, meekness) in his discussion of dispositions related to anger:
Gentleness [πραότης] is the observance of the mean in relation to anger. There is as a matter of fact no recognized name for the mean in this respect—indeed there can hardly be said to be names for the extremes either—, so we apply the word Gentleness to the mean though really it inclines to the side of the defect. This has no name, but the excess may be called a sort of Irascibility, for the emotion concerned is anger, though the causes producing it are many and various.
Aristotle, however, famously adds that anger is not itself a vice, but has its place if it is applied with proper measure, with the proper object, and at the proper place and time, though this is hard to generalize. This is worth quoting at length:
Now we praise a man who feels anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time. He may then be called gentle-tempered, if we take gentleness to be a praiseworthy quality (for ‘gentle’ really denotes a calm temper, not led by emotion but only becoming angry in such a manner, for such causes and for such a length of time as principle may ordain; although the quality is thought rather to err on the side of defect, since the gentle-tempered man is not prompt to seek redress for injuries, but rather inclined to forgive them). The defect, on the other hand, call it a sort of Lack of Spirit or what not, is blamed; since those who do not get angry at things at which it is right to be angry are considered foolish, and so are those who do not get angry in the right manner, at the a right time, and with the right people. It is thought that they do not feel or resent an injury, and that if a man is never angry he will not stand up for him self; and it is considered servile to put up with an insult to oneself or suffer one's friends to be insulted... We consider the excess to be more opposed to Gentleness than the defect, because it occurs more frequently, human nature being more prone to seek redress than to forgive; and because the harsh-tempered are worse to live with than the unduly placable... [I]t is not easy to define in what manner and with whom and on what grounds and how long one ought to be angry, and up to what point one does right in so doing and where error begins. For he who transgresses the limit only a little is not held blameworthy, whether he errs on the side of excess or defect; in fact, we sometimes praise those deficient in anger and call them gentle-tempered, and we sometimes praise those who are harsh-tempered as manly, and fitted to command. It is therefore not easy to pronounce on principle what degree and manner of error is blameworthy, since this is a matter of the particular circumstances, and judgement rests with the faculty of perception. But thus much at all events is clear, that the middle disposition is praiseworthy, which leads us to be angry with the right people for the right things in the right manner and so on, while the various forms of excess and defect are blameworthy—when of slight extent, but little so, when greater, more, and when extreme, very blameworthy indeed. It is clear therefore that we should strive to attain the middle disposition.
However, Aristotle is giving a narrowed philosophical definition, as opposed to a broader descriptive definition going on popular usage. Obviously, the word preceded Aristotle and he is giving a philosophical and hence somewhat idiosyncratic and specific definition as he uses it in his ethical system. In his system, it is a technical term, and so cannot be taken to represent any given other usage or broader usage in general Greek culture. That is, it would be a mistake to assume that the word πραυς should be taken in the Aristotelian sense in Matt 5:5. We must always give preference to how the term is used elsewhere in the New Testament or Septuagint.
Other extra-biblical usages of this word or related words do not substantially change our understanding. It is sometimes applied to animals, specifically horses, where it has the general meaning of "tame", "docile", or "un-wild" and thus usable in agriculture, transportation, or the military, and not dangerous to their masters. Other times it is applied to winds to describe them as mild or soothing, to sounds to describe them as soft or gentle, or to medicines if they produce a soothing, palliative, or healing effect. If anything, we only slightly expand the breadth of meaning to include "reasonable, quiet, pleasant, soothed/soothing".
A curious idea comes from an article by Sam Whatley in River Region's Journey Magazine, which claims that πραυς is "A Greek military term":
The Greek word “praus” (prah-oos) [πραυς] was used to define a horse trained for battle. Wild stallions were brought down from the mountains and broken for riding. Some were used to pull wagons, some were raced, and the best were trained for warfare. They retained their fierce spirit, courage, and power, but were disciplined to respond to the slightest nudge or pressure of the rider’s leg. They could gallop into battle at 35 miles per hour and come to a sliding stop at a word. They were not frightened by arrows, spears, or torches. Then they were said to be meeked.
To be meeked was to be taken from a state of wild rebellion and made completely loyal to, and dependent upon, one’s master. It is also to be taken from an atmosphere of fearfulness and made unflinching in the presence of danger. Some war horses dove from ravines into rivers in pursuit of their quarry. Some charged into the face of exploding cannons as Lord Tennyson expressed in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
These stallions became submissive, but certainly not spineless. They embodied power under control, strength with forbearance.
However, quoting the article by Mowczko, again:
From these passages, we can see that prau– words may be translated into English as “most gentle,” “soothing,” to calm down/ be calm,” “gentle,” “to tame,” “tame,” and “more reasonable/ more quietly.”
I could not find any ancient source that mentions or alludes to implicit ideas of strength or fierceness in the word praus or a source that indicates an intrinsic, or original, military sense.
That a word can be applied to strong or powerful creatures does not imply that the word itself connotes strength or power. In the above example, the horses were strong and powerful before they were "meeked". But this does not mean that to be πραυς requires strength or power. A mouse could likewise be "meeked" if it was rendered docile, gentle, obedient, friendly, etc.
In short, we seem to have established the meaning of πραυς quite decisively from the foregoing examination of its usage in the New Testament, Septuagint, Second Temple Judaism, and the broader Greek context. We can now confidently call into question any substantially differing interpretation: we can identify them as having some addition of personal interpretation that does not derive from philology, but rather from some hermeneutical bent. That isn't to cast aspersions of a more theologically loaded reading, as meekness is clearly a central Christian virtue, and so can be expected to have collected some baggage over the millennia of interpretation. However, we can distinguish this from a strictly philological interpretation as laid out above by which we can interpret the first-century text of Matthew 5:5. We must also be sure not to read into it any technical usage, for example, its specific meaning in Aristotle's ethical system.
This might be a good point to look at some well-known commentaries on this verse. Notably, the website BibleHub.com offers a collection in an easily accessible, consolidated location. As this will be of some relevance later, they are worth quoting liberally:
Elliciott: "The meek.—The word so rendered was probably used by St. Matthew in its popular meaning, without any reference to the definition which ethical writers had given of it, but it may be worth while to recall Aristotle’s account of it (Eth. Nicom. v. 5) as the character of one who has the passion of resentment under control, and who is therefore tranquil and untroubled, as in part determining the popular use of the word, and in part also explaining the beatitude."
Benson: "Blessed [or happy] are the meek — Persons of a mild, gentle, long-suffering, and forgiving disposition, who are slow to anger, and averse from wrath; not easily provoked, and if at any time at all provoked, soon pacified; who never resent an injury, nor return evil for evil; but make it their care to overcome evil with good; who by the sweetness, affability, courteousness, and kindness of their disposition, endeavour to reconcile such as may be offended, and to win them over to peace and love."
Matthew Henry: "...The meek are happy. The meek are those who quietly submit to God; who can bear insult; are silent, or return a soft answer; who, in their patience, keep possession of their own souls, when they can scarcely keep possession of anything else. These meek ones are happy, even in this world. Meekness promotes wealth, comfort, and safety, even in this world."
Barnes: "The meek - Meekness is patience in the reception of injuries. It is neither meanness nor a surrender of our rights, nor cowardice; but it is the opposite of sudden anger, of malice, of long-harbored vengeance. Christ insisted on his right when he said, "If I have done evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?" John 18:23. Paul asserted his right when he said, "They have beaten us openly uncondemned, being Romans, and have cast us into prison; and now do they thrust us out privily? nay verily; but let them come themselves, and fetch us out," Acts 16:37. And yet Christ was the very model of meekness. It was one of his characteristics, "I am meek," Matthew 11:29. So of Paul. No man endured more wrong, or endured it more patiently than he. Yet the Saviour and the apostle were not passionate. They bore all patiently. They did not press their rights through thick and thin, or trample down the rights of others to secure their own. Meekness is the reception of injuries with a belief that God will vindicate us. "Vengeance is his; he will repay," Romans 12:19. It little becomes us to take his place, and to do what he has promised to do." Meekness produces peace. It is proof of true greatness of soul. It comes from a heart too great to be moved by little insults. It looks upon those who offer them with pity. He that is constantly ruffled; that suffers every little insult or injury to throw him off his guard and to raise a storm of passion within, is at the mercy of every mortal that chooses to disturb him. He is like "the troubled sea that cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt."
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth—This promise to the meek is but a repetition of Ps 37:11; only the word which our Evangelist renders "the meek," after the Septuagint, is the same which we have found so often translated "the poor," showing how closely allied these two features of character are. It is impossible, indeed, that "the poor in spirit" and "the mourners" in Zion should not at the same time be "meek"; that is to say, persons of a lowly and gentle carriage. How fitting, at least, it is that they should be so, may be seen by the following touching appeal: "Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men: FOR WE OURSELVES WERE ONCE FOOLISH, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures … But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared: … according to His mercy He saved us," &c. (Tit 3:1-7). But He who had no such affecting reasons for manifesting this beautiful carriage, said, nevertheless, of Himself, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Mt 11:29); and the apostle besought one of the churches by "the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2Co 10:1). In what esteem this is held by Him who seeth not as man seeth, we may learn from 1Pe 3:4, where the true adorning is said to be that of "a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of God is of great price." Towards men this disposition is the opposite of high-mindedness, and a quarrelsome and revengeful spirit; it "rather takes wrong, and suffers itself to be defrauded" (1Co 6:7); it "avenges not itself, but rather gives place unto wrath" (Ro 12:19); like the meek One, "when reviled, it reviles not again; when it suffers, it threatens not: but commits itself to Him that judgeth righteously" (1Pe 2:19-22)."
