Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"Obscene" Speech in the Deutero-Pauline Letters

I'm looking forward to reading The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and Its Environment, by Jeremy Hultin, which I just reserved through interlibrary loan. In the meantime I see that Peter Orr has done a trio of blogposts, Obscene Speech in Paul (I), (II), (III), on the prohibitions against foul language in Colossians and Ephesians. According to Orr's presentation of Hultin, our English translations fuel misleading perceptions of what the deutero-Paulinists condemn. Here's how the ESV and NRSV, for instance, translate Col 3:8, 4:6:
"But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk [aischrologia] from your mouth... Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (ESV)

"But now you must get rid of all such things -- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language [aischrologia] from your mouth...Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone." (NRSV)
Here's how they translate Eph 5:3-4:
"But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking [eutrapelia], which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving." (ESV)

"But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among saints. Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk [eutrapelia]; but instead, let there be thanksgiving." (NRSV)
In the case of Colossians, the NRSV gets it better, because, according to Hultin, aischrologia does not have any sexual reference as in our English cussing. It means abusive and unkind speech. The salt reference, moreover, is lost on many of us, because it was often a synonym for humor or wit in antiquity. The author of Colossians is thus advocating the use of humor to win people to the gospel, and only condemning abusive speech (which is on par with anger, wrath, malice, and slander, the other vices condemned) -- not necessarily sexually obscene speech -- in such a context.

In the case of Ephesians, neither translation is impressive, because each renders eutrapelia negatively ("crude joking", or "vulgar talk"). According to Hultin, eutrapelia was understood positively in antiquity. It was a witty form of speech that doctors often used to put patients at ease, as did lawyers with clients, and commanders with their soldiers. The question then becomes why the author of Ephesians condemns something so valuable.

Orr puts the question this way: Why is humor and wit commanded in Colossians but condemned in Ephesians? An obvious answer (for me) is that we're dealing with two different authors and there's no reason to expect consistency between the deutero-Paulinists. But we still have to wonder why the author of Ephesians comes down hard on something esteemed so highly. Orr thinks the way to make sense of it is by connecting verses 3 and 4, meaning that "evil things" shouldn't appear in speech, "even through the otherwise good speech-form of wit". If that's true, our English translations of eutrapelia may not be too far off the mark.

I'll ponder this more when I get to read Hultin's book.

UPDATE: I have read and reviewed the book. Orr is on the wrong track in trying to reconcile the texts the way he does. The author of Ephesians condemns not only obscene language, but even innocent humor in view of a sanctified community.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Loren.

I checked my NASB (my current favorite), which translates Col. 3:8 as "abusive speech" (sounds like the NSRV) -- and Eph. 5:4 as "coarse jesting" (sounds like the ESV). Then I compared the NIV (my 2nd favorite), which translates Col. 3:8 as "filthy language" (sounds like the ESV) -- and Eph. 5:4 as "coarse joking" (again, like the ESV).

The use of "obscene" by the ESV does seem an odd choice. But, even Wikipedia says, "Despite its long formal and informal use with a sexual connotation, the word still retains the meanings of 'inspiring disgust' and even 'inauspicious; ill-omened', as in such uses as 'obscene profits', 'the obscenity of war', etc. It can simply be used to mean profanity, or it can mean anything that is taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting." (Perhaps "profane" or "disgusting" could have been used?) We need to be careful not to read a particular meaning or connotation into (eisegesis) the English word, when it could just as validly have another.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the connotation of humor for "seasoned with salt" was indeed intended by the author. While humor in general may be a good thing and useful tool, that is not to say that there may be improper ways to use it and certain terms that are inappropriate to use. So, it is a particular kind of joking that should be refrained from. This seems in line with Orr's suggestion about the connection between the two verses. Thus, no problem with the language and, at least for this argument, no need to assume more than one author of the Pauline letters.

Chris H.


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