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The Banality of Deceit

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The repeated occurrence of religious embellishments, elaborations, pseudonymity, and ex eventu prophecies in ancient Scripture indicates the general acceptance of intentional deceit among the religious elite.

Indeed, telling falsehoods and half-truths was not shameful in ancient Middle Eastern society (cf. Gen. 12:11-13; 20:2; 27:1-19; 1 Sam. 27:8-12). In fact, they perceived lying as a tolerable avenue for achieving a desired end. Lying to non-immediate family members was not only acceptable, but it was also expected in the Mediterranean culture of the first-century. For many, deception was acclaimed as heroism when it was in support of the Jewish nation (cf. Josh. 2), as demonstrated in the apocryphal story of Judith, who tricks Nebuchadnezzar’s army and even uses her sexuality to lure and decapitate an Assyrian invader named Holofernes (Jdt. 10:11-13:10). Hence, lying was an acceptable tactic when it promoted a greater religious purpose.

In ancient Christianity, there were two different approaches to intentional deception. One tradition, introduced by Augustine, asserted that lying was incorrigible under all circumstances, even if it meant bringing someone to faith in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20) or preventing a greater evil from occurring (cf. Josh. 2:1-7). Numerous proponents in the East, on the other hand, upheld the older tradition that allowed for lying under certain circumstances so long as the deception accomplished some good. This older tradition believed lying was permissible for things as routine as preventing discouragement or inspiring humility and was more concerned with the immediate consequences of accomplishing good rather than any long-term consequences of lying.

As Lewis Donelson comments about the banality of deception in the ancient world, “If one had a cause which was important enough and a lie could assist, then it is ‘permissible’ to employ a lie" (Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, 19).


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