Discover more from Rediscovering Jesus's Words
"Evil" Isn't as Bad as it Sounds
Translating an economic and social concept as a moral one.
The word translated in the Bible as “evil” “wicked,” and “bad”is poneros (πονηρος). This word means "useless," and "worthless." Applied to people, it means "worthless," “burdened by toil,” "base," and "cowardly." If this doesn’t sound much like “evil,” that is because it isn’t. That idea doesn’t work in many of Jesus’s verses. There is a Greek word that does mean “evil,” one that Jesus used, but this isn’t it. That word is kakia, a word that Jesus used a grand total of once.
So, when Jesus says something is poneros, as he does in thirty-eight verses, he is not saying that it is malicious or evil. He is saying it is worthless and second-rate. My preferred word for poneros is “worthless,” because Jesus often contrasts the concept with agathos, translated biblically as “good,” but with a meaning closer to “valuable.”
A good example of why poneros can’t really mean “evil” is Matthew 7:18
KJV: A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Listeners Heard: It doesn't have the power: a valuable tree to yield worthless fruit nor a diseased tree to produce good fruit.
Can a fruit be “evil” even if it is rotten? Notice that the contrasting word translated as “good” in the KJV is better translated as “valuable” in my version, (see this article). Also notice that the tree and fruit are described as “corrupt/worthless” and “good” in the second part, this is because they are different Greek words. However, in modern translations they are both translated as '“good” and “bad” making Jesus’s distinctions less clear.
How Jesus Uses this Word
We can see how poneros works, and why “evil” doesn’t fit, in Matthew 6:23, (KJV) “But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.” It doesn't make sense to call an eye that isn't working well "evil," especially when contrasted, from Matthew 6:22, with an eye that is "focused."
Translating this word correctly makes a significant difference in understanding what Jesus teaches. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, from Matthew 6:13, we pray to “deliver us from evil.” However, what Jesus actually said was,
This isn’t a plea to save us from the malicious intent of others or dark forces of some evil power, but rather a plea to be saved from all the worthless ideas in the world, to be rescued from our own second-rate and base impulses.
By translating poneros as “evil,” we make Jesus sound condemning when he is more often just comparing things, and even being playful. For example, in Matthew 7:11, Jesus is translated as saying: (KJV) “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children…” This sounds like a condemnation of humanity or at least an insult to his audience. However, a more accurate translation would be “You, being worthless, know how to give good gifts to your children.” This is a humorous tease, since no one can complain of being described as “second-rate” when they are being compared to God.
Poneros is also used to manufacture references to the “devil” where they do not exist in the Greek. For example, in John 17:15, Jesus prays for his apostles, asking his father to (NIV) “protect them from the evil one,” but the Greek is the same as the Lord’s Prayer, “the evil one” from poneros with an article, “the worthless.” Inserting “the evil one” gives Jesus's teaching the feeling of Zoroastrian cosmology, the universe as a battle between good and evil. From the Greek, we never get this impression. Instead, the sense of his words is that he wants to the best for us, not what is second-rate.
Erasing “Evil” from Jesus’s Words
Jesus teaching makes more sense if we eliminate this “evil” baggage. Here are a few simple examples.
In Matthew 12:35, the KJV gives us, “an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.” A more accurate rendering would be, “the worthless person from those worthless stockpiles, tosses out worthless things.”
In Matthew 20:15, the KJV offers, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” But, keeping closer to the Greek, we have: “Truly, this eye of yours is worthless because I myself am valuable.”
In Matthew 13:49, the NIV offers, “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.” A more accurate version would be, “They will bring themselves out, these messengers, and separate the worthless from among the law-abiding.”
Other Words for “Evil”
There are three other Greek words translated into the English word "evil" or "bad." Without distinguishing among them, we lose the specific points that Jesus is making. For example, in Matthew 7:17, in most English translations, Jesus describes both the tree and its fruit as "bad," but in Greek, we see two different adjectives, the tree is sapros, a Greek word used in only five verses, meaning "rotten," "stale," and "worn-out." The fruit, however, is poneros, that is, “worthless.”
I have already mentioned kakia, but another relater word, kokos, is more common, used seven times, Biblically translated as “evil” or “sick,” meaning "bad," "mean," "ugly," and "ill." Jesus seems to use it more often to mean “ill.”
Can we fault the translators of the Bible for wanting to make Jesus seem more judgmental? This was, after all, their own view of religion. However, translators must be careful to not inject their own opinions onto the texts they are translating. Jesus was much more interested in having us compare things correctly, choosing what is best instead of what is, literally, worth less.