You are hereCultural Relativity and the Evil Eye
Cultural Relativity and the Evil Eye
by Jeremy Lile
In order to get at biblical truth, we must first take the bible on its own terms. To do so one must become acquainted with the cultural world from which it came, both the religious and social aspects. Sometimes this means shedding not only our inherited theological framework, but also our so-called scientific knowledge.In order to get at biblical truth, we must first take the bible on its own terms. To do so one must become acquainted with the cultural world from which it came, both the religious and social aspects. Sometimes this means shedding not only our inherited theological framework, but also our so-called scientific knowledge.Truth and Cultural Relativity
In a previous article, we discussed the importance of employing the
proper sociocultural perspective in cross-cultural studies. The
present article will build on the same concepts. To recap briefly, we
will quote the above mentioned article:
A socio-cultural perspective... is interested in explaining patterns of
behavior and thought within the proper system of inherited
conceptions. It's thinking inside the box, culture as an integrated
whole. Language and other behaviors derive meaning from social
systems. As such, to understand the words of Jesus and the early
Christian message, we must understand the 'social facts' that precede
them. Therefore, the meaning of a symbol (e.g., a word, an artifact,
a behavior) must be understood by its relationship to other symbols
within this historically transmitted framework. In this sense,
meaning is culturally relative in that we seek to understand any
aspect of a culture within its own context.
Relativity has become a bad word in some circles so some clarification is in
order. People may be concerned about moral relativity or the
relativity of truth. These are valid concerns. However, cultural
relativity is a horse of different color. It makes no claim as to
what is morally right or what is truth. These questions cannot be
answered by anthropology. Perhaps an example would be helpful at this point.
In John's Gospel, we find Jesus sitting next to Jacob's well at midday.
The scene takes place near the Samaritan town of Sychar. In the 4th
chapter, we read:
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give
me something to drink.” (For his disciples had gone into the
city to buy food.) Then the Samaritan woman said, “How can you,
being a Judean, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink? (For Judeans
do not associate with Samaritans.)
After their exchange about living water, Jesus then asks the woman to
return with her husband. The dialog ensues until it is interrupted by
his disciples' return.
At that time, his disciples returned and were astonished that he was
speaking with a woman. Yet no one asked, “What do you need?”
or “Why are you speaking to her?”
This text assumes many social values that can be lost on us as modern
readers. (The explanatory note by the author is a rare assist in high
context literature. This suggests the author anticipated his readers
might be unfamiliar the Judean / Samaritan relationships.) Archeology
and physical anthropology may be able to determine the location of
Jacob's well and what type of diet the villagers had, but these
disciplines do not answer the all important why question. Cultural
anthropology provides us with comparative data to help fill in
the blanks. In other words, we are given the missing pages of the
social script the players are following. Without this cultural
knowledge, we are tempted to overlay our own values
Our ancient informants tell us that attitudes toward gender roles,
purity and pollution, honor and shame, and kinship organization were
very different than our own. In fact, all of these elements are present
in the scene at Jacob's well, even if tacit. Why didn't the Samaritan
woman acquiesce to Jesus' initial request? What social “oughts”
influenced her response? Why did Jesus ask for her husband? Why were the disciples astonished
that he was speaking with a woman? The author assumes his readers
possess the necessary cultural knowledge to answer most, if not all,
of these questions. We, however, are twenty centuries removed. Women
work outside the home. They converse openly with non-relative males. We view
ourselves first and foremost as individuals. We do not inherit the
collective honor of our lineage. Social stratification for us is not
based on caste or tribe. These values are fundamental to how we view
the world and our place in it. Cultural anthropology helps us step
out of our world - at least with one foot - so we may get closer to
the world of Jesus and the first Christians.
Let's synthesize the discussion up to this point. Meaning is culturally
relative... for the bible tells me so. The author of John illustrates
this point when he interjects, “For Judeans do not associate
with Samaritans.” He wanted to make sure his readers were aware of all
the social “oughts” that had been breached in the exchange between Jesus and the
Samaritan woman. Had Jesus, a Judean, touched a vessel previously
used by a Samaritan, he would have become ritually unclean.
