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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Rhetorical Criticism

‘Rhetorical criticism’ understands a text as dynamic in the sense that it is an instance of communicative persuasion, ‘a set of means chosen and organized with an eye to an audience rather than to self-expression or pure making’ (Sternberg 1985: 282). If texts are not just denotative of meaning in some cool or dispassionate way, but seek to convince their readers or change their readers' perspectives, that raises the question of how they encode that persuasive purpose and how readers (from varying contexts) participate in that reality as they read a text which is meant to (or simply does) elicit certain responses. ‘Rhetorical criticism’ or, less strictly, interpretations that focus on rhetorical techniques and effects of biblical texts, have been a major part of the interpretive landscape in biblical studies from the mid-1970s to the present. Biblical scholars who talked about rhetoric in the late twentieth century (and the next) did so against two different backdrops: ‘the classical rhetorical tradition’ (variously represented) and ‘the new rhetoric’ associated with Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, Wayne Booth, and others which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The possible combinations of interface between these disparate sources and the particularities and peculiarities of ‘biblical literature’ have unsurprisingly brought rather varied results (see the panoply of approaches in such essay collections on ‘rhetorical criticism’ as Porter 1997, Porter and Stamps, 2002, Hester and Hester [Amador] 2004; a variety reflected in study of rhetoric throughout the humanities, as shown, e.g., by Jost and Olmsted 2004). In general it may be said that ‘rhetorical criticism’ of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament overlap most when it comes to their approaches to narrative texts (which are found in both corpora), but diverge in regard to the other major genre characteristic of each one, but not the other—poetry in the Hebrew Bible, and argument-bearing epistles in the New Testament.

Rhetorical Criticism of the Hebrew Bible

‘Rhetorical criticism’ of the Hebrew Bible is usually said to have been inaugurated in James Muilenberg's 1968 Presidential Address to the Society of Biblical Literature, which beckoned scholars to ‘venture beyond the confines of form criticism into an inquiry into other literary features which are all too frequently ignored today’ (Muilenberg 1969: 4). What Muilenberg meant was an attention to stylistic features and elements of literary aesthetics on the level of the particularity of the text in question (thus moving against the grain of the accent on the typical in form criticism), grounded in an insistence upon the inseparability of form and content. He urged scholars to attend to the text as an integrated literary unit, a work of art with an internal logic and set of interacting features, which can best be appreciated through a close reading focusing on its beginning and ending, repeated motifs and patterns. His clarion call—not to reject form criticism, but to supplement it with ‘rhetorical criticism’—bore fruit among many, such as Phyllis Trible, who exemplified this approach of heightened literary sensibility to the inner workings and seductive strategies in narratological texts in the corpus of documents making up the Hebrew Bible (Trible 1978, 1984). The interchangeability of ‘rhetoric’ and ‘literary’ in the titles of these early books illustrates the direction and thrust that Old Testament rhetorical criticism would take in the decades after Muilenberg. From early on it became a watershed for a whole range of non-historical approaches to biblical texts, ‘on their own terms’, apart from literary history (form and source criticism) or intense attention to elements of the external historical context as interpretive tools. This move led to an increasing number of ‘rhetorical’ readings of biblical narratives that were, to all intents and purposes, identical with ‘literary readings’ (see the contents of Watson and Hauser 1994; further discussion below), and ‘rhetorical’ studies of Hebrew poetry (e.g. van der Lugt 1995) that focus more strictly on grand structure, strophic patterns, and formal features regarded as ‘analytical patterns’ of Semitic poetry (West 1992). Though claiming the same methodological moniker (‘rhetorical criticism’), the approaches of Trible on Jonah, for instance, and van der Lugt on Job (to cite two recent examples) differ considerably. The latter is an almost classic instance of stylistic analysis of an old and venerable type, if analytically more fine-tuned (for the long history of this approach, see Meynet 1998). The former is marked by its ‘snow- balling’ of a whole range of interpretive perspectives and influences (classical rhetoric, literary critical theory, literary study of the Bible, form criticism) into a force field of general ‘guidelines’ which Trible offers for rich reading (Trible 1994: 101–6):

  • 1. Read and reread the text.

  • 2. Read a range of scholarly works, not only ‘literary analyses’.

  • 3. ‘[S]urround the study of the text with background knowledge to give depth and perspective’.

  • 4. ‘[A]cquaint yourself with rhetorical terms’.

