Biblical Burns
The Art of the Insult According to Scripture

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11th April 2017
“Too much study has made you crazy!”
- Festus
Acts 26:24 (NLT)

“But Paul replied, ‘I’m not out of my mind, most excellent Festus. On the contrary, I’m speaking words of truth and good judgment. … King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you believe.’

Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you going to persuade me to become a Christian so easily?’

‘I wish before God,’ replied Paul, ‘that whether easily or with difficulty, not only you but all who listen to me today might become as I am—except for these chains.’”

Acts 26:24–29 (HCSB)

26th February 2016

“Dog” is a term that crops up again and again in both the Old and New Testaments. Unfortunately for any cynophilists reading, dogs are not portrayed in a very favourable light. Literal dogs are largely seen as filthy scavengers, usually tasked with consuming the flesh of recently deceased unpleasant people[eg].

This canine derision, however, is on multiple occasions freely extended to humans—occasionally as a poetic expression of self-abasement[eg], but more often as a biting indignity[eg].

Because there are so many excellent usage examples, it would seem meet to briefly discuss a few of my favourites.

Previously on Biblical Burns, Proverbs 26:11!
1 Samuel 17:43

Goliath, hubris personified, is unimpressed when he sees that his challenger is just some shepherd kid. On sighting Dave, he shouts out “Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks?” After some cursing, the Philistine invites Dave to do his worst: “Come here, and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky…!”

Say what you like about Goliath—he was generous to the birdlife.

Matthew 15:26; Mark 7:27

Jesus’ ministry was nearly entirely amongst his own people. In fact, most Jews expected their Messiah to conquer other nations, not allow them in to His Kingdom. So when a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter, He answers in line with expectations: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman continues to beg him for help, but Jesus pushes back insultingly: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”

“Yes, Lord,” she says, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!”

Jesus happily loses the argument: “Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done.”

Psalm 22:16
“For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers…”

Written by King Dave hundreds of years before Jesus was crucified, the 22nd Psalm is incredibly striking. Not only does Jesus quote it while on the cross—“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)—but the content of the despairing psalm itself bears an uncanny resemblance to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion:

A Side Note

Interestingly, one notable person flies in the face of the negative view of dogs. In the Bible, where the meaning of names are usually strikingly significant, it is strange to see Caleb, the Israelite spy whose name literally means “dog”, recorded as a hero. In Numbers 13-14, Josh and Caleb are the only two out of twelve spies sent to scout out the Promised Land who aren’t scared witless by the current inhabitants. Showing great faith in spite of the detractors, Caleb ballsily proclaims “We must go up and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!”

17th November 2015
“Their god is their stomach!”
- Paul
Philippians 3:19

Like Sinatra*, Paul's letter to the Philippians is short and frank. It’s also the book in which Paul swears.

In this section, though, Paul is lamenting how many people are focussed far more on earthly things than the cross of Christ…

* 1.72m is below average male height.

29th August 2015
“Why is it you don’t understand?”
- Jesus
Matthew 16:9

In the stories about Jesus, the disciples are often portrayed as the “everyman”—the relatable characters—the guys who always need things explained to them. It’s quite common that the disciples make asses of themselves by just not getting it, despite all the things they have already seen.

Straight after Jesus has fed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and some fish (not to be confused with the time He fed 5,000 people with five loaves and some fish), He and His disciples get in a boat to escape the crowds. It’s at this point that Pharisees and Sadducees turn up and start to hassle Jesus. Jesus quickly shuts them down and sails away.

On the boat, the disciples realise they forgot to bring any bread to eat.

Right at that moment, Jesus, somewhat metaphorically, warns them “Watch out and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

This deeply concerns the disciples, and they start discussing the ramifications of their bread-forgetfulness. Jesus overhears.

“Don’t you understand yet?” He asks, bewildered. “Don’t you remember the five loaves for the 5,000 and how many baskets you collected? Or the seven loaves for the 4,000 and how many large baskets you collected?”

Jesus continues, “Why is it you don’t understand that when I told you, ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,’ it wasn’t about bread?”

The author has the final word: “Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the yeast in bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

22nd August 2015
“Go and learn what this means…”
- Jesus
Matthew 9:13 (HSCB)

Jesus really didn’t get on with the religious leaders of His time.

In Matthew 9, Jesus pushes some boundaries when He invites a tax collector called Matthew (yep, the author) to be in His inner circle—one of the twelve disciples.

