If Your Eye Be Single

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Couched within Jesus' teaching is an idiom which is difficult to translate, "If your eye is single, your whole body is full of light" (Matt. 6:22). The Hebraic expression, "good eye" to denote generosity is well known in the Bible (Deut. 15:9; Prov. 22:9; 23:6; 28:22; Eccl. 14:10) and the writings of Israel's Sages (m. Avot 5:15). Nevertheless, in Matthew 6, where you would expect to find the idiom, "good eye," the adjective used in our saying is not καλός (kalos, good, pleasant) but ἁπλοῦς (haplous, single, simple).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus cautions concerning the allure of worldly wealth. His views resemble the shunning of excessive riches by the Pharisaic Hasidim (Pious Ones) and the Essene community from Qumran. Couched within Jesus’ teaching is an idiom which is difficult to translate, “If your eye is single, your whole body is full of light” (Matt. 6:22). The Hebraic expression, “good eye” to denote generosity is well known in the Bible (Deut. 15:9; Prov. 22:9; 23:6; 28:22; Eccl. 14:10) and the writings of Israel’s Sages (m. Avot 5:15). Nevertheless, in Matthew 6, where you would expect to find the idiom, “good eye,” the adjective used in our saying is not καλός (kalos, good, pleasant) but ἁπλοῦς (haplous, single, simple).

The sense given to the enigmatic phrase by scholars to read “good eye” corresponds with the phrase in the following verse, “If your eye [is] evil” (i.e., greedy). Nevertheless, we are still confronted with the problem that the Greek wording in our verse does not read “good eye” but “single eye.” Unfortunately, nothing in known Hebrew literature is sufficiently close to our saying to present a direct parallel. Instead, we need to look at the surrounding Gospel context, as well as at similar notions found in the spiritual environment of first-century Judaism.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed light on idiomatic Hebrew expression in the first century. Sometimes the scrolls can be the key to unlock difficult Gospel sayings. In this instance, although neither the expression “single eye” nor “good eye” is found in the Qumran scrolls, the sectarian writings can assist us with the religious milieu and linguistic nuances of our saying. In particular, attention should be given to the language of spiritual dualism (i.e., light-darkness; love-hate) present in Matthew 6:22-24 and the use of the Qumran term “mammon” for wealth. Both of these indicate points of contact with the broad stream of Essene thought represented by the Qumran library.

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Comments 1

  1. I am not a scholar of Bible studies, but I am learning much of who the Jewish Yeshua is and was thru this and other sites. I cannot, however, find any copy of the Testament of Benjamin or Issachar on the net, much less in English. If you knew of any sites that contain this I would be grateful for the information.

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  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993). He studied in Jerusalem…
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