If there’s one thing I learned from reading Jeremy Hultin’s book, it’s that I would have been a poor recipient of the letter to the Ephesians. I may not be as vulgar as N.T. Wrong in an academic context, but I do enjoy healthy doses of profanity and obscenity in the right company, and the author of Ephesians is austere enough to shun humor in its lightest shade on top of foul language. Clement of Alexandria was pretty cheerless too. But that’s enough by way of editorial preface.
Hultin’s book, The Ethics of Obscene Speech in Early Christianity and its Environment, is an in-depth study of a fascinating subject which I’m surprised hasn’t received more treatment up to this point. There are five chapters, the first surveying foul language in the ancient world: laws against slander in the Greco-Roman world, the use of foul language in religious rites (to engender fertility and ward off malevolent forces), in poetry and comic drama (to entertain and provoke thought), and literary obscenities. Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, however, believed that foul speech was lowly and slavish. The second chapter focuses on the Cynics and Stoics, the former of course priding themselves on vulgarity, shitting in public, and other forms of active assault on convention. Stoics took a more abstract approach, initially indifferent to foul language on grounds that getting upset over words was philosophically hollow, but later breaking away from Zeno on this point and teaching that nature demanded a certain modesty in one’s choice of words.
The other chapters take us through the Judeo-Christian tradition, and we’ll look at these more closely. Chapter three covers the Torah, the prophets, wisdom literature, the historical Jesus, the epistle of James, the Didache, and Paul. Chapter four — the book’s argumentative high point — takes on Colossians and Ephesians, the only New Testament authors who directly address foul language. Chapter five concludes with Clement of Alexandria.
Starting with the Torah, Hultin notes that biblical law nowhere addresses the decency of language per se. There are prohibitions against false witnesses (Exod 20:13), false oaths (Lev 6:3), blasphemy (Exod 22:27; Lev 24:10-16), using the Lord’s name in vain (Exod 20:7), and cursing parents (Lev 20:19; cf. Prov 19:20), leaders (Exod 22:27), or the deaf (Lev 19:14) — and that’s pretty much it (p 113). The prophets occasionally criticized how people spoke but focused on sins rather than speaking obscenely. Thus Isaiah declared that God was mad at Israel when every mouth spoke folly (Isa 9:16). While rabbis later explained Isaiah’s “speaking folly” as indecent language, the term originally referred not to obscene speech, but leading people astray with senseless and irreligious language (i.e. “religious errors”) (p 113).
Indeed, the prophets sometimes enjoyed using foul language to lambaste Israelites for idolatry. Isaiah said that the Lord would leave the daughters of Zion with scabs on their heads and their vaginas laid bare (Isa 3:17; 7:20). Ezekiel depicted unfaithful Israel as a loose woman, not merely stating that she was interested in men (as the RSV puts it, “you offered yourself to every passer-by”), but more explicitly, “you spread your legs” (Ezek 23:20). There is the curious question of how to translate a passage like Ezek 8:17. Is Ezekiel saying that Israelites are “putting the branch to their nose” — or, more deliciously, a “phallus” or “fart” to their nose?
Moving to the wisdom literature, Hultin outlines an increased concern for inappropriate speech. Proverbs commends silence, good words, discretion, and then warns against scoffing, babble, deceit, gossip, rashness, and slander. Bad consequences are seen to be in store for those who offend the powerful by speaking in these ways. But as Hultin points out, “given the concern to guard against every slip of the tongue, it is striking that Proverbs nowhere addresses ‘foul language’, which, as we have seen from Greek and Latin sources, clearly had the potential to offend.” (p 121)
Only in the book of Sirach do we finally get a warning against foul language, the first comment on this type of speech from a Jewish author (p 122). After warning against habitual swearing (oath-taking) (Sir 23:7-11), the author condemns “lewd stupidity” and “words of reproach” (Sir 23:12-15), which Hultin sees as referring to vulgar or indecent speech at a banquet (p 126). Sirach says elsewhere that the way fools talk, laugh, and abuse is offensive, sinful, and grievous to the ear (Sir 27:13-15; cf. 20:19), and at a banquet one must be careful of what one says when “the great” are present (Sir 32:9). It is in this area of concern — modesty, propriety, decorum in feasting — that Sirach warns against “lewd abuse”.
