Some of you are politely relentless (if that isn’t an oxymoron). One of the things various of you folks in the blogosphere have been bugging me about is explaining the whole business about rhetoric, and using rhetoric to analyze the NT. Well, I have finally capitulated and written a handbook for Wipf and Stock (under their Cascade imprint I believe) that will be out in the fall. But for you eager beavers out there in the cyber theology-sphere, I offer here a small sample chapter.


A. Rhetoric Redux—Its History

Rhetoric, from the Greek word, rh?torik?, had a long and interesting history before any of the authors of the NT were ever born. Plato and Aristotle both discussed the matter, and took part in the debate about how to define what it was. Rhetoric was to play a crucial role in the birth of democracy in the Golden Age of Greece. This was so of course because in a democracy people had choices, and had to be persuaded to pursue a particular course of action, or adopt a particular policy in the Greek assembly (the ekklesia). Aristotle for example insisted that rhetoric was so important that it was not fully separable from philosophy, and both Plato and Aristotle agreed that there were ethical issues involved in using rhetoric. The purpose of the various types of rhetoric should be furthering the good, the expedient, the noble, or the just (see e.g. Aristotle, Rhetorica 2.19.26). Rhetoric was considered an art which required the honing of rhetorical skills, and the careful practice of the craft.

Aristotle, who wrote the first great treatise on rhetoric that is still extant, traces the beginnings of rhetoric to two Sicilians, Corax and Tisias, who are credited with developing the earliest rhetorical theory (see Cicero, Brutus, 46). Aristotle weighed in on the discussion of definitions by insisting that rhetoric was “the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatsoever” (Rhetorica 1.2.1). By the time we get to Quintilian, the great summarizer and epitomizer of all things rhetorical both in the Greek and Roman traditions, he states that rhetoric, while it has many definitions is at bottom “the art of speaking well” (ars bene dicendi—Inst. Or. 2.17.37). But Quintilian was well aware that various definitions were in play (in Inst. Or. 2.15-1-38 he reviews them), and his simply worked well in the Empire, since democracies no longer existed. What is clear from studying the history of the terminological debate is that rhetoric was not just about informing people, it was about persuading and motivating them in various ways. Rhetorica ad Herrennium was to stress that the task of the rhetor was to address an audience in such a manner that as far as possible he secures the audiences agreement about something (1.2).

Though it is not completely clear at what point the division happened, there came to be two different approaches to rhetoric, one called Sophistic rhetoric, and the other a more serious and substantive approach. Sophistic rhetoric was to rise in popularity during the period of the Roman Empire, not least because more and more orators were afraid of expressing contrary or controversial opinions, and instead focused on being eloquent. The focus turned more to the form rather than the substance of the discourse. This is why Quintilian somewhat tamely defines rhetoric as the art of speaking well. This was closer to the Sophistic point of view than to the Aristotlean one which insisted that rhetoric had to do with philosophy and even the search for truth about something. Just how strongly many felt about Sophistic rhetoric can be shown by the strong, even vehement and sarcastic comments made about it. Philo for example called it mere ‘shadow-boxing’ (Det. 4), not a real contending for the truth, or some substantive matter.

But this matter was not just of concern to the well-educated elite, like Philo. Rhetoric was a popular spectator sport in the first century A.D. Most persons were either producers or consumers of some kind of rhetoric, and rhetoric had long been a staple of education, at all levels beginning with elementary education.

In elementary education, children would learn how to do rhetorical comparisons (called synkrisis) for the sake of the formation of their values—so they would know the difference between being a virtuous person and being a wicked one. They would also learn how to compose chreia short pithy stories which usually would have a memorable saying at or near the end of it—like for instance the story of Jesus’ discussion with the wealthy young man which culminates with the famous: “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mk. 10.25). Rhetorical education would continue as the child got older and it was even made a staple item of higher education in Roman times. In fact, the rhetor came to be the person who dictated what was taught in higher education during the period of the Empire.[1] Rhetoricians were found in all the great cities of the Roman Empire, many of which also had schools of rhetoric, or at least schools which made rhetoric one of the dominant subjects studied.

