At the end of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer we read, “But deliver us from evil” in the King James Version and Revised Standard Version. A number of more recent English translations differ. The Good News Bible, New Century Bible, New International Version, New Jerusalem Bible and New Revised Standard Version all render Matthew 6:13b as keep us, save us, rescue us, or deliver us “from the evil one.” The difference is significant, and invites our curiosity.
Translators of the two older English versions rendered the Greek phrase ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ (apo tou ponērou, literally, “from the bad”) as “from evil.” Translators of the newer versions listed above rendered the same phrase as “from the evil one.” Which translators were right? Is the phrase ambiguous?
The earlier translators have Jesus teaching his disciples to ask God for protection against evil—all evil, regardless of its origin. The later translators limit the meaning to a request for protection against the evil one, in other words, against Satan, or the devil. To get to the roots of this linguistic problem, we’ll need to do some digging.
A Quick Peek at the Greek
First, a quick lesson in Greek. All Greek nouns and adjectives are categorized according to gender. Gender may be masculine, feminine—or neuter! Sometimes a Greek word may appear carrying one gender in one context and a different gender in another context. The difference in gender affects meaning. For example, ponēros is masculine in gender and means “an evil man or masculine entity.” But ponēron, being neuter in gender, means “evil” or “evil thing” in a broad, impersonal sense. Difficulties arise in contexts where the masculine ponēros and the neuter ponēron appear after certain prepositions. When they do, their endings may be identical and indistinguishable.
Matthew 6:13b includes the prepositional phrase apo tou ponērou, which may mean “from the evil one” or “from the evil (thing).” Hence, tou ponērou is formally ambiguous. However, let’s not stop here.
Faced with this ambiguous form of the noun, translators had to make an educated guess as to how to translate the verse. In the past they interpreted ponērou as a neuter noun, but more recently they have tended to treat it as a masculine noun. Consequently, the older RSV and KJV have “deliver us from evil” where the newer NRSV and NIV have “deliver us from the evil one.” Which translation is right?
Bible translators will often begin by surveying in the New Testament how the Greek noun ponēros is used in both the masculine and neuter genders. Examples of both may be found.
1 John 2:13 reads, “I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one [ton ponēron, masc.]” (NIV). Here, ponēros appears as an object of a verb, a singular, masculine noun, and clearly refers to the devil. The same is true regarding gender for 1 John 5:18, where we read, “The one who was born of God [Jesus] keeps him [the believer] safe, and the evil one [ho ponēros, masc.] cannot harm him” (NIV). Here, too, the text speaks of the devil as “the evil one.”
In Matthew 5:11 ponēros appears as a neuter noun. The verse reads, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil [pan ponēron, neut.] against you because of me” (NIV). The neuter form of the noun refers to evil in a general, abstract, impersonal sense.
Interestingly, the term ponēros appears three times in one verse of Scripture—Luke 6:45: “The good man brings forth the good [thing] out of the good treasure of his heart, and the evil man [ho ponēros, masc.] out of the evil [tou ponērou, masc. or neut. form] brings forth the evil [thing] [to ponēron, neut.].”
In this verse, the key to accurate translation is the context. The first occurrence of ponēros refers to a personality—either a man or the devil—but the context requires that the translation be “the evil man.” The second occurrence of ponēros follows the preposition ek (“from, out of”) and, therefore, appears in the same ambiguous form of the gender as in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:13b). Happily, the context of Luke 6:45 demands that tou ponērou be treated as a neuter noun meaning simply “evil.” The third occurrence of ponēros is as a neuter object of a verb, and as such it, too, means simply “evil” in a general, impersonal sense.
Matthew 13:19 stands out and warrants particular attention: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one [ho ponēros, masc.] comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart” (NIV). The masculine ho ponēros refers not to an evil man, but to the devil himself. Thus, Matthew had no objection to using the masculine ho ponēros as a title for the devil in Greek. This fact certainly did not escape the attention of modern translators of the New Testament, and it may have played a key role in their decision to render apo tou ponērou into English as “deliver us from the evil one.”
When in Doubt, Consider the Big Picture
Are we ready to draw some conclusions? Not yet. Let’s keep digging. We need to go beyond syntax and consider the larger picture—the original, interpersonal context. We ought to consider the original context of Jesus’ prayer. In which language did Jesus teach this prayer to his disciples? Most likely, not in Greek. In fact, all first-century Jewish sages whom we know to have been from the Galilee transmitted their oral teachings in Hebrew. We have good reason to believe that Jesus would be no exception.
