There’s a particularly moronic notion that some people might come up with in response to what is below. They might ask if the Context Group (whose work I cite below) agrees with what I’m saying here, and think that actually is a meaningful question. It’s not.
The Context Group certainly agrees that riposte was the norm in Biblical times, which is the single and sole point that I derive from them. What they may not agree with me on is whether it is appropriate today. I don't disagree with their interpretations. I disagree with their applications. I don't draw conclusions about those applications from their research. I do that on my own. And if they think what I argue is a perversion of their work, then it's likely they've been grossly misinformed by a tendentious source that is giving them leading information to draw out a desired opinion, and also not likely being thoroughly forthright about their own agenda, history and purpose.
But that said, so what if they don't like my applications? I would say in reply: That’s their problem, not mine.
Last I checked, Rohrbaugh, for example, thinks the book of Nahum is too nasty and should be removed from the canon. That’s obviously a position I don’t agree with, and it's not a matter of intellectual deficiency for Rohrbaugh to hold that view since the key facts (such as that Nahum has harsh language) are not in dispute. Rohrbaugh's view on Nahum is a moral decision he makes based on his own preferences and his own "take" on Christianity. I do think those preferences (and his "take") are absurd, narrow-minded and out of touch. I would even go so far as to say that such views about the canon are a perversion, and that Rohrbaugh is guilty of perverting the truth to that extent. His views in that regard were not the product of his scholarship but of his own experience.
But the bottom line is: I agree with their findings, and I don't think they misinterpret the New Testament. However, I also don’t agree with all of their applications of those findings. There’s a huge difference, and very simple minds may not grasp that difference. They also fail to grasp that it is quite possible for someone like Rohrbaugh to be judiciously informed on one matter while being profoundly ignorant on other matters. (This in contrast to fundy atheists, who are profoundly ignorant about just about everything.) And of course, there is no reason to bring up Rohrbaugh's ignorance on any point until the issue actually comes up.
However, if any of the Context Group ever wished to argue that such language is inappropriate today, my reply is that they need to mind their own business and look past the rarified confines of academia. Scholars like Malina and Rohrbaugh don’t spend any time confronting atheist idiots like DarkMatter2525 or NonStampcollector. They’ve never engaged in forum debate with lunatic fundy atheists who keep quoting Thomas Paine as an authority on the formation of the canon, or who have some sort of personality disorder and keep posting mile-long blog entries no one ever reads, or who have never done anything with their lives except work as day laborers or truck drivers and sit around collecting government checks and don’t have a job while they otherwise rack up huge six-figure debts they can’t pay off. They also, not shockingly, never appeal to the Bible as authoritative justification for their views about modern behavior (because as the Nahum example shows, the Bible isn't their chief defining authority). They don't think Nahum is a good example for us. So of course the Bible isn't their final word as a moral guide. It's also relevant that they aren't out there like the fundy atheists peddling their views deceptively and in gross ignorance.
If any Context Group member doesn’t think there’s a place for hard language today, good for them – they need to get out more. I'm out in the trenches; they are not. They are far from being my favorite Bible scholars, nor have I ever worshiped the ground they walk on; nor do I quote them the most on this website. I respect their expertise and use it, but I can use the research of the Context Group even if they disapprove of my views and the way I apply that research.
For the record, no Context Group member has ever written to me about any of this. And if they ever did, I'd invite them to spend a few hours on YouTube and get some eye-openers. But I don't expect they'd waste their time anyway. Rohrbaugh is in his 90s, and it is absurd to think that he or any of the other distinguished academics that are part of the Context Group spend any time trolling YouTube channels. Anyone who claims that has a severe burden of proof to fulfill.
With all that said, what place does satire and the like have - what place can it have-within the defense of a religion based on a God who is love? A brief examination of Scripture and the Fathers of the Church will shed some light on when such talk is appropriate, and why it is warranted.
Let's begin with Scripture, and some observational notes from the sociological well of Malina and Rohrbaugh's Social Science Commentary on the Synoptics. A favored argument of Skeptics against "un-Christian" behavior of ridicule is to place such behavior against admonitions to "turn the other cheek." Is it proper to do so?
An irony here is that some skeptics, such as George Smith, interpret this and similar commands as directives to tolerate injustice and be a doormat, and say "such precepts require the obliteration of one's capacity to distinguish the good from the evil".  Depending on what Skeptic you speak to, this is either a command to be very nice to them, or a command to be so nice to them that you become a gullible fool, as they see it.
Taken in their social context, such commands require neither action. "Resist not evil," which precedes the "cheek" admonition, is a well-known Jewish proverb (Ps. 37:1, 8; Prov. 24:19) and actually means, do not compete with evildoers by trying to outdo them in terms of getting back at them. Three examples for the teaching follow: Turn the other cheek; if someone sues you for your cloak, also give them your tunic; if you are forced to go one mile, go two.
All three of these things refer to what amount to inconvenient, but nevertheless perfectly legal, impositions on the person. The "slap on the cheek" is a type of personal insult, so that the command to turn the other cheek is essentially a command not to start trading insults, but take the higher ground and turn away from the exchange. It is not a license to allow yourself to get beat up.
So is it proper to cite this against satire? Only in one instance: If it is a matter of one person speaking to, or interacting with, one person. We shall see that differing rules apply in a situation in which the venue is a public forum, as this site is. Now let us consult Malina and Rohrbaugh to see why.
Many ancient societies (and we shall see below, certain modern social groups) engage in a process known as challenge-riposte. The scene of such processes is public venues in which two persons or groups have competing honor claims: "...the game of challenge-riposte is a central phenomenon, and one that must be played out in public."  The purpose is for each party to try to undermine the honor, or social status, of the other in an exchange that "answers in equal measures or ups the ante (and thereby challenges in return)."
In the Gospels, Jesus "evidences considerable skill at riposte and thereby reveals himself to be an honorable and authoritative prophet." Many of these challenges are clear, but some are so hidden to us that they need exposition.
I imagine Skeptics pass this one over without a thought:
Matthew 12:5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
Most Skeptics are too busy worrying about Abiathar and Ahimelech in this passage in the Markan parallel, but read closely it is a tremendous insult to Jesus' Pharasaic opponents. "Have you not read...?"
Of course they had. The Pharisees were experts in the Scriptures. They read them every day. They were the Ph. Ds in Bible in their time. To ask them, "Have you not read...?" is to essentially call them stupid, unable to read what was in front of them, not having done proper study.
This is proper in the public forum and a response to the honor challenge laid down by the Pharisees, who challenge Jesus on the behavior of his disciples. Jesus ups the ante by questioning their very knowledge of the Scriptures, a trait they most cherished.
