What is Gossip?
How does the Bible define gossip? Is gossip a sin? Is slander the same thing?

Modern definition and usage of the word gossip cannot be a determining factor in understanding what the Bible teaches regarding gossip. Words continue to evolve in their usage over time, sometimes completely obscuring the original meaning as intended by an earlier author or translator. For example, in recent years, it has become common to use gossip with a lighthearted meaning. Mere idle talk, miscellaneous tidbits about Hollywood stars, rumors, or tattling are all referred to as gossip. In fact, listed synonyms now include; small talk, hearsay, chitchat, news-mongering about the affairs of others, and light chat or talk. Could all this be in view when the Bible talks about gossip?

In researching this article, I found some Christian teachers and writers offering similarly broad or simplistic definitions of gossip. Some of these equate gossip with judging people, or merely passing on second-hand information about anyone. Since the Bible clearly calls on us to judge, as long as it's with right judgment, this cannot be gossip. Additionally, if merely passing along, or acting on, credible information told to you (or known) about someone else was gossip, the apostles Paul8 and John, plus the devout disciple Ananias, were all certainly guilty of it.

Philippians 4:2-3 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (NIV)

Acts 9:13-14 "Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." (NIV)

1 Corinthians 5:1-3 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. (NIV) 8

2 Corinthians 12:20-21 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder. 21 I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged. (NIV)

3 John 9-10 I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. 10 So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (NIV)

John, who is calling attention to another who is gossiping, is clearly not engaged in it himself, even though he is passing on information about another. Merely being negative information also does not automatically make it gossip. More on this will follow.

A parent regularly acts on second hand information, reputation2, and observation, judging whether or not something is safe for their child. For example, if they have directly seen or heard one of their children's friends being wantonly reckless, they're unlikely to want their teen to go for a ride with them. Likewise, if they overheard their child, or some of their friends, or another parent, talking about how reckless that individuals was, they would likely make the same judgment without any first hand knowledge. This is not gossip.

Proverbs 20:11 Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right. (NIV) [Also consider Titus 1:16]

The Bible, when referring to gossip, has a much more singular and focused meaning in view. In the original languages, a few words could be (and have been) translated as "gossip".

Next we'll examine each of these words, the context they are used in, and their Biblical meaning. Notice that duplicate numbering with sub-lettering will be considered together as they are directly related words. For comparison, multiple Bible translations will be provided.

#1. Rakiyl.

Leviticus 19:16 Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer [rakiyl] among thy people... (KJV)

Leviticus 19:16 'You shall not go about as a slanderer [rakiyl] among your people... (NASU)

Leviticus 19:16 "'Do not go about spreading slander [rakiyl] among your people. ... (NIV)

Ezekiel 22:9 In thee are men that carry tales [rakiyl] to shed blood: and in thee they eat upon the mountains: in the midst of thee they commit lewdness. (KJV)

Ezekiel 22:9 In you are slanderous men [rakiyl] bent on shedding blood; in you are those who eat at the mountain shrines and commit lewd acts. (NIV) [Also NASU]

Consider also Jeremiah 6:28 and Jeremiah 9:4.

Proverbs 11:13 A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter. (KJV) [Also NASU]

Proverbs 11:13 A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. (NIV)

Proverbs 20:19 He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips. (KJV)

Proverbs 20:19 A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.1 (NIV)

Proverbs 20:19 He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip. (NASU) See End Note 9 for more on this verse.

The stronger word "slander", used by some translations in these passages from Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, is certainly the primary meaning of this word. Slander, of course, denotes intent to harm. The word literally signifies one who travels about, someone actively seeking to spread falsities about another. The references in Proverbs clearly illustrate this. There is no difference between spreading a made-up falsity or in spreading a secret that you have agreed not to reveal - the broken confidence is likewise actively seeking to harm.7 Overall, in regards to translating the word "rakiyl", I would concur with the following statement...

"The translation "talebearer" found in some cases in the KJV and "gossip" in some versions is too light as the contexts show." (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Copyright © 1980 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago.)

#2. Dibbah

This word, on the surface, appears to have many meanings - some similar to the last Hebrew word [Rakiyl]. Consider how it has been translated in various passages...