Education was of course by and large the privilege of the more elite members of society, and it tells us something about the leaders of early Christianity that they could read and write, and various of them had rhetorical skills as well. Generally speaking rhetoric was part of the training of wealthy males seeking to enter the ‘cursus honorum’ climbing up the ladder of public office and pursuing a career in public life in one way or another, whether as a lawyer, a senator, an ambassador, a government employee or the like. While there were a few examples of rhetorically trained and skilled women in antiquity, such as Hortensia, the daughter of the famous rhetorician Q. Hortensius Hortalus, who delivered a public oration to the triumvirs in 42 B.C. arguing her own legal case, she was surely an exception to the rule, and probably gained her training in the
home. Women were not in general either encouraged, or in some cases, allowed to pursue ‘higher’ education which means that even wealthy women tended to lack rhetorical training beyond the intermediate or even progymnasmata level (see Inst. Or. 1.1.6).[2]

But the progymnasmata exercises were actually extensive. One learned how to deal with the following literary forms and verbally form them in interesting and persuasive manners—













Thesis or Theme

Defend / Attack a Law

Some of these exercises were quite complicated and corresponded to specific elements in a speech of any of the three species of rhetoric. In addition, even early on there was training in declamation. One would be set a topic, sometimes trivial (‘in praise of a flea’ or ‘the shame of male baldness’) sometimes serious (‘proposition—that the emperor deserves to be worshipped’) and one would produce a speech to an imaginary audience about the matter. As I have said, most ancient peoples used rhetoric, and were avid consumers and critics of its more skilled practitioners. The more Sophistic styles were in vogue, the more one was likely to hear epideictic rhetoric in the market place and elsewhere. It could be the most frivolous form of rhetoric, but also the most eloquent and aesthetically pleasing. Epideictic rhetoric was to be especially associated with the rise of the so-called second Sophistic in the second century A.D., but those tendencies were already in evidence in the first century.

In an oral culture, orators might well make a considerable living, and some, like Herodes Atticus, who helped build the theater in the shadow of the Parthenon in Athens, became very wealthy indeed because of their gift or eloquence. Consider for example a papyrus fragment dating to about 110 A.D. which reads in part: “Pay to Licinius…the rhetor the amount due to him for the speeches [in] which Aur[elius…] was honored.. in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver”.[3] This was more than a Roman soldier’s annual wages, according to the Roman historian Tacitus (Ann. 1.17)! The broad acceptance and indeed great popularity of rhetorical oratory is attested by important literary works which lionize orators, such as Athenaeus’ Deiphnosophists, or Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists. Not only did the popular orators have many fans, they were widely imitated. Notice it was the Sophists who were famous for their verbal pyrotechnics that made ‘news’. This proved to be problematic for those who wanted to persuade audiences on some serious subject, and who were unwilling to entertain or thrill the crowd with their verbal artistry. The alternative however was not to eschew rhetoric altogether, but rather to use it in a more substance and sober manner, all the while castigating those ‘Sophists’ who were not philosophically (or theologically) serious about what they were doing.

B. Rhetoric Redux—Its Form and Praxis

The art of persuasion had a multitude of rules and forms involved in its praxis, and it will be well if we lay them out in some detail here. There were three different species of ancient rhetoric— forensic, deliberative, and epideictic. Each originally was used to address a particular social setting, and had distinctive purposes. Forensic rhetoric, as the name suggests was the rhetoric of the law court, the rhetoric of attack and defense and it focused on things done in the past. This was the type of rhetoric most frequently practiced in the NT era, and we hear samplings of it in the trials of Paul in Acts. Deliberative rhetoric was the rhetoric of the ‘assembly’, originally of the democratic assemblies in Greece, and was the rhetoric of advice and consent, trying to get one course of action or another, one policy or another voted on in an affirmative manner. The temporal focus of this rhetoric was the future, as change was sought in some policy or action in the near future. Finally there was epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of display. Its social venues included the agora (for entertainment) or the funeral for encomiums or eulogies, or at celebrations, say the proconsul’s birthday. This was the rhetoric of praise and blame, more praise than blame especially at funerals, and its temporal focus was the present. It did not seek to change beliefs or behavior or opinions or attitudes but rather reinforce the existing ones. It was possible to mix things up in a rhetorical discourse, say have an epideictic digression in the midst of an otherwise forensic discourse, but there was a certain way of doing this, where one made clear one was digressing. We see this practice in 1 Corinthians where 1 Cor. 13 is an epideictic show piece in praise of love in the midst of an otherwise deliberative discourse.[4]

