How Honorable! How Shameful!
A Cultural Analysis of Matthew's
Makarisms and Reproaches

K. C. Hanson
Wipf and Stock Publishers
Eugene, Oregon 97401
kchanson [at] wipfandstock [dot] com


The formulaic character of makarisms (or "beatitudes") and reproaches (or "woes") has long been recognized; but often commentators and translators have neglected to take these insights into account. Furthermore, their cultural and theological functions have been largely misconstrued. These forms are part of the word-field and value system of honor and shame, the foundational Mediterranean values; they exemplify the agonistic nature of Mediterranean culture. I propose the translation of "How honorable" for ashrê and makarios, and "How shameful" or "Shame on" for hôy and ouai. Linguistically these translations are confirmed by parallel terms, the antipodal character of makarisms and reproaches, as well as their literary contexts. This impacts the interpretation of not only these words, but whole text-segments (e.g., Ps 112; and Luke 6:20-26). Matt 5:3-12 and 23:13-36 are examined here in light of their linguistic, cultural, and theological importance. Finally the function of these two text-segments is investigated in terms of their location and function within the first gospel.


One of the most recognizable text-segments in the New Testament is the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as the beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11). These are customarily interpreted as Jesus' authoritative pronouncement of divine blessing on those who embody the listed characteristics. Some scholars have emphasized the eschatological nature of these formulas as promises. English translations, however, obscure the linguistic, and therefore the cultural and theological, distinctions between blessings and makarisms.1
Corresponding to the makarisms, the interpretation of the reproaches (or "woes") in Matt 23:13-36 has been similarly misconstrued. Some have taken them to be pronouncements of curses or threats, while others treat them as if they were prophecies of judgment or cries of anguish.
In order to understand both the makarisms and woes, however, one must examine them in terms of their relationship to blessings and curses. This is necessary to establish their force as well as distinctiveness. Yet neither makarisms nor reproaches can be properly understood apart from their place in an honor/shame value system, the pivotal values of the Mediterranean. What is required is to demonstrate the traditio-historical connection between these forms in the Old and New Testaments (as well as extra-canonical texts). Furthermore, they all need to be interpreted in their cultural setting in life. These settings have been ignored or poorly interpreted in the past.
I propose, then, to summarize the value-orientation of the ancient Mediterranean. This provides the basis for understanding the perspective of the texts in terms of word meanings and cultural transactions. I will then turn to the force of blessings and curses in order to demonstrate their distinctive usage, followed by a form critical analysis of makarisms and reproaches. Finally, I will address the evangelist's intention in the placement of Matt 5:1-11 and 23:13-36 within the gospel.


Johannes Pedersen first addressed the importance of honor and shame as foundational values in ancient Israelite society. Although criticized for his emphasis on a unique Israelite psychology and linguistic dynamic (Porter; Addinall), Pedersen moved biblical studies forward by recognizing the fundamental role these values played in Israelite society (213-44). But Pedersen's inquiry lacked both a model and a focussed comparative analysis to demonstrate how honor and shame function socially.
Bruce J. Malina's work on the New Testament, building upon recent anthropological studies of Mediterranean societies, provides the analytical model necessary to move beyond Pedersen (1993:28-62; see also Malina and Neyrey 1991). Malina calls honor and shame the "pivotal values" of Mediterranean cultures; and Gilmore refers to "honor-and-shame" as a "master symbol" (1987a:17). That is, they are the values-complex in which all other values are grounded. This conclusion is not based solely upon modern Mediterranean cultures or evidence. It is supported by Semitists (e.g., Pedersen), classicists (e.g., M. I. Finley), Old Testament scholars (e.g., Klopfenstein; Muenchow; Stansell), New Testament scholars (e.g., Corrigan; May; Pilch: 49-70; Plevnik), as well as Mediterraneanists (e.g., Bourdieu; Peristiany; Meeker; Pitt-Rivers 1977; Schneider; Heller).
"Honor" is a positive social value. It is the status which a person claims, in combination with the social group's affirmation of that claim. Conversely, for a person to make a claim of honor and then be rebuffed by the community results in the individual being humiliated, labeled as ridiculous or contemptuous, and treated with appropriate disdain. In other words, honor is not simple self-esteem or pride; it is a status-claim which is affirmed by the community. It is tied to the symbols of power, sexual status, gender, and religion. Consequently, it is a social, rather than a psychological, value.
Speaking of an ancient Greek soldier's honor, Finley observes:
In this connection one can compare David's defeat of Goliath. David not only incapacitated the Philistine with a stone (1 Sam 17:49-50), he then stabbed him and cut off his head (17:51). The head is the public manifestation of one's honor, and thus David demonstrated his victory by ultimately shaming his opponent. The head was then taken back to Jerusalem (17:54), as well as brought as a trophy to Saul (17:57). Note that the vengeance of Herodias (whose honor was publicly challenged) also took the form of having John the Baptist beheaded, and the head was exhibited (Mark 6:14-29; see Jud 13:8-10, 15).
"Shame," on the other hand, may be construed either positively or negatively. Positively, shame is sensitivity towards one's reputation; thus a "shameless person" is one who is not appropriately sensitive, who does not respect social boundaries. Negatively, shame refers to the loss of status: humiliation. The sense is captured in the English "to be ashamed," and "to shame someone," etc.
The assessments of these values move symbolically in opposite directions: "Honor assessments thus move from the inside (a person's claim) to the outside (public validation). Shame assessments move from the outside (public denial) to the inside (a person's recognition of the denial)" (Malina 1993:52).
The honor/shame complex is a function of the gender distinctions made in Mediterranean societies. And as the diagrams in Malina (1993:52) and Pitt-Rivers (1966:44) clarify, honor/shame can refer to the ethically defined qualities which everyone in the society upholds (e.g., status, reputation, loyalty). In addition, honor defines the outward qualities in males (e.g., authority, sexual aggression, boldness), symboled in the penis and testicles. This is complemented by shame, which defines the inward qualities in females (e.g., sexual exclusivity, submission, deference), symboled in the hymen (Pitt-Rivers 1966:45; Malina 1993:51; Delaney: 40-41).
Mediterranean societies are commonly termed "agonistic"; that is, they are competitive. As the primary value and also social commodity, honor is the object of continuous competition. Each male participates in strategies to maintain his honor and protect the shame of the women in his kin-group. Honor may be either ascribed or acquired. Ascribed honor is the status one has by being born, or by being deputized by a superior; it derives from one's kin-group, gender, order of birth, or delegated authority. Acquired honor is that which one procures through competition, especially in verbal "challenge-riposte" (Malina 1993:34-37; see also Muenchow; and Rowold).
It is this last point which leads directly to the examination of makarisms and reproaches. For in the verbal challenge—riposte encounters Mediterranean peoples continuously carry on, one may offer either positive or negative challenges. These challenges must be interpreted and then provided with a response. The three phases are thus: the challenging action or word (e.g., insult, question, physical blow, or gift), the perception (how the recipient interprets the action or word), and the reaction (e.g., counter-insult, answer, blow, or reciprocal gift) (see Malina 1993:34-35; and Bourdieu: 215).
Some narrative examples will make the point. 2 Sam 10:1-19 reports Hanun's negative response to David's positive challenge, all of which is followed by David's negative response in war. John 3:1-12 provides multiple examples of positive and negative challenges between Jesus and Nicodemus. Gal 2:11-14 reports Paul's negative challenge to Cephas' honor, but without noting the latter's response. Parts of the transaction are often implicit in narration or dialog since the ancient audience could be expected to fill in the missing pieces.
The dialogue in Matt 22:15-22, however, provides a classic example of the process. The Pharisees issue what is, on the face of it, a positive challenge; Jesus perceives an attempt to shame him; and he responds negatively to them, and ambiguously to the their question. We can chart the transaction as follows:
As will be argued below, makarisms constitute a positive challenge, affirming the honor of another, calling for a subsequent positive response. Reproaches constitute a negative challenge to another's honor (viz., public humiliation).


