Do you think of yourself as pious? In the practice of religion, the word pious is construed today in contradictory ways. The first definition for pious in my dictionary is: "marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship." The second reads: "marked by conspicuous religiosity." The first definition is positive; reverence for deity (if such there be) and devotion to worship of the divine (if such there be, and if one believes in behaving in such a way) is a positive act. The second definition sounds like "excessive religiousness." How could anything in excess be positive? Too much of anything is not a good thing (nothing in excess is an ancient Greek maximum). The fourth definition is divided into two parts: 4a reads: "marked by sham or hypocrisy"; 4b is: "marked by self-conscious virtue."1 So it seems the definitions for piety range from a humble reverence for deity at one end and conspicuous hypocrisy at the other.
Several words for piety from the ancient Greek world appear in the New Testament. The verbal forms (eusebeō and thrēskeuō) and their derivatives receive different translations from scholars. These words appear in what I construe as the later books of the New Testament. The words do not appear in the gospels or the undisputed Pauline letters. In the Bauer/ Danker lexicon eusebeō is translated as "to show uncommon reverence or respect, [that is,] to worship." And thrēskeuō is translated "to practice cultic rites; to worship." Here are some passages that use these verbal forms or their derivatives (1 Tim 5:4, Acts 17:23, I Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 3:5, 2 Pet 1:3, 2 Pet 1:6, Tit 1:1, Acts 10:2; James 1:26-27, Acts 26:5, Col 2:18). These words in the New Testament do not seem to have the strange positive/negative definition found in the meaning of the English word "piety." Likely because they do not address the issue of motivation.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-7:29), created by the gospel's flesh and blood author,2 one finds a short section (Matt 6:1-7, 16-18) directly addressing motivation for religious behavior. (Motivation constitutes the reasons why one behaves as one does.) Matthew does not use eusebeō or thrēskeuō. Instead Matthew uses dikaiosunē a word usually thought of as "righteousness." In its context here it is best translated in English as "righteous behavior,"3 but translators have rendered it variously into English as piety, religion, good deeds, charity, acts of righteousness, and righteous deeds in the few translations I checked. In these few verses Matthew condemns conspicuousness in the practice of religion and directs that charitable deeds, prayer, and fasting should be quietly and inconspicuously done.4 Those who do these acts in order to be seen by others get no credit with God (6:1, 2, 5, 16). Those who do receive credit with God for their righteous behavior are those who do their religious acts "in secret" (6:3-4, 6, 17-18).
In Matthew's view righteous behavior (think of it as pious acts) in the earliest Christian tradition consisted of unostentatiously giving charitable gifts (alms), praying privately, and inconspicuously depriving oneself of food (i.e., fasting) for religious reasons. In addition, one must do these activities motivated by the right reasons (Matt 7:35 = Luke 6:45). The writer we call James adds to these behaviors, humane consideration for others (1:27-28; cf. Matt 25:31-46):
Devotion to God (threskeia) that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
To judge by Matthew's words our modern ecclesiastical ideas about piety may be misguided. Piety does not consist of church-based religious activities. For example, attending a preaching hour of the church is not a "service" rendered to God. (I assume we attend such a gathering for ourselves.) Piety is an attitude toward deity that may be judged positive, negative, or misguided by its behavioral expression. In other words, piety is expressed in specific activities that are commensurate with a certain attitude toward deity. Modern piety, which seems to consist of serving God through group activities in a church context, differs from piety in the early Jesus tradition, which, idealistically, was a deep reverence toward God expressing itself in certain private acts performed with no pretentiousness—or so Matthew thought.
Missouri State University
1Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "pious."
2There are five addresses by Jesus that the flesh and blood author of Matthew's gospel has arranged throughout the gospel: Matt 5:1-7:28; 10:1-11:1; 13:1-53; 18:1-19:1; 24:1-26:1. Note especially the endings to the addresses: "when Jesus finished these…"
3Some manuscripts use the word "alms" (eleēmosunēn), suggesting the tradition found the word (dikaiosunē), as used in most manuscripts, to be unclear or unsatisfactory.
