Wednesday, November 4, 2020


    Reader-response criticism, in its general form, is defined as a “theory of interpretation that asserts the meaning of a text does not lie in the author’s intended message but in the thoughts and feelings of readers as they encounter the text.”[1]It emerged as a reaction to the text-centered views of the New Criticism which gradually came to be viewed as grossly inadequate. The role of the reader could not simply be marginalized or ignored, for readers were active participants in the determination of literary meaning and creative contributors to the interpretative process. The subject (reader) and the object (text) were indivisibly bound together, and the relationship between them was a dynamic process, for texts only became alive and meaningful when people became involved with them and responded to them. The reader-response critics argued that the interplay between text and reader was of considerable significance for the interpretation of a literary work.[2]

Emergence of Reader-Response Criticism

     Reader-Response Criticism met its climax in cultural and literary theory in the late 1970s. Its origins could be traced back to the early 1940s when attention to the reading process emerged as a reaction against the rejection of the reader’s role in creating meaning in the views of the so-called American ‘New Critics.’ For the New Criticism, the interpretation begins with the text and deals exclusively with the reality of the text. The whole pursue for meaning has to do with understanding the significance of the words in their context. In the interpretive process, the author is cut off from the text and the reader is subjected to the text.[3] It was thus a ‘fallacy’ to believe that the meaning of a literary composition should correspond to the author’s intention; on the contrary, once the author had written his text, the umbilical cord had been broken and he or she no longer had any control over how it was to be interpreted.[4] Hence the emphasis on the reader has resulted not only as a reaction to previous hermeneutical theories, but also as an effect of the discussions in culture and politics regarding human identity and the different ways in which each type of community relates to reality. The interpretive theories resulted from this approach – namely, the reader-response theories – take the attention away from the meaning of the text in relation to its author and its context, and place the reader in the center of the hermeneutical process.

The Philosophical Background 

    Reader-Response Criticism found its origin in the phenomenological tradition which runs from Edmund Husserl to Martin Heidegger and correspondingly, it was amended by the practice of hermeneutics in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s framework of thought.

    Husserl’s main phenomenological method was ‘bracketing.’ We  should  put  in brackets, anything which is beyond our immediate experience; we should reduce the  external  world  to  the  contents  of our  consciousness.  This  is  what ‘phenomenological  reduction’  points to;  therefore,  everything  not  ‘immanent’  to consciousness must be excluded;  all realities must be treated as  pure ‘phenomena’ in terms of their appearances in our mind.[5] ‘Being’ and ‘meaning’ are always bound up with one another. There is no object without a subject, and no subject without an object. As with Husserl’s ‘bracketing’ of the real object, the actual historical context of  the literary work, its author, conditions of production and readership are ignored; phenomenological criticism aims instead at a wholly ‘immanent’ reading of the  text, totally unaffected by anything outside it. Based on the premise that we can achieve a pure, transcendental, immanent description of our experience of things, offered in a rigorous and presupposition less fashion, Husserl claims that the transcendental subject can reflect upon the contents of an experimental consciousness and achieve both necessary and apodictic knowledge of the meaning of what is experienced.[6]

     The hermeneutic conceptions of Martin Heidegger have also been pivotal to the development of Reader Response theory. Heidegger argued that 'being' meant being-in-the-world. We are human subjects only because we are bound up with others and the material world and these relations are constitutive of our life. The world is not an object ‘out there’ to be rationally analyzed. It is never something we can get outside of it. We emerge as subjects from inside a reality which we can never fully objectify, which encompasses both the ‘subject’ and ‘object.’ Heidegger described his philosophical enterprise as a ‘hermeneutic of Being.’ The word ‘hermeneutic’ means the science or art of interpretation.[7] Hermeneutics was originally referred to the interpretation of sacred  scripture,  but during  the nineteenth  century it  broadened its  scope to  encompass the  problem of  textual interpretation as a whole. Heidegger described his philosophical enterprise as a ‘hermeneutic of being.’ 