Matthew Poole: "Men count the hectors of the world happy, whom none can provoke but they must expect as good as they bring, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I tell you these are not truly happy; they are tortured with their own passions; as their hand is against every one, so every man’s hand is against them; besides that there is a God, who will revenge the wrongs they do. But the meek, who can be angry, but restrain their wrath in obedience to the will of God, and will not be angry unless they can be angry and not sin; nor will easily be provoked by others, but rather use soft words to pacify wrath, and give place to the passions of others; these are the blessed men. For though others may by their sword and their bow conquer a great deal of the earth to their will and power, yet they will never quietly and comfortably inherit or possess it; they are possessors malae fidei, forcible possessors, and they will enjoy what they have, as rapacious birds enjoy theirs, loudly, every one hath his gun ready charged and cocked against them; but those who are of meek and quiet spirits, though they may not take so deep root in the earth as others more boisterous, yet they shall enjoy what God giveth them with more quiet and certainty; and God will provide for them, verily they shall be fed.
Gill: "Blessed are the meek,.... Who are not easily provoked to anger; who patiently bear, and put up with injuries and affronts; carry themselves courteously, and affably to all; have the meanest thoughts of themselves, and the best of others; do not envy the gifts and graces of other men; are willing to be instructed and admonished, by the meanest of the saints; quietly submit to the will of God, in adverse dispensations of providence; and ascribe all they have, and are, to the grace of God. Meekness, or humility, is very valuable and commendable... Here meekness is to be considered, not as a moral virtue, but as a Christian grace, a fruit of the Spirit of God; which was eminently in Christ, and is very ornamental to believers; and of great advantage and use to them, in hearing and receiving the word; in giving an account of the reason of the hope that is in them; in instructing and restoring such, who have backslidden, either in principle or practice; and in the whole of their lives and conversations; and serves greatly to recommend religion to others: such who are possessed of it, and exercise it, are well pleasing to God; when disconsolate, he comforts them; when hungry, he satisfies them; when they want direction, he gives it to them; when wronged, he will do them right; he gives them more grace here, and glory hereafter."
Meyer: "The πραεῖς ... are the calm, meek sufferers relying on God’s help, who, without bitterness or revenge as the ταπεινοὶ κ. ἡσύχιοι (Isaiah 66:2), suffer the cruelties of their tyrants and oppressors."
Cambridge: "... Thirdly, meekness, implying submission to the will of God, a characteristic of Jesus Himself, who says “I am meek and lowly in heart.”... Meekness is mentioned with very faint praise by the greatest of heathen moralists, Aristotle. He calls it “a mean inclining to a defect.” It is indeed essentially a Christian virtue. "
Bengel: " Οἱ πρᾳεῖς, the meek. Those are here named for the most part, whom the world tramples on.—πρᾷος is connected with the Latin pravus, which has frequently the meaning of segnis, slow, sluggish, etc... The meek are seen everywhere to yield to the importunity of the inhabitants of the earth; and yet they shall obtain possession of the earth, not by their own arm, but by inheritance, through the aid of the Father: cf. Revelation 5:10. In the mean time, even whilst the usurpation of the ungodly continues, all the produce of the earth is ordered for the comfort of the meek. In all these sentences, blessedness in heaven and blessedness on earth mutually imply each other. "
Pulpit: "Blessed are the meek...The meaning attributed by our Lord to the word meek is not clear. The ordinary use of the words πραυ'´ς, πραυ'´της, in the New Testament refers solely to the relation of men to men, and this is the sense in which οἱ πραεῖς is taken by most commentators here...Meekness is rather the attitude of the soul towards another when that other is in a state of activity towards it. It is the attitude of the disciple to the teacher when teaching; of the son to the father when exercising his paternal authority; of the servant to the master when giving him orders. It is therefore essentially as applicable to the relation of man to God as to that of man to man. It is for this reason that we find ענוה ענו very frequently used of man's relation to God, in fact, more often than of man's relation to man; and this common meaning of ענו must be specially remembered here, where the phrase is taken directly from the Old Testament. Weiss ('Matthaus-ev.') objects to Tholuck adducing the evidence of the Hebrew words, on the ground that the Greek terms are used solely of the relation to man, and that this usage is kept to throughout the New Testament. But the latter statement is hardly true. For, not to mention Matthew 11:29, in which the reference is doubtful, James 1:21 certainly refers to the meekness shown towards God in receiving his word. "The Scriptural πραότης," says Trench, loc. cit.," is not in a man's outward behaviour only; nor yet in his relations to his fellow-men; as little in his mere natural disposition. Rather is it an inwrought grace of the soul; and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God (Matthew 11:29; James 1:21). It is that temper of spirit in which we accept his dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting; and it is closely linked with the ταπεωοφροσύνη, and follows directly upon it (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; cf. Zephaniah 3:12), because it is only the humble heart which is also the meek; and which, as such, does not fight against God, and more or less struggle and contend with him." Yet, as this meekness must be felt towards God not only in his direct dealings with the soul, but also in his indirect dealings (i.e. by secondary means and agents), it must also be exhibited towards men. Meekness towards God necessarily issues in meekness towards men. Our Lord's concise teaching seizes, therefore, on this furthest expression of meekness. Thus it is not meekness in the relation of man to man barely staled, of which Christ here speaks, but meekness in the relation of man to man, with its prior and presupposed fact of meekness in the relation of man to God. Shall inherit the earth..."
Vincent: "The meek (οἱ πραεῖς). Another word which, though never used in a bad sense, Christianity has lifted to a higher plane, and made the symbol of a higher good. Its primary meaning is mild, gentle. It was applied to inanimate things, as light, wind, sound, sickness. It was used of a horse; gentle. As a human attribute, Aristotle defines it as the mean between stubborn anger and that negativeness of character which is inescapable of even righteous indignation: according to which it is tantamount to equanimity. Plato opposes it to fierceness or cruelty, and uses it of humanity to the condemned; but also of the conciliatory demeanor of a demagogue seeking popularity and power. Pindar applies it to a king, mild or kind to the citizens, and Herodotus uses it as opposed to anger. These pre-Christian meanings of the word exhibit two general characteristics. 1. They express outward conduct merely. 2. They contemplate relations to men only. The Christian word, on the contrary, describes an inward quality, and that as related primarily to God. The equanimity, mildness, kindness, represented by the classical word, are founded in self-control or in natural disposition. The Christian meekness is based on humility, which is not a natural quality but an outgrowth of a renewed nature. To the pagan the word often implied condescension, to the Christian it implies submission. The Christian quality, in its manifestation, reveals all that was best in the heathen virtue - mildness, gentleness, equanimity - but these manifestations toward men are emphasized as outgrowths of a spiritual relation to God. The mildness or kindness of Plato or Pindar imply no sense of inferiority in those who exhibit them; sometimes the contrary. Plato's demagogue is kindly from self-interest and as a means to tyranny. Pindar's king is condescendingly kind. The meekness of the Christian springs from a sense of the inferiority of the creature to the Creator, and especially of the sinful creature to the holy God. While, therefore, the pagan quality is redolent of self-assertion, the Christian quality carries the flavor of self-abasement. As toward God, therefore, meekness accepts his dealings without murmur or resistance as absolutely good and wise. As toward man, it accepts opposition, insult, and provocation, as God's permitted ministers of a chastening demanded by the infirmity and corruption of sin; while, under this sense of his own sinfulness, the meek bears patiently "the contradiction of sinners against himself," forgiving and restoring the erring in a spirit of meekness, considering himself, lest he also be tempted (see Galatians 6:1-5). The ideas of forgiveness and restoration nowhere attach to the classical word. They belong exclusively to Christian meekness, which thus shows itself allied to love. As ascribed by our Lord to himself, see Matthew 11:29. Wyc. renders "Blessed be mild men." "
Thayer's: mildness of disposition, gentleness of spirit, meekness. Meekness toward God is that disposition of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing orresisting. In the OT, the meek are those wholly relying on God ratherthan their own strength to defend them against injustice. Thus,meekness toward evil people means knowing God is permitting theinjuries they inflict, that He is using them to purify His elect, and that He will deliver His elect in His time. (Is. 41:17, Lu. 18:1-
The Catena Aurea, (commentaries on the four Gospels; collected out of the works of the [Church] Fathers) by St. Thomas Aquinas (pg. 148-149) offers a number of interpretations from the Church Fathers:
Ambrose: When I have learned contentment in poverty, the next lesson is to govern my heart and temper. For what good is it to me to be without worldly things, unless I have besides a meek spirit? It suitably follows therefore, Blessed are the meek.
Augustine: The meek are they who resist not wrongs, and give way to evil; but overcome evil of good.
Ambrose: Soften therefore your temper that you be not angry, at least that you be angry, and sin not. It is a noble thing to govern passion by reason; nor is it a less virtue to check anger, than to be entirely without anger, since one is esteemed the sign of a weak, the other of a strong, mind. [See Aristotle's account below]
Augustine: Let the unyielding then wrangle and quarrel about earthly and temporal things, the meek are blessed, for they shall inherit the earth, and not be rooted out of it; that earth of which it is said in the Psalms, Thy lot is in the land of the living, (Ps. 142:5.) meaning the fixedness of a perpetual inheritance, in which the soul that hath good dispositions rests as in its own place, as the body does in an earthly possession, it is fed by its own food, as the body by the earth; such is the rest and the life of the saints.
