Snubbing and Silence as a Biblical Tactic

This article discusses the matter of silence or snubbing as a rhetorical tactic. The matter here is relevant to certain claims such as:

  1. Why is there no direct record of the Exodus in Egyptian accounts?
  2. Why is Jesus not mentioned as a historical figure by some writers like Justus of Tiberias, or Philo?

An argument from or about silence seldom finds a definitive answer, but we would like to advance as a plausible explanation that certain "silences" by enemies can be interpreted as either "snubs" or as ways of either withholding honor, or of ascribing dishonor. This is a possible (but not the only possible) reason why Josephus said little about Jesus in detail. But the example above of Philo and Justus is perhaps more clearly of this type.

As support, let's provide some concrete examples of social "snubbing" from the literature, in cases where either "directed" silence, or minimization of some sort, was or is indicated as a way of "putting down" one's opponents.

  1. A well-known secular example, also well-documented, is the way in which Egyptian records were scrubbed of all note of the "heretic" Pharaoh Akhenaten. Inscriptions were destroyed or scratched out and every effort was made to erase his name from the record.
  2. Jerome Neyrey on a scholarly website speaks of Jesus' silence before Pilate:
    Jesus now remains silent ([John] 19:9). He neither defends himself nor offers a riposte to the challenge. Silence in the face of accusation is very difficult to assess; but in an honor and shame context it would probably be read as a shameful thing (see Neh 6:8). To fail to give a riposte to a challenge is to accept defeat and so loss of honor.
    The narrative suggests that Jesus' silence in fact challenges Pilate's power, who then responds with new questions: "Will you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?" (19:10). "Power" (exousia), an expression of honor, is at stake.

    This would suggest by extension that by silencing an opponent's "voice" through writing about them and not saying much, one could shame them.

  3. In another website article, Bruce Malina of the Context Group has written, in the context of laying out various levels of response in this scenario:
    Using this process for Level III, it would appear that Pilate was honoring Jesus by publicly acknowledging him as a king. Pilate is sending a positive message towards Jesus' honor by using the trial as the recognized channel.

    This leads to the conclusion that one could obviously withhold honor by NOT acknowledging someone publicly. This is clear from our next example:

  4. Witherington in his Galatians commentary [151] notes Paul's public challenge to Peter about his behavior in the company of Gentiles. He observes that if Peter failed to respond to the challenge, he would lose face, unless the church viewed Paul as Peter's inferior, in which case "Peter could probably ignore the challenge as not touching his dignitas and so shame Paul in the process."

    Here clearly silence or snubbing is an approach that shamed the subject.

  5. Then we have an example from Herzog's Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God [130] This was a specific example of directed silence, despite any other attention that may have been given to Jesus by his opponents in the process.

    In Mark 2, Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof. Noting that the scribes are said to speak "among themselves" in Matthew, Herzog concludes that they were talking loud enough to be heard by others, "but without acknowledging Jesus' presence" in order to show that Jesus "is too far below them socially to engage in a debate. Shaming by snubbing is their strategy."

    Then when Jesus challenges them directly, they remain silent: "...a continuation of their strategy of shaming by ignoring."

  6. Herzog adds to this example in Prophet and Teacher [92f], from the story of Jesus dining with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. The denial of both the kiss and the anointing to Jesus by his host is a "severe insult" -- one worse than not even inviting Jesus, for it is an insult on public display. The woman is there to "reverse" the insults put upon Jesus, and it is this that causes Simon to issue his own challenge.
  7. We have this example of tactical silence from Segal's Two Powers in Heaven [4]. Segal notes that post-NT rabbis were reticent about naming their opponents, preferring to use allusions to them. Their rationale was that to be more specific in characterizing their enemies would "have the effect of spreading the error further" and "unwittingly publicizing evil" or providing a "mouth for Satan."
  8. I'll close with an example from the modern world, showing that this practice is still effectual: If a person won some kind of award, and it was to be presented at a dinner where all of their colleagues were supposed to show up, it would be an insult to the recipient for his colleagues to boycott the proceedings. In the Bible think of the persons who made excuses not to show up for the king's banquet.

In summary: Though not absolutely provable by nature, tactical silence or snubbing can provide a reasonable explanation for silence such as Philo's or Justus'.

-JPH