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Matthew 7:7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

In Strong's Concordance we see πονηρός defined (in the primary sense) this way:

  1. full of labours, annoyances, hardships

This word, ponēros, is translated "evil" in most versions, and "bad" ("as bad as you are") in the CEV. Why do translators so uniformly render this word as "evil," when it could be translated in the primary sense, as in

"If you then, who are full of labors, annoyances, and hardships, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"

Is it possible that, traditional doctrine notwithstanding, Jesus could have been teaching about giving good gifts in spite of our troubles? We know that Jesus' compassion for the poor in their difficult lives was exemplary; did he really think that all people are evil and wicked, or just that in our harried and trudging existences, we make imperfect decisions, and miss the mark of our higher calling, to completely trust that God has our best interests at heart?

It seems clear that in many places Strong brings his own religious bias to his translations, rendering words and phrases according to established doctrine (e.g. "Satan", a proper name with an entire doctrine behind it, instead of ha-satan, "the adversary", a title for an office occupied by a messenger of God.) Could it be that early translators also made the mistake of eisegesis?

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    Strong's is a concordance, not a lexicon. Your resource must be using Strong's to link to another lexicon. Be sure to check out meta.hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/642/423 to learn more about reliable, scholarly, up-to-date Greek-English lexica.
    – Dan
    Aug 9, 2013 at 22:24
  • How to use BDAG ("Bauer"): hermeneutics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3520/…
    – Ruminator
    Nov 1, 2018 at 12:14
  • Your interpretation seems to understand πονηρός as describing what is happening TO the ones being addressed (they have problems) rather than what they are like (evil, bad). Matthew makes it clear that he is talking about their character because he uses "πονηροὶ ὄντες". "You who ARE bad", not "You who are experiencing difficulties". See the moral sense in usage #3: logeion.uchicago.edu/%CF%80%CE%BF%CE%BD%CE%B7%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82
    – Ruminator
    Nov 1, 2018 at 12:27
  • @ruminator, I'm not sure that your distinction is as clear as you think it is: 'You who ARE bad' as opposed to 'you who ARE experiencing difficulties'...? I'm inclined to agree with Thomas on this one - 'poneros' suggests by its origins an 'evil' in effect or influence (both beset by and causing suffering), whereas 'kakos' is more 'evil' in character, and 'sapros' is 'evil' as in corrupted or rotten. 'Poneros' has connotations of pity rather than disdain, referring to one's situation rather than character. Its use often refers to the working class, servants, criminally poor, etc. Nov 2, 2018 at 9:48
  • Shem Tob's Hebrew Gospel of Matthew use the related word הֱיוֹתְכֶם also seen in 1Chr 16:19; 2Chr 15:2; Jer 44:8; Ez 36:3 and Mt 12:34. [showpiece or specimen]
    – Betho's
    Feb 11, 2023 at 1:37

6 Answers 6

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The Greek sentence fragment 'bad / to be' "πονηροι οντες" only occurs in two places in the Bible.

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34, ESV)

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11, ESV)

Bad πονηροι when used with respect to a person such as in the cases above it is rendered in the moral sense. For example here is each instance of πονηροι in Matthew in reference to a person/s.

Mt 5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Mt 5:45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Mt 7:11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Mt 12:34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Mt 12:35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.

Mt 12:39 But he answered them,“ An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Mt 12:45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

Mt 13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.

Mt 13:38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one,

Mt 13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

Mt 16:4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

Mt 18:32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

Mt 22:10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Mt 25:26 But his master answered him,‘ You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?

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  • Yes, I suppose that someone will have to give me a more technical explanation. Yours begs the question of whether 'you bad be' is correct. You simply state that it is so, & you reason that it does not leave room for the other interpretation. Logically, it could just as easily be not 'you bad suffer,' but 'you suffer be.' Your assertion uses 'bad' as the constant instead of the variable. Also, exegetically, by your reasoning, Christ suffered & thereby increased in faith & goodness. We know that he was perfect in faith & goodness, & so needed no increase, so your assertion is not logical. Mar 11, 2013 at 19:39
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    @ThomasKemper - I understand your desire for a more technical term. Actually even though my answer is correct I am going to delete it as it is a lazy answer. If I gather a more technical response I will bring it back up. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Mar 11, 2013 at 23:03
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    @ThomasKemper - I had a few minutes to kill and gave a technical response.
    – Mike
    Mar 12, 2013 at 15:47
  • Thanks, Mike. Although I still don't think the answer you originally gave was correct. Your logic was stilted. But, really. Thanks for the follow-up. Mar 13, 2013 at 17:31
  • Thank you so much Mike for going through all that work. If anyone had any reservations of the meaning of poneroi... those reservations got canceled. Nice work! May 1, 2013 at 13:26
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One answer to your question, "Why do translators so uniformly render this word as 'evil'?" might be that it seems that was, in fact, the sense that Greeks in antiquity understood the word in the context of the Gospels.


