You are on page 1of 9

The Limitations and Proper Usage of Rhetorical Criticism

By Owen Weddle

Last semester, I attended a class by the famous evangelical scholar Ben Witherington on the

exegesis of Galatians at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a rather strong proponent of the socio-

rhetorical method for studying the New Testament. Matter of fact, he has even written a couple books

dedicated to rhetorical analysis on the NT, such as New Testament Rhetoric.1 As I was introduced to this

new tool for biblical studies, I was enamored by it, as if it was sort of a holy grail for unlocking all the

secrets of the New Testament. However, my cautious nature soon made me question if rhetorical

criticism is as valuable as Dr. Witherington has argued it to be.

I don't pretend to have the vast knowledge that he does of the primary sources, but from what

little exposure I do have, I feel that rhetoric does have its strong points, but I feel it is not justifiable for

it to be systematically and universally pressed upon all of the documents of the New Testament.

Also, I feel it necessary to add that while I am primarily engaging and critiquing Dr.

Witherington's work on rhetorical criticism, it is not because I am setting myself against his work, per

se. Rather, it is my attempt to remark on the field in general. However, the majority of my exposure in

rhetorical criticism has come through his work (such a high level of exposure has come about because

of my immense respect for and reliance upon his scholastic work). In the end, I am using

Witherington's scholarly contributions to be the catalyst to launch my understanding of rhetoric, which

will affect my future work and comments on Romans.

In three of Witherington's commentaries that I have studied up to this point he has felt it

necessary to assign the letters within one of the three primary forms of ancient rhetoric: deliberative,

forensic, and epideitic.2 He assigns Revelation to the forensic form.3 Whereas H.D. Betz places the
1 Witherington, Ben; New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New
Testament (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2009)
2 Ibid. 13-14.
3 Witherington, Ben; Revelation: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
epistle to the Galatians as an apologetic letter4 (a particular form of forensic rhetoric), Witherington

thinks it is primarily deliberative.5 Finally and most pertinent to my present purposes, he assigns

Romans to the class of deliberative rhetoric also.6 I would guess, though I might be wrong, he does the

same for the rest of his commentaries. However, is it justifiable to try to press a primary category upon

all or most the epistles (and Gospels) of the New Testament and delineate a structure from that as

Witherington believes7?

Aristotle declares rhetoric “is concerned with the modes of persuasion.”8 A rather pertinent

question to ask is how broad is persuasion to be envisioned? Is it a specialized form of discourse that

makes deliberate and methodical attempts to change the minds of another person, or can any form of

communication to others that provides information to be accepted or rejected be classified as

persuasive? Aristotle continues by classifying persuasion as “a sort of demonstration,”9 implying that

not all forms of knowledge transfer are what he would consider persuasion. Furthermore, he divides

rhetoric into the political, forensic, and the ceremonial realms.10 However, certainly there are other

times where verbal skills are necessary, such as teaching, commanding, encouraging, etc. The

difference one might give for those roles from to the ones Aristotle envisions for rhetoric is that the

former place derive authority of the message in some form the contents of the speech, including the

personal ethos.11 However, the second class of communication presume an already established authority

or congenial relationship (as in the case of encouragement) based upon past interchanges,

2003) 15.
4 Betz, H.D.; Galatians: Hermenia (Philadelpia: Fortress Press, 1979)
5 Witherington, Ben; Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1998) 27.
6 Witherington, Ben; Paul's Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004)
7 “Here is where rhetoric has proved much more helpful in unlocking the structural and substantive intricacies of the
majority of the NT documents.” - Witheringon, New Testament Rhetoric, 8.
8 Aristotle; Rhetoric, (, translated by W. Rhys Roberts, Bk. 1,
Ch. 1.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., Bk. 1, Ch.3.
11 George Kennedy defines ethos as “the credibility that the author or speaker is able to establish in his work.” Kennedy,
George A.; New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Press. 1984)
acknowledged titles, etc. In those cases, their attention is nearly automatic and is not necessary to

strongly persuade them to accept a particular message.