Pseudo-Chrysostom: This earth as some interpret, so long as it is in its present condition is the land of the dead, seeing it is subject to vanity; but when it is freed from corruption it becomes the land of the living, that the mortal may inherit an immortal country. I have read another exposition of it, as if the heaven in which the saints are to dwell is meant by the land of the living, because compared with the regions of death it is heaven, compared with the heaven above it is earth. Others again say, that this body as long as it is subject to death is the land of the dead, when it shall be made like unto Christ's glorious body, it will be the land of the living.
Hilary of Poitiers: Or, the Lord promises the inheritance of the earth to the meek, meaning of that Body, which Himself took on Him as His tabernacle; and as by the gentleness of our minds Christ dwells in us, we also shall be clothed with the glory of His renewed body.
Chrysostom: Otherwise; Christ here has mixed things sensible with things spiritual. Because it is commonly supposed that he who is meek loses all that he possesses, Christ here gives a contrary promise, that he who is not forward shall possess his own in security, but that he of a contrary disposition many times loses his soul and his paternal inheritance. But because the Prophet had said, The meek shall inherit the earth, (Ps. :11.) He used these well-known words in conveying His meaning.
Glossa Ordinaria: The meek, who have possessed themselves, shall possess hereafter the inheritance of the Father; to possess is more than to have, for we have many things which we lose immediately.
The website preceptaustin.org, run by Bruce Hurt, offers a wealth of discussion on the scriptures, including Matthew 5:5 . It goes into depth on a particular elaborated theological perspective informed by 18th-20th century British and American theologians (and the 17th c. English Puritan Thomas Watson) such as Adam Clarke, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, William Barclay, Charles Spurgeon, William Edwyn Vine, John Charles Ryle, John Vernon McGee, Rod Mattoon, R. Kent Hughes, and John MacArthur, as well as some already mentioned. Their interpretations largely agree with the foregoing, but some notable excerpts can be given:
William Barclay gives an extra "amplified" translation of this verse "O THE BLISS OF THE MAN WHO IS ALWAYS ANGRY AT THE RIGHT TIME AND NEVER ANGRY AT THE WRONG TIME, WHO HAS EVERY INSTINCT, AND IMPULSE, AND PASSION UNDER CONTROL BECAUSE HE HIMSELF IS GOD-CONTROLLED, WHO HAS THE HUMILITY TO REALISE HIS OWN IGNORANCE AND HIS OWN WEAKNESS, FOR SUCH A MAN IS A KING AMONG MEN! [Recall Aristotle's account above]
D Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his classic treatise on the Sermon on the Mount draws a parallel with much of the modern church movement asking "is there not a rather pathetic tendency to think in terms of fighting the world, and sin, and the things that are opposed to Christ, by means of great organizations? Am I wrong when I suggest that the controlling and prevailing thought of the Christian Church throughout the world seems to be the very opposite of what is indicated in this text? 'There', they say, 'is the powerful enemy set against us, and here is the divided Christian Church. We must all get together, we must have one huge organization to face that organized enemy. Then we shall make an impact, and then we shall conquer.' But 'Blessed are the meek', not those who trust to their own organizing, not those who trust to their own powers and abilities and their own institutions. Rather it is the very reverse of that. And this is true, not only here, but in the whole message of the Bible. You get it in that perfect story of Gideon where God went on reducing the numbers, not adding to them. That is the spiritual method, and here it is once more emphasized in this amazing statement in the Sermon on the Mount.
MacArthur writes that "Meekness is the opposite of violence and vengeance. The meek person, for example, accepts joyfully the seizing of his property, knowing that he has infinitely better and more permanent possessions awaiting him in heaven (Heb. 10:34). The meek person has died to self, and he therefore does not worry about injury to himself, or about loss, insult, or abuse. The meek person does not defend himself, first of all because that is His Lord’s command and example, and second because he knows that he does not deserve defending. Being poor in spirit and having mourned over his great sinfulness, the gentle person stands humbly before God, knowing he has nothing to commend himself.
F. B. Meyer: Even now the meek soul gets the best out of life. The world does not think so. It thinks that the meek must be worsted because they will not stand upon their rights, nor wield the sword in self-defence, nor meet men on their own terms. But, as ever, Christ's words stand the test of experience. The meek find more pleasure in simple joys than wrong-doers in all their wealth. Pure hearts find wells of peace and bliss in common sights and sounds. There is no twinge of conscience or bitter memory of wrong-doing to jar on the sweet consent of holy song ever arising in nature.
Both Eduard Schweitzer (The Good News According to Matthew) and John Nolland (The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text) give an interpretation of "powerless" for πραυς.
Summing up, we might state the consensus position of these commentators: The term πραυς is a virtue of mildness, gentleness, humility, suffering injury or insult patiently and without retaliation, foregoing revenge (or entrusting to God to exact due vengeance), submission to the will of God, restraining anger, and bearing wrongs patiently. Jesus himself is a prime exemplar, who underwent punishment and insult and even execution with patient endurance, not retaliating but rather willing to suffer wrongs (in the synoptic gospels, he does not defend himself at his own trial). Going with the principle of Imitatio Christi, we ought to do likewise.
Strength And Weakness
What exactly does "meek" mean? Quoting from etymonline.com:
late 12c., mēk, "gentle or mild of temper; forbearing under injury or annoyance; humble, unassuming;" of a woman, "modest," from a Scandinavian source such as Old Norse mjukr "soft, pliant, gentle," from Proto-Germanic *meukaz (source also of Gothic muka-modei "humility," Dutch muik "soft"), a word of uncertain origin, perhaps from PIE *meug- "slippery, slimy." In the Bible, it translates Latin mansuetus [tame, mild, gentle, literally "accustomed to the hand"] from Vulgate (for which see mansuetude). Sense of "submissive, obedient, docile" is from c. 1300.
In commonly used dictionaries, we find such definitions as:
Showing patience and humility; gentle. Easily imposed upon; submissive. (American Heritage Dictionary)
Enduring injury with patience and without resentment: MILD. Deficient in spirit and courage : SUBMISSIVE. Not violent or strong : MODERATE. (Merriam Webster)
Quiet, gentle, and not willing to argue or express your opinions in a forceful way (Cambridge)
Having or showing a quiet and gentle nature : not wanting to fight or argue with other people. (Britannica)
These all seem broadly consistent with what we have discussed so far. Thus, "meek" as defined above is a reasonably fair and accurate translation of the Greek πραυς, though the connotations of "meek" don't perfectly align with those of πραυς laid out above.
Some people might think "meekness" connotes "weakness", perhaps because the two sound similar, but this is not the meaning of the word (though it can be a shade of meaning). In fact, nothing about physical capacities is necessarily implied by the word "meek". One can be weak/powerless and meek, or strong/powerful and meek, or anywhere in between. Nor does it imply cowardice: in fact, to sustain meekness often involves the courage to endure insult or injury without retaliation or losing one's temper. The word itself cannot be blamed for how some people tend to misinterpret it. As should be clear by this point, meekness (specifically πραυτης) is a quality of character and thus is available to everyone no matter how weak or strong they are. Aristotle's usage makes this evident: as a character virtue, and thus as a choice, one must make or a habit one must cultivate. If you can keep your anger, resentment, and violence in check, which anyone, no matter how strong they are, can do, then you can succeed in being πραυς.
Perhaps an argument can be made that the quality of "strength, prowess, physical competence, power, ability to do harm" should also be cultivated in addition to meekness. That may or may not be the case, depending on one's sense of virtue, but those qualities are not themselves implied by πραυς, nor are they necessarily ruled out. Πραυς does not define what one can do, but how one chooses to be. It is defined more by what one chooses not to do (not to retaliate, vent rage, etc.) than by what one can or chooses to do.
Let us look at some notable New Testament verses about strength, weakness, and violence.
Matt 5:38-45: "You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give your coat as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous."
Matt 26:52 " 'Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him [Peter], 'for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.' "
Rom 12:14-21: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.'[Deut 32:35] Instead, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'[Prov 25:21-22] Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
Rom 15:1 "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves."
1 Cor 1:25-29: "For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God."
2 Cor 12:5, 9-10: "On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses... But he [Jesus] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."
Phil 2:5-8 "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross."
All these support the plain meaning of Matthew 5:5 and the repudiation of any claim that the New Testament advocates strength, the capacity to harm, or worldly power. The early Church fathers understood this perfectly well, notably the anti-militaristic Tertullian. The development of "Christian warriors" (in any literal sense) as any sort of norm or ideal is a much later development and flies in the face of a fair and honest reading of the New Testament. A plain, straightforward reading of the New Testament would find an endorsement of pacifism over militarism.
Finally, let us also look at three problematic verses, sometimes offered against a pacifistic message, and offer a refutation for each:
1) Matt 10:34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword."
