It Matters Not to Anti-Catholics Like James Swan Whether “Ass” is a Legitimate Term in the Bible, Shakespeare, & Even John Calvin
This was a surreal 2007 exchange with several prominent online anti-Catholics, including James Swan. I have abridged the original, which can be viewed in all its gory details at Internet Archive (Parts One / Two / Three): and have added just a little bit presently. Words of my opponents will be in various colors.
[My original “controversial” statement]: “Do you actually try to be an arrogant, self-important ass or does it just come naturally?”
“gojira“: Throughout this whole debate, there has not been one cuss word uttered. I think both David Waltz and David King are to be commended for that. That said, if there is cussing to be done on a Christian blog, it would appear that Mr. Armstrong would be the one to do it.
James Swan: I don’t mind DA [i.e., me] coming over and simply being DA. He usually does more to damage his own reputation by his quick temper than anyone does by pointing out his poor research methods.
What temper? I don’t have one to speak of. I don’t need to lose my temper to passionately condemn lying. I’m taught to despise sin in the Bible. Jesus hated sin. He got quite passionate about Pharisaical hypocrisy.
If indeed it were a cuss word, you might have a point. But “ass” used in this way is not at all; it is simply a synonym for “donkey.” As such, it is used in the Bible many times. Have you never heard of “Balaam’s ass”? “Ass” appears hundreds of times in the Old Testament in the RSV, and also in the KJV. See also New Testament usage in the RSV and KJV. This includes usage by our Lord Jesus, too:
Matthew 21:2, 5 (RSV) saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. . . .  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” [“ass” also in KJV]
Luke 13:15 (RSV) Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it?” [“ass” also in KJV]
If the reply is that the Bible only uses ass for donkey and not also as an insult of a man, this isn’t true, either:
Genesis 16:12 (RSV) He [Ishmael] shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.
Job 11:12 (RSV) But a stupid man will get understanding, when a wild ass’s colt is born a man. [KJV: “For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt.”]
“Piss” and “Pisseth” are also biblical words (KJV: 8 times / replaced with “urine” in the RSV two times). I suppose if I used those words you would be just as quick to make an ignorant remark about language, too. So why don’t you start a campaign to get these evil cuss words out of the Bible?
I think lying about others and bearing false witness is the real sin here (that violates the Ten Commandments). I simply used a strong word in describing the sin, but it was not a “cuss” word, even by fundamentalist standards (if they just knew more about biblical language).
Just keep cranking out the stupid remarks, James. You’re the one who looks like a petty fool by condemning a citation from my book without even knowing the facts. If that’s your brand of Christianity, you just go right ahead and live it, but don’t expect anyone on the fence to be impressed with this sort of pitiful, cynical, ongoing, utterly wrongheaded attitude of yours towards a fellow Christian.
By the way, Shakespeare often uses the word “ass” exactly as I have:
King Henry V (Act 4, Scene 1)
FLUELLEN: If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb, is it meet, think you, that we should also, look you, be an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb? in your own conscience, now?
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Act 2, Scene 5)
SPEED: What an ass art thou! I understand thee not.
The Taming of the Shrew (Act 3, Scene 1)
LUCENTIO: Preposterous ass, that never read so far
To know the cause why music was ordain’d!
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 3, Scene 1)
BOTTOM: I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act 5, Scene 5)
FALSTAFF: I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.
The Tempest (Act 5, Scene 1)
Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter
And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I, to take this drunkard for a god
And worship this dull fool!
Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2)
HAMLET: Why, what an ass am I!
Even John Calvin himself uses the word “ass” precisely as I did!:
But what sort of reason is this — that every ignorant ass, as soon as he has occupied the see of Rome, may overthrow all antiquity with one little word? (Institutes, IV, V, 8, McNeill / Battles edition, 1960; the version online at CCEL [Beveridge?] reads “unlearned ass“)
[L]et these asses prick up their ears. (Ibid., III, IV, 7; same in CCEL version)
The notary reads over what no one dares to disapprove, and the asses shake their ears in assent. Behold the oracle which imposes religious obligations on the whole world! Why do they not openly confess the thing as it is — that ten or twenty monks, whose labors they have hired, concoct the decrees — that the Pope puts his censorial pen through whatever does not please him, and approves of the rest — that nothing is left to the Council but the burden of publishing? (Acts of the Council of Trent, With the Antidote, Preface)
Will you next provide us with why it is also appropriate in your eyes to say the “F” word, Mr. Armstrong? I am sure you will find a historical context to impose so that that word can be used as well.
Can you find it in the Bible, Shakespeare, and Calvin?
