Sunday, May 21, 2006

Paul and Rhetorical Criticism

I confess that I am now a believer in the rhetorical approach to Paul's letters. Previously, I had wondered whether the whole rhetoric thing was just a convoluted way of saying that the epistle has a beginning, a middle and an end (see the book by Phil Kerns in the SNTS series). Here's the pro and con thought process I went through:

Case Against

• As letters, Paul’s epistles should be understood in the context of epistolary conventions of writing in the ancient world. Rhetoric was not part of the genre of letter writing.
• Paul’s epistles do not conform quite so neatly as some think to the structure of speeches dictated in the rhetorical handbooks.
• Rhetoric often took place in certain setting: forensic in a courtroom, deliberative as assemblies, and epideictic at festivals and celebrations. These settings are lacking in Paul's letters.
• Patristic interpreters did not identify in Paul a rhetorical communicator.
• Paul also rejected the use of rhetoric in 1 Corinthians 1-3 as injuring the power of the gospel to stand on its own credentials.
• Rhetoric was used for speeches and not writing.

Case For

• While it is true that Paul’s epistles should be understood in the context of epistolary conventions of writing in the ancient world, nevertheless, Paul’s letters were meant to persuade, therefore, with qualification it is possible to examine Paul’s letters with reference to rhetorical motives.
• The rhetorical genre was itself flexible and Paul can change and shape the pattern of his speech to fix the situation. There were also different types of rhetoric, for instance the eastern Mediterranean had it’s own distinct style of rhetoric as compared to the Latin west.
• Settings such as trials before Roman governors and intra-church debates would have called for expertise in rhetoric.
• Although Paul refused to attribute the power of his gospel to rhetoric his letters were still considered ‘weighty and forceful’ (2 Cor. 10.10). This may signify that: (i) Paul did not use rhetoric in the gospel proclamation so that all attention would focus on the message and not the messenger; and (ii) he probably did use rhetorical devices in writing letters to his converts and co-workers.
• While it is true that rhetoric is meant primarily for speaking we should remember two things: (i) the only knowledge we have of rhetoric is from written sources such as handbooks on rhetoric, we have no recordings of ancient rhetorical speeches. All the speeches that we do know of come from written sources. We should not press the difference too far between rhetoric as speech and rhetoric as writing. (ii) Many of Paul's letters were probably dictated from oral speech (e.g. to Tertius in Romans) and were also meant to be read aloud to a congregation.
• Paul was born and raised in Tarsus of Cilicia, a Greek-speaking city, his first language was Greek, he probably received a Greek education that would have left him exposed to Greek philosophy, literature, and rhetoric. One must wonder for such Jews of the Diaspora if there was a perceived distinction between a sermon and a piece of rhetoric (I'm not sure on this one but it's worth investigating).
• The parrallels in language that Tobin draws between Epictetus and Paul has convinced me that Romans is a rhetorical work. Paul’s use of phrases such as: ‘what then?’ 3.9; 6.15; 11.7; ‘what then shall we say?’ Rom. 3.5; 4.1; 6.1; 7.7; 8:31; 9:14, 30; ‘certainly not!’ Rom. 3.4, 6, 31; 6.2, 15; 7.7, 13; 9.14, 30; and ‘O man!’ Rom. 2.1, 3; 9.20 all have striking parallels with Epictetus’ Discourses (Tobin 2004: 93).
• Romans invokes a number of rhetorical devices known to Greco-Roman authors including:

