The final petition in the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer, while present in the majority of manuscripts of Luke, is absent a diverse range of witness, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 a*2 B L f1 700 pc vg, and segments of the Syriac and Coptic tradition). As with the other parts of the Prayer where a shorter Lukan version is attested, the longer form is almost certainly secondary, representing a scribal harmonization (to Matthew), of the sort we see frequently in the manuscript tradition. Here the text-critical axiom lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferable”) holds good. This (final) petition in Matthew (followed by the Didache) reads:
a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou/
alla rhusai h¢mas apo tou pon¢rou
“but may you rescue us from the evil”
An Aramaic original, insofar as it valid to reconstruct, might be something like:
av*ya!B= /m! an`l=X#a^ <r^B=
b§ram °aƒƒéln¹° min b§°îš¹°
(cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901)
From the standpoint of the Matthean structure of the Prayer, it is better to consider this line as part of the previous petition (cf. the prior note). This is indicated by the contrastive/adversative particle a)lla/ (“but, rather”), establishing a contrast with the previous request, which had been negative (i.e., what God should not do); here is the corresponding positive request:
- “May you not bring us into testing
- but (rather) may you (instead) rescue us from the evil”
- “May you not bring us into testing
The main interpretive difficulty involves the precise meaning of the word ponhro/$ (“evil”). There are three question which must be addressed:
- Whether the article here is masculine or neuter
- The force of the definite article, and
- The nature of the “evil” referred to in the context of the Prayer
Each of these will be dealt with in turn. First, it is worth noting that the adjective ponhro/$ is much more frequent in Matthew than in the other Gospels. Mark has it (twice) in just one tradition (7:22-23), while it occurs just three times in John (3:19; 7:7; 17:5). It is a bit more common in Luke (12 times), with another 8 occurrences in Acts. By comparison it appears 25 times in Matthew, including 8 in the Sermon on the Mount; 5 of the 12 Lukan occurrences are in the parallel “Sermon on the Plain”. Overall, the adjective appears to be distinctive of the sayings of Jesus in the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.
1. The word with definite article is a substantive adjective (i.e. functioning as a noun), but the particular genitive form tou= ponhrou= is ambiguous in terms of gender: it can either be masculine or neuter. It is helpful to consider first the other 7 occurrences of the adjective in the Sermon on the Mount. It modifies masculine nouns in 5:45; 6:23; 7:11, 17-18—”man” (a&nqrwpo$ [implied]), “eye” (o)fqalmo/$), and “fruit” (karpo/$). In all these instances the adjective is used to describe the character of human beings, their attitude and actions. The same is probably the case in 5:39, where the substantive use (with the definite article) most likely refers to the person doing evil, rather than the evil itself. In 5:37 the substantive genitive tou= ponhrou= has the same ambiguity we see in here in the Prayer. The only certain occurrence of the neuter is in 5:11, where it refers to evil that is spoken against Jesus’ disciples. This neuter usage is similar to the plural substantive in Mark 7:23 (“these evil [thing]s”). Thus, it would appear that it is more common in the Sermon to use the adjective as characteristic of a person, rather than a reference to evil itself.
2. An interesting question is whether the definite article simply reflects a substantive use of the adjective (as a noun) generally, or whether it refers to evil in a specific sense. This will be discussed further under point #3 below. However, it is worth keeping in mind the parallel with the noun peirasmo/$ (“testing”); the rhythm and structure of the petition is aided by the inclusion of the definite article—peirasmo/$/o( ponhro/$—creating two nouns at the center of the contrast: “into testing” vs. “(away) from the evil”. But perhaps true definiteness is intended here as well, and meant to be emphasized, i.e. “the evil”. If so, then there are several possible meanings:
- The evil which we experience or which comes upon us, specifically as sin, in the course of our life on earth
- The (power of) evil which dominates the current Age, or, in an eschatological sense, is coming upon the world
- The Evil One—the personification of evil, or the person most characterized by evil and responsible for it, i.e. the figure known as the Satan (/f*c*[h^]), dia/bolo$ (‘Devil’), or Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:15 and the Qumran texts).
