What follows on this blog entry is the first of the four Parchman lectures I gave at Truett Seminary at Baylor University this week.
Ours is a text based culture, a culture of written documents. You need look no further than your computer screens to verify this assertion. There could only be an internet age if there was widespread literacy, which in turn leads to widespread production and reading of texts. It is thus difficult for us in a text-based culture to conceive of and understand the character of an oral culture, much less understand how sacred texts function in such an oral culture. Yet however difficult, it is important that we try to understand such a thing, since all of the cultures of the Bible were essentially oral cultures, not text-based cultures, and their texts were in fact oral texts, which some might think is an oxymoron on a part with Microsoft Works, but in fact it is not so.
The literacy rate in those Biblical cultures seems to have ranged from about 5% to 20% depending on the culture and which sub group within the culture we are discussing. Not surprisingly then, all ancient peoples, whether literate or not, preferred the living word, which is to say the spoken word. Texts were enormously expensive to produce—papyrus was expensive, ink was expensive, and scribes were ultra expensive. Being a secretary in Jesus’ age could be a lucrative job indeed. No wonder Jesus said to his audiences—‘let those who have ears, listen’. You notice he did not ever say—‘let those who have eyes, read’. Most eyes could not read in the Biblical period.
So far as we can tell, no documents in antiquity were intended for ‘silent’ reading, and only a few were intended for private individuals to read. They were always meant to be read out loud and usually read out loud to a group of people. For the most part they were simply necessary surrogates for oral communication. This was particularly true of ancient letters.
In fact, most ancient documents including letters were not really texts in the modern sense at all. They were composed with their aural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally delivered when they arrive at their destination. Thus for example, when one reads the opening verses of Ephesians, loaded as it is with aural devices (assonance, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, various rhetorical devices) it becomes perfectly clear that no one was ever meant to hear this in any language but Greek and furthermore, no one was ever meant to read this silently. It needed to be heard.
And indeed there was a third reason it needed to be orally delivered—because of the cost of making documents a standard letter in Greek would have no separation of words, sentences, paragraphs or the like, little or no punctuation, and all capital letters. Thus for example imagine having to sort out a document that began as follows: PAULASERVANTOFCHRISTJESUSCALLEDTOBEANAPOSTLEANDSETAPARTFORTHEGOSPELOFGOD. The only way to decipher such a collection of letters was to sound them out-- out loud. There is of course the famous anecdote about St. Anselm and
It is hard for us to wrap our minds around it, but texts were scarce in the Biblical world, and often were treated with great respect. Since literacy was largely a skill only the educated had, and the educated tended to be almost exclusively from the social elite, texts in such a world served the purpose of the elite—conveying their authority, passing down their judgments, establishing their property claims, indicating their heredity and the like. But since all ancient people were profoundly religious, the most important documents even among the elite were religious texts.
What do texts in an oral culture tell us about their authors? It is too seldom taken into account that the 27 books of the NT reflect a remarkable level of literacy, and indeed of rhetorical skill amongst the inner circle of leaders of the early Christian movement. Early Christianity was not, by and large, a movement led by illiterate peasants or the socially deprived. The leaders of the movement mostly produced the texts of the movement, and the texts of the NT reflect a considerable knowledge of Greek, of rhetoric, and indeed of general Greco-Roman culture. This skill and erudition can only seldom be attributed to scribes, except in cases where scribes such as Tertius or Sosthenes ( cf.
The letters we find in the NT are mostly far longer than secular letters of their era.
Actually they are not really letters, though they have epistolary openings and closings sometimes. They are in fact discourses, homilies, rhetorical speeches of various sorts which the creators could not be present to deliver to a particular audience, and so instead they sent a surrogate to proclaim them. These documents would not be handed to just anyone. From what we can tell, Paul expected one of his co-workers such as Timothy or Titus, or Phoebe to go and orally deliver the contents of the document in a rhetorically effective manner. This would have been almost a necessity since the document would come without division of words or punctuation and so only someone skilled in reading such seamless prose, and indeed one who already knew the contents of the document could place the emphases in the right places so as to effectively communicate the message.
How then did a sacred text function in an oral culture? For one thing it was believed that words, especially religious words, were not mere ciphers or symbols. They were believed to have power and effect on people if they were properly communicated and pronounced. It was not just the sacred names of God, the so-called nomen sacra, which were considered to have inherent power, but sacred words in general. Consider for example what Isaiah 55.11 says: “so shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to do.” The Word or words of a living and powerful God, were viewed as living and powerful in themselves. You can then imagine how a precious and expensive document, which contained God’s own words would be viewed. It would be something that needed to be kept in a sacred place, like a temple or a synagogue, and only certain persons, with clean hands and a pure heart would be allowed to unroll the sacred scroll and read it, much less interpret it.