4Very little of this material (6:3 and perhaps 6:6a) was found to have originated with Jesus by the Jesus Seminar: Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels, 147-48. Two of these religious acts (giving alms and praying) are found linked in Acts 10:2.
If we think of God as "Life" (as I've been trying to do in recent years), it is our responsibility to intend everything we say and do to be life affirming. Every moment, so to speak, at least starts out "pious."
I do think Matthew has some insight in regarding the value of behavioral privacy and modesty. Jesus himself seems to have issued a warning about that: "Beware of the scribes/scholars who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in marketplaces, and to have the best seats in meeting places/synagogues, and places of honor/best couches at banquets."
Piety is not a positive character trait in my world. When I hear it I immediately associate it with the pseudo-genteel racists of high standing in the town I lived as a kid, because it and pious were words that were spoken about them. That word resembling “piety, is found in the Vulgate and was used by Wycliffe (spelled differently), who used the Vulgate, adding over 1000 Latin words to the English lexicon. I don’t know whether he introduced this one to the English language, but I’m blaming him!
Eusebeō: The noun form “eusebia” is interesting, a great word for 1st Tim., who calls it “a mystery,” something to be “exercised,” must be taught with “healthy” words of the right person, it should be combined with contentment, and should be pursued.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Gene,
With regard to your first paragraph last sentence: Shouldn't one say "Every moment, so to speak, at least has the potential of starting out pious"?
I'll go along with Dennis and just eliminate "piety, pious," etc. from English usage. Maybe it would be ok to use in spelling bees as an example of an "antique" word.
Charlie I agree with Dennis.
"Pious" is problematic because it implies hating the bad, hating the negative... There's an implicit condemnation of badness, which is just as destructive committing bad actions themselves. Do-gooders entitle themselves to destroy the "bad" and do so with impunity.
Let's look at two examples, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle: Emerson loved the good and his life was a symphony of peace and harmony. Carlyle hated the bad and his life was a record of perpetual discord and disharmony. Here we see two grand men, each intent upon achieving the same ideal... but one makes use of constructive thought and therefore makes use of natural law... The other makes use of destructive thought and therefore brings upon himself discord of every kind and character. It is evident therefore that we are to condemn nothing, not even the "bad," because condemnation is destructive.
Piety contains a destructive element and that is why Matthew's writings and so-called "thoughts" on piety are completely irrelevant today. Today's spiritual majority have surpassed that old fashioned outdated mode of "do-gooders" whose sole purpose is to condemn and eliminate evil, all the while perpetuating it unknowingly. Elizabeth
The quote about Emerson and Carlyle came from a book on the internet- the author's name escapes me. Obviously, standing up to "bad" or evil or negativity or whatever you wish to call it is necessary to maintain an orderly, civil society... Yes, wrongdoing must be addressed when and wherever it occurs. But there is a difference between addressing "wrong" or "bad" things on an as-needed basis... And making that the focus of one's attitude in general, which displays itself in writings and conversations and mental habits. The blogs here rarely if ever have a positive focus, much less emphasizing the goodness and beauty in others people. Piety seems to have more to do with addressing society's ills and wrongs and foibles. When that is one's focus in life, it can cause one to become a rather negative individual. Elizabeth
Seldom do I find all three of you commentators in agreement. So this is a historic moment.
I generally do not use the word pious to describe someone, because of the negative associations of the word. If I wanted to speak approvingly of another's religious demeanor, I would describe that person as "devout." This word does not have the negativity I find in the word pious, at least not to my ear.
Then what motivates you to write the essay on the word pious? It was meticulously documented and notated and researched... it must have captured the attention for some reason. Elizabeth
It was nothing special. I ran across the word in something I was reading and got curious.
Most everything I write on the blog is the result of personal curiosity.
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