Therefore, one way in which rhetorical criticism (and I am defining rhetoric as persuasive

speech and not simply any form of oral or written communication) is limited is that not all forms of

communication inherently contain persuasive content. For instance, does Paul in Colossians (if it is

indeed from Paul) attempt to persuade the audience, or is his past relationship and current authority

sufficiently established without contention that he can merely teach, command, encourage, and exhort

without have to try to convince the Colossians of his statements? If not, one would be hard pressed to

believe that Paul was consciously forming the letter into a deliberate oratorical form of communication,

unless one sees Paul as using contentiously persuasive techniques, even when it is rather unnecessary.

In rejecting the idea that all or most of the NT documents must structurally be rhetorical works,

we don't need to go to the opposite direction and presume that many documents contain very few or no

rhetorical features. More specifically, the techniques and language characteristic of macro-rhetorical

forms of deliberative, judicial, and epideitic may indeed be used in portions of the letters of the New

Testament that do not follow a rhetorical structure in the entire letter. For instance, I will argue that

Romans is not structurally a rhetorical piece of work, but it may intermittently use certain rhetorical

tactics. For instance, I believe that Romans 1:16-2:5 is a form of epideitic rhetoric in its attempt to

shame portions of the audience and its usage of blame language.12

Secondly, while rhetoric may be broadly classified under three categories, a piece work of

oratory need not necessarily conform entirely, or even primarily, to only one form. The rhetorician

Quintilian avoids placing any absolutes on the usage of rhetoric.13 Rather, he believes that “rules must
12 For instance, the Louw-Nida lexicon classifies evpaiscu,nomai (“I am ashamed”) in 1:16 under the category of shame,
disgrace, and humiliation which works for the praise and blame language of epideitic rhetoric.
13 “But let no man require from me such a system of precepts as is laid down by most authors of books of rules, a system in
which I should have to make certain laws, fixed by immutable necessity, for all students of eloquence, commencing with
the prooemium and what must be the character of it, saying that the statement of facts must come next, and what rule
must be observed in stating them; that after this must come the proposition, or as some have preferred to call it, the
excursion, and then that there must be a certain order of questions; adding also other precepts, which some speakers
observe as if it were unlawful to do otherwise, and as if they were acting under orders;” - Quintilian; Institutes of
Oratory (, translated by John Selby Watson, 2.13.1.
generally be altered to suit the nature of each individual case, the time, the occasion, and necessity

itself.”14 While he acknowledges other persons who would require strict rules, it goes to show that there

is not a universal agreement even amongst the teachers of ancient rhetoric as to whether there is to be a

strict conformity to particular rules.

If a situation, then, presented itself to one of the authors of the New Testament which required

multiple techniques of persuasion, would not the occasion merit a more fluid oratorical approach? For

instance, if the letters to the Galatians addresses a situation where there was both an attack on Paul,

questions about future actions, and blameworthy actions taken by the audience, would it not be

plausible for Paul to construct a piece of rhetoric that largely uses forensic, deliberative and epideitic

techniques? While the entire structure of the letter may tend to adhere more closely to one form or

another, attempts to classify it primarily under one form or another may artificially dispose the

interpreter to conform particular passages to that particular type of rhetoric, when it might be a better fit

with another type, or none at all. Han-Josef Klauck commenting on rhetoric says, “Classifying

speeches in terms of the three genres is not always as smooth as one would think.”15

As an example, in Galatians 5:11 Witherington minimizes the possibility that Paul is defending

himself from an accusation about his stance on circumcision,16 therefore also minimizes the possibility

that 5:11 is piece of forensic rhetoric. He makes no attempt to move beyond simply saying it is

uncertain. There is no argument for it's improbability. This may evidence a form of confirmation bias

that only sees the confirmed evidence, but neglects to check for anything that might serve to invalidate

the hypothesis. If the co-text and context of Galatians reveals 5:11 to be more likely a piece of forensic

rhetoric, putting the letter under the category of another form of rhetoric may foster incomplete

exegesis and not encourage analysis of the co-text and context.

