This is the question Jonathan Pennington attempts to answer in his new important book The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. It’s one of the most important questions for the interpreter of the Sermon on the Mount, and he has gone to considerable depths in his virtue-ethics understanding of “blessed” as “human flourishing.” I’ll give his basics. I have always approached this term “blessed” in Matt 5:3-12 through the work I have done how the Greek term is used in the LXX and the various connotations it evokes; hence, I’ve had one might be called a maximalist approach to the term.
The Greek word is makarios, and “beatitude” is thus a macarism. Here is Pennington:
A macarism is a makarios statement that ascribes happiness or flourishing to a particular person or state. A macarism is a pronouncement, based on observation, that a certain way of being in the world produces human flourishing and felicity. 42
Notice that his opening definition favors the idea of human flourishing, or as one might say, a more minimalist view of the term: it refers to the state of being, that is, the state of human flourishing. Behind makarios is the Hebrew ashre, as in Psalm 1. He is not intent on finding brk behind the Greek term makarios. The LXX behind markarios is ashre. The most common Greek term for human flourishing is not markarios but eudaimonia. [At this point I do wonder if Pennington uses too much eudaimonia to understand the ashre/makarios connection. Why, it might be asked, is it makarios and not eudaimonia if the main idea is virtue ethics human flourishing?]
Pennington contends brk is translated eulogetos and refers to divine favor while makarios refers to the state of human flourishing. This is what I mean by a more minimalist approach to the term, and this is not a criticism so much as a description. Brk and ashre, he shows, have an organic connection: divine blessing results in human flourishing, but makarios is about the latter. Macarisms are wisdom literature; blessings are covenant language.
The English term “blessed” is so heavily loaded with the narrower sense of “divine favor” that the sense of human flourishing is almost always lost. 50
Again, yes, yes, yes, that emphasis is present but the question is how constrained is markarios. Some of us would argue that the Woe of Luke 6 as the counter to the markarism of Luke 6 indicates a both-and maximalist reading of makarios. (That “some of us” is me.) I don’t think it is possible to turn woe simply into a “non-flourishing” kind of life. The term is a judgment from God on people.
So, Pennington thinks “Flourishing” is the best translation of markarios in the Beatitudes. Even if I think he is a little restrictive, his emphasis is right and we need that balance. I’m still curious why makarios instead of eudaimonia, and of course the LXX sets the precedent, but why there too?
He has good discussions of other makarios texts in Matthew, but I can’t go with him on 16:17, where the emphasis falls on God’s favor and God’s revelation not on the flourishing life: “Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven’.” Perhaps my years of teaching the more expansive view just lead me to reading it in a more expansive sense.
There are then several approaches: divine favor, eschatological reversal blessings, and a wisdom or virtue-ethics reading, and he opts for the third. He’s not alone, and we are in his debt for his tour de force on this word.