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Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι

Why is the τῷ omitted in English translations? At face value, the proper translations appears to be

Blessed are the poor in the spirit

This is material to me, as I would go further and interpret the spirit to mean the Spirit.


First, @Nigel J made several good points. Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics is excellent, and I agree that this is a dative of sphere.

However, this is a case of translation driving hermeneutics. Omitting the changes the range of possible interpretations by excluding the possibility that Jesus meant the Spirit. To be transparent, I believe that is what Jesus was getting at; we are spiritually bankrupt.

Personally, I am guessing that a couple of factors affected the traditional translation. First, Luke 6.20 has Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, which, from the context, is talking about material poverty. Early translators may have been attempting to harmonize Matthew to Luke, a practice with which I personally disagree. Second, translating as the spirit forces a particular conclusion, and the translators may not have been willing to do that.

I asked the question originally to see if anyone knew of where this translation tradition started or if there was some basis in Greek grammar to justify it. I don't think that the use of dative precludes translating the article, but I'm open to being corrected...

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    Are you speaking of the omission of "the"? Isn't this just how English works? e.g. "few in number", "rich in meaning", "abundant in truth". – David Apr 1 at 11:05
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    @David Or, "Poor in spirit" – Sola Gratia Apr 2 at 17:03
  • @David, I hear what you are saying. My point is, should the translator assume that is what Matthew intended, or is the translator overstepping? – Steve11235 Apr 2 at 17:48
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How should one understand Jesus’ use of the term Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι at Mt 5:3?

Danker's Concise gives two main categories, 1, a needy condition the opposite of having much and 2, ‘extremely deficient in quality’. Since these are the ones who receive the kingdom, the second definition is not contextual.

In 1a, as an adjective it can have the sense of “indigent” so that will be eliminated. At 5:3 the adjective is used substantially as a noun.

That leaves 1b with the sense of being socially oppressed (not in line with the context) and the more likely sense Danker assigns to it at Mt 5:3, “in sense of awareness of spiritual bankruptcy in contrast to self-satisfaction with spiritual status, as noun Mt 5:3.”

All senses include the “beggars stance.” The sense is this those who “beg” for spiritual enlightenment understanding they are in “spiritual bankruptcy” in contrast to those who are “self-satisfied.”

The word spirit in BDAG is said to be “difficult to determine w. certainly” but “prob. those who are poor in their inner life, because they do not have a misdirected pride in their own spiritual riches.” Their gloss for πνεύμα here is “the representative part of human inner life.”

As for why the article is omitted in English: Greek usage of the article is not the same as English. Here it is certain that the word is not a reference to “the Holy Spirit.”


Danker Concise - πτωχός, ή, όν [cp. πτοία ‘terror’ (s. πτοέω) and Homeric πτώσσω (of a beggar’s stance) ‘cower, cringe’]—1. ‘in a needy condition that is opposite of having much’, poor—a. w. focus on being in a relatively indigent state, as adj. Mk 12:42f (cp. Lk 21:3); as noun Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21; 14:5, 7; Lk 6:20; 18:22; 19:8; J 12:6, 8; Ro 15:26; 2 Cor 6:10; Gal 2:10; Js 2:2f, 5f; Rv 13:16. Of one reduced to begging Lk 16:20, 22; apparently also 14:13, 21.—b. w. focus on oppressive or social aspect of poverty and need of encouragement, as noun Mt 11:5; Lk 4:18; 7:22.—c. in . sense of awareness of spiritual bankruptcy in contrast to self-satisfaction with spiritual status, as noun Mt 5:3.

—2. ‘extremely deficient in quality’, in imagery of external aspect associated with condition of one who is extremely poor in worldly terms, shabby Gal 4:9; 1 Cor 15:10 v.l.; in related vein Rv 3:17.