The suggestion is that Jesus is advocating for or at least may sometimes advocate for violence. But is this a fair reading, given all the foregoing? More context is revealing:
Matt: 10:32-39 “Everyone, therefore, who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven, but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
It's clear that the "sword" is not any literal sword but stands in contrast to "peace" as a metaphor for strife and division between those obedient to Christ and those not, proverbially, the sheep and the goats. But there is another possibility, also metaphorical: many other passages in the New Testament use "sword" as a metaphor for the word of God (Eph 6:17, Heb 4:12, Rev 1:16, 2:16, 19:15, 19:21). Thus, Jesus brings the word of God, a cause of division and a means of warring with spiritual evil. What Jesus, of course, did not mean was any sort of literal sword, especially given that he never does bring any sort of actual sword.
2) Luke 22:36 "[Jesus] said to them, 'But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.' "
Is Jesus advising his disciples, and his followers down through the ages, literally to go out and purchase weapons? Again, a bit of context makes this clear:
Luke 22:35-38: [Jesus] said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals [Luke 10:4], did you lack anything?” They [the 12 apostles] said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless,’[Isaiah 53:12] and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”
A few things to note:
- Jesus' command was not even literally carried out by those he spoke it to, purchasing no swords and falling 10 swords short.
- Jesus negates his previous teaching in Luke 10:4, so it would be impossible faithfully to follow both. Does this teaching supersede the former?
- They must do so in order to fulfill the prophecy, that Jesus will be "counted among the lawless." In buying a sword, they are becoming lawless, since they would be forming an armed uprising, carrying weapons where it would be illegal to do so, as it would be for would-be-revolutionary Jews under Roman law. Is Jesus instructing his followers to become "lawless"?
- Jesus' laconic response is terse and dismissive, and the conversation ends: "That is enough [to fulfill the scripture]." He could even easily be saying, colloquially "That's enough [so don't bother further]", or "That's enough [out of you/on the matter]."
- The verse is not generalized to all his followers or even for all times. He is speaking only to his closest disciples and is giving them instruction for a specific time (now) and reason (to fulfill prophecy). There is no suggestion this is a general precept later Christians should follow.
3) The Cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:12–17, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, John 2:13–16). Two versions--with sufficient context--will suffice:
Mark 11:15-19: On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’[Isaiah 56:7]? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’[Jer. 7:11]”
John 2:13–25: The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” [Psalm 69:9] The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone, for he himself knew what was in everyone.
These points all support a symbolic reading, specific to Jesus in particular at that specific time and place and point in history, with no suggestion at all that this is something Jesus would want his followers to emulate:
- This event would have happened in the outermost court of the gentiles, which was massive: 36 acres of area. There is no way Jesus alone could have cleared and policed the entire space. Even with the help of his followers, unless there were hundreds, this would have been impossible, and even then it would take an hour or more. If this really did take place, it couldn't have taken place in the whole space, but only in one small corner. Unless it was symbolic, it would have been pointless.
- Assuming the act is purely symbolic, its significance is hard to miss: Jesus is cleansing the temple of uncleanliness, stating that it is unsuitable for its purpose as a house of prayer (Synoptics), possibly from the noise and bustle of the market, or simply oughtn't to be a marketplace (John), and declaring that there are many "thieves", presumably the priests or those taking advantage of a captive market. Whether he succeeded is not relevant for establishing what Jesus's preferred ideal is, and thus what they ought to prefer as well.
- In Mark, this takes place on Monday of Holy Week, on Sunday in Matthew and Luke. In either case, one week later, Jesus will have died and been resurrected, and initiated the destruction of death and Satan, prefiguring the cleansing of the world of evil at the eschaton. This also supports a symbolic reading: Jesus is symbolically cleansing the temple of evil, prefiguring his cleansing of death (evil) at his resurrection, prefiguring the general resurrection, and the general cleansing of evil at the Final Judgment. In John, this takes place near the beginning of his ministry, years from Holy Week, but at the Passover, on which day Jesus will be killed as a sacrifice, the paschal "lamb of God".
- In John, the Jews ask him “What sign can you show us for doing this?”, and he replies “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” So the "sign for" whipping and driving out the money changers and others and overturning the tables and making his claim is, maybe, that the temple will be destroyed, and in or within three days Jesus will raise it up. The author explains: he was speaking of the temple of his body, thus, "destroy my body and in three days I will raise it up". Indeed, that is what the gospels say transpired at the crucifixion followed by the resurrection three days later. So what he did in the temple is like what will happen to his body. And Jesus himself knew what was in everyone, namely, evil, uncleanliness one needed to be cleansed of. Thus, he cleansed the Temple just as his body would be cleansed, through death and resurrection. Indeed, about 40 years later, as the author of the gospel of John clearly knows, the city and Temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman general Titus. But the heavenly Jerusalem would be rebuilt from that destroyed body. There are clearly many layers of significance to this act if it is seen to be symbolic.
- In the Synoptics, Jesus quotes an eschatological prophecy from Isaiah 56, describing all nations, morally perfected and having seen the truth of the Jewish faith, coming to the Jerusalem temple at the end of days. He also references an episode from Jeremiah 7-8, in which the prophet stands in the Jerusalem temple gate and exhorts all Judeans to "amend your ways and your doings" in ways both moral (interpersonal, social) and religious (heterolatry, idolatry, impiety, not heeding prophets), not merely in words, and if they do, YHWH "will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave to your ancestors forever and ever." Indeed, Jeremiah claims some of them "have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom [Gehenna], to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which [YHWH] commanded not, neither came it into [His] mind." But if they do not, then "[YHWH's] anger and [YHWH's] fury shall be poured out upon this place, upon man, and upon beast, and upon the trees of the field, and upon the fruit of the land; and it shall burn, and shall not be quenched." The people will be bird-food and "the land will be desolate". Their bones will be unburied, "dung upon the face of the earth." Christians can obviously find the significance in Jer 8:4 "Thus saith [YHWH]: do men fall, and not rise up again? Doth one turn away, and not return?" The parallels between Jer 8:8-9 to 1 Cor 1:20-25 are striking. The temple would be destroyed as Jeremiah predicted, as described in Jeremiah 52, making this reference itself a prophecy of the destruction of the temple, which did take place 40 years later. The symbolic significance of the act is thus matched by a rich significance in the prophetic references he makes.
If one navigates to the Biblehub.com page on the Greek word πραυς, immediately below the standard definition is a section titled "HELPS Word-studies", Copyright © 2021 by Discovery Bible. It gives:
This difficult-to-translate root (pra-) means more than "meek." Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God's strength under His control – i.e. demonstrating power without undue harshness.
The English term "meek" often lacks this blend – i.e. of gentleness (reserve) and strength.
This source finds in the term πραυς a connotation of "...and strength", "exercising (God's) strength" and "demonstrating power without undue harshness" (thus, more simply: demonstrating power with due harshness). It even goes so far as to implicitly disparage other sources and translations for failing to include ("often lack") this crucial hidden meaning. None of the many translations and commentaries we have looked at have made any such claim. There is no reasoning given, no explanation as to how they came up with this connotation or why so many centuries of translators and commentators have failed to come up with it, or why "biblical meekness" should be so substantially different than non-biblical meekness. It is simply asserted here without any basis. One wonders where they are getting this sense of "strength" or "due harshness".
It is worth pointing out that the reference given, the Discovery Bible, is a Bible study software endorsed by a handful of evangelical scholars from evangelical universities. It advertises itself with the slogan:
Read Your Bible And Instantly See What Is Lost In Translation… (Without Knowing Any Greek Or Hebrew!)
With this software, you can allegedly, without the trouble of learning Greek or Hebrew, get quickly to the underlying meaning of the Bible that is obscured or absent in other Bible translations. You, the ignorant monolingual layperson, can get access to the true meaning of the Bible those professional, elite Bible scholars and translators don't (or can't) put in the standard translations. The appeal to those ignorant of the original biblical languages serves many purposes: 1) it allows the sellers of the software to frame their perspective as both "deep" and "hidden", 2) it draws in those who don't know any better and pushes away those who think they do (e.g. those who bother to learn Hebrew or Greek), and 3) It ensures that any false claims won't be found out. The website says "No Greek Or Hebrew Experience Required" but it would be more accurate to say "Required: No Greek or Hebrew Experience." Otherwise, you might see through the interpretational bias.
Looking at some of their promotional videos, we can see that many of their additions seem to be good-faith attempts to add value to Bible studies for those who are not expert, multilingual exegetes. Insights on word order and emphasis, verb forms, intertextuality, commentaries, and subtleties of translation are all perfectly acceptable, but there is also a clear ideological payload tucked inside the ostensible "insights". The example of πραυς is a case in point, reading into the term a masculine bent: meekness is, perhaps, perceived as uncomfortably feminine, gentle, soft, and yielding, as opposed to the strength, power, and even violence they would prefer to find in it. One imagines the thought process as something like this: " 'Blessed are the meek'? That can't be right. 'Meek' must not really mean 'meek'. "
However, this reading is entirely without any justifiable philological basis and is a flagrant case of eisegesis. It is an abdication of the responsibilities of interpretation and translation, succumbing to the temptation to find in the text what one wishes were there, rather than the restraint to limit oneself to what the text itself can support. Indeed, if "biblical-X" can mean something substantially different than "non-biblical X", how can we possibly get at this meaning? At best we can look for other usages in the biblical corpus, as we have done, but even these must be informed by the usage of the word more generally. The original readers, before the compilation and canonization of the Bible, had no recourse but to take the word in something like its standard or typical usage, and we must follow suit if we want to get at the original, fundamental meaning that the original author meant to express. If inclusion between the covers of the Bible transforms the meaning of a word, this transformation has no constraints, there is no way to verify or falsify any such claim of meaning, and if two people disagree over this transformation, there is no way to determine which has the better claim. In short, it becomes a dogma deprived of any verifiable basis. However, any standard, ecumenical exegetical resource should not cater to such dogmatic infiltrations. BibleHub ought to remove this spurious claim from its website and limit itself to strictly philological hermeneutical resources. Or, if this Discovery Bible entry remains up, it ought to come with a disclaimer making its evangelical (masculinist) bias transparent, and expressly stating that this interpretation rests not on any close reading of the text but rather on a particular ideological agenda.
