Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Greek Words for Gossip: "Phluareo" and "Phluaros" (Part Two)

Yesterday, we were introduced to phluareo, commonly translated "gossiping." Today, we turn to its adjectival form in the longest passage about the behavior of gossip in the New Testament.

Making the Widow List

The adjectival form of this word, phluaros, occurs in 1 Timothy 5. The apostle Paul is giving instructions about young widows. Younger widows should not be placed on the widow support list for a number of reasons. One is that they still have time to remarry (1 Tim 5:14) and to build their reputations for godliness and good deeds (1 Tim 5:9-10). Another reason is that putting younger women on the support list would present too many sensual temptations that would draw them away from Christ (1 Tim 5:11-12). Giving in to these temptations would bring disrepute to the church (1 Tim 5:14-15).75

Widows put on the support list too quickly can also be tempted to become gossipy. “Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips [phluaroi]76 and busybodies, saying things they ought not to” (1 Tim 5:13).

Debated Interpretation and Translation

Not everyone is convinced that “gossips and busybodies” is the best translation of phluaroi kai periergoi in this context. Lloyd Pietersen argues that given the magical practices in Ephesus described in the book of Acts (Acts 19, especially v.19), and the possible alternative meanings of the words,77 phluaroi should be rendered, “those who talk nonsense” and periergoi should be translated “those who practise magic.”78 Pietersen believes that most interpreters of the pastoral epistles have been hermeneutically blinded by patriarchal assumptions so that they see stereotypical versions of women in 1 Timothy 5.79 He suggests instead that the writer of 1 Timothy “is exercising pastoral care in seeking to warn his congregation concerning the dangers of falling back into magical practices from which they have escaped.”80

This interpretation is possible but unlikely. It seems to me that the traditional rendering is correct for at least three reasons. First, this verse has a preponderance of phrases that naturally point to aimless living (“getting into the habit of being idle,” “going about from house to house,” “saying things they ought not to”). Second, these phrases are used in conjunction with two words that regularly mean “gossips and busybodies.”81 Third, the situation envisioned, that is, widows being supported too early in life, would very naturally yield temptations to carelessly meddle in other people’s lives. It is more likely, therefore, that Paul is actually warning against younger widows becoming gossips and busybodies.82 William Mounce adds, “If the problem was as serious as magic, a harsher and more direct condemnation would be expected.”83

Frivolous Talk

It must be noted that Paul is not saying that all women are naturally gossips and busybodies but that they would be tempted to be so if financially supported too early in life. A life without work would produce that temptation in any person, regardless of gender. We will see below that Paul is certainly not gender specific in his denunciation of meddling in the Thessalonian correspondence. Gossips come in both sexes.

Gordon Fee does not detect magic in 1 Timothy 5:13 but rather the presence of false teaching.
The translation “gossips” (phyaroi) is quite misleading. . . . The Greek word, however, means to talk nonsense, or foolishness, and is used most often in contexts of speaking something foolish or absurd in comparison to truth. Thus, the young widows are described in terms very much like the false teachers, whose talk is foolish (1:6) and empty (6:20), and who are also saying things they ought not to.84
Fee’s suggestion is much more likely than seeing sorcerous practices at play, and perhaps their chattering from house to house included elements of the false teaching that Paul was countering in the pastoral epistles, but I am inclined to agree with Stott’s conclusion, “[Fee’s interpretation] is an ingenious reconstruction, but Paul gives no explicit indication that they are doing more than wasting their time in frivolous talk.”85


[75] Paul says that this would give the enemy an “opportunity for slander” using the word loidoria that we encountered above.

[76] The plural form of the adjective is here used substantivally to label the erring widows as gossips. We note again that the Bible mostly speaks about gossip as a kind of person not just a kind of speech.

[77] The word periergos can mean “of things belonging to magic” and is used that way in Acts 19:19. BAGD 646.

[78] Lloyd K. Pietersen, “Women as Gossips and Busybodies? Another Look at 1 Timothy 5:13,” Lexington Theological Quarterly, 42, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 19, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, http:ebscohost.com (accessed June 21, 2011).

[79] In his article, Pietersen also interacts with feminist commentators such as Marianne B. Kartzow and Deborah Krause who believe the traditional reading is a faithful translation, but sadly, reject the apostle’s teaching. Lloyd K. Pietersen, “Women as Gossips and Busybodies? Another Look at 1 Timothy 5:13,” Lexington Theological Quarterly, 42, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 20-22, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, http:ebscohost.com (accessed June 21, 2011).

[80] Ibid., 31.

[81] It is true that periergos can mean “of things belonging to magic.” But Paul certainly uses the verbal form (periergazomenous the present middle participle of periergazomai) to mean “busybody” in 2 Thessalonians 3:11.

[82] So, all major English versions.

[83] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC 46 (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2000), 294.

[84] Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, NIBC 13 (Peabody, Hendrickson, 2002), 122.

[85] John R. W. Stott, 1 Timothy & Titus, BST (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 134. Stott is interacting with an earlier version of Fee’s commentary than the one quoted in the previous note.

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