Retracing the Greek phrase apo tou ponērou (literally, “from the bad”) back to Hebrew—and comparing the Lord’s Prayer with other ancient Jewish prayers—gives a fuller perspective, and may shed further light. Our methodology is reasonable, since we seek to understand every possible influence, not only on Jesus’ prayer, but also on the formation of Matthew’s Greek.
When we consult the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that has come to be known as the Septuagint, we see that the Hebrew רַע (ra‘, “bad, evil”) clearly emerges as the leading candidate for the word “evil” that Jesus spoke in the Lord’s Prayer. How so? The ancient translators of the Septuagint called upon ponēros 231 times to translate ra‘. Only rarely was ponēros used to translate any other Hebrew word. Therefore, based upon the high correspondence between the Greek ponēros and the Hebrew ra‘ in the Septuagint, the Hebrew min hāra‘ (literally, “from the evil”) can likely be the source of the Greek prepositional phrase apo tou ponērou. Both the Greek and the Hebrew mean “from evil.”
While the Greek is ambiguous, the Hebrew is not, and can only mean “from evil.” This will become more evident as we examine biblical examples of how ra is used. Later, we’ll consider excerpts from ancient Jewish prayers. Note: hāra‘ (“the bad, the evil”) was never once a title of the devil in biblical or post-biblical Hebrew, or in all ancient rabbinic literature.
The Many Dark Shades and Hues of ra‘
In the Hebrew Scriptures, ra‘ carries a range of nuances. Genesis 8:21 speaks of the inclination of a man’s heart as being evil (ra‘). The prophet Isaiah once declared, “Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands! Their feet rush into sin [ra‘]; they are swift to shed innocent blood!” (Isa. 59:6b, 7, NIV). Compare also Judges 2:11, 3:7 and elsewhere: “[They] did the evil [hāra‘],” where the Septuagint reads to ponēron, “the evil [thing]” (neut.). In these verses ra‘ has to do with sin, or evil, destructive conduct.
In other verses ra‘ carries a different nuance. For example, in Genesis 44:34, after Joseph had framed Benjamin for theft by concealing a silver cup in the lad’s sack, Judah pleaded with Joseph: “How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery [ra‘] that would come upon my father” (NIV). If Judah had returned to his father Jacob without Benjamin, the grief and distress may very well have broken the man emotionally, physically and spiritually. This anticipated breakdown is the ra‘ from which Judah begged to be spared. Later, when Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons, he said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm [mikol ra‘]—may he bless these boys” (Gen. 48:15-16a, NIV). The phrase mikol ra‘ (literally, “from every evil”) resembles grammatically min hāra‘ (“from the evil”), the back translation into Hebrew of the Greek apo tou ponērou.
From these biblical examples, we learn that ra‘ has a range of nuances. It can refer to wicked conduct or sinful behavior that may be characterized as evil. It also may refer to personal tragedy or calamity resulting from the loss of a loved one, physical suffering or malicious harm.
The Meaning of Ra‘ in Ancient Jewish Prayers
Turning our attention to post-biblical literature, we can gain additional insights by examining excerpts of prayers found among the scroll fragments at Qumran and an example from Talmudic literature. In 11QPsb 15-16, a text discovered in the Qumran caves, the following petition appears: “Do not allow Satan or an unclean spirit to rule over me, and do not allow pain or the evil inclination to have authority over me.” This petition includes typical elements found in Jewish prayers: protection from Satan and his cohorts, physical suffering and man’s evil inclination. Note especially that when referring to the devil, Hebrew simply uses the word “Satan.” To say “the evil one” would be foreign to the language.
The Hebrew ra‘ appears in the Manual of Discipline: “May he bless you with every good, and may he protect you from all evil [mikol ra‘]” (1QS 2.3). The author of this Qumran scroll has, in typical midrashic style, expanded the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. Here, the petition is for protection from evil in a general, abstract, impersonal sense.
