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What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong About the Beatitudes

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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133 Comments

  1. So Peterson conducts a three hour interview, one of the many he has been taking lately, and this is the only “gotcha” statement you were able to find? Bit of a harsh critique of a statement made in a casual interview, don’t ya think? If Peterson had made this mistake in an academic publication, I think this response would be appropriate—but an interview? I’m modest enough to know that I would make plenty of similar mistakes in an interview setting.

    • He’s made this claim in multiple public fora, where he reaches, probably literally, millions of people. It’s more important to find and correct mistakes, especially mistakes that amount to claims of divine sanction for one’s views, when the audience is larger. Remember, many people believe that the Bible is the word of God. And many of those people like JBP. This isn’t a slip of the tongue.

      I agree that there are some harsh implications that can be drawn from this article, but that’s exactly why you have to be very careful when you claim that something is a bad translation, and then claim to do a better job translating or understanding than the Greek-literate scholar/translators that have examined the text for 2k years, when you yourself can read the language in which the text is written.

      • If “humble” as well as “meek” is an acceptable translation of the Greek “ho praus” then Peterson is accurately reflecting the 17th C. English Reformed understanding the passage in question.

        The 17th C. was a time of revolution and the Reformed position with respect to the Stuarts was that the believers should humbly (meekly) submit to the just demands of their sovereign. But when the sovereign made unjust demands on the consciences of his subjects then the duty of the good magistrate was to oppose the Crown. If the good magistrates should be rebuffed by the Crown, and if all lawful means of resistance should fail, then the Augsburg Confession and certain annotations to the Geneva Bible were, in fact, used to justify revolution.

        The English Parliamentarians always used the form of “a humble petition” when resisting the Stuarts between 1621-40. The Independent radicals of the New Model Army used the same form when petitioning the Presbyterian faction after 1642.

        From the first moment I first heard him, I have always thought of Peterson as a typical 17th C. English Reformed Independent Puritan. Peterson would have made a fine chaplain in one of the more radically republican regiments of the New Model Army; that’s just the way they talked. There’s a lot of Hugh Peter and Richard Baxter in him.

    • Tony says

      It was a fair critique. I love the man and as Peterson says, assume other people know something you don’t. This article is a favour to Peterson as it allows him develop better views.

      I am not quite sure if Peterson’s definition is more wrong than author’s because some of the sources on the net fit closer to what Peterson said. There is also a peculiar focus on Peterson using swords as metaphor for strength.

      See this for example of what is closer to what Peterson said:

      http://biblehub.com/greek/4239.htm

      • Steve says

        I’m also a fan of Peterson. Not sure your reference supports what Peterson seems to be saying though…

        [The English term “meek” often lacks this blend – i.e. of gentleness (reserve) and strength.]

        Strength does not necessarily mean “prepared to do violence when necessary”. Disciples for centuries have shown great strength in the face of adversity — often facing death itself — as they carry the Christian message into the world.

        Peterson’s core outlook seems rooted in pagan sources (e.g., Jung). It is altogether possible (likely?) this will change in due course.

    • peter says

      In his book “Ardor” Roberto Calasso writes “If one wants to talk about anything religious, some kind of relation has to be established with the invisible. There has to be a recognition of powers situated over and beyond social order. Social order itself must seek to establish some relations with that invisible.” Like Calasso, Petersen is acutely aware of forces, natural forces, ideological forces, historical forces, eg. From one perspective I thinks it’s perhaps correct to say that everything Petersen says about myth, psychology, morality, law, politics,eg.has it’s origin in the experience of and mediation of forces visible and invisible, all in the noble pursuit to understand consciousness and to find meaning. Petersen holds his cards close to his chest when he answers questions about his religious beliefs or whether he believes in God. From the way he speaks you get the impression he is on a journey that he suspects may resolve in some stronger convictions someday.I suspect he has had any number of mystical or transcendent experiences, but we don’t know. He is first and foremost a scientist. Trying to make sense out of what Jordan Petersen’s translation of “meekness” means I think it is helpful to examine what he has said about Piaget’s game theory. He has, in a secular sense, repeatedly stated that he thinks that it is perhaps the closest approximation to what the logos is. In the briefest possible summation of what that looks like, he states that we autonomously and collectively experience and mediate forces to physiologically and psychologically arrive at the most rational way to accommodate for these forces not only in temporal situations but over very very long historical periods of time. In otherwards, in an evolutionary sense we have come to learn and understand that while it may be expedient in the moment to do whatever it takes to resolve an immediate situation or win one game it would be better over an extended period of time or an an extended set of games to play by a certain set of collectively accepted set of rules that everyone understands from experience are usually more conducive to a longer, healthier and happier life. As we encounter new unfamiliar forces to contend with these rules get amended. Some of those rules you could say are to be patient, to let go of an injustice against you, forgive, set aside your envy, perhaps, and put your sword back in its sheath and perhaps you will reap unexpected benefits as an individual or collectively as a tribe or nation. From Petersen’s science perspective “meekness” translating into putting your sword back in its sheath sounds just right. To the mystic or one who truly believes they have experienced a transcencendent encounter with a higher power be it God, angels, or aliens, “meekness”, as used in the beatitudes, I believe, has to be understood as an actual force that does not have implicit in it any doubt as to whether to pull out your sword or to sheath it.There is no equivocation because it was given birth into the cosmos through the perfect sacrifice of Christ whose moment of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane is superseded by his submission to his crucifixion and resurrection. Before Christ is resurrected we are told he goes down into hell and take captivity captive. As I understand it then that would mean his ultimate act of “meekness” which leads to his death has given him power over everything that is embodied in Hell including all the forces that would provoke us to pull the sword out of the sheath. If the the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ as the new testament claims and if the fullness of Christ dwells in Christians who accept and follow Him, then “meekness” as a force that the followers of Christ are implored to believe in and exercise would not embody equivocation on their part just as it did not for Christ. Of course Christ knew we are all sinners and we would this highest mark we are aiming for. This brings us to the secular world where missing the mak is always a given. In the secular world perfection is an abstract ideal that we aim for and within the context of Piaget’s game theory in which theoretically over time we
      evolve towards a closer approximation of what the Ideal looks like. From this perspective, “meekness” is a force we are creating over time and over this time it begins to embody characteristics that our rational mind perhaps learns to trust. Perhaps we live in a non-linear universe where the future us we are evolving towards has learned to speak back to us in the present where we are living. Perhaps, in the thrall of some transcendental experience,being touched by “meekness” from the future might seem like an omnipotent and Godlike force..Just having a little fun here. I love Jordan Petersen. I like and agree with an awful lot of what he has to say an any number of subjects. I know he has paid a price to know what he so confidently expresses so coherently. I know because I know what I have sacrificed to get to a place of understanding where much of what he has to say sounds like the echo of my own conscious thoughts .Again, to have a little fun, maybe ten or fifteen years from now Jordan Petersen will be brought to stand trial before some totalitarian magistrate. No doubt he will again have re-evaluated what “meekness” means. I apologize for the lack of paragraphs. I ran out of time to edit.

    • Michel says

      I don’t entirely agree with everything in this article. I’m a big JBP fan actually. So trust me when I say he mentioned this many times in multiple interviews and lectures.

    • josh says

      Peterson regularly inserts his own views into texts and stories with no solid basis for doing so, this is just one clear example. He tends to ignore the historical circumstances of composition and transmission, to elide details that don’t fit hit thesis, to add details (like “those who have swords”) without support, and to make tendentious interpretations of story elements as symbols that inevitably fit his social views. C.f. his take on the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel.

      He wasn’t making a spontaneous mistake here, like he said the wrong word, he was accurately stating what he believes. It’s just that what he believes is often irrational.

      • It’s very hard to talk about religion without missing the point that religion itself is irrational. JBP is explaining how myths grow from reality.

        That doesn’t make Jesus the son of god…

  2. Cheester says

    Great piece, Shelby. We should maintain high standards for truth and knowledge, especially for those we respect (I’m a big JP fan).

    As a weak and bad Christian, I have trouble understanding this part of the beatitudes. Perhaps that is unsurprising. Should we have let the Nazis win WWII? If someone is trying to rape or assault you, and you have the power to stop them, do you still just let them have their way? How do you separate harm to you and harm to others when those inflicting harm will often affect many? Maybe stopping the former will also prevent the latter. Can someone with a better understanding of Christianity answer this? I fail to see anything admirable in being a useless weakling who doesn’t fight back evil, even if it is by choice.

    • It is a frustrating, given what we want the text to be like! And I agree with you, I don’t see much admirable in non-resistance (though it does take a lot of courage to be martyred for refusing to acknowledge, even in name only, the divinity of the Roman Emperor, for example, so there is something admirable there.) I think I disagree with the notion of peaceful non-resistance in general. But He, as well as many early (and some late!) Christians lived and literally died by it.

    • Justin Notley says

      I think this captures the sense a little better: “‘The meek’: those who patiently suffer unjust persecution; those who remain serene, humble and steadfast in adversity, and do not give way to resentment or discouragement.” (From The Navarre Bible commentary on Matthew.) Thus being ‘Steadfast’ and ‘not giving way’ are important qualifiers. Meekness does not mean you’re not tough. In fact, it probably means you have to be even tougher.

      JBP is at his weakest when he comes too close to theology, but the fact that he treats these subjects with respect is hugely refreshing. I thought his commentary on the beatitudes was a little off when I heard it the first time, but I don’t expect him to be infallible.

      • Everyone is weak at explaining why humans fail towards religion. We’re very complicated, singly and socially. JBP does better than almost all blabbers in theology. His combination of knowledge and humility, his habit of thinking before he answers questions is distinctive, innit?

