Reviews of

Paul and Ancient Rhetoric

In Bryan Dyer, Cambridge University Press, Emanuel Conțac, Graeco-Roman Backgrounds, Paul, review, Rhetorical Strategies, Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter on December 22, 2017 at 4:00 pm


2017.12.28 | Stanley Porter and Bryan R. Dyer (editors), Paul and Ancient Rhetoric: Theory and Practice in the Hellenistic Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xviii + 330 pp. 

Reviewed by Emanuel Conțac, Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest

Almost forty years have passed since Hans Dieter Betz published his landmark commentary on Galatians (1979) which marked the blossoming of a new approach to the text of Paul’s letters.

After four decades, rhetorical criticism is not short on tried and tested scholarship; on the contrary, the huge output of researchers working in this field makes systematization almost impossible. However, scholars who wish to catch up with the development of the discipline or who are interested in seeing rhetorical criticism applied on various sections of Paul’s epistolary corpus can avail themselves of the volume Paul and Ancient Rhetoric, whose editors have assembled a fair selection of papers, written mainly by authors who teach in North American institutions.

The volume consists of four parts of uneven length, which take the reader gradually from the status quaestionis (“History of Scholarship and Key Issues,” pp. 11–40) to topics such as “Paul, His Education, and First–Century Culture” (pp. 41–116) and “Issues in the Use of Ancient Rhetoric in Analyzing Paul’s Letters” (pp. 117–60). The last part, comprising almost half of the contributions included in the volume (pp. 163–284), is meant to show how the use of ancient rhetoric can inform our understanding of Paul’s letters.

In the introductory essay, the editors make it clear that the approaches of the “Founding Fathers” of rhetorical criticism, who see Paul’s writings either as epistolary frameworks with added rhetorical elements (H. D. Betz) or as speeches with epistolary openings and closings (G.A. Kennedy), have been weighed and found wanting (p. 3). The long essay by Carl Joachim Classen (himself a senior figure in the field) cautions against applying sine iudicio the categories of ancient rhetoric to the text of the New Testament since the classical rhetoric handbooks do not offer any guidelines for letter writing (p. 37). For all his caveats and disclaimers, Classen ends on a positive note, admitting that “rhetorical theory can help us towards a better understanding of New Testament writings, including especially the letters of Paul” (p. 39).

One of the thorny questions in Pauline studies is the extent the Apostle was familiar with rhetorical techniques described in the classical handbooks. According to Andrew Pitts (“Paul in Tarsus: Historical Factors in Assessing Paul’s Early Education,” pp. 43–67), we are on safe ground if we posit that in Tarsus Paul received his basic training under a grammaticus, but not much beyond that (p. 44). If the “Gamaliel connection” mentioned in Acts is taken prima facie, Paul must have received a form of Greek paideia, which was held in high regard by the school of Hillel (p. 46). Paul’s parents, who belonged to the artisan-business class (or even to “the more successful petty bourgeoisie”), must have had sufficient means to provide their son with a typical Greek education (p. 50) such as would help him climb a few rungs on the social ladder (p. 51). But what are we to make of the oft-quoted phrase ἰδιώτης τῷ λόγῳ (2 Cor. 11:6)? Does Paul present himself as a “nonpracticing rhetorician” or as one “lacking training in formal rhetoric” (p. 62)? The former hypothesis should be discarded, while the second one should be qualified with the addition that Paul’s training must have included the typical progymnasmata, preliminary exercises which were part of a student’s curriculum (p. 67). The same perspective is shared by Christos Kremmydas (“Hellenistic Rhetorical Education and Paul’s Letters,” pp. 68–85), who gleans from classical sources the clues which show what rhetorical education might have looked like in the city-states and in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods. Two brief case studies, taken from Galatians and 2 Corinthians, seem to indicate that “Paul had probably received formal training at least up to the level of preliminary rhetorical exercises” (p. 84).

If Paul did not formally study rhetoric at an advanced level, we are still left with a vexing question: Why is Paul able to compose long and persuasive documents in epistolary form, meant to be delivered orally? One answer is tentatively provided by Frank W. Hughes (“Paul and Traditions of Greco-Roman Rhetoric,” pp. 86–95), who opines that “Paul consciously used various elements of rhetoric that he likely picked up from the wider cultures of cities, if not from actual instruction in rhetoric” (p. 95). In the last essay to wrestle with such issues, Stanley E. Porter (“Ancient Literature Culture and Popular Rhetorical Knowledge: Implications for Studying Pauline Rhetoric,” pp. 96–115) discounts both the view that Paul received formal education in rhetoric and the idea that, since rhetoric was “in the air,” it was involuntarily acquired by simple cultural immersion. Rather, if Paul was a powerful and compelling author, it was not because he had studied rhetoric (i.e., in the way Augustine would later do it) but because “he seems to have grasped the persuasive possibilities of his language” (p. 108).