You think the word “ass” (as a synonym of donkey) is “cussing”. I do not. How does one prove such a thing pro or con? I brought the Bible and the greatest writer in the English language to bear on the topic, and Old Man Calvin.
I looked up one online dictionary (Merriam-Webster) for “ass”:
1: any of several hardy gregarious (see GREGARIOUS sense 1a) African or Asian perissodactyl mammals (genus Equus) smaller than the horse and having long earsespecially : an African mammal (E. asinus) that is the ancestor of the donkey
2 informal + impolite : a stupid, obstinate, or perverse person// a pompous ass// made an ass of himself—often compounded with a preceding adjective// Don’t be a smart-ass.
It also notes the second meaning as a synonym of buttocks or anus, but that doesn’t nullify or contradict my own usage in the first sense.
It appears that now Mr. Armstrong is trying to excuse his use of colorful language and has garnered a fellow Catholic to follow him.
How can one “excuse” what he doesn’t think is wrong in the first place?
Perhaps both have forgotten that today their word of choice is not the accepted mode of clean and responsible expression.
But that is untrue, even according to the dictionary. It may not be in the fundamentalist world you apparently move in, but that is not the entire world.
Finding an excuse to cuss someone you don’t like by showing the unsavory language (and still unacceptable) of others used in the past is nothing more than doing just that: finding a way to excuse your sin.
Get off your high horse. Is this the worse “sin” you can find to condemn, in a world of partial-birth infanticide, terrorism, broken homes, etc.? “Save the world from the word ‘ass’ and Armstrong’s colorful vocabulary!” You’re as much a hypocrite as the Pharisees that Jesus condemned for their legalism and backwards priorities.
Tell, Mr. Armstrong, is your word of choice one that you would teach your children to say?
When it is called-for, yes, and Swan’s arrogance in once again lying about me without cause warranted it in spades. Absolutely. Jesus used far more condemning language: “vipers” “whitewashed tombs, full of dead men’s bones.” Paul only half-jokingly told someone to go castrate himself.
Is it a word that you find wholesome? Is it a word that you personally would use to call Christ, or otherwise use in His presence?
God used many many times similar strong language in condemning sin.
Do you go to church and verbally call your fellow parishioners your word of choice?
It has never come up, as I have never met parishioners who exhibit the sort of condescending arrogance that James Swan does. People who know me are not in the habit of calling me a liar on an ongoing basis, and lifting themselves up as paragons of scholarly virtue, as swan does. So it simply doesn’t come up.
As I said before, if there is a need to cuss on a Christian blog,
Of course not; I agree, which is why I didn’t do it.
or call the host of that Christian blog a derogatory name for a donkey, then it apparently goes to Mr. Armstrong to do that.
If he acts like an ass, then I will point that out. Again, biblical language is far worse and more cutting, in describing sinful behavior and attitudes.
But you won’t consider whether James Swan has lied about me. No, that would never do. You have to defend him no matter how much he is caught lying about another person and breaking one of the Ten Commandments. It’s far more important to go on and on about the wickedness and evil of a synonym of “donkey.” Heaven help us.
Tell, Mr. Armstrong, is your word of choice one that you would teach your children to say?
Since you brought this up, we don’t teach them to “say” anything. What we do is lead by example and teach them to be godly and wise and polite and charitable to others. We don’t make a big deal about “bad words.” They’re never mentioned. We simply lead by example of kind, friendly, courteous speech.
Occasionally (not very often at all) when one is misbehaving big-time, I’ll say “you’re acting like an ass.” Once or twice, we explained to them that this simply means “donkey.” They understand that it was used when they angered us, and we had perfect cause to be angry. But they haven’t seen fit to even repeat that word.
I have four children: 16, 13 (almost 14), ten, and five: three boys and a girl. I don’t recall ever hearing any of them utter even the most relatively minor “bad word” (including h–l, d–n). Nothing. Nada. Not once, that I ever recall. [now, ten years later, this remains the case]
Now, I challenge anyone on this forum to tell us that they have done any better in the matter of language, with their kids.
We strictly monitor what they watch on TV (never ever do they watch network TV [nor do we, except a rare documentary], except for sports, and we make them turn off commercials). We restrict video games. We home school. We monitor their friends and stick mostly to Christian youth groups.
This is the fruit: polite kids who treat people with respect and courtesy, and who love God: kids who openly hug their parents (even in front of other kids) and who actually talk to adults.
Now, if you want to raise your kids to believe that “ass” is a terrible “cuss” word, feel free. It’s your life and none of my business. But you can do no better than we have done on that score.