  • 5. Pay attention to these textual ‘features’:

    • 1. the beginning and ending of the text
    • 2. repetitions
    • 3. discourse types (direct and indirect)
    • 4. design and structure
    • 5. plot development
    • 6. character portrayals
    • 7. syntax
    • 8. particles
  • 6. Replicate the structure of the original in a translation that follows the Hebrew word order and employs ‘formal or literal correspondence’ in lexicographic choices.

  • 7. ‘[T]ranslate so as to retain not only the Hebrew syntax but also the original number of words’.

  • 8. ‘[D]evise a series of markers (for your own text) to indicate prominent features of the text, particularly repetition’.

  • 9. ‘[D]escribe in clear prose what the structural diagram shows and interpret both diagram and description’.

  • 10. ‘[C]orrelate your discoveries’.

What this list contains is a set of guidelines from a skilled reader of texts of some of the things she looks for as she works, digs, frowns, laughs, and puzzles over both the biblical text and her own commentarial writing on it (as Trible exemplifies in her subsequent reading of the book of Jonah). This list can help school readers in the art of ‘close reading’, but it is questionable whether it constitutes a ‘method’ that should claim the title ‘rhetorical criticism’, especially given that only (4) specifically mentions ‘rhetoric’, and even that statement does not stipulate how the ‘acquaintance’ with rhetorical terminology should or even might affect exegesis. The subsequent attention to translation may be a hint that for Trible the language of the Greek and Latin rhetoricians serves as an alternative language of translation of the text which creates arresting images for ongoing conversation. But the question remains as to why or if ‘rhetorical criticism’ is the umbrella category, or whether ‘literary criticism’ should be given that place, with ‘rhetorical criticism’ a specially spiced sub-variant (the problem is illustrated in Watson and Hauser 1994: 4 and passim).

In addition to the models of Hebrew Bible ‘rhetorical criticism’ as stylistic analysis or narrative criticism, one should also note that Muilenberg himself called for continued engagement with parallel ancient Near Eastern literature as an essential element of ‘rhetorical criticism’. Although it has not been a major part of his legacy, this practice has been endorsed as a key aspect of the method of ‘rhetorical criticism’ by Roland Meynet, who offers a few brief examples of Ugaritic and Babylonian texts employing such similar stylistic techniques that Meynet can speak of a ‘rhetorique semitique’ (1989: 312–14, 316–18). We can glimpse here the fault line among works of ‘rhetorical criticism’, as to whether they seek universal patterns of persuasion (either argued or merely assumed), or seek to reconstruct the specific conventions active and operative in the historical moments of composition of the texts in question. In a sense the issue is which dynamic moment (in a history of many) the rhetorical analysis seeks to analyse. This emphasis on the historically and culturally conditioned quality of rhetorical discourse leads us into the emergence of ‘rhetorical criticism’ in New Testament scholarship.

Rhetorical Analysis of the New Testament

In the early years of the twentieth century, German scholars like Johannes Weiss and Rudolf Bultmann investigated the style and composition of the Pauline letters by comparison with ancient rhetorical figures and fashions, such as the diatribe. This practice, which goes back to patristic exegesis (book 4 of Augustine's De doctrina christiana is often and rightly cited), was extended in the 1970s to a study, not just of the rhetorical style of Paul’s letters, but also of their rhetorical species and arrangement. The commentary on Galatians by Hans Dieter Betz, published in the Hermeneia series in 1979, put these questions at the forefront of Pauline scholarship, and set the agenda for the next two decades. Betz argued that Paul’s letters show influences of the rhetorical tradition, not just in their forms of expression (lexis, or ‘style’, one of five ‘works of a rhetor’), but also in their argumentative logic (what in rhetorical theory is called heuresis, ‘invention’) and arrangement (taxis) (Aristotle, Rhetoric 3.1). In particular, Hellenistic theory retained from Aristotle’s time the distinction among three genē, or ‘species’ of rhetoric: forensic (arguments of accusation or defense), deliberative (of persuasion and dissuasion to a future course of action), and epideictic (of praise or blame for a given subject). Aristotle largely favoured a simple arrangement of proposition (prothesis) and proof (pisteis), to which an introduction (prooimion) and conclusion (epilogos) could be added (Rhetorica 3.13); in the later Hellenistic rhetorical textbooks the moria logou, or ‘parts of a speech’, become even more atomized, with sections for division (between one’s view and one’s opponents), enumeration of proofs, etc. separated out. Aristotle also differentiated three types of ‘artificial proofs’ (as opposed to the given evidence, such as documents, witnesses, etc.), each of which focuses on one of the three parts of the communicative moment: ēthos (the character of the speaker), pathos (the emotional impact on the hearer), and logos (the cogency of the argument itself) (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.3). Betz, who began his studies of Pauline rhetoric with the ways in which Paul’s rhetoric of apologia in 2 Corinthians 10–13 stood in the tradition of Socrates’ self-defence (Betz 1972), identified Galatians as a forensic argument of defence, and then provided a detailed analysis of the flow and logic of the argumentation of the letter carried out in direct conversation with the rhetorical handbooks that specify general rules for rhetorical composition, especially the master-work of the late first-century Roman rhetorical teacher Quintilian (Betz 1979). In the years to come, scholars disputed both Betz’s designation of the rhetorical species of Galatians, with some taking it to be more a deliberative argument on the question: should we or should we not become circumcised? (see Aune 2004: 191–4), and particulars of his analysis of the subsections and sub-arguments. Yet most who did so employed his same procedure and set of sources.

