Slander: a mistranslation?

In a post on my own blog, I argue that The devil isn’t a slanderer, because the Greek word diaballo often translated “slander” doesn’t mean that. Specifically, in English “slander” implies a false accusation, but the Greek word refers to an accusation “without any insinuation of falsehood”. More to the point for better Bible translations, this means that where diabolos is often translated not “devil” but “slanderer”, i.e. 1 Timothy 3:11, 2 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 2:3, a rendering like “malicious talker”, as in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV, would be more appropriate.

My observations on standing up to bullying behaviour might also be of interest to BBB readers.

19 thoughts on “Slander: a mistranslation?

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    Brad, I think that would be accurate, but I’m not sure it works well in the contexts. Also an accuser is not necessarily malicious – we would need to distinguish this clearly from 1 Timothy 5:19.

  2. John Hobbins says:

    1 Timothy 3:11 NIV really is a fine translation, far better in general than NLT on one side and ESV on the other.

    A case can be made that diabolos in the Hellenistic Jewish sense is about lashon ha-ra:

    On this understanding, the devil is the diabolos or accuser par excellence. This is true of the Satan of Job, who accuses Job of fearing God and refraining from evil only because Job has it good. The Satan’s accusation was true – and malicious. Not right away, but when Job loses not only his possessions and children, but the support of his wife, his health, and the trust of his friends, he ceases to trust in God and accuses God of evil – he gets over his dark night of the soul, to be sure, but only after many trials and tribuations. I document this here:

    The 1 Timothy 3 passage is interesting from other points of view, which are off-topic here. For a discussion, go here:

  3. Peter Kirk says:

    Thank you, John. I think you are right on when you write, in your own post, that

    If the accusation is true but malicious, it is that much more culpable, in that it is that much more damaging to a person’s reputation.

    The current scandal about Murdoch’s newspapers, which I see is now hitting headlines in USA, is being taken so seriously because what is being said is mostly true, but private and wrongly obtained, and is not simply libellous invention.

  4. Iver Larsen says:

    “Malicious talker” does not communicate to me, but that may be caused by my limited English. Do English people actually speak like that? At Google I could only find it as a reference to the NIV at 1 Tim 3:11.

    Some translations say “gossip”. What is the difference between gossip and slander in English?

    Your case against “slander” is not supported by BDAG or by the LSJ entry, but you know that:
    διάβολος, ον, slanderous, backbiting,…
    II. Subst., slanderer, … enemy, LXXEs.7.4, 8.1.: hence, = Sâtân, ib.1Chr.21.1; the Devil, Ev.Matt.4.1, etc.

    You are basing it on the LSJ entry for
    διαβάλλω… to make a complaint about a pers. to a third party, bring charges, inform either justly or falsely. The former (Hdt. 8, 22, 3 of incriminating information provided indirectly; Thu. 3, 4, 4; Aristoph., Thesm. 1169; Philostratus, Ep. 37; PTebt 23, 4; Da 3:8; 2 Macc 3:11; Jos., Ant. 12, 176): διεβλήθη αὐτῷ ὡς διασκορπίζων he was informed that (the manager) was squandering Lk 16:1 … Of malicious accusation (BGU 1040, 22; POxy 900, 13; 4 Macc 4:1; Jos., Ant. 7, 267): Papias (2:17) includes a story περὶ γυναικὸς ἐπὶ πολλαῖς ἁμαρτίαις διαβληθείσης ἐπὶ τοῦ κυρίου of a woman accused before the Lord of many sins.—M-M.

    It seems to refer to an accusation about actions that are perceived as bad by the speaker, whether true or false. One option is as suggested by Brad and let the context clarify whether it is true or false, negative or neutral. The word “accusative” does not work in English, so how do you describe a person who has a strong tendency to accuse others of doing bad things, whether this is true or not? Can you say “an accusing spirit”?

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    Slander must be false, or at least must seriously misrepresent the facts in some way. Gossip is true but hurtful. Slander and libel are also technical legal terms (at least in the US). Slander is oral, libel is slander in writing.

