Monday, November 3, 2008

More on Good Eye / Bad Eye (Matthew 6:22-23)

In my last post, I explained that the "good eye" and "bad eye" of Matthew 6:22-23 likely refers to generosity and stinginess. Here's a little more on that topic. (Warning! Bible nerdiness alert!)

The word for "good" here is haplos, which can be translated as simple, single, sincere, healthy, or generous. While haplos does not occur elsewher in the NT, the cognate words haplous (same meaning) and haplotetos (sincerity, simplicity or generosity) occur ten times. In Rom 12:8, 2 Cor 8:2, 9:11, 9:13, and James 1:5, haplotetos has the meaning of generosity. In the others (2 Cor 1:12, 11:3, Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), it means sincerity or simplicity. The LXX uses the word twice to refer to generosity, in 1 Chron 29:17 and Prov 11:25. Since the surrounding context, Matthew 6:19-34, is about money, it seems better to see haplos as a reference to generosity.

The phrase "evil eye" (ophthalmos poneros) has much more certainty about its meaning, since it always means stingy or greedy (Deuteronomy 15:9, Proverbs 23:6, Proverbs 28:22, Matthew 20:15). In the OT, the Hebrew raa ayin (evil eye) is translated as selfish or stingy. (The LXX translates the phrase with baskanos, stingy, in Proverbs, but leaves it as poneuresetai ho ophthalmos sou, your eye does evil, in Deuteronomy, probably because Proverbs and Deuteronomy were translated by different translators.)

Not all gospels scholars agree exactly with this interpretation, although most mention it as a possibility. There seem to be two reasons to doubt. First, the saying has an exact parallel in Luke 11:34-36, and there the context is not about money, but rather is connected to another saying about light (although note the mention of greed in Luke 11:39). In many cases, Matthew and Luke arrange the same sayings of Jesus in different contexts, so some scholars feel that Jesus' good eye/bad eye saying was not necessarily originally about money. Second, although haplos can mean generous, the phrase haplos opthalmos is not found elsewhere, so its exact meaning cannot be confirmed. Some scholars suggest a meaning for eye here that approximates heart, or draws on Greek biological conceptions of how the eye works.

To be honest, despite the doubts of some gospels scholars, I think this one is a slam dunk. I think that the more well-known metaphorical phrase "evil eye" caused Jesus to coin a new phrase, "good eye." The phrase "good eye" already existed in Prov 22:9, but Jesus used haplos instead of agathos (Heb. tov), probably to create an image of health vs. sickness. Even if Matthew is the one who placed the saying in this context (which is not certain), it illustrates that Matthew thought that the saying was about money.

The hard part, as usual with the sayings of Jesus, is obedience. Being generous is often hindered or completely stopped by our slavery to "mammon" or our worry about our own needs.

The picture: The Sermon on the Mount, from Kurtze Postill Herrn Phillippi Melanthonis vber die Euangelia der furnemesten Fest, 1545. Courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.


  1. I always appreciate your Bible nerdiness, Dr. Manning. I mean, if you're gonna be a nerd about something, better God's Word than D&D or something like that. Then again, taking an Elf Fighter/Duelist/Noble to the 26th Level is nothing to shake a stick at.
    Anyway, I have decided to memorize your lesson in translation here and then recite it to my small group as my own and then give them a perplexed look when they react as though this were not common knowledge. Should be fun. Seriously though, I think your last paragraph is such an important statement. The slavery to "mammon" is rampant in Hawaii from what I see. I think the devil is stoked about that too because it keeps so many people's focus off of things God would want us to prioritize such as worship, our families, relationships in general, and helping others. I think there is an incredible void in the church today regarding the stewarding of God's financial blessings upon us.


  2. Hope your Bible study goes well! Btw, I'm nerdy in RPGs, too. I never got a character to 26th level, but I did enjoy getting a dwarven warrior to 15th level in Middle-Earth Role Playing...

    I have been thinking a lot this week about this passage. I agree - mammon is a real problem for all of us. It's so easy to use all of our resources for our own families, and never think about people further away.

  3. Jesus probably did not "coin a new phrase." The term "good eye" is a familiar Hebrew/Aramaic idiom meaning 'generous'. Its opposite, 'bad eye'(see prov 23:6 and its use of 'evil eye) is its opposite, meaning stingy.

    Minor correction: Jesus almost certainly did not use the word Haplos. Haplos is likely the word chosen by the author when translating what he understood as Jesus' meaning.

    Note that Jesus spoke Greek to this audience is unlikely in the extreme. Jesus undoubtedly spoke Aramaic when in casual conversation and Hebrew when teaching Torah.

    Thanks for the wonderful website and your insights. I'm learning a lot.


  4. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your comments! I always appreciate thoughts from readers.

    Perhaps it would have been better for me to say "modified" rather than "coined." The Hebrew idiom uses tov, normally translated with agathos, not haplous. If Jesus was teaching in Hebrew, perhaps he modified the phrase tov-ayin to rapa-ayin. Or perhaps the first translators of Jesus' phrase chose to translate tov with haplous because of the health/illness metaphor that Jesus was using, or because the word could also mean "generous" in Greek.

    Actually, scholars are divided over the languages Jesus spoke (see the article "Languages of Jesus" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). Documents from the bar-Kokhba cave reveal that all three languages were used in everyday life, at least in Judea. And the scriptures were also taught in all three languages (note targumim, LXX, and many Jewish works in Greek). Although most of the plays on words in the gospels work in Hebrew or Aramaic, a few only work in Greek (John 3:3, for example).

  5. Thanks for your response. I'll try not to belabor this issue, but I would like to clarify how I view this language issue. Let me respond to your statement that:

    Actually, scholars are divided over the languages Jesus spoke (see the article "Languages of Jesus" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels).Without a doubt. Your caution is well-appreciated. I, too, have read a good deal of the literature on this subject. From what I've read I have formed the opinion that Jesus spoke Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. However, language He used at any given time was conditioned by His audience.

    Jesus was from a region that was much more cosmopolitan than Jerusalem. Living where he did (and given who He was), I have no doubt that He could converse comfortably with Greek gentiles in the spoken Greek of that era (Koine?).

    For example, when speaking to His apostles and other Jews in every-day conversation, he probably spoke Aramaic, the lingua franca among the Jews of that period. However, when speaking to Gentiles or the Romans, he probably spoke Greek.

    When teaching Torah, however, the situation is less certain. In Jesus' era, Hebrew was pretty much restricted to religious usage (in the Temple, quoting Torah, or teaching the Oral Torah). We know this because certain Gospel verses reflect Hebraic Idioms, not Greek or Aramaic.

    Please understand that I am open-minded on this subject and I recognize that much is uncertain.

    In Christ,



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