A few, however, have questioned the enterprise of rhetorical investigation of Paul’s letters in principle, either on the grounds of Pauline biography, doubting that Paul, if he were trained at Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel could have had a Greek rhetorical education, or by claiming that those who should know best whether Paul’s letters employed Graeco-Roman rhetorical techniques—i.e. the well-educated patristic exegetes—completely denied Paul any such proficiency (Anderson 1999; Kern 1998; Classen 2000, though less categorically). But neither of those assertions constitutes a significant rebuttal, because the Lucan portrait of Paul’s ‘rabbinic’ education (Acts 22: 3; appealed to by Anderson 1999) is hardly a historically reliable datum of greater weight than the evidence of the letters themselves, and the latter claim is based upon a selective and uncritical reading of patristic use of the famous and ubiquitous ‘unlettered orator’ topos for the apostles (see Mitchell 2001; 2000: 240–5, 278–91). Such denials that Paul or other New Testament authors employed rhetorical techniques either knowingly or unknowingly (a distinction often invoked but of dubious analytical value) echo an apologetic line that the early church fathers inherited from a tradition as old as Plato—of insisting on the independence of philosophy (and hence truth) from rhetoric (see e.g. Gorgias, 459C).

It is incontestable that Paul’s letters seek to persuade their audiences to adhere to his own contested and controversial positions, and do so using intricate proofs. The question remains for all Pauline interpreters: how are these rhetorical strategies to be recognized and accounted for in the process of interpretation? The place to start, I would suggest, is not the memorization of a five-point procedure, though some can be found, such as the following:

  • 1. ‘a determination of the rhetorical unit to be studied’, which ‘must have a beginning, a middle, and an end’;

  • 2. definition of the rhetorical situation (i.e. the rhetorical ‘exigence’, as defined by Bitzer 1968; cf. Aune 2004: 422–5);

  • 3. determination of the rhetorical species (forensic, deliberative, epideictic);

  • 4. consideration of ‘the arrangement of material in the text’;

  • 5. a final move ‘to look back over the entire unit and review its success in meeting the rhetorical exigence and what its implications may be for the speaker or audience’ (Kennedy 1984: 33–8).

Such steps may be useful up to a point, but they have significant limitations, as Kennedy himself recognizes when he says (like Trible) that they should be regarded as more a ‘circular process’ than a mere sequence (Kennedy 1982: 33). None the less, his own emphasis rests securely on getting to the identification of structural divisions (step 4), since the first three are treated as ‘preliminary matters’ (Kennedy 1984: 37). The danger is that this heavy emphasis on defining the moria logou, or ‘parts of the speech’, can lead to an overly wooden approach to ‘rhetorical criticism’ as a quest to ‘divide and conquer’ the text by segmentation and labelling (where is the narratio?). Structure is surely a key to meaning, but structure must be discerned from a more supple and nuanced interplay between inner textual features and any external model (especially since the handbooks themselves show variety on the parts of a speech and their appropriateness in different kinds of arguments). It is also problematic to engage in ‘rhetorical criticism’ of a part of a text (pace Kennedy 1984: 33) as though it were a speech or argument independent of the composition and rhetorical skopos (‘goal’) of the whole (Mitchell 1991: 6, 16–17; also Aune 2004: 418).

