"Evil" and "Bad"

This article is taken from one that contrasted the terms for both "good" and "evil." This article only covers the terms translated as "good." The original larger article is here.

In Greek, there are four different words translated into the English word "evil" or "bad." Most of these words have more specific and less moralistic meaning than the English concept of "evil." One is used much more commonly than the others. Two of them are very specific and fairlyt uncommon.

Without distinguishing among them, we lose the point that Jesus is making. For example, in Matthew 7:17, in most English translations, Jesus describes both the tree and its fruit as "bad," but in Greek, we see two different words. He is contrasting two negative ideas, one as a source and the other as the result, but we cannot think about his meaning because his ideas are lost in translation.

The "Evil" of Poneros

The Greek term that is almost always translated as “evil” or “wicked” is poneros, which means “oppressed by toil,” “burdened,” and “worthless.” Of things, it means “toilsome,” “painful,” and “grievous.” In a moral sense, “worthless,” “base,” and “cowardly.” Notice that there is not sense of malevolence in these ideas.

There is a different Greek word that actually does mean “evil” in the sense of malicious and malevolent. The term is kakia. It is a word the Christ uses very rarely, but he does use it (Matthew 6:34). Another similar concept is sapros. That Greek word means “corrupt” or “rotten,” but again, it is one that Jesus rarely uses but specifically to refer to what we produce, not people themselves.  (Matthew 12:33).

So, when Jesus says something is poneros, he is not saying that it is malicious, corrupt, or rotten. He is saying it is worthless and second-rate. In most situations, the best translation for poneros is "worthless" though "burdened by toils" works better in some contexts.

A good example of how poneros really works can be seen in Matthew 6:23, "But if your eye is evil..." It doesn't make sense to call an eye that isn't working well as "evil," especially when contrasted in the previous verse ( Matthew 6:22) where the "good" eye is described as "focused." Some biblical translation have even changed the word meaning "focused" to "good" so that this makes more sense, but, the word used, which means "single" or "to make single," doesn't mean anything like "good" and isn't translated that way anywhere else in Greek (including the KJV). In this context, "worthless" works but "second-rate" makes a little play against the "single" of "focused."

This makes a significant difference in understanding what Christ teaches. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to “deliver us from evil.” However, what Christ said was, "Deliver us from what is worthless." This isn’t a plea to save us from the malicious intent of others or dark forces of evil, but rather a plea to be saved from the burdens and toils of life, to be rescued from our own worthless and base impulses. This fits well with the concept that is mistakenly translated as "sin," which we will discuss in the next section.

As we suggest above, this poor translation becomes more misleading when poneros, an adjective, is used as a noun. This happens a lot for many such adjectives in the Gospels. In the case of poneros, it gets translated as "the evil one," as in many translations of John 17:15 where he asks the Father to keep the apostles from "the evil one." This gives Christi's teaching the feeling a sense of the Zoroastrian cosmology, the universe as a battle between good and evil. Christ's words in the Greek never give this impression. In Greek, he asks the Father to keep them from "worthlessness" or "being second-rate."

This is not to suggest that Christ doesn't discuss satan, the demons, and what gets translated as "evil" spirits." That topic is covered in this article. However, we instantly get closer to his teaching if we simply change the "evil spirits" to "worthless spirits." Christ use of the term "satan" is untranslated Aramaic meaning "adversary" or "opposition." In the story of Job, satan was not a name but the description of the role of a servant of God whose job it is to test Job.

In other parts of the Gospel, people are described as “evil” but, because poneros is almost always used. This changes the meaning from the way the Gospel is normally read, especially since the word's "oppressed by toil" meaning often fits better than its "worthless" meaning. For example, in Matthew 7:11, Christ says: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children..etc.” This sounds like a condemnation of humanity or at least his opponents as evil. However, a more accurate reading would be “You, being oppressed by toil, know how to give good gifts to your children…etc.” Christ isn’t condemning our moral nature as much as recognizing our burdens and limitations.

The "Evil" of Kakos/Kakia

Another pair of related words that mean "evil" or "bad" are kakos and kakia. These words are much less common than poneros, and they are translated less consistently. However, these words have more of  the sense of "moral badness" and "wicked" than poneros, but they have other meanings as well. In translation, the focus, however, is usually more on "evil" as opposed to their less judgmental and more common meanings.

Kakos is used by Jesus only about a dozen times. It is an adjective that means "bad," "mean," "base," "ugly," "ill-born," "evil," "worthless," "sorry," "pernicious," and "ill."  It is sometimes used as a noun, for example, in Luke 16:25, as "evil things." In Mark 7:21, itis translated as "evil." As an adjective, it is often translated as "sick" (Matthew 9:12).

Kakia is even less common. It appears  only in Jesus's words in Matthew 6:34. It means "badness in quality," "incapacity," "defects," "cowardice," "faint-heartedness," "moral badness," "vice," "ill-repute," "dishonor," "hurt," "damage done or suffered," “wicked,” “slanderous,” and “cowardly.”

The "Evil" of Sapros

The Greek word sapros, is used only five verses.  It means means "rotten," "putrid," "stale," "rancid," "worn-out," and "mellow [of wine]. Since it also means "mellow" when applied to wine, it means food that is either old or bad.

It is the word used to describe the tree in Matthew 7:17, Matthew 7:18, and similar verses. This is interesting because from the definition, you would expect it to be applied to the fruit rather than the tree, but Jesus applies it to the tree. This use may be humorous because we would expect it to be applied more commonly to a tree.

The "Evil" of Anomia

Another Greek word used by Jesus is also related to these ideas. This is anomia, which means "lawless," "lawless conduct," and "the negation of law." Jesus uses this word only four verses.

In the KIV, this word is usually translated as "inequity," but it doesn't mean a lack of equality or anything like it. In other translations, it appears as "lawlessness." However, when appearing with words about acting this way, we also see "evildoers."

It is the negative, female form of the masculine word, nomos, which means "anything assigned," "a usage," "custom," "law," "ordinance," or "that which is a habitual practice." It is the basis of the English words "norm" and "normal." However, in the KJV, this is usually translated as "the law" referring to the law of Moses.

Christ uses it to mean ignoring the law of Moses, using it in verses that relate to neglecting the traditional rules passed down as God's commandments from Moses.