    • Terry Neudorf says

      I struggled with these same questions; how does one reconcile the call to “turn the other cheek” with scenarios like you’ve mentioned? Several resources in particular helped me: the book “What About Hitler” by Robert W. Brimlow, and Gregory Boyd’s extensive work on reconciling the violence of the old Testament, including “Cross Vision”. And while I can’t say that I’ve completely grasped the full concept of not returning violence for violence (particularly when it would appear that violence could prevent greater violence), I do agree that Peterson’s interpretation of the beatitudes is undercooked. What I do find encouraging is that he is not dogmatic, and open to expanding his understanding. This is a rare trait, and one of the reasons that my disagreements with him never lead me to turn away from him. We’re all sojourners on the path to understanding more fully.

      • Lincoln Dunstan says

        AA. If I knew 1% of what JBP espouses, I’d be happy, BUT I don’t believe he understands theology fully(yet), like he hopefully will one day!!

    • Steve says

      We’re also told to love our neighbor as we would have them love us. “Love” doesn’t always mean the sort of thing one experiences e.g., within a happy family. If, for example, I somehow found myself murderously striding toward a school with a loaded rifle — and had a momentary flash of sanity — I fully expect that I would want (during my brief sane interlude) others to stop me, in whatever way was possible. This would show a higher love for me than allowing me to continue in my hellish goal.

    • This is why traditional Catholicism makes sense and sola scriptura Protestantism doesn’t. Having three pillars of Truth — Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, as Christ designed — rather than expecting every man, even the illiterate, to grab a Bible and interpret it himself, delving into the ancient languages, parsing Greek and Aramaic, knowing the cultural stuff of the ancient world, etc., makes sense.

      Here’s Aquinas on war: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3040.htm

      The Catholic Encyclopedia on self-defense, with Summa Theologica and other references cited: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13691a.htm

      • Northern Observer says

        And why Orthodoxy makes even more sense. Well really the Catholic Church is an Orthodox bishopric in exile and given the way Francis is deviating downwards the homecoming to one true faithful Church may be closer than we think, say 300 years.

    • @cheester Your reactions to the non-violence preaching idioms are more natural than you think. I am a Christian (and a Peterson fan) and have always struggled with the notions of laying down your life in the face of your enemies. Do we not have a right to live? A right not to be assaulted or violated? I frankly never understood this particular beatitude. Peterson’s ‘gloss’ was the first time I felt okay with this one living as I do in the 21st century with my cultural baggage in tact.

      As I recall after listening to Peterson for a few years now, he is in process of figuring things out, thinking as he speaks. He commonly qualifies what he says with a “something like that” as a way to convey that he’s beating around the bush, not quite there yet. I give him a pass on this one.

    • Mlottski says

      “The man who is truly meek is the one who is amazed that God and man can think of him as well as they do.”” It is my attitude towards myself, and it is an expression of that in my relationship to others” – D. M. Lloyd Jones – Studies in the Sermon on the Mount
      Meekness does not follow Poor in Spirit and Mourning accidently. There is an order to the beatitudes. We must be careful examining one separately from the others. We begin with poor in spirit – seeing who we really are in our sinfulness before God. This leads to mourning and only then are we able to enter into true meekness. In the first two Beatitudes we are alllowing ourselves to be dealt with. Meekness is the first beatitude that begins to deal with how we will relate to others now that we have been humbled by seeing ourselves as the sinners we truly are.
      Meekness is not incompatible with strength and leadership. “The meek man is one who may so believe in standing for the truth that he will die for it if necessary. The martyrs were meek, but they were never weak; strong men, yet meek men”.

  3. Urusigh says

    You gave a sound analysis of a challenging verse and I appreciate it.

    It’s also refreshing to read something involving Peterson that treats him as just another man saying something subject to honest error like anyone else, rather than as if he were either some infallible sage or deceitful wolf in sheep’s clothing. Thank you for that.

      • James says

        In that case, accept my congratulations as well; it was a fine article. It does nothing to harm JP to correct him in such a scholarly manner.

    • Michael Rowland says

      Yes, it kind of does feel that way. On the other hand, Dr. Peterson seems to be making an enormous impact wherever he speaks. Focusing on him, I think, is a natural response to his popularity. Why is he so popular? What will be the impact of his though on society in general? Many more questions come to mind. I find no issue in collecting as many viewpoints as possible to help answer all these questions. How important is Professor Peterson in the long run? I have no idea, but hints of positive influence are definitely there.

  4. Reese says

    It’s good to see someone endingen with Peterson content rather then the typical blind sycophants and vitriolic haters. The only problem with the essay above is in this particular instance Peterson is right and the author is wrong.

    As a broader point, right or wrong I’m not sure there’s much mileage in a competition over academic close-analysis using modern iterations of ancient texts.

    Peterson uses these biblical references to bolster the authority of his message. He knows full well the one unarguable quality of holy books is their capacity to enthrall and coerce a large audience. It’s a no-brainer tried and tested technique.

    That said, rather than battle over self-serving interpretations of scripture, which ultimately end up legitimising anthropomorphological source texts as a divine revelation, i.e. not likely to be ignored, harder to disregard let alone disobey.

    It’d be better to show the standalone shortcomings, contradictions and hypocrisy in what Jordan (and Sam) have tach. Sure.

  5. Meekness as submission to God and the moral implications thereof

    Thanks for an interesting article. I enjoy JBP’s commentaries on bible stories but I am persuaded by your interpretation in this case. I understand that meekness also entails submission and I wonder if this beatitude isn’t fundamentally requiring submission to the will of God and putting your trust in him, even when one can’t understand why a seeming evil is being suffered? Elsewhere in Matthew, Christ says something to the effect that we should not judge others because only God can do that.

    I also understand that in Matthew Christ assumes that the judgement day will come in the lifetime of his disciples. On judgement day, the faithful dead will be brought back to life and, together with the living faithful, will live forever in an earthly paradise (a return to the Garden of Eden). The rest of us will be punished with annihilation (or cast eternally into a burning lake if you prefer the Revelations version). So the meek actually will inherit the earth on judgement day; this isn’t just a metaphor.

    The demand to submit to the will of God is difficult because it requires passivity in the face of apparent evil and is hard to square with taking personal responsibility. In fact it could be interpreted to demand that one not act against evil or exercise personal responsibility. And yet much of what Christ is described as doing in the gospels appears to be going against the will of God (e.g., raising the dead, healing sickness). Who’s to know what is the will of God and what is due to the contingencies of life? Just one of the many conundrums, ambiguities and moral paradoxes in the Christian religions.

  6. Mark says

    “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”.

    No, we must give Peterson a chance to make his case. If you hadn’t noticed, he’s quite busy as the moment.

  7. Justin. I think you may have overstate your case. Peterson isn’t just criticising the humanities for sloppy work which is “… causing them to slowly rot from the inside out.” That well describes the situation up until a few decades ago. He’s pointing to deep political bias that has rapidly precipitated an overt shift to political activism and an abandonment of any pretence of academic discipline.

    “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.”
    If it’s not deliberate, it’s not a bit like fraud – more Freud, perhaps:). I also question your use of “gloss”. While it does have a pertinent sense, it also has one of superficiality. Was this intended?

    His use of the sword as a metaphor for strength may be a poor choice, but the Bible isn’t saying the weak will inherit the Earth. Nor is it advocating a fatalistic approach to life. To me, turning the other cheek implies the strength to defend.

    That said, his writing should be subject to the same scouring criticism he applies to others. I’d like to see more of it, and I suspect he would, too. I don’t think he’s claiming primarily to be a biblical scholar, just casting an interesting new light on the book as a psychologist. He’s triggered an explosive increase in interest and re-evaluation not only of the Bible but religion generally, which would have been unimaginable a few years ago. It would be sad if he failed to generate an ongoing debate.

    His view of consciousness veers a bit too close to mysticism for me, but perhaps he knows something I don’t.

    • I agree with Peterson on most other issues. My disagreement with him here is intentionally narrow and limited to one of my specific areas of competence. It’s very easy to go off the rails when you stray from your expertise – then you just end up misleading yourself and others. I think that’s what has happened to Peterson here. I wouldn’t accuse him of fraud, but maybe of hubris. I mean, imagine: he’s claiming (and not tentatively, check the clips I cite) to correct the work of scholar-translators working over a millennia…and he can’t even read the source language of the translation he purports to correct! Does he believe that translators don’t have access to or make use of commentaries? I couldn’t imagine giving a Biblical lecture series without knowing, at a minimum, Greek, but also probably Hebrew, especially if I were to start in the Old Testament, as he did.

      I’m also not arguing about what “The Bible” is saying. I’m arguing about what the beatitude is saying (and what it isn’t saying). It may seem pedantic, but I think it’s so important not to suppose one knows what something means or ought to mean, and then deform the text until you somehow get that meaning. Meaning emerges from a text, brick by interpretive brick. I can’t just assume that I know what the house will be like and then assert the existence of bricks where they *ought* to be.

      I agree that the ideal biblical man is strong (peacefully going to your death rather than worshipping the Roman Emperor is pretty ballsy), but, in emulation of Christ, he is also meek and trusting in God’s providence, to a much greater extent than we’re comfortable with today. As for the rationale, it’s all in the article.

      My use of the word “gloss” wasn’t meant to be invidious. Some glosses are very helpful – without them we’d be stuck with stilted and gross translations. I guess my use of it here is something like, “exegetical expansion” or “exegetical translation” (although Peterson isn’t translating). Some glosses are helpful and some aren’t. I didn’t mean anything negative by the label per se.

      He is also bit mystical for my tastes – which stance is much more easily justified if you allow yourself to blur the line between text and interpretation.

      • dirk says

        Justin: not what something meant, or ought to mean, once, in biblical times, is important, but what you want it to mean just now, for us, is what counts. Simple comme bonjour!