One charitable interpretation of this variant interpretation is that so many years and layers of theology had been put on this little word πραυς that the meaning slowly evolved. This might derive from Aristotle's definition of the term, which has more of a sense of "self-restraint" or "self-mastery." Recall that he said: "we sometimes praise those who are harsh-tempered as manly, and fitted to command." The evangelical authors of this entry likely agree. But as we and other commentators have pointed out, this need not inform the biblical usage: Aristotle was prescriptively giving his definition of what is a technical term in his ethical system, rather than a descriptive definition of typical usage. It is a mistake to think that the word as Aristotle defined it must match how other users of the word meant it. But supposing Aristotle's meaning is involved, it's understandable how this meaning of "strength" or "due harshness" could creep in. Understandable but not excusable, however, as this is still ultimately an ideological insertion not supported by philological analysis. There are certainly plenty of more effusive commentators who take the liberty to add theological color to this word as they see or preach it, and there's nothing wrong with that for what it's worth. But that should always be separable from the meaning of the term before and absent any later ideological accretions.
As we shall see, this small inclusion has had some wide ripples in the broader culture, particularly through a certain Canadian psychology professor turned public intellectual/self-help guru and amateur Bible interpreter by the name of Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson has offered comments on Matthew 5:5 on a number of occasions, leaning on the imagery of a "sheathed sword". Let's look at several to establish his view.
In 2017, Jordan Peterson produced a series of biblical lectures, focusing mostly on the book of Genesis. In the 9th lecture titled "The Call to Abraham", he discusses Genesis 14, in which Abraham rescues his nephew Lot. After finishing a reading of Genesis 14:14, (in which Abraham learns of the capture of Lot, musters 318 armed servants, and pursues the captors), Peterson says (between around 1:44:00 and 1:46:00):
Well, so now we also know that Abraham's a pretty brave guy, right? He gets word that this horrible war has broken out in the worst of all possible places, and that his nephew is involved, and the first thing he does is, you know, mount up his posse and get the hell in there and rescue his nephew. So Abraham's... Oh, whatever goodness is, from the Old Testament perspective, it isn't harmlessness, right? It isn't emasculation and castration. It's not that. It's not weakness. It's not the inability to fight. None of that is associated with virtue. It's a sort of strength that enables someone to mount an armed team of [more than] 300 people when he finds out that his nephew is being kidnapped in a terrible war and to get the hell out there and take them back. And so that's it. That's a call to - it's a call to power, not a kind of peaceful meekness. That's funny, too, because, you know, there's a line in the New Testament: "The meek shall inherit the earth." (I've got to look at my phone for a sec, here, I don't know what time it is) There's a line in the New Testament that says--and it's in the Sermon on the Mount--it says "The meek shall inherit the earth." And that-- I read that line and it always bothered me. I thought "No way. That's not, that's not right. "Meek" can't be the right word." So when I was doing this story of Noah [lecture 7] and talking about the Sermon on the Mount, I spent a bunch of time looking at commentaries on that line looking at the roots, you know, the Greek roots and the Hebrew roots, and trying to figure out what that meant. And "meek" does not mean "meek": that's wrong. Here's what it means: "Those who have weapons and know how to use them but still keep them sheathed will inherit the earth." Jesus! That's a lot different, man. It's a lot better! Right? Because the way it's normally interpreted is: "If you're so weak that you're harmless then things will go well for you." It's like: No. That's not right, that's not. That can't be right: it doesn't fit with the narrative. It certainly doesn't fit with this narrative.
We can note a few things:
- Peterson is put in mind of Matt 5:5 when reading an entirely different passage in Genesis 14. There is no direct connection between these two. This points to something in his personal psychology,
- Peterson is operating under the (erroneous) belief that the Bible is homogenous in its message, with no logical or thematic inconsistencies. He seems to consider it a single unified book with a single unified message, despite it being written in multiple languages over centuries (one part literally called "Old" and another "New"), and that Jesus is explicitly reforming some of the Mosaic laws ("You have heard it said... but I tell you..."). Clearly, he prefers the model of Abraham's brave and violent exploits to Jesus' exhortations to "turn the other cheek" and to "Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will die by the sword." He notes that "it certainly doesn't fit with this narrative" without considering that the two may be at odds: instead, he wants to find some way to reconcile them. He sees Abraham "mount up his posse and get the hell in there" to rescue his nephew and he admires and wants to advocate for that sort of behavior, but he is haunted by Jesus' claim praising meekness. The unequivocal claim by the Son of God must be taken as given.
- Peterson misquotes the scripture, albeit in fairly a benign, periphrastic way. However, this is the first indication that he is not trying to be careful or exact. Strictly speaking, he is incorrect that the Bible states, in these terms: "The meek will inherit the earth".
- Peterson is evidently preoccupied with masculinity ("It isn't emasculation and castration") and seeking a way to reconcile his ideal of masculinity with the scripture. As noted earlier, this tension between harsh masculinity and meekness is a driving issue in this heterodox interpretation.
- Peterson's belief that "meek" is not "the right word" and it's "wrong" is purely based on his own intuitions, rather than on evidence. This is a telling suggestion that he is using motivated reasoning.
- He claims he spent "a bunch of time looking at commentaries on that line looking at the [Greek/Hebrew] roots", yet he cites no source and his interpretation does not match any other source. He claims in other places, as seen below, that he did his research on BibleHub, looking at their commentaries. Yet as we have shown above, none of the commentaries on BibleHub come anywhere close to his interpretation. Could this be a bald-faced lie? Is he really so arrogant to think he knows better than the consensus of all those expert interpreters? Does he not expect anyone to check? As it happens, he is right: his fans don't check.
- Peterson confidently offers his interpretation as the authoritative, singular ("Here's what it means"), best ("It's a lot better!"), interpretation, with no source or basis. Why not just say "Here's how I like to think about it"? His interpretation flies in the face of the consensus of interpretations given so far, possibly with the exception of HELPS (where he very likely is working from), but even in that case, he goes far beyond it. Note that πραυς has gone from "gentle, humble" to, effectively, "ready to attack". Nearly a 180-degree turn!
- Peterson offers a misinterpretation that likewise seems unique to him: "If you're so weak that you're harmless then things will go well for you." One cannot help but think that this was how he himself had misinterpreted it. It may also be derived from Nietzsche's criticisms of Christianity (see below), so it seems as though Peterson is trying retroactively to change the meaning of this verse to preempt that criticism, as he understands it. As noted above, meekness has no connotation of "weakness", though it does arguably imply voluntary "harmlessness".
- By Peterson's own interpretation, then, Abraham and his allies would not be "meek" since they clearly unsheathed their swords. Does it follow that they won't "inherit the earth"?
In late January of 2018, in his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience (#1070), (between 1:06:22 and 1:08:45) Peterson and Rogan have the following exchange:
Peterson: Well the other thing I've been telling young men is that--and and this is something I think that you could relate to tremendously--is... I read this New Testament line, well, decades ago, and I could never understand it. It's... The line is "The meek shall inherit the earth" and I thought "There's something wrong with that. That line, it just doesn't make sense to me, meek[ness] just doesn't seem to me to be a moral virtue." And so I did a series of biblical lectures this year--like 15 of them, and that was also a weird little experience that we can talk about--but I was looking through these sayings, these maxims, and that was one of them: "The meek shall inherit the earth." But I've been using this [web]site called Biblehub[.com]and it's very interesting, it's very, it's organized very interesting. So you have a biblical line and then they they have like three pages of commentary on each line, and so, because people have commented on every verse in the Bible, like, to the to degree that's almost unimaginable, so you can look and see all the interpretations and all the translations and get some sense of what the genuine meaning might be, and the line "The meek shall inherit the earth": "meek" is not a good translation -- or the word has moved in the 300 years or so since it was translated. What it means is this: "those who have swords and know how to use them but keep them sheathed will inherit the world." and that's--
Peterson: --another thing I've been telling you... Yeah no kidding! That's a lot different.
Rogan: That's a big difference!
Peterson: It's so great! And so, like, one of the things I tell young men-- well, young women as well-- but the young men really need to hear this more, I think, is that: you should be a monster. You know, because everyone says: "Well you should be harmless, virtuous, you shouldn't do anyone any harm, you should sheathe your competitive instinct, you shouldn't try to win. You know, you you don't want to be too aggressive, you don't want to be too assertive, you want to take a back seat and all of that." It's like: No. Wrong. You should be a monster, an absolute monster, and then you should learn how to control it.
Rogan: Do you know the expression: "It's better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war"?
Peterson: Right, right, exactly, that's exactly it.
