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.