        • If that is so, then “big” can mean “small”, “happy” can mean “sad”, and “up” can mean “down”. There is no need for evidence in such a schema. What you advocate is an axiomatic abandonment of the Principle of Non-Contradiction. You’re welcome to it, but in that case, I think that we have nothing to talk about.

      • Daniel says

        “To me, turning the other cheek implies the strength to defend.” wrote Dai Davies. I read somewhere that turning the other cheek, means that the offense or the violence that is being exerted on you doesn’t effect you. A Christian is enlightened enough to not bother at all with a slap, or a theft or a coercing. You turn the other cheek because you are beyond violence, cause you see the grave limits of violence and by not responding with violence you show the strength of you mind and you soul.
        I was given this interpretation years ago and whenever I’ve seen someone being violent I’ve noticed the “stupid” of violence itself.
        The Christians suffering throughout history have endured great violence but have always been strengthened by the grace of God. A Catholic priest,once told me that while being tortured during the communist regime in Albania, he would close his eyes and look at Christ hanging in the Cross. I thing that’s how, as a Christian, you put yourself beyond violence.
        Having said this, I think that JBP should be considered as a psychiatrist not a theologian. He uses the Bible to explain things from his own perspective, that is the psychological one. However presenting him with a believer’s interpretation of the Bible is the right thing to do and I’m pretty sure he won’t mind it. After all he is an enlightened enough person to not get upset.

        • Daniel says

          I’m sorry about the typing errors.
          Please read:
          “The strength of YOUR mind and YOUR soul”
          “the stupidity”

  8. Interesting discussion. I’ve just been reading Plato’s Theaetetus, and the same word is used of Theaetetus, a promising young philosopher/mathematician. Theodorus tells Socrates that the young man is “quick to learn…yet exceptionally gentle (praon), and moreover brave beyond any other.” He adds: “I should not have supposed such a combination existed, and I do not see it elsewhere.” This is interesting because “meekness” or “gentleness” is here consistent with courage, a kind spiritedness. The word is also used of horses that have been tamed, which suggests the same sort of possible combination. What happens when “meekness” is mixed with courage or spiritedness is that it acts as something like “doing no harm to others.” I think this tilts, perhaps, in Peterson’s direction. Perhaps there is some meeting of Greek and Christian virtue in this word.

    At the end of the Theaetetus, Plato uses a different word. The dialogue has resulted in Theaetetus’s coming to recognize that he does not know what he thought he knew, that he is empty of knowledge he thought he had. Socrates says that this will make him less harsh and gentler (ἡμερώτερος) to his associates, for he will have the wisdom not to think he knows that which he does not know.

    Again, this word can mean “tame” as in tamed animals, as well as “cultivated” (plants) and “civilized” (people).

    In the dialogue, the idea is that philosophy will cause one to do less harm to others. Perhaps this idea could be helpful as a bridge between Peterson’s gloss and the Biblical text. Think: “Blessed are those who do no harm to others, for…” The real inheritors of the earth are not the killing, controlling conquerors but those who do no harm to others. This reading also fits the two times the word is used of Jesus, as well as the 1st Peter use. The Matthew 21 text, with the king arriving on a donkey works especially well here.

    I am not a classicist or a Greekling or a Biblical scholar, though I had a small (and so dangerous) amount of training. I’d welcome any help here.

    • Lol, Nathan. If you’re reading the Theaetetus, you are a Greekling indeed! And if people like Nicolas Matte call themselves scholars, what are you? A God. Be humble, and call yourself a scholar. Or at least a Greekling. I don’t have much to add to your comment except to say that I question the immediate applicability of Plato’s *praos* to the New Testament *praos*. Words move, and Plato was writing some 400-500 years before Matthew. It’s not that meanings in Pindar and Plato aren’t relevant, it’s just that the proximate context matters more. Imagine trying to argue about the meaning of a modern English word like “faggot” by appealing to it’s 18th century definition (a pile of sticks to be burnt as fuel – not the immediate source of the etymology, btw), while ignoring the proximate evidence that it is a slur. The situation is worse here, since 500, not 200 years intervene.

      Besides, I agree that there is strength implied by the word. I disagree with Peterson’s interpretation of the actions that such strength ought to lead one to, not the presence of strength in “praos”.

  9. The weakness is your argument is in this phrase ‘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.’

    No, it’s not like that at all. The bible is mytho-poetics, not scientific data. Interpretation of metaphysical statements is pragmatic, not literal. Otherwise, there is no interpretation only dogma. Peterson is aiming at psychological realism, not dogmatic theological othodoxy.

    Meakness could be understood in martial art terms. You defeat the enemy by being ‘iron in cotton’- as they say in Tai Chi. In other words, your inner toughness is belied by your outer gentility. I don’t see a problem with Peterson’s interpretation re-interpretation even if it is creative and psychological (rather than theological)—or there being different intepretation of world ‘meek’. Chogyam Trungpa talked about ‘The Warrior of the Meek’ – see my article below. Peterson has been very clear that he isn’t doing theology, but psychology.

    https://medium.com/@andrewpgsweeny/jordan-b-peterson-482d1d37f6d5

    • I’m not doing Theology either – it’s simple interpretation.

      If what you say is true, then if I see the word “big” in a text, but I want it to mean “small”, then I can say that anyone who has translated the word “big” as “big” is wrong, because “small” has a better meaning to me. That’s not psychological realism; it’s almost anti-realism. Such a strategy makes mush out of any text to which it is applied. I’m not saying that Peterson is wrong in his psychological recommendations – just that the beatitudes don’t mean what he says they mean and that we don’t need to twist ourselves into pretzels to understand Matthew 5. It means what it says; the fact that we don’t like what it means doesn’t change what it means.

      The meaning provided by the text is “small”. Peterson wants it to be “big”. Peterson’s desire does not transform the text, but it has led him to misrepresent it. Worse, he has usurped authority that he has no justification to take and misled others as to the text’s meaning.

      If you think that a text means whatever the reader feels it means, then peace to you, but we don’t really have much to talk about.

      • Jon says

        Justin, Andrew isn’t saying that words mean whatever they want them to mean. I suggest re-reading his comment because it’s just about the perfect summation of Peterson’s approach as I’ve ever seen. Without understanding what Andrew is saying you won’t understand anything Peterson has to say about the Psychological Significance of the Biblical stories. This is a well written article and you have noble intentions but you’re simply mistaken.

      • Michael Rowland says

        “Worse, he has usurped authority that he has no justification to take and misled others as to the text’s meaning.”

        What or whose “authority” has Dr. Peterson usurped? (just a minor point) I just think that the statement can be taken as a bit arrogant.

        From my viewpoint, after watching many hours of Dr. Peterson’s lectures, including all of his Biblical series to date, he freely declares that his ideas are formed from what he says “…as best as I understand it…” He states that he is open to revisions in his thought as necessary to sharpen his thinking.

        As far as the “meek” disagreement you seem to have with him (and a valid, thoughtful one at that) my take is that knowing that you have the weapon of “truth” at your disposal can give you the confidence to brave the chaos with calmness and clarity of thought. Now, that’s my own take on it, and I’m positive that my position can be argued with as well. No matter. In the end, we are all mostly searching for the real, illusive truth to what the Bible is telling us. It’s an excellent utilization of what we have at our disposal: a magnificent brain and the ability to do what I like to call “mental push-ups.”

    • Jon says

      @Andrew, best comment. This comment shows more understanding than the entire 3000 words essay above.

      • I’m going to second-vote Andrew’s comment here.

        Justin, I think your article is very well thought out and very well articulated. The complexities of the interpretation of biblical scripture are obvious and open debate and discussion is the only way we learn so I appreciate the commentary and the replies that you’ve given to the folks that are interested in this topic.

        I think there is more to the interpretation based on the actions of Jesus, God and the Israelites (when they were behaving themselves).

        Consider also the minor fact that it would have been obvious to Jesus that Peter had been carrying a sword the entire time prior to the arrest. How many of the other disciples likely also had swords available at the time? Jesus reprimanded Peter for wielding his sword and cutting the ear of the servant.

        …9This was to fulfill the word He had spoken: “I have not lost one of those You have given Me.” 10Then Simon Peter drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. 11“Put your sword back in its sheath!” Jesus said to Peter. “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given Me?”…

        Jesus seems to be setting an example here for something that isn’t quite JBPs articulation (which I think could be better expressed), but it’s also not the interpretation I’m gathering from your article (I think it goes too far the other way). To me, it seems like there’s a balance somewhere that shows that Jesus (and Peter) had a choice to make. Jesus was taken out of his own will to be slaughtered as it was written. It wasn’t that he was dragged kicking and screaming or coerced or intimidated into going or any of that.

        The kind of inner peace required to consciously and voluntarily accept death for God seems to come from a place of ultimate strength and conviction. He goes on to heal the ear of the servant to show just how much of a voluntary choice it was for Jesus to go with them.

        If this were not the case, I believe the sacrifice would be less valuable or maybe less compelling than the opposite. Imagine the story being … well Jesus was all these good and nice things but then some police guy came by and told him to stop and dragged him while he cried like a little boy because he couldn’t fight back and then they killed him. vs Jesus was God and actively wielded the eternal power of the creation of the universe, the keys of life, death, and resurrection, and voluntarily accepted and assisted in the process of the cross to set an example for us and save us from the second death so that we may not perish but have eternal life…

        • @Jon & @Andrew: you are misreading (or mishearing) Peterson. The issue is not that Christ doesn’t have the ability to avoid his crucifixion (of course he does). The problem is in Peterson’s implication that we ought to have swords to avoid becoming the “victims of mayhem.”

          “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.”