During the period of the empire, epideictic rhetoric came to the fore, as flattery could get you advancement, or patrons, or at least noticed in a positive way. In a society which had a set, even rigid authority structure involving patrons and clients, with the Emperor being the biggest patron of all
, the art of sucking up was the order of the day, not speaking truth to power. In such a setting it is no surprise that the rhetorical handbooks of the first century A.D. such as Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria which wanted rhetoric to be taken seriously focused on forensic rhetoric, since it was the form of substantive rhetoric most frequently practiced in that era. What is especially interesting about the NT, is that it more frequently exhibits deliberative rhetoric, as it seeks to persuade people to change their beliefs and behaviors. It should be added that deliberative rhetoric was however still in play in the Roman Empire, not in democratic assemblies, but in ambassadorial missions when one group or country was negotiating with others to conclude some kind of pact or treaty.

What is revealing about the predilection for deliberative rhetoric in the NT is that it suggests that the orator believes the audience is free to respond positively or not, and therefore needs to be persuaded. In other words, good evangelism, and good preaching involved persuasion, not manipulation and strong arm tactics. It may well be very revealing that Paul repeatedly called the house meetings of Christians meetings of the ekklesia—formerly the term for the democratic assembly, now the term for the assembling of Christians. Was this because Paul believed that the church was now the place where dialogue, discussion, debate could still be carried on, and should lead to important conclusions about belief and behavior? I think so.

In the NT era style often prevailed over substance when it came to rhetoric, and much emphasis was placed on stylistic devices, figures of speech, colorful metaphors, exclamation, apostrophes, wordplay, epigrams. These sorts of rhetorical devices are not lacking in the NT, but they are used to serve serious purposes about matters theological and ethical.

In regard to style, there were two major styles of rhetoric—the more reserved and formal Atticzing style, and the more florid and luxurious Asiatic style. We will have occasion to say a good deal about the latter since it turns up in abundance in the Pauline letters written to places in the province of Asia not surprisingly (i.e. Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon). In general Asiatic style tended to be more emotional, involving more colorful, longer sentences, lots of hyperbole and metaphors and the like. Attic style, was seen as more appropriate in some quarters, but even Cicero preferred the Asiatic style for his Roman trials as it did a better job of stirring the emotions.

A normal rhetorical discourse had three basic emotional phases, dealing first with the issue of ethos, then logos, and finally attending to pathos. There was an appeal to the simpler and more surface emotions, such as a feeling of being hospitable or friendly, or the capacity for laughter in the opening of the discourse as the rhetorician sought to establish rapport and his authority with his audience. Ethos was all about establishing the speaker’s character and making clear he was trustworthy and believable. Lots of things could affect one’s ethos. When the toupee of the rhetorician blew off in the agora in the middle of an otherwise compelling discourse he was having a bad ethos day, and his speech lost credibility. Logos refers to the real meat of the discourse, its emotion-charged arguments. In Greek arguments were called pistoi, interestingly enough. At the end of the discourse the rhetorician needed to appeal to the deep emotions—love or hate, grief or joy, anger or pity and so create pathos in the audience, so they will embrace the arguments not merely intellectually but affectively as well. When that happened, the act of persuasion had achieved its aim of winning the whole person or group over, body and soul.

There was a normal structure to a rhetorical discourse, though certain elements could be rearranged or omitted in some cases. The taxonomy is as follows:

The exordium is the beginning of the discourse, attempting to make the audience open and well disposed to what follows.