From what we can tell, the texts of the NT books were treasured during the first century, and were lovingly and carefully copied for centuries thereafter. There is even evidence beginning in the second century of the use of female Christian scribes who had a ‘fairer’ hand, to copy, and even begin to decorate these sacred texts. But make no mistake—even such texts were seen to serve the largely oral culture. Before the rise of modern education and widespread literacy, it had always been true that “In the beginning was the (spoken) Word.” All of this has implications for how we should approach the NT, especially the more ad hoc documents in the Pauline corpus, and the other documents traditionally called letters in the NT, which often, in fact are not letters. 1 John is a sermon with neither epistolary opening nor closing. Hebrews is an even longer sermon, with only an epistolary closing, but of course no listener would ever have considered a letter on first hearing, because there were no signals at the outset of the document to suggest such a thing. And in an oral culture, opening signals are everything if the issue is—What sort of discourse or document am I listening to? This is why Lk. 1.1-4 is so crucial to judging the genre of that Gospel.
Given that the distinction between a speech and an orally performed text was more like a thin veil than a thick wall between literary categories it will not come as a surprise when I say that actually oral conventions more shape the so-called epistolary literature of the NT, than epistolary ones, and with good reason. This is so not only because of the dominant oral character of the culture, but also more importantly because the Greco-Roman world of the NT period was a rhetorically saturated environment, whereas the influence of literacy and letters was far less widespread so far as we can tell, that we need to understand an important fact—the rise to prominence of the personal letter used as something of a vehicle for instruction or as a treatise of sorts was a phenomena which only really took root in the Greco-Roman milieu with the letters of Cicero shortly before the NT era. Contrast this with the long history of the use of rhetoric going back to Aristotle, and use of it in numerous different venues. Rhetoric was a tool useable with the educated and uneducated, with the elite, and also with the ordinary, and most public speakers of any ilk or skill in antiquity new they had to use the art of persuasion to accomplish their aims. There were not only schools of rhetoric throughout the Mediterranean crescent, rhetoric itself was part of both elementary, and secondary and tertiary basic education as well. There were no comparable schools of letter writing not least because it was a rather recent art just coming to prominence in the first century A.D. And here we come to a crucial point.
Analyzing the majority of NT on the basis of epistolary conventions, many of which did not become de rigeur, nor put into an 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, Johannine, and other discourses in the NT. The dominant paradigm when it came to words and the conveying of ideas, meaning, persuasion in the NT era was rhetoric, not epistolary conventions. This is why I will say now that most of the NT owes far more to rhetoric and its very long standing and widespread conventions than it ever owed to the nascent practice of writing letter-essays, or letter treatises. Most of the letters of the NT, with the exception of the very shortest ones (2-3 John, perhaps Philemon) look very little like the very mundane pragmatic epistolary literature of that era. In terms of both structure and content, most NT documents look far more like rhetorical speeches. Some are in fact straightforward sermons, ‘words of exhortation’ as the author of Hebrews calls his homily, some are more rhetorical speeches suitable for assemblies where discussion would then ensue (e.g. after dinner discussions at a symposium), but all are profitably analyzed in detail by means of rhetorical examination. Not only so, but micro-rhetoric clearly enough shapes: 1) the chreia in the Gospel; 2) the speech summaries in Acts; 3) the way portions of a book like Revelation is linked together by catchword and A,B,A structure (see Bruce Longenecker) as well. In other words, rhetoric is not just something that illuminates Paul and other portions of the ‘so-called epistolary corpus’ in the NT. It is a necessary tool for analyzing it all.
At this juncture it will be well and wise to define more specifically what the phrase rhetorical criticism means in my view, and how it applies to the NT. Rhetorical criticism is by definition the study of rhetoric, whether ancient or modern, with a broad definition of rhetoric being the art of persuasion. As applied to the field of NT studies, rhetorical criticism has been approached in two rather different ways by scholars. The first way, pioneered and championed by George Kennedy (of my alma mater UNC) and Hans Dieter Betz and their students is more of an historical enterprise, seeking to analyze the NT documents on the basis ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric, asking and answering the question of how the NT authors may or may not have used this art. Here we may speak of how the NT authors adopted and adapted ancient rhetoric for their Christian purposes of communication.