Earlier scholars discerned no difference between formal blessings and makarisms (e.g., Mowinckel: 2:47). While significant work has been done on this topic, it has often been ignored by biblical translators and commentators.
The Hebrew words for blessing are: birakah (noun), barak (verb), and the common pronouncement form is barûk (Qal passive participle). The Greek equivalents are: eulogia (noun), eulogeô (verb); and the common pronouncement form is eulogêmenos (perfect passive participle). As both Janzen (1965) and Westermann (1974) have convincingly shown, 'ashrê and makarios may be related to, but are not synonymous with, the terms for blessing.
Blessings and curses are formal pronouncements by someone in authority; in the case of blessing, bestowing God's positive empowerment. This may be from God directly, or from an authorized mediator: usually a king, a priest, or a clan patriarch. Pedersen summarized the fundamental content of blessing as: numerous descendants; fertility of flocks, herds, and fields; and dominance over enemies (Pedersen 1:204-11). Not only are they formal proclamations, but they are understood as words of power; the words bring the desired result to fruition. Balak, the Moabite king, says to Balaam: ". . . for I know that the one whom you bless is blessed, and the one whom you curse is cursed" (Numb 22:6; all translations are my own unless otherwise noted). In hymnic texts, blessing becomes part of the vocabulary of praise (e.g., Ps 145:2). In describing these two aspects (authority and empowered speech) with regard to the Lele tribe in Africa, Mary Douglas states: "Cursing and blessing are attributes of authority; a father, mother, mother's brother, aunt, pawn owner, village head and so on, can curse. Not any one can reach out for a curse and apply it arbitrarily. A son cannot curse his father, it would not work if he tried" (1966:105).
In Gen 1:28, God directly pronounces a blessing on the primal man and woman. This speech identifies God as the source of blessing. But as a text, it derives from the priestly writers (P), who arguably drew this form from Israelite liturgy.
In 2 Sam 6:18 David is described as pronouncing a blessing at the ritual accompanying the entrance of the ark into Jerusalem for the first time: "When David completed the sacrifice of the whole burnt offerings and the peace offerings, he blessed the people in the name of Yahweh of the Armies." David functions here as the mediator of Yahweh's blessing to the congregation at the conclusion of the ritual.
The clearest example of a priestly blessing is the so-called "Aaronic Blessing" in Numb 6:22-27:
This clarifies that the authorized cultic representative (the priest) calls down divine favor on the community so that they may enjoy the benefits of Yahweh's patronage. It also makes explicit that it is Yahweh who bestows these powers of life and protection, not the priest. The priest acts as the mediator of grace; and this takes place in a liturgical setting.
In the Community Rule from Qumran, the priestly blessing of the faithful is coupled with the levitical curse of the wicked:
This parallels the juxtaposition of blessing and curse in Deut 28:1-24. They are both liturgical, words of power, and pronounced by a cultic leader.
The story of Jacob tricking his father Isaac into blessing him (instead of Esau) provides an example of a patriarchal blessing in Gen 27:27-29. And in this ancient context, the blessing is not merely a promise, but a formal conferring of favor and an empowerment which cannot be taken back or transferred (see Gen 27:30-40). Like the example from Qumran, this text also establishes that cursing is the reciprocal of blessing.
Westermann contends that cursing did not follow the same tradition history in Israel and was not theologized in the same way: Yahweh does not cast spells or hurl curses (1978:22-23). For the most part, this is true. But the early Israelite community did enact a curse ritual meant to address hidden transgressions (Deut 27:14-26), and Yahweh is the one who curses in Gen 3:14-15 and Deut 28:15-68.
The social settings for these blessings, then, are clearly rituals. On the one hand, God is understood to be the source of blessing. On the other, the three primary mediators of blessing in ancient Israel (king, priest, and patriarch) indicate the institutional settings of blessings in the two locations of substantive religion in Israel and the ancient Mediterranean world generally: religion embedded in politics—the king and priest as representatives of state religion, and religion embedded in kinship—the patriarch as head of kin-based religion (see Malina 1986). Curses share the attributes of the word of power, and are often employed in the cult setting (see Brichto for a detailed analysis of Hebrew curses).