  6. Iver Larsen says:

    Is gossip in English true? Then I suspect that “gossip” is not sufficiently malicious in English for diabolos. I am wondering whether the contexts in Tim and Tit would allow for “false accusations” even though the Greek word does not necessarily in itself imply falsehood. But the word is used so many times for the devil, who is the deceiver above all others.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Iver, I pay little attention to BDAG because of its tendency to offer KJV or RSV renderings uncritically as glosses. I agree that “malicious talker” is not wonderful English. “Gossip” is not quite right because genuine malice is not usually intended and it wouldn’t cover the kinds of malicious but true accusations for which diaballo is used in Luke 16:1 and Daniel 3:8 LXX. For these cases “denounce” works well in English but there is no noun from this verb. As for the devil, I would suggest that he deceives more by using the truth out of context than by definitely false statements.

  8. J. K. Gayle says:

    a rendering like “malicious talker”, as in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV, would be more appropriate.

    Given that this is a biblioblog, as your own blog is Peter, I think all this talk is dicey. Suzanne, at her own blog yesterday (voted the Top blogger of the Top 10 biblioblogs), points out this:

    Steve Caruso wrote about the qualifications to be a biblioblogger,

    3) Civility – It must — barring traditional sarcasm or banter — keep proper decorum, free of disrespect for other bloggers. Direct personal attacks against other bloggers will result in disqualification.

    And you also say, “My observations on standing up to bullying behaviour might also be of interest to BBB readers.” Indeed. My interest as a reader of BBB is how this works out. “Bullying” is so easy to see in someone else, especially when that person is bullying someone I care about, or me. How I address that, how any of us allows all in the conversation to stand up and to speak out, is of interest. What do we do with all the little devils the Bible so clearly talks about without being little malicious talkers ourselves? Who’s to judge? Who should police? Who can listen to the abused and oppressed and can also give them voice?

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    I wouldn’t have defined gossip as necessarily true. So, it overlaps or slides into rumor, though rumor isn’t used in an active sense where gossip is. I would say gossip is perceived as more often true than rumor.

    I think the framing of gossip has more to do with the sharing of something believed to be secret or personal. Generally, it’s the personal secret whispered among friends about someone else. I think of the gossip rags, magazines with the brand of sharing secrets and so have an ironic, even oxymoronic, posture of being in public and yet still somehow intimately communicating.

    On Peter’s blog he has an abbreviated definition of διάβολος, pulled from Liddel, Scott, Jones. I’m going to abbreviate it even more and simply highlight some phrases such as:
    attack a man’s character, accuse, complain of, without implied malice or falsehood, reproach a man with, misrepresent, and δ. τι εἴς τινα lay the blame for a thing on.

    Obviously, that removes various key pieces of information required for careful lexicography. However, what surprised me, given only the phrases I’ve listed, was the word doesn’t necessarily have an extreme sense to it. English has many more words than Greek, so the connotations are more finely tuned in English. We need to keep that fact in mind. I wondered if some renderings by slander were too specific.

    That led me to wondering if διάβολος could be thought of along the lines of the intention or act of degrading or defaming someone verbally or the person who does such. διάβολος could then be slander. However, it could also refer to the one who verbally disrespects another which is probably what is being thought of in Titus 2:3.

    I applied this definition to nearly all the occurrences of διάβολος in the NT, which included the many occurrences understood to refer to the Devil. I was surprised by how the definition helped more clearly frame each speech act. The framing had a lot to do with the act of speaking and frequently had to do with either elevating self or de-elevating someone else. It had less to do with slander (if at all) and had more to do with the act of shaming someone. There were two cases where I wondered whether the Devil was even in scope. Instead, the act of degrading fit better.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, if you want to discuss what I have written about bullying, please do so on my blog where I wrote it, not here. But please first read all of what I have written on the subject, including my defence and partial retraction of what I wrote.

  11. Rich Rhodes says:

    Let me naively pass over the subtext that this is partially about what Peter has written and go straight for the teachable moment.

    Language is at its root about categorization. The categories which words represent don’t match from language to language. We tend to be fooled by categorial parallels when concrete entities are involved because the human perceptual mechanisms tend towards drawing the boundaries in more or less the same places. But categories aren’t structured by their boundaries, they are structured by their centers. And what’s worse many categories are internally complex in that they have more than one center, but conceptually we treat them as if there was only one center. Then throw in that it’s harder to recognize differences in categorization when the reference is abstract.

