What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong About the Beatitudes

What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong About the Beatitudes

Justin Shelby
Justin Shelby

During an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast The Rogan Experience in January, Jordan Peterson turned to the beatitudes offered by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. The unhelpful notion that the meek would inherit the earth, Peterson explained, rests on a misunderstanding of what Christ actually said:

…“Meek” [πραΰς] is not a good translation, or the word has moved in the 300 years [sic] 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, shall inherit the world’…that’s a big difference.”1

Let it be said at the outset that I like this image of an effective person. It is a very definite image. To paraphrase Peterson, it is a person who has taken the time to become dangerous, who is dangerous, and who won’t be a victim of mayhem because they’ve got a bit of mayhem inside themselves. The problem isn’t with this idea of effectual personhood. The problem is that Peterson is claiming that the Bible endorses the same idea of effectual personhood that he does. The implication—especially for Christians or those heavily affected by Christian culture, belief, or practice—is that Peterson’s idea of effectual personhood has a sort of divine sanction. It does not.

There are at least three reasons why we should not accept Peterson’s reinterpretation of the beatitudes (hereafter referred to as ‘Peterson’s gloss’). First, the Greek ho praus in various forms really does mean ‘gentle,’ ‘meek,’ or ‘mild’ and it has meant something like that since Pindar’s time. Second, the method Peterson used to arrive at his revisionist conclusion is unsound. And, finally, a proper understanding of the Matthew’s early chapters makes Peterson’s reinterpretation unnecessary if we wish to adequately understand the beatitude.

So, Peterson is not just wrong, but he has also interpreted the text in a way that is potentially damaging to his credibility. This should worry him and those of us who want him to succeed in his larger mission. It would be regrettable if he were to succumb to the relativity of which he has been so harsh and effective a critic.

The Absence of Evidence and the Unsoundness of Interpretation

The Bible is probably the most intensively read text in the history of literature. It has been translated and thought about more than any other product of Western culture, save perhaps the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Homer’s epics benefit from an 800-year head start. It would be very odd if ‘meek’ actually referred to the kind of stoical virility conjured up by Peterson’s gloss—if that’s what it meant, surely existing translations would have brought it out. I’m no fan of translations, but most of them aren’t that inadequate, especially in texts that receive so much scrutiny. We should, therefore, demand extraordinary evidence before we revise our understanding of the beatitude.

During his conversation with Rogan, Peterson claims that he found support for his gloss in the commentaries on Matthew 5:5 provided by Bible Hub. I went through every commentary listed for Matthew 5:5 looking for this evidence. Nowhere is his gloss explicitly supported (swords are mentioned once, but in a negative sense, to condemn those who conquer the world with weapons as opposed to those who ‘inherit’). I contacted Peterson with an earlier draft of this essay a couple of weeks ago hoping he might respond by shedding further light on his source, but I received no reply. Obviously, I cannot produce an absence of evidence; all I can do is present the best evidence I can find and argue that it insufficiently supports Peterson’s gloss.

This best evidence comes from a theological dictionary, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels:

[Meekness] is the spirit of one who is not easily provoked, but keeps under control the natural instinct to assert oneself and retaliate…2

A generous reading of Peterson’s gloss might allow that he simply restates this. However, arming yourself and consciously cultivating a capacity for personal violence is very different to suppressing retaliatory instincts when you happen to be wronged. This active cultivation is implied by Peterson’s words: “Those who have swords, and know how to use them, but keep them sheathed…shall inherit the earth.” We aren’t born with swords on our hips or a knowledge of how to use them. But nowhere in the beatitude or in the commentary is the active cultivation of violent efficacy, central to Peterson’s gloss, said to be a part of ‘meekness.’

We also encounter a kind of circular reasoning in A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels which makes it less credible than I’d like. For example, it says on the same subject: “[W]e must presume [meekness] to be a virtue replete with energy, robust and manly, the very opposite of everything that is weak. Otherwise, Christ’s words are reduced to an absurdity.”3 In other words, the “energy” and “manliness” that is read into praus by this dictionary is a presumption, made necessary only because understanding the word plainly might cause us to think of Christ in ways that are inconvenient or unacceptable given the writer’s preconceptions. Christ is wise and just, therefore He cannot have said what He said.