The narratio then explains the nature of the disputed matter, or the facts that are relevant to the discussion. This element could be omitted on occasion.

The propositio or thesis statement was crucial, and normally followed the narratio though sometimes it came before ‘the narration’. In a forensic discourse the essential proposition of the prosecutor and the defendant might both be laid out by way of contrast.

The probatio then enumerates the arguments for the proposition, supporting the speaker’s case. This might be, but would not necessarily be, followed by the refutatio the refutation of the opponent’s arguments. It is interesting that Paul tends to follow this taxonomy with some rigor. Thus in Galatians the real bone of content is delayed until the allegory is presented in Gal. 4 to create animus against the Judaizers, and in Romans Paul saves the refutation until Rom. 9-11 where he refutes the suggestion that God has abandoned his first chosen people.

Finally the peroratio sums up or amplifies some major argument and/or makes a final appeal to the deeper emotions to make sure the argument persuaded.

C. Beyond the Basics—Cultural Scripts and Ancient Persuasion

The psychological dynamics of any given culture are not only unique and particular, they are often difficult to assess. For example, what is considered humorous in one culture may well seem offensive in another, and likewise what is considered persuasive in one culture may seem unconvincing in another. It’s not just a matter of trotting out ironclad rules of universal logic. The issue is culture specific. I say this now because a fair bit of the rhetoric of the NT, will seem manipulative to us in our post-modern situation. It will look like emotive arm twisting, as we shall see when we examine in some detail Paul’s tour de force argument in Philemon. To some degree this reveals to us something important about ancient cultures. They were very different, and in various ways more em
otive, than our cultures. Here saying a few things about the social world of the NT will not go amiss.

Ancient cultures were, to a far great degree than most any modern culture, collectivist cultures. By this I mean they did not promote individualism. Of course there were individuals, and indeed widely recognized high status one’s like an Alexander or a Julius Caesar, but identity in the ancient world was largely established by what group one was a part of, and by factors like geography, gender, and generation. These were all patriarchal cultures where the question, ‘who was your father’ was crucial. This is precisely why the Gospel writers had to go to such lengths to explain Jesus’ origins. Have you noticed that people seem to have no last names in the Bible? The very marker that most distinguishes one person from another in our modern world hardly existed in Biblical antiquity. Rather people were identified by their geographical point of origin (Saul of Tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary of Migdal [‘Magdalene’]), or by who their father was (Simon bar Jonah, John son of Zebedee), or occasionally by their religious affiliation or role (Simon the Pharisee, Simon the Zealot).

Even in regard to the issue of salvation, which we tend to see as a very individual matter, it is interesting to listen to how Paul talks about it. He says for example in 1 Cor. 12 that it is a matter of the Holy Spirit baptizing a person ‘into the one body’. You don’t merely become a new person. You are joined spiritually to a new group. Or in Phil. 2.12-13 he literally says “work out ya’lls salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in the midst of ya’ll (you plural) to will and to do.” I remember vividly the day it was brought home to me that the ‘you’s’ here were plural in the Greek. Salvation suddenly went from being an individual project, to being a group exercise, and indeed salvation was something that God was working in and into the group, its collective identity especially as it met together as an assembly (ekklesia). How does this affect the rhetoric of the NT? It was much easier to appeal to the notion of group loyalty, group identity, the need for concord and unity within the group, because the cultural scripts of that culture had already undergirded such a value.

Another factor which certainly affected the rhetoric was the fact that ancient cultures had totally different economic systems than ours, and on top of that were not democracies. There was no free market economy in antiquity. People ‘got ahead’ in life on the basis of patronage and clientage. It was a reciprocity culture, you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours. This presented enormous problems for Paul in Corinth, because when he decided to work with his hands, having refused patronage, this angered some of the more elite Christians in Corinth, and led to trouble. Even more difficult was serving up the rhetoric of grace in a culture where it was believed that there was no ‘free lunch’ that you did not get ‘something for nothing’. Rather it was all a matter of exchange. The idea that a human being, much less a deity would do an act of undeserved favor or give an unmerited benefit to someone, without either demanding or asking anything in return, made little sense in a reciprocity culture. Yet this is how Paul depicted the nature of salvation and the God of grace. It surely must have been a hard sell in many quarters, requiring considerable rhetoric to persuade. All other deities were ‘payback’ gods in antiquity. Why should the Biblical God or Jesus be any different?