The term "makarism" in English is a transliteration of the Greek word makarismos. As a technical term it is employed for both Hebrew and Greek formulations. It is often referred to as a "beatitude," stemming from the Latin beatus. Gerstenberger calls it a "felicitation" (1988:259). In English translations it is rendered by one of the following (see e.g., Ps 112:1 and Matt 5:3-11 for comparison): "blessed" (KJV, Douay, RSV, NEB & REB [Matt], NASB, NIV); "happy" (JPS, NEB & REB [Pss], NAB, JB, TEV, Dahood: 126); "fortunate" (Allen: 93); "lucky" (Miller: 317); or "congratulations" (Talbert: 69-72).
I am arguing here that the terminologies of Hebrew ashrê ("honorable") and hôy ("shameful"), and their Greek counterparts makarios and ouai are part of the larger word-field of "honor and shame" (see e.g., Hebrew kabôd "honor" and bosheth "shame"; and Greek timê "honor" and aischunê "shame"). Thus Talbert's translation is the closest of those listed above in capturing the sense of honor/shame values.
In most cases the Hebrew ashrê is used in a formulaic expression: ashrê followed by a nominal construction. The three minor variations are: 1) ashrê + noun (singular or plural); 2) ashrê + participle as a substantive (singular or plural); and 3) ashrê + pronominal suffix (singular or plural).2
The formulaic structure of the makarism in the New Testament follows similar lines, but verbal constructions appear more often than in Hebrew. One also finds more variety of construction.3 That ashrê and makarios are equivalents is established by their one-to-one correspondence in the LXX's translation of the Hebrew.
These formulations are not limited to the canonical literature. Makarisms appear in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran literature, and early Christian literature.4 This widespread use is a good indication of the importance of the makarism form in the tradition of diverse communities, and over an extended period of time.
In addition to these formulaic uses, makarios is used in other manners and forms—as a noun makarismos ("honor"): Gal 4:15; ("makarism"): Rom 4:6, 9; an adjective ("honorable"): 4 Macc 7:15; Acts 26:2; 1 Cor 7:40; Titus 2:13; as a divine epithet ("Honorable God/One"): 1 Tim 1:11; 6:15; and as a verb makarizô ("to honor"): Luke 1:48; Jas 5:11. The two passages in 1 Timothy (neither of which are formal makarisms) are the only instances in which makarios in any form is attributed to God in the Bible, and are thus closer to the usage one finds in classical Greek
What do makarisms have in common with blessings? 1) Both makarisms and blessings are affirmative (viz., positive expressions). And 2) makarisms occasionally extol the same attributes of success as blessings: numerous descendants, fertility, and domination over enemies (e.g., Ps 144:12-15).
On the other hand, makarisms are fundamentally different from blessings in a variety of ways. 1) Makarisms are not "words of power." 2) They are not limited to pronouncements by God or cultic mediators. 3) They only refer to humans, and never to God or non-human objects. 4) They do not have their setting in ritual. And 5) one does not pray for a makarism, or refer to oneself with a makarism (see Janzen 1965:223-24).
But if ashrê and makarios do not refer to a ritual blessing, neither do they mean "happy." That is, they are not expressions of positive human emotion. One does not necessarily feel good when one fears Yahweh (Ps 112:1), or walks in Yahweh's law (Ps 119:1), or is reproved and chastened by Yahweh (Job 5:17)! Similarly, one does not feel good who mourns or is persecuted (Matt 5:4, 10). So "happy" is a profoundly misleading translation and interpretation of the makarism (contra Moulton and Milligan: 386, and Louw and Nida 1:302). Even the idea of "imputation of happiness" by others is misleading (contra Janzen 1965:226). "Lucky" may be similarly dismissed as it relates to positive circumstance due to chance.
Janzen is similarly misleading in his conclusion when he translates the phrase ashrê ha-'ish as: "To be envied is the man . . ." or "Enviable is the situation of the man . . ." (1965:225). Janzen recognizes that the English word "envy" can have positive or negative connotations, and he wants to stress the positive in this formula. What he overlooks is how misleading this translation is in terms of representing a Mediterranean perspective. In the Mediterranean, envy is associated with casting the evil eye, wishing misfortune, and greed (see e.g., Gen 30:1; Deut 15:9; 1 Sam 2:22; Sir 14:3-10; Mark 7:32; and Elliott 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992).
If makarisms are not authoritative blessings, joyous emotions, chance advantage, or objects of envy, what are they? Janzen has clearly seen that they are fundamentally affirmations made by an individual or community about someone else. His diagram illuminates the relationship and difference between blessing and makarism:

FIGURE #1: Blessing and Makarism Transactions

(Janzen 1965:224)

