Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Is There Sarcasm in the Bible?

Matthew Pawlak

I get this question a lot—usually just after I tell people that I’ve written a book on sarcasm in the Bible. So, to answer this question for all time: yes, there is sarcasm in the Bible. If there wasn’t, Sarcasm in Paul’s Letters would be a very short, very weird book. I’ve counted over 75 examples of sarcasm in the Bible so far.

To be a bit more specific, my research focuses on the first century Christian figure variously known as Paul of Tarsus, Paul the apostle, or Saint Paul, whose letters to different early Christian communities make up a large portion of what is now the New Testament. Thirteen letters in the New Testament claim to have been written by Paul, and I focus on the seven that basically all scholars agree Paul actually wrote, which Bible scholars like to call the “undisputed” letters.

Fun fact: the vast majority of Paul’s sarcasm occurs in the undisputed letters, with very little occurring in the disputed letters. This might be significant, but it might also be a coincidence. I mostly just want to get Bible scholars arguing about it; it may be my best chance of going viral.

Spending four years as a PhD student researching sarcasm in Paul was a pretty good life. While many of my other PhD student friends were putting in long hours in the lab, trying to decipher old handwriting in archives, or cleaning pottery on archeological digs, my search for ancient sarcasm saw me spending my time reading some of the funniest, most satirical ancient Greek writers. But there’s no Ctrl + F search for sarcasm, so sometimes it was hit and miss. I spent weeks reading some authors, who turned out to just not be very sarcastic. Other ancient writers, like Lucian of Samosata and Aristophanes, were very sarcastic and sometimes still legitimately funny a few thousand years later.

Another challenge is that the way sarcasm is communicated can change depending on language and culture. So it was only after about a year of finding and cataloguing a few hundred examples of ancient sarcasm that I was able to start identifying some of the signals that ancient Greek speakers used to show that they were being sarcastic. This became the foundation for identifying sarcasm in Paul, and figuring out what effects Paul’s sarcasm would likely have had on his audience.

But what is sarcasm, anyway? How is it different from irony? And how much of that one Alanis Morrissette song is actually ironic? All these questions deserve detailed answers, but I only have space here for three sentences:

Sarcasm, which the ancient Greeks called sarkasmos, is one form of verbal irony, which is itself just one kind of irony. Sarcasm happens when someone says something that would normally express a positive sentiment, but is actually meant negatively.

Morrissette’s Ironic is more ironic than you might think.

There is so much more that could be said on all these subjects, since—as I talk about in Sarcasm in Paul’s Letters—how we define sarcasm impacts our understanding of how writers like Paul communicated. I would be just as happy to get more into the fascinating history of irony and sarcasm as I would be to do a pedantic analysis of Ironic. If any of that sounds interesting to you, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments; it may just lead to another blog post.

Sarcasm in Paul’s Letters by Matthew Pawlak

About The Author

Matthew Pawlak

Matthew Pawlak is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tübingen. He completed his Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies in 2020 at the University of Cambridge. His res...

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