Thirdly, all ancient cultures were honor and shame cultures. At the top of the value hierarchy in an ancient culture was not the dyadic pair of truth or falsity, or life and death (which certainly seems to be the top of the American value hierarchy), but rather honor and shame. The chief end in life was to obtain honor and avoid shame. If one needed to lie to achieve that end, so be it. If some needed to die to achieve that end, so be it. Establishing honor and avoiding shame was more important than truth, more important than life or death. How was one to change the cultural script so that truth was seen as the top value in the value hierarchy? This would take powerful rhetoric indeed. This did not mean that honor and shame, or life and death, did not continue to be very important to early Christians (cf. e.g. Paul’s remarks in Phil. 1.20 about avoiding shame), but they were not as important as telling the truth about Jesus. The rhetoric of the NT calls for a trans-valuation of extant cultural values in various ways.[5] A good rhetorician knew that he had to start with a person or a group where they were culturally, in order to lead them in a different direction. An appeal for group unity in Corinth was an easier sell in Paul’s time than it is today, precisely because of the collectivist nature of ancient cultures. It also accented just how badly the Corinthians had been behaving, following the rivalry conventions of the day and applying them to church life. In short, rhetoric in the ancient cultures of the NT era worked differently than rhetoric today, in various regards. The hermeneutical questions become difficult when one tries to transfer praxis from the early church to the church today, especially the church in the West, which unlike the Oriental church, does not have a collectivist and honor and shame foundation to build on.

D. Beyond the Basics—Good Rhetoric Hunting

One of the more interesting facts that is unveiled when one does a detailed analysis of the rhetoric in the NT is that various of the authors of the NT, especially Paul and the authors of Hebrews and 1 Peter, and Luke were capable of considerable sophistication (without becoming Sophists in the negative sense) in their use of rhetoric. We will have occasion to look at this in some detail in subsequent chapters. For now, it is enough to say that we find both elementary and more advanced rhetoric in the NT. But how should we approach this mat
ter since on the surface what we have in the NT is Gospels, a history called Acts, letters, and an Apocalypse? On a superficial glance at the genre of NT documents, where do we find any rhetorical discourses?

The first and perhaps most obvious place would be to examine the various speeches we find in the Gospels and Acts. Do they reflect rhetorical conventions or not? Right off the bat, there must be a caveat. From what we can tell, the speeches in the Gospels and Acts, are mostly speech summaries, not full speeches. Indeed, various of the ones in Acts break off prior to conclusion as they are interrupted. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that a wide variety of such speeches, especially the ones in Acts, do indeed reflect rhetorical conventions and structures of various sorts. The NT writers obviously wanted their material to persuade people in a rhetoric saturated culture, and they shaped their materials accordingly.

Secondly, there was a dilemma for an orator who could not be present to deliver his oracle or discourse to the audience for whom it was intended. What was he to do? The answer was that he had to write down or have written his discourse, and send it off. Most often this was done using an epistolary framework, but sometimes even this was eschewed. 1 John, for instance, is very powerful epideictic rhetoric about Christian values, and it has no epistolary features at all. Not at the beginning or end of the document or anywhere else in 1 John do we see epistolary conventions reflected. Or consider what happens in Hebrews. Ancient documents were read aloud and from front to back. No one, hearing the opening of Hebrews in Hebrews 1 would ever guess this was a letter. They would assume it was a script for a speech of some sort. The fact that there are epistolary features at the end of the document simply confirms it was sent from a distance. It doesn’t make it mainly a letter. Indeed, 95% of the document conforms to rhetorical and not epistolary conventions.

