Paul's Thoughts on Dirty Jokes

Author Andrew B. Perrin

In Eph 5:4, Paul warns readers, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking.” Two of these words are what scholars call a hapax legomenon—a word that appears only one time in a body of literature. In this post, we’re going to focus on one of these words as a means of illustrating how to study a word that only occurs once.

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Preliminary Definition

Using The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament look directly below the English translation “crude joking” in Eph 5:4. Here we find the topic of our investigation, the Greek word eutrapelia (εὐτραπελία).

We can also establish a preliminary definition using the reverse interlinear. Take note of the number 2160 next to eutrapelia and look it up in the numerically keyed Greek Dictionary-Index appended to The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. This resource also reveals how many times a given word occurs in the New Testament, since it lists the occurrences.

Another strategy is to right-click eutrapelia in your Bible software and look-up the word in Strong’s dictionary which suggests that eutrapelia means “coarse joking” or “vulgar jesting.” You may be wondering how that translation or definition was determined since our word appears only once. We’ll touch on that in a moment. For now, what we find in Strong’s is an acceptable starting point.

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through Greek Literature

Since our word only appears once, it may not be included in all types of lexicons. For example, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged in One Volume), there is no article for eutrapeliaA Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) contains an entry for our word, so that will be our source for tracking its usage in other Greek literature. (In Logos, we can double-click on eutrapelia in our reverse interlinear and the entry in our preferred lexicon opens.)

BDAG notes that several ancient authors used eutrapelia positively, for “wittiness.” Josephus (a first-century AD Jewish historian) used eutrapelia to describe the ice-breaking impudent humor of an emissary from the Jerusalem temple who won over the Roman King Ptolemy (Jewish Antiquities 12.173). BDAG also notes that, for Aristotle, the word described a kind of humor between “buffoonery” and “boorishness.” This is contrary to the “crude joking” of the ESV and our beginning definition from Strong’s, so it is apparent that the meaning of the word underwent a shift from the earlier period to the time of the New Testament. This doesn’t really help us determine the word’s meaning in Eph 5:4, but instead alerts us to another problem with word studies: word meanings change over time. We need to be wary, therefore, of assigning certainty to any meaning from a time period removed from the New Testament.

Step 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the Old Testament & Context

This step may seem odd since we are dealing with a single occurrence of a word. Despite having only Eph 5:4, we can still examine the immediate context of the occurrence. The prohibition against foolish or silly talk (mōrologia, μωρολογία) immediately before eutrapelia in Eph 5:4 is consistent with pre-New Testament meanings for eutrapelia. Since it also is a hapax legomenon, it isn’t much help on its own for justifying the “crude joking” idea we find in English translations. In Eph 5:3–5, Paul appears concerned with proper sexual conduct, condemning sexual immorality (porneia, πορνεία) and impurity (akatharsia, ἀλαθαρσία) twice (Eph 5:3, 5). It is this immediate context that has led translators and interpreters to gravitate toward the notion of crude (sexual) talk for the meaning of eutrapelia in Eph 5:4. This choice is not entirely foreign outside the New Testament. Returning to BDAG, we note that the lexicon includes one citation from Isocrates (fourth century BC) that the editors deem has the meaning of “coarse jesting, risqué wit.” BDAG considers this a similar meaning in context to Eph 5:4.

Conclusion

As with other words that occur only once, we don’t have much to go on to determine meaning with certainty. We therefore have to exercise caution in our conclusions. Lexicons are limited in space, and so eutrapelia may occur many other times in Greek material with a broader range of meanings than indicated in BDAG. Likewise the immediate context of Eph 5:3–5 includes more elements than sexual immorality and impurity.

Paul also mentions covetousness, ingratitude, and idolatry in these verses. This compels us to admit that Paul’s understanding of eutrapelia may have been conditioned by those other terms. We can conclude that the immediate context and at least one reference outside the New Testament supports the association of eutrapelia with sexuality and impurity. We cannot conclude that this is the only reasonable possibility.

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Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. OriginallyD published in print, Vol. 1 No. 4.