What Janzen has not seen is that these affirmations are exclamations of honor and esteem, understandable only in terms of the Mediterranean competition for honor. In virtually every formulaic instance of ashrê and makarios one could translate "How honored" or "O how honorable." In Janzen's diagram it is "bystanders" (better: one's community of orientation) who pronounce makarisms, which demonstrates the basic issue with regard to honor: it is one's self-respect in conjunction with the community's affirmation of that evaluation. As already mentioned, honor moves from personal claim to public validation. Makarisms thus represent the public validation of an individual's or group's experience, behavior, or attitude as honorable.
Linguistically, this translation is confirmed by the terms which parallel it. Ben Sira includes two formal makarisms in his list of ten honorable considerations:
The precise meaning of makarios is clear in the parallel construction. It is juxtaposed to two other expressions, and they all express honor and praise: "O how great" (hôs megas; 25:10a) and "but no one exceeds" (all' ouk estin huper; 25:10b) (see Camp:23-25). Antithetically, whenever ashrê and makarios are paralleled, the parallel terms are virtually always hôy/'oy and ouai (see the evidence below).
This is further confirmed by the adjectives parallel to makariou in 4 Macc 7:15:
Here, Eleazar's age is not blessed, happy or lucky, but honorable. He is deserving of honor by virtue of being an elder in the community, as well as committed to the law.
In 2 Kings 10 the Queen of Sheba demonstrates this public validation by acknowledging the benefits which Solomon's household derives from his presence. The honor of Solomon is reflected in the advantage and prestige which those around him share: "O how honored [ashrê ] are your wives! O how honored are your servants, who continually stand before you and listen to your wisdom!" (1 Kgs 10:8; par. 2 Chron 9:7; see Luke 11:27).
As Westermann rightly concludes, this text demonstrates that the original setting of the Hebrew makarism is in direct address: well-wishing or congratulations at a meeting or everyday encounter, which would entail a second person formulation (1974:192, 195). But he also notes that second person formulations are rare (see Ps 128:3[2]; Isa 30:20). Notice how the makarism has maintained its second person character in the Hellenistic Greek formulation: "O honorable one!" (ô makarie; Josephus, Ant. 19.1.13 [§97]). Another example of the second person formulation is Matt 16:17: "How honorable are you, Simon bar-Jonah; for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in the heavens." Compare also Matt 13:16 (par. Luke 10:23); Luke 1:42a, 42b; and Iliad 1.182.
Westermann goes on to distinguish three usages of the makarism in the Old Testament (1974:191-95): 1) congratulations for success (e.g., 1 Kgs 10:8; Deut 33:29); 2) congratulations for behavior (e.g., Ps 1:1; Prov 14:21); and a usage which stands between the other two: 3) congratulations for those who trust in God (e.g., Ps 40:5; Isa 30:18). Westermann's breakdown is marginally helpful in perceiving different emphases. This clouds, however, the fundamental unity of these formulations. Each of them is a value judgment made by an individual, or the community at large, on either a real or an ideal person. It is the social imputation of honor and esteem to an individual or group for manifesting desirable behavior and commitments.
The same argument can be made against Betz's categories for the New Testament and other Greek texts: cultic, secular, ethical-paraenetic, apocalyptic, and "makarisms of the wise man" (30-34). These classifications really speak to different literary contexts or emphases. They do not, however, change the fundamental issue that, whatever their context, all makarisms are formally unified, and they articulate the values of the community, sage, or teacher, and pronounce the subject/s "honorable."
Makarisms came to have a specialized use in third person formulations (singular and plural) to affirm and validate values which the community wishes to hold up as honorable: the ideals of behavior. This is clearly demonstrated in Psalm 112. Here, in an alphabetic acrostic poem, a sage enumerates the attributes of the ideal Judean male, characterized as: "the man who fears Yahweh" ('îsh yarê 'et-YHWH, v1), "the good man" (tob 'îsh, v5), and "the righteous one" (saddîq, v6) (see Hanson: 142-84). This constitutes a portrait of honorable behavior and its expected rewards. For example: he delights in Yahweh's commandments (v1b); he is gracious, merciful and righteous (v4b); he is gracious, lends, and executes his actions with justice (vv5, 9a); he is not fearful (v7). We can summarize all of this by translating v1: "O how honorable is the man who . . . ." This is the sort of person the community affirms because he acts for the benefit of, and in solidarity with, his community. The opening phrase of Psalm 112 grounds all of this person's other honorable traits in his theological commitment: his honorable behaviors in the community are rooted in his honorable loyalty to Yahweh.
The third person formulation appears often in the New Testament, for example: "How honorable is the one who is not scandalized by me" (Matt 11:6; par. Luke 7:23). Like those in the Old Testament, one finds makarisms pronounced both upon specific persons (e.g., Matt 16:17; Luke 1:45) and more generally upon those who uphold the values of the Christian community (e.g., Rom 14:22; Rev 1:3). The connection to values is made especially clear in the fact that makarisms often occur in series: e.g., Ps 32:1-2 (par. Rom 4:7-8); Matt 5:3-10 + 11-12; Luke 6:20-22; Rev 1:3a, 3b; Sir 14:1-2; 25:8-9; 2 Enoch 42:6-14; 52:1-14; T. Jac. 2:12-23; Gos. Thom. 79a-c; Thom. Cont. 145.1-7.
Luke 11:27-28 provides an interesting juxtaposition of a third person singular makarism (referring to Jesus' mother), countered by a third person plural makarism (spoken by Jesus): "And it happened as he said this, a certain woman called out from the crowd: 'O how honorable [makarios] is the womb who bore you, and the breasts you sucked!' But he said: 'Rather—O how honorable [makarios] are the ones who hear God's word and keep it!'" (compare John 13:17). The woman's makarism, while in third person form, retains the personal and dialogical character of honoring (positive challenge), as already seen in 1 Kgs 10:8. Their juxtaposition, then, emphasizes the shift of esteem from the particular (Jesus' mother) to the general (all who obey God's word). One could also read this as Jesus' positive response to a positive challenge: she honors him and his mother, and he in turn honors all those responsive to God's word.
An example of how the Greek use of makarios fits in with honor/shame and community ideals is found in Josephus's account and explanation of Judah Maccabee's speech to his troops before battle. Here he positively challenges the soldiers' honor in order to motivate them (although makarios is used as a simple adjective):
He argues that the prosperous and honorable life is the one which accords with law and custom, exemplifies courage in battle, and endures suffering on behalf of the community. The recompense for that sort of life, Judah contends, is a reputation perpetually honored by the community. He calls to their attention that to do otherwise is to open themselves up to shame. This is the epitome of an honor/shame transaction.
Two non-biblical examples of makarisms further illustrate the emphasis on honor and relative status. The first is found in Josephus, where the Queen Mother is discussing the succession to the throne of Adiabene and pronounces a "political" makarism: "How honored [makarios] is the one who, not from one, but from the many, receives authority" (Ant. 20.2.2 [§24]). Here she argues that honor does not derive from grasping political authority, but from that bestowed by the community. Another example is from the Sentences of Sextus (second century CE): "How honorable [makarios] is the man whose soul is not detained journeying toward God" (Sentence #40). The emphasis of Sextus is to give status-precedence to those who focus on their spiritual quest.
To interpret the makarisms in terms of honor provides an explanation for Janzen's observation that neither Yahweh nor non-human objects are ever the subject of a makarism (1965:225-26): only humans play the challenge-riposte "game" of honor. One may also explain Westermann's observation that the third person formulations seem to have eclipsed the second person formulations: ashrê and makarios primarily came to characterize socially ideal behavior and commitments.