- Rhetorical Questions: Rom. 2.3, 4, 21-23, 26; 3.1, 3, 5, 6-9, 27, 29, 31; 4.1, 3, 9-10; 6.1-3, 15-16, 21; 7.1, 7, 13, 24; 8.31-34; 9.14, 19-21, 30, 32; 10.7-8, 14-16, 18-19; 11.1, 2, 4, 7, 11, 15, 34-35.
- Apostrophes (questions for an imaginary opponent): Rom. 2.1-11, 17-29; 9.20-29; 11.11-24.
- Dialogues: Rom. 3.1-10; 3.27-4.2.
- Refutations of objections: Rom. Rom. 3.1-9, 27-31; 4.1-2; 6.1-3, 15-16; 7.7, 13-14; 9.14-15, 19-20; 11.1, 19.
- Speeches in character: Rom. 7.7-25; 10.6-8.
- Comparisons: Rom. 2.6-10, 12-16; 6.4-11, 15-23; 7.1-6; 8.5-17; 9.30-33; 11.17-24.
- Example stories: Rom. 4.1-25; 9.6-9, 10-15, 16-18.

Some passages in Romans sound like theological explanations, e.g. Rom. 1.18-32; 3:21-26; 5.1-21 and 8.1-30. However, other elements are polemical, argumentative and fashioned in a rhetorical sense, e.g. Rom. 2.1-3.20; 3.27-4.25; 6.1-7.25; 8.31-11.36. Romans is both theology and rhetoric interspersed throughout the epistle.

For further reading:

Black, C.C. ‘Keeping up with Recent Studies: 16. Rhetorical Criticism and Biblical Interpretation,’ ExpT 100 (1989): 252-58.

Byrskog, S. ‘Epistolography, Rhetoric and Letter Prescript: Romans 1.1-7 as a Test Case,’ JSNT 65 (1997): 27-46.

Campbell, D.A. The Rhetoric of Righteousness in Romans 3.21-26 (JSNTSup 65; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).

Crafton, J.A. ‘Paul’s Rhetorical Vision and the Purpose of Romans: Towards a New Understanding.’ NovT 32 (1990): 317-39.

Hansen, G.W. ‘Rhetorical Criticism,’ in DPL, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Daniel Reid (Downers, Grove, IL: IVP, 1993) 822-26.

Jewett, Robert. ‘ Following the Argument of Romans,’ in The Romans Debate, ed. Karl P. Donfried (2d ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 265-77.

Kern, Philip. Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach to Paul’s Epistles (SNTS 101: Cambridge: CUP, 1998). ***

Tobin, Thomas H. Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts: The Argument of Romans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004).

Witherington, Ben. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).


Suzanne McCarthy said...


This is great. Just what I was looking for on rhetorical questions in Paul. Thanks.

tony siew said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for posting my blog at your site. I hope I won’t just focus on Revelation though I do think that specialized blogs as you said maybe the way forward. I don’t know how one does Theology without Biblical Studies, the latter if done well should produce solid theology or theologies. Well, I tried writing something in response to your Paul and Rhetorical Criticism and posted it in my blog because it is fairly lengthy. Hope it might be of interest to you and readers. Thanks.


The Sage said...

Dr. Bird,
As an avid reader of your insights, I'm interested in you comments about Paul and rhetoric. What do you think of rhetorical criticism and the gospels? Also, it seems, to me at least, that rhetorical and socio-rhetorical criticism is done more in the states than in Europe (I may be wrong, I speak as an American), and I wonder about your thoughts on why, if that is true?

Michael F. Bird said...

I do not think that rhetorical criticism works quite so well with the Gospels as it does with Paul's letters. Mainly because we are dealing with narratives that are closer in genre to Bioi. Now given their literary and cultural context the Gospels are rhetorical to the extent that they intend to persuade audiences. The socio-rhetorical road with V.Robins and friends is a profitable one (long as it's not pushed too far) and more popular in North America as you say - why, I don't know!

eddie said...

Mike, are you familiar with Neil Elliot's, The Rhetoric of Romans?

I have done little study on Romans, but I found his argument to be compelling and solid. Im still wondering, as I have not yet located any serious reviews, what others in the scholarly world have made of it.

Michael F. Bird said...

I know of Neil Elliott's book on volumes but haven't had the chance to engage with it fully yet.