    A huge amount of what I complain about in Bible translation is exactly that we think in terms of the categories of our native language and “hear” the Greek (or Hebrew) as if it were pseudo-English (pseudo-Danish, pseudo-whatever). Then we are perplexed when we discover that there’s a resultant inconsistency in reading the text. (I think the failure to understand the implications of categorization plays no small role in the theories of people who insist that there is an essential indeterminacy in text. But that’s another whole matter.)

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Rich, when reading your comment, I immediately thought of ἔρχομαι (ERCOMAI; to go, to come). I’ll never forget the epiphany feeling I had when I noticed that ἔρχομαι has more to do with move. In their world, they move. In our world we go or come. However, the feeling of epiphany was because I realized that my understanding of move and their understanding of move were different. They had a concept, almost metaphorical in nature, for moving about their world. We don’t categorize this activity in that way. In their world you would say, “he moved throughout the entire Jordan River area”. But that means something a bit different to them than what we (of the English tongue) mean by it. That’s why we translate it as “he went throughout the entire Jordan River area”.

    The categorization point is also why I try, as best I can, to work toward definitions of Greek words and to think in terms of those definitions. It’s also why I think many people use Lexicons in a way they weren’t designed to be used. Lexicons present glosses with the intention of enabling the lexicon user to develop a perception of the categories the word represents. Plugging in lexicon glosses into a translation, or the prima facie disallowing of a gloss not mentioned, is, in my opinion, not using the lexicon correctly.

  13. White Man says:

    What Mike said.
    The Pirahã have a uniquely limited vocabulary, using the same verb for “to arrive” and “to depart.” When you boil the meaning down to their frame of reference, they are speaking of something crossing over the boundary between what can be observed with the senses, and what can’t be. Like the Greeks and their ἔρχομαι, which direction it is heading at the time is not considered relevant enough to specify.

  14. Rich Rhodes says:

    Motion verbs are particularly well-studied due to the work of a cognitive linguist by the name of Len Talmy. The basic insight is that different languages “package” the cognitively present aspects of motion — manner, path, deixis — differently. (Manner is what distinguishes walk, run, fly, float, etc.; path should be obvious; deixis is about direction with respect to some contextually determined location, usually the speaker’s location, i.e., come and go, but also end point of path arrive and depart.) In some languages the manner of motion is packaged with the motion and the other information is given in separate phrases, but in other languages path is packaged with motion and other information is given in separate phrases. English: He ran into the house. vs. Spanish: Entró la casa corriendo.. And in some languages, like Koine and Hawaiian, motion isn’t packaged with anything.

    This difference is further complicated by usage norms. So while there is a perfectly fine English verb move that might seem to be the logical translation for ἔρχομαι, as motion with no other information. But English usage dictates either that move isn’t really a motion verb, as in He moved. = ‘he didn’t stay still’ or that it is a motion verb with a different meaning he moved to Utah = ‘he relocated [his place of residence] to Utah’.

    In the end many of the differences of opinion on this blog revolve around the importance (or the irrelevance) of usage norms.

  15. Chrysostom says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but why wouldn’t a traditional rendering for the Devil such as “accuser” or “adversary”, or even “one who bends the truth to evil ends” not work? None of the literal options capture the full range of meaning in the Greek, but that’s an inevitable problem in any translation of any text in any language. It seems that a truly “functional” rendering is called for here, and a departure from formal equivalence, if one is to attempt to capture the meaning of the Greek.

  16. Peter Kirk says:

    Chrysostom, “accuser” might work, as I said in the second comment here. “Adversary” is just too general. Read the words in the three contexts in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

  17. BradK says:

    Would “prone to accusations” work for those contexts? Or could that be misunderstood by the reader such that the person in question was the subject of accusations? I guess I should ask if the latter is a grammatically possible interpretation. I.e. could the admonition against diabolos for deacons in e.g. 1 Timothy 3 refer to the deacon not being prone to having accusations made against him? I would assume this is not allowed by the grammar…

  18. Peter Kirk says:

    Brad, I would be almost certain that the Greek diabolos can’t mean “prone to having accusations made against him [or her]”. But I think the wording “prone to accusations” might be misunderstood as meaning that. I think “prone to accusing others” might work, but there are probably better ways of putting this if four words are not considered too long.

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