Word of the Week
June 18, 2022
Ponēros Ophthalmos: Watch Out for the Evil Eye!
Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.
Mark 7:22 (NKJV)
For centuries, people have feared the “evil eye.” Tribal people consult the witch doctor while city-dwellers purchase charms to ward off sorcerers or witches who might inflict harm with a malevolent gaze. The fear of the “evil eye” is firmly bound up in the world of the occult and superstition.
There is little room for the idea of an evil eye in a modern, scientific worldview, and it certainly doesn’t sound like something that would have a place in the life of anyone who claims to follow Jesus. The Bible you read may not even mention the phrase, but it does appear in the Greek New Testament – with a meaning that you might not expect.
You won’t find the phrase “evil eye” in most modern English translations. The translators realize that the phrase has changed meaning over the centuries, so they substitute a word that makes better sense to contemporary readers. The King James Version, however, translates it directly from the Greek, which uses the words ponēros (evil, wicked, bad) and ophthalmos (eye).
In Mark 7:22, for instance, Jesus is giving examples of the sins which come from a defiled heart. He rolls through a horrifying list which includes thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewd behavior, blasphemy, pride, foolishness and much more. Right in the middle of the list stands “an evil eye”!
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? But what is it?
You can look up the individual Greek words, of course. The word ophthalmos means “eye” and it refers to your physical eyeball. That’s why you go to an ophthalmologist to check your vision. This word can also refer to any kind of sight, literal or figurative.
Ponēros is a common word usually translated as “evil” or “bad.” It usually includes the idea of moral wickedness, but it can also be used to describe something that is in bad shape, not functioning properly. Jesus even used it in Matthew 7:17 to describe bad fruit. Therefore, the phrase we are investigating might mean “bad eyes,” eyes with a physical defect that hinders your vision.
Jesus used this physical condition as an illustration of a spiritual truth when He said, “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:23). The eye is the only part of your body that receives light, and if it doesn’t work properly, your entire body will be in the dark. The same principle appears in Luke 11:34 – “The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness.” Your physical vision may be 20/20, but if you close your eyes to the truth, you will be in the dark mentally and spiritually.
Let’s go back to the original passage where we encountered “evil eye” – Mark 7. It appears in a list of sins, so we know it’s bad. But how can we find a more precise definition?
This is a case where understanding the individual words only takes you so far. Just as the “evil eye” has a special meaning in modern English that goes beyond the definitions of “evil” and “eye,” the Greek ponēros ophthalmos is an idiom – a combination of words that means something different than you would guess from the individual words.
Idioms are common. My mother used to say that someone had “kicked the bucket.” She meant they had died. The phrase had nothing to do with buckets, but you would never guess it from looking up “bucket” in the dictionary.
The “evil eye” was a Jewish idiom which appears several times in the Old Testament, both in the original Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint. These sample passages will give you an idea of what the phrase means:
- Someone in a hurry to become rich has an evil eye (Proverbs 28:22).
- When you sit down to a lavish meal with a rich person, don’t allow yourself to start longing for his luxuries. He has an evil eye that cares only about his own interests, not yours (Proverbs 23:6).
- The Law used “evil eye” to describe a man who hesitated to loan money to a friend in need because the year for forgiving debts was near, and he might lose the chance to collect what was owed to him (Deuteronomy 15:9).
Do you see a theme running through these passages? The evil eye goes with a desire to build up your own wealth rather than using your resources to help those in need.
The same theme appears in Christ’s parable about the landowner who hired several groups of workers to labor in his fields. When it was time to pay them, he gave a full day’s wage to the men who only worked a short time at the end of the shift. Those who put in an 8-hour day were disgruntled when they got the same wage as the first group. In Matthew 20:15, the owner replies, ‘Isn’t it lawful for me to do what I wish with my own money? Or is your eye evil because I am being generous?” Once again, the “evil eye” is connected with a stingy spirit, a miserly attitude of envy and greed that seeks to suck up all the available resources for yourself, rather than looking for ways to bless others with your generous spirit.
When I thought that the “evil eye” was merely the ability to cast magic spells, I felt no need to examine myself for evidences of it. But the kind of evil eye that the Bible describes is a subtler sin, a more respectable form of evil. In fact, it is one that easily seeps into the heart of the most well-meaning Christian. We would do well to take a closer look at our lives to make sure we are not developing a case of the “evil eye.”
When you encounter an idiom, you can still look up the individual words in the dictionary. A good dictionary will often mention the combination and give you the meaning. Some Bible software packages will have a search mechanism that allows you to look up two or more words at a time, so you can search for the phrase.
You’ll notice that I referred to the Hebrew Old Testament as well as the Greek translation. It’s important to remember that Hebrew words don’t always match Greek words exactly, so you have to use Old Testament verses with caution. It’s helpful when you can find the word you want in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that was translated in the era between the Testaments.
Q – How useful is it to study the meaning of a Greek word as it was used centuries before in classical Greek?
A – Anything you can learn about a Greek word is useful, and it can be very helpful to know how the secular Greek world used a word. You can think of this like a family tree. You can learn a lot about a person by getting to meet their parents. Their grandparents are probably influential as well. But the farther back you go in the genealogy, the fainter the influence of the people you find. Similarly, the best place to look for information on a Greek word is the New Testament itself. Next best is the Greek version of the Old Testament, commonly known as the Septuagint. Then comes the secular Greek of the first century, often called Koine Greek. This type of Greek goes back for about three hundred years before Christ. Anything before that is called classical Greek, and it can be useful, but it is furthest removed from the first century language.
We hear preaching every week when we go to church, and people preach the Good News all around the world. Next time we will look at two of the key words that describe that ministry of the Word.
©Ezra Project 2022