Hultin turns then to Jesus, based primarily on texts in Matthew, and it’s not always clear to me that he distinguishes the historical figure from the Matthean one. This Jesus condemns abusive speech in the form of insults: to call someone ῥακά (“empty-headed fool”) is as serious as murder (Mt 5:22) and will send one to Hell (Gehenna). “But although such a teaching would effectively exclude the angry use of the obscene vocabulary, it is obviously not a comment about the offensiveness of foul language per se.” (p 133) Curiously, Hultin has nothing to say about the way Jesus broke his own rule with a vengeance. If the fourfold gospel testimony is remotely reliable, Jesus thrived on foul language in the form of invective. γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν (“brood of vipers”, literally, “snake bastards”) was one of his favorites learned from John the Baptist — to call someone the illegitimate heir of a snake was about as low as you could sink in antiquity, and it further implied that one was a parent-killer (since vipers killed their mother during birth). That doesn’t necessarily make the Matthean dictum of Mt 5:22 unhistorical, I think, because the text speaks of insulting one’s brothers (insiders). In good honor-shame fashion, Jesus heaped vile insults on his rivals and foes, but not his friends and followers.
Jesus’ general lack of concern for defiling speech can be seen in his sweeping prohibition of oaths (Mt 5:33-37), assuming again that the Matthean Jesus can be trusted. Sirach and Philo — who are also appalled at habitual swearing though don’t go so far as to prohibit oath-taking entirely — speak about the impurity of filling one’s speech with swearing (p 131), but Jesus (or at least the Matthean Jesus) isn’t concerned with the potential impurity of swearing.
Hultin points out that nothing in the gospels directly addresses the decency of language (p 128). The infamous passage of Mk 7:15,20/Mt 15:11,18 claims that “what comes out of the mouth defiles”, but the catalogs of “out-of-the-mouth” vices (Mk 7:21-22/Mt 15:19) include sins which have little or nothing to do with what is spoken. As Hultin says, it would have made sense if the gospel writers said something like, “It is not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles a person — lies, gossip, cursing, slander, perjury, lewd humor” (p 129). The lists of sins speak more to the heart (which Mark and Matthew, of course, try connecting to the mouth, but not too convincingly) and in effect have more to do with what one does than what one says as being defiling.
Turning to the epistle of James, we find an author who had plenty to say about sins of the tongue. Like the Matthean Jesus, he prohibits oaths entirely. But he goes leagues further, claiming that “the tongue is itself a fire, set on fire by Hell itself, a restless evil and deadly poison” (Jas 3:6-8). It’s the one thing on earth remaining untamed by man, unlike the wild animals of God’s creation (?!). “Unlike the rest of creation, the tongue is immune to domestication… Hell uses peoples’ tongues to set creation on fire, and their bodies are defiled as the flame passes through their mouths.” (p 135) While James never mentions obscene language or foul speech, he undoubtedly would have found it offensive in view of the fact that he was appalled by any sort of cursing (Jas 3:9) and laughter (Jas 4:9). As Hultin emphasizes, he is rather unique for making speech a cosmic issue (involving Hell and creation), “placing the tongue at the center of the struggle for religious purity” (p 136) — different from Proverbs, Sirach, or the Didache which emphasize the ethical consequences of inappropriate speech.
Speaking of the Didache… The document addresses perjury, false witnesses, evil speaking, dishonesty, how to speak to slaves, cursing, and foul language. In Hultin’s view, the warning about foul language in Did 3:3 first functioned in the context of Jewish instruction, was later incorporated into the Two Ways, and was then brought into the Didache and other Christian documents (pp 138-139). In Did 3:1-6 we see that anger leads to murder, lust to fornication, obscene language to adultery, omens and astrology to idolatry, lying to theft, and grumbling to slander. So adultery is the inevitable outcome of being foul-mouthed and a “lifter of the eyes” — meaning those who leer or give ogling or seductive winks — which ties speaking lewdly with sending non-verbally lewd cues. The Didache thus represents the first Jewish or Christian warning that foul language actually leads to sexual sins.
