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What is an evil eye?

But if you have an evil eye, your whole body shall be full of darkness. (Matthew 6:23)

Some terms create real problems for translators and o ofqalmoV sou ponhroV h  (evil eye in above translation) is one of those terms. Below are some of the other choices translators have made.

your eyes are unhealthy (New International Version)
your eye is bad (New Living Translation)
your eye is diseased (Net Bible)
thine eye be evil (English Revised Version)
your eyesight is bad (Weymouth New Testament)

The majority of translators chose to translate it -- your eye is evil.  “Evil eye” is a well-known term, as can be seen by simply searching on Google.

The evil eye is a malevolent look that many cultures believe able to cause injury or misfortune for the person at whom it is directed for reasons of envy or dislike. Talismans created to protect against the evil eye are also frequently called "evil eyes." The term also refers to the power attributed to certain persons of inflicting injury or bad luck by such an envious or ill-wishing look. The evil eye is usually given to others who remain unaware. The idea expressed by the term causes many cultures to pursue protective measures against it. The concept and its significance vary widely among different cultures, primarily the Middle East.[i]

If this is what the term meant to Yeshua, then one of these would be the best option:

but if you have a malevolent look. . .
but if you have the power to inflict injury or bad luck. . .

No wonder people get confused when they read English translations of Yeshua’s words. The above options present readers with options that mean from “poor eyesight” to “an evil power.” The more you learn about how words work (take a moment to read this if you haven’t), the more amazed you will become about how much theology affects “educated scholars” when it comes to the words of the Bible.

Culturally correct meanings are the meanings that best reflect the ancient author’s culture. We think, act, and communicate in ways that are primarily predetermined by our cultures. We did not choose our culture any more than we chose our parents and were immediately immersed in our culture the day we were born.

Yeshua’s culture was the Jewish culture of the Late Second Temple Period. If translators looked there first for the meanings of his words, there wouldn’t be hundreds of English translations of the Bible and thousands of Christian denominations.

We all use idioms when we speak – and so did Yeshua. Every language is laden with idioms and euphemisms. They are words that cannot be translated literally into another language.  They usually create some very difficult situations for both Bible readers and translators.

An idiom is a word or phrase that cannot be translated literally into another language and the meaning of it cannot be understood by defining its component parts. The underlined phrase is the idiom -- He really put his foot in his mouth this time.

A euphemism is the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant. The underlined phrase is the euphemism – Do you want to go powder your nose?

Think about what someone from another culture and language would think if they took the words literally of the idiom and euphemism in the above examples. What if that person translated them into his or her language? This why it is good to use resources, like our BHC Bible Tools, that provide you with multiple English translations of the Bible for you to use in your Bible studies. If you encounter a word or phrase that is translated multiple ways, there is a chance that it might be an idiom or euphemism.

When it comes to the words of Yeshua, the primary source to use to find the accurate meaning of an idiom or euphemism is the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament). They will provide the meaning of the above idiom Yeshua used.

"If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land YAHWEH your ELOHIYM (God) is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, `The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and you have an evil eye against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry unto YAHWEH against you, and it be sin unto you.’"[ii]

They key to discovering their meanings is to understand a popular writing style used by biblical authors called “parallelism.” In a parallelism, words are placed in parallel to their corresponding words. When an idiom is used in a parallelism, we can find its meaning by locating the word or words corresponding to it. The parallelism in the verse above is:

(A) and you have an evil eye against your poor brother
(B) and you give him nothing

A good method to use when working with a parallelism is to make the first part of the parallelism (A) a question and use the second part (B) to answer it.

Question: Who is the one with the evil eye?
Answer: It is the one who gives his poor brother nothing.

In the Jewish culture of Yeshua, a person with an evil eye is “a stingy or greedy person who gives his poor needy brother nothing.” Now let’s update the translation at the beginning of this blog:

But if you are a stingy or greedy person who gives his poor needy brother nothing, your whole body shall be full of darkness. (Matthew 6:23)

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