The second approach, growing out of modern language theory and modern epistemology when it comes to the issue of texts and meaning has been pioneered and championed by Vernon Robbins and his students, as well as William Wullener and others. This approach, rather than primarily looking for rhetorical structures imbedded in the NT texts by NT authors seeks to apply certain modern rhetorical categories to the text (e.g. categories such as inner texture or intra texture). Both the terminology and the method, as well as the theory of meaning of this latter approach has more in common with the ‘new’ rhetoric of Henrich Lausberg and others than with the rhetorical guidelines established by Aristotle, Quintilian, Menander and other practitioners of ancient rhetoric. In other words it is more an exercise in modern hermeneutics than in the analysis of the use of Greco-Roman rhetoric by the NT authors themselves. The methodological issue here is whether the NT should be only analyzed on the basis of categories the NT authors themselves could have known and used, or not.
In my view, both approaches can yield good insights into the Biblical text, but the attempt to fuse the methods of old and new rhetoric in fact confuses more people than it enlightens. In particular, I would insist that the primary and first task is to ask the appropriate historical questions about the NT text and what its ancient authors had in mind, and when that is the prime mandate then only analysis on the basis of Greco-Roman or ancient Jewish rhetoric is appropriate, since ancient authors were completely innocent and ignorant of modern rhetorical theory and epistemology. The remainder of this lecture will explain more particularly rhetorical criticism in the Kennedy and Betz vein.
Most NT scholars at this juncture are quite convinced that micro-rhetoric can be found in NT documents, particularly in Paul’s letters, but also elsewhere. By micro-rhetoric I mean the use of rhetorical devices within the NT documents—for instance the use of rhetorical questions, dramatic hyperbole, personification, amplification, irony, enthymemes (i.e. incomplete syllogisms) and the like.
More controversial is whether macro-rhetoric is also used in the NT. By macro-rhetoric I mean whether the overall structure of some NT documents reflects the use of rhetorical categories and divisions used in ancient speeches. Those divisions are as follows: 1) ‘exordium’; 2) ‘narratio’; 3) ‘propositio’; 4) ‘probatio’; 5) ‘refutatio’; and 6) ‘peroratio’. All six of these normal divisions of an ancient speech could be found in the three different species of ancient rhetoric--- forensic, deliberative, and epideictic rhetoric. But these different species of rhetoric served very different functions. Forensic rhetoric was the rhetoric of the law court, the rhetoric of attack and defense and it focused on the past. Deliberative rhetoric was the rhetoric of the assembly, the rhetoric of advice and consent and it focused on changing belief and/or behavior in the future. Epideictic rhetoric was the rhetoric of the forum and the funeral, the rhetoric of praise and blame and it focused on the present. In any given ancient speech attention was paid as well to the issues of ‘ethos’, ‘logos’ and ‘pathos’ which is to say the establishing of rapport with the audience at the outset (in the ‘exordium’), the use of emotion charged arguments (‘logos’—in the ‘probatio’ and ‘refutatio’), and finally the appeal to the deeper emotions (‘pathos’) in the final summation or peroration.
It is fair to say that those NT scholars who have done the detailed rhetorical analysis of all the NT documents have concluded that while micro-rhetoric can be found most anywhere in the NT, including in genre as varied as the Gospels or Revelation, that macro-rhetoric shows up only in the letters and homilies and speech summaries (in Acts) in the NT. In particular, Paul’s letters and the homilies called Hebrews and 1 John, and 1 Peter reflect these larger macro-structures of rhetoric, often in great detail. The macro-structures however are used with some flexibility, and they are enfolded within epistolary frameworks in some cases. Thus for example, the beginning and end of Paul’s letters do almost always reflect epistolary conventions, and can certainly be categorized as a form of ancient letters. But these epistolary categories help us very little in analyzing the structure of the material if one is not dealing with the epistolary opening and closing elements (prescript, travel plans, opening or closing greetings). Furthermore, there was no ancient convention to have a ‘thanksgiving prayer’ at the outset of an ancient letter, nor are we helped by lumping the vast majority of a discourse under the heading of ‘body middle’. This tells us nothing really about the document, and was not an ancient epistolary category any way. In other words, epistolary conventions and devices help us very little with the bulk of the material in the documents traditionally called NT letters. Here is where rhetoric has proved much more helpful in unlocking the structural and substantive intricacies of the majority of NT documents. Even Paul’s letters were not meant to be privately studied. In the first instance they were surrogates for the speeches Paul would have made could he have been present with his audience. And as such they partake of all the ad hoc characteristics of such purpose driven ancient speeches. They were intended as timely remarks, on target to affect belief and behavior of the various audiences. They were not intended merely as theological or ethical treatises. Rhetorical criticism helps us realize the dynamic and interactive nature of these documents.
