Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Understanding the Bible: the Study of Ancient Rhetoric

Pasquale Ottino’s Mark writes Gospel at Peter’s dictation
Rhetoric is the disciplined art of persuasion that “had an importance in Roman society equal to that of television or computers in our age…. All types of literature were affected by rhetorical techniques, and the writers of the New Testament did not escape the impact of this rhetorical education. It shaped the way they thought and the way they composed written material …” (A. A. Bell, Jr., Exploring the New Testament World 239-40). The questions that are sometimes raised about the literary education of New Testament writers do not largely affect this area of discussion, since formal training in rhetoric was not necessarily a prerequisite for making use of it. Rhetorical techniques were well known in the 1st-century Mediterranean world, “and one did not have to be formally trained in rhetoric to use them” (P. T. O’Brien, “Letters” 553). Rhetoric “was a pervasive social convention in Greco-Roman society and that rather than being the sole possession of an elite class, its customs, techniques, and practices had filtered down to all levels of society” (R. A. Ramsaran, Liberating Words 26, cf. 79-80, 147-48 nn. 13-15).  

Because the letter form in particular is more closely related to speech than narrative literature, rhetorical analysis can highlight the basic use of the letter as a substitute for the writer’s actual presence. While New Testament documents were composed in an age of letter writing, they were also produced in a largely oral and aural culture. The New Testament world was dominated by public speaking and rhetoric, and early Christianity placed much emphasis on preaching.The written word was basically a tool of the oral culture, and letters were a substitute for face-to-face communication.

Paul’s writings, for example, were designed to create an “apostolic parousia,” using the letter, the public reader, and the apostle’s words to create the sense of an authoritative, personal communication as well as the anticipation of a future reunion (R. W. Funk, “Apostolic Parousia” 249-68).Since New Testament writers like Paul understood their primary task to be the proclamation of the gospel,their writings were naturally composed (dictated) from the perspective of gospel preachers. The New Testament letters, having served as substitutes for the writer’s physical presence (cf. 1 Cor. 5:3-5; Col. 2:5; 1 Thess. 2:17), are comparable in many respects to oral speech, which encourages us to listen to the words as the original addressees would have heard them. 

Biblical documents were designed to be read aloud (Luke 4:16-17; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16; 1 Tim. 4:13), not just to be seen as persuasive but heard as persuasive. Since the spoken word was primary, and the written word was merely a surrogate for verbal communication, attention had to be given to its oral and aural features.These writings “functioned not only as means of communication but also as sophisticated instruments of persuasion and media for displaying literary skill” (D. E. Aune, NT Literary 160-61).  

Biblical writers, who lacked any other practical device to implement divine directives, were not detached from the rhetorical art of persuasion, and they used it to great advantage. Paul’s contemporaries recognized his rhetorical skill: “‘The letters [of Paul],’ it is said, ‘are weighty and powerful …” (2 Cor. 10:10). Modern scholars continue to recognize his rhetorical skill: “one cannot deny that the apostle did possess a certain rhetorical mastery” (R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period 410-11). R. N. Longenecker comments: “Paul seems to have availed himself almost unconsciously of the rhetorical forms at hand, fitting them into his inherited epistolary structures and filling them out with such Jewish theological motifs and exegetical methods as would be particularly significant …” (Galatians cxix).

Seeking to understand the Bible within its original context requires us to place ourselves among the initial recipients of these inspired documents. Any careful examination of biblical literature should therefore be augmented with rhetorical analysis.5

--Kevin L. Moore

     Acts 1:15 ff.; 2:14 ff.; 3:12 ff.; 4:29-31; 5:20-21, 25, 42; 7:2 ff.; 8:4-6, 12, 25, 40; 9:20, 27-29; 10:27 ff.; 11:26; 13:5, 15 ff., 42 ff.;14:1 ff., 7, 15, 21, 25; 15:32, 35, 36; 16:10, 13, 32; 17:2-3, 10-13, 17 ff.; 18:4-11, 19, 28; 19:8-10; 20:2, 7, 20; 21:40 ff.; 23:1; 26:1 ff.; 28:17 ff., 30-31.
     See also D. E. Aune, NT Literary 190-91; W. G. Doty, Letters 26-27; L. A. Jervis, Purpose 110-31; R. Jewett, “Discussion” 48; P. T. O’Brien, “Letters” 552; S. N. Olson, “Self-Confidence” 596; S. E. Porter, “Exegesis” 547-48; C. J. Roetzel, Letters 65; J. L. White,  Light 19.
     Rom. 1:15; 15:20; 1 Cor. 1:17; 9:16-19; 15:1-4; Gal. 1:11-12, 15-16, 23; 4:13; Eph. 3:8; 1 Thess. 2:4.
     A. C. Thiselton, First Corinthians 44; also W. G. Doty, Letters 2; B. Witherington III, Paul Quest 89-100. This would require not only the rhetorical acumen of the writer and/or his amanuensis, but also of the public reader and perhaps the listening audience as well.
     P. T. O’Brien, “Letters” 553. See also K. L. Moore, “Rhetorical Criticism and the Pauline Writings,” in A Critical Introduction to the NT 256-63. For a brief analysis of Paul’s apparent use of the rhetorical device known as chiasmus in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, see K. L. Moore, We Have No Such Custom 27-30.

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