       According to Gadamer the meaning of a literary work is never exhausted by the intentions of its author; as the work passes from one cultural or historical context to another, new meanings may be emerged and they were never anticipated by its author or contemporary audience.[8] All interpretation is situational, shaped and constrained by the historically relative criteria of a particular culture. For Gadamer, all interpretation of a past work consists in a dialog between past and present. The  present  is  only understandable through the past, with which it forms a living continuity; and the past  is always  grasped from our  own partial  viewpoint  within  the  present. Both the text and the interpreter find themselves within a particular historical tradition, or “horizon.” Each horizon is expressed through the medium of language, and both text and interpreter belong to and participate in history and language. This “belongingness” to language is the common ground between interpreter and text that makes understanding possible. As an interpreter seeks to understand a text, a common horizon emerges. This fusion of horizons does not mean the interpreter now fully understands some kind of objective meaning, but is “an event in which a world opens itself to him.” [9] 

Chief Advocates and Methods of Reader-Response Criticism

    Reader-response theory could be categorized into several modes including: (1) “Transactional” approach used by Wolfgang Iser and Louise Rosenblatt (2) “Historical context” favored by Hans Robert Jauss (3) “Affective stylistics” and “Social” approach presented by Stanley Fish (4) “Psychological” approach employed by Norman Holland and (5) “Subjective” approach in the work of David Bleich.  

i) Wolfgang Iser argues that the study of a literary work should concern not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text. Such actions were determined, in large measure, by the literary text itself, for the text was usually full of gaps and indeterminacies, and it was precisely these gaps that activated readers’ faculties and stimulated their creative participation. Without being filled, these ‘gaps’ in the textual meaning “remain only potential rather than actual.” Instead of looking behind the text for the meaning, the meaning was to be found in front of the text, in the active participation of the reader.[10] He also points out at the artistic (author oriented) and aesthetic (reader oriented) poles in any literary work through which meaning is negotiated. Thus, meaning can never be imagined solely by the reader or generated alone by the text but rather generated through the active process of reading since ‘the literary work cannot be completely identical with the text, or the realization of the text, but in fact must lie halfway between the two.’[11]

ii) Louise Rosenblatt views the text ‘as an object of paper and ink until some reader responds to the marks on the page as verbal symbols.’[12] It is the reader’s activities on the text that creates meaning out of the inkblots by what Rosenblatt posits as a transaction between the reader and the text. For him a written work does not have same meaning for all the readers, and that each individual brings background knowledge, belief, values, cultural expectation and reading context to the act of reading.[13] In order for this transaction between text and reader to occur, however, our approach to the text must be, in Rosenblatt’s words, aesthetic rather than efferent. When we read in the efferent mode, we focus just on the information contained in the text, as if it were a storehouse of facts and ideas that we could carry away with us. In contrast, when we read in the aesthetic mode, we experience a personal relationship to the text that focuses our attention on the emotional subtleties of its language and encourages us to make judgments.

iii) Hans Robert Jauss uses the term ‘horizons of expectations’ to describe the socio-cultural norms and assumption that mold a reader’s interpretation of any literary work in a given historical moment. For Jauss, any literary text is linked to a historical past and therefore any interpretation and meaning are tied to the prevailing cultural environment. Instead of the literary work standing alone, Jauss underscore the fact that a literary work depends upon the reader to assimilate and actualize the text. Readers began to realize that it was not enough to ask, simply, ‘What does the text  say?’;  rather,  they  were  encouraged to pose more pertinent and penetrating questions, such as, ‘What does the text say to me?’ and (even more importantly), ‘What do I say to it?’[14]

iv) David Bleich In stark contrast to all forms of transactional reader response view, Bleich claims that readers’ responses are the text, both in the sense that there is no literary text beyond the meanings created by readers’ interpretations and in the sense that the text the critic analyzes is not the literary work but the written responses of readers. Like many other reader-response critics, Bleich differentiates between what he calls real objects and symbolic objects.  The printed pages of a literary text are real objects. However, the experience created when someone reads those printed pages, like language itself, is a symbolic object because it occurs not in the physical world but in the conceptual world, that is, in the mind of the reader. This is why Bleich calls reading—the feelings, associations, and memories that occur as we react subjectively to the printed words on the page—symbolization: our perception and identification of our reading experience create a conceptual, or symbolic, world in our mind as we read. Therefore, when we interpret the meaning of the text, we are actually interpreting the meaning of our own symbolization: we are interpreting the meaning of the conceptual experience we created in response to the text. He thus calls the act of interpretation re-symbolization. Re-symbolization occurs when our experience of the text produces in us a desire for explanation. Our evaluation of the text’s quality is also an act of re-symbolization: we don’t like or dislike a text; we like or dislike our symbolization of it. Thus, the text we talk about isn’t really the text on the page: it’s the text in our mind.[15]