14 Ibid., 2.13.2.
15 Klauck, Ancient Letters and the New Testament: A Guide to Context and Exegesis (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press,
2006), 213.
16 “Some through the mirror-reading of this text had urged that the agitators must have accused Paul of inconsistency. OF
sometimes preaching circumcision and sometimes not, depending on the audience. This is possible, but uncertain.” -
Grace in Galatia, 373.
Another example that comes from the letter to the Romans is Witherington's handling of

Romans 7:7-13. Witherington proposes that Paul is purposefully impersonating Adam with the first

person singular prose.17 While sparing a thorough analysis of the text at this point,18 there is definitely

similarities between Adam and the Old Testament narrative of Adam. Nevertheless, there are no

explicit markers of Paul using impersonation, only similarities that can be explained in alternative ways

that need not be based upon rhetorical theory. However, in seeing the entirety of Romans falling under

a rhetorical structure, Witherington may have been to eager to interpret the particular nuances as the

text in support of a rhetorical interpretation. “The temptation” Klauck writes, “here may be for scholars

to describe every simple investigation of structure as 'rhetorical' in order to give their work a glossy


An additional problem with the application of rhetoric to the New Testament is the uncertainty

of the level and form of education in rhetoric that Paul and the other authors of the NT documents had.

Witherington notes that rhetorical training was a foundational and extensive aspect of the education of

children.20 However, did Paul take part in this educational environment? Rhetoric was in Paul's time

primarily a Roman art, transmitted through the Hellenistic heritage of Plato and Aristotle. While Paul

was familiar with Hellenistic philosophy, was this a result of a thorough tutelage under a Greco-Roman

education, or was his training primarily Jewish at the core?

If the latter, then it is unlikely that a Jewish education, with Judaism's tendency towards

separation, would provide an extensive education in Hellenistic ideas. Also Paul was a originally a part

of the Pharisees, whose “key element of their social program was to extend the priestly regulation of

ritual purity mandated in Leviticus to all Jews in all spheres of life.”21 Given the rather large scope of

17 Paul's Letter to the Romans, 185-192.
18 As I will suggest later (short of a change of mind later on), the text does indeed share resemblances with Adam, but the
“I” of Romans is not Paul speaking rhetorically as Adam. Instead, I believe it is a rough autobiographical sketch of Paul
that shows how he/had followed the pattern of Adam, to lay out his doctrine of the relationship of sin and the Torah. In
my opinion this is a more didactic form of prose, though it may still be persuasive to a degree
19 Ancient Letters, 222.
20 New Testament Rhetoric, 11-12.
21 Dictionary for Theology Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 375.
the Pharisaic task, it would be unlikely for Paul's education to include an extensive amount of work

outside the realm of the purity laws. Finally, since various Jewish sects have shown the tendency to

train their young children,22 there is the strong possibility that even children of diaspora Jews, as Paul

was, were trained in the Torah. This would make any thorough Greco-Roman education unlikely.

This is not to deny any exposure to Greco-Roman philosophy and rhetoric on the part of Paul.

At the very least, Paul was exposed to rhetoric in common day-to-day and learned rhetoric through

imitation. It is also very possible, maybe even likely, that he had some form of training in philosophy

and rhetoric given his apparently familiarity. However, Paul's place in the world does not lend support

to the idea that he would have had an extensive education in rhetoric. Thus, he would not have

developed an extensive background in rhetoric advocated by the various teachers we see in the

handbooks. Indeed, he might even fail to adhere to the rules at times (although, one might also describe

those instances as purposeful divergences). Quintilian says the following:

The greater part of figures are intended to please, but when a speaker has to labor to excite emotions

of indignation, hatred, or compassion, who would endure to hear him raging, lamenting, or

supplicating in studied antitheses, balanced clauses, and similar cadences?23

Yet, Paul's letters to the Galatians seems to do much of that which Quintilian condemns. First off,

Galatians contains some angry language directed at the Galatians and the “agitators.” Furthermore,

Paul uses a small antithesis in Galatians 2:20 (“Now I no longer live, but in me Christ lives”).

Additionally, in speaking of oaths, Quintilian says “to swear at all, except when it is absolutely

necessary, is by no means becoming in a man of sense,”24 and yet that is exactly what Paul does in

Galatians 1:20.

