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Not "Good" but "Noble," "Valuable," or "Happy"
Jesus taught different forms of goodness.
What does Jesus mean by “good?” A reader of the English Bible cannot tell because there are four different Greek words translated as "good" in Jesus’s words. In this article, I discuss the differences between these words.
The words are kalos (καλος), agathos (ἀγαθος), eu (εὖ), and chrestos (χρηστὸς). None of these words means "good" in quite the same sense as our English word does. All are more specific shades of meaning in the ways that Jesus uses them. Biblical translation conflates all four ideas. Jesus saw them as separate. This makes it difficult to understand what Jesus is saying in any given verse that mentions “good.”
In some verses, Jesus contrasts two different Greek words that both get translated as "good." To those reading the translation, this contrast is completely lost. For example, most English translations of Matthew 7:17 described both the tree and its fruit as "good." Jesus, however, used two different Greek words, saying very specific things about the nature of the tree (agathos) and the nature of its fruit (kalos). He could have used the same adjective to describe both the tree and its fruit, but he chose not to. Why? And why don’t Biblical translators try to distinguish between the two? Is it laziness? Or a desire to make Christ’s teaching more simple than it is?
The Good of Kalos: Good
The most common Greek adjective translated as "good" is kalos. This word means “beautiful,” “of fine quality,” “noble,” and “virtuous.” This word appears in forty-eight verses. It is used in the many verses to describe both good acts and good things (Matthew 3:10 Matthew 7:17“good fruit,” Matthew 5:16 “good works,” Matthew 5:44 “do good,” Matthew 12:33 “good tree,” Matthew 13:8 “good ground,” Matthew 13:24, “good seed,” Matthew 17:4 “good for us,” Matthew 26:24 “good for that man”).
The sense of kalos comes the closest to our concept of "good," but not “virtue” in the simple moral sense. “Virtuous” in the sense of being of fine quality or character. When something is kalos, it is praiseworthy and appreciated. Jesus may use it this way because it contrasts with kakos, the word that Jesus uses to mean “evil,” though not quite in the sense of the English word. Words translated as “evil” are explained in more detail here. For someone who loves wordplay, contrasting kalos (good) and kakos (evil) was irresistible (see John 18:23).
This sense is supported by compound words in which kalos appears, such as didaskalos, which is translated as “teacher” or “trainer,” but it literally means “one giving virtue.” Or, if we prefer “good,” “the one delivering the goods.”
The Good of Agathos: Value
The next Greek adjective translated as "good" is agathos. Throughout the Gospels, agathos is translated primarily as "good" in the sense of virtuous. When applied to people, it primarily means “well-born,” “gentle,” “brave,” “capable,” and "correct.” When applied to things, it means "serviceable," "morally good," and "beneficial." Jesus uses it in twenty-three verses. When he uses it to refer to people, the sense is “capable.” When he uses it to refer to things, the sense is “valuable.” Agathos is from the same roots as agape and agapao, the Greek words usually translated as "love," but whose real meaning is “to care for,” explained in more detail here. What do we care for? What is valuable to us.
Jesus often contrasts agathos with poneros, one of the words translated as “evil.” This contrast is usually translated in the Bible as "good and evil." However, this is misleading as well because poneros doesn't mean “evil.” Jesus uses it to mean “second-rate” or “worthless” ( ee this article on "evil.") The contrast is not between good and evil but between “valuable” and “worthless,” and perhaps, in some verses, between “brave” and “cowardly.”
When used as a noun, agathos is usually translated as "goods" in the NT, but in English there is no real connection between the moral concept of "good" and the property of "goods". Perhaps a better translation would be "valuables" to get us away from the whole "good" and "evil" dichotomy.
The Good of Eu: Happy
The next word translated as “good” is eu, which is not an adjective, but an adverb. So the proper English equivalent is “well,” except that this word is used in a number of nouns as a prefix that means “good.” This word only appears in four verses as an adverb, but it appears in many as a prefix. As an adverb, it means "well," "thoroughly," "competently," "fortunately," and "happily."
Jesus’s main use of eu is as a prefix for nouns and verbs. He uses sixteen different words that begin with it. Most are uncommon but some are very familiar. Among them are euaggelio, translated as “gospel,” but which means “good ideas,” euaggelizo, which is translated as “preach,” but which means “good messaging,” and euonymos, which is translated as “left hand,” but which means “good name.” All these ideas work a little better as “happy:” “happy news,” “happy message,” and “happy name.” Our word “happy captures the idea of both goodness and luckiness.
The Good of Chrestos: Fine
The final word that is translated as "good" is chrestos, but the word is used only in three verses. And it is translated in three different ways. It refers to "better" wine in Luke 5:39, "kind" in Luke 6:35, and "easy" in Matthew 11:30. However, in broader Greek translation, the word is translated as "good", "useful", "good of its kind," and so on. In a moral sense, chrestos is also used to the opposite of kakos, but Jesus preferred the contrast of kalos and kakos.
Looking at only the three uses of this word, describing wine, a yoke, and the character of the Divine, we have a problem deciding what Jesus wants it to mean. Its most interesting use is in Luke 6:35 because in that verse it is used along with agathos, used in the sense of doing what is valuable. So what does the Divine have in common with old win and a bearable yoke? It sense is how we use the word “fine” both to describe people’s feeling and to describe things like wine.
Jesus would not have used four different words unless he meant four different ideas. He did not teach to confuse us but to enlighten us. Unfortunately, the translators of the Gospels did not feel this way. Their main goal seems to be to simplify Jesus’s teaching rather than to explore it. So he had a word for of “good quality,” kalos, another for “capable” and “valuable,” agathos, a third as the adverb meaning “well” meaning “good” in prefixes,” and a fourth whose meaning is uncertain.