v) Norman Holland also believes that readers’ motives strongly influence how they read. Holland believes that we react to literary texts with the same psychological responses we bring to events in our daily lives. The situations that cause my defenses to emerge in my interpersonal life will cause my defenses to emerge when I read. Holland’s definition of interpretation can thus be summarized as a process consisting of three stages or modes that occur and recur as we read. First, in the defense mode, our psychological defenses are raised by the text. Second, in the fantasy mode, we find a way to interpret the text that will tranquilize those defenses and thus fulfill our desire to be protected from threats to our psychological equilibrium. Third, in the transformation mode, we transform the first two steps into an abstract interpretation so that we can get the psychological satisfaction we desire without acknowledging to ourselves the anxiety-producing defenses and guilt-producing fantasies that underlie our assessment of the text.[16] Holland further points out that this identity is achieved when the reader fully expresses his own drives and through this, he arrives at an interpretation which is a recreation of his psychological process.[17]

vi) Stanley E. Fish: Just like Holland and Bleich, theorizes that meaning is created by the reader without the control of the text. Far from playing a passive, submissive role, readers were active agents in the making of meaning and were encouraged to reflect upon the impact that the literary work had had upon them. The literary text was not so much an object to be analyzed as an effect to be experienced. Consequently, the fundamental question that should be asked of any text was not, ‘What does it mean?’ but ‘What does it do?’ and the task of the critic was to analyses ‘the developing responses of the reader in relation to words as they succeeded one another in time.’[18] Fish uses the term ‘interpretive communities’ that dictates how a text should be understood and strongly believes that knowledge is not always objective but conditioned by the social context in which one lives. According to Fish ‘there is no subjective element of reading because the observer is never individual in the sense of unique or private, but is always the product of categories of understanding that are his by virtue of his membership in a community of interpretation.’[19] In Fish’s theory, R. M. Fowler identifies three processes that take place simultaneously in the interaction between the community, the text and the reader: (1) the community defines the text and the strategies to be used in interpretation; (2) the text shapes its reader and the expectations of the community; (3) the reader, under the community’s instruction, construes the text and generates changes in the critical community.[20]   

Reader-Response Criticism in Biblical Studies

      It was not until the 1980s that Biblical scholars began seriously to examine how texts affected their readers. Influenced by the secular literary criticism, Biblical scholars felt that the historical-critical approach did not always do full justice to the texts. Since then attention has been focused on the text and the reader. Most of the scholars who have approached the biblical text in the light of reader-response theories have used a moderate or a conservative form of reader-response criticism. Perhaps most reader-oriented biblical scholars would locate their approaches somewhere near the middle of the spectrum between text and reader. These critics take their cue from W. Iser, who argues that ‘one must take into account not only the actual text, but also and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text.’[21] An aspect of Iser’s approach that has attracted biblical critics is its ability to embrace at one and the same time the possibility (indeed, probability) of divergent readings (because the text is schematic) and a means by which one can adjudicate among and delimit valid readings (the text as constant along with a set theory of reading). One thus, it would seem, avoids objective determinism, on the one hand, and sheer relativism, on the other.[22]

    Reading activities that reader-oriented biblical interpreters have begun to take into account are: [23] (a) anticipation and retrospection; (b) consistency building; (c) identification and distancing; and (d) de-familiarization. Anticipation and retrospection are complementary, continuing activities. Moving forward through the text, the reader is constantly forming expectations and opinions, and then reassessing and revising them in light of new insights and data. Each new word or sentence establishes expectations about what is to come and also illuminates what has already been read. Consistency building refers to the proclivity of readers ‘to fit everything together in a consistent pattern.’[24] In other words, readers attempt to correlate discrete and schematic textual elements into consistent, meaningful patterns and will seek the most logical and efficient means of doing so. Identification and distancing involve the reader’s tendency to form positive or negative opinions of narrators or characters. The reader’s ability to perceive new significance when the familiar (conventional norms, values, and traditions) is placed in an unfamiliar context is referred to as de-familiarization.

Reader-Response Criticism and New Testament

    Many New Testament scholars have employed Reader-Response criticism primarily as a literary technique in their work.[25] Reader-Response critical study, for example, on gospel of Mark has brought out many features of the gospel. The inclusion of two similar feeding stories in Mark (6:30–44 and 8.1–10) is no longer viewed as a botched job by an incompetent author or editor who failed to realize that virtually the same story had been included twice in the same gospel; rather, the repetition is regarded as a rhetorical strategy deliberately deployed by the narrator to emphasize the stubbornness and lack of understanding of the disciples who seemingly have learnt nothing from past experience. As readers of Mark’s gospel, we are drawn into the narrative   not only by what the text spells out but also by what it withholds. We are invited to fill in the ‘gaps’ in the text and to infer what is not explicitly stated. As we have seen, by ‘gaps’ or ‘indeterminacies’ Wolfgang Iser meant a lack of continuity between different parts of a text; in the linear process of reading there is a movement from one literary unit to another and it is up to the reader to bridge the ‘gap’ between the units. Mark’s gospel provides a paradigm example of a text which is replete with ‘gaps’ that we, as readers, are expected to fill in. The most obvious ‘gaps’ are those between different episodes which are frequently juxtaposed to one another without any clear linkage between them. Unlike the other three gospels, Mark’s account ends with the empty tomb and nothing is said about the subsequent appearances of Jesus to his disciples. As John R. M. Fowler has remarked, this is ‘a narrative gap par excellence’[26]