It is in my view more illuminating to view historical-rhetorical criticism not as a set of formulaic procedures, but rather, first and foremost, as a sensibility and set of resources that skilled readers may wish to bring to a study of early Christian texts, composed in Greek, which contain argumentation and small narrative forms (chreiai). This means that long before one can ‘identify a rhetorical unit’ anywhere in the New Testament, one must first become acquainted more broadly with the ancient paideia through which those who were literate in Greek and Latin were educated. To do this, students must read the ancient rhetorical handbooks themselves (the Rhetorica ad Herennium, attributed to Cicero, is a good entrée) and then engage in comparisons among them (the major works to be mastered early on are Aristotle, Ars rhetorica, and the handbook the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum, Cicero, de Inventione, and then the more encyclopaedic and conservative work of Quintilian, Institutiones oratoriae, as well as the late antique handbook of epideictic rhetoric by Menander Rhetor (Russell and Wilson 1981)). Other technai (‘rhetorical handbooks’), especially those containing the progymnasmata, or ‘school exercises’, long known to scholars in the venerable Spengel and Walz collections, are increasingly being translated (Hock and O’Neil 1986, 2002; Kennedy 2003; Dilts and Kennedy 1997), which should increase access and use of these singularly important works which show us, not only how ancient students were trained, but what kinds of situations they were expected to be able to handle, and with what kinds of examples they conventionally dealt. These and other primary sources should be read also in relation to the history of rhetoric (Kennedy 1980, 1994; articles throughout Aune 2004 on many topics) and ancient literary criticism in general (useful collections and analysis in Russell 1981; Russell and Winterbotham 1989). Secondary compendia and systematizations of ancient rhetoric (e.g. Lausberg 1998) are less useful, especially when one has never read for oneself the works they harmonize into a modern system; more valuable once one has read broadly in the ancient sources are studies that help probe the significance of the differences among the handbooks (such as Anderson 2000; Aune 2004, with further literature). There are also major investigations which will help students to feel the culture of ancient paideia and its place in the ancient polis (Kaster 1988; still essential is Marrou 1956). But even this is not enough, for the handbooks are the ‘recipes’, but one does not know what good food tastes like just by looking at a list of ingredients and recommendations for their combination. Hence those who seek to read the New Testament in the light of its rhetorical setting need to read widely e.g. in the speeches of Demosthenes (crucial because of his prominence in rhetorical education down into late antiquity), Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides, those found within historical works like Polybius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and treatises by Lucian, as well as epistolary arguments as found in the Platonic epistles, those of Seneca, and many others. Without this kind of broad education in the ars rhetorica, interpreters are left to set up narrow comparisons between individual lines of selected handbooks and isolated portions of Pauline letters—comparisons that will always remain speculative and yield meagre interpretive insights. Historical rhetorical criticism as I am defining it here (also Mitchell 1991: 6–17, which sketches five ‘mandates’ for such study) requires equal contextualization on both sides of the comparison; it is not just a procedure, but an awareness about ancient literary culture that one brings to the reading of any individual piece. It is an attempt to meet ancient paideia with modern paideia.

With a historical imagination thus furnished by broad reading in ancient sources, one turns to the Pauline letters with a sensitive appreciation for Paul’s outspoken dilemma of preaching the gospel in linguistic forms that would communicate in his culture, while also (like most rhetoricians) claiming that he does not use (merely) the ‘wisdom of words’ to persuade his audiences (1 Cor. 2: 1–5). Paul, whose rhetorical proficiency was challenged by his detractors (2 Cor. 11: 6), was in the uncomfortable position of having to show that his letters—conceded even by his disparagers to be ‘weighty’ documents! (2 Cor. 10: 10)—were not merely persuasive in a human way. But he needs to persuade them of that fact using some language! Hence, the first step in historical rhetorical analysis of the Pauline letters, in my judgement, is an appreciation of the dilemmas of logos in early Christian discourse from the fifth verse of the earliest extant letter (1 Thess. 1: 5). Next, one needs to engage in the task of historical reconstruction to seek to comprehend the setting of any given Pauline letter (or letter fragment), and to attempt to determine what are the issues at stake. At this point a crucial step is needed: to try to catch Paul at his heuresis—that is, how Paul himself determined what was to krinomenon, ‘the point to be adjudicated’, and what were the propositions of which he sought to persuade his readers. The emphasis on heuresis is crucial here, for otherwise one will imagine that Paul and his readers viewed things the same way, which they frequently did not, which is often why he had to write in the first place.

