Home > New Testament Studies Monograph Series > Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach to Paul’s Epistle (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series)

Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach to Paul’s Epistle (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series)

Publisher: Cambridge University Press | 1999 | ISBN 0521631173 | PDF |

This study discusses the relationship between the epistles of Paul and classical rhetoric by focusing on recent studies of Galatians. The argument, built on a close reading of handbook evidence, receives support from a survey of the Church Fathers’ discussions of the nature of New Testament Greek. Philip Kern concludes that Paul did not write according to the conventions of oratory and that therefore the ancient handbooks can contribute little to the interpretation of his epistles.

This inquiry concerns itself with the intersection of two interpretative methodologies. On the one hand we may speak of `rhetorical criticism’ as used in biblical studies to describe a text-centered approach, the purpose being to determine how the shape of that text, its innate strategic impulse, affects the reader. This in turn, depending on the stance of the practitioner, breaks down into two more channels. Either those impulses may inform the analyst’s recreation of the text’s tradition, travelling back to questions of the intent and strategy of the writer, or such questions may be bracketed off to allow the analyst to locate a text-immanent intent,1 strategy and world of discourse. Either way this stream of scholarship attempts to deal with the text at hand and take its shape and content as primary.

On the other hand ± and we will see that this approach is commonly identified with studies of Galatians ± `rhetorical analysis’ may be a new and improved approach to form criticism, attempting to describe textual shape and content by measuring its conformity to classical handbooks on rhetoric. This approach is concerned with neither the shape nor prehistory of the text merely for their own sake; thus it side-steps some of the weaknesses of form criticism. But the question of what it can add to the discovery of meaning remains open, for it often addresses only matters peripheral to the text with any great effectiveness, and even regarding these matters (primarily linked to sociology), it does little more than open new questions. Unfortunately, these questions often receive troubling answers because both the literary-critical and classical backgrounds of the interpretative scheme have been ignored.

The educational system of the ancient world at once found its centre and pinnacle in rhetoric. Thus to credit Paul with producing a piece of refined oratory imputes certain qualities to him; for example, the rhetor necessarily depended upon a particular linguistic register reflecting the `oratorical domain’, discussed in this thesis in terms of levels of language. This use of language, as remains the case to some degree, reveals the speaker’s level of paideia.

Rhetoric has thus been used of late to refine our understanding of Paul’s backgrounds, providing the data to work back from a rhetorical discourse embedded within an epistle to the source of Paul’s ability. Manifold explanations for Paul’s oratorical prowess are proffered, ranging from prolonged higher education in the manner of his day to a rejection of the question altogether as irrelevant to the matter of his background. But conclusions concerning Paul’s backgrounds ± social, educational, financial ± affect too much of NT studies to be determined by excessively hypothetical propositions; it is imperative that we build on a solid foundation.

For evidence that literary conclusions control wide-ranging discussions, consult David Aune’s article in which he treats `Romans as a Logos Protreptikos in the context of Ancient Religious and Philosophical Propaganda’. He has five questions relating to (1) Jewish literary history; (2) Paul’s education and what it tells of Jewish proselytism; and (3) Paul’s view of leadership over against philosophical schools ± all of which arise from Paul’s supposed employment of a particular letter/speech form. Joop Smit and C. K. Barrett feel that Paul’s writing permits us to speak of his `professional skill as a rhetorician’;6 while John Fitzgerald, also allowing the implications of his work to run their course, more cautiously observes: `Inasmuch as this instruction in epistolary style was provided by teachers of rhetoric, the correspondence of Paul’s letters to the styles and letter types given by Ps.-Demetrius and Ps.-Libanius is highly significant. It provides another piece of evidence that Paul’s educational level was high and that he received training in rhetoric’. Christopher Forbes moves from 1 Corinthians via reference to Paul’s tertiary education to `a certain social standing’. Though his logic is sound, and his conclusions held tentatively, he builds, like the others, on the premise that Paul’s means of expression are those of classical oratory. Thus certain elements coalesce, permitting a direct flow of logic from employment of rhetoric to the appropriate education (i.e. tertiary) to social standing.

For the second position, that the question holds little relevance, one may begin with the influential reflections of Kennedy: It is not a necessary premise of this study that the evangelists or Saint Paul had formally studied Greek rhetoric. In the case of Paul the evidence is somewhat ambivalent . . . Even if he had not studied in a Greek school, there were many handbooks of rhetoric in common circulation which he could have seen. He and the evangelists as well would, indeed, have been hard put to escape an awareness of rhetoric as practised in the culture around them, for the rhetorical theory of the schools found its immediate application in almost every form of oral and written communication: in official documents and public letters, in private correspondence, in the lawcourts and assemblies, in speeches at festivals and commemorations, and in literary composition in both prose and verse.