The term "reproach" (German: Scheltwort) was used by early form critics to refer to the reasons for a divine judgment: e.g., Isa 1:2-3; Jer 2:10-13 (Gunkel: 74). This was dropped by later form critics, who demonstrated that the term was misleading: what was really being described was an "accusation" (Wolff 1934; Westermann 1967:64-70). I follow Scott in his identification of the woe-formula as a reproach and his translation of hôy as "Shame!" or "Shame on" (179-80). But this should not be interpreted lightly, as it would be taken in English as a scolding. Rather, in Mediterranean societies this is understood as a serious challenge to the honor of those addressed. To be shamed means the loss of status, respect, and worth in the community.
English-speaking scholars have traditionally called reproaches "woe-oracles" (see e.g., Whedbee: 80-110; Janzen 1972). The problem with this is that these sayings are rarely reported as part of a Yahweh speech, and they are thus not generically "oracles" (see Tucker: 340)—a problematic term in any case. At least the term "woe cry" (German: Weheruf or Wehe-Worte) used by Westermann (1967:190) and Wolff (1973:17-34; 1977:242-45) is a relatively neutral formulation. Some have interpreted the reproaches in terms of funeral lamentation (e.g., Clifford: 464; Holliday: 594). This may be true in a few cases (e.g., Jer 22:18); but these translations/interpretations skew the evidence for its dominant usage and thus the cultural meaning of the term. The full import of "shame" must be kept in view through an understanding of the cultural meaning and its Sitz im Leben.
While it retains the unfortunate term "woe oracle," the most concise definition of this speech form appears in the glossary of The Forms of the Old Testament Literature:
The basic reproach formula is thus: hôy + a nominal construction. Several variations, however, do occur.5
Three proposals have been made to account for the Sitz im Leben of the reproaches: 1) weakened forms of curse, with their setting in the cult, and variations on the prophetic judgment speech (Westermann 1967:189-98); 2) adaptations from funeral laments (Wright: 32; Clifford; Wanke: 215-18; Janzen 1972); and 3) sages' reflections on worldly conditions (Gerstenberger 1962; Wolff 1973:17-34). For a discussion of these proposals, see Whedbee: 86, 93-98, and Clements: 945-46.
Westermann is correct in seeing an overlap between curse and reproach in form (the participial form following the curse or hôy) and content (social behavior). The problem is that the reproach is fundamentally different from curse, since the curse (like the blessing) is usually pronounced by an authoritative figure: priest (e.g., Deut 27:14-26), diviner (e.g., Numb 22:6), patriarch (Gen 27:39), political leader (Josh 6:26), or divinely commissioned messenger (2 Sam 16:7-8, 10-11).
Gerstenberger's argument rests first on form: it is the polar opposite of ashrê (see e.g., Isa 3:10-11; Qoh 10:16-17; Sir 10:16-17; Luke 6:20-26). Secondly, the contents of the "woe" formulations are the problems of social ethos commonly addressed in the wisdom literature: oppression of the poor (e.g., Isa 10:1-2//Prov 14:31), illegal acquisition of property (Isa 5:8// Prov 23:10), drunkenness (Isa 5:11-12//Prov 23:29-35), etc. (see Whedbee: 86, 93-98). Qoh 10:16-17 is the clearest case of juxtaposing a reproach and a makarism in the setting of community honor and shame:
Further confirmation of the antipodal relationship of makarisms and reproaches, however, comes from outside the canon of scripture. In 1 Enoch 103:5-6 a reproach (which represents the author's viewpoint) contrasts a makarism (which represents the viewpoint of the wicked):
In 2 Enoch 52:1-15 one finds an alternating series of seven makarisms and seven reproaches. The only extant manuscripts are in Slavonic (the original was probably Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek), but their character as makarisms and reproaches is unmistakable. Notice that they also speak of social ethos issues:
Another text which juxtaposes reproaches and makarisms is The Book of Thomas the Contender. Twelve reproaches (143.8-144.40) are juxtaposed to three makarisms (145.1-7):
For other couplings of makarisms and reproaches, see also 1 Enoch 99:10-16; Gos. Thom. 102-103; 2 Bar. 10:6-7; b. Ber. 61b; b. Yoma 87a.
Following the arguments of Gerstenberger, I conclude that the reproach formula or "woe" (hôy, ouai) is the antithesis and antipode of the makarism formula (ashrê; makarios). This speaks against translating the makarisms as some form of curse (contra Miller: 100-101). Parallel to the ashrê formulation, then ("How honorable are those who . . ."), I propose the translation of the reproach ("woe") formula as: "O how shameful are those who . . . ," "Shame on . . . ," or "How disreputable are those who . . ." A couple of examples will suffice:
One might conclude from the number of occurrences that, while the reproaches may have originated among the sages, or the ethos of the clan (with Gerstenberger, Wolff, and Whedbee), the prophets no longer employed them as challenges to the honor of the community. But they have indeed retained their character as challenge. This is indicated first by the formal separation of the reproach from appended threats or accusations. That is, the disreputable behaviors articulated in the reproaches are often the basis for the prophetic threats, but not necessarily. Even if a threat follows, the prophets first label the behavior as reprehensible in the form of a reproach as a challenge to the public honor of the perpetrators. Furthermore, the introduction to the series of reproaches in Hab 2:6-19 identifies the oral character of these reproaches, and that they would be uttered by the community (see also 1 Enoch 103:5-6). This series also highlights the honor/shame values at stake, as well as the"challenge-riposte" dynamic:
The prophetic use of the reproach does not change its definition as a negative challenge to honor in the least. Gerstenberger (1962), Wolff (1973), and Whedbee have all demonstrated that the prophets employed the formula in relation to the social ethos, in line with the concerns of the sages. Furthermore, Westermann keenly observed that the classical "introductory messenger formula" (koh 'amar YHWH, "Thus says Yahweh . . .") seldom appears in conjunction with the reproaches. In fact, of the thirty-six occurrences of the reproach formula in the prophets, only three are introduced by the messenger formula: Jer 48:1; Ezek 13:18; 34:2. Three more are employed in reports of Yahweh speeches (Isa 30:1; Jer 23:1; Ezek 13:3). Thus the prophetic use of the reproach in divine speech constitutes a secondary development, and a minor variation. In these few cases it is Yahweh who challenges the honor of the respective groups. And placing the New Testament makarisms in the Sitz im Leben of early Christian prophecy is also thereby weakened. I believe a stronger case can be made for maintaining their setting in didactic wisdom settings, whether from Jesus or the early Christian communities (contra Boring: 26-27).7
In the New Testament, the term ouai (parallel to the Hebrew hôy) is also used in the sense of a funeral cry, "Alas!" (Rev 18:10, 19), in addition to the reproach of "O how shameful," or "Shame on." The unique use in scripture of the reproach against oneself by Paul in 1 Cor 9:16 ("Shame on me if I do not preach the gospel!") identifies how one can shame oneself. The Stoic Epictetus (1st century CE) argues that the difference between a common individual (idiôtos) and a philosopher is that the former thinks his honor can be compromised by his kin, while the latter knows that he can only shame himself:
Similarly, Anna pronounces six reproaches upon herself for the shame that she experiences because of her childlessness (Prot. Jas. 3.1-3). After the first, she adds: "And I was reproached, and they mocked me and thrust me out of the temple of the Lord" (3.1c; Cameron: 111). This provides further support for the honor/shame character of the reproaches: Anna's shame derives from her own lack and the corresponding humiliation by her community. Anna's shame is internalized from the initial public humiliation. Compare this to the sibyl's self-reproach for not caring for the needy (Sib. Or. 2.339-344); this shame is experienced because the behavior is revealed at the judgment.