Tax collectors were bad news. At a time when Israel was under Roman control, the tax collectors worked for the Romans: they were traitors. Not only that, but they were notorious for demanding more tax than legally required, and lining their own pockets with the excess: they were cheats.

To make matters worse, Jesus goes to this Matthew’s house for a meal, and sits around eating and talking with Matthew and all his tax collector friends.

When some of the religious leaders—the Pharisees—see this, they decide to confront Jesus’ disciples.

The Pharisees took a great deal of pride in their lifestyle, observing all the sacrifices and religious requirements as laid out in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament), which they knew back to front: their knowledge of scripture was unparallelled. In short, they were the epitome of holier-than-thou.

“Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” the Pharisees interrogate, with supercilious sneers.

But Jesus overhears the challenge, and intervenes.

“Those who are well don’t need a doctor,” Jesus explains axiomatically, “but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The quotation Jesus uses to attack the Pharisees’ pretension (in which God tells the Israelites what really matters to Him) is from the Book of Hosea—from the very scriptures the Pharisees pride themselves on understanding.

15th August 2015
“You blind fools!”
- Jesus
Matthew 23:17
“If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
- Jesus (Matthew 15:14)

This is another recurring reproof in Jesus’ Spectacular Diatribe against the "scribes and Pharisees".

Numerous times in his speech, Jesus refers to these religious leaders as "blind"—not physically blind, mind*.

In 23:23–4, Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of following the minutia of the Jewish religious law to a tee, but missing the big picture stuff—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. How could these people spiritually lead Israel?

“You blind guides!” Jesus illustrates. Then, switching to a soup metaphor, He adds “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

* Jesus met a few of these people, too. The encounters tended to end with them not being blind, though [e.g.].

8th August 2015
“They’re full of new wine!”
- The Mockers
Acts 2:13 (HCSB)

The day of Pentecost was not your average day.

About a month after Jesus had died and come back to life, He ascended into heaven, promising to immersea the budding Christian movement in the Holy Spirit, so that, until He returns, they can be His “witnesses, telling people about [Him] everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

And a week-or-so later, He does.

The Holy Spirit is a very big and confusing topic, but when He comes (on the Jewish holiday known as Pentecost), the first demonstration of His power is that suddenly the disciples have the ability to speak languages they’ve never learnedbc.

When the crowd, containing people from “every nation under heaven”d, hears these Galilean Jews speaking about Jesus in their native languages, they are “astounded and perplexed”. Understandable.

But there are always detractors. Some in the crowd mock those who claim to be hearing these Christians talking in their native tongues.

“They’re full of new wine!” they claim.

At this point, Pete gets up and decides to give a rousing speech.

“Pay attention to my words,” he begins. “These people are not drunk, as you suppose.”

They seem to be listening.

“After all,” he adds with a smirk, “it’s only nine in the morning.”

Pete then takes the crowd on a oratorical tour of the Old Testament, and explains how Jesus fulfils it all. The sermon goes down well, and three thousand peoplee decide to become Christians—wait, what! Three thousand people!

a. Often translated as “baptise”, which kinda just means “dunk”.
b. In the larger story of the Bible, this symbolically reverses the damage done at Babel. It’s also handy, when you’ve just been told to tell people about Jesus “everywhere…to the ends of the earth”.
c. Also, dang I’d love to have this ability.
d. This is probably a good example of a hyperbolic statement, but nevertheless, they do list a large number of nationalities: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontics, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs.
e. What a logistical nightmare this would be for the stodgy, institutionalised churches of today!

25th July 2015
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
- Nate
John 1:46

Wherever you go, there’s always that place. The butt of the jokes. The place that, fairly or unfairly, is consistently reviled.

In Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel, Jesus is putting together His team. About a dozen should do.

On His way back to Galilee, He comes across this bloke named Phil and says “Yo Phil! Come and follow me.” Phil thinks this is a great idea, and so he does. But not before he has a chat with his good friend Nate.

“Nate!” he says. “I think we’ve found the guy that Moses and all the prophets were talking about: Jesus of Nazareth, Joey’s boy.”

“Nazareth!” Nate exclaims. “Can anything good come from there?”

Phil responds “Come and see for yourself.”

And so he does.

11th July 2015
“You snakes! You brood of vipers!”
- Jesus
Matthew 23:33 (NIV)
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast…”
Genesis 3:1

This is just one of many descriptors in Jesus’ Epic Tirade* for the “scribes and Pharisees”—the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

Being called a snake is unpleasant at the best of times, even without considering the recurring symbolism throughout the Bible of Satan, the Great Deceiver, as a serpent…

A Side Note

Jesus isn’t actually the first to use this slur at the Pharisees, nor is this the only time He does so. In Matthew 3:7, John the Baptist shuts down some religious types with “You brood of vipers!” And in Matthew 12:34, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ allegations by saying, amongst other things, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

* As opposed to all His other tirades aimed at the scribes and Pharisees. There are many, but this one is particularly long and scathing.