Thank you for once again showing us all what you are made of. It is sad that you feel the need to excuse and defend your sin. Once again, if there is cussing to be done on a Christian blog, or someone who would now apparently seek to actually defend even the “F” word on a Christian blog, it would be you.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths…” –EPH. 4:29 NIV
“Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” –EPH 5:4 NIV
And now western civilization and all that is good and decent and beloved is collapsing because I used a synonym for donkey in the same way that Shakespeare and Calvin did. I can think of scarcely anything more ridiculous. I think it is exactly right to say that this doesn’t fool anyone. But at least we can enjoy the high humor of it even while we lament with sadness how pathetic it is at bottom.
To show the affinity of “ass” as “donkey” one can think of the term “asinine” that comes from the same root, and means, literally, “of, relating to, or resembling an ass.” So, for example, I’ve often been known to use “asinine” when I am disgusted with something (my mother uses the word quite a bit, too): “That was absolutely asinine what he did.” This is scarcely different from my recent utterance: “He is a pompous ass.”
An ass acts in an asinine fashion (just like we say “it is a human fault” when someone messes up because we presuppose that all people have flaws and tendencies to sin).
Anyone who knows my writing (and there is a ton of it) and my style, knows how I was using the word. One can search my 1700 papers online and never find me saying the more common expression of ass (with another word added), let alone any more “serious swear words”. I don’t write that way. I don’t talk that way at all (out of respect towards those who are offended). Therefore, it is no “rationalization” for me to explain as I did. I was simply showing the sheer silliness of the groundless charge that I was being vulgar. For heaven’s sake, if Shakespeare’s usage (and the Bible’s, too) doesn’t make some term respectable and permissible, what does?
T. Epstein made a great comment on my site about the meaning and history of the phrase “pompous ass”: which I do not infrequently use when it is richly deserved by the recipient:
Pomposity is the quality of having or exhibiting self-importance. In common English vernacular of the past few centuries, the epithet, “pompous ass” depicts a person whose own sense of self-importance is belied by his obvious asinine nature–an ass being a common and not particularly intelligent creature that is a notoriously uncooperative beast of burden and considered of little use except as the means to breed mules. In short a “pompous ass” is one who over-estimates the value of his own opinion based upon his own misunderstanding of his own importance.
This has been its common meaning from the times before the writing of Dickens through Hemingway and to the present. To infer or believe that this phrase is a crude biological reference is simply ignorant. “Pompous buttocks” is a complete non sequitur.
If it is inappropriate to use this phrase in church or direct it toward children or clergy, it is so to the degree it is inappropriate to the hypothetical target, the ability of the target to understand it and to the norms of polite conversation allowed in the environment. Let’s be clear: addressing another in this manner is never polite. It is never a polite phrase, and the target of this phrase has every right to acknowledge he is being insulted.
The question then come down to whether the target merits the insult and whether the venue allows impolite speech. These would be valid topics of debate. But to make the use of the phrase itself an issue as if it inherently were of indisputable moral consequence is (in my opinion) an example of pomposity displayed by those who over-estimate the importance of their own opinions; or to be succinct: It is the stance of pompous asses.
Carrie: To be perfectly honest with you, I in many ways enjoy this type of behavior from you and your fellow Catholics. It shows your fruit and only strengthens my case that the Catholic gospel is not a saving gospel. But yet I would still rather not see this type of vulgarity and animosity associated with the term “Christian”. I am all for tough talk in apologetics, but this stuff is unnecessary. And if I was just a vehement “anti-Catholic” I wouldn’t even bother trying to encourage you.
Aren’t you the one who wants Protestants to consider you a brother in Christ? Do you think this type of behavior advances that case? This is what I find so baffling.
But it is not vulgarity! What else must one do to demonstrate this? I’ve appealed to dictionaries, great literature, the Bible, John Calvin himself . . .
Have you no relation to objective facts and the criteria of determining proper definitions at all? What are you, a postmodernist, where everything is relative and subjective to the person? You don’t like a word, and so that is that, no matter how implausible your position is by dictionaries and linguistics? Even the Bible and God’s own words, used in almost exactly the same way isn’t enough to convince you it isn’t vulgar?
Or else it is just the stereotypical fundamentalist legalism. Maybe you are opposed to dancing and playing cards and rock music too?
I’m happy to be with Jesus, God the Father, Who used this language. It ain’t that I have a problem with language; rather, you have a problem with God and the Bible, to take these ludicrous positions.
Cussing Women, Chivalry, Etc. [8-24-16]
Swearing and Sharing the Faith Don’t Mix Very Well! [National Catholic Register, 7-16-18]
Photo credit: Balaam and his Ass (1626), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]