Paul Gossips in Galatians! Epistolary Gossip about an “Incident at Antioch”

Recently, an anonymous peer-reviewed editor of another project I’ve been working on, commented rather passionately (i.e. negatively!) about my suggestion that the “incident at Antioch ” (Gal 2:11-14) is an example of what I’ll call “epistolary gossip.”  What was curious about this is the editor’s thinking was based on the definition of gossip in the Oxford English Dictionary(!).

From a sociological perspective, the basic elements necessary for speech to be considered gossip are “face-to-face” evaluative communication between/among persons about an absent third party.  The project I’m presently focusing on will suggest that Paul’s recollection of his tussle with Peter in Antioch – in a written correspondence between himself and the Galatian believers, that was likely “performed” (read!) out loud to the congregations – easily constitutes gossip as it embodies all of the necessary ingredients of such speech.185738731

This project will see Paul’s recollection of the “incident” as an attempt at self-interested “information management/control” (a la Robert Paine’s classic article “What is Gossip About?” Man, New Series, 2(2), June 1967, 278-85) embodying a peculiar invitation to the Galatians to engage – at a distance! – with Paul in constructing an absent Peter’s identity as a “coward” and a “hypocrite.”  Following Holly Hearon’s lead in a recent article (“A Social Semiotic Multi-Modal Approach to Communication Practices in Early Christianity”Journal of Early Christian History 4.1, 2014), I will utilize a multi-modal approach to oral (performance) and scribal (epistolary) communication to unpack the recollection of the incident by Paul in the letter, not only to suggest a plausible reason(ing) behind Paul’s gossip at that point in the letter, but to unpack the social risk(s) Paul takes by engaging in such evaluative speech.

People know when it’s a good time to gossip, and sometimes, people “gossip” in writing, too.

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Gossip at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature

I’m happy to know that other scholars – Erin Vearncombe and Philip Esler, in this case – are beginning to consider the importance of gossip in the bible, and are “talking” about it at the upcoming meeting in Atlanta.  I wish I could be there to listen.

First, Erin Vearncombe’s presentation:
Rhetoric and the New Testament; Speech and Talk in the Ancient Mediterranean World
Joint Session With: Rhetoric and the New Testament, Speech and Talk in the Ancient Mediterranean World
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: 306 (Level 3) – Hilton
Language, Leakiness, and Loose Lips in the Gospel of Mark
The gospel of Mark is generally understood to be a gospel of secrets, a narrative of concealment and revelation, obfuscation and elucidation: demons and disciples are silenced, people healed of various diseases are ordered to isolate themselves from others, teachings are deliberately framed so that no one will understand them. Secrets occur at different points throughout the gospel in different kinds of material in an inconsistent manner. This inconsistency has been the stumbling block for the majority of interpreters of the so-called “secrecy motif.” After over a century of William Wrede-inspired dialogue on the literary motif of secrecy in the gospel of Mark, scholarship has begun to turn away from secrecy and silence, contending instead that other social factors such as honor and shame or mockery and gossip drive the gospel narrative, factors that make better sense of a seemingly inconsistent drive to secrecy. This paper seeks to reverse the secrecy motif by arguing that the drive in the narrative is not towards concealment, but towards revelation; the gospel is characterized by a fundamental leakiness. While “leak” implies something accidental or unplanned, when applied to information, seepage is a deliberate, though inconsistent, act, active as opposed to passive, and not something easily stopped – we need look only so far as WikiLeaks to see this property of information made abundantly clear. In the ancient Mediterranean context, I will argue, this leakiness of information corresponds directly to the leakiness of the human body, a body existing right on the border of public and private space. In Terence’s play Eunuchus (second century BCE), Parmeno states that he has loose lips; asked if he can keep a secret, he responds, “I am full of holes, and leak in every direction” (plenus rimarum sum; hac atque illac perfluo, I.ii.25). Bodies cannot keep secrets. Speech, visibility and the public/private space of the body, specifically the boundaries of the body, participate together in a phenomenon of leaks. Leaking is a fundamental structure of communication that has rich implications for our understanding of not simply the dissemination of information in Mark, but more significantly for the politics of the gospel. In a context where excessive privacy was interpreted as a social threat, what happens when speech is negotiated between public and private space and communicative boundaries are manipulated and controlled? Speech in Mark’s narrative, specifically speech in relation to bodies, presents a paradox of public space that challenges normative means of contesting power.

Then, a little later the same day, Philip Esler’s paper:
Social Sciences and the Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures Scriptures
4:00 PM to 6:45 PM
Room: 214 (Level 2) – Hilton
“All That You Have Done…Has Been Fully Told Me”: The Power of Gossip and the Story of Ruth
Exegetical studies using social-scientific perspectives on gossip undertaken by Richard Rohrbaugh, John Daniels and Marianne Kartzow have proven extremely illuminating in relation to New Testament texts. In this paper, I will pursue a similar approach on a text from the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Ruth. When Boaz first meets Ruth he says to her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law … has been fully told me” (2:11), and what he has learned has clearly been in Ruth’s favour. Boaz can only have gained such information through what we call gossip. In this paper I will first review the current state of social-scientific research into the nature of this phenomenon. I will then apply this to the several passages in the text of Ruth that depend upon its occurrence. This exercise will reveal the truth of anthropologist Robert Paine’s dictum that “gossip is a catalyst of social process” by uncovering the remarkable extent to which the plot of the book is propelled, and character developed, by gossip.


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