Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer

I'm sure you are familiar with the Lord's Prayer from Matthew 6. I'd like to draw your attention to the translation of verse 13:

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil...

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

And bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Do not bring us to hard testing,
but keep us safe from the Evil One.

Keep us from being tempted
and protect us from evil.
As you can see, there is some ambiguity about how to translate the version of the Greek word πονηρός (ponēros, pronounced pon-ay-ros') in this text.

As best I can tell, the ambiguity comes from the genitive case in the Greek. The genitive case for singular nouns in the Greek is the same for masculine and neuter nouns. Thus the genitive usage in Matthew 6.13--tou (the) ponērou (evil or evil one)--can be either masculine or neuter. We know we are working with the singular (rather than the plural). If we read tou ponērou as a singular masculine noun we have "the evil one." But if we read it as singular neuter noun then we have something that is more abstract, evil rather than evil one. The Greek, as best I can tell, allows for both readings.

Contrast this with the use of ponēros in Matthew 13 (the Parable of the Sower) where ponēros is preceded by ho, the singular masculine version of "the." In this instance the translation seems clear : Evil one (the devil).
Matthew 13.19
Those who hear the message about the Kingdom but do not understand it are like the seeds that fell along the path. The Evil One comes and snatches away what was sown in them.
The phrase tou ponērou occurs three other times in the book of Matthew. Perhaps the context of those verses will clear things up?
Matthew 5.37 (NIV)
All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Matthew 12.35 (NIV)
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

Matthew 13:38 (NIV)
The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one...
Matthew 5.37 isn't clear. The NIV has tou ponērou as "evil one." But the ESV renders it as "evil" with no loss of meaning. In Matthew 12.35 we have tou ponērou describing treasure--tou ponērou treasure--which the KJV renders as "the evil treasure." Finally, in Matthew 13 we have the children/people of tou ponērou. All these translations have this as children/people/sons of the "evil/wicked one."

This last is interesting in that, as we saw above, when telling the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.19 Jesus uses the masculine ho ponēros to designate "the evil one." A few verses later, in verse 38, Jesus uses tou ponērou to describe the same object. This suggests, at least within the Parable of the Sower, that Matthew's use of tou ponērou is sliding toward the masculine usage. Consequently, if forced to guess about the use tou ponērou in the Lord's Prayer we might break toward "the evil one."

The phrase tou ponērou occurs in Luke twice (Luke 6.45, 11.4) in parallel passages to the Matthew texts. A different usage occurs in John 17.15:
John 17.15 (NIV)
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
This prayer seems to echo the Lord's Prayer. The NIV, ASV, NLT and GNT keep their translations consistent with their Matthew 6.13 renderings, staying with "evil one" in both cases. By contrast, the KJV stays consistent with "evil" in both texts. Both the ESV and CEV make changes, going with "evil" in Matthew 6.13 and switching to "evil one" in John 17.15. In short, all the modern translations go with "evil one" in John 17.15 which again builds a case, given the parallels between the prayers in Matthew and John, for translating tou ponērou as "evil one" in the Lord's Prayer.

In the epistles tou ponērou occurs three times:
Ephesians 6:16
In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

2 Thessalonians 3.3
But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one

1 John 3:12
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.
2 Thess. 3.3 seems to echo the Lord's Prayer. Thus we find the now familiar diversity in how the translations render tou ponērou. The NIV, ASV, NLT, ESV and GNT all go with "evil one." The KJV stays consistent with "evil." The CEV does something interesting and goes with "harm." More about this choice below.

However, all these translations, given the context, go with "evil one" (or something similar like "the devil" or "the wicked one") for Eph. 6.16 and 1 John 3.12.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? As I assess the evidence, more often than not tou ponērou tips toward the singular masculine interpretation: "the evil one." More, I think this translation is in better keeping with the Christus Victor worldview of the New Testament writers.

That said, there is enough interpretive wiggle room for interpreters wanting to modernize the meaning. If "the devil" is an unattractive idea for many modern readers of the bible you can go with "deliver us from evil" in the Lord's Prayer. And most versions of the Lord's Prayer go in this direction.

But this is what I find most interesting. The word we have been kicking around--ponēros--comes from the root ponos (πόνος) which is the word for work or toil and, by association, suffering or anguish. This fits the context of Matthew 6.13: "Lead us not into trials, but deliver us from suffering/pain/anguish." This is why the CEV translates 2 Thessalonians 3.3 as "protect you from harm." Evil here is harm, pain and suffering.