4th July 2015
“Get behind Me, Satan!”
- Jesus
Matthew 16:23
Mark 8:33

Basically equivalent to “Get out of my sight, Satan”, this insult seems pretty tame, until you realise that Jesus isn’t actually addressing Satan here. He’s addressing Peter, His disciple and one of His closest friends. And He calls him Satan. What?

Peter had an up-and-down kind of time following Jesus. In Matthew 16, we see a somewhat bizarre series of events. Jesus has just asked His disciples who the people are saying He is. The answers vary from John the Baptist (back from the dead) to Jeremiah (back from the dead) to Elijah (back from the sort-of-dead[1]).

“But you,” Jesus presses further, “who do you say that I am?”

In what many people regard as an epiphany, Peter pipes up:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

“Correct!” says Jesus (more or less). He then goes on to explain that Peter is going to be the rock on which He builds His church. I imagine Peter was pretty chuffed.

But then Jesus starts telling his disciples what’s about to happen to Him. All that suffering, betrayal, and execution stuff, you know. Naturally, this is not what the disciples want or expect to hear, so Rocky takes Jesus aside and starts telling Him off:

“Nay Jesus, that ain't gonna happen to You. You’re completely wrong.”

Jesus turns to Peter, looks at him, and absolutely shuts him down:

“Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offence to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.”

So in one conversation, Peter goes from the Rock of the Church to the Adversary of God. I’m almost impressed.

(After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter does indeed become an important figure in the early church.)

Fun Facts

Peter’s name was actually Simon. But there are at least eight different Simons mentioned in the New Testament, including another of the twelve disciples, Simon the Zealot. So I guess nicknaming him Peter avoided some confusion.

The name Peter, or “Petros”, basically means “rock” in Greek (it’s the root of “petrify”). He’s also referred to as “Cephas”, which is the Aramaic equivalent.

Interestingly, the “Peter will be the rock on which I build My church” bit is where Catholics get the idea of the Pope. So yeah, according to the Catholic church, Peter was the first Pope.

27th June 2015
“I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith!”
- Jesus
Matthew 8:10
Luke 7:8

At the time of Jesus, Israel was under the control of the Roman Empire. Many Jews expected that, when the Messiah came, He would be a Warrior King (like Dave) who would set them free from their Roman oppressors.

Romans were the enemy.

So when a Roman centurion approaches Jesus, and pleads with Him, saying “My servant is paralysed, in terrible agony,” Jesus’ disciples were probably hoping Jesus would flip him off and say something like “Serves you right, Roman swine!”

But instead, Jesus offers to swing by the centurion’s house and heal the dude!

The centurion objects.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have You come under my roof,” he concedes. “But only say the word, and my servant will be cured.”

As you can imagine, Jesus is rarely surprised in the stories recorded in the Bible. In fact, Jesus is “amazed” exactly twice. In Mark 5, He is amazed at the lack of belief in his hometown in Israel. Isn't this God’s People? But here, when this Roman—this enemy and oppressor—shows such an incredible faith, this is what happens:

“Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, ‘I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith!’”

(And when the centurion gets home, his servant is indeed in good health.)

The fact that Jesus turned and said this directly to His followers always gives me a wry smile. I can just imagine the twelve disciples squirming as their Teacher and Lord essentially tells them “Hey, you could learn a thing or two about faith from this Roman soldier.”

20th June 2015
“You are not that important.”
- Paul
Galatians 6:3 (NLT)

Paul had a habit of being wonderfully frank.

“If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.”

Oh, the lessons we’d learn if we listened.

13th June 2015
“You need milk.”
- Probably Paul
Hebrews 5:12

The authorship of the letter to the Hebrews is unclear. Many people think Paul probably wrote it, but it’s all speculation, really. In any case, the writer sometimes lets his frustration show.

As the letter is intended primarily for the Hebrews, it has a lot to say about how Jesus fulfils the meaning of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament). In Chapter 5, the author explains how Jesus is basically the ultimate High Priest (and since He’s finished the job, we don’t need priests any more). But when he finishes, the author turns his attention to the recipients:

“We have much to say about this,” he says, “but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.”