Merits and Demerits of Reader-Response Criticism

    The fear raised by some biblical scholars[27] that the application of reader-response criticism might result in a seemingly uncontrollable proliferation of subjective and idiosyncratic readings, and that readers might abuse their new-found authority by arbitrarily imposing their  own  meaning on the text and riding rough-shod over the aims and intentions of the original author.[28] Moreover, readers of the Bible will have their reading experience shaped by the community of which they are members and they will be constrained in their reading by their tacit awareness of what is and what is not a reasonable thing to say. There is thus no reason to suppose that the application of reader-response criticism to biblical studies will result in an irresponsible eclecticism, for the interpretative community will provide a restraint upon interpretations that are whimsical and irresponsible and will ensure that individual fancy will eventually give way to general acceptance.

    Another main drawback of reader-response criticism, at least in its radical form, is that it affects the essential Christian belief that sees the Bible as the Word of God. If the historical and the conceptual gap between the author and the reader rule out the possibility of a meaning transmitted from one to the other, then how much more the ontological and epistemological “gap” between a transcendent God (as Author) and a human being limited in time and space (as reader) makes the reader totally incapable to see anything else in the text than his or her mind. Therefore, without God as the Author, the Bible can no longer be regarded as the revelation of God. It becomes just a literary product of a certain culture, written throughout several centuries. With each reading of the biblical text, a new meaning would emerge and actually a new text would be created.[29]

    The positive side of the reader-response criticism at its most basic level is it considers readers' reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text. Readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature.  Reader Response allows readers to interpret the text in various ways and allows readers to bring personality traits, memories of the past and present experiences to the text. It helps readers read with greater awareness and self-consciousness. As we become more aware of what we are doing as we, we become more aware of our response to our reading experience.[30] Our reading and our response to reading become more thoughtful, more considered, which can lead us to take greater personal responsibility for our reading and our response.


    The dissatisfaction with historical-critical approaches which locks the text into the past and prevents it from speaking to our concerns today, has led to the exploration of new ways of reading the Bible. Then attention has shifted from the author to the text and finally the reader. The Reader-Response Criticism sees the text not simply as the repository of a static 'author meaning', which is to be dug out by the careful use of philological and grammatical tools, accessible only to the expert, but as an intelligible linguistic structure, a texture of words, with an autonomous 'text meaning' of its own.  The application of reader-response criticism to the study of the Bible undermines some of the most cherished principles of established biblical scholarship. In the first place, it casts doubt on the possibility – and desirability – of an objective, dispassionate exegesis of the biblical text and recognizes that all interpretation is filtered through the reader’s own subjective categories. Moreover, it questions the wisdom of seeking the ‘original’, ‘true’ or ‘definitive’ meaning of the text, preferring instead to contemplate the existence of a wide spectrum of possible alternative readings. Further, by placing such emphasis on the role of the reader, the biblical interpreter is encouraged to engage in a personal encounter with the text and to consider how it might be made meaningful and relevant to contemporary concerns.


[1] W. E. Elwell and R. W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament - A Historical and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids:

  Baker Books, 1997), 402.

[2] Eely W. Davies, Biblical Criticism: Guides for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013), 14.

[3] K. J. Vanhoozer, “A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of ‘Aesthetic’ Theology,” Trinity Journal 8 (1987): 43.

[4] W. K. Wimsatt and M. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 70.

[5] Bakhtiar Sadjadi, “Reader-Response Approach: Critical Concepts and Methodology in Phenomenological Reading Theory,” Reading Research Journal 1/1 (2013): 87-98, accessed 31st Oct. 2020,

[6] Hugh J Silvermon, ‘Jaques Derrida” in Postmodernism:  The Key Figures, H. Bertens and J. Natoli,(eds),  (USA: Blackwel,

  2002), 11I.

[7] Sadjadi, “Reader-Response Approach.”

[8] Sadjadi, “Reader-Response Approach.”

[9] Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969), 209. 

