The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity

Jeremy F. Hultin’s The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment is definitely worthy of the adjective “interesting”, if nothing else. Rather than write a review proper, I want to point out a few noteworthy facts he brings to light, and engage a little bit with his interpretation of Ephesians and Colossians.

Some notes:

1. He notes that the Old Testament itself is basically silent on the ethics of obscene speech. This is not to say that it approved of it, but just that it makes no explicit comment about it. (113-4; 121)

2. At the same time, the OT on the whole is euphemistic. (114) If nothing else, this reflects that the Bible writers would, on the whole, think that obscene language was, well, obscene, and should be avoided.

3. But in addition, Hultin notes that the Talmud in several cases said that certain biblical words should be substituted with more polite terms. (115) In a parallel way, rabbinic literature in some cases suggested replacing statements that were inauspicious: so curses of Israel would be read instead as curses of the enemies of Israel. (116)

4. In keeping with this general sentiment, rabbinic literature often used euphemistic terms. (117)

5. There are, however, exceptions made. Some rabbis said that foul language could be employed towards idols (b. Megillah 25b; 117-118). Some rabbis also suggested that nasty expressions could be used against idolaters and persons of ill fame. (118)

6. Then Hultin brings to the fore several infamous prophetic texts which seem to be obscene in some sense: Isa. 3:17; 7:20; Ezek 16:4-6; Ezek 23:20, and possibly 8:17. (118-9) To this could be added Isa 64:6. The rabbinic allowance of exceptions for the ban on obscene language seems to follow in the steps of these kinds of texts.

7. Skipping over Hultin’s treatment of Jesus, James, and the Didache, he has some comments about obscenity in Paul. He notes that Paul condemns reviling in 1 Cor 5:11, and that “[o]n the whole, [he] seems to have favored respecting prevailing norms of decorum. He says that love is not ‘unseemly’… (1 Cor 13:5); and he commends decorous behaviour (Rom 13:13; 1 Cor 14:40; 1 Thess 4:12).” (147)

8. But he also notes two texts by Paul that some people have said are in fact obscene: Gal 5:12 and Phil 3:8. He concludes in the Galatians case that this would not have been considered obscene in itself, but that it “does make the sort of terse, cutting play on words that characterizes many of the Cynic chreiai.” (153) He suspects that Cicero would have thought that Paul’s irony was an example of the kind of “mordantly witty remark a man must occasionally employ for force.” (153) However, he also notes that some might have considered it rude, offensive, or malicious. (153-4).

9. On Phil. 3:8, Hultin concludes, definitively I believe, that skubala was not an obscene word, but would have had the force of the English word “excrement”. He proves this by noting how the term is used by ancient writers who opposed the use of obscene language. (151-3)

I found all these points fascinating and useful. But when Hultin moves on to make his case about Colossians and Ephesians, I was less persuaded. The most fundamental disagreement I have with him is something he does not directly argue for, which is that these letters are deutero-Pauline. He goes even further, as we shall see, and suggests Ephesians is virtually contradicting Colossians on the matter of witty speech.

On Colossians 3:8, he helpfully writes:

The vices listed in Col 3:8 have nothing to do with using prohibited words in playful conversations… . The vices have to do with anger and the words one uses when angry. This is not to deny the fact that what makes something aischrologia and not simply loidoria was that something shameful—in terms of vocabulary and content—was said. (161)

He provides examples of what would fit into either category, and while something like “rat” or “whitewashed wall” would fit into the latter category, insults of a directly sexual nature would fit into the former. (161) While he does not say this, I would add at this point that it is clear Paul felt it was appropriate to do the things he was warning against in this text, on some occasions. That is, while the text prohibits “anger”, Paul clearly thinks it is acceptable to be angry on occasion, and of course Jesus himself called the Pharisees “whitewashed walls”, an insult that the men around the high priest interpreted as “reviling” (the very thing Paul also prohibits in 1 Cor 5.11) in Acts 23:3. This should raise the possibility for us that these rules are not meant to be absolute.

One of the most interesting arguments Hultin makes in the book is on the interpretation of Col 4:6. He argues that the term for “grace” here was a standard one used to describe “charming” or “winsome”, and the description of speech as “seasoned with salt” “suggests that a humorous sort of ‘charm’ is precisely what is being commended here, for salt was frequently used for piquant wit; the metaphor draws on salt’s flavour enhancing, rather than its preserving properties.” (169) He adds that “[i]n Greek and Latin salt was such a common metaphor for ‘wit’ that there is no reason to interpret Col 4:6 in light of Jesus’ words about salt that has lots its saltiness… .” (169) He provides many citations of classic sources using the term as “wit”. Importantly, he also notes that ancient authors sometimes describe what they call “gracious” with the very term mentioned in Eph 5:4 (see discussion below) for wittiness. (171)

At this point, however, Hultin goes a bit off track. Noting the contradiction between his interpretation Col 4:6 and the wording of Eph 5:4, he argues that “[p]erhaps Ephesians aspires for a community so serious that it will not tolerate any form of drollery at all.” (195-6) Rather than seeing these texts in tension, however, I think we would do better to follow his own lead about a possible harmonization of the texts. He says that he suspects that in 5:4 all three terms “refer to the same types of speech—as if to say, ‘no ugly, stupid, facetious talk.’” (189) He earlier explained that what makes speech ugly, in the context of 5:3 (and 5:5 supports this point) is reference to obscene speech. (188) A little bit after this just quoted statement, he raises this possibility (which he does not quite accept):

To be fair to Ephesians, the word eutrapelia is not here used on its own; it is used with two other terms that had more pejorative connotations: “ugliness” and “stupid talk.” That fact might suggest that Ephesians objects not to the best in wit but to “ugly, stupid wit”. (195)

While disagreeing with it, Hultin also notes the study of P.W. van der Horst on the meaning of eutrapelia, and admits there are some rare occasions where the term is used pejoratively. (191-2) At this point, if we agree that Paul wrote all the letters that are attributed to him in the canon, it would be more reasonable to follow his leads on a possible harmonization than to agree with him about the meaning of Ephesians 5:4.

And there are other considerations favouring this point as well. Ecclesiastes would surely be known to Paul, but it also notes that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh;” (3:4). Further, as we have already noted, there are the exceptions that Paul seems to make to his rules in his own behaviour, and would have had to for Jesus’ according to the Gospels. There is a parallel kind of phenomenon when we look at the NT’s teaching about cursing, which issues general prohibitions against it, but then also engages in it on rare occasions. (See John Day’s Crying for Justice). And then, of course, there are the OT texts which seem to lead to the rabbinic positions that explicitly made exceptions for rude speech. If we grant that Paul would be familiar with these prophetic texts (and it seems probable that he would be, considering what kind of training he would have been likely to receive under Gamaliel), then it would be likely he would agree with that exception. This conclusion is supported by the obvious willingness Paul had to quote negative texts about Israel where some rabbis would have obviously not been willing to do so (as noted above).

It might be of interest to some readers to note that Doug Wilson in A Serrated Edge (61-62), and Peter Leithart in his essay, “Towards a Biblical Definition of Obscenity”, come to basically the same conclusions. (Leithart also posted a while back the same position on skubala as Hultin takes.)

So what’s the long and short of this, in terms of application? I would say that the position of those rabbis noted above is probably the correct one: in general, rude language is not appropriate for Christians, but there are exceptional circumstances, in cases where a person is deserving of a kind of verbal assault, where it is permissible.