Numbers 13:32-33 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report [dibbah] about the land they had explored. They said, "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them." (NIV) [KJV "evil report" NASU "bad report". See also Numbers 14:36 & 37]

Genesis 37:2 This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives, and he brought their father a [dibbah] bad report about them. (NIV) [KJV "evil report", NASU "bad report"]

Proverbs 10:18 He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander [dibbah] is a fool. (NIV) [KJV, NASU also "slander"]

Proverbs 25:9-10 If you argue your case with a neighbor, do not betray another man's confidence, 10 or he who hears it may shame you and you will never lose your bad reputation [dibbah]. (NIV)

Proverbs 25:9-10 Debate thy cause with thy neighbour himself; and discover not a secret to another: 10 Lest he that heareth it put thee to shame, and thine infamy [dibbah] turn not away. (KJV)

Proverbs 25:9-10 Argue your case with your neighbor, And do not reveal the secret of another, 10 Or he who hears it will reproach you, And the evil report [dibbah] about you will not pass away. (NASU)

Jeremiah 20:10a For I have heard the whispering [dibbah] of many, "Terror on every side! Denounce him; yes, let us denounce him!" (NASU) [Also NIV, God's Word]

Jeremiah 20:10a For I heard the defaming [dibbah] of many, fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it. (KJV)

"Bad" or "evil report" seems to be the primary usage of this word ("bad reputation" being closely associated). In Jeremiah, the "whispering" of some translations seems at odds with other usages, or even the "defaming" of the KJV. Those choosing "whispering" do so based on the literal meaning of the word which implies "to move secretly, stealthily, or furtively." Unfortunately it looses much of the edge implied in this word choice. Anyone can whisper something, good or bad. Yet here it emphasizes a bad or evil report; wherein it is not true it likewise can be called slander (i.e. Proverbs 10:18 KJV & NASU). This word does not have to refer to a contrived report, it also can refer to something that is truly bad, for example the giants in the land (Numbers 13:32-33) or the actions of Joseph's brother (Genesis 37:2), yet the true evil of these reports is that they are being exaggerated by the teller; magnified, or emphasized, to cause trouble. It comes down to intent.

#3a. Psithurismos (alt. psithyrismos)

2 Corinthians 12:20 For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings [katalalia], whisperings [psithurismos], swellings, tumults: (KJV)

2 Corinthians 12:20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders [katalalia], gossip [psithurismos], arrogance, disturbances; (NASU)

2 Corinthians 12:20 For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander [katalalia], gossip [psithurismos], arrogance and disorder. (NIV)

The Greek word "psithurismos" is closely related to the Hebrew word "dibbah", as it draws on a root word with similar literal meaning that can be translated as "whispering." Gossip is a fair translation of the word, as long as it is understood in the worst implications of that word, namely slanderous whisperings. One word study dictionary even denotes "pseudos", a lie, as being a being a synonym of this word.3 I do not believe that in this solitary usage of this word, that it is an accident that the apostle Paul has positioned it together with the Greek word "katalalia", which means slander. Remember that Greek did not have the punctuation of English, so it is not improbable that the two words were mean to be taken together, namely "slanderous whispering" or "slanderous gossip." Further examination of the word "katalalia" will follow, after we have examined more directly related word.

#3b. Psithuristes

Romans 1:29-30 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers [psithuristes], 30 Backbiters [katalalos], haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, (KJV)

Romans 1:29-30 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips [psithuristes], 30 slanderers [katalalos], God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; (NIV) [Also NASU]

"Psithuristes" is another lonesome word, found only in Paul's list describing the fallen state of mankind. Sharing the same root word with "psithurismos", it also has that literal meaning of secrecy, often translated as "whisperer." As one that likes old and often unused words, I liked the definition given by Strongs...

"a secret calumniator"4

A dictionary definition of calumniator reads as...

"To make maliciously or knowingly false statements about."5

This is certainly the primary meaning we have been arriving at for gossip throughout Scriptures. Similar to 2 Corinthians 12:20, I again do not believe it a coincidence that Paul paired "psithuristes" with another word "katalalos", which also means to slander.6 Taken together, it would again very clearly make the expression "secret slander" or "whispering slanders". Clearly it is much more than merely whispering a secret or truth. It is one that has intent to harm.

#4a. Katalalos (kat-al'al-os) - Greek - NT 2637

The word Katalalos is found only in Romans 1:30, as considered together with "psithuristes". While rendered "backbiter" in KJV, the "slanderers" of the NIV and NASU is much closer in meaning. It comes from two root words which together mean to "speak against", the heart of our word "slander". Certainly, in its one appearance in Scriptures, together with "psithuristes", it certainly is part of the stronger definition of gossip, the spreading of statements with intent to harm.

#4b. Katalalia (kat-al-al-ee'-ah) - Greek - NT 2636

Closely related to Katalalos is the derived word Katalalia, rendered as "backbiting" and "evil speaking" in KJV. "To speak of evil of" certainly encompasses the meaning of this word, which again we could express as "slander" or perhaps even as "gossip" if a stronger understanding of this word is in view. Certainly when combined with "psithurismos", as found in 2 Corinthians 12:20, it is a malicious whispering, with a goal of causing harm, which is being spoken about. The only other place in Scriptures where this word is found is in 1 Peter 2...