[10] W. Iser “Interaction between Text and Reader,” in The Reader in the Text. Essays on Audience and Interpretation, eds S. R. Suleiman and Crosman (Princeton: University Press, 1980), 106–19.

[11] W. Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: University Press, 1972), 269.

[12] L. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: University Press, 1978), 23.  

[13] Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, 144.

[14] H. R. Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. T. Bahti (Minneapolis: University Press, 1982), 146-47.

[15] See D. Bleich, Subjective Criticism (Baltimore: University Press, 1978).

[16]Loise Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide (New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 184.

[17] N. Holland, “Unity, Identify, Text, Self” in Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, ed. J. P. Tompkins (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980), 118-133.

[18] Stanley E. Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of 17th Century Literature (Los Angeles: University Press, 1972), 387–8.

[19] Stanley E. FISH, Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 83.

[20] R. M. Fowler, “Who is ‘the Reader’ in Reader Response Criticism”, in Semeia 31 (1985): 13-14.

[21] W. Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History 3(1972): 279.

[22] J. A. Darr, “Reader-Oriented Approaches,” in Dictionary of Biblical Criticism, ed. S. E. Porter, 309.

[23] Darr, “Reader-Oriented Approaches,” 309.

[24] Iser, “The Reading Process,” 288.

[25] For example, the work of J. D. Crossan (1980) and J. G. Du Plessis (1985) on the parables, A. Culpepper (1983) and J. L.

   Staley (1985) on John, R. M. Fowler (1981) on Mark, N. R. Petersen (1985) on Philemon, W. Wuellner (1977) on Romans.

[26] R. M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 154.

[27] For e.g.,  E. D. Hirsch points out that denying the privileged status of the author as the determiner of the text’s meaning was to reject the only compelling normative principle that could lend validity to an interpretation, for without the concept of authorial intent there was no adequate criterion to adjudicate between competing notions of textual meaning. Consequently, Hirsch argued that it was the interpreter’s duty to respect the author’s intention, and unless there was powerful overriding value in disregarding an author’s intention . . . we who interpret as  a  vocation  should  not disregard it.’ E. D.  Hirsch, The Aims of InterpretationChicago: University Press, 1976), 90.

[28] Davies, Biblical Criticism, 18-19.

[29] M. Silva, “Contemporary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation,” in An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics - The Search for Meaning, eds. W. C. KAISER Jr. and M. SILVA (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 243.

[30]Fowler, Let the Reader Understand, 81. 


Bleich, D. Subjective Criticism.Baltimore: University Press, 1978.

Darr, J. A. “Reader-Oriented Approaches.” In Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation.  Edited by S. E. Porter. New York: Routledge, 2007. 309-10.

Davies, Eely W. Biblical Criticism: Guides for the Perplexed. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.

Elwell, W. E. and R. W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament - A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997.

Fish, Stanley E. Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of 17th Century Literature. Los Angeles: University Press, 1972.

Fish, Stanley E. Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Fowler, R. M. “Who is ‘the Reader’ in Reader Response Criticism.” Semeia 31 (1985): 10-19.

Fowler, R. M. Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996.

Hirsch, E. D.  The Aims of Interpretation. Chicago: University Press, 1976.

Holland, N. “Unity, Identify, Text, Self” In Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Edited by J. P. Tompkins. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. 118-133.

Iser, W. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” In The Reader in the Text. Essays on Audience and Interpretation, Edited by S. R. Suleiman and Crosman. Princeton: University Press, 1980. 106–19.

Iser, W. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” New Literary History 3 (1972): 279–99.

Iser, W. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: University Press, 1972.

 Jauss, H. R. Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. Trans. by T. Bahti. Minneapolis: University Press, 1982.

Palmer, Richard. Hermeneutics: Interpretation Theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969. 

Rosenblatt, L. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: University Press, 1978.  

Sadjadi, Bakhtiar. “Reader-Response Approach: Critical Concepts and Methodology in Phenomenological Reading Theory.” Reading Research Journal 1/1 (2013): 87-98. Accessed 31st Oct. 2020,

Silva, M. “Contemporary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation.” In An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics - The Search for Meaning. Edited by W. C. Kaiser Jr. and M. Silva. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Silvermon, Hugh J. “Jacques Derrida.” In Postmodernism:  The Key Figures. Edited by  H. Bertens and J. Natoli. USA: Blackwel, 2002.