These words are heavy with implications for NT studies. While to Kennedy Paul’s rhetorical awareness says more about his literary milieu than about his education, it is surely significant that, at least at some level, Paul and the evangelists are thought to stand in a similar relationship to rhetoric.

Burton Mack, occupying a middle ground, maintains (though undoubtedly he does not intend his absolute claims to be taken literally) that `all people, whether formally trained or not, were fully schooled in the wily ways of the sophists, the eloquence required at civic festivals’. Hence he concludes that `To be engulfed in the culture of Hellenism meant to have ears trained for the rhetoric of speech’. Lest one think that Mack simply refers to a high gloss on one’s natural ability to argue well ± without implying a system of rhetoric ± he goes on to label what was learned by these means `the rules of discourse’ and describes them as `firm’.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this position comes from Douglas Campbell, who explains that because Graeco-Roman society was so thoroughly immersed in it, rhetoric maintained some degree of influence over everyone. Paul would have been no different: his general education, continual travel and innate intelligence were sufficient for rhetoric to infuse his patterns of speech and thought.

Betz avoids the question of Paul’s status in his commentary ± though he does betray an awareness of sociological implications when he refers to `the myth of Paul the non-thinker’ and the inseparable falsehood that `he cannot have received a decent education’. His commentary attempts to show that Paul’s carefully constructed epistle reflects his `literary skills’, undermining disparaging views of Paul by highlighting his sophistication. Rhetoric relates more directly to Paul’s background in the argument of Robert G. Hall, who insists that those who favour the biographical evidence of Galatians over that of Acts have a misplaced faith: rhetorical conventions allow for details in the narrative which, though not altogether reliable, pose no threat to the educated listener. Hence Paul presents no more reliable biographical data in Galatians than does Acts ± meaning that we have very little evidence for his life except what we infer from the less direct statements of his letters. Gerd Ludemann similarly argues that in a forensic dispute the most useful account of events is preferable to the most accurate, so Paul’s narrative need not supply historical detail.

Another question which rhetoric may help answer concerns the nature of the Galatian churches. To the tired discussion of who received the epistle Betz adds a fresh insight: `The sophisticated character of Galatians as a literary and rhetorical product suggests that the Galatian churches were composed primarily of Hellenized and Romanized city dwellers, rather than the uneducated and the poor’. It is unclear how this observation correlates with his remark that `The effectiveness of rhetoric depends primarily upon the naivete of the hearer, rather than upon the soundness of the case’, but such an assessment clearly opposes the tenor of Lightfoot’s discussion: he described the Galatians as barbaric Celts who never completely gave up their rude and fiery ways, and found Paul’s language to accord well with such a readership. Thus the concern underlying this thesis is significant because Paul’s rhetorical abilities are being asked to enlighten our understanding of Paul the man, his background, and the churches to whom he writes. Bruce Winter, Duane Litfin and others, moreover, demonstrate that Paul’s attitude towards rhetoric also says much about his theology.

At least some readers of the NT feel that we ought to combine the awareness of our inability to read as a member of Paul’s society with the goal of trying to overcome whatever anachronism and displacement we can successfully identify. While this may not yield the only valid reading of the text, it does seem to such scholars a necessary exercise, and in light of methodological advances is thought to be overlooked at scholarship’s peril. An example of such a path forward is the anthropological approach undertaken by, among others, Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey.21 Another approach, one that at times aims for the very heart of Paul’s world of discourse, is rhetorical criticism.

This latter method claims a long history, and of late, a growing popularity. I aim to define and evaluate `rhetorical criticism’ in order to determine what it can contribute to understanding Galatians. Chapter 2 will therefore provide a mini-lexicon of the terminology heard in the world of rhetorical studies, though in the end one might conclude that this entire project is nothing more than an attempt to define an analytical mode.

Following matters of definition, chapter 3 will present and analyse the various methodologies which use rhetoric to explain Galatians. By overlooking the restrictions inherent within Graeco-Roman rhetoric, some scholars have applied categories which properly describe material from another sphere altogether. Chapters 4 and 5 will then test the claim that Galatians is a classical speech, arguing first that it does not conform to the structure of the classical oration. Often the sources depended upon to support a rhetorical approach are read in questionable ways. It is then argued that with regard to species, Galatians again conflicts with expectations created by readings of the oratorical handbooks. Chapters 6 and 7 will discuss Paul’s language: first, by surveying the attitude of the church fathers and some later writers towards Paul’s writing, it is shown that he was not thought to have produced Graeco-Roman oratory. This finds confirmation in the ongoing debate concerning NT Greek. Each attempt to classify Paul’s language solidifies the position that he did not use the language of oratory. A brief conclusion reviews the argument that with regard to structure, species and level of language, Paul does not conform to Graeco-Roman oratory. Furthermore, to wrongly attribute such a procedure to him interferes with the attempt to understand the apostle’s social and educational background.


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