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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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SCORN.—Of scorn pure and simple there is remarkably little trace in the recorded words and actions of Jesus Christ. Whereas other teachers of lofty morality have usually treated with some contempt those who made no effort to approach their ideals, Christ’s attitude towards the sinner was uniformly one of sympathetic help. He alone recognized the intimate relation which exists between the Creator and the human race, and His knowledge of this relation and of the possibilities of each individual prevented Him from despising man, whom the Father had made in His own image, however much that image might have been defaced. Thus it is that we never find Him using sarcasm, a form of scorn calculated to wound rather than to improve. Even the εἰρωνεία of Socrates, the affected self-depreciation which threw ridicule upon the egotism of others, has no counterpart in the Gospels. When Jesus used scorn, He employed it as a skilled physician, who wounds with the intention of healing. It is thus that He uses it to the Pharisees, whose cloak of self-righteousness needed to be pierced through with some sharp weapon, if they were to be brought to the state of mind in which they might be capable of any improvement.

1. The scorn of contempt.—A single word of unmitigated contempt is recorded by St. Luke as used by Christ. It occurs in His answer to the threat used by certain Pharisees of danger from Herod Antipas (Luke 13:31-32). ‘Go ye,’ He said, ‘and tell that she-fox.’ The phrase τῇ ἀλώπεκι ταύτῃ is certainly surprising at first sight, and unlike any other phrase employed by our Lord, not even excepting His comparison of the scribes and Pharisees to ‘whited sepulchres,’ ‘serpents,’ and ‘offspring of vipers’ (Matthew 23:27; Matthew 23:33). The fact of the word ἀλώπεκι being in the feminine gender is perhaps only an accident. The word is found, it is true, in the masculine gender in Song of Solomon 2:15, but it is generally found in the feminine, e.g. Judges 1:35, 1 Kings 21:10, Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58. The fox was and is a type of knavish craftiness. The particular offence of Herod on this occasion was his crafty endeavour to get rid of an influential preacher of righteousness by uttering a threat by the mouth of others, which he had not the courage himself to carry into effect. He was unwilling to add to the unpopularity caused by his treatment of John the Baptist by a repetition of it in the case of Jesus. No doubt the general character and conduct of Herod helped to suggest the application of the expression,—his unscrupulous nature (Luke 3:19 περὶ πάντων ὧν ἐποίησε πονηρῶν), his tyranny (Luke 13:31), his weakness (Mark 14:9), his profession of Judaism, combined with his heathen practices, his adultery and incest, and his murder of the prophet John. Such is the character which elicits the one recorded word of contemptuous scorn from the lips of Jesus.

2. The scorn of denunciation.—While remarkably free from any contempt for those people who had ideals and failed to reach them (e.g. the young man with great riches and the Apostle Peter), or for those who from lack of any ideal were for the time outcast from society (e.g. the despised publicans, Mark 2:15-17), He showed clearly His contempt for all religious professions and practices which were not of the heart. ‘The vain practices of devotees,’ says Renan, ‘the exterior strictness which trusted to formality for salvation, had in Him a mortal enemy … He preferred forgiveness to sacrifice. The love of God, charity, and mutual forgiveness were His whole law.’ Yet in all His dealings with the systems of the scribes and the teaching of the legal doctors, His words bear little trace of mere contempt, but rather of stern denunciation. His attitude was defined at a comparatively early stage during the ministry in Northern Galilee, when He gave His definition of moral defilement (Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:15) by saying, ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man.’ This attitude culminated in the sublime anti-Pharisaic discourse in which the foibles and vices of a degenerate piety were depicted with prophetic plainness and scornful denunciation (Matthew 23; cf. also Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47).

3. The scorn of silence.—Of all the occasions of scorn displayed by Jesus, none are more marked than those when He met mere captious questions and criticism either by a definite refusal to answer, or by absolute silence. Such an instance is recorded (Matthew 21:23-27) when Jesus met the question of the chief priests and scribes, ‘By what authority doest thou these things?’ with a counter question, and on their refusal to answer declined in turn to reply to their question. Still more impressive was the silent scorn with which He met His accusers at the various stages of His trial, refusing in turn to answer the accusation of false witnesses (Matthew 26:60-63, Mark 14:61) and the questions of the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:12, Mark 15:3; Mark 15:5), of Herod (Luke 23:9), and lastly of Pilate himself (Matthew 27:14, John 19:9).

In comparing these instances, we find no word used simply for the purpose of causing pain. The contemptuous expression used on the occasion of Herod’s threat is, we have seen, amply justified by the character of the man, and destined to hold up to reprobation so paltry a device and so wretched a personality. In the rest His silence is an expression of His own dignity, and of His refusal to give an answer to questions and charges which were not intended to bring the truth to light, but merely to raise unreasonable prejudice; while His severe attacks on the character of those who were too blinded by their imaginary virtues to try to amend their lives, are wonderful instances of a scorn unmarred by ill-nature and untainted with cynicism.

On scorn of which Christ was the object, see artt. Despise, Mockery, Reproach.

T. Allen Moxon.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Scorn'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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