There are other sources that could be used to support the general sentiment behind the gloss. For example, the Homiletics commentary says:

This is a peculiarly Christian grace, scorned by the pagan world. It does not mean the lack of energy and courage. The truly meek man is no coward…Jesus was never so strong as when “he was led as a lamb to the slaughter.” [emphasis mine] 4

But even when the commentators insist that ‘meek’ really means ‘strong,’ they consistently refer us back to the image of Christ submitting himself to physical wrongs. This is—thankfully!—far from the behavior advocated by Peterson, but it is the Biblical position (and, as we shall see, it is completely consonant with how the Christian is treated in Matthew 5).

According to Peterson, self-assertion and self-protection are the ability to harness the mayhem within to shield yourself against mayhem without. This is not generally the kind thing we see advocated in the Gospels. Christ surrenders to torture and death, telling Peter to sheathe his sword when He is arrested. Early Christians repeatedly went peacefully to the slaughter. Christ is occasionally violent, on behalf of others, but the Christian himself is asked to be meek, to trust in God, to endure wrongs patiently since even these are ordained by God and part of His providence. If you spend some time reading through the commentaries on Bible Hub, this is the dominant motif. To be meek is to be patient in the sufferance of wrongs, knowing that you are profoundly safe under the aegis of the Lord, no matter the appearances. The faith of the early Christians was incredibly radical in this way, even as they were fed to the lions.

But isn’t meekness so understood unworthy as a virtue? Shouldn’t it mean something better? Something more ‘manly’? It may be unsatisfying, but our dissatisfaction doesn’t change its meaning. It is not surprising that Christ should advocate for a way of doing things that is inconsistent with our notions of what a laudable and effective person is like. Christianity asks us to accept a lot of pretty wild things: that God became man, that He died and rose from the dead, and that somehow by His death and resurrection my path to salvation was opened. Christianity expects all this: we shouldn’t be surprised to see Christ advocating dispositions or actions that we find puzzling. He confused the Romans too.

When Peterson says of Bible Hub that, “[They] have a Biblical line and then they have three pages of commentary on every line and so, because people have commented on every verse in the bible…you can look and see all the interpretations and all the translations and get a sense for what the genuine meaning might be.” He seems to mean that if you look at a sufficient number of commentaries, you can pick the meaning you like. This procedure might be sound if you were to pick the majority interpretation and didn’t have access to the original Greek text. But Peterson did not pick a majority interpretation. Nor did he even pick minority interpretation. He instead extrapolated from an interpretation of praus that is itself tendentious and under-supported.

The Context of Early Matthew and the New Testament 5

The early context of the Gospel of Matthew also contradicts Peterson’s gloss. Much of this context describes, in metaphorical language, what a follower of Christ is like or what they’d do in different situations. So, if we assume that the text makes sense, we can ask, “What definition of meek is consistent with the other behavior expected of the disciples?” We’ll see that, since the disciples are to be used up by the Lord for various purposes, meek in something like the mundane sense is what we would expect the beatitude to mean.

For example, when John the Baptist speaks at Mt. 3:12, he says that the righteous will be stored like wheat in a silo, while the sinful will be burned like chaff in unquenchable fire.6 We feel bad for the chaff, but why do you store grain? So that it can be turned into bread and consumed. A couple lines earlier in Mt. 3:10, he compares good and bad people to productive and unproductive trees: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 7 The unproductive trees will be burned in the fire…but the productive trees will have their fruit plucked to be eaten. Christ tells his Apostles that they will be fishers of men (Mt 4:19): fish are caught to fill bellies, not stock aquaria. A little later, in Mt. 5:13, we have the proverbial, “You are the salt of the earth,” 8 followed by the somewhat more bizarre, “But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” 9 Whether you can manage to stay salty or not, the outlook is not good: you are devoured or trampled.

There is something very interesting going on here—a certain parallelism between the coming sacrifice of Christ and how his disciples will serve as sustenance for mankind. My point, however, is that ‘meekness,’ understood plainly, is indeed the proper characteristic of a man who turns the other cheek or willingly walks with his accuser to the jail, of sheep that are fattened, of fruits that are plucked, of salt that is eaten or strewn, and finally of martyrs that are literally fed to wild animals in arenas. Suffering wrong patiently and without retaliation, for whatever reason, is part of the Christian ideal. Likewise, letting yourself be consumed to provide hope for the world is literally what Christ does. There is no need to add connotations of strength to the meekness of the beatitude when you trust that whatever happens to you is part of God’s plan. Meekness really is a virtue when God is so present and so provident.

