Monday, December 20, 2010

The Aresko Factor

My debates lately with a YouTube Skeptic of the ”fundy atheist” variety included one on this statement from Gal. 1:10:

For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

The word “please” is aresko. The Skeptic had charged Paul with inconsistency on this point, supposing that he had had Timothy circumcised in Acts to “please” the Jews in Lystra and Derbe. My response, following Witherington, was that aresko has connotations of what we would call “bootlicking” or “sucking up” – and that Paul here was indicating that he was not arguing the way some poor rhetoriticians did, who rather than persuading people with arguments, used flattery.

The Skeptic responded rather poorly, of course, though he did have the presence of mind to look up aresko in a concordance and ask if that was what it also meant in other passages. YouTube’s 500 character limit doesn’t really give a chance to discuss this sort of thing adequately, so this is offered as a supplement in which we look at all uses of aresko in the NT (only 19 times in 16 verses, and many will be covered with the same explanation) to see how this bears out.

The caveats here are threefold though.

First, we have to keep in mind that in ancient languages, a few thousand words had to do the job that more than a million do in English. To simply equate aresko wholesale in every verse with the modern practice that we call “bootlicking” with all of its negative connotations, as the Skeptic tried to do, is the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer. (It also means that it is ridiculous to object, as the Skeptic did, that more complete explanations are a case of arguing that the Bible “doesn’t really mean what it says” in English!) Context is needed to decide if the connotation is positive or negative.

Second, and relatedly, connotation for such actions is often in the eye of the beholder. One man’s “bootlicking” is another man’s respectful obeisance to rightful authority (which is why, when I answered the Skeptic in YT comments, I put “bootlicking” in quotes). The Skeptic regarded aresko towards God automatically as a bad thing, precisely because they think of the Biblical God as an unethical monster unworthy of worship, and of Christians as uncritical sheep. But perception alone does not fill out the meaning.

Third, and most importantly, aresko has certain relevant functions in a collectivist society that it does not have in our modern, individualist society. The irony is, as I pointed out to the Skeptic (but which he ignored), by the standards of the Biblical world, we aresko authorities all the time. If you praise the President’s policies, you are doing aresko. (These days, of course, per point 2 above, a staunch Republican would say you are bootlicking.) Biblical people, though, would wonder why we’re doing all this aresko and not getting anything in return.

That’s a key point: Aresko has to be placed against the template of the social value of reciprocity in the Biblical and Greco-Roman world. We’ll explore that as we now look at the Biblical uses of the word.


Matt. 14:6 (par Mark 6:22): But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.

This was one the Skeptic used, and it was an easy one. Yes, Herod was being flattered and bootlicked – because the whole point of Herodias’ daughter’s dance was to get a favor from Herod (the dispensing with of John the Baptist). This is a case of reciprocity in action. The negative connotations are achieved because the nature of the act was insidious: to get to kill John the Baptist. (Of course, Herodias and others who hated John would not see it that way!)

Acts 6:5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost…

The multitude here is pleased because they find wisdom in the instructions of the apostles with reference to ministry. It is here where we have our first example of a more positive connotation. The atheist would say it was bootlicking; but it is something else for the church, accommodation. We’ll discuss this, though, with examples from Romans, since this is the best one of the set for this type of usage.

Romans 8:8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

This one was used by the Skeptic too, and it is one of several places where there are references to offering aresko to God (also 1 Cor. 7:32, 1 Thess. 2:15, 4:1; 2 Tim. 2:4, though implying any superior as well). Let’s discuss these all at once now.

In a socially stratified society like this one, aresko was an important social ritual. Praising (or as the Skeptic would say, flattering or bootlicking) the authority was a way of showing required respect for that authority and expressing one’s fundamental unity with the aims of that authority. It also gave the ruler, under the terms of reciprocity that was the glue of the collectivist society, a means whereby subjects could be shown favor in return.

