Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Greek Words for Gossip: "Psithurismos" and "Katalalia" (Part One)

We are analyzing the Greek words commonly translated "gossip" and each New Testament passage in which they occur on our way to developing a biblical definition of gossip.

Two Bad Words

1. Psithurismos/psithuristas and katalalia/katalalos. The first word, psithurismos, literally means “hiss, whisper” and in the New Testament is used “only in a bad sense whispering, (secret) gossip, tale-bearing.”52 The related form, psithuristas, is therefore, “whisperer, tale-bearer.”53 It is similar to the Hebrew word nirgan we encountered in the Old Testament. In both of their New Testament uses, these Greek words always appear in very close proximity to katalalos (“speaking evil of others, slanderous” used substantivally “slanderer”)54 or its related form katalalia (“evil speech, slander, defamation, detraction”).55 The two words seem to be connected.

Not a Minor Sin

In Romans 1, the apostle Paul has begun his grand exposition of the gospel of God. He is declaring the universal sinfulness of humanity and, in specific, the depravity of the Gentiles. Paul ends his first chapter by listing the sins of the depraved mind. “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips [psithuristas (plural)], slanderers [katalalous (plural of katalalos)], God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom 1:29-31). Gossip is not a minor sin. It shares space in a list with every other kind of wickedness deserving the wrath of God. “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Rom 1:32).

Repentance Required

Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul uses these two words right next to each other (though in opposite order) in a list of vices that he fears will be present in the church in Corinth when he returns. “For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander [katalaliai, (plural of katalalia)], gossip [psithurismoi56 (plural of  psithurismos)], arrogance, and disorder” (2 Cor 12:20). While the list in Romans 1 was about sinners in general, this vice list is more specific to dissension, disunity, and discord among the church in Corinth. Gossip divides Christians. When Paul returns on his third visit, for the edification of the church, he will have to exercise painful discipline unless the Corinthians examine themselves and repent (2 Cor 12:21-13:10). If someone has engaged in sinful gossip, the only way forward is repentance.

[To Be Continued...]


[52] BAGD 892.

[53] BAGD 893.

[54] BAGD 412.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Interestingly, this is the first place in our study of gossip throughout the Bible where a key term is used to describe the phenomenon of gossip itself and not the kind of person who engages in it. The Bible seems to be more interested in teaching us what kind of people to be than in giving us precise ethical definitions of what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable.

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