Insider and outsider language

My recent post about the altar inscription Paul saw in Athens–did it say “To an unknown god” or “To the unknown God”?–was prompted, as I noted there, by a conversation I had with a friend who does sociolinguistic analysis of the New Testament and early Christian literature.  One thing she has helped me see much more clearly is the way biblical characters employ either “insider” or “outsider” language depending on the audience.  (To give a contemporary example, a follower of Jesus today might speak of “the Lord” to a known fellow believer, but of “God” instead to someone whose faith they aren’t sure of.)

Since this conversation I’ve been seeing more ways in which recognizing “insider” and “outsider” language can help us appreciate the possible dynamics of biblical episodes.  Consider, for example, the episode in Acts in which a believer named Ananias is asked to visit Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) right after Jesus has appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road.

Ananias first greets him as “Brother Saul” (Saoul adelphe).  This is how followers of Jesus addressed one another.  Does this mean that Ananias is immediately acknowledging Saul as a fellow believer?  Not necessarily.  This is also the way one Jew would typically greet another in the Roman Empire.  My friend thinks, and I agree, that the original audience of Acts would have sensed the ambiguity here, and many of them may have thought, “Okay, he’s playing it safe, appealing to their shared Jewish identity to create some common ground with this man who, for all he knows, might still be an enemy.”

However, Ananias says next, “The Lord has sent me” (ho kurios apestalken me), using insider language for Jesus (“the Lord”), as if he were sure that Saul really was a follower of Jesus now.  This suggests that “brother Saul” maybe was intended as the greeting of a fellow believer.

But then it appears that Ananias worries he may have gone too far out on a limb too early, because he immediately qualifies who “the Lord” is:  “Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here.”  This is outsider language:  the proper name Jesus with a descriptor, like “Jesus of Nazareth . . . a man accredited by God” in Peter’s Pentecost sermon.

We don’t get much more of the dialogue, but I’m sure that when Ananias saw the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, he was probably comfortable going back to “the Lord” as a name for Jesus!  But the movement from language that could be taken “safely,” to insider language, to outsider language shows that Ananias was obediently going into a dangerous situation courageously but carefully.  (As we all should do when God–you know, the Lord–sends us into one.)

What “insider” and “outsider” language are you seeing as you read the Word–you know, the Bible?

Pietro da Cortona, Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul, 1631

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Insider and outsider language”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s