What are the definitions of “foolish talk” and “coarse jesting?”
Ephesians 5:4 says that "neither ... foolish talking nor jesting" ought to be found among the saints. However, I have had difficulty coming to the precise meanings of these words, or maybe I am afraid to. I see on your web site that you, and most others, define "foolish talking" as sinful or tasteless talk, for example, dead baby jokes, and that "jesting" is vulgar double-entendre. However, I have seen several commentators and web sites claim that "foolish talking" means any conversation that does not edify (Wesley's commentary) and that "jesting" means wit or humor of any sort (Hodge's commentary among others), or at least wit. One rationale is that, when a Christian uses humor, he destroys his credibility as a potential witness. What are the meanings of these words?
"But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Ephesians 5:3-6).
- Filthiness (aichrotes)
- "filthiness, ugliness, baseness, indecency, wickedness."
- "'Filthiness' (obscenity) literally means 'filthy language.'"
- Foolish Talking (morologia)
- "foolish talk, silly talk"
- "The term is used by nonbiblical writers for 'silly talk' in general, such as might come from the mouth of one who is weak of intellect, or even intoxicated."
- "'Foolish talking' is talk that is characteristic of fools, people literally with 'empty heads.'"
- Coarse Jesting (eutrapelia)
- "Indecent or vulgar jesting, improper jokes"
- In classical Greek, the word meant being quick-witted, sharp, or witty, but as time progressed the word took on more negative connotations. Aristotle used this word for humor that was somewhere between buffoonery and boorishness. By the days of the New Testament, it was used to refer to indecent or off-color jokes.
Quotes from The Complete Biblical Library.
No disrespect for the commentators you cite, but they broadened the definitions too far. Their definition would condemn Elijah's taunting of the false prophets when he encouraged them to cry louder, "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened" (I Kings 18:27). As Solomon noted, there is "a time to weep, and a time to laugh" (Ecclesiastes 3:4). The Bible has numerous uses of subtle puns and other forms of humor. Therefore, it is wrong to conclude that all forms of humor are condemned. If Jesus can use humorous descriptions of a man helping to get a speck of dust out of a friend's eye while having a plank in his own eye (Matthew 7:3-5), then we can conclude that humor has its place in the teaching of others.
It is true that God pays attention to everything we say, including the things we blurt out without thinking. "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37). Thus we are careful what we say. "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers" (Ephesians 4:29). Please note, though that Paul isn't saying that we can't chat about last night's ball game -- though there might be a problem if that is all you were willing to discuss with someone. Rather, Paul is saying that we should not be talking to people just to tear them down. The purpose of our conversations is to build people up, to make them better people. Exchanging pleasantries is a part of a proper conversation.
Besides, the context in which Paul warns against these types of speech tells us that he was primarily referring to improper joking around concerning sexual matters and unclean thoughts because they would leave the hearer with the wrong impression regarding the Christian's life.