The art of insult was highly valued in antiquity. Our modern "victim culture" encourages persons to find the art offensive, but before getting too judgmental, consider that in these honor challenges, the person who ended the game by throwing a punch was considered the big loser. Losing one's temper and throwing a punch was as much an admission that one could not keep up the battle of wits and had to resort to violence. When Jesus runs from those who pick up stones to stone him, he is not the coward, but the winner taking his spoils.
There are ample instances of such riposte in the Old and New Testaments (1 Kings 18 and Matt. 23 are excellent examples) and to the extent that we engage Skeptics on a public forum, such actions are neither "un-Christian" nor any reason to suppose that discredit is put upon Christianity by such actions.
We see much the same in the work of the Church Fathers. As it was John, perhaps the most beautiful and love-saturated author of all time, who, not in spite of the fact that his God is Love, but because of it, unleashed an absolutely scathing verbal arsenal against schismatics and apostates; so too we see his first theological heir-Ignatius of Antioch-acting in like manner:
As children of the light of truth, therefore, see that you hold aloof from all disunion and misguided teaching … There are plausible wolves in plenty seeking to entrap the runners in God's race with their perilous allurements … Have nothing to do with such poisonous weeds; they are none of the Father's planting, nor have they Jesus Christ for their husbandman. … make no mistake, my brothers; the adherents of a schismatic can never inherit the kingdom of God. Those who wander in outlandish by-ways of doctrine must forfeit all part in the Lord's passion. (Ep. Phil. 2-3)
I caution you in this way, dear friends though I am well aware that your conviction is as firm as my own; but I would fain protect you in advance against certain beasts of prey in human form. If you can you should avoid all contact with these persons, much less give them any sort of acceptance. … After all if everything our Lord did was only an illusion then these chains of mine must be illusory too! Also, to what end have I given myself up to perish by fire or sword or savage beasts? … Yet there are some who in their blindness still reject him-or rather are rejected by him … So what is the point of my standing well in the opinion of a man who blasphemes my Lord by denying that he ever bore a real human body? In saying that, he denies everything else about him; and the body he himself is bearing must be nothing but a corpse. My pen declines to write the names of these infidels, and I would even wish to have them erased from my memory altoghether … (Ep. Smyr. 4-5)
Of course, Ignatius didn't have to deal with anything like the modern atheist, but from the above, we can gain some understanding regarding his feelings towards the corruption of Christian faith. Ignatius reacted this way towards heretics and apostates. From his writings, one gains the impression that he would have regarded such a one as a ghoul or a monster, an absolute abhoration. The image of John the Apostle riding through Asia Minor on a steed seeking out heretics to wage war against comes to mind-or perhaps, better still, his leaving of a public bath 'lest it fall in' due to the presence of the docetist heretic Cerinthius.
And this fact-the stance taken towards heretics and those who pollute the Faith-is intriguing in the extreme. Is it not John who wrote the most apologetic Gospel? Is his theology not steeped in Wisdom literature, particularly, the Wisdom of Solomon-the Old Testament's natural theology work par excellence? Would it not be more in order for John to simply have reasoned with them, pointing out the beauty of the Truth as he had done so successfully in his Gospel? Is it not certain that such actions are dissonant with he whose Spirit guided insights led him to confess things such as 'God is Love'?
At first glance, it doesn't seem to fit, but the fact that this attitude is definitely Apostolic in origin cannot be denied, and that it was rooted in the nature of the society (from which we of our own will have vastly differed) also cannot be questioned.
From Polycarp, yet another of the Johannine school, we have-
To deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be Antichrist. To contradict the evidence of the Cross is to be of the devil. And to pervert the Lord's words to suit our own wishes, by asserting that there are no such things as resurrection or judgement, is to be a first-begotten son of Satan. So let us have no more of this nonsense from the gutter, and these lying doctrines, and turn back again to the word originally delivered to us. (Ep. Poly. Phil. 7)
Like the New Testament authors, Ignatius and Polycarp wrote epistles. As the Church continued to grow and develop, circumstances required a more thorough refutation of emerging heresies. The first major work along these lines is Irenaeus's 'Against Heresies'-a five volume work devoted primarily to refuting various Gnostic teachings, contrasting them with the teaching of the universal, or 'Catholic', Church.
It is here that we see ever greater signs of sarcasm and satire used to the effect of a public honor challenge (as all of these works were intended to be read aloud to an audience). After presenting a certain Gnostic account of origins, Irenaeus comments-
I feel somewhat inclined myself to contribute a few hints towards the development of their system. For when I perceive that waters are in part fresh, such as fountains, rivers, showers, and so on, and in part salt; such as those in the sea, I reflect with myself that all such waters cannot be derived from her tears, inasmuch as these are of a saline quality only. It is clear, therefore, that the waters which are salt are alone those which are derived from her tears. But it is probable that she, in her intense agony and perplexity, was covered with perspiration. And hence, following out their notion, we may conceive that fountains and rivers, and all the fresh water in the world, are due to this source. For it is difficult, since we know that all tears are of the same quality, to believe that waters both salt and fresh proceeded from them. The more plausible supposition is, that some are from her tears, and some from her perspiration. And since there are also in the world certain waters which are hot and acrid in their nature, thou must be left to guess their origin, how and whence. Such are some of the results of their hypothesis. (Ag. Her. 1:4:4)
Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives' fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. (Ag. Her. 1:8:1)
Moving on, Irenaeus becomes even more pointed-
But there is another among these heretics, Marcus by name, who boasts himself as having improved upon his master. He is a perfect adept in magical impostures, and by this means drawing away a great number of men, and not a few women, he has induced them to join themselves to him, as to one who is possessed of the greatest knowledge and perfection, and who has received the highest power from the invisible and ineffable regions above. Thus it appears as if he really were the precursor of Antichrist. For, joining the buffooneries of Anaxilaus to the craftiness of the magi, as they are called, he is regarded by his senseless and cracked-brain followers as working miracles by these means. (Ag. Her. 1:13:1)
Such ravings, we may now well say, go beyond Iu, Iu, Pheu, Pheu, and every kind of tragic exclamation or utterance of misery. For who would not detest one who is the wretched contriver of such audacious falsehoods, when he perceives the truth turned by Marcus into a mere image, and that punctured all over with the letters of the alphabet? The Greeks confess that they first received sixteen letters from Cadmus, and that but recently, as compared with the beginning, [the vast antiquity of which is implied] in the common proverb: "Yesterday and before; " and afterwards, in the course of time, they themselves invented at one period the aspirates, and at another the double letters, while, last of all, they say Palamedes added the long letters to the former. Was it so, then, that until these things took place among the Greeks, truth had no existence? For, according to thee, Marcus, the body of truth is posterior to Cadmus and those who preceded him-posterior also to those who added the rest of the letters-posterior even to thyself! (Ag. Her. 1:15:4)
Irenaeus may be honored as one to make extensive use of sarcasm and satire while defending the Church. Yet it was Tertullian who first made it an artform, and his polemical skill was such that it earns him a place as one of the all-time greats in this regard. Here are some of his comments regarding the gnostic Marcion-