          Christ allowed himself to become the “victim of mayhem”, as did the early Christians. True, Christians believe that his death and resurrection allowed him to conquer death. No doubt, the early martyrs believed this as well. But do you seriously believe, given the above quote, that JBP thinks you and I should *keep* our swords sheathed when we are in danger? No. According to him, we should become formidable “monsters”, capable of working our will on the world, and we should work our will on the world. That is not what the beatitude is about. The beatitude is about submission to the providence of God in the reception of wrongs, which is not what JBP advocates.

          • The sword is metaphoric—also a symbol on skilful knowledge—to be used in the right context. It’s the same problem: you are applying literal methodology to metaphorical truth. There is no ‘simple interpretation’ (interpretation of biblical statements is anything but simple). These biblical injunctions are like Zen Koans. There are situational, and they are complex. That doesn’t mean that there are an infinite number of interpretations, I never said that.

            Christ used what the buddhist called ‘skillful means’. There were times when he turned the other cheek and other times when he took the sword to the temple. That is Peterson’s point I think.

            You seem to be looking for an orthodox interpretation, which is fine if you want to outline church dogma. But that isn’t what Peterson is doing, which makes him confusing for traditionalists and atheists alike.

  10. dirk says

    May one say that Peterson is wrong here? Peterson is not a scientist looking for objective truth. What he is after is : meaning, new, 21th century meaning of an old text, not what was meant at that time, but in our own, to make present life easier to grasp and live. Something what Clifford Geertz also always sought in different cultures.

    • cacambo says

      Sounds very–dare I say it?–“postmodern” to me.

      • dirk says

        It is, but this whole post modern thing is not so widespread, and ruling the western world and universities because of nothing (even if we may believe Peterson)! It is not something completely stupid! There is some grain of dialectic truth and value in it, even in a platform such as Quillette.

    • Jon says

      I wouldn’t say it’s postmodern as much as it’s just pragmatic. Of course pragmatism can be postmodern but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

  11. John AD says

    Oh Lordy. Perhaps we can just shut up with the relentless arguments over parsing of ancient texts and their translations already.

    • You seem to feel quite strongly about this. Do you have these impulses often? Any other topics you feel people shouldn’t be permitted to speak on? Do tell us more.

  12. How you understand the demand to submit to the will of God depends on what do you understand as God. For JBP God is something in which you manifest necessary faith, your highest value. Approaching Beatitudes and Bible with this in mind may change perspective on how you read it

  13. E M Chan says

    Christ is a living exemplar of the Beatitudes and yet He: Overturned the tables of synagogue money changers; meekly surrendered to the Roman guard.

    He is our prime example and He sheathed His sword till His second coming. I see Peterson’s point and perceive it sound. Many say rightly that Biblical truth is not always one dimensional.

  14. Rick G. says

    Hmm. I went on bible hub and did find a little support for Peterson’s description. And I have often heard many pastors describe meekness as “power under control”

    http://biblehub.com/greek/4239.htm
    “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.]”

    • I actually discussed that quote, believe it or not, in an earlier draft of this article. It has the same problem that Hastings and Peterson have – it’s a reading motivated by preconceptions about what Christ must mean. I thought that Hastings interpretation was stronger evidence for Peterson though, so this one didn’t make the final cut.

      I think that a lot of these criticisms would be defused if people actually watched JBP’s clips. I’m not saying that you can’t speculate as to what muscular Christianity looks like. I’m saying that he has overstepped in affirmatively claiming that “meek” is a bad translation, and further in claiming that he has better translated it with his gloss. It’s actually a very narrow criticism, mostly damaging on in its implications.

      If you believe so strongly in Christ and his example that you allow yourself to be fed to the lions, that’s incredibly brave. It requires incredible strength. But JBP is invoking this beatitude to support active resistance – just check him out whenever he talks about the beatitudes or swords. He’s not into Christ-like submission to mayhem. He’s down with fighting against mayhem. You need that sword, because you might have to use it. He’s right – it’s just that neither the beatitude nor Christ’s conduct, nor the conduct of the early Christians, support his position. As far as I’m concerned, his position doesn’t need Christ’s support.

  15. deBarnik says

    While it seems to be true that Peterson’s translation lacks citations, it can be argued that is essentially congruous with the meaning of the word πρᾶος, at least from what I can find through simple research on the net.

    πρᾶος seems to convey a sort of power under control, as in its use to describe a tamed horse (and its etimology is shared with the word “free”, which I find rather interesting).

    The common translation “gentle” also implies the knowledge and proper control of one’s strength, otherwise how can someone know when and how to be gentle? You have to know what it means not to be gentle too; to know where the lines are drawn. In such sense the mastery of one’s abilities, skills and strength can be easily conceived as a sheathed sword, just as a tamed horse maintans its fierce characteristics but now under control, that can now be properly aimed with purpose.

    I could also find a quote atributed to Aristotle describing meekness as powers controlled and exercised with discernment.

    In light of this I find the content of this article rather weak because it seems to fail to show how Peterson is “wrong” in his interpretation.

    On the other hand I also ask for more knowledgeable interlocutors to chime in because I am not myself any well versed in ancient greek and I am talking only from what I could find myself.

  16. dirk says

    I don’t think it useful or positive to use linguistic methodology in questions of whether Peterson is right or wrong. Recently, in the NL, we have the new wave of Salafism, muslims that want to live straight, exactly following the examples of prophets 1400 yr ago (also in food habits, clothing, beard, other prescriptions). Somewhere, I understand why, and what they are after. But, on the other hand,is this orthodoxy leading to something? Does it help us, to understand what 2000 yrs ago was meant by -meek- (in greek, aramee, latin, or hebrew?) I don’t think so. Better, concentrate on the now. And don’t forget, in times that only weapons and despotic power ruled, -meek- was not felt the same as how it is now, in democratic times, where guilt and underdogs are something positive.

  17. cacambo says

    One of the things that I appreciate about Quillette is that it provides an outlet for young writers–grad students and “educational consultants”–to reach a wide audience. When I read thoughtful pieces like this it makes me hopeful for the future.

  18. Karen O. says

    To me, Peterson’s ‘meekness’ is much more profound and deeply meaningful, and goes beyond Justin Shelby’s facile thoughts on the matter. Shelby thinks he is being clever in his critique, but his ‘analysis’ is unfortunately simplistic and too literal. “Those who have swords, and know how to use them, but KEEP THEM SHEATHED,” is not at all inconsistent with all the things Shelby had mentioned : being mild, humble, patient, gentle and bearing with one another in love. Shelby focused only on the word ‘sword’ in its facile literal meaning, rather than the words “keep them sheathed”. “Sword’ to me symbolizes strength, fortitude, confidence, without which one cannot TRULY be patient, humble, mild, and bearing with one another in love and in acceptance of life’s suffering and complexity.

    • I mean, I’m right here. No need to talk about me in the third person! I’m sorry you feel that way. I think I’ve done my best to describe how Peterson’s claim goes far beyond your reading of it. If all he said was that meekness contained strength, I wouldn’t disagree. No one who knows the Gospels or the early Christians would deny their strength and bravery. But Peterson is overstepping here, rather badly. He is interpreting the beatitude to support the cultivation of an aggressive capacity which you can use to defend yourself and others. Just watch him talk about swords or the beatitude in any of his numerous videos. I don’t even think he’s wrong; it’s just that the beatitude isn’t actually supportive of his view. I don’t think his view needs its support. Thanks for reading and commenting though.

      • Karen O. says

        Justin, thank you for your reply ! No disrespect intended by referring to you by your last name though, and I apologize if you took offense to that.

        I wonder if you are not making a rash conclusion between ‘sword’ and the limiting idea of it being “cultivation of an aggressive capacity” ? The word of God is likened to a sword (Hebrews 4:12 ; Ephesians 6:17 ; Revelation 1:16 ). Interesting Joseph Campbell discussion in this exchange: “BILL MOYERS: Well, Jesus talked of bringing a sword, and I don’t believe he meant that in terms of using it against your fellow [man], but he meant it in terms of opening the ego, I came to cut you free from the blinding ego of your own self-centeredness.

        JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is what’s known in Sanskrit as Viveka, discrimination, and there is a Buddha figure called Manjushri, who will be…who’s shown with a flaming sword over his head.

        BILL MOYERS: Yes.

        JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And what is the sword for? It’s to distinguish the merely temporal from the eternal. It’s the sword that distinguishes that which is enduring from that which is merely passing. The tick-tick-tick of time shuts out eternity, and we live in the field of time. But what is living in the field of time is an eternal principle that’s inflected this way.”

        To me, this needs further research into the sword symbolism, both in Christianity and through other historical & cultural contexts, and much clarification is needed from Jordan Peterson himself as to his use of the sword symbolism . I understand in both the Christian and other cultural contexts, the sword deals with self-protection, justice and truth; in Buddhism the sword deals with discrimination of thought; in alchemy, a spiritual purification. Your equating the sword singularly with aggression, seems to me to be overly simplistic and largely unhelpful. You also continue to ignore the important & fundamental part of his statement “But keep them sheathed”. Thank you.

    • dirk says

      That’s maybe what Iran and North Korea think, better have the sword (though in the sheath) than give up our nuclear program, it can help us to live more peacefully and safe in the end.

  19. derek says

    If you look at the 20th century history of religious pacifism, you see people with spines of steel, with no fear of the authorities, but with a fear of God.

    Read the Mitrokhin Archives, about a third of it is about Soviet infiltration of western religious organizations and their attempt to stamp out a small group of ‘meek’ Christians who would not be intimidated into silence. Meek describes a woman with children challenging the authority of an apparatchik with the power of life and death, and in time prevailing. The apparatchiks are gone, but these christian people remain to live their lives of faith.

    Christians in the first three centuries overturned an empire. Not through conquest, but through individuals making the hard and costly decisions to adopt a faith and live it’s precepts against the accepted and enforced norms of the time.