His Hellenized readers may have been unaware of Judean purity taboos. Accordingly, the author
clues them in to the fact that not only are gender roles in
play, as they would have expected, but so are rules of purity and pollution.
The social norms expected of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, that is, how they should
have behaved, were important to the author. He wanted to be sure his readers had
the correct “culture” in mind when the text
So, then, culture studies can help us get a hold of another society's values
and beliefs. John 4 exemplifies what was said previously:
the meaning of a symbol (e.g., a word, an artifact, a behavior) must
be understood by its relationship to other symbols within this
historically transmitted framework [culture]. However, whether it is
morally right for a woman to speak to a non-relative is not the
business of anthropology. Whether it is true that Jesus would become
unclean is not the business of anthropology.
The Evil Eye
The above discussion was fairly straightforward – nothing of real
controversy. However, the native's perspective can also raise a
number of more difficult questions. We will now address one area of
ancient Mediterranean culture that may be unfamiliar to modern
readers, namely, the evil eye. First, a brief introduction to the
The ancient Middle Eastern belief was that light is literally generated
in the heart and is transmitted out through the eye onto whatever
objects are in one’s gaze. Because heart and eye are closely
bound together, the good or evil light that originates in the heart
is always revealed by what comes forth from the eye. The eye thus
reveals the character of the person. Good-hearted people possess good
eyes and throw off good light; evil-hearted persons possess evil eyes
and throw off evil light. Moreover, since this light actually falls
on whatever a person looks at, it also brings into being what the
heart producing intends. In this way generous persons can look on
others and do actual good, while envious persons can look on others
and do actual damage.” 5
This may sound strange, but when one reads the ancient sources
the belief is not altogether unreasonable. Plato provides us with
an ancient description of how the eye functions:
First of the organs they fabricated the eyes to bring us light, and
fastened them there for the reason which I will now describe. Such
fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle
light, they contrived should become the proper body of each day. For
the pure fire within us is akin to this, and they caused it to flow
through the eyes, making the whole fabric of the eye-ball, and
especially the central part (the pupil), smooth and close in texture,
so as to let nothing pass that is of coarser stuff, but only fire of
this description to filter through pure by itself. Accordingly,
whenever there is daylight round about, the visual current issues
forth, like to like, and coalesces with it and is formed into a
single homogeneous body in a direct line with the eyes, in whatever
quarter the stream issuing from within strikes upon any object it
encounters outside. So the whole, because of its homogeneity, is
similarly affected and passes on the motions of anything it comes in
contact with or that comes in contact with it, throughout the whole
body, to the soul, and thus causes the sensation we call seeing.
Plutarch lived during the first and second generations of Christianity.
He is extremely useful to us as he records a number of contemporary views
on a variety of subjects. We often generalize and speak of the Greek view of the
soul, or the Jewish idea of the body. However, just like the present, there
were many competing views in antiquity. The following is a summary of various
theories on how the eye functions. Plutarch writes:
Democritus and Epicurus suppose that
sight is caused by the insertion of little images into the visive
organ, and by the reception of certain rays which return to the eye
after meeting the object. Empedocles supposes that images are mixed
with the rays of the eye; these he styles the rays of images.
Hipparchus, that the visual rays extend from both the eyes to the
superficies of bodies, and give to the sight the apprehension of
those same bodies, after the same manner in which the hand touching
the extremity of bodies gives the sense of feeling. Plato, that the
sight is the splendor of united rays; there is a light which reaches
some distance from the eyes into a cognate air, and there is likewise
a light shed from bodies, which meets and joins with the fiery visual
light in the intermediate air (which is liquid and mutable); and the
union of these rays gives the sense of seeing.
All of the theories listed by Plutarch share a common feature:
something is emitted from the eye. The description may consist of
rays, particles or fire, but something comes out.
Essentially, the eye was believed to be a conduit for a stream that originated
inside the body. This “fire” was reinforced by outside
light to produce perception of the object after returning to the eye.