The Euxine Sea, as it is called, is self-contradictory in its nature, and deceptive in its name. As you would not account it hospitable from its situation, so is it severed from our more civilised waters by a certain stigma which attaches to its barbarous character. The fiercest nations inhabit it, if indeed it can be called habitation, when life is passed in waggons. They have no fixed abode; their life has no germ of civilization; they indulge their libidinous desires without restraint, and for the most part naked. Moreover, when they gratify secret lust, they hang up their quivers on their car-yokes, to warn off the curious and rash observer. Thus without a blush do they prostitute their weapons of war. The dead bodies of their parents they cut up with their sheep, and devour at their feasts. They who have not died so as to become food for others, are thought to have died an accursed death. Their women are not by their sex softened to modesty. They uncover the breast, from which they suspend their battle-axes, and prefer warfare to marriage. In their climate, too, there is the same rude nature. The day-time is never clear, the sun never cheerful; the sky is uniformly cloudy; the whole year is wintry; the only wind that blows is the angry North. Waters melt only by fires; their rivers flow not by reason of the ice; their mountains are covered with heaps of snow. All things are torpid, all stiff with cold. Nothing there has the glow of life, but that ferocity which has given to scenic plays their stories of the sacrifices of the Taurians, and the loves of the Colchians, and the torments of the Caucasus. Nothing, however, in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian, more roving than the waggon-life of the Sarmatian, more inhuman than the Massagete, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than the cloud, (of Pontus) colder than its winter, more brittle than its ice, more deceitful than the Ister, more craggy than Caucasus. Nay more, the true Prometheus, Almighty God, is mangled by Marcion's blasphemies. Marcion is more savage than even the beasts of that barbarous region. For what beaver was ever a greater emasculator than he who has abolished the nuptial bond? What Pontic mouse ever had such gnawing powers as he who has gnawed the Gospels to pieces? Verily, O Euxine, thou hast produced a monster more credible to philosophers than to Christians. For the cynic Diogenes used to go about, lantern in hand, at mid-day to find a man; whereas Marcion has quenched the light of his faith, and so lost the God whom he had found. (Ag. Marc. 1:1)
Having taken bread and having distributed it to his disciples, he made it his own body by saying, 'This is my body'-that is, the 'figure of my body.' A figure, however there could not have been unless there was in truth a body. Some empty thing, which is a phantasm, were not able to satisfy a figure. Or, if he pretended that bread were his body, because in truth he lacked a body, then he must have given bread for us. It would support the vanity of Marcion had bread been crucified. But why call Christ's body 'bread', and not rather a pumpkin, which Marcion had in place of a brain? (Ag. Marc. 4:40)
Like the earlier Fathers, it is a combination of the love for the Faith, and therefore disgust with heresy, that ignites the manner of his response. Yet unlike those who preceded him, Tertullian's skill as a wit and an author rises to the surface as the means itself of refutation, just as much as the actual content of his argument. This places the opponent in an uncomfortable position, for arguments are much more difficult to refute if they are what may be called instances of an incarnation of a vivacious personality - even moreso when the substance of the argument is directly coordinated to the vivacity of the person as a cause.
If the apostate won't bring anything to the table, yet still insists on speaking, the table may as well be brought to him, and broken over his head, so to speak. Since it is a fact that there is no amount of intelligence that cannot be disputed by the constant application of stupidity, it seems on the cards that the most ethical, as well as most expedient, manner of dealing with suchlike is simply to put them in a position wherein, since it is obvious that they won't shut up, at least they won't be heard.
In the final two authors we'll be examining, we see a different form of sarcasm. With Athanasius, it is not so much his wit that catches the eye, as it is his tunnel-vision. By that I mean that, in him, we have something like the Johannine-Ignatian absolute disgust of heresy, yet intensified to such a degree that it becomes comic:
Arius himself has copied the weak and effeminate character of Sotades, writing the 'Thalia'. He has emulated the dancing of Herodias, dancing about and jesting in his slanders against the Savior. The result is that those who fall into heresy are perverted in mind, act foolishly, and exchange the name of the Lord of glory for 'the likeness of the image of mortal man'. Thus, instead of Christians they are called Arians and have this mark of impiety. (Ag. Ar. 1:2)
How can non-Christians be Christians? Rather, they are Ario-maniacs! How are those who have shaken of the apostolic faith part of the Catholic Church? They are inventors of new evils; they have abandoned the words of Holy Scripture, calling Arius's 'Thalia' a new wisdom. They state this in fairness, for they are announcing a new heresy. Therefore anyone may have cause to wonder that although many individuals have written many works and the greatest number of homilies on the Old and New Testaments, a 'Thalia' is discovered in none of them. It is found not among the serious Greeks but only among those who sing such things with their drink, clapping and joking so that others may laugh. The 'marvelous' Arius copied nothing stately, not knowing the things of serious individuals. He stole the greatest number of things from other heresies and emulated the jests of Sotades alone. What was more fitting for him to do, wishing to dance against the Savior, than indicate in loose and dissolute songs his wretched words of impiety? As Wisdom says, 'A man is known from the utterance of his word.' Thus from Arius's words the unmanly character of his soul and the perdition of his thought should be known. (Ag. Ar. 1:4)
But after this, as a successor of the devil's reckless haste, Arius wrote in his 'Thalia', "The Father is invisible even to the Son, and the Word is able neither to see nor to know perfectly and accurately his Father." … These are the words this impious fellow spoke. He said that the Son is distinct in himself and that in all respects he does not share in the Father. These are parts of the fables Arius written down in a laughable document. (Ag. Ar. 1:6)
Who, hearing such things and the melody of the 'Thalia', does not justly hate Arius's jesting about such things as if he were on a stage? … And who, reading his words one after another, does not see his impiety as the serpent's error into which that clever snake misled the woman? Who is not astonished at such blasphemies? As the prophet said, 'heaven was astounded, and the earth shuddered at the transgression of the law.' … Will not all human nature be struck speechless at Arius's blasphemies and shut its ears and close its eyes, so that it would be able neither to hear such things nor to see him who wrote these things? (Ag. Ar. 1:7)
… is it not worthy to obliterate and expunge both the other words and the Arian 'Thalia' as an image of evil, filled with every impiety in which anyone falling 'does not know that giants perish with her and assemble at the trap of hell'? … They profess the patronage of friends and the fear of Constantius, so that those who join them through hypocrisy and promise will not see the filth of the heresy. Is not this heresy worthy of hate for this very reason? (Ag. Ar. 1:10)
It is necessary that the nature of the image be of such a kind, such as is its Father, even if the Arians, being blind, would see neither the image nor anything else … Deprived of the thoughts of their hearts, rather than of their derangements, they take refuge again and again in the literal sense of the Holy Scriptures, but they fail, in their usual way, to understand even that. (Ag. Ar. 1:52)
I don't think it to be the case that Athanasius was trying to be funny, as it seems was the case with Tertullian. Nor do I believe it likely that he 'weighed his words carefully', constructing a masterful rhetorical argument or polemic, as was the case with the Cappadocian Fathers, or even Paul as instanced in Galatians or Romans.