Paul, whether ignorant of it or not, does not adhere to one form of rhetorical teaching. But if not

everyone teaches the same approach to rhetoric, then that begs the question as to how we can reliably

22 See the Damascus Document 15:6 in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Pirkei Avot 5:25 in the Talmud for two examples.
23 Institutes, 9.3.102.
24 Ibid. 9.2.98
categorize Paul's letters or the rest in a rhetorical structure. What type of rhetorical education did the

different NT writers receive? Given that is a question that is far beyond any historical endeavor, that is

a question with which there is no reliable answer. Once again, pragmatism would encourage delaying

judgment on the rhetorical structures of the various NT documents without clear indication that a letter

does indeed fit within a particular oratorical scheme.

Finally, the question must be asked, how much of the letters of the NT following rhetorical

conventions, and how much are they influenced by epistolary theory? Witherington comments:

Analyzing the majority of the NT on the basis of epistolary conventions-many of which did not

become de rigueur nor put into a handbook until after NT times-while a helpful exercise to some

degree, has no business being the dominant literary paradigm by which we examine the Pauline,

Petrine, Joannnine, and other discourses in the NT.25

While Witherington is probably correct in the assessment of formalization of epistolary theory in so far

as describing the sources on epistolary theory that we have available, it is not a strong enough pillar to

support the exclusion of epistolary theory as a viable and necessary part of studying NT discourses.

First, there is a at least one possible source of letter writing in the book On Style that is attributed to

Demetrius of Phalaron that may date anywhere between second century BC to first century CE.26

Even if On Style is datable to after the formulation of the NT documents, there is a different

between formal and informal epistolary practices. It is much more feasible that letter writings

conventions were informally becoming accepted, and then there were formalized by certain persons. In

which case, a first century work on letter writing conventions would merely be advocating some rules

that had already begun to be practiced in the first place. Indeed, at the very least, not all letter writing

following rhetorical conventions. The Attic orator Isocrates remarking on himself says, “I fear my

advice may be inopportune; for even now I have unawares gradually drifted beyond the due

proportions of a letter and run into a length discourse.”27 Additionally, Cicero, a teacher of rhetoric,
25 New Testament Rhetoric, 5.
26 Ancient Letters, 184.
27 Isocrates, Letters (
makes a distinction between letter writing and rhetoric: “The fact is that one's style has to vary. A letter

is one thing, a court of law or a public meeting is quite another.”28Beyond that, unless there is some

primary source that gives a positive date for the beginning of epistolary, our lack of available

documents on epistolary teaching is not necessary due to because there were none, but possibly that

they simply did not survive.

In light of the uncertainty and, at the minimum, informal letter writing habits, it behooves us

not to exclude epistolary criticism simply because we lack formal sources of authority on the topic that

date before the NT documents were being written. Instead, it is probably more fitting for us to see the

letters of the NT falling on different places on the spectrum between epistles and rhetorical speeches.

Some letters might evidence more epistolary elements, while others may be more rhetorical in its

conventions. One can not make this judgment on any of the letters a priori, but it must be deduced by

thorough analysis of the texts and finding similarities between certain sections with epistolary

conventions or rhetorical tactics.

Rhetoric, then, should be limited in its scope. However, this does not mean it is not a very

valuable tool for exegesis. In the analysis of different parts of the letters and the Gospels, rhetoric can

serve a very useful function in showing us the conventions that were used in the Greco-Roman world.

This provides a much needed perspective in the letters that are sometimes interpreted simply at the

level of relationship of individual words for each other. Rhetorical criticism gives us ways to categorize

whole sections of discourse.

Despite its usefulness, it should not be used to analyze the whole of a letter beforehand while

simply assigning the various parts to rhetorical structure and convention. Rhetorical criticism can not

be a top-down enterprise and provide a fair and reliable reading of the New Testament documents. As

Klauck asks “How can one justify applying a structural model developed from self-contained, complete

), translated by George Norlin, 2:13. Originally located from Ancient Letters, 207.
28 Quotation taken from Ancient Letters, 207.
speeches to individual chapters of a letter?”29 However, we can use it in a bottom-up approach where

the parts are shown to be influence by rhetoric, and from that possibly move up to a classification of

the whole.

It is in that manner, then that I will attempt to use rhetoric in my study on Romans. I do not

classify Romans as primarily belonging to any form of rhetoric, but I do believe that it definitely shows

strong rhetorical character at various points, interspersed throughout the more didactic and exhortative


29 Ancient Letters, 223.