As you point out, πονηρός can also mean something like overwhelmed by toils. Liddell and Scott's Greek English Lexicon, for example, points out that this usage occurs in one of Heracles' works. Looking at John Chrysostom's (d. 407) homily on the passage, however, it would seem that πονηρός was, in fact understood in terms of something bad in this usage in Matthew's Gospel account. This can be seen in the way that he attempts to justify the choice of words to his readers (here in English translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series):

For if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more your heavenly Father

Now this He said, not to bring an evil name on man’s nature, nor to condemn our race as bad; but in contrast to His own goodness He calls paternal tenderness evil, so great is the excess of His love to man

This is also seen in Cyril of Alexandria's (378-444) commentary on the parallel passage in Luke (11:13):

When therefore He says, You who are evil, by which He means you whose mind is capable of being influenced by evil, and not uniformly inclined to good like the God of all, you know how to give good gifts to your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give a good spirit to them that ask Him?


Neither of these commentaries seem to indicate that the writers understood πονηρός to mean anything other than evil in the modern English sense of the word. I could find no earlier commentaries on the two passages to draw from, so I suppose one could argue that the interpretation you suggest may have held at an earlier time. But both Cyril and Chrysostom were respected Church Fathers who were extremely careful to uphold the Apostolic teaching, so I don't think this is the case.

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If you were a hard-working peasant living at a mere existence level and heard Jesus call you 'evil', would you not have gathered up your belongings and say to your wife, "Come, Honey, let's go home!" According to Communication Basics 101, Jesus would not have called his fellow Jews 'evil'. He's not stupid! He was not uncaring and disrespectful to the "lost sheep of the House of Israel". It was to these hard-working, common Jews, these "sheep without a shepherd," that the Master came to minister unto. Just saying ...

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    – agarza
    Feb 7, 2023 at 18:40
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The confusion seems to have been caused by bad lexicons like Strong's, Thayer. Strong must have come to the conclusion based on a similar misinterpretation of Matt 7:11, thinking Jesus cannot call man 'evil', so let's change the meaning of the word. Strong includes derelict in its meaning. Thayer, Abbot Smith etc mentions a. pressed and harassed by labors; thus Hercules is called πονηροτατος καί ἄριστος, Hesiod fragment 43, 5. Hesiod is from 700 BC. The context of those ancient sources is unclear, there is no reason to include them in the definition, when we have better references for the word. Even if it is understood as: pain/labor/trouble-lifting/bearing/propounding. from breaking its compound form to come up with a different meaning, it should be taken as the source of pain, self-inflicting pain, rather than the quality of being oppressed by others or conditions.

The old lexicons may be committing etymological fallacy by including adding ponos meaning to poneros. These words πόνος and πονηρός should be treated distinctly. As for CEV, it is the worst Bible translation, so you should never consult such false translations to study a word meaning.

The context of Matt 7:11 merely calls men as evil in general in comparison with God; only God is (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19), moreover, he is not pointing the listeners out that they are evil particularly, but it refers to all mankind. The actual phrase is being evil, not you are evil, RV If ye then, being evil εἰ οὖν ὑμεῖς πονηροὶ ὄντες. He was referring to man's capacity to be evil, rather than their/our inherent nature as evil. His followers had no problem hearing his teachings, but his enemies or those who really were evil always hated him for his right judgment.

The Concise New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, 2021, on p766-767 has a good entry on this word.

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I think the problem is the mapping of the Greek word that has the connotation of being evil and twisted to the English words that don't have both.

Wicked/witch is a by etymology a twisted one and AFAIK has connotations of being evil but not necessarily deviating from the righteousness. On the other hand evil is a proper antonym to the good/pleasant but doesn't manifest the clear connection to being deviated/twisted in modern use.

Also the link is not directly between suffering and evil but rather through a shared common root - "twisted" and both suffering and evil.

Maybe there is thus no ideal translation that's why I personally try to stick to the Greek original.

πονος According to Beekes, from Proto-Indo-European *(s)penh₁- (“to weave, to twist”).

wicked/witch from German wickeln (twist, bend)

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An intuitive leap it came up in the communion reading today , I puzzled over it and thought to whom was Jesus really addressing this again my sense is the Pharisees in their hypocrisy , the word is referring to their religious egoic nature and their actual separateness from God , and in sense from which we can all suffer ie "i am a Christian, with attendant feelings of superiority masking the possibility for insight " by this reference he then defines evil in this context.

For me explanations are to be found not so much by a technical interpretation but through reflection and meditation I draw also from other Faiths Hinduism , Buddhism as well as from my own practices in Yoga , body work and meditation.

I do not feel Jesus was making a statement about Human nature in general , although he may have been , again if we take a similar stance . No I feel the tone of gospels is set by his opposition to the way the Pharisees nave been behaving , not in Faith but legalistically whilst inwardly being at odds with His father's Will, i.e. you brood of vipers , your father Satan and so on.

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