Interestingly, this understanding fits the biblical depiction of "the evil one." The devil is the one who brings ponēros--harm, calamity, disease, hurt, suffering and pain. This fits with what we see Satan doing in the Book of Job and in Paul's thorn in the flesh, a suffering sent by a "messenger of Satan."

To be sure, when we see moral disease and brokenness the meaning of ponēros shades toward the ethical--sin, moral brokenness, wickedness. But the background meaning is broader--suffering, pain, hurt, harm, and brokenness. "The evil one" is the personification of all this pain, suffering and brokenness.

This suggests, to me at least, that there is a cosmic aspect to praying "deliver from the evil one." And why, perhaps, the generic term evil is just fine. Particularly if we focus on the root idea, that the universe is broken on a cosmic scale. We suffer. We hurt. We die. And we harm each other. More, life is tedious, full of toil and boredom. Again, the root idea behind ponēros is the suffering associated with toil and work. The malaise and dissatisfaction associated with working within modern economies is also wrapped up in the biblical notion of evil. There is a chronic suffering associated with the world of work.

All of this is implicated in the word ponēros. Everything is broken. Everything hurts. Everything is heavy.

We seek Shalom. Restoration. Reconciliation. Peace. Relief. Healing. Salvation.

And so we pray: Lord, deliver us from tou ponērou.

In the face of all this hurt, toil, suffering, pain and brokenness, may your Kingdom Come.

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15 thoughts on “Christus Victor in the Lord's Prayer”

  1. One programming note. I had only one year of Greek as an undergrad and have forgotten all of it. So it's possible that errors are sprinkled throughout this post. Any corrections are welcome. Just another hazard of blogging outside your area of expertise. 

  2. "In the face of all this hurt, toil, suffering, pain and brokenness, may your Kingdom come."

    In seeking shalom, restoration, reconciliation, peace, relief, healing, and salvation for ourselves, I propose that we find that which we seek in ~being~ the very things that we lack and desire in and for ourselves ~toward~ others, in whom we ~see~ Christ himself.  Community composed of "Kingdom people" mirror the King to one another.

    Hospes venit.  Christus venit.


  3. I too studied Koine Greek for two semesters as an undergrad and have forgotten all of it.  Thank you for this post!

    If you were to ask me about my career, I would readily admit it was toil, stress, and even boredom.  And it resulted -- due in no small part to both my genetic health issues and the physical environment I labored in-- to further life-threatening illness, probably shortening my lifespan.  I was finally forced to stop.

    However, I have known people for whom their work was "Healing, Restoration, Peace, and Salvation".  Think Mother Teresa.  The work itself is a huge part of who they are.  Without it they would not be the same people.  I have never had a problem with envy when it comes to material things, but over the course of my life the people I have envied most are the ones who loved their work and found great meaning in and through it.

    Do they somehow manage to break with this evil paradigm?

  4. I took three years of undergrad Greek, worked my way through Hebrews, a significant chunk of Acts, and am currently plowing through Ephesians, and this seems pretty solid to me. Well done, Dr. Beck.

  5.  ...if by "hazard," sir Richard, you mean "Spirit-led."

    Bless you, brother, and the fine institution which employs you (regardless of my preconceived notions). I read your blog daily, and it never fails to enlighten, encourage, embolden. Someday I'll be asked, "Who are your influences?" I will have the pleasure of naming the great Richard Beck (and Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Greg Boyd, etc...).

    Your posts on universal reconciliation within the scope of universal suffering were a major facet in my re-discovery of faith, of Christ, of His identity. I have them all printed out and in a folder, marked-up and highlighted. I have shared the words within them at bars in and around the Austin area and found that virtually all who hear are not only intrigued, but inspired in their re-finding of a hope that may be possible for "Even me?"


  6. Having taken 4 semesters of undergrad Greek, I have a pretty decent (okay, yeah right) handle on Greek, and it seems your logic can conclusions are sound.

    With that being said, I long for the day when I'm delivered from evil. I definitely don't pray for that often enough.

  7. many people think the world isn't "broken"... evolutionary theory of origins indicates that the world just 'is', that the suffering and death is necessary for progress. how then, does the theological idea of 'evil' from which we need to be delivered fit with such a world view?