Peterson: And that's exactly right. And so, when I tell young men that, they think... Well, lots of them are competitive, they're low in agreeableness, you know, because that's part of being competitive, temperamentally. It's like: is there something wrong with being competitive? There's nothing wrong with it. There's something wrong with cheating. There's something wrong with being a tyrant. There's something wrong with winning unfairly. All of those things are bad, but you don't want people to win? What's the difference between trying to win and striving? You want to eradicate striving?
Let's note a few things
- "Meekness" is indeed a moral virtue, both in classical Christianity and in Aristotelian philosophy. Thus, whatever "seems" to Peterson is a poor guide to what is actually the case.
- Peterson here claims to have consulted the many commentaries on BibleHub, which we have looked at above, and yet his interpretation does not come from any of them and doesn't even seem to be informed by any of them. Is he lying about reading the commentaries, or does he know he is not faithfully representing them? Or does he only mean HELPS? It's not clear, but he seems not to have done his research very well in any case.
- Peterson is wrong in his speculation that the meaning of "meek" has substantially changed since (presumably) the King James Bible was written (1611, so closer to 400 years), which he'd know if he read the commentaries and other translations as he claims he did.
- Rogan accurately notes "that's a big difference" yet doesn't seem to think that this "big difference" is indicative of an error on Peterson's part. Rather he seems implicitly to trust him and thus, presumably, thinks that there has been some big systemic or conspiratorial error on the part of biblical scholars and translators. This wouldn't be the first time Rogan has endorsed conspiratorial thinking.
- Peterson's maxim "be a monster" and his endorsement of personal, competitive ambition is directly antithetical to the meaning and sense of πραυς as discussed above. The saying in James 3 is applicable: "But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be arrogant and lie about the truth. This is not wisdom that comes down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish." It would thus be fair to characterize Peterson's maxim "be a monster", biblically speaking, as satanic.
- Jesus likely would admonish against striving after worldly things but instead after heavenly things (gentleness, peace, charity, brotherly love). Competition and ambition ("trying to win") are precisely such worldly things Jesus and his followers would recommend against. The preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, who was "king in Jerusalem" would likewise denounce all worldly striving as "vanity and vexation of spirit."
- Peterson seems fixated on competition, focusing on a segment of young men whom he describes as "competitive... low in agreeableness". One gets the sense Peterson thinks of himself this way, and hampered by exhortations to be more agreeable and cooperative. He seems to neglect cooperation entirely, seeing life as a competitive zero-sum game of winners and losers. In his world of lobster dominance hierarchies, this makes some sense, but he is neglecting the message of brotherly love, compassion, charity, and community in the New Testament. Peterson seems to essentialize and thus legitimize disagreeableness, rather than seeing it as, at best, a quality of temperament with both benefits and detriments which should be held in proper check, and at worst, an impediment to proper full moral growth. Peterson seems to want to turn competitive disagreeableness into a good in itself.
In January of 2018, Peterson sat for an interview with Timon Dias for the Dutch publisher GeenStijl, titled "Jordan Peterson's Philosophy of 'How to be in the World' distilled down to its 5 strongest points". The fifth point (around 1:40:00) is "Minimize your persona and cultivate your essence and live in its closest possible proximity" (a long and complex way of saying "be yourself and be minimally duplicitous"). Peterson explains the Jungian ideas of the persona and the shadow, especially "integrating the shadow", obedience to norms, and the usefulness of the shadow in resisting that. His example is Nazi Germany in which, he claims, the society was gradually "bent" over to fascism, mentioning his opposition to Bill C-16 which rocketed him into celebrity, framing his opposition to the bill, which expanded the protections for transpeople, as a principled opposition to the creep of fascism. In response to the question "Do you think weak men can be virtuous?" Peterson gives an unqualified "No." "Weakness" is framed as lacking the option to sin. "Without the possibility for evil, there cannot be good," Peterson says. According to Peterson, rule-breaking, presumably as in doing what is wrong, is better than cowardice and weakness (the inability even to break rules), but it is less than being good. He ends with:
One of the most amazing things that I discovered this year or stumbled upon was-- I was puzzling over a line in the New Testament which I've always been curious about because it never sat right with me: "The meek shall inherit the earth." and so as I said before if you go online-- Bible-hub, I think it's called. Biblehub. It's really good for this because it contains a collection of commentaries so you can look at a verse and other translations, multiple translations and multiple commentators so each verse is taken apart by many many people-- and I found out that the word "meek" either doesn't mean now what it meant when people first translated the text or it was a mistranslation. Either way... But because meek sounds like powerless and harmless (it's something like that, right?)... But what meek actually means-- it's the derivation of a word-- it's the translation of a word that meant something more like "those who have swords and know how to use them but keep them sheathed." I thought "Oh yes that's exactly it: those who have swords and know how to use them but choose to keep them sheath will inherit the world" It's like: Yes. Exactly right. Exactly right. That's much different.
Let's note a few things:
- Here, Peterson again makes reference to the many commentaries on Biblehub and gives his unsourced and unsupported interpretation that directly contradicts those interpretations.
- As we have already noted, meekness does not itself connote powerlessness and harmlessness. He seems never to have actually checked. Thus, he is reacting to a misconstrual, likely his own. But even if it did mean that, he would have no basis for rejecting it given that he
- He begins with the more qualified and hedged "something more like" but ends with the more decisive "that's exactly it". How he knows "that's exactly it" is based not on any evidence but merely on his own baseless and demonstrably inaccurate intuitions.
- It's clear based on the narrative of tension ("never sat right") to release ("Oh yes that's exactly it") that his emotions are what is driving his selection of interpretation. His conclusion follows with no reluctance or even detachment but rather the contrary: it follows with relief and exultation, the overcoming of a long-held anxiety. One cannot help but get the sense that Peterson sees or wants to see himself as meeting his own interpretation, thereby rendering him virtuous, "in the proper moral position". Indeed, there is a note of shame in having once seen himself as virtuous because harmless, and now he is eager to distance himself from that former self-concept.
- "That's much different" is taken as a good thing, a relief, rather than indicative of an error. Presumably, he would have to think that the "much different" interpretations are in error relative to his "exactly right" interpretation, bespeaking a profound arrogance.
I read this interesting commentary a little while ago on a statement by Christ in the New Testament, and the statement generally interpreted is: "The meek shall inherit the earth." But I was looking up the multiple translations of the word "meek," and "meek" is actually derived from a Greek word, of course, --because the Bible, or at least some of the original forms of the Bible were in Greek-- and that word [πραυς] didn't exactly mean "meek." It meant something like: "those who have weapons and the ability to use them, but determine to keep them sheathed will inherit the world." And that means people who are capable of force, let's say, but decide not to use it are in the proper moral position... So, now, if you're an axe murderer but don't have an axe that doesn't mean that you're moral.
And a few notes:
- His ultimate interpretation of those in "the proper moral position" is highly simplistic and monochromatic: does being moral consist in being capable of force and not using it? Needless to say, this capacity for force is not at all implied by the word πραυς, though the restraint of retaliation or harsh action is implied. A half-truth, but likewise a half-lie, and not in any way faithful to the "multiple translations" he claims to have consulted.
- His concept is governed by physical force and physical harm. His metaphors are always weapons and even murder. This is a particularly masculine, worldly, and literal concept altogether lacking from the Bible or any of the sources he claims he consulted.
- Presumably, then, those incapable of force, such as women and children and weak men, cannot be in "the proper moral position". Thus, Peterson betrays a clear masculinist bias that denigrates weakness, making it grounds for exclusion from virtue. Only the strong can be good, as he sees it, as he explicitly says in the previous clip. ("Do you think weak men can be virtuous?" "No.")
As seen from all the foregoing, Peterson's interpretation is unique to him. No other commentator, translator, or interpreter uses the language or imagery of "sheathed weapons". Even the HELPS source he is probably drawing from doesn't mention it. So where did he get it from? And what makes him so confident as to offer it as "the meaning"?
The answer might be as simple as: narcissism. Note his reasoning. He comes upon this interpretation and rather than check to see if it is validated by the data, rather than try to falsify it like a good scientist or exegete, instead he checks to see if he himself approves of it ("I thought oh yes that's exactly it" "It's a lot better!"). This is mere confirmation bias. The "genuine meaning" is not defined by the history of usage or by the consensus of interpreters, both of which would weigh entirely against his preferred interpretation, but simply by his own internal, infallible, semantic compass. In short: he likes it because it comports with his masculinist ideology, or because of his personal history of self-image anxieties, or both, or whatever the case may be. He is the authority and his authoritativeness amounts to oracular access to "the truth", "the real meaning" that he simply knows when he sees it, that others simply don't have such access to. His confidence is based not on any argument or data, but on his personal feelings about what it should mean. He admits that the standard interpretation "never sat right with me" and that he thought "There's something wrong with that. That line, it just doesn't make sense to me, meek just doesn't seem to me to be a moral virtue." Clearly, then, he disagrees with both Aristotle and Jesus and centuries of historical Christianity and has to twist the meaning to suit his feelings. I'd guess he saw the direction the HELPS source went in and extrapolated from there to even greater heights of eisegesis. Clearly, this beatitude produces a lot of angst for those who want to reconcile the gospels with a tough, stern, strong concept of masculinity and by hook or by crook they will find a way to do so. If it comes to changing either the meaning of the scriptures or their idea of masculinity, the former will lose every time.