This is not to say that I doubt at all Athanasius skill as a theologian - rather, I think it should be pointed out that his style comes straight from the heart, as full of light as the sun and as immediate as a bolt of lightning. There was an element of absolute astonishment at the downright audacity and perversity of the heretics, and one can imagine Athanasius losing his breath, his face contorted into an expression of absolute bewilderment, when confronted with their claims.
Indeed, proof of this is to be found in the way Athanasius often countered the heretics by stacking rhetorical questions one atop another:
If a decision was made by the bishops, what concern had the emperor with it? Or if it was but a threat of the emperor, what need then was there of the designated bishops? When in the world was such a thing ever before heard of? When did a decision of the Church receive its authority from the emperor? Or rather, when was his decree even recognized? (The Monks History of Arian Impiety, 52)
What hell has vomited the statement that the Body born of Mary is coessential with the Godhead of the Word?, or that the Word has been changed into flesh, bones, hair, and the whole body, and altered from its own nature? Or who ever heard in a Church, or even from Christians, that the Lord wore a body putatively, not in nature; or who ever went so far in impiety as to say and hold, that this Godhead, which is coessential with the Father, was circumcised and became imperfect instead of perfect; and that what hung upon the tree was not the body, but the very creative Essence and Wisdom? Or who that hears that the Word transformed himself a passible body, not of Mary, but of his own essence, could call him who said this a Christian? Or who devised this abominable impiety, for it to enter even his imagination, and for him to say that to pronounce the Lord's body to be of Mary is to hold a tetrad instead of a Triad in the Godhead?-those who think thus, saying that the body of the Savior which he put on from Mary, is of the essence of the Triad. Or whence again have certain vomited an impiety as great as those already mentioned, saying, namely, that the body is not newer than the Godhead of the Word, but was coeternal with it always, since it was compounded of the essence of Wisdom? Or how did men called Christians venture even to doubt whether the Lord, who proceeded from Mary, while Son of God in essence and nature, is of the seed of David according to the flesh, and of the flesh of Saint Mary? (Epistle to Epictetus, 9)
Modern Skeptics immediately reject such language as distasteful and insulting, but by now it is clear that they are entrenched in subjecivity and beholden to a straw-man Jesus exegeted forcefully from the text with a fundamentalist-atheist hermeneutic.
Coming to Jerome, the last Father I'll be examining, we find this sentiment along with the intentionally comic sarcasm found in Tertullian -
Very few days have elapsed since the holy brethren of Rome sent to me the treatises of a certain Jovinian with the request that I would reply to the follies contained in them, and would crush with evangelical and apostolic vigour the Epicurus of Christianity. I read but could not in the least comprehend them. I began therefore to give them closer attention, and to thoroughly sift not only words and sentences, but almost every single syllable; for I wished first to ascertain his meaning, and then to approve, or refute what he had said. But the style is so barbarous, and the language so vile and such a heap of blunders, that I could neither understand what he was talking about, nor by what arguments he was trying to prove his points. At one moment he is all bombast, at another he grovels: from time to time he lifts himself up, and then like a wounded snake finds his own effort too much for him. Not satisfied with the language of men, he attempts something loftier.
"The mountains labour; a poor mouse is born."
"That he's gone mad ev'n mad Orestes swears."
Moreover he involves everything in such inextricable confusion that the saying of Plautus might be applied to him:-"This is what none but a Sibyl will ever read."
To understand him we must be prophets. We read Apollo's raving prophetesses. We remember, too, what Virgil says of senseless noise. Heraclitus, also, surnamed the Obscure, the philosophers find hard to understand even with their utmost toil. But what are they compared with our riddle-maker, whose books are much more difficult to comprehend than to refute? Although (we must confess) the task of refuting them is no easy one. For how can you overcome a man when you are quite in the dark as to his meaning? But, not to be tedious to my reader, the introduction to his second book, of which he has discharged himself like a sot after a night's debauch, will show the character of his eloquence, and through what bright flowers of rhetoric he takes his stately course. (Ag. Jov. 1)
The comic is rooted in and caused by a 'horror' of heresy -
What, I ask, is the meaning of these portentous words and of this grotesque description? Would you not think he was in a feverish dream, or that he was seized with madness and ought to be put into the strait jacket which Hippocrates prescribed? However often I read him, even till my heart sinks within me, I am still in uncertainty of his meaning. Everything starts from, everything depends upon, something else. It is impossible to make out any connection; and, excepting the proofs from Scripture which he has not dared to exchange for his own lovely flowers of rhetoric, his words suit all matter equally well, because they suit no matter at all. (Ag. Jov. 3)
I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating. There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow, the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in loquacity and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience, would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him. He would stand as it were on a pedestal, and would publish his views far and wide. There was reason also to fear that when truth failed him he would assail his opponents with the weapon of abuse. But all these motives for silence, though just, have more justly ceased to influence me, because of the scandal caused to the brethren who were disguised at his ravings. The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius who has never learnt to speak, may at length learn to hold his tongue. (Ag. Helv. 1)
Such, then, was the patristic method, adopted by certain of the Church's most wonderfully decorated and venerated Saints, towards dealing with apostasy and heresy, and engaging in polemical dialogue. They never had to deal with the modern atheist, but had fortune granted them such a burden, there can be little doubt in how they would have reacted. At this point, we can return to the initial question, posed at the beginning - what justification can there be for sarcasm and satire in a religion based on the fact that God has revealed himself as Love?
