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Let There Be Light…and Let There Be Generosity

First Published JCF Newsletter December 2012

By JON “YONI” GERRISH

“In the very beginning God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good”(Gen 1:3-4 NASB).

Light is good for the eyes as it helps us to see what we are doing – especially important when we are giving out money.  We learn from Jesus that if our eyes are good, then our bodies will be full of light (Mt 6:22; Lk 11:34).  These words have inspired countless sermons, devotionals, and commentaries, but what do they really mean, and how did Jesus’ first century Jewish followers understand them?

First, let’s review the fuller saying of Jesus in Matthew (later we will also consider Luke’s version).

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear (haplousαπλους), your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mt 6:19-24).

Since the original Hebrew manuscript of Matthew did not survive the salty Mediterranean environment of Caesarea’s ancient libraries, we are left with only a Greek translation of this Gospel.[1]  In the above passage I have intentionally chosen a translation, the NASB, which renders the Greek adjective haplous as “clear”, but it can also mean “single”, “simply”, “sincerely”, “healthy”, “innocent”, and “straightforward”.  We shall also see that it can mean “good” or “generous”.  With so many options, it is easy to understand how original meanings of words and expression are potentially lost as we translate further and further away from the Semitic world in which Jesus lived and taught. 

While trying to make better sense of these curious expressions about the eyes, many Christian commentators have divided this teaching from the Sermon on the Mount into two or three segments because they appear to be detached from each other. For example, storing up “treasures in heaven” rather than on earth (Mt 6:19) appears unrelated to having a “clear eye” or “bad eye” (Mt 6:22), which in turn seems disconnected to the choice of being steadfast in service to God or distracted with worldly business (Mt 6:24).[2]  For some, the only common link for these three statements is a form of spiritual dualism which teaches that there are two paths to choose from, one is the right “single” way (towards God) and the other way is wrong, blurry and unfocused.

“God Gives Generously to All”

One basic approach for finding a textual solution for “a clear eye” is by considering the greater context of “haplous” by searching for the same word in the New Testament.  The only other place where a derivative of “haplous” appears in the New Testament is the use of the adverb “haplos” in the book of James.

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously (haplos) and without reproach, and it will be given to him (Jam 1:5). 

In this verse haplos (απλως) is best translated as “generously” because it fits the contextual flow; it would not make sense to use ‘clearly’, ‘simply’, or ‘singularly’.

As we broaden our search, our primary measuring stick for understanding many of Jesus’ words is the Torah, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, because he quotes or hints at the Hebrew Scriptures with great frequency.  Beyond this, we should also probe the greater corpus of Jewish literature from the period.  In so doing, we will find parallels to Jesus’ teachings in Jewish writings from the Intertestamental period (between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament), at Qumran in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in early rabbinic literature.

“Bad Eye” and “Good Eye” in the Bible

Beginning with Deuteronomy, we find the expression “bad eye” used in the sense of callousness or unwillingness to help the poor in the land.

Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, 'the seventh year, the year of remission, is near,' and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you. You shall generously give to him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all your undertakings. For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’ (Dt 15:9-11).

In this passage, a “bad eye” or “evil eye” (ra’ah ayin—רעה עין   —translated “hostile” here in the NASB) is equated with being stingy and even cruel.  Therefore, the challenge or command in this verse is to be generous towards the poor.  The same word combination is found in Prov 23:6, where we are told not to eat the bread of a selfish man, who in Hebrew is called a “bad of eye” (רע עין – rah ayin).  Similarly in Prov 28:22, we are told that a man with an “evil eye” (i.e. a greedy eye) chases after wealth.

Earlier in Proverbs, we find a reference to the opposite position – a generous person is called a “good of eye”.

A good of eye [tov ayin - טוב עין] will himself be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor (Prov 22:9).[3]

We could potentially stop the textual comparison here because it seems evident that Jesus has coupled two Hebrew idioms from Proverbs and Deuteronomy about “good eyes” and “bad eyes” into one well-linked and fortified statement.  Yet how can we know with certainty that these expressions still existed in the spoken Hebrew of his day? 