But, above all, one must recognize that Paul does not respond directly to the historical situation we reconstruct, but, rather, he responds to the situation as he diagnoses it. The relationship between historical reconstruction and Pauline rhetoric is always extremely tenuous (given that we must depend largely on his rhetoric for the former task), but rhetorical criticism must seek to keep the two independent; otherwise it runs the risk of granting Paul his arguments too readily or uncritically. The analysis of the propositions that Paul wishes to prove must be embedded in a compositional analysis of the epistle itself. Very often Paul sets his hypotheseis, ‘hypothesis’, ‘thesis statements’, at the outset of a letter (e.g. Rom. 1: 16–17; 1 Cor. 1: 10); he also uses subsidiary propositions throughout his arguments (e.g. 1 Cor. 8: 1; Gal. 1: 11–12; 2: 16). He constructs ingenious arguments which draw upon a range of appeals (to written evidence, usually ‘scripture’, to human experience, both particular and general, to syllogistic logic, especially the logic of contraries, and to an array of paradeigmata, or ‘rhetorical examples’, both positive and negative, sugkriseis, ‘comparisons’, and prosōpopoiia, ‘personification’), as well as commonplaces like ‘then and now’ and ‘from the lesser to the greater’ (for these and other forms, see Aune 2004; Samply 2003). Rhetorical analysis in this mode seeks to recreate the dynamic interplay between Paul and his earliest audiences by reconstructing the expectations they shared about what might (and might not) constitute a persuasive argument in service of a given point.

Other New Testament scholars have found the ‘new rhetoric’ of modern philosophers and literary critics useful in seeking to understand Pauline argumentation. For example, Wuellner (1991) offered a reading of Romans as epideictic rhetoric (according to the definition of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969) as a way to resolve the stalemate in scholarship on the ‘theological’ or ‘historical’ setting of that massive and yet contextually puzzling Pauline missive. Wire (1990) also drew on the ‘New Rhetoric’ in her search for the voice of the ‘Corinthian women prophets’ to whom Paul addressed his arguments. Both readings provide illuminating insights, and could be taken as a kind of ‘3D chess game’ arrangement, which sets Paul’s rhetoric in conversation with ancient rhetorical conventions as seen through the refracted synthesis of the ‘New Rhetoric’. There is some room for confusion, however, when labels such as ‘epideictic rhetoric’ have varied meanings in the different periods, which may be effaced.

A historical-rhetorical critical perspective can also be useful for other parts of the New Testament (Mack 1990), but in more carefully circumscribed ways, depending upon the genres represented. For instance, analysis of the rhetoric of historiographical prefaces has been a major element of Luke–Acts research (e.g. Moessner 1999), even as the speeches in that same work have rightly been considered, analysed, and better understood in the light of their rhetorical forms, structure, placement, and function within the narrative (Aune 2004: 285–8). A rhetorical-critical approach also lends a hand in gospel genre studies, for biography and encomium were closely allied forms in antiquity (Aune 1987: 29–37; Burridge 2004). However, ‘narrative’ in the rhetorical handbooks is not quite what we find in the gospels, since it is largely treated as a sub-form of the larger compositional unit of a speech (usually a forensic one). But valuable insights have come from an application of the theory of the chreia, or ‘pronouncement story’, in the rhetorical exercises which have come down to us (called the progymnasmata), which have much in common with many individual units of the gospel tradition (see Mack 1990: 43–7, 78–87), and even show how students were taught ways to embed existing stories into new grammatical and literary contexts, an important procedure behind the gospels and Acts.

Historical-rhetorical criticism seeks to understand one moment of the dynamic life of an ancient text as a persuasive act made by an author toward recipients within his or her literary culture. Detailed investigation seeks to provide a good understanding (and it is always only partial) of the specific and general rhetorical contexts for which the text was composed. One need not, and should not, declare the results of such an enterprise either certain (who can constrict all ancient readers into one paradigm of reading, no matter how plausibly documented?) or as having authority or veto power over all subsequent readings (as would be necessary to sustain the broad- brush critique of Schüssler-Fiorenza 1999: 88, against such work). Methodological approaches should be evaluated according to their stated goals and their results. One can engage in historical-rhetorical analysis without eschewing or repudiating interest in how the dynamic power of an ancient text operates on modern persons according to modern rhetorical expectations, and how it contributes to or thwarts ethical practices.

Yet there remains a key issue of method. How is ‘rhetorical criticism’ related to other forms of interpretation? At present three different models have been set forth: that rhetorical criticism is an interdisciplinary complement to other methods (Mack 1990: 93); that it is a creative supplement and co-ordinating agent among them (Robbins 1996 and many other works of ‘socio-rhetorical criticism’); or that rhetorical criticism is the critical alternative to all other modes of reading, which redefines the very ethical task of interpretation (Schüssler-Fiorenza 1999: 91 and passim). Almost twenty years ago Wuellner stipulated that rhetorical criticism stood at a ‘crossroads’ ‘between two competing versions of rhetorical criticism: the one in which rhetorical criticism is identical with literary criticism, the other in which rhetorical criticism is identical with practical criticism’ (Wuellner 1987: 453). But who is to say readers may not (with apologies to Robert Frost) double back and take the other road on occasion?

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