Friday, November 28, 2014

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

For the last two posts, we have been learning about two related words, psithurismos and katalalia, which figure in to our understanding of gossip in the New Testament. Yesterday, we learned that katalalia is the bigger category of which psithurismos is the sub-category that specifically means behind-the-back gossip.

More About Katalalia

The larger category, katalalia/katalalos, including its verb form, katalaleo, appears elsewhere in the New Testament. The apostle Peter urges his readers, in light of the gospel, to lay it aside. “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind [katalalias]” (1 Pet 2:1).61 In this context, “evil speaking” (KJV) is closely connected with heart attitudes, especially of what could be called “the anger family” of sins. Gossip often is an expression of anger.

James 4:11-12

The apostle James offers the fullest teaching on katalaleo. “Brothers, do not slander [ma katalaleite] one another. Anyone who speaks against [katalalon] his brother or judges him speaks against [katalalei] the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas 4:11-12). Gossip often involves condemning someone whom we have no right nor occasion to judge (cf. Matt 7:1-5). There is one who judges perfectly, and we can entrust ourselves and others to him. Tasker says, “Backbiting others is, in fact, a subtle form of self-exaltation.”62 Moo explains,

We should note that James is not prohibiting the proper, and necessary, discrimination that every Christian should exercise. Nor is he forbidding the right of the community to exclude from its fellowship those it deems to be in flagrant disobedience to the standards of the faith, or to determine right and wrong among its members (1 Corinthians 5 and 6). James rebukes jealous, censorious speech by which we condemn others as being wrong in the sight of God.63
We should also notice in verse 11 that katalaleo is linked with judging not only our brothers but also the law itself. Whenever we disobey a law, we are saying, in effect, that we think it is a bad law. A gossiping person can become a law unto themselves.

More Than Just Lies

By now, we should be seeing that the katalalia/los/leo word group connotes not merely spreading lies about someone (which is often what we mean by the English word “slander”), but also talking them down in other ways. Ralph Martin says that the word “literally means ‘to speak ill of’ and translates it “disdains” in James 4:11.64 R. Kent Hughes states,
The command here forbids any speech (whether it is true or false) which runs down another person. . . . Most people think it is okay to convey negative information if it is true. We understand that lying is immoral. But is passing along damaging truth immoral? It seems almost a moral responsibility! By such reasoning, criticism behind another’s back is thought to be all right as long as it is true. Likewise, denigrating gossip (of course it is never called gossip!) is okay if the information is true. Thus many believers use truth as a license to righteously diminish others’ reputations.65
A similar phenomenon, without the katalalia/los/leo word group, appears a few verses later in James 5. “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (Jas 5:9). The word for grumble is stenazo which means to “sigh or groan.”66 It is a form of moaning and complaining about each other that is often the content of gossip. James again connects this grumbling with judgment–this time with their impending judgment! When Christ returns, do we want to be found groaning about our fellow believers?

Other "Against-Words"

Katalaleo and its related forms are not the only Greek words that the New Testament uses to describe hateful, accusatory, abusive, reviling, and slanderous speech.67 Words such as blasphameo “slander, defame, blaspheme,”68 loidoreo “insult, abuse, revile,”69 and katagoreo, “to accuse, reproach”70 and their cognates often serve in the New Testament to describe these “against-words.”71 The actions denoted by these strong verbs are not gossip, per se, but are related to the phenomenon of gossip, indicating some of the base things that can be said as someone talks about others behind their backs (e.g. Jude 9, Eph 4:31, Rev 12:10, and 1 Cor 4:12-13, 5:11, 6:9-11).72


[61] Peter, using this same word, also says to expect that the pagans will speak against and accuse the Christians (1 Pet 2:12, 3:16).

[62] R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 16 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1983), 99.

[63] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 199. The rest of Moo’s discussion of this passage is very helpful and repays careful reading. He connects these two verses both with the near context of chapter 4 and with themes that run throughout James’ epistle, including sins of the tongue (Jas 3:2-12) and conflicts (Jas 3:13-4:2).

[64] Ralph P. Martin, James, WBC 48 (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 1998),163.

[65] R. Kent Hughes, James: Faith that Works, Preaching the Word (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 194.

[66] George M. Stulac, James, IVPNTC 16 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 172.

[67] The same could be said of the words we studied in the Old Testament. We have concentrated on the words that are regularly translated “gossip” even though the semantic domain overlaps with those which are often translated “slander.”

[68] H. Wahrisch, C. Brown, “blasfhme,w,” NIDNTT 3:341-345.

[69] H. Wahrisch, “loi,dorew,” NIDNTT, 3:346-347.

[70] BAGD 423.

[71] Of these three, only kathgore,w is used in both a positive and negative way. Some accusations are appropriate (John 5:45), however, kathgore,w is used most often as the work of Satan and those who opposed Jesus and the apostles.

[72] The best place to start for a comprehensive study of these key words is the set of articles on “Revile, Blaspheme, Slander” in NIDNTT 3:340-347.

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