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In ancient Greek medicine, eight conditions of human illness are recognized. Each of the eight beatitudes describe one of these extreme conditions. The first four Beatitudes are based on an absence of air, water, fire and earth. The second four center on an excess, in the same order: air, water, fire and earth.
I happen to be writing about the Beatitudes as a focal point of my work in progress, Walk Through the Valley. These studies of Greek culture in the Beatitudes are a separate work and convey some of my own reflections on the subject which have developed in the years since Richard's death. The main body of Walk Through the Valley, unlike these studies, is composed of stories from the lives of people who lived out the Beatitudes: Jesus Christ, Francis of Assisi, and my friend Rich Mullins.
Initially, I noticed the Beatitudes describing these eight extreme conditions using Greek culture as a common factor influencing both Christ's audience and today's. From my experience as an interpreter, I speculated that there might be several commonly known myths, stories or histories in Greek culture that would tie the themes of the Beatitudes together.
Once upon a time I majored in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, but it's been a while. Over the holiday, I happened to watch an old BBC special on the history of ancient Greece which seemed to confirm my theory. At least, now I can point to several landmarks of Greek history and philosophy which were no doubt familiar to Christ's audience and seem pertinent to the themes of the Beatitudes.
And so this series of blog posts was born. I find it fascinating that most of the historic events we will briefly examine took place in the ancient city of Athens, a center of Greek culture and the location of the great temple of Athena. This connection would have been no secret to his audience. I take this common factor as an indication of Jesus' boldness in challenging Athena--the goddess of wisdom of the ancient Greeks.
Pericles (495-429 BC) had towering ambitions for his city. He wanted Athens to become the wealthiest and the mightiest city in the Mediterranean basin, not only in his lifetime, but beyond. By his influence as an orator, he kindled a fire in his fellow Athenians to engage enemies as diverse as Sparta, Persia, Sicily and Syracuse in the Peloponnesian wars for ever-greater control, power and wealth.
Throughout long years of war, Pericles kept his city focussed on battle. Here is a quote from one of his speeches:
"Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster; because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity."
from Pericles' Third Oration according to Thucydides
Appropriate to the third Beatitude, in the winter of 430 BC, Pericles delivered a funeral oration for the heroic soldiers who had fallen in wars to advance Athens. Proudly, he stated:
". . . For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb. . ."
from Pericles' Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides
Months later, in the summer of 430 BC, the city of Athens broke out in a devastating epidemic characterized by fever. No one today knows the name of the disease, or where it came from. It left families bereaved by the wars even further decimated. Two of Pericles' own sons were claimed by the fever. At last Pericles himself fell victim to the epidemic.
The Third Beatitude: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
The very wealthiest and most influential in Greek society--those who excelled--the best of the best, or as they thought,the most favored by the gods--were described as "makarioi." This is the same word that Jesus used for "blessed."
"Praeis" in the medical context describes a fever that has broken-in the ancient system of medicine, indicating an absence of fire. "Kleronomesousi" describes a portioning-out; "gen," earth.
Jesus reminds us that it is not the ambitious who inherit, but the meek--those whose fevers to possess more, to gain more power, have been broken. The earth, the stars, the sky, the Sun and Moon live so much longer than any human that there is no point trying to own them. It is the living, the content, who remain above the earth to share and enjoy it--not those who have paid with their lives the price for a measureless tomb.
Two ways to grow a rose: either from beneath the earth, or from above it.
Click here to for a study of the fourth Beatitude from the perspective of Greek culture.