The answer is located in the question itself - it is because God is Love that such reactions are warranted. Satire is not a method adopted by all, nor is its application appropriate for every audience; it is tailored to specific instances in which enemy forces gather to deceive the unwary who cannot always defend themselves. The Cappadocian Fathers, every bit as skilled as Athanasius, were far less fiery than he, yet no one would deny that their apologetic efforts failed to yield as much fruit.
I have never once seen Richard Swinburne - the greatest modern defender of the philosophical rationality of the Christian Faith - engage in deliberate satire. Justin Martyr's 'Dialogue with Trypho' gives an instance of a more amiable exchange between two parties in disagreement - far more cordial than what we might expect to have come from John or Ignatius, had they been placed in the same situation. Clement of Alexandria, one of the Church's most skilled demonstrators of the 'common ground' shared by Christianity and natural theology (in the hopes of converting the pagan), leaves us with no moments of biting sarcasm.
Why can't all Christian apologists act likewise? Not all face the same opponents. Not all have submitted to the modern victim culture. Justin spoke to Trypho person to person. Skeptics who object to satire think in black and white, submitting to the very fundamentalist atheism that makes them unable to read the Scriptures in any way other than they do.
But on the other hand, who would deny the value of a 'sanctified wit', such as we find in the likes of G. K. Chesterton? There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit, and likewise, there are many forms of apologia, but the same Source and goal. In the final analysis, it seems to me that sarcasm and satire are certainly more likely to help people remain believers, rather than turning them into such. The satirical apologist is usually satirical in proportion to his opponent's unfounded dogmatic certitude conjoined to an unrelenting 'loudness'.
The aim of satire is not so much to convert the opponent, but rather, to silence him, and that was indeed the case before the Pharisees, and before the opponents of the Fathers. Its occurrence is consequent upon a love of the Faith, and a desire to rebuke those who arrogantly voice an opinion contrawise.
It would seem that its use is determined by both the personality of the apologist himself (for there are many who are, frankly, incapable of expressing themselves in such a manner), and the mode of expression of the opponent (ignorant, arrogant, gentle and persistent, cautious, honest and inquisitive?). As Paul said, 'will I greet you with the whip, or with an embrace?'
But the very warrant for the use of 'the whip' seems to lie in the Faith which it is meant to safeguard. It is easy to simply say, in a mental exercise utterly abstract and devoid of possible application in the real world, that we ought simply 'be nice'. Yet, if we think of morality in a teleological manner - in this case the 'end' being the preservation of the integrity of the faithful's Faith, and the purity of doctrine - it begins to make sense.
There are certain people who has no desire whatever to discuss the truth-claims of the Christian faith. His sole goal, so it seems to me, is quite simply to ridicule Christianity and Christians (which, to me would seem a rather lifeless and dull profession - granting that the Christian is under a delusion, at least we can understand why he is ever ready to fight for his Faith, but whatever awkward manner of vivacity manages to propel the atheist to take such unyielding delight in telling the hopeful that they ought to be hopeless, I fail entirely to understand; were I an atheist myself I should think that, since I am confined to this world, I would be able to find something a little more exciting therein to, at least, fall in love with and fill me with as much peaceable joy and happiness as I am able to obtain in what little time I have). There is no kindness in his approach, and he seems to show none of the 'caution' standard in careful inquiry and exposition.
What to do with such a one? If you play the nice guy, you're likely to get swarmed, not by any irrefutable arguments, but rather, by a veritable skyscraper of excess and inflammatory verbiage. And unfortunately, there are those, on both sides of the argument, who are persuaded by such things. We are humans, not computers, and a show of confidence or arrogance does, to some, seem to equate with being the victor.
So what does the Christian apologist, in dealing with such as these, do? He fights a spark with a blow torch. Just as, when climbing a mountain, even though the goal is to reach the top as quickly as possible, and therefore, so it would seem, only moving upward in a straight line is the most conducive activity for achieving this end, we often find that it is actually more expedient to, at certain moments, to go to the left or right (for instance, when there is a boulder or stream immediately in front of us); so too, the Christian apologist, out of the love for Love, is at certain times warranted in using sarcasm and satire.
As with the Apostles, so too with the Fathers. And today, may he who is able use the gifts of sarcasm and satire.
Some Modern, Secular Examples
From a page now defunct, a discussion of "playing the dozens," a form of riposte-challenge in the African-American community:
The exact origins of the dozens is uncertain. But "the dozens" resembles traditional African "joking relationships" in many ways, and seems to draw heavily on the African oral tradition. Like preaching, signifying, rapping, and toasting, the dozens reinforces the high value placed on verbal skills in the African diaspora. Also called "playing the dozens," "joning," "sounding," or "woofing," the dozens is most popular among adolescent boys who usually play the game in front of a neutral audience who egg on the participants. The contestants must develop the ability to remain poised and master the verbal dexterity to respond quickly and creatively to their opponent's insults without becoming angry or violent. The style of the games can be "clean" or "dirty," the insults rhymed or unrhymed. Rhyming insults are more characteristic of contests between children while teenagers and adults stress creativity and improvisation.
Social scientists have for years theorized that the dozens is a release for a racially oppressed group, or a way of helping African American males project a masculine identity in a matriarchal culture. In recent years, however, researchers have tended to emphasize the game's role in helping African Americans to resolve conflicts nonviolently and to deal with personal insults impassively, - valuable lessons in a racially hostile society.
From another site now defunct, this on "flaming":
A very different approach takes a more neutral stance and emphasizes the playful, expressive, and even sporting aspects of flaming. In this view, flaming may be seen as one aspect of a partial return to oral culture in digital writing, which tends to be dynamic and playful, and which encourages interlocutors to pay attention to how messages are packaged. Flaming may therefore have important affinities with a large variety of stylized oral forms of verbal dueling in which performance is central, such as "flyting" in medieval England, or "playing the dozens" among contemporary Black Americans.
