21 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (32) Hypocrite

Classical masks on sale near the Acropolis in Athens … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I would hate to call anyone a hypocrite or two-faced, and I would hate it even more to find that some thought that I am two-faced or a hypocrite.

Yet, in Saint Mark’s Gospel, which provides the principal Gospel readings in the Lectionary these weeks, Christ uses the word ‘hypocrite’ to condemn some the Pharisees who consider the ‘tradition of the elders’ to be binding, as are the laws of Moses.

At first, the laws of ritual purity applied only to priests. The Pharisees wished to extend these laws to all Jews, at first not because they had hang-ups about how and when people could eat, but because they wanted to show that all people are priestly and holy. The original intention was broad and embracing, and not narrow and controlling in its intent.

Rather than becoming entangled in the details of argument, Christ calls the narrow and controlling group among the Pharisees hypocrites.

In Greek, the word, ὑποκριτής (hypokrités) was used for an actor who masked or hid his face. The word ὑποκρίνομαι (hypokrínomai) means ‘to play a part on stage,’ and the word ῠ̔ποκρῐτής (hypokrités), meaning one who answers, an interpreter, an expounder or a stage actor, eventually came to mean figuratively a pretender, dissembler, or a hypocrite.

In Athens in the 4th century BCE, the orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics, as a ῠ̔ποκρῐτής (hypokrités) whose skill at impersonating characters on stage made him untrustworthy as a politician. This negative view of the hypokrites, combined with the Roman disdain for actors, shaded into the originally neutral ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis) or hypocrisy.

It is this later sense of hypokrisis as ‘play-acting’ or assuming a counterfeit persona that gives us the modern word hypocrisy with all its negative connotations.

Classical masks from the theatre in Athens on display in the Acropolis Museum … the word ‘hypocrite’ comes from the Greek word for an actor who masked or hid his face (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday: Olympian

Tomorrow: Genocide

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