But what about Paul’s ‘letters’? Here, clearly enough at the beginning and the end of the documents we have epistolary features. This is true enough, and some have argued that there are some epistolary features in between. But the vast majority of the material in any of Paul’s letters cannot be explained on the basis of epistolary analysis. What we have in the Pauline documents are letter discourses, meant to be proclaimed orally when the messenger arrives with the document in hand, rolls it out and dramatically delivers it. Letter discourses have both epistolary features and rhetorical features, and there is even some overlap at the beginning of the document.

The epistolary prescripts and/or the ‘thanksgiving prayer’ sections serve as the exordium for the discourse that follows, doing double duty. In fact, these sections, which establish the authority and ethos of the speaker, and establish rapport with the audience function in more of a rhetorical manner than in an epistolary manner. For example, there was no epistolary convention to offer a long thanksgiving prayer at the opening of a letter. A brief health wish perhaps, but not a longer prayer. And more to the point, there was especially no convention to provide a preview of coming topics in the discourse in an opening prayer in a letter. But a rhetorical exordium regularly gave a preview of coming attractions. And once one gets beyond the opening few verses of Paul’s letters, it is almost entirely rhetorical conventions that come into play and shape the various arguments which follow.

It needs to be stressed that all NT documents almost without exception, but perhaps especially the so-called letters are ad hoc documents, written for specific audiences, at specific times, and addressing specific issues. One could argue that some are encyclicals such as Ephesians or 2 Peter, or that they had a broader audience in mind (say one of the Gospels), but in each case all these documents are addressing the tiny minority group in the Empire called Christians, whether that involves one or more than one house church group. The rhetoric of these documents is specifically Christian in character and knows it is preaching to the choir. We have no NT documents written purely for outsiders, although we get a sense of what that would look like from some of the material in Acts, and from the Fourth Gospel which was written for Christians to use with outsiders “so that you might begin to believe Jesus is the Son of God”.

Before we begin to examine in detail the rhetoric we find in the NT, one final point should be made. One of the keys to understanding any rhetorical discourse, whether it is a full discourse like say Romans or 1 John, or it is a speech summary, like we find in Acts is that one needs to not only determine the species of rhetoric in play (is it forensic, deliberative, epideictic), but one needs to find the proposition and peroration of the discourse to find out what it is about, and where the argument is going. One of the real benefits of rhetorical analysis of the so-called epistolary literature of the NT is that if one can find the proposition and peroration of a discourse, understanding the many and sometimes convoluted arguments that follow the proposition becomes much easier as we know the point and purpose of the discourse. Of course it is true that an epideictic discourse seldom has a proposition statement, since it is not trying to argue a particular case but rather praise an already approved and embraced matter or subject. Nevertheless, as we shall see finding the opening thesis statement and closing summary is crucial when a document has such features, becoming a key to interpreting the document. Bearing these caveats, conditions, and suggestions in mind, we are ready to do more detailed rhetorical analysis of the NT itself.


If you were asked to define ancient rhetoric, what would you say?

Reflect on the differing species of rhetoric and their time frames. How does knowing these things help you understand the content of a discourse?

What are some of the cultural differences between the NT world and ours that might affect how rhetoric works and what sort of rhetoric might persuade?

How does a commitment to truth change the way rhetoric might or could be used?

[1] See my discussion in Conflict and Community in Corinth, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 39-43 and all the reference there. See especially D.L. Clark, Rhetoric in Greco-Roman Education, (N.Y.: Columbia, 1957).

[2] E. Cantarella, Pandara’s Daughters, (Baltimore: John Hopkins U. Press, 1987), pp. 141, 214.

[3] R.K. Sherk, The Roman Empire, (Cambridge: C.U. Press, 1988), p. 195.

[4] On mixed rhetoric see Dionysius of Halicarnassus Vol. 6, Opuscula II, the treatise peri esch?matismenon, and one can compare Demosthenes famous De Corona speech.

[5] For a brief helpful summary of the social world of the NT see B. Malina, The New Testament World, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster/J. Knox, 2001).

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