My friend Mark B. once remarked to me what a difference it made to him when he started mentally translating the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer, ῥῦσαι ἡμᾶς ἀπὸ τοῦ πονηροῦ, as “deliver us from the Evil One” – that is, from Satan, a supernatural evil person rather than an abstract principle of evil in the world. To recognize that evil is personal focuses a man’s struggle of spiritual warfare. We are, after all, engaged in warfare with a personal enemy who hates us and wants to destroy us. He is not an impersonal principle like gravity or a mere influence like germs or air pollution.
In light of that past conversation, I’ve been a little more attuned to the possibilities of πονηρός when I come across it in the course of my GNT reading. I was reading Mt. 5 this morning – which is, of course, the immediately preceding chapter before the chapter that includes the Lord’s Prayer. There are two instances of πονηρός with the article, in close proximity to each other:
ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ· τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν. (Mt 5:37) – “Let your word be yes, yes, no, no; what is beyond these is from the evil one.”
The various English translations are fairly unanimous in considering τοῦ πονηροῦ to be the devil.
The second instance, two verses later, is trickier:
Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· Ὀφθαλμὸν ἀντὶ ὀφθαλμοῦ καὶ ὀδόντα ἀντὶ ὀδόντος. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ· ἀλλ’ ὅστις σε ⸀ῥαπίζει ⸀εἰς τὴν δεξιὰν ⸀σιαγόνα, στρέψον αὐτῷ καὶ τὴν ἄλλην· (Mt 5:39)
Here the translations diverge. The KJV takes τῷ πονηρῷ as generalized impersonal evil:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39 KJV)
The NKJV, NIV, and ESV reflect the modern consensus that Jesus is talking about an evil human being:
… an evil person. (NKJV)
… the one who is evil.(ESV)
… an evil person. (NIV)
Given that the verse is talking about someone slapping you on the cheek, this does seem like the indicated option. It makes one wonder, however, if we could not read both 5:37 and 6:13 (from the Lord’s Prayer) in the same way, with congenial results. That is, anything beyond “yes, yes” and “no, no” is from an evil person; and the Lord’s Prayer requests deliverance from persecution (πειρασμός, probably not mere “temptation” either here or in 1 Cor 10:13; see here) at the hands of wicked men (τοῦ πονηροῦ).
But perhaps it is a mistake to look for a univocal sense that will cover all three instances.