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  • This didn't deserve a down vote; whoever did that should add an explanatory comment. I personally follow -c that describes a sense of "spiritual bankruptcy," a phrase I have used for some time. Seeing it in a work by Danker definitely helps. +1 – Steve11235 Apr 2 at 17:40
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    @Steve11235 Ask Nigel. He down votes all my questions and answers. – user33125 Apr 2 at 18:04
  • That's not cool. I looked at Danker's Concise, but $50 is a lot for an etextbook. I have BDAG and others in Libronix. Thank you for sharing. – Steve11235 Apr 2 at 18:08
  • @Steve11235 I use it constantly and have a PDF of it I can use on my phone. – user33125 Apr 2 at 18:11
  • From where did you get it? Is copyrighted? – Steve11235 Apr 3 at 21:02
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μακαριοι οι πτωχοι τω πνευματι [Matthew 5:3 TR]

Blessed the poor the spirit [Literal]

Daniel B Wallace in his advanced Greek Grammar 'Beyond the Basics says of Matthew 5:3

Here the dative is practically equivalent to an adverb, thus, 'the spiritually poor'.

This comment he gives under the heading 'the Dative of sphere'. He says under this heading that the dative substantive (as we see in Matthew 5:3) indicates the 'sphere or realm in which the word to which it is related takes place or exists'.

Thus, in this case, the sphere or realm in which the poverty applies is the sphere or realm of (the) spirit.

The dative case (according to Daniel B Wallace) adds meaning by grammatical association.

The dative case does not affect the meaning of spirit/the spirit.

The article is already there in the Greek. It is the association of concept that is due to the dative case.


As is often the case in the New Testament, it is a matter of interpretation whether ones sees 'spirit' as being one's own spirit or whether one sees it as being a matter of the Divine Person, the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, it is very difficult - perhaps impossible - to say which is intended and this is not surprising if one's own spirit is in intimate union with the Person of the Holy Spirit.

In this case, surely one would not suggest that the Divine Person is 'poor' in any way.

Therefore, surely, the poverty in the persons being described is a matter of the absence of that Divine Person's presence. The conscious knowledge and the admission that the Holy Spirit is absent from oneself is a blessed state.

Just as the state of hungering and thirsting after righteousness is also said by the Lord to be a blessed state.

Covering up one's lack of righteousness and not admitting that one is bereft of the Holy Spirit is, consequently, not a blessed state.

It is surely more blessed to be honest, than to pretend.

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But, to answer your question, it would not be correct to actually translate the text in the assertion that 'the spirit' refers, dogmatically, to the Holy Spirit. It has to be left as (in English) 'the poor in spirit' and is thus left to be ambiguous that it may be seen as either the person's own spirit or a matter of the absence of the Holy Spirit.

It is left to the individual to experience what is spoken : to experience the poverty and to experience the blessedness.

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  • Nigel, What about the context? What makes those poor in spirit in line for the kingdom and presumably that those rich in spirit are not? – user33125 Apr 1 at 13:21
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    I don’t think you can presume the opposite is rich in spirit @ThomasPearne – Nihil Sine Deo Apr 1 at 14:07
  • @NihilSineDeo That's not helpful. What is the contrast? – user33125 Apr 1 at 14:24
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    @NihilSineDeo Thanks. My view is consistent with Danker/BDAG. – user33125 Apr 1 at 18:28
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    @Nigel J, thank you for the thoughtful answer. I added to my question in response. – Steve11235 Apr 2 at 17:16
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1.While unequipped to comment on Christian texts, I can cite experience of difficulties in communicating to English speakers the force and reach of Hebrew verb forms. 2. Translation problems FROM modern Greek poetry exhibit kindred problems in 'reach' where the contemporary accusative or genitive case is doing duty for the dative, now disused. 3. Where grammatical/morphological mismatch between source and target languages obviates any SINGLE valid translation into target, the interesting question becomes, what are the translator's resources? André Chouraqui's Bible and Quran versions beckon us to study.

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  • I agree. Also, down votes should include a comment. +1 – Steve11235 Apr 2 at 17:46

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