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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What is gossip?

This is a question that has been on my mind for some time.  It seems that there are many different ideas floating around about what gossip is.  Over the years I’ve heard some say that gossip is sharing derogatory information about someone with a third party.  Others have defined it more narrowly as sharing untrue derogation information about someone.    Some have said gossip is talking about someone’s sin to someone other than the person who committed it.  Others say it is simply the repeating of rumors.   
Who is right?  What is gossip?  I decided to do a study on the subject and see what the Bible has to say.  In this first post in a series on gossip, I’d like to share with you a little about some key words from the original languages.  In future posts, we dig a little deeper into related issues.
When we do a word study in the Bible, the more uses of the word we can find the better.  This allows us to take a greater sample and it gives us a better picture of how the word is used and what it means.  With “gossip”, we really don’t have a whole lot to go on.  The English Standard Version uses “gossip” and its various forms only four times – once in the OT and three times in the NT.  However, the underlying Hebrew and Greek words are used more than that, which does give us a little more to go on.
The main Hebrew word in the OT translated “gossip” by most translations is ribah.  It is defined by various lexicons as whispering, defamation, evil report, and rumor.  The following are some places where the word is used:
Psalm 31:13 For I hear the whispering of many-- terror on every side!-- as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
Jeremiah 20:10 For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! "Denounce him! Let us denounce him!" say all my close friends, watching for my fall. "Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him."
Everyone knows what whispering is, but these contexts imply whispering against someone, scheming with others about someone.  There is the intent to hurt the person.  But the word is used in other places, too:
Proverbs 10:18 The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.
Several lexicons consider slander/defamation and gossip to be close synonyms.  Defamation is the making of a statement (true or false) about someone, with the intent to cause damage to their reputation.  Slander is similar, but the information is expressly false.
Proverbs 25:9-10 Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another's secret, lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.  (More literally, “your evil report.”)
Again, this usage seems to involve a damaged reputation, or “ill repute.”
Ezekiel 36:3  Therefore prophesy, and say, Thus says the Lord GOD: Precisely because they made you desolate and crushed you from all sides, so that you became the possession of the rest of the nations, and you became the talk and evil gossip of the people. (Several other translations use “evil report,” “slander,” or “whispering.”)
These passages all carry the idea of a bad or evil report that is harmful to the person’s reputation.  When we combine this idea with the element of whispering we arrive at what one lexicon describes as “secret slander.”
But what do we find in the NT?  There is one main word used in the NT, a verb, psithurismos. (Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?)  Let me share the definitions of this word from two good lexicons:
1)    Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (Louw-Nida) - providing harmful information about a person, often spoken in whispers or in low voice, with the implication that such information is not widely known and therefore should presumably be kept secret
2)    Greek-English Lexicon of the NT (Bauer-Danker) – sharing derogatory information about someone that is offered in a tone of confidentiality
These are much fuller definitions than we find in the Hebrew lexicons, but the question is, are they accurate?  Unfortunately, the contexts in which the word is used in the NT do not provide much help.  The verb form of this word is used only once in the NT, in 2 Cor 12:20, For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish--that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder.  Here it appears in a list of vices, but without enough context to get a feel for what the word means. 
The noun form is also found in only one place, again without much context that is helpful: Rom 1:29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips 
While the NT texts are not super helpful in helping us to get a feel for the Greek word psithurismos, the definitions given by the Greek lexicons do fit nicely with what we’ve seen from the corresponding OT word ribah.  There is an element of secrecy and an element of a bad report or the sharing of derogatory, harmful information.  Implicit is the possibility that the information will cause damage to the person’s reputation.  A very succinct definition could be secret defamation or slander.
Beginning next time, we’ll look at some of the relevant passages to try to determine what the Bible teaches more broadly about this and other sins of the tongue.  Until then, consider your speech over the last 48 hours.  Have you secretly shared harmful information about someone to someone else?  There will be much time for introspection over the coming weeks.  May the Lord help us to guard our mouths and hearts for the good of the body and for the glory of God.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

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