Believe it or not, the evil eye is not unreasonable in this
context. Plutarch writes:
A discourse happening at supper concerning those that are said to
bewitch or have a bewitching eye, most of the company looked upon it
as a whim, and laughed at it. But Metrius Florus, who then gave us a
supper, said that the strange events wonderfully confirmed the
report... “The cause why anything is so, reason must find out;
but that a thing is so, testimony is a sufficient evidence; and we
have a thousand instances of this sort attested. We know that some
men by looking upon young children hurt them very much, their weak
and soft temperature being wrought upon and perverted, whilst those
that are strong and firm are not so liable to be wrought upon. And
Phylarchus tells us that the Thibians, the old inhabitants about
Pontus, were destructive not only to little children, but to some
also of riper years; for those upon whom they looked or breathed, or
to whom they spake, would languish and grow sick. And this, likely,
those of other countries perceived who bought slaves there. But
perhaps this is not so much to be wondered at, for in touching and
handling there is some apparent principle and cause of the effect.”
True, said I, but methinks there is some small track to the cause of this
effect, if you come to the effluvia of bodies. For smell, voice,
breath, and the like, are effluvia from animal bodies, and material
parts that move the senses, which are wrought upon by their impulse.
Now it is very likely that such effluvia must continually part from
animals, by reason of their heat and motion; for by that the spirits
are agitated, and the body, being struck by those, must continually
send forth effluvia. And it is probable that these pass chiefly
through the eye. For the sight, being very vigorous and active,
together with the spirit upon which it depends, sends forth a strange
fiery power; so that by it men act and suffer very much, and are
always proportionably pleased or displeased, according as the visible
objects are agreeable or not. Love, that greatest and most violent
passion of the soul, takes its beginning from the eye; so that a
lover, when he looks upon the fair, flows out as it were, and seems
to mix with her. And therefore why should any one, that believes men
can be affected and prejudiced by the sight, imagine that they cannot
act and hurt as well? For the mutual looks of mature beauties, and
that which comes from the eye, whether light or a stream of spirits,
melt and dissolve the lovers with a pleasing pain, which they call
the bittersweet of love. For neither by touching or hearing the
voice of their beloved are they so much wounded and wrought upon, as
by looking and being looked upon again... And of all diseases,
soreness of the eyes is the most infectious; so strong and vigorous
is the sight, and so easily does it cause infirmities in another.
Plutarch believed that smell, voice and breath were caused by streams of
particles emanating from some “body.” When these
particles came into contact with another person, they excited the
sense organs producing real physical effects. Likewise, the eye sent
out streams of particles that could produce love, sickness, and even
death. Thus, envy, greed, and like could be manifested externally causing real harm.
Superman has nothing on the evil eye. Fascinators had super-breath
and death-ray eyes. Pliny relates Isogonus' (Epigonus) tale about the
Triballians and Illyrians who were supposedly able to kill men with
just a look. Phylarchus tells of the Thibbi, mentioned above, who
were able to make grown men sick with not only a look, but with their
breath or voice as well.
Ancient literature is replete with references to the evil eye. This belief
spread to Europe and the Americas and has survived even into our time.
As of today, there are over six-hundred evil eye trinkets on eBay. This does not include ancient artifacts.
In antiquity, avoiding the gaze of fascinators was serious
business. Just about anyone could possess the evil eye regardless of
gender, age, class, or occupation – it didn't matter. However,
some people were more suspect than others. Rivals, strangers or the
physically deformed were more likely to be possessors as were greedy
or envious people. Sometimes beautiful children would be disguised or
hidden from view since they were considered especially vulnerable to
attack, as noted by Plutarch. Good fortune and competition for
status could also trigger envy.
Various strategies arose to distract the gaze of a fascinator. Statues of a
satyer, a mythical beast of part human and part horse (or sometimes goat)
composition, were placed in gardens for protection. Rings and amulets
depicting the evil eye were also used to thwart its damaging effects
- “like against like” or evil against evil. Similarly,
sailing vessels would have the evil eye painted on the port and
starboard sides of the bow. Even obscene hand gestures and spitting were
Only A Greek Superstition?
The Greeks were not the only culture to be wary of the evil eye and its
effects. Philo accuses the Egyptians of being an evil-eyed people.
The belief in death-ray vision is also represented in
Jewish culture. Some rabbis taught that the evil eye could bring
about death. 12
The Judeans, like the Greeks, invented strategies for protection. The Talmud instructs:
If a man on going into a town is afraid of the Evil Eye, let him take
the thumb of his right hand in his left hand and the thumb of his
left hand in his right hand, and say: I, so-and-so, am of the seed of
Joseph over which the evil eye has no power...
