Degrees of “silence”

We’ve seen so far that the noun hēsuchia and the verb hēsuchazō come from a Greek root that means to refrain from saying or doing something that one otherwise might.  We see this meaning come out in the one other place in the New Testament where hēsuchia is used.  In that passage we also meet a synonym of the word, which will help confirm the understanding we’ve been developing.

In the book of Acts, Luke describes what happened when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem.  He was rescued by the Roman authorities from a mob that was shouting, “Get rid of him!”  As he was being carried into the barracks, he got permission to address the crowd.  Luke records that “Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd” and “when they were all silent” (literally “there being a great sigē“), he spoke to them in Hebrew.  “And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet” (more literally, “the more so they held silence,” hēsuchia).

We see two things here.  First of all, hēsuchia is once again used to describe people not saying something they otherwise might.  Indeed, as soon as the crowd hears Paul claim that God has sent him to the Gentiles, they immediately resume shouting, “Get rid of him!”  They have voluntarily restrained themselves to this point to let Paul speak, but now what they want to say comes out again.  In other words, we might say that they didn’t so much become silent as they stopped protesting—temporarily.

The other thing we see is that when the word hēsuchia is used, the focus is not so much on the silence itself as on a person or group’s willingness to hear without argument or protest, because there seem to be degrees of hēsuchia.  We can picture the united clamoring of the crowd dying down to murmuring and the occasional individual shout when Paul gestures to be heard, and then a near silence taking hold when the crowd recognizes he’s a fellow Hebrew and it strains to hear him.  Hēsuchia can be present to a certain extent, and then be present “more so.”  It doesn’t mean absolute silence, but willingness to hold one’s peace.

We must also consider this word sigē, which is clearly a synonym.  Significantly, it’s the one Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 14 when he says that women must “keep silent” in the churches.  We’ll look at this term in our next post and see that it’s used in the same contexts, and with similar meaning, as hēsuchia and hēsuchazō.

Paul Arrested in Jerusalem

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