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Watch your mouth: Colossians and Ephesians on obscene speech

Hultin, J.F. (2004) Watch your mouth: Colossians and Ephesians on obscene speech. In: Annual Meeting. Society of Biblical Literature, 20 - 23 November 2004, San Antonio, TX


This paper analyzes the first Christian comments about foul language, Col 3:8 and Eph 4:29–5:12, situating them within the rich history of moral reflections on obscene speech and contrasting them with one another. I demonstrate that Colossians's laconic prohibition pertains to saying indecent things about others when angry. Similarly, philosophers from Plato to Philo to Plutarch worried that, in the heat of anger, people might utter some disgusting term of reproach. Ephesians expands and radicalizes Colossians, forbidding "even naming" the sins committed by the "sons of disobedience" (5:12), and prohibiting not only "obscenity" and "foolish talk" but even "wittiness" (eutrapelia, 5:4), the word Aristotle had used to designate the ideal mean between crass and cringing. For Ephesians it was the holiness of the congregation that made all this inappropriate. Citing parallels from Qumran and the Mishnah, I argue that this was because of the author's sense that the community of believers lived in God's holy presence (Eph 1:4; 2:6; 5:27), a sanctum in which nothing frivolous, let alone obscene, was appropriate. Ephesians's opposition to humorous talk can be contrasted with Col 4:6, which advocates witty, pungent speech. Hence Colossians 3:8 and Ephesians 5:4 are not simply "parallel" prohibitions of obscenity (as the commentaries routinely assert). Colossians opposes base language but finds nothing inappropriate in witty badinage per se. Ephesians, on the other hand, rejects Colossians's advocacy of speech that is "graciously winsome and seasoned with the salt of wit" (Col 4:6). In fact, these different speech ethics illuminate the two epistles' different visions for how believers will interact with non-believers. Unlike Colossians, Ephesians was advocating a manner of speech so austere that it would set Christians apart from their pagan neighbors.

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