  8. None of it fits. I believe religion is based on insecurity. Especially the apologetics of William Lane Craig. If you read his book "Reasonable Faith" he has a chapter called "The Absurdity of Life Without God." What He is doing here is trying to create a need or void by talking of death and causing insecurity before he moves into his arguments for God. This is the method of every seducer. They will get to know you, find out your insecurities (or create them themselves) and then fill the void with themselves. They insinuate themselves and make it look like they are the answer to your problems. When the void is filled people fall in love. This is what I believe religion is based upon. It's for people who are insecure about themselves and death. People create a God helper out of insecurity. Instead of embracing death and loving themselves and others some people become obssessed with religion because they are insecure about themselves and death. Recall the famous argument for God by C.S. Lewis based on desire or need. This is what I'm talking about here. The desire or need is created because of an insecurity with death and/or yourself.

  9. Hi Richard.

    You know, it seems that just when you get a balloon blown up nice and big and round, some jerk comes along with a pin...

    Please allow me to introduce myself: I'm the guy with the pin. Took Ancient Greek in college more years ago that I care to admit. Over the past 5 years or so, I've read the New Testament and related literature in  the original Greek at least three times a week. I regularly attend a Greek NT reading group. I make my share of mistakes, but I'm not bad at translation...

    And I think you've got it wrong.

    The question is not whether tou ponerou is masculine or neuter. Grammatically it's masculine. That does not, however, mean that it refers to a male person.

    The question is how the definite article tou functions. Koine Greek used articles differently than English does. There was no indefinite article. In English we say, "I ate an apple." In Greek it would have just been "I ate apple."

    Sometimes the definite article is used as it in English to refer to the only one of a thing: "I ate the apple."

    Sometimes, however, the definite article is omitted when it refers to a unique thing. "The Lord" is usually just rendered "Kyrios" instead of "ho Kyrios."

    And then, sometimes the definite article is used when a noun refers to an abstract quality like "good" or "evil."

    In Matthew's version of the Lord's Prayer it says "deliver us from *the* evil"...tou ponerou...which can equally mean "evil" as an abstract or *the* evil one, referring to a person (i.e. Satan). The ambiguity is reflected in the different translations you cite.

    There is probably no definitive way to decide if Matthew meant the abstract "evil" or the "evil one." Looking at every instance of "poneros" in Matthew would be a start. Some of the other verses you mention are equally ambiguous. It might make sense to see how Matthew how often Matthew uses other terms such as "Satan" or "the devil" for "the evil one." A look at how early interpreters read the verse might also be helpful, but...

    I'm pretty sure that no amount of research would make the ambiguity go away. And the good news is, all of this grammatical pedantry doesn't really undermine your conclusions...just the way you arrived at them.

  10. No worries, Brant. This is awesome. I had hoped I would learn something by putting this out there.

    Can I ask some follow up questions? What's going on with the Greek in Matthew 13 when he uses  ho ponēros in verse 19 and tou ponērou verse 38? What's the difference between ho and tou if both are masculine? And is Matthew using these forms as interchangeable ("evil one" in both verse 19 and 38) or is he changing meanings moving from ho to tou or is the change having to do the the grammar of those sentences?

    Thanks for your help!

  11. Silly me! I should have consulted the Lexicon before I posted. Poneros is an adjective, and so there are masculine, feminine and neuter forms. I told you I still make mistakes!

    However, with the article, it is acting as a noun. It might still refer to Evil in the abstract, or to the person of THE evil one. So, I'll split the difference with you on this one.


    The difference between "ho" and "tou" is their case. "Ho poneros" is in the nominative case. It's the form used as the subject of a sentence. "Tou ponerou" (which could be masculine or neuter as you said) is in the genitive case. The genitive has a range of meaning that includes possession, belonging, comparison, etc. Genitives can even serve as adjectives.

    Matthew 13:19 MUST refer to the "evil one" because abstract "evil" cannot come and snatch "the thing that was planted in their heart."

    Verse 38 is grammatically ambiguous. It might mean the "sons of the evil one" or the "sons of evil." But since it refers back to v. 19, I'd say that effectively argues for "evil one."

  12. I just took my own advice and looked up every occurrence of every form of "ho poneros" in Matthew. You got most of them, but didn't mention 13:19 where it occurs in the accusative "TOi PONEROi" (the small "i" being an iota subscript. The masculine and neuter accusative singular pronoun are also identical. There Jesus says, "Do not resist TOi PONEROi" which almost certainly means "evil" or "the evil person" but not "the evil one" as Satan.

    Don't you think?

  13. So now it should be clear why the Jews take such time in transcribing Torah, one letter at a time as to make no flaws or albeit left unkosher. Otherwise centuries later, we have "the educated" writing blogs to try and convince others that because of such misinterpretations of language and translation gaps, G*d must be a ruse.....

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