In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous biblical quotation
According to a story – which may well be apocryphal – Dorothy Parker was about to step through a doorway when another woman (in many versions of the anecdote, it’s the socialite Clare Boothe Luce) remarked, ‘Age before beauty.’ Parker, known for her razor-sharp wit, delivered the riposte, ‘Pearls before swine.’
The phrase ‘pearls before swine’ is an odd one, though. Clearly Parker is responding to Luce’s insinuation – that she, Parker, is older and less beautiful than Luce herself – by claiming to be a rare and precious pearl where Luce is merely a swine. But the line is also an allusion to a famous phrase from the Bible: ‘Neither cast your pearls before swine.’ But what ‘Neither cast your pearls before swine’ is supposed to mean has confused many Bible scholars, so the quotation requires closer attention and analysis.
‘Never cast your pearls before swine’ – more accurately, ‘neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ – appears in the Sermon on the Mount, the address made by Jesus Christ to his followers, and recorded in the Gospels. This one speech (although, as we’ve discussed in our analysis of Jesus’ sermon, it may well have been a collection of sayings and teachings from numerous speeches Jesus gave) is a bit like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, about which someone once quipped that ‘there are too many quotations in it’.
Jesus’ Sermon gave us many quotations still in common use, including ‘salt of the earth’, ‘serving God and mammon’, ‘blessed are the meek’, ‘turn the other cheek’, and ‘pearls before swine’. And it is this last one that we’re concerned with here, not least because it’s one of the most difficult to untangle and interpret.
In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been baptised by John the Baptist. The Sermon on the Mount occupies three chapters shortly after this: chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus begins with a serious of blessings or ‘beatitudes’, which include the famous statement ‘blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ and ‘blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’.
Jesus then tells them that he has come not to destroy or overturn the laws from the Old Testament but to ‘fulfil’ them. Indeed, he will not change one ‘jot’ or ‘tittle’ (a very small mark in writing) of the law as it is written. And Jesus proceeds to prove this by going through several of the ‘Ten Commandments’ from Mosaic or Jewish law, and showing how these laws (‘thou shalt not kill’, ‘thou shalt not commit adultery’) are part of Jesus’ own teaching.
When we come to chapter 7 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is giving his listeners advice on how to lead a good moral life as one of his disciples. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’, Jesus enjoins his listeners, because if you judge others harshly you can expect the same judgment to be used on you. In this section of his sermon, Jesus repeatedly addresses the subject of hypocrisy.
And it’s here that we encounter the quotation in question:
Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.
This is from the King James translation of Matthew 7:6.
But what does Jesus mean by ‘neither cast ye your pearls before swine’?
It has been suggested that this is a reference to the fact that Jesus (or Matthew, at least) is addressing his message specifically among Jews, and not among Gentiles or non-Jews. In such an interpretation, Jesus is saying that the message of God would be wasted upon Gentiles, like giving pearls to pigs. It’s worth remembering here that ‘swine’ means pigs, and that according to Jewish dietary law, pigs or swine were considered unclean.
So likening non-Jews to ‘swine’ seems a likely interpretation. There is the famous story of Jesus casting out demons from a man and into a herd of swine, as they were unclean beasts and as such were suitable for ‘offloading’ the demons into. The longest and most detailed account of Jesus and the Gadarene swine is found in the Gospel of Mark, 5:1-20.
We often associate ‘pearls’ with wisdom, so, in this reading of the phrase, Jesus is discouraging his followers from being too exuberant and generous in spreading the word of God. His message is for his fellow Jews, but not necessarily for everyone beyond the Jewish world.
It’s worth remembering that Jesus’ ‘pearls before swine’ reference forms the second half of a larger injunction: ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet’. ‘That which is holy’ suggests that ‘pearls’ should be viewed as similarly referring to something sacred, as the second clause acts as a complementary pendant to the first.
And both ‘dogs’ and ‘swine’ are lesser beasts to men. But to Jesus’ Jewish audience, non-Jews would similarly have been regarded as less deserving and less high-status than Jews themselves.
A further detail makes such an analysis of ‘neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ more persuasive. It is that – perhaps surprisingly given the way Christianity was subsequently spread far and wide across the globe to many non-Jewish people – this idea that Jesus didn’t wish for Gentiles to share in the message he brought has more textual support than might at first be apparent.
For instance, the Gospel of Mark (which we have analysed in more depth here) was written largely for a Jewish audience, and it is implied that the message about the Messiah is not meant to be shared beyond the Jewish world. Indeed, in Mark as elsewhere, Jesus makes it plain to his disciples that he uses parables when addressing a wider audience because everyone else isn’t fit to hear and heed his message: the parables are actually intended to obscure his meaning, rather than clarify it. So in Mark 11:12, we find this:
And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but until them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
This idea is taken up in Matthew 13:10-16, where Jesus offers a similar explanation for his use of parables: it is to avoid inspiring everyone else to convert, when they are not meant to ‘understand’ the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. They are meant to ‘see’ but not to ‘perceive’.
In the last analysis, then, ‘neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ warns against a form of desecration: spreading the word of God too liberally to people who Jesus knows will probably fail to heed it, much as a dog or pig would. Jesus’ disciplines shouldn’t seek to convert everyone to his teachings: they should avoid trying to convert those who are likely to revile and reject it.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.