Then, if that wasn’t scathing enough, he continues:

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”

23rd May 2015
“May no one ever eat your fruit again!”
- Jesus
Mark 11:14 (NLT)

Jesus was in a bad mood on this day. Later this same day He was chasing people out of the temple with a whip, and turning over their tables for buying and selling in the temple complex (at least He had a good reason). First thing in the morning, though, Jesus is heading into town when He spots a fig tree in the distance. Starving hungry, He makes His way over to the tree…


Turns out it’s not even fig season.

Jesus vents His frustration with a botanical curse, and the fig tree promptly withers.

Practical applications of this passage:
  • Upsetting greengrocer’s

9th May 2015
“You white­washed wall!”
- Paul
Acts 23:3

Like Jesus, Paul was Jewish. He called himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews”[1]. He was even one of the Pharisees—a group of Jewish religious leaders that Jesus would regularly lambaste. So, understandably, he didn’t like Christians much—and by “didn’t like” I mean “heartily approved the murder of”.

But after a surprise visit from Jesus on the road to Damascus[2], he changed his tune a bit—and by “changed his tune” I mean “would not shut up about the good news of this Jesus guy, becoming the most influential evangelist in history, and writing a bunch of letters that now form a large chunk of the New Testament”.

It was this not-shutting-up that eventually got him dragged before the Sanhedrin—a kind of Jewish high court. When Paul begins to defend himself, claiming good conscience before God, the high priest has him struck on the mouth. Paul, never one to back down, retaliates:

“God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (Whitewash was commonly used on mud-walls and tombs[3] to make them look nice—on the outside.)

The court is indignant: “How dare you insult God’s high priest!”

But now Paul is quick to apologise. You see, insulting the high priest was a big no-no for any Jew, even a Christian one.
   “Brothers,” Paul replies, “I did not realise that he was the high priest.”

Although, perhaps Paul’s apology contained more zing than his direct affront…

“There was nothing in the conduct of the man to betoken the dignity of his office. God’s High Priest must surely be fair and impartial. God’s High Priest would never counsel violence. The mistake, Paul would imply, was perfectly natural and excusable.”
- Marion D Shutter
A Side Note

The way that Paul gets out of the Sanhedrin trial is also genius. Read about it in Acts 23:5–11.

11th April 2015
- Jesus
Matthew 6:2; Matthew 6:5; Matthew 6:16; Matthew 7:5; Matthew 15:5; Matthew 15:7; Matthew 22:18; Matthew 23:13; Matthew 23:14; Matthew 23:15; Matthew 23:23; Matthew 23:25; Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:29; Matthew 24:51; Mark 7:6; Luke 6:42; Luke 12:56; Luke 13:15

This is one of Jesus' favourite insults. He often uses it to describe the religious leaders of the day. The word that we usually translate as “hypocrites” is the Greek word hypokritai, which, incidentally, is also the word that was used to refer to actors in the Greek theatre. Not only does this tell us something about what Jesus meant by the slur—these people were pretending to be something they weren't—but it also suggests that Jesus probably, at some stage, went to the theatre.*

While this abrasive term is scattered throughout the gospels, it's mainly concentrated in two clusters:
   In the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5–7), Jesus repeatedly warns people not to be like the hypocrites. Don't pray like the hypocrites, don't fast like the hypocrites, don't give to the poor like the hypocrites… The general gist is not to do good things for the sake of being applauded.

But later, in Matthew 23, Jesus really lets loose. The religious leaders, “the scribes and Pharisees”, have been asking Jesus all kinds of curly questions, trying (unsuccessfully) to trap Him in His words. Eventually, Jesus tires of this and—in front of the whole crowd—embarks on one of the most scathing tirades in the history of vituperation. Seriously, go read it. For the next couple of pages, Jesus begins most of his censures with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

Some of the other ways that Jesus describes the religious leaders in His speech (and some of these may get their own post later on) include “blind fools”, “blind guides”, “whitewashed tombs”, “snakes”, “fit for hell”, and “brood of vipers”. Of course, it's soon after this incident that the recipients of all this praise start plotting to have Jesus arrested…

* For more about this, see Did Jesus Visit the Theater? in Nick Page's book What Happened to the Ark of the Covenant?—and other Bible mysteries.

14th March 2015
“I wish those who unsettle and confuse you would go all the way and cut themselves off!”
- Paul
Galatians 5:12 (AMP)

The phrase “cut themselves off” takes on new meaning when you realise that the people Paul is here discussing are those who “preach circumcision”.

All the way.

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