    I view the word as meaning in contrast to the proud and arrogant powers that acted with impunity as they stole from the powerless and acted as tyrants. They wanted to possess the earth through conquest, elimination of enemies and violence. In fact they would lose.

  20. dirk says

    So, sword in 21the century US means confidence, good to know, I hear Martha Nussbaum in the background.

  21. Lincoln Dunstan says

    I think the count is 35 so far and the article only just hit my computer!! Live on JBP!!

  22. Tan Thin Ye says

    Dear readers, I think the points made by both scholars, JBP and Justin are correct in their very own way. The differences that lead to a different intrepretation is due to different goals.

    While Christ fulfill the desire of his father, we can only completely follow this if we were a Christian.And even so, didn’t Christ himself implied that being too righteous will lead you to an earlier halt in the cause?
    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://biblehub.com/matthew/10-16.htm&ved=2ahUKEwiL54vnyfHbAhXMXisKHTZBAbgQFjAAegQIAxAB&usg=AOvVaw1PA7Ch9vjRfu7vCJAukVL5

    JBP however try to reconcile our goals with ourselves, which may or may not be what Christ wants, simply because what you want isn’t necessarily what christ wants.
    And here, the meekness can signify many things.
    Take an example the shealthed sword : a weapon of your own, which can signify your ability to cause mayhem but you didn’t use it, simply because the time is not right or the situation isn’t right.

    Hence in both situation I think it is a question to choose between whether to be meek or not rather than defining meek as an absolute beattitude.

    And that’s a lot of wisdom to it.

    Dear JBP and Justin, I hope u guys give an opinion on this if you are reading this, see whether I resonate with you guys. If not, do correct me thank you!

  23. I do think meek is not the best word in English, a quick google of definition includes “easily imposed upon” it confers in english too much of cowardice, and going to the lions for your faith is not cowardly. So I think you both have a point, JP is embellishing, that’s obvious by taking one word and replacing with a sentence of 15 or so words , to fit what he hopes for, but there is a point, meek is not correct.

    • You’re right. In that sense, even “meek” is a bit of a gloss. Gentle might be better. My “exegetical translation” (read: gloss) would be: “Submissive to the Will of God.” Especially in the context of πτώχοι, from πτώσσω “to shrink, or cringe”, but normally translated “poor”, in the proximate beatitude.

  24. This discussion shows a truth about what happens when we think about virtues. We want clear definitions so we can comprehend the text as much as possible on its own terms, at least at the start. However, we often end up seeing how the virtues overlap with and sometimes require each other in order to be understood. Courage, for example, is a virtue, but unchecked courage is not. Something like prudence or even “gentleness” is required. With the word under discussion, this seems especially true. At one pole, pure “meekness” just seems like weakness; at another, combined with power, it seems itself a powerful capacity for self-control.

    The more I thought about the complexity of the virtue of gentleness, the more I thought of the virtue of temperance, especially in relation to describing a tame or trained or well-tempered horse. I also thought of the old idea that the cardinal virtues ultimately depend on the theological virtues for their ultimate purposes. Reading 1 corinthians 13 in this particular light surprised me because part of Paul’s poem there seems to be describing something like “gentleness:”

    “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (NSRV).

    So although interpreting the passage scrupulously in its very specific context is an important moment in interpretation of the text on its own terms, it is also just an inevitable starting point–because what these words are trying to lead us toward (say, “pros ton theon” or something like that) really does involve a larger context of meaningfulness and activity–an actual movement toward something (or some not-a-thing).

  25. dirk says

    @Justin: I didn’t study it myself , but remember to have read that also Nietzsche (mentioned sometimes by Peterson) described Jesus as a strong, manly and uncompromising prophet, not as the man of the Mount Sermon of Matthew (note; he was the only evangelist to report about this preaching on meeks, hungry, mediocres and downtrodden). I would not even be surprised if he just stole this more masculine image of Jesus from Nietzsche.

  26. Nice piece, I enjoyed reading it and scanning some of the comments. I’m no scholar but I thought I would humbly offer an interpretation of the subject that occurred to me about 20 years ago… That use of the word “inherit” implies that the belligerent would ultimately kill each other off, bequeathing this plane to the designs of the more gentle.

  27. The mere fact that Jordan Peterson has managed to get YOU, finally, talking about biblical matters that you are actually paid to opine upon for a change – (instead of the usual headlines you make sticking your unwelcome left wing nose into national political matters) is already a sufficient contribution.

  28. Rick Phillips says

    A process comment….

    Fascinant! Thank you all for bringing your facts and arguments to bear. Thank you Justin for your active engagement with commentators. I am getting education I didn’t receive in Sunday school and I getting exposure I missed doing economics.

  29. Jon says

    I honestly don’t see the problem with Peterson’s statement. You have to keep in mind that he’s analyzing the Bible from the perspective of a psychologist not from the perspective of a preacher.

    Meek people are often seen as weak. Peterson is saying that the meek aren’t weak, they are strong individuals who have faced their inner darkness and overcome it. How is this a controversial statement?

  30. Aaron Shaw says

    Why the [sic] ? Seems a fair assumption to assume he’s referring to a King James edition.

  31. John says

    Justin, do you believe in “using up” your children?
    Quite something to assign to a loving God.
    I did a double take on that.

    It requires a lot more “manliness” to be meek than to be violent.
    Particularly for aggressive or short tempered individuals. Like the human ape for example.
    (You may have noticed a little violence in human history.)
    Numbers 12:3 (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.) This “meek” man committed a murder when he saw a fellow Hebrew being beaten. “After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses.” 40 years tending sheep in the desert is what it took Moses to become “very meek”.
    Peterson is not so far away in his definition.
    (oh btw, it was Jesus who told Peter to sheath his sword – Peter had some temper issues , and he had a sword- he apparently died crucified up side down.)
    I get the impression it’s not Peterson who is doing the shoe-horning here.

    • I don’t even use up my dogs! But the evidence is what it is and the text says what it says. I agree, it’s surprising. This notion of consumption is even baked in to the verbs. When the beatitude says, so and so “shall be satisfied” the Bible uses the verb χορτάζω, which comes from χόρτος, “hay”, and was initially used of feeding grazing animals: the ones that you keep to kill and eat. The lord is my shepherd…why do shepherds keep sheep? As pets? Christ is the lamb of God. It just goes on and on. To emulate the lamb is to emulate the thing that is to be sacrificed and consumed. That said, your incredulity demonstrates exactly the problem. When we cherish an image or an idea, we start to measure that image and idea by our preconceptions of it and become blind to what new things might be discovered about that image by a close examination of it. This is especially true when we form associations and ideas from translations, which themselves lose relevant meaning or import additional meanings that don’t actually exist in the text. It sucks. It’s why I avoid translations

      I also wouldn’t send my perfectly innocent son to be tortured and killed to somehow cleanse the world of sin. Nor would I, prior to that, demand the blood sacrifices of animals for a thousand years or the circumcision of my followers. But the loving God of the Bible did. The idea that God would “use up” his followers isn’t even a little surprising given all of this. God isn’t required to comply with my morality.

      I never said that there can’t be strength in meekness. I am saying that Peterson’s gloss attempts to use the beatitude to support an image of defensive aggression that is foreign to the word praos. Biblical meekness is much more likely to see you fed to the lions or nailed to a cross than encourage you to actively defend yourself in the way that Peterson recommends.

  32. Quiddam says

    Aquinas is a good bet for definitions. Meekness, he talks about with clemency. They are not the same, though, clemency is from a superior to an inferior and deals with punishment, so it is similar to merciful. Meekness, or gentleness, or good tempered, is with everybody, and is about the temperance of anger, more on the side of lacking in anger than in excess. And it comes from Aristotle, he uses that same word. Here is a link to the original Greek.
    http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0053%3Abekker%20page%3D1126a%3Abekker%20line%3D1

    Or the translation, it is book 4 chapter 5
    http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.4.iv.html

  33. I love this piece and the commentary it generated, but I think we’re largely ignoring two key ideas:

    1. Peterson defines the term with a metaphor, and in this metaphor, you can easily read the definition described in the article as well as the alternative, stalwart strength interpretation referenced in the comments. This suggests the issue isn’t scholarly integrity, but communication style. We can’t forget Peterson often speaks in metaphor.

    2. Even if Peterson interpreted the story in an unpopular (or absolutely unique) way, that is his right as interpreter. Stories evolve with the surrounding context. That’s what gives narrative the strength it has. It would take a religious fundamentalist to insist a story in the Bible can only mean one of numerous resonant interpretations. Especially when an interpretations hews so close to the popular interpretion.

  34. As near as I can tell, the Jungian method of interpreting myth (which is Peterson’s method) is to look for something useful or important related to the myth, and then shoehorn that into the myth, using any glosses, re-interpretations, omissions, and insertions as are necessary to do so. What Peterson is doing in the Beatitudes is just what he does to other writings that he considers myths.

    As near as I can tell, Justin, you think that Peterson is trying to do what Christian teachers try to do, which is understand the message that God really intended us to get from a passage. For your purposes, understanding the original language as well as possible is vitally important. For Peterson’s purposes, it is not particularly relevant.

    Peterson does not believe in an omnipotent God who wants to make a broken mankind understand what is wrong with us and how we can be repaired. Peterson believes in a broken mankind that is all alone in our hopeless struggle to understand what is wrong with us and how to fix it. What he is doing, honorably enough, is trying to offer solace and pain relief in our hopeless situation (hopeless because we all die in the end), and he uses myths to provide those things.

    Peterson is not trying to tell the truth in any absolute or literal sense. He doesn’t even seem to believe in such a thing because he is a philosophical Pragmatist. To Peterson, what is true is what is successful (in an almost Darwinian sense). Applied to myth, what this means is that the “true” interpretation of a myth is the one that leads to the most success.