1 Peter 2:1 Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings [katalalia], (KJV)

1 Peter 2:1 Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander [katalalia] of every kind. (NIV) [Also NASU]

Here in 1st Peter, standing alone, it still conveys its primary meaning of slander. Adding "whisperings" to it (i.e. 2 Corinthians 12:20), perhaps makes it more secretive as most true gossip tends to be.

In summary, biblically speaking, gossip is less about the action and more about the intent. Whether a whispered innuendo, an openly recited account, or a blabbed secret, all gossip is done with the intent to harm someone. The Bible consistently advises us to be all about the truth - and quite specifically, to be acting out of love. As with the opening examples in this article, love legitimately warns others of possible harm. In all things love seeks to build up.

Ephesians 4:15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (NIV)

3 John 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone - and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true. (NIV)

1 Corinthians 4:14 I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. (NIV)

1 Thessalonians 5:14 And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. (NIV)

Hebrews 10:24-25 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)

The Psalmist, while in this instance not directly using the term, certainly describes a gossip with these words...

Psalms 52:3-4 You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Selah 4 You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue! (NIV)

Speak the truth and stay away from gossip.

End Notes

1. The NIV, in this instance, would reduce a gossip to "one who talks too much." Truth be told, this would leave a multitude of children and adults guilty of gossip. This is out of character with the rest of Scriptures and certainly the strong meaning of the word gossip - someone who seeks to do harm with their words. The primary admonition of Scriptures to not talk too much is found in regards to keeping one's word. Don't say it if you're not going to follow through. Certainly this principle holds with a Biblical definition of a gossip (talebearer, [rakiyl]) being one who reveals secrets they have committed to keep.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. 2 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. 3 As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words. 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the [temple] messenger, "My vow was a mistake." Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God. (NIV)

James 3:3-6 and Proverbs 10:19 also remind us that our flesh, or the sinful nature of a non-believer, tends to show up the more a person talks. Only the believer has been given the strength, by God, to take captive every thought (2 Corinthians 10:5) and to speak words that build up (Hebrews 3:13, 10:25) - it is these words that need to be multiplied! (See Ephesians 4:15, 5:19; 1 Corinthians 2:4-7; James 2:12; Romans 10:14-15).

2. Reputation is important - in God's qualifications for church elders we're clearly told...

1 Timothy 3:7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap. (NIV)

3. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament © 1992 by AMG International, Inc. Revised Edition, 1993

4. Biblesoft's New Exhaustive Strong's Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary. Copyright © 1994, 2003, 2006 Biblesoft, Inc. and International Bible Translators, Inc.

5. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

6. The verse division between Romans 1:29 and Romans 1:30 tend to separate the words "gossip" and "slander" even more than the modern punctuation. Remember that both punctuation and verse division are relatively recent additions not found in the original language.

7. Consider for a moment this very real scenario: An adult who works with children overhears or is told "a secret" by a child. The information is alarming in that it provides reason for you to believe that the child is being (or has been) abused. If merely breaking a confidence or telling this secret is gossip - the sin of Proverbs 20:10 - then a believer has a problem. In fact there are some secrets that are meant to be revealed. This is one of them. It is not done maliciously or with intent to harm; in fact it is done with the well being of the child as a primary motivation. This is not gossip by a biblical definition.

8. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul is acting upon information about others received from a credible source. Clearly Paul was not guilty of gossip, though many today would accuse others of being so, soley because they would listen to a person sepak about someone else, let alone act on it.

1 Corinthians 1:11 My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. (NIV)

9. Special consideration is due to the wording chosen by the New American Standard (NASU) translators for Proverbs 20:19.

Proverbs 20:19 He who goes about as a slanderer [Rakiyl] reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip ["Pathah" & "Saphah"]. (NASU)

They, quite validly, translate "Rakiyl" as "slanderer" but stand alone in utilizing the word "gossip" in place of two other Hebrew words, "Pathah" and "Saphah". Pathath is a word literally meaning "to enlarge" which has figurative meanings including "to deceive, slander, to entice, to be gullible". Saphah means "lips". Most other translators use phrases for the pair, such as:

  • talks to much (NIV, GNT, NCV)

  • flattereth with his lips (KJV)
  • lips are open wide (BBE)
  • talkative person (CJB)
  • tell everything (CEV)
  • a simple babbler (ESV)
  • mouth is always open (GW)
  • a big mouth (HCSB)
  • chatterers (NLT)
  • opens wide his lips (WEB)

While these words were obviously, by context, associated with "Rakiyl" (a slanderer or gossip), turning them directly into the word "gossip" actually goes against the more literal rendering that the NASU usually adopts. This became more of a dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought rendering. It is not an injustice to the idea behind the entire verse. To retain more literal word order and usage, I may have translated it:

He who goes about as a slanderous gossip reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a person whose lips are always open to deceive. (BJM - personal translation)

(c) 2008 Brent MacDonald/LTM. Duplication is permitted as long as the source is cited.