As pointed out, Peterson claims to have consulted the many commentaries on Biblehub: "if you go online-- Bible-hub, I think it's called. Biblehub. It's really good for this because it contains a collection of commentaries so you can look at a verse and other translations, multiple translations and multiple commentators so each verse is taken apart by many many people." Yet he never cites which of the many commentaries he is drawing from. It's not hard to see why. If we ourselves go to the commentaries on Biblehub and look through the collection of commentaries, none gives an interpretation coming anywhere close to Peterson's. Peterson also says he "was looking up the multiple translations", but as we showed above, all the translations are quite consistent, whether in English or any other language, and none comes close to his interpretation. If he has done the research he claims to have done, how can he hold to such a different view than the sources offer? None of the possibilities are terribly promising: 1) He is a bald-faced liar, 2) He didn't understand what he read, 3) He thinks he knows better than respected, expert exegetes and commentators, 4) He found the one interpretation (presumably HELPS) and decided (on no other grounds than his personal feelings) that that one, other commentaries notwithstanding, was the best and truest interpretation. But even in the last case, why not quote that source in the terms it uses? Why change or add to it? And why not cite his source (he almost never does)? Not even HELPS tries to construe the πραυς as trained swordsmen (literally or metaphorically) who keep their weapons sheathed, ready to attack. The answer is obvious: not only does he know he doesn't need to, but he knows it would only backfire if he did since then others could go and check that he was wrong. And nothing strikes more terror in Peterson's heart than the idea that he could be shown to be wrong: One searches in vain for a single instance of him unambiguously admitting he was wrong or apologizing for a single error.
In some of his other work, Peterson will talk about the "dark triad" of resentment, arrogance, and deceit as habits or facets of character that should be minimized or avoided. But as we have seen above, he is enacting this "dark triad" himself. He resents the standard definition of πραυς, arrogantly thinks he knows better than the expert commentators and translators he claims to have consulted, and deceptively states his interpretation as the singular correct one, despite it being antithetical to the actual meaning. He ought to listen to his own advice, and the advice of Jesus himself: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye."
Suppose we try to give Peterson as much charity and benefit of the doubt as we can. In what sense can he be right? Supposing we all had "swords" (means of doing harm) of some sort or other, he is right that meekness involves keeping them sheathed, but this is only a more convoluted way of saying "self-control" or "restraint". Indeed, if everyone has a "sword", then "those who have swords" is everyone and so is unnecessary: it would be clearer and more direct to say this otherwise, and no one would be "weak" as in "incapable of doing harm". Peterson should take his own advice and be more precise in his speech. He is also right that those who don't "have swords" are not rendered meek-- and thus blessed-- ipso facto because they lack the means to do harm. Meekness is a trait of character, not of action directly: in his terms, it is not wanting to be an axe murderer regardless of whether one has an axe or not. However, this is about as far as charity can take us. It cannot be avoided that the capacity to do harm is in no way implied by or part of the meaning of πραυς. It's also hard to give him much charity given that he has told us his sources, which we can check for ourselves, and find that he hasn't accurately represented any of them. Peterson has no escape here: he is a fraud, a hypocrite, and a perverter of holy scripture. He needs to put his house in order and tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie.
Nietzsche and Christianity
In the last video clip we gave, Peterson goes on to add a note about the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
Nietzsche commented on that, too, a fair bit, you know. He thought of most morality as cowardice, not because morality itself is cowardice but because most people who are cowards disguise their cowardice as morality and they claim that their harmlessness--which is actually a consequence of their fear and inability to be harmful, say, or to be dangerous--is actually a sign of moral integrity and that's a really bad idea.
Why did Peterson mention this? In his books and lectures, Peterson frequently quotes or references Nietzsche, and has numerous videos discussing quotations or ideas from Nietzsche. It would be fair to assume Nietzsche has had a significant effect on Peterson's thought. Though it's not clear exactly where he is drawing this idea from, we can offer some guesses:
Daybreak section 101: "Suspicious. – To admit a belief merely because it is a custom – but that means to be dishonest, cowardly, lazy! – And so could dishonesty, cowardice and laziness be the preconditions of morality?"
The Genealogy of Morals section 14: "Will any one look a little into—right into—the mystery of how ideals are manufactured in this world? Who has the courage to do it? Come! Here we have a vista opened into these grimy workshops. Wait just a moment, dear Mr. Inquisitive and Foolhardy; your eye must first grow accustomed to this false changing light—Yes! Enough! Now speak! What is happening below down yonder? Speak out that what you see, man of the most dangerous curiosity—for now I am the listener. "I see nothing, I hear the more. It is a cautious, spiteful, gentle whispering and muttering together in all the corners and crannies. It seems to me that they are lying; a sugary softness adheres to every sound. Weakness is turned to merit, there is no doubt about it—it is just as you say." Further! "And the impotence which requites not, is turned to 'goodness,' craven baseness to meekness, submission to those whom one hates, to obedience (namely, obedience to one of whom they say that he ordered this submission—they call him God). The inoffensive character of the weak, the very cowardice in which he is rich, his standing at the door, his forced necessity of waiting, gain here fine names, such as 'patience,' which is also called 'virtue'; not being able to avenge one's self, is called not wishing to avenge one's self, perhaps even forgiveness (for they know not what they do—we alone know what they do). They also talk of the 'love of their enemies' and sweat thereby"...
In Beyond Good and Evil, the Genealogy of Morals, and even in the AntiChrist, Nietzsche describes the evolution of morality that began with "master morality"--the positivistic values of the nobility that contrast themselves not with "evil" but with "bad, mean, lowly"-- and progressed, through later Judaism and Christianity, to "slave morality", characterized by resentment, reaction, envy, and inability reframed as superior, "weakness is turned to merit". The latter Nietzsche considers intrinsic to and definitive of Christianity, as exemplified in the expression of Paul: "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are." Or, in the formulas of Jesus: “The last shall be first and the first last.” or "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." This world is not what matters, but rather the world to come. The great reversal of fortunes at the eschaton represents precisely this inversion of values, as can also be seen in the "woes" of Luke 6:24-26, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads," and in numerous other passages. This inversion of values cannot be separated from Christianity without doing great damage to its coherence and leaving it mired in absurdity and contradiction.
Peterson's interpretation of "meekness" seems to be an attempt to reconcile so-called "master morality" to Christianity. He is committed to Christianity, in one way or another, and yet also seems to agree with Nietzsche that "master morality" is preferable to "slave morality". Thus, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too: he wants to find "master morality" in Christianity. Nietzsche would obviously laugh at the attempt, as this reconciliation is impossible and doomed from the outset. Only by compartmentalization and doublethink, or by a methodology of confirmation bias and willful ignorance of contrary evidence can one undo the inversion of values evident in the Christian scriptures. Ergo, "meek" cannot mean "meek", rather it must mean "unmeek".
This is not unlike what Constantine and his successors did through the edicts of Milan and Thessalonica, resulting in Catholic Nicene Christianity becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire. It is a supreme irony of history that the empire responsible for executing Jesus--ruled by the "god of this age (2 Cor 4:4)" (i.e. the Devil), the New Babylon whose destruction is celebrated in Revelation 19--nominally adopted (i.e. cynically co-opted) the movement that yearned for its destruction. But even Constantine never went so far as to assert that Christianity promoted "master morality": he waited until he was near death to be baptized and washed of his sins, demonstrating that he did not think of himself as moral up to that point. But Peterson wants to endorse "master morality" and still construe it as being a "good Christian", and to do that, he must invert through convoluted or baseless interpretations the plain meaning of the New Testament.
Peterson is not alone in this, by any means: ever since Constantine, there have always been Christians seeking to legitimize negating the negation of--and thereby recover-- master morality. Most often this manifests as the nobles affirming slave morality in name only, with a significant admixture of guilt, perhaps, but de facto "master morality for me, slave morality for thee." The modern evangelical movement--documented extensively in Kobes Du Mez's book Jesus and John Wayne--with its emphasis on masculinity and militarism, is a particularly notable case, operating primarily through selective readings and compartmentalizations, and Peterson shows his influence from (or appeal to) this movement. Recall once more Aristotlecomment, especially apt here: "We sometimes praise those who are harsh-tempered as manly, and fitted to command." But the cost to achieve this recovery of "master morality" is too high: that cost is intellectual integrity and coherence. They would be more honest simply to deny Christianity outright. As Nietzsche writes: "It is at least certain that sub hoc signo Israel, with its revenge and transvaluation of all values, has up to the present always triumphed again over all other ideals, over all more aristocratic ideals."
If Peterson admires or aspires to "master morality," he should simply reject Christianity. And if he is committed to accepting Christianity, he cannot accept "master morality". Or, if he insists on having both, he will be plagued by the contradiction, requiring the lie (So much for rule 8: "Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie.") Perhaps Peterson has succeeded in convincing himself it is true, but this would only raise further the degree to which he has dissociated himself from reality. In Nietzsche's description, he has become a theologian: "I find the arrogant habit of the theologian among all who regard themselves as 'idealists'—among all who, by virtue of a higher point of departure, claim a right to rise above reality, and to look upon it with suspicion... Whoever has theological blood in his veins is shifty and dishonorable in all things." Peterson's thought represents a failed Hegelian synthesis of the thesis of Christianity and the antithesis of Nietzsche, resulting in an incoherent and falsified abomination. In his unconcealed motivated reasoning, his unwillingness to tolerate uncomfortable truths (indeed, even to consider some truths uncomfortable, to allow comfort to be any indicator or guide to truth), and his evident compromised intellectual integrity, he shows that he is not one of Nietzsche's "true readers", as explained the AntiChrist:
The conditions under which any one understands me, and necessarily understands me—I know them only too well. Even to endure my seriousness, my passion, he must carry intellectual integrity to the verge of hardness. He must be accustomed to living on mountain tops—and to looking upon the wretched gabble of politics and nationalism as beneath him. He must have become indifferent; he must never ask of the truth whether it brings profit to him or a fatality to him.... Very well, then! of that sort only are my readers, my true readers, my readers foreordained: of what account are the rest?—The rest are merely humanity.—One must make one’s self superior to humanity, in power, in loftiness of soul,—in contempt.