From here, a secular look at challenge and riposte -- think of the Internet as a village of this sort:
Public concessions of honor confer status and thereby privileged access to concrete goods. Because, at the small village level, the latter are in short supply, honor likewise becomes a limited good and so the object of competition. Among equals, an affront attempts to rob the affronted person of his honor; satisfaction is required if honor is to be maintained. Honor is defended or lost according to the contestants' performance in the "game" of challenge and riposte, which has three stages. (i) First comes the challenge, or a claim to enter the social space of another, whether by word or deed. The challenge can be positive (as with a word of praise, a gift, a request for or promise of help) or negative (as with an insult, a physical affront, a threat accompanied or not by an attempt to carry it through). (ii) Next comes the perception, in which the individual (and onlookers) evaluate the action in terms of publicly accepted criteria, as to whether the action merely questions, attacks or denies the individual's self-esteem. (iii) Then comes the response, which takes one of three forms: (a) Positive rejection disdains the challenger and his action, in effect humiliates him by denying him the status of equality prerequisite between players in the challenge-riposte game. If the original challenger is in fact an equal, he must avenge this insult to maintain his honor. On the other hand, if the person originally affronted was his superior, no further response is required. (b) Negative refusal is simply no response, where the honor-code requires one; it symbolizes cowardice or sloth in the person affronted and so dishonors him. (c) Acceptance of the challenge involves a corresponding action that constitutes a counter-challenge and potentially extends the game into a further round. The game of challenge-riposte is properly played only among equals. It is dishonorable to "pick on someone" who is not one's "own size." Honor does not require success, but only the attempt. The code makes each man the guardian of his own honor in contests with his equals, where it would be dishonorable to appeal to the courts, which exist to protect the weak against the strong. Self-sufficiency and independence are virtues in such honor maintenance.
Then what about 1 Peter 3:14-16?
1 Peter 3:14-16 But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.
The use of satire or riposte, it has been said, is not "meekness and fear" (or "gentleness and respect" as modern versions say). This passage is often used to admonish against being too "rough" on opponents, but it is used thereby out of context.
In the ancient world, there was no such thing as "something for nothing". You did a favor to get a favor. So when Christians helped their neighbors, others were inevitably suspicious. "What is it they want in return?" When they professed to want nothing in return for helping the sick, etc., it raised suspicions more: "They must be out for something BIG!" As Carlin Barton observes in Roman Honor (225), in a play by Plautus, the poor man is "not only embarrased but deeply suspicious of the kindly and equal treatment afforded him by his rich neighbor" out of "fear of being patronized" and because it "threatens to make him even more hopelessly in debt to, and so more vulnerable to, an already more powerful man."
It is in this context that Peter advises a gentle and respectful answer. When a Roman said, "Why do you help that man?" they were to answer gently and respectfully by saying, "We do this because of Christ." The passage has nothing to do with confronting ideological opponents. So if a Christian helped a sick pagan neighbor, for example, and didn’t ask for anything in return, they would be slandered for wanting something secretly or trying to build up unrepayable favor. Look how this fits in with the context of the verses:
13 Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good? (helping a sick pagan neighbor, for example) 14 But even if you should suffer because of righteousness (even if they persecute you or slander you because they misinterpret your motives), blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, 15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, (be ready to explain that Christ has given you your reward, which is why you don’t ask for one from the person you help, as you would be allowed to do) 16 but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. (This is an attack on their person and what they do, not on truth.) 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good (helping that neighbor who is sick, etc), if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
So while this verse is often used to relate to apologetics...it actually doesn't, and it also does not forbid the use of satire or riposte in settings where the truth is at stake.
Then what about Col. 4:6?
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
There are a couple of reasons why this is not relevant to delivering riposte to enemies of the faith. First, the preceding verses make it clear that this is referencing evangelistic opportunities:
And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.
Second, if applied absolutely, then Jesus, Paul, and others violated this direction repeatedly, and the Old Testament is full of "bad seasoning".
What about 2 Timothy 2:24-26?
2 Timothy 2:24-26 And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
It should be noted to begin that "men" is a KJV insertion for clarity, and it does in a sense mislead. The "all" here contextually is the flock to whom Timothy teaches, and refers to a single person who is leading no one astray but themselves. This has no relevance to confronting ideological opponents who are leading others away from the truth.
It should be noted that the original Greek has an added part of speech -- it says, "avoid THE foolish and uneducated speculations." What "the" is this? It is the PARTICULAR heresy that Timothy is having to deal with in his church. Now obviuosly we could say that the same advice would apply to any heresy at all, and that is fair, though it must be an issue that "produces quarrels". So let's take a closer look at what it is Paul is telling Tim to do and avoid. The word behind "don't have anything to do with" is the same word used in these contexts:
Luke 14:18 And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused
Heb. 12:25 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven.
So in essence, Paul is telling Timothy to steer clear of the heresy and by extension, the heretics. In other words, it is a Proverbs 26 piece of advice. This is a case of advice in terms of personal, one on one relationships -- it has nothing to do with public forums, or places where the "speculators" are trying to spread their ideas. Socially this meets with the ancient practice of not associating with those who are not part of your ingroup. This indicates the following dichotomies:
Private/questioner -- teach them.
Private/baiter -- avoid them.
Public/questioner -- teach them.
Public/baiter -- attack them.
This is in line with the much broader dichotomy between public and private discourse and encounter in the social world of the Bible.
A rather naive response to this distinction between public and private address is that the distinction isn't explicitly found in the text. This sort of response is illicit on multiple counts. First, it enables criticisms by other groups that certian things are also nout found in the text explicitly (eg, JWs re the Trinity; atheists re Jesus in certain OT prophecies). Second, it ignores the fact that as a high context setting, the distinction is something that would be taken for granted and did not need to be made explicit in the text. Third, it is manifest that this distinction is clearly being practiced and observed in the NT (eg, private-private in Timothy, public-public in Matthew 23). if it is not, there is no way to explain such things as Jesus engaging the Pharisees with insults that does not make Jesus out to be a hypocritical bully. The denier of this distinction is forced to enter into absurd gyrations and special pleading ("it just HAPPENS to look like that, but it isn't") for the sake of a desired conclusion.
"Jesus only attacked fellow Jews. He reserved his attacks for 'insider' criticism."
The argument assumes that if Jesus had encountered an atheist or a pagan who attacked the truth or his ministry, he would have been nice to them, unlike his reaction to the Pharisees. This is merely a contrived defense. Jesus' interaction with non-Jews was minimal and none of those he encountered presented themselves as opposing the truth or opposing Jesus. There is no data pool to speak of to decide that Jesus would not have attacked a pagan critic of the truth as he attacked the Pharisees.
Besides that, the Pharisees WERE "outsiders" in terms of their social ingroup -- they were not Jesus' disciples. This objection also defines "insider" too broadly.
"But we should be all things to all men and modify our approach for today's culture."
Then it's time to give up blood atonement too. No, modern culture has forbidden riposte as a way to prevent deserved criticism and to silence the critic. To that extent, the culture itself is sick and those who reject valid riposte are themselves aiding and abetting the sickness.
"Attacking people this way is prideful."
For some, it may be. For others, pride has nothing to do with it.
"Matthew 5:22 disallows addressing others, especially believers, as fools or with other such names."