A few examples of the usefulness of rhetorical analysis of the NT using the ancient categories of Greco-Roman rhetoric must be offered at this juncture. In the first place, recognizing the rhetorical species of a document will explain much about its content and intent. For example, Ephesians is an epideictic homily written not to a specific situation but to a series of Pauline churches, and it focuses on the rhetoric of praise—in particular praise of Christ, the church, and the unity between them and among them. There is no thesis statement or ‘proposition’ required in epideictic rhetoric nor are finally honed arguments proving a case required. Rather the audience is intended to be caught up in love and wonder and praise of some one or some subject. Failure to recognize the rhetorical species of this document, and thus its function and purpose, has led to all sorts of misinterpretations. Secondly, Romans is a masterpiece of deliberative rhetoric, with its thesis statement plainly laid out at the outset in
As I draw this lecture to a close, I want to return just briefly to the whole issue of the function of sacred texts in particular, in an oral and rhetorical culture. I cannot emphasize enough how the living voice was preferred to its literary residue if the speech was taken down, or written out before hand. Rhetoric, thank goodness, attended not just to logic and issues of content but to such things as gestures, tone of voice, speed of delivery, and the like, for we are talking about the ancient art of homiletics. Function dictated form, rather than form following function. This was all the more the case when it came to the proclamation of a profoundly religious message, especially one based on one or more sacred texts. Sacred texts had an aura, a presence, a palpable character, as the embodiment of the voice of a living god. Ancient peoples would write out their curses on lead foil, roll them up, and place them near or under the altar in a temple believing that the breath of the deity would animate and act out those words, because the word of a god was a speech-act indeed, an action word, that changed things, affected persons, could serve as either blessing or curse, boon or bane. In this light, let us hear a brief passage of one of Paul’s letters, which most scholars think is our very earliest NT document—1 Thessalonians. 1 Thess. 2.13 reads as follows: “And we also thank God continually because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”
I will resist the temptation to preach at this juncture, but here is a text that cries out for adequate exposition. Firstly, we note that Paul refers to his own proclamation of the Gospel to the Thessalonians as ‘the word of God’, Paul has no doubt at all that he is speaking God’s very word to them, and you will notice he is not likely referring to pre-existing sacred texts from the OT. No, he is talking about the message conveyed about Jesus. Secondly, notice that he says that this preaching was by no means only, or even mainly his own words, or the words of human beings or human wisdom. What it really was was God’s living word. Notice however he uses the singular. The phrase is ‘the word of God’ on par with previous things that could be called ‘the word of God’ ranging from the utterances of the OT prophets, to the sacred texts of the OT themselves. But primacy here is given to the spoken word of God, not to something written—a Good News word of God. Thirdly, Paul says that this word of God (singular) had lodged in the lives of the Thessalonians and it was still’ at work in you who believe’. This word of God had taken up residence in the Thessalonian converts and was doing soul work in and on them. It was a living and active two edged sword penetrating their very being, just as the author of Hebrews was to suggest, and he also was not talking about a text, he was talking about an oral proclamation which penetrates the heart. If we ask the question, did any of the NT writers believe they were writing Scripture, it seems to me that the answer must surely be yes, because in the case of someone like Paul, he believed in the first place that he was speaking the very word of God to his converts, not merely his own words or opinions, and furthermore he saw his letters as just the surrogate for a speech he would have given in person had he been there. Letters are just the literary residue of discourses, with epistolary framework added since they must be sent from a distance.
It is no mere rhetoric, full of sound and fury but signifying little, to say that analyzing the NT orally, and rhetorically gets us back in touch with the original ethos and character of these oral texts. It remains to be seen whether more students of the NT will heed the call I am making here, change their dominant paradigms, get up from their computers at least for a while, and receive the living Word of God, about which our earliest NT document sought to persuade us. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
 See my forthcoming little book The Living Word of God, (Baylor Press, 2008).
 It is interesting that an important literate figure like Papias of Hierapolis who lived at the end of the NT era repeatedly said that he preferred the living voice of the apostle or one who had heard the eyewitnesses to a written document. In this he simply reflected the normal attitude of ancient peoples, literate or not.