Don't judge the rabbis as superstitious just yet. The evil eye is even present
in the Old Testament. The Septuagint contains numerous references including
Proverbs 23:6; 28:22; Deuteronomy 15:7-9; 28:54-57; and also Sirach 14:6-10; 18:18; 31:13; Tobit 4:1-21; Wisdom 4:12.
Do not dine with an evil-eyed man or desire his food. (Proverbs 23:6, my translation)
An evil-eyed man desires quick riches, but he does not know that the merciful will have power over him. (Proverbs 23:6, my translation)
The one who is tender and very delicate among you with the eye shall bewitch his brother... (Deut. 28:54, my translation)
Some may be tempted to dismiss this by saying that “rabbis” were
responsible for translating the Septuagint, too. It's just an example of Hellenized Jewish thought.
But is it? “Evil eye” is in the Hebrew text as well as the New Testament.
We cited the LXX as it has more examples, it represents a larger tradition, i.e., it has more books.
Jesus and the Evil Eye
What is Jesus' teaching on the evil eye? In high context literature like
the New Testament, these references could be difficult for modern readers to pick out.
However, he did speak about the evil eye on more than one occasion.
In fact, we do have some fairly explicit examples, though they are often
smoothed over in our modern translations.
For instance, Mark 7:20-23:
said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. For from within,
out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft,
murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander,
pride, and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a
The Greek behind the English word envy is ὀφθαλμὸς
πονηρός (eye evil).
Conforming to English syntax, this is of course evil eye. As the ancient references cited above indicate,
envy is not an adequate English translation. Jesus' description follows
the outline of the ancient Middle Eastern belief presented in our introductory
quote concerning to the evil eye. Evil starts in the heart, comes out and manifests
In the parable of the landowner (Matt 20:1-15), Jesus introduces us to a
disgruntled laborer complaining about some Johnny-come-lately
who had received the same wages for less work. The landowner responds:
Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as
to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my
own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous? (NET)
As we mentioned above, generosity is a common trigger for the evil eye.
Unfortunately, this rendering does not reflect the cultural meaning
or the Greek text. This man was not simply envious of the worker - he was giving the big
bossman the ol' stink eye. Yes, Jesus claims the field worker had the “bewitching eye.”
Our ancient informant Plutarch provides us with some additional information on eyesight that may
be helpful with the next passage. One may recall that sight is the result of fine particles passing
through the “fabric” of the eye. If the eye was diseased or old, the returning particles
would be blocked, causing poor eyesight. As Plutarch writes:
We see, said he, some species that come from the object to the eye, which at their first rise are
thick and great; and therefore when near disturb old men, whose
eyes are stiff and not easily penetrated; but when they are
separated and diffused into the air, the thick obstructing parts
are easily removed, and the subtile remainders coming to the eye
gently and easily slide into the pores; and so the disturbance
being less, the sight is more vigorous and clear.
This ancient understanding may shed light on Matthew 6:22-23:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.
But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness,
how great is the darkness! (NET)
It would appear that Jesus' teaching reflects a contemporary understanding physiology.
There is also an alternate translation:
The eye is the lamp of the body. If then your eye is generous, your whole body will be full of light.
But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness,
how great is the darkness!
In our introduction to the evil eye, we noted that “generous persons can look on others and do actual good,
while envious persons can look on others and do actual damage.” If this is the sense intended here, Jesus would again be referring
to the evil eye belief with light and dark representing good and evil.
Paul and the Evil Eye
Paul demonstrates that he is aware of this belief when he writes in Galatians 3:
“O, foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”
The term bewitched does not accurately convey the meaning of the
Greek term. In fact, it is somewhat misleading. Paul uses the verb βασκαίνω,
which, as Louw and Nida note, differs from μαγεύω
in that the latter involves the use of so-called black magic while
the former does not. βασκαίνω is
associated with the evil eye, as in, to
cast the evil eye. (Cf. LXX Deu 28:54, 56; Sir 14:6, 8) Recall Plutarch,
a contemporary of Paul, and the “bewitching”
discussion at his supper. This is, apparently, the sort of “bewitching” that Paul had in mind.