    With his non-belief, his viewing of scripture as myth, and his rejection of absolute truth, Peterson would have been recognized as an extremely anti-Christian voice fifty years ago. Since then, the Left has so successfully suppressed Christianity that even a relativist, Darwinian, non-believer can be seen as a champion of Christianity. I’m not saying that people are wrong to view him as a champion of Christianity, just that it is curious how context effects alliances.

    • AC Harper says

      I’m glad someone else has gone to the effort of discussing what Peterson *is* rather than what other people expect him to be.

      I’ve been mulling over how inappropriate it is to criticise Peterson the theologian, Peterson the scholar, or Peterson the politician when truly he is none of those things. I have come around to the idea that Peterson is carefully and deliberately vague about theology, scholarship and politics because he has a wider aim – that of ‘healing’ troubled people who are suffering from unfounded views of the world. You could make a good argument that Peterson follows in Jung’s footsteps – people still argue about whether Jung was a scientist, a healer, a guru, or a mystic.

      To summarise you can criticise Peterson for his scholarship, but he is not a scholar. You wouldn’t get away with criticising an Old Master who painted a biblical scene for the lack of historical realism.

      And if you are still intent on debating scholarly interpretations… how carefully was the intent (or the underlying archetypes!) of the Beatitudes actually recorded in the first case? To privilege the written world is just one way of introducing bias to suit modern expectations.

  35. You make an interesting case, and also articulate why it is difficult to read so deeply into The Bible – I think it is clear that the Christ figure exists on an ethic that does not relate to Darwinian biological survival, but rather, welcomes death rather than doing harm. It is impossible to live up to, and yet…

  36. MadKangaroo says

    OK, I’m not a theologian, nor can I parse Greek/Hebrew etc. but…

    Matthew 26: 53-54: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

    Jesus says, firstly, that he has both the means and authority to deal out lethal force. He goes on to say that he abstains from doing so for a specific purpose, i.e., he *must* be crucified.

    In addition, without posting a lot of verses, we all know that the Bible recounts numerous cases of lethal force being used to accomplish God’s purposes or even simple justice (e.g., the execution of murderers is a command).

    So, while Peterson probably overstates his case, it is not implausible to argue that biblical “meekness,” like mercy, can only be exercised by those who have the means, the right, and the will to employ force, but abstain in order to accomplish specific ends.

  37. dirk says

    Maybe nice to know also how meek is expressed or translated in French and German. French: doux, German; sanftmutig, so, both soft, softies. The first category to be blessed in that Sermon are the -poor of mind-, what I understood from child-age onwards as the crazy ones. If you go into theology, it appears that every century , from Meister Eckart onward, has translated it on its own way, given it a different meaning, and not the one of my childhoods understanding.

    • dirk says

      Peeping quickly into dutch religious blogs; I see that the poors of mind (of my youth) in religious texts and preaches has already been changed into something else, because, we now live in an egalitarian world, nobody wants to be seen as poor anymore, and certainly not poor of mind.

  38. It looks like JBP’s utterances will shortly have been parsed as closely as the Bible.
    .
    Something the commenter Dirk said about Salafis choosing to get completely wrapped up in Islamic texts, choosing a practical, embodied project in which to order your life.. Peterson is interested in this – in everyone jointly getting into specifically the myths which underpin this civilisation. Rather than, as has been happening, everyone picking their own random mythology. Civilisation *is* that joint interest in doing the maintenance, while keeping it from ossifying into dogma. Which is what he’s doing in consulting Bible Hub while playing fast and loose with what he read there.
    So, NITPICKING!

  39. martti_s says

    Well, that just about changes everything, doesn’t it.

  40. ukcj4 says

    Peterson’s gloss is an interpretation that I have been aware of for many years and heard growing up in a very conservative (many would say even fundamentalist) group of churches, so I am surprised that the writer is so surprised by the interpretation.

    I have always thought in a very basic way that this interpretation is actually a fundamental feature of Jesus’ life and teaching (and by extension God’s character), so I think it is entirely consistent with a clear understanding of New Testament teaching.

    For one, at the time of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden, he clearly invokes this idea in Matthew’s account, both by telling Peter to sheath his sword and secondly by telling his betrayer that he could call legions of angels to his side to stop those who were seizing him. The fact that he chooses not to do this is central to the Gospel story and our understanding of Jesus – and I think a Christian understanding of himself.

    To bring it forward into the teaching of the Apostles, the Word of God is often referred to itself as a sword that the follower of Christ is (or should be) equipped with. It is often described as powerful and specifically said to be able to pierce to the inner most part of a person (which echoes Hebrew Bible/Old Testament accounts of the power of the Word of God as well). How should a Christian use this “power”?

    I suppose on the point that follows some would argue that the analogy between the behavior of Jesus and what should be the behavior of the Christian with his or her sword breaks down, but I don’t think so. Paul, especially, emphasizes the use of God’s Word or truth in or with love, which clearly reflects a kind of meekness (see I Co 13 or Ep 4 and 6). Yes, one should also cast down arguments and be equipped like a soldier for spiritual battle, but the object of the war and the use of the weapon is not utter defeat of the enemy, but instead is gentle conversion of the enemy. So evil is overcome with good and anger is “killed” with kindness.

    Of course, the article writer’s position on what meek means puts him in a tougher spot than me in trying to line up the meaning of the Beatitude with both the very nature and exhibited character of Jesus (the account in the Garden is only one example of his hinting subtly and not so subtly that he is really the one with the upper hand in many situations that appear otherwise) and the use of war and soldier imagery in describing the Christian. I suppose the article writer thinks these things to be sloppy contradictions of the ill-educated writers of the New Testament? Or perhaps he has another synthesis.

    All of this is to say that Peterson is not off-base and I think in fact that he is making a great point about the beatitude. And, as I think with many biblical concepts, there is probably truth in both the writer’s concept of meekness and in Peterson’s. Both are probably to be true of the Christian who is to be trained and disciplined in the use of a powerful instrument but is to wield it in gentleness and love. I think this is far from a misstep that will hurt Peterson’s mission (though there may be others like his understanding of religious liberty issues, though I think he will come around on that).

    • ukcj4 says

      Let me add that I think it is one of the great challenges of being a Christian to get the right balance on this very issue – what we might think of as the balance between offensive and defensive uses of a Christian sources of “power” (mostly scripture, but other concepts could be talked about here, hope, faith, love, etc.).

      I think the New Testament suggests to us that early Christians had a special mission of suffering and that suffering for their faith would be a specific witness to future generations about the truth claims of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Not that later Christians would not suffer as well in many ways, but that a time would come when Christians could actually practice their faith and worship in a culture where there was not a constant threat of being fed to the lions.

      Maybe Peterson has said more on this than the writer here puts directly into his article and he does advocate his idea of meekness as include the proactive use of physical violence, but that is not in the quote that is cited. Of course, and maybe this is where Peterson is off, but I think the article tries to say much more than this, maybe Peterson is committing a category error of sorts in using a spiritual concept and twisting it to a merely physical context. But I don’t think so. I have heard Peterson talk about words being used as weapons (particularly when talking about relationships among women) so I think he is merely using the clear physical example here as a reference not as a full interpretation of the beatitude. But, then, maybe Peterson is lacking in his spiritual understanding (for now) which is probably a true statement, but, again, I think the article is trying to say more than this.

      My guess is that Peterson would agree with the writer here that the early Christians actually fit his understanding of the beatitude. They were ready for what they faced and actually “strong” as exhibited in their meekness in facing it. Again, I cut be wrong but I don’t think Peterson is saying that Jesus was saying that you always have to be able to physically beat up the other guy to inherit the earth. He would probably say that you have to be stronger enough to die sometimes for what you believe to inherit the earth.

      • ukcj4 says

        One more thought (building on what Nathan said above which was very good) . . .

        Meekness applies to a person wherever they stand in life. If they are “weak” in some sense, their weakness must be held in meekness (couldn’t resist). If they are “strong” in some sense, the same applies.

        Perhaps Peterson is being too narrow in his specific application, but I think he gets the concept quite right as he applies it.

        If we assume that meekness does not require weakness (which I think some mistakenly do though I am not suggesting the writer does), then it would intersect with other virtues like growing stronger in your understanding of Jesus’ teaching or in your faith, etc., and it would be the goal of the Christian (for Peterson more broadly to anyone) to have meekness apply to them as such a “strong” person, so that becomes, in a sense, the ultimate application of the concept.

        Enough from me on this, but I think it is difficult to separate the Beatitude biblically from notion of strength (exhibited clearly in Jesus and a goal of his followers) and I think it is the most useful (but certainly not the only way) way to apply it more broadly in life both to restrain the potentially abusive use of “strengths” of all kinds and to help inculcate in everyone a kind of humility that we all need and need most where we think we are strong.

    • Yes. The key difference however, is that Peterson is not encouraging us to suffer wrongs, even from a position of strength. He wants us to use that sword. He wants us to avoid becoming victims. In this, as other commenters have pointed out, he is ethically superior to Christ:

      “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.”

      The implication here is that, if you have the capability for mayhem (the sword), you can, if need be, use it. That’s the key difference. Christ advocates the suffering of wrongs in faith and strength – his actions and the actions of the early Christians attest to this. Peterson advocates the drawing of the sword to avoid becoming the victim of mayhem. His encouraging of his followers to become formidable “monsters” attests to this.

  41. Stephen Hoffman says

    From the moment we are born, we learn to use our tongues, hands and minds to protect, wound, build and destroy. We never give up those faculties. In that sense we all have swords strapped to our sides and are ready to use them. But that does not prevent us from being πραΰς, gentle. Peterson has as much right as Matthew or John the Baptist to expound on the true meaning of Christ’s words, as well as on what true “gentleness” entails, for a soldier as well as for a scholar. No one should try to deprive him of that right. I’m thinking of you, commenters who use “postmodern” as a scare word. Like the best postmodernists (e.g. Thomas Kuhn) Peterson seems to know that language is the mother of truth (scientific as well as religious).