What about Paul? The apostle from the seven or eight authentic letters never addresses foul language, and in fact some scholars think he enjoyed using foul speech like the Cynics. (1) Most infamously, he claims that his Jewish heritage is σκύβαλα when compared to the revelation found in Christ (Philip 3:8). Most English bibles translate σκύβαλα as “rubbish”, but it properly means “excrement” (the King James gets it pretty good with “dung”), and some experts believe it had the register of “shit” more than “feces”. Hultin argues this isn’t the case. The word σκύβαλα was frequently used in medical texts and wasn’t perceived as indecent. For Paul to compare his Jewish heritage to excrement was obviously offensive in the extreme, but the word σκύβαλα itself wasn’t offensive. It wasn’t the ancient equivalent of our modern “shit” or “crap” (see pp 150-154). (2) He also hopes fervently that advocates of circumcision would castrate themselves (Gal 5:12) — in the context of North Galatia an allusion to the cult of Cybele, whose priests were castrated. This isn’t foul language per se, though it’s certainly crude and coarse (see pp 148-150). Hultin’s conclusion is that there is little evidence to suppose that Paul had a “foul mouth”, and thus Colossians and Ephesians are doubtfully reacting to Paul in the way later Stoics reacted to their founders Zeno and Chrysippus. “However unpleasant he could be, by the standards of his time, Paul was not lexically indecent” (p 154).
Turning finally to Colossians and Ephesians (written by different Deutero-Paulinists), Hultin addresses the only texts in the New Testament which deal directly with foul language. Here’s the first:
“But now you must get rid of all such things — anger, wrath, malice, slander, and αἰσχρολογίαν from your mouth… Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Col 3:8, 4:6)
Hultin points out that αἰσχρολογίαν is often translated misleadingly — “filthy language” (NIV), “filthy communication” (KJV), or “obscene talk” (ESV). While it’s true the term could refer to lewd speech, it could also mean “abusive speech” (NAS) or “abusive language” (NRSV), and the context of Colossians favors this. There is no sexual reference in the above passage. The salt reference, moreover, was a synonym for humor or wit. The author of Colossians is thus advocating the use of humor to win people to the gospel, and only condemning abusive speech — aligned perfectly with anger, wrath, malice, and slander, the other vices condemned — not sexually obscene speech.
Hultin’s contrast between Colossians and James helps illuminate the point of view here. In Colossians speech is a thing of the earth (Col 3:2,5), not Hell, with nothing to suggest that the tongue is an unconquerable adversary. Colossians allows for a broad range of positive uses for the tongue, including humor, where James demands silence (Jas 1:19). “Blessing God was the tongue’s proper function, but even reference to that activity just reminds James of the horrible fact that the same tongue also curses (Jas 3:9-12). Where James expresses reservations about teaching (Jas 3:1-2), Colossians commends it without qualification (Col 3:16).” (p 167) So while the deutero-Paulinist condemns foul language, it’s only a particular kind — angry outbursts of slander — and he has far more faith in the tongue than James does, even encouraging wit and humor.
Here’s the passage of Ephesians:
“But fornication and impurity of any kind, or greed, must not even be mentioned among you, as is proper among holy people. Entirely out of place is αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία; but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (Eph 5:3-4)
Hultin argues that the best translation of αἰσχρότης is “ugliness”. In and of itself, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to speech, though in a context followed by μωρολογία and εὐτραπελία it probably does refer to “ugly speech”. For μωρολογία is “stupid talk” and εὐτραπελία is “wit”. The author of Ephesians is thus condemning ugly/obscene talk, stupid/drunken talk, and (shockingly) clever wit. On this last, a thorough survey of contemporary writings (Philo, Jospehus, Aristotle, Chrysippus, Plutarch, Plato, Isocrates, Polybius, Cicero, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, others) shows that εὐτραπελία was universally understood as an admirable and endearing talent (pp 190-194). Why is Ephesians so hostile to it? To appreciate the way this blanket condemnation would have sounded to the ancients, Hultin draws on the antonyms of εὐτραπελία: “austere”, “inhumane”, “humorless”. Are these really what characterize good Christian living for the deutero-Paulinist?
