Saturday, December 19, 2009

Did Jesus say, "Son of a bitch"?

No, Jesus didn't say that. But he did say something similar if not more unexpected than we thought.

In Matthew 3.7, 12.34, 23.33, and Luke 3.7, Jesus was calling his enemies "brood of vipers". Loren Rosson III pointed out its literal translation as "snake bastards".

The social-linguistic milieu of that time referred vipers as despicable creatures, perhaps equivalent to 'dogs' and 'pigs' in some part of our world. But the despicable-ness of 'viper' actually goes beyond our modern usage of vulgarity like 'bitch.' Craig Keener has argued that 'viper' at that time carries reference to murdering one's own mother, the "worst conceivable crimes" in the ancient world. They thought that "vipers killed their mother during their birth."*

So it seems hard to find a contemporary equivalent term for 'brood of vipers' to bring out its semantic significance since our context does not have the language that expresses the social disgust of such crime. Yet I think there is one phrase in our contemporary language which carries the equivalent weight of moral wrongness with mother-murder and bring out equivalent social disgust. (Hold your breath) The phrase is 'mother-fucker'.

Imagine Jesus said this: (Referring to the Pharisees) Mother-fuckers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

Do you feel the forcefulness of Jesus' perception of the Pharisees now? Do you get a better picture how much Jesus disliked the Pharisees? If yes, then the language is indeed effective.

Now a practical/pastoral theological question: Can we use 'mother-fuckers' on pulpit? Perhaps some of us have problems with that, but it doesn't seem Jesus has anything against that.

Besides, here is also a question on 'contextual theologies' worth thinking. How far do we want to contextual our theologies and hence also our languages?

*Craig S. Keener, ‘Brood of Vipers’ (Matthew 3.7; 12.34; 23.33), Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 28, No. 1, 3-11 (2005).


Loren Rosson III said...

I think you're right: the ancient "snake bastard" seems to have been about as offensive "mother fucker" is for us today.

reasonable said...

Indeed many people find a mother and son having sex together as disgusting, and hence the use "mother-fucker" does the job successfully to illustrate to readers the emotive effect.

On the concept of mother and son having sex: From a non-religious point of view, rationally there is no intrinsic moral-wrongness of a mother and son having sex together as long as the son is an adult, there is mutual consent, and no retarded child is produced from that sexual activity (e.g. use a condom to prevent pregnancy).