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What hermeneutical principles help in understanding whether a particular passage is to be understood as sarcastic?


For instance,

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!—1st Corinthians 4:8 (ESV)

and

I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you.—2nd Corinthians 11:8 (ESV)

Paul probably didn't mean for these to be taken literally, but how can we separate statements like these from other extreme statements that Paul might be writing in earnest?

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@JonEricson: Just that I've heard a lot of discussion of sarcasm in those two books and haven't really in others. –  jrdioko Nov 1 '11 at 20:48
    
@JonEricson: I was thinking in particular of verses like 1 Cor. 4:8 and 2 Cor. 11:8. –  jrdioko Nov 1 '11 at 21:28
    
@JonEricson: Yeah, I wasn't really thinking of it being affirmed or denied altogether, but what principles can be used to help determine whether something should be interpreted as sarcasm. –  jrdioko Nov 2 '11 at 5:26
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@JonEricson: Looks good to me. –  jrdioko May 9 '12 at 16:36
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@JonEricson I think the second verse you cite would be classified as simply hyperbole - deliberate overstatement for effect. Sarcasm and hyperbole are connected but since the statement is about what he has done for others it seems his intent is to incite their sympathy and not to drive a wedge between them as sarcasm does. –  Matthew Miller May 21 '13 at 17:45
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2 Answers

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Close reading in context will uncover it at least some of the time. Instead of reading at face value you have to ask yourself questions like:

  • Would that person, in that time and place, say that sincerely?
  • What actions did the speaker or listeners take in response? For instance, did anybody follow a command?
  • What do we know about the historical norms of the setting?

Sometimes the evidence is internal; sometimes it may require knowledge of the historical environment in which events were taking place. Sometimes it's not clear; I've seen analyses that Jonah is a sarcastic parable and ones that hold it to be completely serious.

Occasionally the text tells us directly. Elijah on Mount Carmel is an interesting case study here; even if the text didn't tell us that he mocked the priests of Ba'al, he suggests that their god might be asleep or otherwise distracted and they act on that suggestion, but the suggestion seems outlandish to the reader: surely a god worth worshipping doesn't just sleep through his worshippers' petitions. That Elijah suggests it is mockery; that Ba'al's followers believe it seems to represent the biblical author taking them to task.

There is an extended conversation here, starting with the comment by Reverend Keith, that analyzes several more examples.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Sarcasm is a biting or ironic statement of criticism. The main principle for identifying it is that what is said, if understood literally, would be contradictory to what the speaker believes to be true, and is used to bring sharp attention to the criticism.

Paul uses sarcasm when teaching about the place of women in the church.

1Cor 14:34 ¶ Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. 36 ¶ What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?

Paul spent 12 chapters explaining about the church being the body of Christ and how everyone had gifts. He makes the case repeatedly that those gifts should be exercised. Then, if we do not read the passage above as sarcasm, we make Paul to be hypocrite.

Paul teaches that there is no male or female in Christ:

Ga 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul baits them with their own practice of keeping women silent, and sarcastically agrees with them. Then he exposes his trap.

"came the word of God out from you WHAT? came it unto you only?"

He says, "Go back and hear what I just taught you!".

37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

But he says that we should not argue with the ignorant about it:

1Co 14:38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

So I guess I won't argue with you about it... ;-)

He is saying that the the greatest gift is love. If someone is ignorant and doesn't want a woman who understands the things of God to teach, then they won't learn from her anyway. Her love will not impose upon him.

We must also deal with another apparent contradiction:

1Ti 2:12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

If Paul is a champion of women in the church[1], why would he say such a thing to Timothy? The female represents those who do not see clearly, or the blind.[2]

Paul is teaching Timothy that those who do not understand should not be allowed to teach those who do. He couches the teaching in the words of riddle[3] that they are all familiar with, because the gospel was not intended to be a social gospel. It's purpose was not to change the status of women in the culture, though it did that, but to save souls.

Elevating the social aspect of the gospel to a primary position would have brought unnecessary persecution for social reasons rather than for the cross.

[1]

1Co 12:3 Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.

If woman can say "Jesus is Lord" it is by the Holy Spirit.

1Co 12:7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man (εκαστος - every one) to profit withal.

The Spirit is given to everyone to profit the church. A bit difficult to do if women can't exercise their gifts.

1Co 14:1 ¶ Follow after charity, and desire spiritual [gifts], but rather that ye may prophesy.

Is it reasonable that he is only admonishing the men to seek to prophesy? Or that he would tell the women to seek it but to keep quiet? Of course not.

1Co 14:24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or [one] unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:

He recommends that all should prophesy rather than speak in tongues. Is this men only? What is the basis for excluding women?

1Co 14:26 ¶ How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

"Each one" is to participate. If women are not to participate, then don't let them assemble with you.

Ga 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

In Christ race, status, and gender do not count. The same verses that give equality to women in the church were used to set slaves free. Therefore any statement that Paul makes which appears to contradict these clear teachings about all participating in the church must be interpreted as sarcasm, such as mentioned above, or as riddle, as mentioned below.

[2]

1Ti 2:14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. 1Ti 2:15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.

This is clearly a riddle since Paul bounces between the singular woman and the plural women.

The female becomes a metaphor for those who do not see clearly.

Consider the female donkey which leads the colt, as the old prophets who did not see Christ clearly vs. John the baptist who knew Jesus. Consider the prophecy that men would become pregnant. (Those who understand will be fruitful and multiply). Consider the early saying that women must become men and men must become virgins (the blind will see, and those who see will become the bride of Christ).

Since people are responsible for their own sins, Paul cannot be punishing the women for Eve's transgression:

Eze 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

[3]

1Co 2:5 That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. 1Co 2:6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: 1Co 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:

Paul specifically says he is speaking the wisdom of God in a mystery. He is directly referring to the sensus plenior of scripture.

We know this because God defines what his wisdom is. It is riddles:

Pr 1:5 A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels: 6 To understand a proverb, and the interpretation; the words of the wise, and their dark sayings [riddles].

Pr 25:2 ¶ [It is] the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings [is] to search out a matter.

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Hmm, I'm afraid I'm not following this reasoning. What passages speak of Paul being a "champion of women in the church" that contradict 1 Tim 2:12? What indicates that "woman" shouldn't mean "woman" but "those who do not see clearly"? –  jrdioko Nov 13 '11 at 5:32
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I think that if Paul had said these things in the order that you presented them, it might make your case much stronger. However, Jumping from 1 Cor. to Gal. back to 1 Cor. to 1 Timothy... it seems that this narration isn't quite in order. Do you have any external sources that support this understanding? –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 22:31
    
Also, is it safe to presume that Item 2 there is a sensus plenior interpretation of that passage? –  Richard Nov 16 '11 at 22:31
    
Item 2 is clearly a riddle. All the women of the Bible become one woman in drash and represent the church. The church will be saved as long as they (the members thereof) are 'fruitful and multiplying'. –  Bob Jones Nov 16 '11 at 23:24
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The definition in the first paragraph is good, but it means misunderstanding on side of the reader can be easily confused with sarcasm on the side of the author. This post seems is a good example. I myself don't like the idea of apostle Paul being a male chauvinist and would argue against such a position, but claim that some pericope is inconsistent with author's beliefs and thus is sacrastic is simply too strong. If there are controversies on what the author really believed, calling something "sarcasm" is probably just a dirty trick to cancel a pericope supporting my opponents. –  Pavel May 1 '13 at 8:17
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