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All the modern translations of Matthew 5:37 say the same thing: "anything more than this comes from the evil one," or "anything more than this comes from evil."

My question is, if the correct translation is evil rather than the evil one, could this term be understood as meaning "harmful," rather than something morally evil. (An example of this is in Jonah 3:10. The modern translations use other words like "destruction" or "disaster" while the KJV uses the term evil.)

This would be best resolved with the understanding that Paul took an oath in the book of Acts, and oaths are taken by G-d himself as recorded throughout the Old Testament.

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    To note (because I think you're wondering if the Greek πονηρός is as semantically broad as the Hebrew רע): in Jonah 3:10, which you bring up, the LXX translator resisted translating both instances of רע as πονηρός: "...because they turned from their evil ways (רע > πονηρός) , and God repented of the evil (רע > κακία) he said he would do..."
    – Susan
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 7:19
  • @Susan That's interesting. I often see translators do this to avoid the repetition of words, especially in Greek and Latin. I wonder if that's the case here. (Or if, alternatively, πονηρός did not have the needed nuance in the second instance of רע.)
    – ktm5124
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 8:17
  • @ktm5124 Sorry that wasn't clear, but I meant to imply that my impression (and it's only that!) is your parenthetical, i.e. that the semantic range of רע is broader. For the most part (with a few notable exceptions, but not the minor prophets AFAIK), the LXX translations are characterized by stereotypy in their lexical choices; they appear to have few qualms around repetition of words.
    – Susan
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 8:51
  • @Susan Oh, that's good to know. I was curious which hypothesis had more validity, and it sounds like the first hypothesis (that רע is broader) is the leading one.
    – ktm5124
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 19:16

2 Answers 2

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This is a good question. First, I should point out that both translations, "evil" and "evil one", are correct. They are translations of the Greek phrase τοῦ πονηροῦ, which appears often in the New Testament. The most famous appearance is in the Lord's Prayer: ἀλλὰ ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ "But deliver us from evil".

Given that it can mean either "evil" or "evil one", let's move on to the connotations. Taken out of context, the word can mean "harmful". The most literal meaning of πονηρός (the nominative form of the adjective) is "toilsome" (see Liddell). The related verb, πονέω, means "to toil" or "to work hard". From this basic meaning of "toilsome" we get connotations of pain, harm, or injury.

But it is important to interpret this word in context. We are not talking about its meaning during Plato's time. We are talking about its meaning in the New Testament. The word is often used in the New Testament, and it is commonly translated as "evil", "bad", "wicked", or "evil one" (see Strong's Concordance). In a religious context, the primary connotation is "evil".

In summary, the word can mean "harmful" when taken out of context. That is a related sense of its primary meaning, "toilsome". But in the New Testament, it is rarely translated as "harmful", especially when combined with a definite article. It is most often translated as "evil" or "evil one". While "evil" does suggest "harm", it means a lot more than that.

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My pastor taught that the "harm", or "evil" (which results from needing to affirm our words with some term such as "I swear") is the dangerous implication that if I had not sworn, then I wasn't accountable to speak the truth. Speaking the truth, of course, is part of the Christian faith as an ordinary and everyday custom, requiring no other affirmation. My word should be sufficient. In the larger sense, a habit of needing the term "I swear" (or perhaps even "I promise"..?) in the Church could cast doubt upon the honesty and integrity of all of its members - which would indeed be evil, harmful, and disastrous - all of the above.

A vow, such as Paul's in Acts, would appear to be another matter, more related to a covenant agreement with God or others - such as in the marriage vows - made, per the Westminster Confession of Faith, in "matters of weight and moment".

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  • Thank you for this. I think that's a great way to understand it and that really clears up the meaning for me.
    – bmende
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 16:38

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