“Good Eye” as Good Intentions and Benevolence within the Mishnah

The Mishnah is a collection of teachings or legal rulings which directed Jews at the end of the Second Temple period on how to apply the Torah to their lives.  Although these rulings were not written down until the end of the second century A.D., they reflect a long period of development spanning back before the time of Jesus.  Several of the contributing rabbis were contemporaries of Jesus, speaking the same language, and using many of the same exegetical tools.  One of the first references to a “good eye” is from a tractate called, The Sayings of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot).  In this section, Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakai asked his students to summarize some of the higher principles of life worth striving for.

Go forth and see which is the good way that a man should adhere to, Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘a good eye…’ (Pirkei Avot 2:13).

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos responded with just two Hebrew words, “good eye” (ayin tovah עין טובה). This famous student of Yohannan ben Zakai studied and taught only a few decades after Jesus and was a key figure responsible for helping to establish and preserve Jewish academies outside Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D.  According to more modern rabbinic opinion, Rabbi Eliezer made benevolence the principle of his life.  The following is an excerpt from a commentary on Pirkei Avot from Dr. Marcus Lehmann (1831-1890), a well known rabbi and writer from Hanover, Germany.

The good eye is a symbol of good intentions and benevolence, while the evil eye indicates malevolence, avarice and greediness.  Rabbi Eliezer is telling us: Make beneficence the principle of your life, be kind and friendly not only in your conduct toward your fellowman but also in your judgment of him, and also look kindly on all the precepts of God’s Torah, even those that do not mean so much to you.[4]

Regarding the concept of a “bad eye”, Yohannan ben Zakai rephrased the question in the negative to learn what standards in life to avoid.

He said to them [his disciples]: ‘Go and see which is the evil way which a man should shun.’ Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘an evil eye’ (Pirkei Avot 2:14).

Again, the term “evil” or “bad eye”, which is being stingy or greedy is understood as the opposite maxim of a “good eye”. The following is a portion of the Mishnah which includes both expressions together.

A good eye [ayin tovah], a humble spirit and an undemanding soul, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Abraham; an evil eye [ayin ra’ah], a haughty spirit and a demanding soul are the characteristics of the disciples of Balaam.  What difference is there between the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Balaam? The disciples of Abraham enjoy this world and inherit the World to Come (Pirkei Avot 5:23).

For these ancient rabbis to link the term “good eye” to Abraham is a perfect match considering the accounts of Abraham’s exaggerated acts of hospitality (see his entertaining of the three visitors in Gen 18) and generosity (such as his overpayment for a property to bury Sarah in Gen 23).  

Today, in Israeli Hebrew speaking circles, the expression “a good eye” is still widely used.  On several occasions, I have encountered youth groups and individuals participating in charity drives knocking at my door.  As part of their pitch, they usually ask that I give with a “good eye” (ayin tovah) and it is quite obvious that my generosity is what they are hoping for.

Why a Single Eye is Still a Good Eye 

Arguing against rendering haplous as a “good eye” or generous, Steven Notley in his article, “If Your Eye Be Single” (Jerusalem Perspective online Jan 1, 2004), maintains that the Greek word is best translated as “single” in Mt 6:22 and Lk 11:34.  He supports his case with The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs which is a Jewish text from the time of Jesus.  The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs has been preserved in Greek from a later period, but certain fragments in Hebrew and Aramaic were found at Qumran.[5]  In particular, Notley focuses on two subchapters of the Twelve Patriarchs entitled, The Testament of Benjamin and The Testament of Issachar.  Notley rightly suggests that Jesus may have been aware of such books and Jewish communities which promoted teachings about spiritual dualism and the benefits of staying focused on God without distraction.  In his article he mentions the following two passages from the Testament of Benjamin.

The good man has not an eye of darkness [σκοτεινον οφθαλμον] that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin. This man, by doing good, overcomes evil, since he is protected by the good; and he loves righteousness [i.e. charity] as his own soul…

His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of quietness and one of tumult, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone. It has no double sight or hearing; for whenever such a man does, or says, or sees anything, he know that the Lord is looking into his soul in judgment. And he purifies his mind so that he is not condemned by God and men. But everything that Belial does is double and has nothing single [haploteita] about it at all (Test. Benjamin 4:2-3 and 6:5-7).