Tyson, Loise. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Vanhoozer, K. J. “A Lamp in the Labyrinth: The Hermeneutics of ‘Aesthetic’ Theology.” Trinity Journal 8 (1987):

Wimsatt, W. K. and M. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” Sewanee Review 54 (1946):



Wednesday, October 28, 2020


     Rhetoric is the art of using spoken and written discourse according to accepted rules and techniques to inform, persuade, or motivate an audience according to the agenda of the speaker or writer. Rhetorical criticism of the New Testament is the analysis of the biblical books, in part or in whole, for conformity to or modification of rhetorical conventions for speaking and writing in the Greco-Roman period in which they were written and/or according to more modern conceptions of rhetoric and its functions. Rhetorical criticism tries to understand the biblical authors’ messages, how they constructed and intended their texts to function, and how the hearers/readers were likely to have perceived and responded to the texts.  According to George A. Kennedy ‘rhetoric is that quality in discourse by which speakers or writers seek to accomplish their purposes.’[1]

Rhetorical Criticism in New Testament Studies

            Rhetorical criticism of the New Testament has many historical precedents. St. Augustine (354–430 CE) in his work, De Doctrina Christiana used rhetorical conventions from Cicero’s De Inventione and Orator to analyze the Bible. He concluded that the rhetoric of the Bible was not that of paganism, but of another equally qualitative variety suited to its authors and the importance of the subject matter. Even so he found that Paul’s letters upheld standards of classical rhetoric.[2] Some Reformers analyzed the Pauline epistles from a rhetorical perspective. Most prominent is Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560), a rhetorician in his own right like Augustine, who even published works on rhetoric itself. His rhetorical commentaries on Romans and Galatians use Greco-Roman conventions of invention, arrangement, and style, as well as more contemporary conventions of these. Desiderius Erasmus (ca. 1469–1536) gave us rhetorical analyses of 1 and 2 Corinthians in his Paraphrasis in chias epistolas Pauli ad Corinthios. John Calvin (1509–64) analyzes Romans rhetorically in his In omnes D. Pauli Novi Testamenti Epistolas, atque etia¯ in Epistola¯ ad Hebraeos commentaria luculentissima.[3]

            After the Reformation rhetorical analysis of the New Testament was minimal until the late eighteenth to early twentieth centuries when German scholars like Karl L. Bauer, Eduard Konig, Johannes Weiss, and R Bultmann[4] turned their attention to it. During most of the twentieth century rhetoric was not a part of the study of the New Testament. Rhetorical analysis of the New Testament focused mainly on style to the neglect of more central matters of invention and arrangement, and focused almost solely on the Pauline epistles. The last three decades have witnessed a major renewal of the use of rhetoric as a key tool for the interpretation of the New Testament.             Bringing rhetorical criticism back into biblical studies in general was J. Muilenburg’s presidential address, Form Criticism and Beyond, to the Society of Biblical Literature in 1968. In addition to form criticism that sought the typical and representative, he encouraged biblical scholars to seek the unique, individual, and artistic in a text, that is, its rhetorical finesse.[5]

            The reintroduction of rhetorical criticism to New Testament studies in particular is attributed to H. D. Betz and George A. Kennedy. Betz in his commentary on Galatians, argued that this writing belongs to the genre of “apologetic letter.” He proposed for the letter’s structure the formal outline of a forensic speech as set forth by classical rhetorical treatises, an outline framed by an epistolary prescript and postscript.[6] Kennedy is a scholar of classical rhetoric and literature, argued that the writings of the New Testament were produced in a culture imbued with rhetoric and were, for the most part, heard and not read (at least initially). Therefore it is necessary to analyze their linear quality and the cumulative effect of hearing/reading them from beginning to end. Kennedy proposed a method of interpretation that is thoroughly rhetorical—including the reconstruction of the “rhetorical situation” (i.e., the context and circumstances that gave rise to the act of writing), as well as the determination of rhetorical units, the arrangement of materials, and stylistic features.[7]

Methodologies of Rhetorical Criticism

             Rhetorical criticism of the NT is performed with a variety of methodologies. Some interpreters use only Greco-Roman rhetoric, some only modern rhetoric, and some various combinations of both. Within these three broad groupings there is further variety. Biblical texts are rhetorical and subject to analysis by the principles of both Greco-Roman and modern rhetoric. Both ancient and modern rhetoric are concerned with two interrelated areas of the text’s discursive techniques and how these techniques function to persuade readers to act as the writer wishes them to act. Both Greco- Roman and modern rhetoric are interested in the larger social context of communication that includes both the rhetor and audience and the effect of rhetoric upon both.

a) Greco-Roman Rhetoric

            Knowledge of ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions helps the interpreter to understand how the New Testament texts functioned in their oral and written cultures. Ancient rhetorical theory was discussed under the five main categories of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Invention begins with the stasis, the basis of the conflict or main question to be addressed. Then it continues to the determination of the species of rhetoric appropriate to the stasis: judicial, deliberative, or epideictic. These are the rhetoric of the courtroom, political forum, and public ceremony respectively. Judicial rhetoric pertains to accusation and defense with regard to past action, deliberative rhetoric concerns persuasion and dissuasion of thinking or courses of future action, and epideictic applies to praise or blame based on current communal values.

