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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