    • I’m not interested in depriving him of any of his “rights”. However, it does strike me as almost farcical that a man who cannot read Greek purports, in front of millions of people, to correct the translations made by the scholar/translators of one of the most studied pieces of literature in human history. Especially when his “translation” runs contrary to the majority of the sources that he cites, contrary to the Greek, is contrary to the relevant images that surround it, and transparently serves his pre-existing notions and judgements.

      Sure, everyone has the “right” to say any silly thing he or she likes. But if I tried to comment on, much less correct, a translation of the Quran, the Tanakh, or the Baghavad-Gita but had no knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, or Sanskrit, you’d laugh at me. And you’d be right. It’s a credit to Peterson’s immense charisma and presence that we didn’t laugh at him when he attempted this gloss.

  42. Camilo De Mayo says

    Mediocre linguistic definition with a Jordan Peterson name-drop to impress the Quillette Editors.

    For an article aimed at discounting one thing Peterson mentioned in hundreds of hours of online content it doesn’t make the mark.
    Even a quick Google search and a look at the top 5 responses to the meaning of ‘meek’ in Koine Greek it usually contains the act of surpression of a power or ability to tame animals (and we should assume that a sword was a ubiquitous form of physical power at the time).
    Maybe Peterson’s interpretation fits his rhetoric and that’s really why he uses it. We should already know that.

    • “Peterson’s interpretation fits his rhetoric that’s really why he uses it.” Is this not tantamount to saying that it really doesn’t matter what Peterson says, or what evidence he uses, so long as we know what he means?

  43. Petros T says

    As a Greek I would say that “πράος” feels intuitively closer to “calm” than to “meek”. A translation that I found from ancient greek is “that does not explode in anger, calm”. Note that the same word is still used in modern greek, but the meaning may have shifted. There is a hint of power or strength within that word, I would add. I would never say that a child is “πράος”, but you could say that for a king or a soldier or a judge.

    Anyway, I don’t have a specific knowledge of the field and I would not argue against your thoughtful essay. It’s just that Peterson’s interpretation did not strike me as particularly wrong based on my instinctive understanding of the language.

  44. listdervernunft says

    I think Peterson’s translation is at least useful and arguably acceptable. Interestingly enough, “The Japan Bible Society” translates the term as “柔和” (nyuu-wa) which is composed of the characters often used for words connoting “softness,” “elasticity,” and “serenity,” implying a peaceful demeanor [but one] with the potential to “snap back” and retaliate at any time. In this sense, the Thomistic notion of meekness as “temperance of anger” seems to accommodate Peterson’s gloss rather nicely, no? Put otherwise, there is a cultivated self-reflectedness, a secret mastery implicit in the meaning.

    https://www.proz.com/kudoz/english_to_japanese/religion/854828-the_meek_shall_inherit_the_earth.html?print=1

    • dirk says

      Compare the -sanftmutig- of your own language,l.d.Vernunft! And, of course, in a country of monks and monasteries, and the samurai of once, serenity and elasticity are understood and valued by a majority. The Bible is also just client oriented, as in society and commerce at large.

      • listdervernunft says

        I agree, dirk. But even the “mutig” in “sanftmutig” suggests a hint of “bravery” or “courage”, no? Sometimes it is the concept itself than needs to be looked at, rather than the [original] word(s) used to describe it. A translation can have a clarifying or enhancing effect on its source material from time to time–like that of a hearing aid on someone born deaf.

  45. Fran says

    Is not the problem that in modern English, passivity is conflated with meekness? The arguments about classical Greek are beyond me, but I get that Peterson is saying that it is a bad thing to be passive in the face of any of life’s problems, and if Jesus really meant that, he was wrong.

    • Yes. That’s the crux and irony of it. Jesus is wrong, Peterson is right, but Peterson is so desirous of the authority of scripture that he bends the beatitude out of shape.

  46. Andrew Roddy says

    Is it not just that Peterson doesn’t really do meek and when he is co-opting a ‘meta-hero’ it doesn’t suit his purpose to allow that hero to espouse meekness as a virtue? So he just batters the round peg into the square hole a bit. Not a Federal matter, in my view. I would suggest he does it quite a bit but I was reading this piece more in the spirit of a sample charge. Is it not a fairly common thing to do? I hope it is because I catch myself doing it all the time. I suppose Peterson is vulnerable to accusation here because he prides himself on being so exacting and rigorous with language and is often quick to call out those who transgress in this regard. He might, of course, offer more latitude to those with whom he finds himself in broad agreement – just like rest of us might. Maybe he’s just like the rest of us. If he wasn’t he couldn’t really have anything to say.

    ‘It (the Bible) has been translated and thought about more than any other product of Western culture,’
    A product of Western culture? Really? West of where exactly?

    I thought this piece was bang on. I find Peterson and the controversy he generates very interesting.

    • Thank you! You don’t count Christianity as Western? West of the Caspian Sea? I always thought of “Athens and Jerusalem” as a family squabble. “Athens, Jerusalem, and Mecca” as a much more severe family squabble, but still all in the family. I work in Asia proper – over here, even things like basic identity formation occur along different conceptual lines. So, yeah, Western culture. Thanks for reading!

    • Also, I’m with you, Peterson is fascinating as a phenomenon. I find myself caring less about what he’s saying and more about what he is, in a kind of world-historical sense. Check out the third essay in Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. I think that Peterson is a dead ringer for the “ascetic priest” that Nietzsche describes. Very interesting stuff.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        Thanks, Justin. The quote reference ‘ The Bible’ rather than Christianity. Surely no small distinction.

  47. dirk says

    As a final remark (or end of the road one) a reflection on the why, and not of the what. Another recent Q. thread -Beware of the root cause- is rather negative about the possibity of such a quest. But why woould JP have entamated this embellishing/correction of an old text in the first place? And why did he pick out that meek, among all the other deplorable traits (poor of mind, sad, hungry, oppressed etc). One thing is sure: meek does not fit at all in his philosophy of masculine archetypes, with eternal or sustainable value for mankind It needs some adaption, otherwise christianity has to be given up altogether, also not fitting.
    Second: why this Mount Sermon, in Matthew? (none of the other evangelists talk about such a Sermon). In theological circles, it is often contested whether Matthew was the only author. Has this Sermon maybe been added by later authors/improvers? Early Christianity developed in a flourishing empire, where thanks to the sword ever more people and tribes were conquered and subdued. But the slaves and paupers (proletes, the proletarians of the later Marx) also became a bigger and bigger problem. Did they feel subservient? Were they faithful to the (almost godly) emperor? Was diversity not becoming a threat to civilian rights and feeling of belonging! There were rumours about an alternative way of life, and a new prophet. Small, illegal (dangerous!) communities with adherents to this prophet sprouted everywhere, Paulus wrote his letters to the growing herd of believers, the emperor tried to eradicate these communities, with that strange message of meekness and existence of another empire, Authority and eschatology. The rest is history, Christianity spread out and got rooted firmly in the West and even some parts of the East and South.

  48. Peterson’s ethics are superior to the Bible’s, in this case. The article makes the point that anyone espousing Peterson’s actual ethics, of being strong but restrained, should not use that particular Beatitude to justify them. And I agree. But it is the ethics of the Beatitude which are in fact less important than Peterson’s here. It makes me glad I am not a bible-believing Christian and therefore feel no obligation to reconcile what it says with what I believe to be ethical. Perhaps the Beatitude’s ethics were more appropriate to its historical time and place, when humble submission to the will of God was indeed virtuous and profound. But in our time and place, such advice just appears “meek” and is not something worthy of active emulation. In our times, we need to bring the full force of our own ethical consciousness to what we do. A mass-shooter should not be allowed to simply shoot a bunch of people, because Jesus said that the “meek will inherit the earth.” Ethical people must fight back, and it is a stain on modern Christianity when they defend such nonsense. That said, discretion is critical: Martin Luther King and Gandhi, for example, did *extremely* well with the biblical ethic. But in the general case, meekness is merely half of virtue, and Peterson’s has it right with his “sheathed sword.”

    • Traditional Christianity is “Bible-believing,” but it doesn’t see the Bible alone as the rule of faith. In addition to Scripture are Tradition and the Magisterium, and Aquinas wrote clearly about what “meekness” means while also writing about self-defense and just wars. Meekness is nothing more than not flying off the handle and letting anger control you. Don’t take Protestantism as “what Christianity is”; it isn’t.

      • For what it’s worth, I favor Paul’s injunction in 2 Corinthians to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter, and I take this to include the letters of the bible itself. Nothing can replace the presence of an actual human being when it comes to questions of right and wrong. Paul was right about that.

  49. I agree, as I say in the article. What’s interesting and questionable is how and why Peterson feels the need to buttress his arguments with the evidence of the Beatitude. For someone who generally likes Peterson, this may be a “questionable question”. But I’d go a step further – the successes of Martin Luther King and Gandhi happened in the context of parallel violent movements, which were then white-washed out of history by the authorities. My favorite book on the subject is “How Non-Violence Protects the State” by Peter Gelderloos. Check it out: a quick and very good read.

    • One good reason is that when scripture aligns with good common sense morals, one runs no risk of offending either party. If one is also trying to proselytize the message that “tradition matters,” which Peterson is definitely also doing, it makes sense to emphasize only those scriptures which agree with one’s morals, and tactfully avoid or deemphasize those which don’t. I don’t really blame Peterson for this larger project, because, well, I agree that tradition matters. But anyone doing this still needs to be held accountable, like you’re doing here. The world is better both for his accomplishments and for your holding him accountable. Thank you.