MATTHEW 5:3-10 (+ 11-12)

My interest here in the makarisms and reproaches in Matthew 5 and 23 is not to address their specific contents or Matthew's sources (for these see e.g., Strecker 1971; Guelich 1982:63-118; Hamm; Betz; Lambrecht: 45-73; Luz: 226-44). Rather, I want to address their form, and the function of their placement in the gospel.
The eight makarisms in Matt 5:3-10 are a unified text-segment, even if this unity is a product of the evangelist's redaction rather than his source or the oral tradition. Matt 5:1-2 provides a redactional introduction to the whole "sermon," paralleling the conclusion in 7:28-29. And the expansive makarism in 5:11-12 appears to have been appended to the series: it is a second person formulation (as opposed the third person forms in vv3-10); it employs an eimi formulation + a three-part adverbial clause (while substantives appear in vv3-10); it emphasizes relationship to Jesus (vv3-10 focus on general ethical behavior); it is expanded with a two-fold exhortation + motivation + explanation (as opposed to the simpler makarism + hoti clause in vv3-10). Nonetheless, in the final form of the gospel, 5:11-12 must be taken as part of the series of makarisms. Since the position of 5:5 is fluid in the manuscript traditions, and is an adaptation of Ps 37:11a, it may be a late addition to Matthew's original seven (Dodd: 2).
The form of the makarisms is: makarios + plural substantive (noun, adjective, or participle) + motivational clause (hoti "for" + plural pronoun + verb or verbal phrase). They are each arranged in the following structure:

This structure indicates several things. 1) Their plural 3rd person construction indicates their general (and therefore ideal) character. This offers honor, then, to whomever behaves in like manner. 2) The second parts identify the grant of honor for those who act appropriately. 3) The sequence of the two parts is determined by logic (act—consequence), and the movement of honor (personal behavior to public validation).
It is important to note several points about how and where the evangelist has used these makarisms, their redactional placement. Other than the two summary statements (4:17, 23), the "Sermon on the Mount" is the first of Jesus' public teaching in the gospel; this places particular emphasis on this series of makarisms as the inauguration of Jesus' message. The makarisms are the opening of the sermon and therefore set the tone for the whole. The first and eighth motivations (5:3, 10) are identical (thus they form an inclusio), are formulated in the present tense, and emphasize participation in the "kingdom"; the second through seventh motivations (5:4-9) are formulated in the future tense. All of the motivations obviously may be realized within the community, and in this life. The described behaviors cannot be sustained by a hope after death: belonging in the "kingdom," comfort, mercy, the epithet "sons of God," etc. do not obtain in the afterlife, but in the community of faith. The one problematic statement in this regard is 5:8: "for they will see God." But this affirmation comports with the long history of the theophanic tradition: it relates to close relationship with the divine; and it does not require a futuristic interpretation (see e.g.: Exod 24:9-11; Num 12:8; 14:14; Isa 6:5; Jer 29:12-13; Ps 11:7; 17:15; 24:6; 27:4, 8; John 1:18; Rev 22:4) (see Malina 1988:10). 1 Tim 6:15-16, on the other hand, seems to disallow anyone ever seeing God!
A fundamental difficulty arises from the variety of interpretations of the makarisms. They are often still interpreted as formal blessings—"eschatological" or otherwise (e.g., Koch: 7-8; Schweizer: 80-82; Guelich 1976:416; Crosby: 24; Kselman; Kloppenborg; Kingsbury: 100; Vaught: 13; Patte: 67; Fuller: 956). Luz argues: "For Jesus the unconditional, categorical bestowal of grace on people who are in a desperate situation is decisive" (231). Others have interpreted them as "entrance requirements" (e.g., Strecker 1971:259-62). I would argue that if makarisms are fundamentally expressions of honor, then Matt 5:3-10 must be interpreted as programmatic value statements: the conditions and behaviors which the community regards as honorable (see White: 81-85). An example of this is a Talmudic makarism and reproach in series:
Matthew's third person formulations point to the ideal character of the series, in the tradition of the sages. Seeley's analysis already points us in the direction of a present orientation, as well as towards the social setting of the sages (136).