We can also survey the different uses of praus in the New Testament and see the immediate context surrounding each word. Here are three I found listed on Bible Hub:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle (praus) and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29) 10

Say to Daughter Zion: ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle (praus) and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ (Matthew 21:5) 11

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle (praus) and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3-4) 12

Finally, if we include prautēs, the abstract noun as opposed to the substantive adjective, in Ephesians 4:2 we get:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle (praus); be patient, bearing with one another in love. 13

These uses of praus,14 along with the preceding verses of Matthew’s gospel, establish the near context for the beatitude. We don’t need to go hunting down attestations of the word in Pindar or Homer until we’ve dealt with these. In the local context, praus is associated images of humility, not restrained belligerence. The disciples figure as submissive tools in the providence of God. Christ himself is consumed for the good of all mankind and the disciples metaphorically follow suit. If the translation of praus as “meek” rankles, it’s because we’ve not understood Biblical Christianity properly, not because Christ was being obtuse. The Bible rarely stutters.

I think the Kelly commentary sums up the majority view, which harmonizes with both the larger context and specific collocations of praus/prautēs, well:

Meekness is not merely to have a sense of nothingness in ourselves, or to be filled with sorrow for the opposition to God here below; but it is rather the calmness which leaves things with God, and bends to God, and thankfully owns the will of God, even where naturally it may be most trying to ourselves. 15

Peterson’s gloss entails both more and less than this. We must, therefore, reject it, even as we embrace the image of effectual personhood that he puts forward on its own merits. Why even mention swords and sheathing? The earliest mentions I have been able to find of ‘sword’ and ‘sheath’ in the Peterson corpus were in his 2017 Maps of Meaning lecture, entitled “The Flood and the Tower.” The discussion was on the topic of integrating the Jungian shadow into one’s personality: “Without the capability for mayhem, you’re a potential victim of mayhem. So you need your sword, it should be sheathed, but you should have it.”16

Peterson has taught this class for years, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find similar collocations in earlier classes. The quote above is taken from a lecture that was first posted on May 18, 2017, several months before the Biblical lecture appeared, in which he first publicly (to my knowledge) connected ‘swords’ and ‘sheaths’ to the beatitudes, and many more months before he reiterated the point on the Rogan podcast appeared (January 30, 2018). If there were a connection between the beatitudes and swords it seems odd that he wouldn’t have mentioned it in his classroom lecture the first time: I suspect that between May and August of 2017, the integration of the Jungian shadow got superimposed onto, and then used as an explanation for the awkwardness of, praus in the beatitudes.

If this is so, and unless I’ve completely overlooked the commentary upon which he relied, it means that Peterson isn’t interpreting the evidence at all. Whether he realizes it or not (and I think not), he’s altering the evidence to fit his argument. That’s a bit like manipulating the data to make your clinical trial look successful after it has failed.

One of the things I admire most about Dr. Peterson is how he often succeeds in showing how the old documents of our civilization are relevant to our lives. In that sense he’s a classicist’s scholar. But, at times, his handling of the humanities evinces the lack of rigor he decries and which is causing them to slowly rot from the inside out. I’m afraid he’s sometimes guilty of handling these important documents carelessly, as if swift and facile connections and motivated reasoning can replace the mental grind needed to understand things in their complexity. As Peterson ought to know better than anyone, they cannot.

My thanks to Nguyen Phuong Thao for his help with the citations.

 

Justin Shelby graduated with a B.A. in Classics from The University of Chicago in 2010. He currently lives and works as an educational consultant in Vietnam. You can follow him on Twitter @JustinDShelby

References:

1 Dr. Jordan Peterson, Rogan, The Joe Rogan Experience, (2018), #1070. (from 01:06:21)
2 James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. II, p. 159ff.
3 Ibid. 159
4 Homiletics Commentary, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/homiletics/matthew/5.htm
5 I will use the NIV (New International Version) translation throughout, to avoid any appearance or actuality of bias. I’ve also avoided any arguments that required any nuanced reading of Greek. However, if you’d like to know, the Greek text I’m using is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece. I am also using A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament by Max Zerwick, translated by Mary Grosvenor.
6 NIV, Matthew 3:11-13
7 NIV, Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9.
8 NIV, Matthew 5:13.
9 NIV, Matthew 5:13.
10 NIV, Matthew 11:29
11 NIV, Matthew 21:5
12 NIV, 1 Peter 3:3-4
13 NIV, Ephesians 4:2
14 Colossians 3:12 is omitted for the sake of brevity, as it doesn’t add much to the conversation.
15 William Kelley, Major Works Commentaryhttp://biblehub.com/commentaries/kelly/matthew/5.htm
16 Jordan Peterson, The Flood and the Tower (May, 2017 lecture)

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