However, the following translation would make many modern readers uncomfortable:
“O, foolish Galatians! Who has cast the evil eye upon you?”
It is clear that numerous biblical authors refer to the evil eye. We have cited various sources
to gain an understanding of this ancient belief. But, like the scene at the well, we are still left with
the question of truth. 15
We can grasp the culturally relative meaning of the evil eye, but, as
far as we are concerned, the ancients were wrong. What do we do once we discover that their “meaning”
does not square with what we know to be “true”?
In order to get at biblical truth, we must first take the bible on its own terms. To do so one must become
acquainted with the cultural world from which it came, both the religious and social aspects. Sometimes
this means shedding not only our inherited theological framework, but also our so-called scientific knowledge.
The world as it was understood by the biblical authors was not the world of the twenty-first century, nineteenth
century, nor the sixteenth century. People of the first century believed in the evil eye. There is no need to
explain it away by overlaying some anachronistic framework. This only distorts the message. “Science of the
bible” is an anachronism. Language derives meaning from social systems. As such, one must attempt to reconstruct
the biblical world in order to understand our sacred texts, using their “historically transmitted pattern
of meanings” 16 as best we can. Of course, apart
from divine intervention, there is no way for us to build a complete model. Culture is holistic. It is integrated.
Every part is connected. We cannot discuss the religious aspects of the bible apart from its social conventions.
Our ignorance of one cultural belief, practice, et cetera, can affect (limit? distort?) our understanding another.
17 It seems we are left to struggle and constantly
reexamine what we know. It is a perpetual call to humility. This has been the pattern for centuries, as if
Pilate's question is still echoing in our collective conscious. Thank God we are compelled to move beyond our wrongheaded theologies of the past
So what are we to make the words of Jesus and Paul? Did they really believe in the power of the evil
eye as described in the ancient sources? Would it matter if they did? For those who may be troubled by this possibility,
there is a plausible explanation. Perhaps Jesus was employing an emic strategy, that is, using native categories
to explain and talk about the world around him. In other words, he communicated with people in terms they would
understand, terms that did not necessarily reflect our current notion of reality, i.e., culturally relative.
This will be the topic of our next article, Jesus, Hades, and Mythology, where we will explore Jesus' use of
mythology to preach his message.
John 4:7-9, my translation.
John 4:27, my translation.
For example, a “scientific” reading of the creation in Genesis runs into trouble very early - light and the
sun were created on different days. This apparent difficulty is removed when one understands that the sun was not
viewed to be the source of light by the ancients. Light simply was.
Maline, Bruce J., and Rohrbaug, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. 2nd ed. Minneapolis:
Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003. 5.
Cornford, Francis MacDonald. Plato's Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato. Reprint edition. Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. 152-153.
Plutarch. Essays And Miscellanies: The Complete Works Of Plutarch. Whitefish:
Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 87.
Story, William Wetmore. Castle St. Angelo and The Evil Eye. Whitefish:
Kessinger Publishing, 2003. 149.
Maline, Bruce J., and Rohrbaug, Richard L. Social-Science Commentary on the
Synoptic Gospels. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003. 357-358.
(Much of the two previous paragraphs was culled from this source.)
Maline, Bruce J., and Pilch, John J. Social-Science Commentary on the
Letters of Paul. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2006. 361.
Kessinger, Michael L. The Babylonian: Talmud: Tract Sanhedrin. Whitefish:
Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 272.
Simon, Maurice. "Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth" (2006). Sept 20,
Plutarch. Essays And Miscellanies: The Complete Works Of Plutarch. Whitefish:
Kessinger Publishing, 2004. 140-141.
That is, whether it is “true” that Jesus would become unclean by touching the vessel.
Jesus seemed to think not.
Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System" Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. 89.
For example, in the previous article we cited ancient sources and discovered that the temple in Jerusalem represented
Judean cosmology. For them it was the center of the universe, “heaven” and “earth” in the
words of Josephus. In Matthew 24:35, Jesus is sitting across from the temple. “Heaven and earth will pass away,”
he says. Ignorance of Judean culture has led many to interpret this to mean the planet, rather than the temple.