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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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  • On Christianity, there is an answer that includes one example in 2 Corinthians 12:13. – Jon Ericson Mar 9 '12 at 1:08
  • 1 Cor 4:10 and 1 Cor 9:6 are good examples as well. – Eric May 8 '12 at 14:50
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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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We can detect sarcasm in the Bible the same as we can with vernacular language. As the Bible is but the word of God, from the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is yet written by mere humans, lowly servants of God.

In this Book written by man and inspired by God, sarcasm appears seldomly; it is primarily a tool of teaching in the Bible to emphasize a point.

In the first verse you give us, Paul is speaking to the Corinthians, saying:

1 Corinthians 4:8: You are already satisfied; you have already grown rich; you have become kings without us! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you. — NABRE

Paul tells them they have "become kings without [them]". Those who truly love Jesus Christ will be virtuous, for "you will know them by their fruits" ~ (Matt. 7:15-20). If they are virtuous, then they have humility. For a christian to make himself a king by his own means, he damns himself in his pride (cf. Judith 9:9), and he will utterly fail (cf. Matthew 23:12); Paul says, "Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we also might become kings with you."

In order to understand anything, we must first go to the beginning—of 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 1: 4 I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, 6 as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. — NABRE

Here, Paul emphasizes that Corinth is a God-fearing people that is greatly blessed by God.

1 Corinthians 1:10 : I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

Here, Paul emphasizes that Corinth is divided, that there is no agreement among them (like the Protestants of today), but in particular, that they are saying "I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas/Christ" (1 Cor. 1:12)

Therefore, according to these observances, Paul's audience is a blessed nation that is divided amongst themselves. He writes in this first letter as an "apology against division" to the Corinthians.

Now that we know the audience of 1 Corinthians, in light of this context we can say that what Paul meant by 1 Corinthians 4:8, can mean to say,

"[You have been satisfied by the blessings God bestowed upon you; you have become kings in your wealth, even in our absence! Indeed, I wish that the Lord would bless you abundantly, so that we also might share in your blessings.]"

These words seem to mimic his indirect praise of the Corinthians by praising God in 1 Corinthians 1:4-9. Thus, no sarcasm is employed in this verse. If Paul were being sarcastic here, he would be insulting the Corinthians instead of praising them. As Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 4:10-13, the Christians of that time suffer greatly, so for the Christians, it would be quite a comfort to have been in Corinth and share in their blessings.


In the second verse you give, also by Paul to the Corinthians, says:

2 Corinthians 11:8 : I plundered other churches by accepting from them in order to minister to you.

One purpose of this letter is found here:

2 Corinthians 11:3 : But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts may be corrupted from a sincere [and pure] commitment to Christ.

This part of the letter, at least, is written to this end. If that is so, then Paul is worried that perhaps pride may have corrupted their minds. In verse 7, he therefore asks,

Did I make a mistake when I humbled myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you without charge?

This seems to support the idea that, in their exaltation, they may have received a spirit of pride. He asked the question as if to say, "Why did I even bother to help you?"

The word is "plundered", used here. It is not sarcasm; it is more properly, a hyperbole.


Now, allow me to show you one rare case where sarcasm actually is used!

Job 38:5

Who determined its size? Surely you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it?

Here, in His Awesomeness, The Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and all that is seen and unseen, tells Job, creator of nothing, creature of dust, just how small he is. With such awesome humility that is unfathomable and unmatched, The Father tells Job about His creation, pure beauty which cannot be fathomed except in the eyes of God!

IT IS WRITTEN(!):

Matthew 23:12 : Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Job, in his ignorance, was humbled by The Almighty. God, Master of language, masterfully uses the rhetoric of sarcasm as a tool of humility:

Who determined its size? Surely you know?

"Surely you know" is a rhetoric of sarcasm that mocks what little knowledge Job has to the infinite wisdom of the Inventor of Wisdom. This whole chapter of 38 up to 42 lie the Poem of God, which served its purpose to humble the ignorant and prideful, and still serves its perpetual purpose of pronouncing and praising its Progenitor.

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I'm not sure the Bible utilizes our standard concept of sarcasm. However, I think the closest would be "irony" such as that found in Job 12:12.

And Job answered and said, 2 No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. 3 But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these? (Job 12:1-3 KJV)

Maybe I Kings 18:27 where Elijah taunts the prophets of Baal could walk the fine line of sarcasm, though more of a mockery. I guess there are "minor touches of sarcasm" to be found.

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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
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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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    I think as with interpreting any other peice of scripture you would need to show that a sarcastic reading represents the best possible interpretation. So the first paragraph definition is a good starting point. But you would also need ask, "is this reading consistent with the rest of scripture?", "are there other suspected precedents for sarcasm in the authors work?". – L0ckz0r Sep 17 '16 at 11:27

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