  50. Derick Jelley says

    I appreciate the thoroughness of this piece, but I have one small quibble. While I agree Peterson may go too far in his explanation, doesn’t the word in question imply some level of competency and choice to behave against the potential of that competency? Must we not do the things necessary to be useful like the wheat and not the chaff? Must we not be the salt that has not lost its saltiness? And in terms of the translations using the word gentle, doesn’t gentle imply acting in a way less than we are capable of? We commend the gentleness of dog because we know it’s capable of violence. We tell a young child to be gentle around a newborn baby because it is capable of harm if it behaves in a way that pushes the limits of their capabilities. So gentleness, and perhaps even meekness, seems to imply some level of competency that is being willfully set aside. Perhaps Peterson is exaggerating this, but if my above premise holds true, then the stronger we are, the more meekness we may be able to show.

  51. augustine says

    Thanks for an interesting article. Reading the relevant Bible verse, I always thought it would be those without swords who would inherit the earth. Considering the messages of Jesus it doesn’t make sense that any weaponized people would inherit the world.

    • dirk says

      Fully agree augustine, especially where one looks at the context, the other Beatitudes of the Sermon, the poors of mind, the sad ones,hungry and thirsty,persecuted and peace minded (but, at the time, peace minded wouldn’t have helped you much, the violence and power couldn’t be answered properly).
      Majority of answers here, Peterson included, use reasons with a humanistic attitude, what is best to do,in my personal life, in my individual lifespan,as a democratic nation, in times of upheavals, oppression, war or violence. But how was this 2000 yrs ago? Remember the brute force and complete annihilation of Jeruzalem 70 AD, just before Matthew wrote his texts. Besides, although once in the Beatitudes it is spoken of the inheriting of the earth, in the other ones Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, the privilege of seeing God there, thus, after the earthly life. This is the 5th comment of me explaining this, I don’t think it arrives, maybe because we are not aware of the lens through which we are looking (the humanistic one, with thanks to Ruth Benedict).

      • augustine says

        dirk,

        Good point about “inherit the earth” vs. inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. The sword seems necessary, or necessary to consider, only in our earthly/worldly/secular existence. For those without belief in the transcendent the sword would have much greater significance. This goes directly to the main point of the Gospel, which is salvation by faith.

        • dirk says

          I wonder, augustine, how many here will prefer faith above the daily secular life of prosperity and well being. Interesting is the new book of Ayan Hirsi A., where she tries to integrate secular allday life with the Koran, the Transcendent and Faith. She pleads to consider earthly, daily life above that after death, in Heaven, and for sharia only in sofar it is not against the human national and international laws. However, she has very little succes with this view, few muslims take her serious, let alone will follow her advice. Even yesterday, in a TV program, an ordinary muslim about homosexuality: is not allowed by God. Period. No more discussion needed or wanted. Life is so easy for the really religious ones.

          • augustine says

            dirk,
            The so-called secular or atheistic person can escape religious community, morality and God-centeredness, but the religious man cannot escape secularity. Either way the individual makes a choice. If everyone were religious (same religion) would this mean that all experiences of living are religious? Probably the Muslims would say “yes” but I think this is a confusion of the natural, social and spiritual orders. I.e., if everything is religious then nothing is religious.

          • dirk says

            Only yesterday, augustine, I read in a religious blog that the word religious was used first time only in the 16th century. So, I imagine, before that time it was the normal lifestyle for everybody, more or less like water, and moist, are unknown concepts for fish, because there isn’t another sphere. In fact, it was he sphere of my early youth, there were no secular persons at that time, at least, I can’t remember of any.

  52. Stevie Mercury says

    You are projecting a view upon Peterson that I have never once seen him advocate.

    “Yes. The key difference however, is that Peterson is not encouraging us to suffer wrongs, even from a position of strength. He wants us to use that sword. He wants us to avoid becoming victims. In this, as other commenters have pointed out, he is ethically superior to Christ.”

    The meaning of “having a sword” is not an incitement to violence in defense of oneself. His point is that cowardice is not virtuous. If you know that you are no threat to your oppressor, then “turning the other cheek” is not an act of virtue, it is just an act of cowardice.

    The incorporation of the shadow (your knowledge that you are capable of monstrous acts) is necessary for you to be truly virtuous when turning the other cheek to those who would do you harm.

  53. Marie Farrell says

    My understanding is meekness is not strength if you have no option but to be meek. Being meek only becomes a strength when you choose to be meek. If I choose to submit because I have no choice, ie, I am afraid and unable to resist, then there is no merit.

    Humility. It is the hardest ask. It asks too much of most of us. When you meet a truly humble person you are humbled by them. I think humility and being meek are quite similar.

    I thought his explanation was good on Rogan and is a good appealing explanation to Rogan’s audience. To have strength and choose not to use it is always a popular theme on Rogan. But to choose not to use it in response to God’s will and not your own is the big difference which Jordan Peterson doesn’t really get into. That tumbles over into humility and accepting God’s will over your own. I think.

  54. Joaquim C says

    Matthew 5:5; Maybe Nietzsche built his “Tschandala” analogy also on that…
    On the other hand: the USA founding fathers were once ‘meek’ and then they win it..
    my 2cents

  55. Scholasticism lives. I enjoyed both the article and the comments. I wonder what Mr. Peterson would say, we’re he to read this. Probably, being a rather meek man in either sense of the usage, he would be glad there is a discussion and a debate. I know he is doing his best to discover meaning. So many have given up. Thanks Justin…

  56. Cynthea Sabolich says

    Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps a Greater Power wanted this discussion to occur? I am unfamiliar with JP’s statements but now that they have been presented to my mind, I rejoice in them. I never could get the ‘meek’ down pat. I love that a person of knowledge and thoughtfulness like this author would take on the task of examining it, and I have to say, in a loving way. I love that it worries him that others might hear this and become some how impacted in their relationship to the Christian message or the embracing of the Beatitudes.
    I find great peace in this view, that I can be a dangerous person, well armed, well armored, and yet can choose not to be so. THAT I can do. But meek? Well, it was never going to happen.

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  58. Chris Martin says

    This accepted definition of meekness does not fit Peterson’s world view and that’s likely why he rejected it. Peterson really really really took Solzhenitsyn to heart and he therefore would see “[s]uffering wrong patiently and without retaliation” as being complicit in act. This is why he saw it as so important to stand up against a compelled speech law. I too have always struggled with this part of Christianity. It puts so much importance on the after life and not enough on the here and now (again, why Peterson explains the sermon on the mount as aim towards the highest good and them focus on the day).

  59. Michael says

    I enjoyed reading both the article and many of the thoughtful comments underneath.

    It’s been pointed out before that this particular Beatitude is an allusion to Psalm 37:11. As such, perhaps Psalm 37 can be seen as a meditation on what meekness means and might look like; it’s worth a read in its entirety.

    If the debate comes down to eisegesis vs exegesis re JP’s interpretation of Matthew 5:5, then it’s surely worth noting that Jesus appears to reference a text that couches meekness in entirely eschatological terms. Indeed, the Kelly commentary cited above seems to offer a good definition, as Shelby suggests, and is in keeping with the imagery we see in Psalm 37.

    Without this eschatology, ‘meek’ becomes meaningless and we default to different words, like ‘weak’. I think JP identifies that our modern connotations and associations with meekness are off and that the text is robbed of its richness in the process. His definition on its own does seem to read something into the text, but I also think he hits on something by connecting meekness with choice and with power.

    What that means and looks like would have a lot to do with Christology for me, but it would be highly interesting to hear JP expand upon this and unpack this more in his own words.

  60. Trent says

    Chris Martin, there are no “compelled speech laws”. Peterson lied about this, was wrong, and his fanboys – and hyper conservatives who have a history of overreacting to anti discrimination laws designed to protect minorities they unconsciously believe are inferior (be honest, lobsters; you do not believe transgender people are real people) incessantly parrot his paranoia.

  61. Both you and Peterson think the beatitudes are a series of spiritual rules to be followed. They are not. That aside, let’s take a look at a few of your points:

    “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”

    They refer you back to Christ because a Christian believes that Christ is the strongest human in history in every way. To refer to Moses, Elijah, David, etc. would be like Peter exclaiming “Let us put up three shelters.”

    You have set up a false dichotomy between strength and meekness. Is a body builder less weak when showing gentleness? No. And in many circumstances it requires more spiritual, emotional and physical energy to be gentle with someone. This is not “read into” the word, but obvious to anyone who has actually tried to be meek in the world. It requires strength, but is not strength itself. It doesn’t mean ‘strong’ but you must be strong to take the beating and mocking meekness requires.

    “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.”

    You imply there is a lack of biblical evidence of strong people controlling their personal power to be humble before God. That implication is obviously wrong, because it occurs in most stories of the Bible. Just because he is wrong with his definition of meekness doesn’t mean the entire bible is antithetical to his idea.

    • “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.”

      The picture you develop suggest that harnessing the mayhem inside yourself is not advocated in the Gospels. Completely wrong. Mayhem within is simply what a Christian would call sin, something strongly taught against in every Gospel, frequently. Is it to shield yourself against mayhem without? Absolutely. Not death and earthly suffering as you suggest, but hell itself. “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” All of the sermon on the mount is about changing the inner heart and nature toward the good God.

      “I’m also not arguing about what “The Bible” is saying. I’m arguing about what the beatitude is saying (and what it isn’t saying).”

      You can’t say things like “it is the Biblical position” and also say this. Do you know the Biblical position or not?

      … The Gospels are an important part of the bible and you make many allusions on how to interpret the bible in your case against JP’s usage. This is not a bad thing at all, so why are you distancing yourself from the context needed to correctly interpret the beatitude? The commentators you reference certainly have a perspective on the whole bible, and by association, you do too.

      “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.”

      Judge not.

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