MATTHEW 23:13-36

Determining the extent of the Matthean unit of reproaches is a bit more complex than for the makarisms. As Whedbee notes, the reproach may continue with a variety of secondary forms, e.g.: threats, laments, proverbs, rhetorical questions, or applications to world history (82). Certainly Matthew's speech unit ends with 23:39. But does the formal unit end with 23:31, or 33, or 36, or 39? That 23:32-36 did not belong to an oral form of this reproach series may be deduced from several observations: 23:34 speaks to the future persecution of Christians in the synagogues; 23:35 places culpability on the scribes and Pharisees for all the righteous dead from Abel on down; 23:36 assigns culpability to the whole generation, rather than just scribes and Pharisees; and 23:34-36 derive from the Q tradition (par. Luke 11:49-51). I would argue that the pre-Matthean form probably ended in 23:31. Patte even argues that the present text of Matthew 23 has four distinct parts: "23:1-12 (practice what they tell you, but not what they do); 23:13-31 (the 'woes'); 23:32-36 (Jesus affirms his authority over the Pharisees); 23:37-39 (condemnation of Jerusalem and a promise of restoration)" (320-21).
Six of the seven reproaches in Matt 23:13-31 are structured as follows:
(Some mss add an additional reproach in 23:14 which follows the above form.) The exception to this is the one in 23:16; it is structured:
An important aspect of these reproaches is that they do not include any formal sentence or threat. Their power, therefore, lies in their success at uncovering shameful behaviors, not in legal or theological adjudication. They are imputations of shame on specific groups: scribes and Pharisees. The similarity of the makarism and reproach structures is striking. It is a confirmation of their formal connection and Matthew's redactional intent.
In terms of content, the reproaches are public challenges to the honor of the scribes and Pharisees. Since the audience is "the crowds" and "his [Jesus'] disciples" (23:1), Jesus is publicly ridiculing the scribes and Pharisees. Their behavior and attitudes are called into question. He labels them as deviants: "hypocrites," "blind guides," "blind fools," "blind ones," and "sons of those who killed the prophets" (see Malina and Neyrey 1989:152-54).
One may conclude that Matthew's articulation of the reproaches most closely resembles the prophetic reproaches. They are addressed to specific groups who have crossed into deviant behaviors. Luke, on the other hand, has retained some of the reproaches in didactic form, relating to "whomever" performs the deviant behaviors (Luke 6:24-26), and some in the specific prophetic form (Luke 11:42-47). Thus the redaction of the reproaches in Q, Luke, and Matthew are pivotal in understanding the relationship between didactic and prophetic forms in the synoptic tradtion (see Kloppenborg: 139-48; Miller: 250-51; Mack: 149-58).
The placement of the reproaches by Matthew is pivotal: they form the conclusion to the public ministry of Jesus. They are introduced with: "Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples" (23:1). Following the series of reproaches Jesus only teaches his disciples (24:1, 3; 26:1, 8, 10, 20-21, 26, 31, 36, 38, 45). Thus the makarisms in Matthew 5 and reproaches in 23 form an inclusio on Jesus' public ministry. The antithetical character of the makarisms and reproaches is not only formal, but semantic as well (see Fig. #2). The antithetical parallels between the two could hardly be accidental.

Figure #2: Matthew's Makarisms and Reproaches Compared
(Matt 5:3-12)
(Matt 23:13-31)
honoring shaming
third person formulations second person formulations
addressed to disciples addressed to opponents
opens public ministry closes public ministry
"theirs is the Kingdom of the Heavens" (3; 10) "you shut the Kingdom of the Heavens" (13)
"hunger and thirst for righteousness" (6) "outwardly appear righteous" (28)
"merciful . . . receive mercy" (7) "neglected mercy" (23)
"pure in heart" (8a) "impure" (27)
"see God" (8b) "swear by God's throne" (22)
"sons of God" (9) "son of Gehenna" (15)
"so they persecuted the prophets" (12) "sons of those who killed the prophets" (31)

The inclusio of makarisms and reproaches provides further evidence that these two forms are antipodal (see Gnilka 1:115). While Luke juxtaposes four makarisms (6:20-23) and four reproaches (6:24-26) in the same speech, Matthew has employed his two series as brackets around Jesus public teaching. Thus honor and shame provide the polar oppositions which open and close the public ministry. These two units thus provide two sets of value judgments in Jesus' mouth which constitute the positive and negative values of the "kingdom." Their sequence is also important: the makarisms open the public ministry, and the reproaches close it. The makarisms thus encourage aspiring to the positive ideals of the kingdom— which will unfold throughout the story of Jesus' ministry. The reproaches reflect back upon the opposition to Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes.
Figure #3 clarifies the antipodal character of the makarisms and reproaches. It also highlights the distinction between theses forms and blessing and cursing.

FIGURE #3: Blessings and Curses; Makarisms and Castigation


Identifying the makarisms and reproaches throughout the Bible, as well as those in other early Judean and Christian literatures, allows us to see them more clearly in their cultural perspective. Most previous discussions have failed to see their large numbers and their common perspective on honor and shame. The primary conclusions can be summarized as follows: 1) Makarisms and reproaches are thematically related to formal blessings and curses, but linguistically and contextually distinct from them. Consequently, makarisms should not be translated "blessed." The translations of "happy" or "enviable" for the makarisms are also inappropriate since they do not refer to either human emotion or the evil eye. 2) Makarisms and reproaches are value judgments, which can be uttered by sages, prophets, or anyone in the community. They should be translated in keeping with value judgments: the makarisms with "O how honorable" or "How honored"; and the reproaches with "O how shameful" or "Shame on." 3) Makarisms and reproaches are comprehensible only in terms of Mediterranean honor/shame values and the challenge-riposte transactions. Thus they describe and challenge values, but also call for a response. 4) Matt 5:3-12 provides the introduction to Jesus' public ministry and Matt 23:13-31 its conclusion. Consequently they form an honor/shame inclusio around Jesus public teaching. Furthermore, the evangelist has not only employed them as formal and semantic antitheses, but has paralleled key-words throughout their formulations.