As if to counter the assertion made by Hughes, who claims that “memory and delivery pertain to the oral presentation of a speech, so they need not concern us since we do not know how Paul’s letters were delivered orally” (p. 91), Glenn S. Holland (“‘Delivery, Delivery, Delivery’: Accounting for Performance in the Rhetoric of Paul’s Letters,” pp. 119–40) emphasizes that “Paul presumably wrote his letters in such a way as to enhance their efficacy when they were read aloud to the members of his congregations, employing some of the same techniques so useful in delivering speeches, the tools of rhetoric” (p. 125). While Holland is right to caution us that Paul’s letters were in practice oral performances (which differed according to the skill of the performer), he seems to raise the bar to unattainable height when he concludes that “not one of those performances in itself was fully capable of communicating what Paul was saying to his audience through the agency of the person reading his letter aloud” (p. 140). With such a tall order, one wonders whether Paul himself, speaking in person, would have been “fully capable” of communicating a message to his audience.

In “Epistolography and Rhetoric: Case Not Closed” (pp. 141–159), Lauri Thurén defends the idea that since Paul’s epistles are not true letters, in the classical sense, nor proper speeches, they should be analyzed not in the light of formal epistolography or rhetoric, but in that of “modern rhetorics,” with a “heuristic view” and a “functional perspective,” following the trail blazed by Wilhelm Wuellner in a paper published in 1976 (“Paul’s Rhetoric of Argumentation in Romans”).

The section of “practical analysis” begins with a paper by Robert G. Hall (“Paul, Classical Rhetoric, and Oracular Fullness of Meaning in Romans 1:16–17,” pp. 163–85). The author might have chosen as an epigraph a pastiche of the famed inscription on the Gate of Hell in Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who read Paul’s letters,” for he claims that “Paul joins oracular and sapiential authors and readers who read and write carefully crafted obscurity to generate discussion and insight” (p. 185). However, while sizable parts of the Pauline corpus are not clear, it would be hard to prove that Paul actually took great pains to make us see his argument “through a glass darkly.”

On a more polemical note, Bryan R. Dyer (“‘I Do Not Understand What I Do’: A Challenge to Understanding Romans 7 as Prosopopoeia,” pp. 186–205) disputes recent scholarship (represented by Stanley Stowers, Thomas Tobin and Ben Witherington) according to which in Romans 7 Paul lends his voice to a character he impersonates by employing a classical rhetorical device. The author marshals a considerable array of arguments, yet he does not go beyond proving the negative thesis (i.e., “Romans 7 is not a prosopopoeia”). A logical question naturally arises – “What is then Romans 7?” – to which the author gives no answer. Would it, in fact, be possible to discard the technical term prosopopoeia and still hold that Paul writes on principle, describing a universal experience, rather than narrating his personal experience?

Mark D. Given (“Parenesis and Peroration: The Rhetorical Function of Romans 12:1–15:13,” pp. 206–27) disputes the idea that the peroration of Romans begins at 15:14, as usually claimed by historical-critical scholars. In the author’s view, while Romans 12:1–15:3 is undeniably parenetic, it serves a double function, as a fitting peroration for Paul’s “speech-letter” addressed to the church in Rome. Thus, Paul should be read with a certain hermeneutical largesse, not within the narrow confines of what classical handbooks advise.

That sometimes even modern scholars (not only ancients) indulge in crafting obscurity is demonstrated by the paper of Thomas H. Olbricht and Stanley N. Helton, who safely assume that Paul never read Aristotle’s Rhetoric and yet use his notoriously recondite notion of enthymeme in order to navigate First Thessalonians (pp. 228–244). The exercise undertaken by the authors is no doubt masterful, but we are left to ponder whether the rhetorical power of 1 Thessalonians can be analyzed by means of a less obscure notion.

A very balanced essay has been authored by David A. deSilva, who opts for a heuristic (rather than prescriptive) use of classical rhetorical theory in a paper which explores the “Appeals to Logos, Pathos and Ethos in Galatians 5:1–12” (pp. 245–64). The author shows that whereas the first section (5:1–6) is dominated by an appeal to logos, the second section (5:7–12) is defined by an appeal to ethos, with elements of pathos in both.

The last paper, written by L. Gregory Bloomquist, is a reading of Philippians with the aid of a methodology which mixes ancient rhetorical practice, cognitive science and sociorhetorical interpretation (SRI). Central to Bloomquist’s analysis is the concept of “counterfactual thinking,” a cognitive mechanism which enables humans to imagine things other than “as they are” (p. 276) and which is thought to explain why Paul can rejoice in prison, that “shocking microcosm of the overarching pessimism of antiquity, filled with the stench of human suffering and sickness” (p. 278). This methodology is not without pitfalls, for it presupposes a very positivist approach to reality, understood as “factual” and standing in opposition to “counterfactual thinking.” However, such a clear-cut divide creates more problems than it solves, because our grasp on reality cannot be divorced from our interpretation of it. Paul’s long “catalogues of afflictions” are not naked reality; they are always clothed in meaning which cannot be judged as “counterfactual” for obvious reasons. How is one to establish what is “fact” and what is “counterfactual” in Paul’s declaration that “God justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5)?

Paul and Ancient Rhetoric: Theory and Practice in the Hellenistic Context deserves commendation for the outstanding number of classical sources it brings to bear on the topic under consideration and for the breadth of methods illustrated in the papers assembled by Porter and Dyer. While some approaches will be considered less persuasive than others, the volume as a whole serves well to illustrate both the strengths and the limitations of a discipline which has come of age.

Emanuel Conțac
Pentecostal Theological Institute of Bucharest
emanuelcontac [ at ]


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