In the first quote, Notley does not draw attention to the strong link here between The Testament of Benjamin and the words of Jesus.  Test. Benjamin 4:2-3  says that the good person, in contrast to the eye of darkness, loves doing righteousness (i.e. charity, or giving to the poor), just as Matthew weaves “acts of righteousness” or giving to the poor with the “single eye” as light and the bad eye as darkness in the same chapter (Mt 6:1-2, 22).  By extension, this theme appears to be the overall controlling statement of the second quote as well (Test. Benjamin 6:5-7).  Although “single” does seem to apply to part of the theme, no form of haplous is found in this quote until the final sentence.  And here, ‘straightforwardness’ would be a better fit for haploteita.  It would be insufficient otherwise to report that Belial’s main problem is simply “double vision”.  

Earlier in the same chapter of Test. Benjamin we find comparable language to Mt 6:19.

The good man’s impulse is not in the power of the error of the spirit of Beliar, for the angel of peace acts as a guide to his soul.  And he does not look with greedy eyes on the things that perish, nor does he pile up riches and delight in them (Test. Benjamin 6:1-2).

This is remarkably similar to Jesus’ warning against storing up treasures on earth (Mt 6:19).  And, as we have demonstrated, a “greedy eye” is a synonym of a “bad eye’.  Test. Benjamin 5:3 also equates “light” with “good works”, and subsequently, further removes us from the limited concept of a “single” perspective. 

Luke’s Generous Eye

Looking at Luke’s account, Jesus not only emphasizes the point of generosity and charity in conjunction with the “good eye”, but Luke also strings this teaching together with the following discussion between Jesus and a Pharisee.

The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is good [haplous] your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Then watch out that the light in you may not be darkness. If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it shall be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.” Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity and then all things are clean for you (Luke 11:34-41).

Surprisingly, Jesus seems to be applying the “good eye” concept of charity to help solve a quandary about ritual purity. 

In short, while haplous can mean “single” or “single minded”, there is better support for “good” or “generous” in the texts of Matthew 6, Luke 11, and James 1.  In particular, generosity or charity is the thread that connects Jesus’ entire teaching within Mt 6:19-24.  Storing up treasures in heaven is done by giving generously to the poor.  Everyone must make a choice between worldly possessions and heavenly things.  Since these things cannot be taken into the next life, we might as well give them to the poor and reap the benefits in heaven later.  During the coming holiday season, let us do good deeds and give to the poor with “good eyes” so that our light can shine and God may once again say, “it is good.”

 “The light of the eyes brightens the heart…” Prov 15:30


[1] Papias, possible Bishop of Hierapolis (Asia Minor) from the 2nd century AD is the first of the early Church Fathers (before 324AD – also called Ante-Nicean) to mention that Matthew’s Gospel was originally penned in Hebrew (not Aramaic).  Later other Church Fathers such as Irenaeus (120-202AD), Origen (early 4th century AD), Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History III 39,16) et al also mention this fact.    Later in the late 4th or early 5th century Jerome mentions that the Hebrew text of Matthew was stored in the library at Caesarea (De Virus, Inlustribus 3).  For a lengthier discussion see, David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights From a Hebraic Perspective, (Destiny Image Publishers, Shippensburg, PA, 1983 pp. 23-25). 

[2] For a list of several popular commentaries see this link: http://www.preceptaustin.org/matthew_619-21.htm

[3] From the Hebrew a better reading might be, “A generous person (good of eye) will be blessed for he shares his bread (food) with the poor.” 

[4] Rabbi Marcus Lehmann and Rabbi Prins, Pirkei Avot (Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 1992) p. 126.

[5]  Although no fragments of the testaments of Benjamin or Issachar were found at Qumran, there were parts of four copies of the Testament of Levi in Aramaic and a fragment of The Testament of Naphtali in Hebrew, which strengthens the argument for the existence of the rest of the series in the collection of the Dead Sea community.  See H.F.D. Sparks,  The Apocrphal Old Testament (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984) pp. 510-512.  Also, 4Q539 is considered to be a portion of the Testament of Joseph  in Hebrew.  However, the fragments of the Testament of Naphtali, Levi and Joseph are now considered to be only proto-types of an earlier form when compared to the more developed, later Christian era Greek copies.  The current position is that the later versions have seen considerable editing by Christian hands.  On this point see Vered Hillel, “Naphtali, a Proto-Joseph in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, May 2007, Vol. 16 issue 3). Also Wise, Abegg and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls (Harper Collins, San Francisco 1996) p. 431.