1. This paper was first delivered in Portland, Oregon, on March 25, 1990, to The Context Group: Project on the Bible in Its Cultural Environment. I would like to thank the members of that group for their suggestions, especially Jerome H. Neyrey, S. Scott Bartchy, John H. Elliott, Bruce J. Malina, and Vernon K. Robbins. David Seeley also offered helpful suggestions.
2. The texts which employ these variations are: Singular noun: Isa 56:2; Ps 1:1; 32:2; 33:12; 34:9[8]; 40:5[4]; 84:6[5], 13[12]; 89:16[15]; 94:12; 112:1; 127:5; 144:15a, 15b; 146:5; Job 5:17; Prov 3:13; 8:34; 28:14. Plural noun: 1 Kgs 10:8a, 8b; Isa 30:18; 32:20*; Ps 2:12; Prov 20:7; 2 Chron 9:7a, 7b. Singular participle: Ps 32:1; 41:2[1]; 128:1; 137:8, 9; Dan 12:12. Plural participle: Ps 84:5[4]; 106:3; 119:1, 2. Singular pronominal suffix: Deut 33:29; Qoh 10:17. Plural pronominal suffix: Isa 32:20*. Finite verb: Ps 65:5[4]; Prov 8:32. Relative pronoun: Ps 146:5. Isa 32:20 (*) combines the plural suffix and the plural participle forms, but is listed only once. In four texts ashrê appears as a simple noun (non-formulaic): Ps 128:2[1]; Prov 14:21; 16:20; 29:18. (Numbers in square brackets indicate English versification when different from the Hebrew.)
3. The New Testament texts are as follows: Singular noun: Matt 24:46; Luke 11:27*; 12:43; Rom 4:8; Jas 1:12. Plural noun: Matt 5:3; 13:16; Luke 6:20; 10:23; 12:37. Singular participle: Luke 1:45; Rom 14:22; Rev 1:3*; 16:15; Rev 20:6; 22:7. Plural participle: Matt 5:4, 6, 9, 10; Luke 6:21a, 21b; 11:28; Rev 19:9; 22:14. Plural adjective: Matt 5:5, 7, 8; Luke 23:29*; Rev 14:13. Eimi + singular noun (vocative): Matt 16:17. Eimi (subject implied): Matt 5:11; Luke 6:22; 14:14; Acts 20:35. Eimi + relative pronoun + finite verb: Matt 11:6; Luke 7:23; 14:15; John 13:17; 20:29; Rom 4:7. Eimi + demonstrative pronoun: Luke 12:38; Jas 1:25. Finite verb (subject implied): 1 Pet 3:14; 4:14. The texts marked with an asterisk (*) combine forms, but they are listed only in the category of their first formulation. In Luke 11:27 one makaria modifies two nouns: the first singular ("womb"), the second plural ("breasts"); it is thus a double-duty modifier. Similarly, Luke 23:29 combines a plural adjective formulation and two plural nouns. In Rev 1:3 makarios modifies one singular participle and two plural participles.
4. For makarisms in the Apocrypha see: 4 Macc 18:9; Tob 13:14a, 14b; Wisd Sol 3:13-14; Sir 14:1, 2, 20; 25:8, 9; 26:1; 28:19; 31:8; 34:15; 48:11; 50:28; Bar 4:4. For the Dead Sea Scrolls see: 4Q185 1 2.8,13. For the Pseudepigrapha see: 1 Enoch 58:2; 81:4; 99:10; 103:5; 2 Enoch 42:6-14; 52:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13; Joseph and Aseneth 16:14 (twice); Pss. Sol. 4:23; 5:16; 6:1; 10:1; 17:44; 18:6; 2 Bar. 10:6; Sib. Or. 3.492, 504, 508, 512; 4.24-26; T. Jac. 2:12-23;. For the non-canonical gospels see: Gos. Thom. 7, 19, 49, 54, 58, 68, 69a, 69b, 79a, 79b, 79c, 103; Thom. Cont. 145.1-7.
5. The basic reproach formula is thus: hôy + a nominal construction. There are several variations. Singular proper noun: Isa 10:5; 29:1; Jer 48:1. Singular common noun: Isa 1:4; 18:1; 28:1; Jer 23:1; Nah 3:1; Zech 11:17. Plural common noun: Isa 30:1; Ezek 13:3; 34:2. Singular participles: Isa 45:9, 10; Jer 22:13; Hab 2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19; Zeph 3:1. Plural participles: Isa 5:8, 11, 18, 20; 10:1; 29:15; 31:1; Ezek 13:18; Amos 5:18; Mic 2:1; Zeph 2:5. Preposition + singular pronominal suffix: Jer 50:2. Plural adjective: Isa 5:21, 22; Amos 6:1.
6. The emendation of hôy for a nonsensical î is supported by the LXX reading of ouai.
7. The Greek ouai formula parallels the Hebrew construction; ouai is followed by a nominal construction, and sometimes a reason or a threat. The different variations on the formulaic use are as follows. Singular pronoun: 1 Cor 9:16. Plural pronoun: Luke 11:44, 47; Jude 11. Pronoun + singular proper noun: Matt 11:21a, 21b; Luke 10:13a, 13b. Pronoun + plural common noun: Matt 23:13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29; Luke 11:42, 43, 46, 52. Singular common noun: Matt 18:7a, 7b; Mark 14:21; Luke 17:1b; 22:22; Rev 12:12. Plural participle: Matt 24:19; Mark 13:17; Luke 6:25a; 21:23; Rev 8:13. Plural adjective: Luke 6:24a, 25b. Adverbial clause: Luke 6:26. Besides these formulaic uses, ouai also appears as a simple noun (Rev 9:12; 11:14). For reproaches with ouai in the Apocrypha see: Jud 16:17; Sir 2:12-14; 41:8. Reproaches with the Latin equivalent (vae) appear in: 2 Esd 2:8; 15:24, 47; 16:1a, 1b, 63, 67. For other ancient Judean and Christian reproaches, see: 4Q184 1 1.8; 4Q378 6 1.7; 4Q404 10 1.1; 4Q511 63 3.5; 4QapLam 1 1.10; 6QHymn 1 1.7; MasShirShabb 1.2; 1 Enoch 94:6-8; 95:4-7; 96:4-8; 97:7-8; 98:9-99:2; 99:11-16; 100:7-9; 103:5; 2 Enoch 52:4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14; Sib. Or. 2.339-44; 5.89-91; 7.118-19; 8.95-99; Gos. Thom. 102; Pap. Oxyr. 840; Prot. Jas. 3.1b, 2a, 2b, 2c, 3a, 3b; Inf. Thom. 19.4.

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