From Berachot 16b of the Talmud comes this prayer: “Deliver me…from a bad person, a bad companion, a bad injury, an evil inclination, and from Satan, the destroyer.” In this text, ra‘ is used four times as an adjective. In order to convey the meaning “an evil person,” ra‘ must modify an explicit noun. For example, “from a bad person” appears in Hebrew as mē’ādām ra‘. Standing alone, ra‘ does not convey personalized evil. If, when speaking Hebrew, Jesus had wanted to refer to the devil in the prayer he gave his disciples, he would have simply said, “Deliver us from Satan.” The Hebrew sātān would then very easily go into Greek as satanas (“Satan”) or diabolos (“devil”).
The Devil Is in the Details of Matthew 13:19
It is appropriate at this point to ask whether Matthew, or an earlier editor, saw satanas or diabolou in his source for Matthew 6:13b and replaced it with ponērou. Is this likely? It seems Matthew did just that in 13:19. Let’s take a closer look at that verse, and its parallels in Mark and Luke, before formulating any conclusions.
|“The evil one comes and snatches away what was sown.” (Matt. 13:19)||“Satan comes and takes away the word.” (Mark 4:15)||“The devil comes and takes away the word.” (Luke 8:12)|
For a more Greek literary style, Matthew probably substituted ponēros for the more Semitic satanas that appears in Mark. Moreover, Matthew introduced a special Greek construction called “genitive absolute” into verse 19. This construction is characteristic of Greek and does not directly correspond to Hebrew. In other words, Matthew 13:19 shows discernible traces of editorial activity by a Greek literary stylist. Thus, I am reluctant to compare a verse such as Matthew 13:19, which has undergone some degree of stylization, with Matthew 6:13b, which shows no evidence of Greek stylization. (In fact, the entire Lord’s Prayer retains an exceptionally strong Hebraic flavor.) When trying to determine whether apo tou ponērou from the Lord’s Prayer should be translated as “from evil” or “from the evil one,” I prefer to weight more heavily this Greek phrase’s correspondence to the unambiguous Hebrew idiom “from evil.” In view of the evidence, I must cast my lot with the traditional, older translation: “from evil.” I think Matthew was able to assume that his Jewish-Christian audience would understand this phrase correctly, even in Greek dress.
Truth from a Multiplicity of Vantage Points
At this point, we have deepened our understanding of Matthew 6:13. It should read: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (RSV). In comparison with Luke’s conclusion to the prayer, “And lead us not into temptation” (Luke 11:4b), Matthew’s version more completely reflects what Jesus probably said to his disciples. Matthew’s pairing of not leading into temptation with delivering from evil is parallelism, a hallmark of Hebrew poetry.
Recognizing the parallelism also reinforces the correct interpretation of the verse. “Lead us not into temptation” is a Jewish way of saying “Do not let us succumb to the temptation of sin.” The next line, “Deliver us from evil,” conveys a similar idea. It means “Keep us from doing evil,” that is, “Do not let us succumb to our evil inclination, do not let us sin.” In addition, just as good poetry can convey multiple allusions, so “Deliver us from evil” can carry the additional notions of protection from evil people and evil spirits, and from trouble and calamities.
Surely the world would be a happier place if each of us prayed the Lord’s Prayer on a daily basis with conviction and a deeper understanding of its rich Jewish background: “Oh, Heavenly Father, lead us away from sin and restrain our evil inclination! May this include keeping us out of harm’s way, and protecting us from evil!”
-  See Shmuel Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of the Galilee in the First Century,” Immanuel 24/25 (1990): 147-186. In this article, Safrai has noted the following first-century-A.D. Galilean sages: Yohanan ben Zakkai, Hanina ben Dosa, Halafta, Hananiah ben Teradyon, Eleazar ben Azariah, Zadok, Elisha ben Avuyah, Yose ben Kismah, Ilai, Yohanan ben Nuri, Eleazar ben Parta, Eleazar ben Teradyon, Yose ben Tadai of Tiberias, Zakkai of Kavul, Yose ha-Gelili, Abba Yose Holikofri of Tiv’on. (Shmuel Safrai’s article, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of the Galilee in the First Century,” is now available on Jerusalem Perspective. To read this article, click here.—JP) ↩
-  Examples of Hebraic idioms in the Lord’s Prayer are: “father in heaven,” “name be sanctified,” “kingdom of heaven,” “will be done,” “rightful bread,” “debts” in the sense of sin, “lead into temptation” and “save from evil.” ↩