            Invention primarily involves the creation of convincing proofs. Proofs can be inartificial or artificial, not created or created by the rhetor respectively. Inartificial proofs include previous judgments or documents. In the New Testament these proofs are usually eyewitness testimony and quotations of the Old Testament. Artificial proofs include ethos (authority or moral character of the speaker), pathos (emotion aroused for the speaker and against the opposition), and logos (propositions and supporting arguments). Proof from logos can be from induction or deduction, from example and argument respectively.[8] Examples used in the New Testament are often taken from the Old Testament, Jewish tradition, and nature. Arguments in the New Testament are often enthymemes, a proposition with one supporting reason that is convincing to an audience. Schemes of elaboration of themes and arguments are also used in proof.

            Arrangement is the ordering of the various components that, in their fullest form, are the exordium (introduction to the key points to be made), narratio (statement of the facts of the case), partitio (propositions to be developed), probatio (arguments and development of topics in support of the proposition), refutatio (refutation of the opposition), and peroratio (summary of points made and appeal to audience emotion). Style is fitting the language to the needs of invention and arrangement, and includes such things as figures of speech and thought. Important figures in the New Testament are antithesis, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, paronomasia, personification, and repetition. [9]

            In his book New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism, the classicist G. A. Kennedy was the first to provide a methodology using Greco-Roman rhetoric to analyze New Testament texts. His methodology has been very influential and has these five interrelated steps:[10] (1) Determine the rhetorical unit. The rhetorical unit can be either a well-defined pericope (e.g., Sermon on the Mount) or an entire book (e.g., Romans). These units should correspond to units in rhetorical handbooks, speeches, and letters of the classical period. (2) Define the rhetorical situation, that is, a situation in which the persons, events, and exigence necessitate a verbal response. (3) Determine the rhetorical problem or stasis and the species of rhetoric. (4) Analyze the invention, arrangement, and style in detail. (5) Evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of the rhetorical unit in utilizing invention, arrangement, and style to address the rhetorical situation. Using Greco-Roman rhetoric to analyze the New Testament assumes that the authors of the New Testament were familiar with the rhetoric of their time. Rhetorical finesse is evident in the composition of the New Testament, whether consciously or unconsciously applied. New Testament texts are argumentative with a complex, interwoven structure. Duane F. Watson argues that Biblical authors used invention, arrangement, and style to present the gospel to convince their audiences of the legitimacy of their claims.[11]

b) Modern Rhetoric

            For many interpreters, conducting rhetorical criticism using only Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions is too limited. They consider ancient rhetoric to be inadequate for modern hermeneutics because it does not address all theoretical, philosophical, and practical issues posed by speech. They deem modern rhetorical theory to be a more developed and sophisticated understanding of rhetoric and thus a better tool of interpretation. Rhetorical criticism using modern rhetoric is a philosophical reconceptualization of Greco-Roman rhetoric, a synchronic approach to argumentation. It is not as suited to historical concerns in interpreting New Testament texts as Greco-Roman rhetoric.[12] However, modern rhetoric may go beyond historical questions without neglecting them altogether. It neither ignores the historical nature of a text nor does it solely depend upon it. It takes historical information into account, but rather than being descriptive it tries to understand the intention of the text and how values of the time are utilized in the argumentation. It is not trying to reconstruct the original situation, but rather to discover the argumentation of the text in its own right. It is looking at the social, cultural, and ideological values assumed in the premises, topics, and argumentation used.

Merits and Demerits

            There is a tendency among some practitioners of Rhetorical Criticism to absolutize the insights of their favored approach and, in the process, to lose clear sight of the text itself. For rhetorical critics this danger often manifests itself in the imposition of some ideal construct—whether it is a chiastic structure, classical taxonomies of invention, or a theory of the irreducibly rhetorical character of human behavior—on a particular biblical passage or book that resists all such preset patterns.[13] Rhetorical analysis remains descriptive; its results often regard solely stylistics or aesthetics. They may somewhat disclose the ethos of the speaker and the emotional force of his or her pathos, but the content of the logos and the dynamics of the argumentation are hardly elucidated by such a formal and rather sterile analysis.

