Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Obscene Speech in Paul I

Last weekend I attended the British New Testament Society Conference in Aberdeen. This is an annual meeting for people researching, teaching or studying the New Testament at university level.
There were a mixture of plenary sessions and seminars. Some of the papers, if I am honest, were a little on the obscure side! However, some were excellent including one by Dr Jeremy Hultin of Yale entitled ‘Watch Your Mouth: What the prohibitions of foul language tell us about Colossians and Ephesians’.

Colossians and Ephesians both have verses concerning language. However, there are interesting differences between the two letters. Below are some quick recollections from his talk. If you want to investigate further you could check out his book The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment. [Please note though that he is coming from a more critical position i.e. he does not hold that Paul wrote Colossians or Ephesians and would not hold to an evangelical view of Scripture].

Colossians 3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. […] 4:6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Hultin made some interesting points here. He argued that the word translated by the ESV as ‘obscene talk’ (aischrologian) does not have any kind of sexual reference (as many swear words in English have) but should be understood as abusive, unkind speech. Secondly, he argued that the references in 4:6 to grace and salt would have been understood by first century readers as a reference to charming (the reference to grace) and witty (the reference to salt) speech. ‘Salt’, Hultin shows, is often used in 1st C texts as a synonym for ‘humour’ or wit.

Ephesians 5:3-4 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

The word translated ‘crude joking’ in the ESV (eutrapelia) is often rendered in this negative way by English Bibles. However, Hultin argues (convincingly) that this word would actually have been understood positively in the first century. So, doctors were urged to speak in this way to their patients to make them feel at ease; similarly lawyers with their clients and generals with their troops. Hultin argues that the word should be rendered ‘wit’. It is an ease of speech that was neutral or positive.

Now, there are two issues here:
i. If Hultin is right, why would the author of Ephesians [i.e. Paul!] have forbidden something that was universally have been understood positively?
ii. Does this not create a contradiction between Colossians and Ephesians - with one commending witty speech and one condemning it?

I think there are good answers to both and will post on them shortly.

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