If we look at other occurrences in Matthew where the adjective is used with a definite article, we see that it is used two ways: (1) for specific person(s) who are evil, and (2) for the specific evil things a person says and does. There are actually two sections where these references occur: the teaching in 12:33-37 (cp. 7:15-20 and Mk 7:21-23), and the Kingdom parables in chapter 13. An examination of these is instructive.
- Matt 12:35 presents a contrast between the person who is good and the one who is evil:
“The good man casts out good (thing)s out of the good treasure (of his heart), and the evil man [o( ponhro/$ a&nqrwpo$] casts out evil (thing)s [ponhra/] out of the evil treasure [e)k tou= ponhrou= qhsaurou=] (of his heart).”
This wording echoes that of 5:37 in the Sermon and may provide the context for the more ambiguous expression there:
“And (so) your account must be “Yes, yes” (and) “no, no”, and the thing over (beyond) these (words) is [i.e. comes] out of the evil [e)k tou= ponhrou=].”
It is often assumed that “the evil” that brings about the oath here is “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Devil; however, the parallel in 12:35 suggests that it may actually refer to the evil (treasure) that is in a person’s heart.
- By contrast, twice in chapter 13, in Jesus’ explanation of both the parable of the Sower and of the Weeds (vv. 19, 38), the expression o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) almost certainly does refer to “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan. The evil human beings (“the evil [one]s”) who are separated from the good at the Last Judgment (v. 49) reflect the character of the Evil One himself, even as Jesus’ faithful disciples reflect the character of God Himself (cf. 5:48, etc).
3. Now let us consider further the use of o( ponhro/$ (or to\ ponhro/n) in the context of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. As documented above, the adjective serves the dualistic contrast present in Jesus’ teaching—that is, as a way of characterizing persons who do not follow his teaching, and who act and think in a way that does not reflect God the Father in Heaven. This continues the dualism we noted in earlier parts of the Prayer, especially in the opening petitions which emphasize God the Father as the One in the heavens. Jesus’ true disciples are those who, by following his teaching and example, actually do the will of God here on earth, even as it is done in heaven. The opposite of God’s will on earth is the presence and manifestation of wickedness and evil, which characterizes much (if not the majority) of humankind (cf. 7:11). Most people act and think in an earthly manner, seeking after earthly (and not heavenly) things. This is a fundamental principle that runs through the Sermon and establishes the contrast for how Jesus disciples are supposed to conduct themselves in their daily life (on earth). At the same time, there is an eschatological dimension, to both the Sermon and the Prayer, which emphasizes the coming Judgment and also the suffering and persecution Jesus’ followers will face on earth from the wicked and the forces of evil.
With all of this in mind, it is time to set forth several lines of interpretation for the phrase a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“from the evil”) in this petition of the Prayer; bear in mind that each interpretation must also take into account the parallel expression “into testing” (ei)$ peirasmo/n):
- The evil we experience, in terms of sin and the temptation to commit sin (understanding peirasmo/$ here as “temptation”).
- The evil we experience (from others), and to which we must respond and endure–understood generally as mistreatment and persecution; here the “testing” involves our response to such mistreatment, following Jesus’ own instruction in the Sermon.
- The “testing” is temptation (which God allows), and “the Evil One” (i.e. Satan/Devil/Belial) is the one who tempts us to follow the way of evil along with the rest of humankind.
- The “testing” is the suffering and distress which Jesus’ followers experience on earth, and the evil is that which dominates the current Age (under the control of the Evil One).
- A variation of (d) gives greater emphasis to the eschatological context of the Prayer—i.e. the suffering/distress which is coming upon the world, and especially upon Jesus’ followers in the form of persecution and the danger of being deceived, falling from faith, etc.
In the next note I will discuss these options further, along with what it means to be “rescued” by God from this evil.
These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.