Matthew 5:22 is irrelevant to this matter for a number of reasons. First, it is clearly about relations with one's brother (not physical brothers, of course, but fellow believers) and about words said in anger to that brother. Thus it would not forbid addressing eg, atheists as fools. Even then, however, it would be foolish (irony intended) to apply this to calling anyone -- even fellow Christian or putative Christian -- a "fool" or a moron or stupid today. The contextual connection here is to Ps. 14:1, which says, that the fool says that there is no God. Thus the idea would be that we are not to call other Christians deniers of God. Within the full-orbed context of this passage -- Judaism -- this has no bearing on our modern word "fool" (or related words) which are used to indicate that a person is showing a lack of intellectual acumen, or is acting foolishly in some other way (eg, throwing away money gambling).
To conclude this results in patent absurdities: Why would it be wrong to assess another Christian's intelligence with this specific word -- yet quite all right for Jesus to address Peter as "Satan"? Without the context of Ps. 14:1, Jesus' command amounts to a senseless legalist absurdity that allows Christians, by example, to address each other with the name of the being who epitomizes evil and rebellion against God, but denies that they are able to question the intelligence and acumen of that same believer. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that we would not be allowed to judge another believer by calling them what is in essence "non-believer" -- which in essence amounts to denying that God has the power to save those who make professions of faith.
Beyond this, it is fair to note that this warning is about persons who are angry. It may not occur to those with less maturity that satire and riposte may be delivered calmly, rationally, and for targeted strategic purposes (eg, shaming those who err and mislead).
Of course, those whose agenda forbids the use of external contexts to define this passage will use the excuse that none of this is specifically stated in the text. However, such persons have no real reason in this to reject the argument and are merely objecting because they are offended by the possibility that such words as "moron" truly apply to them precisely because they lack intelligence; and what we say elsewhere here of "it's not in the text" applies as readily here.
Rhetoric in the NT World
Our source for this section is Sumney's 'Servants of Satan','False Brothers', and Other Opponents of Paul. In a previous work against Earl Doherty we briefly noted the following with respect to 1 Thess. 2:14-16:
Within Jewish polemical circles, there were certain conventional insults delivered to rivals: Charges of deceit, blindness, blasphemy, dwelling in darkness. These charges did not necessarily serve to finally and definitively exclude the subject from the group in question. Thus, for example, even within the Qumran community, accepted members could be reckoned as being mouthpieces for Belial; likewise Jesus could one moment give Peter a good report and the next moment refer to him as Satan!
Paul shows distinct signs of using polemical hyperbole of a recognized sort (notably irony) in this letter. In 2 Cor. 11:20 he refers to his opponents as "making slaves" of the Corinthians, and uses imagery associated with slavery, like being slapped in the face. Now obviously the opponents did not literally come and make slaves of the Corinthians; this is a case of polemical hyperbole. Likewise, in Paul's lists of woes upon himself (2 Cor. 11:23-8), we see effective rhetorical amplification: Many of the sufferings he lists are duplicated within the list. Thus, we may argue, Paul's opponents may indeed be true Christians who, because they have disagreed with him on what he considers to be a fundamental point, he describes with the utmost polemical hyperbole as false apostles. And if Jesus can call Peter Satan, why can Paul not refer to members of the Jerusalem apostolate (if he indeed goes that far!) as false apostles?
Sumney's work takes this matter a step further and performs a rhetorical examination of ALL of Paul's attributed letters, determining based on rhetorical function what can be definitively said about Paul's opponents. Sumney's case is directed to a specific misuse of Paul's letters -- performed since Baur's time, and still use by critics today -- in which Paul's word are "mirror-read" so that it is assumed that everything he says is a specific response to an opponent.
Given rhetorical usages in Paul's time, it is apparent that such mirror-readers are actually over-readers making modernist assumptions about the text. Not all such rhetoric was meant to be taken literally, nor would readers have understood it as such.
We will begin by extensively quoting Sumney  on the context of polemic in the Greco-Roman world. Readers should note that Sumney's use of words like "unreliable" is made within the context of critical historical study. He is not intimating that writers openly lied with intent to deceive, or that readers would be deceived about an opponent's view. He writes:
In the Hellenistic era polemical remarks were often tendentious and partisan and included exaggerations and unsupportable charges about one's opponents. Early Christian anti-heretical writers commonly made exaggerated claims about their opponents and often accused them of deceit or immorality.(JPH note: As did the Romans, who accused the Christians of cannibalism, among other things.) Irenaeus' treatment of the Gnostics is a prime example. He disparages them every way he can and is willing to caricature and misrepresent them. Since Irenaeus was not alone in his willingness to use any means available to discredit and defeat his opponents, it seems probable that polemical contexts contain exaggerated claims about and partisan evaluations of opponents. Therefore, we must consider statements within polemical contexts to be somewhat unreliable and the more directly the opponents are mentioned, the less reliable the statements are likely to be.
Sumney goes on to note that statements made in other contexts -- notably didactic ones, where instruction is given to readers -- is far more likely to be reliable for the modern critical historian, since they are instructions to the readers on what to do. He then evaluates each Pauline letter in turn, and identifies various passages in terms of their likelihood to be reporting what ranges from stock polemic (not to be taken literally, nor meant to be by Paul) to actual and justified criticism.
If we may draw a loose parallel, the polemical portions may be taken in the same light as modern professional wrestlers, who beat the daylights out of each other and rant at each other by day, and by night laugh about it over a drink at the local bar. As with the examples of Peter and Qumran above, this is simply reflective of typical "extremist" expression of the period (see more on this here), which is only extremist from our "moderate" perspective and social world.
It will be enough for our purposes to provide two examples from Sumney of places where Paul has been falsely read literally because of misunderstanding of his polemical context.
The first is Gal. 1:6-7, in which Paul speaks of a "different Gospel". While of course this would tell us that his opponents' message is different, his extreme language may or may not indicate that the opponents are preaching a Gospel that "does not include Christ" (137). This is rather "Paul's ironic characterization of the other teaching" (138) and no more means with certainty that the others are not saved believers than Peter was really being called Satan. Though it is possible (as argued by Nanos, Irony of Galatians) that these persons are not believers in fact, this polemic by itself does not tell us that.
Our second example is 1 Tim. 1:3-4, 6-7. Here Paul calls his opponents' views "myths" and this led interpreters in the past to speculate that Paul had in mind some Gnostic heresy. However, Sumney notes (257) that to call an opponent's teachings "myths" is no more than "a stock polemical characterization," so that the idea was "not to accurately describe the opponents' teaching, but to denigrate them and create an unfavorable impression about them before saying anything specific."
This is one of several examples of stock accusation Sumney cites; contextually a parallel today might be when someone prefaces comments on what you say by saying, "Bull---!" or "You're out of your mind!" There is of course no actual bovine excrement present, and the opponent in most cases is quite sane, clinically speaking.