Hultin tries to play fair ball with Ephesians in translating εὐτραπελία as “facetiousness”. Taken together, αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία, and εὐτραπελία might then be a judgment on “obscene, stupid, and facetious wit” (p 195). But as he himself acknowledges, it would have been just as easy (and far more clear) to condemn “obscene and stupid buffonery”, or even to contrast “ugly wit” with “charming wit”. Hultin’s other suggestion is more plausible: Ephesians is “trying to encourage the creation of serious personae, to outdo the Catos and the Pythagorases of the world”, indeed, “aspiring for a community so serious that it will not tolerate any form of drollery at all” (pp 195-196). The deutero-Paulinist doesn’t offer an avenue of positive humor which should take the place of ugly jokes. He presents thanksgiving as an alternative to all joking.
In this sense — and now Hultin is on the right track — Ephesians shares a lot in common with the Essenes. The Rule of the Community also contrasts foul language with thanksgiving (I QS X, 21-23), and also prohibits silly or light talk. Both I QS and Ephesians (2:19-22) imagine God to be present in the community on analogy with the way the Hebrew Bible presents God as present in the temple (see pp 198-206):
“For the author of Ephesians there is no need to explain what foul language might lead to. It is simply out of place. It is not fitting for holy ones. He and his readers might have agreed with Didache 3:3 that lewd talk could result in illicit sex. He and his readers probably knew, along with Sirach 23:12-15 and a host of pagan and Greek moralists, that such talk might lower them in the eyes of others. But Ephesians does not give these reasons any more than Leviticus explains why a priest with a physical defect cannot enter the sanctuary… Foul language [αἰσχρότης, μωρολογία] and even light language [εὐτραπελία] were inconsistent with the believers’ holiness, and were inappropriate in God’s holy presence.” (p 205)
So completely unlike Colossians, we have in Ephesians the vision for a rigidly austere community, devoid of humor.
Hultin’s book ends not with Colossians & Ephesians, however, but Clement of Alexandria, who of course wrote more about foul language than any Christian before him. I could almost blame this guy for our Puritanical heritage in the western world; he makes the bible look pretty moderate (which I suppose most of it in fact is), and this despite his enthusiastic citations of texts which barely support his extreme views. With Hultin I’m astonished that Clement never quotes Didache 3:3, since it is this text which makes the precise point he’s so hell-bent on proving — that foul language leads to sexual immorality. (He cites plenty of other texts from the Didache.) It’s also amusing to see Clement’s fervent opposition to foul language matched by his insistence that there is nothing inherently wrong with it. “Be it from educated pagans or from a free-speaking group of Christians,” opines Hultin, “it is likely that Clement had heard the charge that concern over mere words was irrational. With his philosophical aspirations, Clement was sensitive to this charge and wanted to respond, but had to do so without abandoning his own moral intuition.” (p 229) So Clement was able to have his cake and eat it by aligning himself with the Stoics as much as the biblical authors. Though unlike the author of Ephesians who eschewed foul language (and even light humor) for purposes of sanctity, Clement shunned it for purposes of philosophical dignity, chastity, and self-mastery (p 234).
It’s delightful to read a highly esoteric work on a subject so lowly like vulgarity, and I can’t recommend this book enough. I do wish Hultin had more to say about nasty biblical epithets like “snake bastards” and “dogs who eat their vomit”, but otherwise he’s pretty thorough. I should finish with the funny anecdote in the preface, where the author mentions starting research on foul language after being asked by a friend why he insisted on “so regularly dropping the F-bomb”. Hultin then asked his pastor what he made of Col 3:8 and Eph 5:4, to which Pastor X replied something about the biblical authors’ cultural situation being different than ours — but not before wryly quipping, “Come on, man, don’t be a fucking fundamentalist” (p xvii). Obscene language may be hard for even the religious to get worked up over… but then again, maybe not. At least we know David Ker is on the same page with the author of Ephesians.