        The merit of Rhetorical criticism is that it may offer a forum, for the biblical teachers and preachers, in which the complex dynamics of religious discourse are considered. The argumentative character of biblical language, Rhetorical criticism reminds us of the convincing and persuasive quality of these texts.[14] From its beginnings Christian proclamation has necessarily availed itself of reasoned argument and stylistic conventions; yet preaching has indulged in neither logic nor aesthetics for its own sake. The prime movers of the early church were the ethos of Christ and the pathos of a Spirit-imbued life. Creatively fusing form and content, the church's kerygma was designed to construe the Christian experience, to express its power and to persuade others of its truth. To the degree that rhetorical criticism helps to clarify these aspects of New Testament, it illuminates the text to be interpreted and challenges its modern interpreters.[15]


            Rhetorical criticism has gained more recognition and importance in the past three decades as a key tool for the interpretation of the New Testament. The Christian rhetoric of the New Testament challenged the dominant rhetorical theory and practice of the Greco-Roman world. It did not rely upon the same values and hierarchy of values in the invention of its arguments. To illustrate, Paul considered his weakness as strength worthy of boasting (2 Cor. 10–13), while his non-Christian neighbors would consider weakness unworthy and shameful. Rhetorical criticism shows us the way that biblical authors used rhetoric to shape their communities’ values and perceptions. Finding the underlying values and assumptions of the argumentation that the authors assume they share with their churches gives us insight into the cultural, social, and ideological background of the early Christians. The rhetorical strategies used help us understand how the authors and audiences perceived themselves in relation to the broader culture.

End Notes

[1] George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University Press, 1984), 4.

[2] Duane F. Watson, “Rhetorical Criticism” in The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament, ed. D. E. Aune (UK:

  Blackwell Pub., 2010), 166.

[3] Watson, “Rhetorical Criticism,” 166-67.

[4] Karl Ludwig Bauer’s massive study of Paul’s use of classical rhetoric, entitled Rhetoricae Paullinae, vel. Quid oratorium sit in oratione Paulli (1792) and Eduard Konig’s encyclopedia of rhetorical features of the Bible, along with parallels in classical literature, entitled Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik in Bezug auf die biblische Literatur (1900), Johannes Weiss wrote “Beitrage zur paulinischen Rhetorik” (1897) and Die Aufgaben der neutestamentlichen Wissenschaft in dem Gegenwart (1908), in which he evaluates the rhetoric of the Pauline epistles, especially in regard to parallelism, antithesis, and symmetry. In his dissertation entitled Der Stil der paulinischen Predigt und die kynisch-stoische Diatribe (1910), Rudolf Bultmann pointed out the features of the Cynic–Stoic diatribe in the Pauline epistles. He concluded that Paul was functioning like a Cynic street preacher and his epistles were from a low level of rhetorical culture in which the Cynics dwelt. (Watson, “Rhetorical Criticism,” 166-67).

[5] D. L. Stamps, “Rhetorical Criticism and the Rhetoric of NT Criticism,” Journal of Literature & Theology 6/3 (Sept. 1992): 269.

[6] See H. D. Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).

[7] George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill: University Press, 1984), 33-38.

[8] S. J Lambrecht, “Rhetorical Criticism and the New Testament,” International Journal for Philosophy and Theology 50/3 (1989): 239-40.

[9] Lambrecht, “Rhetorical Criticism and the New Testament,” 240-42.

[10] Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation, 3-8.

[11] Watson, “Rhetorical Criticism,”169.

[12] Watson, “Rhetorical Criticism,”170.

[13] C. Clifton Black, “Rhetorical Criticism” in Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, ed. Joel B Green (Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication, 1995), 275.

[14] Lambrecht, “Rhetorical Criticism,” 247-248.

[15] Black, “Rhetorical Criticism,” 276.



Aune, D. E. The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003. 

Betz, H. D. Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia. Philadelphia : Fortress, 1979.

 Kennedy, George A. New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. 

Lambrecht, S. J Jan. “Rhetorical Criticism and the New Testament.” International Journal for Philosophy and Theology 50/3 (1989): 239-42.

Mack, B. L. Rhetoric and the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.

Stamps, D. L. “Rhetorical Criticism and the Rhetoric of NT Criticism.” Journal of Literature & Theology 6/3 (Sept. 1992).

Watson, D. F. Rhetorical Criticism of the New Testament: A Bibliographic Survey. Leiden: Deo Press, 2006. 

Watson, Duane F. “Rhetorical Criticism.” In The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament. Edited by D. E. Aune. UK: Blackwell Pub., 2010. 166-176.

Witherington, B. New Testament Rhetoric. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2009.  

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