Thus our reading of Paul and other letters and statements of the NT of polemical nature, need to be read with the nuanced eye of social and rhetorical context. It is a mistake to assume that such accusations were meant to directly address and describe what an opponent was about.
Recently, on Tekton's YouTube Channel, a rather amiable atheist of Jewish descent remarked that while he often enjoyed my videos, he would no longer be watching because he felt there was too much harsh language used. I replied by noting the use of harsh language in the Bible; to which he replied that in Judaism, there was a law against such things, that he called lashon hara. He then expressed regrets that in using harsh language, Jesus had apparently abandoned those principles.
I was rather suspicious of this argument, knowing what I do of both the use of harsh language in the Old Testament and as part of the honor-shame dialectic in the NT world. So I investigated the matter, and present the results here.
Not surprisingly, the amiable atheist was engaging in some rather wishful thinking. Lashon hara was for real, to be sure, but there is no evidence of the regulations associated with it existing prior to the Rabbinic Age -- some hundreds of years after Jesus. In addition, its regulations make it quite clear that it could not have existed in the Biblical Era -- or that, if it did, no one paid any attention to it, at least in terms of how the amiable atheist was trying to apply it. Finally, I found that lashon hara was hedged about with certain exceptions and caveats that made it much less prohibitive of harsh language than my amiable atheist indicated.
Broadly speaking, lashon hara referred to slander, abuse and tale-bearing, but in specific terms, it is used to forbid saying, essentially, any bad thing about any person whatsoever, except under very strict standards… even if what is said is true. That these regulations have sometimes gone overboard is shown in that they have been used even to silence those who are victims of abuse, as this comment by Rabbi Mark Dratch indicates:
The prohibition of Lashon Hara (slander, gossip, tale-bearing) is often used as a tool to silence abuse victims and their advocates from speaking out against abusers. “You are not allowed to say negative things,” they are told. “There’s no proof!” “There are no witnesses.” “You can’t make this public.” “Keep the secret! Remain silent!” And so women, girls, boys, and men are silenced and are often unable to get the help that they need or appeal for the support that they deserve. By invoking lashon hara improperly, the community to which they turn not only revictimizes them, but enables their abusers to continue abusing them and, potentially, others as well.
Dratch offers a more nuanced view of lashon hara, but even what he offers is simply not justifiable, if we wish to observe only Biblical authority. The one Biblical basis offered is Lev. 19:16: “You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people; nor you shall stand by the blood of your friend; I am the Lord”. This is quite narrow in scope and prescribes only against slander, not all harsh language. Dratch notes, however, that the definitive work on the subject was written by a sage who lived from 1838 to 1933! This alone makes it clear that lashon hara, in its fully developed stage, could not be Biblically justified.
Indeed, Dratch's description makes this quite clear:
The prohibition against lashon hara does not only pertain when one’s intentions are negative, i.e., the discrediting of another’s reputation—to shame him or degrade him; they apply even when one one’s intentions are neutral or one’s statements are merely in jest.
If this is so, then it is painfully evident that lashon hara did not exist in the NT era -- for clearly, both Jesus and the Pharisees engaged in honor contests designed to shame and degrade the other, in order to discredit public reputation.
Dratch then uses an interesting exception; namely, when negative information is used for a positive purpose. He notes an example of another rabbinic commentator, appealing also to Lev. 19:16:
...if he hears that others are conspiring to harm him and have set a trap, and he does not reveal this information to him, he violates that which is said in the Torah, “You shall not stand on the blood of your neighbor.”
Other commentators appealed to by Dratch include preventing financial and personal harm as valid reasons to engage in derogatory speech. Thus, for example:
In applying this ruling, R. Ovadia Yosef, Teshuvot Yehaveh Da’at, IV, no. 7, obligates a physician to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles a patient afflicted with epilepsy in order to have that patient’s license suspended. He rules that this obligation to prevent harm not only overrides the prohibition of speaking negatively about another, but even supersedes the doctor-patient privilege of confidentiality.
Yet another analysis includes exceptions such as protecting others from harm; preventing others from learning inappropriate behavior; shaming the subject into repenting; and clearing one’s own reputation. Certainly, one can argue that when Jesus attacked the Pharisees, it was for an ultimately positive purpose -- stopping them from deceiving others. The same could be said of Elijah confronting Baal's prophets.
But, to be fair, the designated exceptions are hedged about with caveats. For example, there must be no personal bitterness when one uses harsh language, and one should verify facts before speaking. It is clear, however, that the lashon hara regulations are far from being a universal prohibition of harsh language, as my amiable atheist claimed. It is also clear from certain caveats that lashon hara was unknown or ignored in the Biblical world. One caveat reads:
One should first rebuke the transgressor, if possible, in a calm and appropriate manner in order to motivate him to change his ways. Only if one is unsuccessful, may he publicize the misbehavior.
We obviously do not see either Jesus or the Pharisees "calmly" rebuking one another to "motivate" change in each other, nor do we have any hint that Elijah "calmly" pulled aside the priests of Baal to "motivate" them to recognize Yahweh as the true God.
In the final analysis, it appears that lashon hara either 1a) did not exist in the time of Jesus or the Old Testament, or 1b) did not exist in the later forms appealed to by my Jewish viewer; or 1c) existed, but was ignored by even the most pious representatives of Judaism. Given the lateness of sources about lashon hara, and the agonistic nature of the Biblical world, 1a) seems to be the likeliest option.
However, an interesting point is raised by Dratch regarding the limits of Lev. 19:16, which says that slander shall not be repeated among "your people." Of this, Dratch writes:
Those who engage in antisocial or heretical behavior have written themselves out of the community and have no claim on its protection and should not expect its privileges as expressed in numerous interpersonal obligations. Thus, a heretic or morally corrupt human being who has removed himself from the spiritual or social community has no claim on communal charity or aid and is not protected against such violations as lashon hara. In fact, it is a mitzvah (obligation) to speak out against such a person.
If lashon hara was in full force in the Biblical era, then there can be little doubt that the Pharisees and Jesus saw each other as "out of the community," or as heretics or as morally corrupt. By the same token, this would clearly mean that my Jewish contact was in error in his application -- for by any reckoning, YouTube (and many Internet forums) are filled with such people. Further on, Dratch specifically counts persons who perform physical, emotional or spiritual abuse as exempted from the protections of lashon hara, stating:
"No social obligation or protection applies to anyone who does not abide by accepted and appropriate societal norms."
Our conclusion: Our amiable atheist friend was misapplying the regulations of lashon hara.