...Why in the world should it be assumed that true judgments give more pleasure than false ones, and that, in conformity to some pre-established harmony, they necessarily bring agreeable feelings in their train?—The experience of all disciplined and profound minds teaches the contrary. Man has had to fight for every atom of the truth, and has had to pay for it almost everything that the heart, that human love, that human trust cling to. Greatness of soul is needed for this business: the service of truth is the hardest of all services.—What, then, is the meaning of integrity in things intellectual? It means that a man must be severe with his own heart, that he must scorn “beautiful feelings,” and that he makes every Yea and Nay a matter of conscience!
The window into Peterson's mind occasioned by this interpretation of this single biblical verse has indeed offered us much insight into his mental machinations, possibly more than the evidence will allow. I intend at some later time to give a fuller account of Peterson and his interpretations of Christianity and Nietzsche. But from what we have seen so far, it is plain that, at the very least, Peterson ought not to be taken simply at face value in any matter of exegesis or theology. He has demonstrated a willingness to interpret, not according to the evidence of philology or historical commentary, but rather by what he personally feels the interpretation must be, and rather than framing this as a personal interpretation, is content to assert that it is the meaning. One wonders how far this fault extends into his other claims (a lot, it turns out).
Epilogue: A Conversation with a Peterson Acolyte
"The Unconventional Compass" is a fairly small YouTube Channel with about 3000 subscribers, run by Josh Rueff. He describes himself as "an entrepreneur and digital marketing coach with a passion for helping people build remote businesses and driving revenue, especially using content, SEO and digital ads" as well as "a writer, Marine Corps vet, dog lover, traveler, fly-fisherman, and plenty of other things nobody cares about." His channel mostly produces self-help-style videos, with his earlier videos offering writing advice or videos about his dogs or fly-fishing. Starting in September 2021, his content shifted to focus mostly on Jordan Peterson, with Peterson's name in most of the titles and his face in most of the thumbnails. Other figures frequently featured are Jung, Nietzsche, and Jesus. Much of what he has to say merely echoes or expands on what Peterson has already said.
In a video titled "Guide To Integrating With Your Shadow - NEW Jordan Peterson Insights & Old + Carl Jung," Rueff gives a five-minute clip from one of Peterson's lectures, then has the following to say (The bolded words appear serially on-screen):
So he [Peterson] covers a few things there and basically says: "You need to become (more or less) a monster with self-control and morals." Right? It reminds me of when he talks about the Bible verse that says "Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. [Matthew 5:5]" He says, correctly, that the Greek word we translate into meek which is πραυς actually has a fuller definition. Τhis word does not mean weakness of any sort, but actually refers to exercising strength under control; demonstrating power without undue harshness. It's what you are when you have a sword and you know how to use it and are courageous enough too [sic] if necessary. But you keep it sheathed unless it's necessary to use it. (That's the example Peterson likes to give) You're a monster, or can become one at the drop of the hat but you keep that part of your psyche holstered mostly, because you're properly integrated [with respect to your shadow].
He offers no sources in the video, but he is clearly drawing from the HELPS entry (which he plagiarizes almost verbatim, notably excluding the mention of "God") and Peterson's repeated comments on this verse. The rest of the video is largely Jung quotes and clips of Peterson, sparsely interspersed with commentary.
I engaged with him in the comments in a fairly lengthy back-and-forth (which I encourage anyone with the patience to read) about what I saw as a failure on his part to do proper research. I have already covered all the claims I made to him in this article (this article is my consummate revenge, in a sense), and I won't do a line-by-line analysis of the debate, so I will only discuss patterns in his responses. In short, he was committed to his conclusion and, to avoid the points and arguments I put forth, he resorted to a number of fallacies which we will discuss below. I could have been clearer that I was approaching this purely philologically, though I repeatedly asked him to offer even a single usage that evidenced his claimed meaning which he never provided. He also made mention on several occasions of sources for his claim, which never materialized, and it seems clear that his main sources were Peterson, HELPS, and possibly blogs like Sam Whatley's. For him, it wasn't a matter of showing that his interpretation was justified, but only that I couldn't prove to his satisfaction that it wasn't unjustified. As far as he was concerned, the say-so of Peterson was enough to legitimize the claim, and so all he had to do was find some way of dismissing my points.
- Argument from Authority: Ultimately, this was the clincher. Despite my trying, I couldn't get him to understand that no person has access to special knowledge on this, and even the experts must base their interpretations on the data. Despite offering much data, it was never enough and he felt content to stick with his preferred authorities. He even went so far as to defend the argument from authority as non-fallacious. This is the effect of seemingly-legitimate authorities making bogus claims: uneducated people see the claims as validated by the imprimatur of the authority and spread them. As I had no authority, what I said was never enough to gainsay his authorities, no matter what evidence or arguments I put forth, and no matter the absence of any arguments or evidence from his authorities. He is simply authoritarian in such matters.
- Circular Reasoning/Confirmation bias: By assuming that his interpretation was valid, he read other interpretations through that lens and found compatibility which he saw as justification. This is entirely backward thinking: conclusions should follow from the evidence and should never precede their evidence, unless there is then an attempt at falsification, as in the scientific method. I tried to point out that the idea of "strength" etc. must come from somewhere and that there is no evidence whatsoever for any legitimate place it could possibly come from, but it was pointless. Once he had this interpretation--and liked it--he read it back into whatever data was available. Being based on nothing, his position was unfalsifiable, but to him, this was more a feature than a flaw.
- Red Herrings: the conversation was often sidetracked into irrelevancies clearly meant to divert attention away from the point of disagreement. Nietzsche came up, interestingly.
- Moving Goalposts/Vagueness: Partway in, he suddenly expressed that he never meant "physical" strength or power (or at least didn't exclusively mean it). Rather, he meant mental or emotional strength. I pointed out that Peterson, with his reference to Abraham's warring, axe murderers, harmfulness, and force is clearly referring to physical prowess. He claimed that anger was a sort of sword, drawing on Aristotle's discussion. I conceded that there may be some sense if it's taken to that metaphorical extreme, but that it should be specified as such given that "strength," unqualified, especially in light of Peterson's comments, would be taken to be physical.
He later came out with a long explanatory comment laying out his thought on it. It contained exclusively those bits of information that could be taken to support his conclusion but failed to include even a single instance of non-confirmatory evidence (that is, it's entirely confirmation-biased). He writes:
Within the context of the following for example, praus seems to mean something like "gentleness" to a subordinate or lower creature - in the scriptures, it's often used in the context of a more powerful person or person of authority correcting someone "lower" in a sense, or disciplining them, and in ancient Greece it was clearly often used to express gentleness with a "lower" creature, or to describe a powerful animal's gentle or mild nature; self control or gentleness despite great power implied. The "gentle" creature spoken of often has great strength, power and/or nobility, like a warhorse, or a god... Above all, this word does NOT mean weak. Or timid. "Gentle, despite having strength or power" - something like that is closer to correct if not completely correct. I believe this is oftentimes and perhaps always a perfectly reasonable translation.
Much of this is simply false. Rueff is right that πραυς does not itself (necessarily) imply weak or timid, and he is right that it can be applied to powerful beings like warhorses. But what he gets wrong is that the word itself does not itself connote power or strength (Also, being an adjective, it would mean "gentle," not "gentleness"). Again, that it can be applied to powerful or strong beings doesn't mean that it connotes power or strength, as it could just as well be applied to Rueff claims "in the scriptures, it's often used in the context of a more powerful person or person of authority correcting someone 'lower' in a sense, or disciplining them." But he offers no evidence for this and it's simply not the case, as we have already shown. I tried asking him the clear yes/no question "Can a weak person be πραυς?" (the objectively correct answer is obviously "yes") which he never unambiguously answered. Rueff is just plain wrong that there is any connotation of "...despite having strength or power." This is a bogus addition. It is never a reasonable translation. Granted, beings with strength or power can be πραυς, but so can weak or powerless ones. The word πραυς itself is simply independent of strength and power. It doesn't mean weak, it doesn't mean strong, it means "gentle, humble, meek".
But Rueff does claim he's open to other evidence, though my interactions with him suggest this is not terribly sincere. At any rate, I hope he will read all of this and consider changing his mind. Josh, please leave behind the satanic lies of Peterson and come over to the side of Jesus and of truth, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." For the rest of us, you serve as a cautionary tale of the dangers of authoritarian thinking and motivated reasoning. You can do better than Peterson, and I hope you someday do.
He has since blocked me and won't respond to my questions or comments. I tried sending him this blog post but have yet to get any reply or acknowledgment. So much for free speech or the free marketplace of ideas, huh?
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