The Skeptic here saw nothing but a case of sheep flattering God’s immense ego. But not only is that merely a point of view issue, it also neglects the aspects of reciprocity and unity as functions of a collectivist society, in which one of the essentials of survival and order is the mutual interdependence of all persons in that society. (And as a reminder, modern Westerners are the odd ones out on this; 99.9% of all people who have ever lived have lived in a society like the Biblical one, and 70% of people today still do.) The Skeptic’s evaluation is that of an individual who owes no loyalties to God.

A critical point here: Aresko delivered to a superior served a specific function that was different than when it was delivered to an equal. (It would not be delivered to an inferior at all.) Let’s now look at how delivery of aresko changes on those terms:

Rom. 15:1-3 We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please [his] neighbour for [his] good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.

Aresko is used three times here. The Skeptic expressed astonishment at the idea that the Christian was supposed to flatter or bootlick neighbors. That sentiment is appropriate – for one on the outside looking in, from one in a society of the individual looking at a society that functioned based on mutual interdependence. In reality, this is a case of unity and support among equals that held that society together and made it function and survive.

In specific context (see Social Science Commentary on Paul’s Letters, p. 286) Paul is urging community self-sacrifice towards one another on specific issues of behavior. But the broader context here is the social unity that undergirded a collectivist society. To establish a mutually beneficial relationship with others, simple acts of praise towards the other was a good beginning. It did have to be done carefully – too much layered on, and it might be construed as a challenge; too little, and it might be construed as an insult.

Note as well that Paul qualifies aresko with “for good” to make the positive connotations clear and indicate that he is using it in a way that the audience may not expect given his prior usage with reference to self-pleasing (where it has a negative connotation).


If this seems unlikely, let me call on one of my native witnesses here – our guest writer A. J., who wrote for me in an E-Block article of a specific form of abuse of this concept in her native country:


If a guest to a home brings their own children, then that guest's children will be showered with praise and flattery, as if they were miniature angels dropped out of the sky into your arms -- in total contrast to their own rebellious, ill-mannered, and undisciplined children who are like little devils that popped out of the ground!

The flattery doesn't come cheap, though. The praise isn't being doled out unconditionally. Something is expected in return. The guest is expected to deprecate their own children, just as the host deprecated theirs, and praise the host's children for being far superior to their own. Esteem was given so esteem could be gotten.


The reader will note the conceptual similarity this has to what we described above with reference to God. The difference here is that this is reciprocity among relative equals. The non-abusive form of this would dispense with the bad comments, and merely use the praise and flattery as a way to establish a healthy relationship of mutual dependence and simple friendship. Aresko in this sense – among equals – is a positive thing (at least to insiders, as opposed to outsiders with no axe to grind!).


The same sort of reciprocity among equals is also expressed in 1 Cor. 7:33-4 and having to do with husband and wife, and with Paul and those he evangelizes in 10:33 and in 1 Thess. 2:4. Now let’s return to Gal. 1:10:

For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.

Isn’t this reciprocity among equals, though? No, not exactly. The defining context here, as I noted in my initial reply to the Skeptic, was the practice of rhetoric. A rhetor was supposed to be proving his point with arguments. Offering aresko instead was an illicit subbing in of flattery where argument should have been presented – in essence, not making an argument at all. It is this which makes aresko here have a negative connotation, one that all (except maybe the rhetor and his supporters!) would agree is negative. That is what makes this “bootlicking” whereas the other examples do not deserve that word, save perhaps in quotes (to reflect the fact that some, like that bigoted Skeptic, would indeed call it that).

So in sum: Aresko was a specific sort of action, which according to purpose or means could be construed as positive, negative – or both. In that sense, it well suits the domain of our words “bootlicking” or “flattery” (from the negative side) and “accommodation” or “pleasing” (from the positive side).

And in terms of accusing Paul of inconsistency – it’s a failure for the Skeptic.

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