Gossip in the New Testament by John (Jack) Daniels

Today, social psychologists define the essential elements of gossip as face-to-face evaluative speech about an absent subject. In antiquity, gossip was generally understood as frivolous, divisive, and dishonorable talk. For example, Plutarch writes, “[Gossips] spend their time digging into other men’s trifling correspondence, gluing their ears to their neighbors’ walls, whispering with slaves and women of the streets, and often incurring danger, and always infamy” (Moralia 6.519F). Likewise, Lucian decries gossip as “slanderous lying about acquaintances and friends, through which families are rooted out, and cities have utterly perished” (Calumnia 1).

Gossip receives similar “negative press” in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Proverbs states, “A gossip goes about telling secrets, / but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (Prov 11:13) and “A gossip reveals secrets; / therefore do not associate with a babbler” (Prov 20:19). In his letter to the Romans, Paul equates gossipers with “slanderers, God-haters” (Rom 1:30) and warns the Corinthians not to engage in “quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2Cor 12:20). Paul even tries to subdue the effects of gossip in Timothy’s congregation (1Tim 3:11; 1Tim 5:13).

In spite of this negative press, gossip plays a crucial role in constructing social identity. Scholars learn much about social behavior and identity in the ancient world by analyzing the rhetorical uses and functions of gossip today. Contrary to what most people think, gossip can actually be either negative or positive. Typically, tongues start wagging after someone acts or speaks in a way that affirms or challenges the status quo. ("Did you hear she got into Yale?" and "Can you believe he got married and didn’t tell us?" are examples of positive and negative gossip.) As anyone on the receiving (or initiating) end of gossip knows, talking about others in their absence is a potent social process that can support or tear down a person’s reputation in the community. Consciously or not, gossipers enforce and uphold social and cultural norms.

The Gospels provide descriptions of gossip in action as a shaper of social identity. Reading the Gospels attuned to such speech is rewarding, as all essential elements of gossip appear frequently throughout the text. When Jesus exorcises a demoniac, the ensuing positive gossip focuses on his authority to teach new knowledge: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’…At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mark 1:27-28; see also Matt 4:24).

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ absence from Jerusalem during Tabernacles evokes gossip among “the crowds” that is interestingly ambivalent about Jesus’ character: “And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, ‘He is a good man,’ others were saying, ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd’” (John 7:12). Jesus’ assessment by some as “good” and by others as “deceiving” underscores the social process through which gossip can create tension—in this case, over Jesus’ very identity.

Indeed, Jesus is variously construed by gossip throughout John’s gospel—as a “sinner” at John 9:24, a “prophet” at John 6:14, and as “the Lamb of God” at John 1:36—and the debate about him sometimes has socially disruptive results (see John 7:43 and John 9:16). In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus shows great interest in the gossip and rumor networks’ construction of his identity, when he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27; see Matt 16:13 and Luke 9:18). He follows this question dramatically with another about his disciples’ own assessment: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29, Matt 16:15, Luke 9:20; emphasis added).

The abundance of gossip in the New Testament provides valuable material for the study of identity and group interaction in antiquity. By paying attention to gossip, we gain important insight into the very human and social character of the earliest recollections of Jesus.

John (Jack) Daniels, "Gossip in the New Testament", n.p. [cited 26 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/related-articles/gossip-in-the-new-testament

Contributors

John (Jack) Daniels

John (Jack) Daniels
Professor, Flagler College

John (Jack) Daniels is Teaching & Learning Librarian and an adjunct professor of religion at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. He also serves on the faculty of the Ministry Formation Program for the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.  His current research interests include gossip and social identity in the Synoptic Gospels and Paul, and the intersection of theological discourse, identity, and mission. Daniels has written articles on gossip in the New Testament and in John, and most recently the book Gossiping Jesus: The Oral Processing of Jesus in John’s Gospel (Pickwick, 2013).

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

A person possessed or controlled by a demon.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which share similar literary content.

Prov 11:13

13A gossip goes about telling secrets,
but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.

Prov 20:19

19A gossip reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a babbler.

Rom 1:30

30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,

2Cor 12:20

20For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, an ... View more

1Tim 3:11

11Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.

1Tim 5:13

13Besides that, they learn to be idle, gadding about from house to house; and they are not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should ... View more

Mark 1:27-28

27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey h ... View more

Matt 4:24

24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics ... View more

John 7:12

12And there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the cr ... View more

John 9:24

24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”

John 6:14

14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

John 1:36

36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

John 7:43

43So there was a division in the crowd because of him.

John 9:16

16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such sign ... View more

Mark 8:27

Peter's Declaration about Jesus
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people s ... View more

Matt 16:13

Peter's Declaration about Jesus
13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? ... View more

Luke 9:18

Peter's Declaration about Jesus
18Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

Mark 8:29

29He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

Matt 16:15

15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Luke 9:20

20He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”

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