Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 24 October 2019

Rhetorical Criticism

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation
David A. deSilva

Rhetorical Criticism  

Rhetoric is essentially the deployment of available means of persuasion on the part of an author or speaker wishing to exercise influence upon the response of one or more readers or hearers to their situation. Rhetorical criticism, then, invites the analysis of how an author or group of authors mobilize particular means of persuasion in a given situation to advance a particular agenda for the people involved in that situation. Whereas the historical critic is interested in discovering the potential impact of a text in the historical setting of its first utterance (as is often the case in the study of the more clearly “occasional” texts in the Bible, such as the prophetic or epistolary corpus), rhetorical criticism works closely in tandem with contemporary–historical interpretation, immersing the interpreter in the situation and challenges of the first audiences so as to discover the author’s rhetorical presentation of their situation and its challenges, and to examine the text as the means by which the author positions the hearers to identify the challenges and respond to them in a particular way.

New Testament scholars benefit greatly from the availability of a wealth of Greek and Latin handbooks on rhetoric at the elementary and advanced levels, particularly Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, the near–contemporary Rhetorica ad Alexandrum (once attributed to Aristotle), Cicero’s rhetorical treatises (particularly On Invention, On the Orator, Partitions of Oratory, Brutus, The Orator, and Topics), the Rhetorica ad Herennium (from the first century b.c.e., once attributed to Cicero), Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, and the elementary exercises in rhetoric (the Progymnasmata) of Theon of Alexandria and Hermogenes of Tarsus.

The handbook tradition began as a more descriptive enterprise, a systematization of rhetorical practices that were observed to be effective in actual oratory. Even where they take on a prescriptive turn, their origin as snapshots of practice continues to make them valuable compendia of the rhetorical strategies to which early Christian (and Hellenistic Jewish) authors and audiences potentially would have been exposed. These, in turn, would also reflect the strategies that such authors might have been expected to engage when composing addresses, oral or written, intended to persuade. The handbooks also provide a language for speaking about a text’s strategy and potential effects that derives from the same cultural and historical setting as the New Testament, making them a more fully emic guide to thinking about early Christian rhetoric. An inductive study of extant speeches–in–writing from both the Greco–Roman and Hellenistic Jewish backgrounds remains a desideratum, as this would greatly enhance our knowledge of the distance between the handbooks and actual practice and supplement our existing framework for discerning and analyzing appeals to the mind, the emotions, and the trust of the audience in ancient oratory.

Scholars of the Hebrew Bible have had to proceed far more inductively, since no comparable reflections on Semitic rhetoric have survived, if they were ever written. Rhetorical criticism of the Hebrew Bible entails discovering the rhetorical conventions from these writings and comparative literature afresh. The Greco–Roman and more modern traditions of rhetoric have at least helped to formulate questions to ask of a text: For example, how does a particular text construct authority and convey credibility? Or, how does a particular text appeal to what emotions, and to what end?

Rhetorical Criticism of the Hebrew Bible.

James Muilenburg is almost universally acknowledged by practitioners of the discipline to have initiated rhetorical analysis of the Hebrew Bible. A practitioner and proponent of form criticism, Muilenburg urged that, alongside form criticism, scholars attend to a level of analysis that accepts the text in its present form as an object for study and interpretation as a coherent, literary work. “Beyond” form criticism lay an approach that also values the text as a literary creation and artifact in itself, and not merely a field for excavation for earlier strata of material.

The tasks of this new “rhetorical criticism” would include “understanding the nature of Hebrew literary composition…exhibiting the structural patterns that are employed for the fashioning of a literary unit,” and “discerning the many and various devices by which the predications are formulated and ordered into a unified whole” (Muilenburg 1969 , p. 8). This agenda distinguished rhetorical criticism from both form and source criticism. Source critics read a text looking for indications of the existence and contours of earlier texts and traditions that have been incorporated into it. A principal goal is to discover what can be learned about the history and culture of the community at the stage of those earlier texts and traditions. Rhetorical criticism, by contrast, reads a text in its present state as an intentional composition reflecting the interests and challenges facing the community at the time of composition (Watson and Hauser 1994 , p. 5; Trible 1994 , p. 93). Rhetorical critics tend to begin with the presupposition that “the Biblical texts are composed and well composed” (Meynet 1998 , p. 169). Thus, a different view is taken of such features as repetition, changes in poetic meter, and the like, first exploring these as signs of intentional composition serving a communicative purpose before regarding them as signs of faulty editing (hence, literary seams and signs of older sources) or flawed composition (Watson and Hauser 1994 , pp. 6–7, 12; Meynet 1998 , pp. 177–180).

Form critics also study a text for what it can yield about the prehistory of the traditions that constitute a text, as well as the social settings in which those particular traditions (and, especially, forms) took shape. Form criticism is also more interested in the typical—the literary pattern of a given form, the typical circumstances under which the form becomes useful—rather than the unique features of a particular utterance. Rhetorical criticism, again, analyzes a particular text in its final form and in all its distinctiveness, with its variations on or departures from the typical receiving special attention (Watson and Hauser 1994 , p. 8; Trible 1994 , p. 93).

Rhetorical analysis of the Hebrew Bible generally begins with identifying the beginnings and endings of rhetorical units, a process that involves identifying the literary devices (e.g., acrostics, inclusio, repetitions) that create cohesion within a particular unit and that point to the unit’s boundaries (Muilenburg 1969 , p. 9). Once the “boundaries” are provisionally established, the rhetorical critic proceeds to identify internal structures (that is, the constituent units of the larger block of text), rhetorical devices (parallelism, chiasm, alliteration, and the like), and indications of the “movement” within the text (Muilenburg 1969 , p. 10). Internal structures and correspondences are frequently discovered and displayed only through the painstaking process of re–writing and schematically organizing all the words of the unit being examined (Trible 1994 , pp. 92, 104–106; Meynet 1998 , pp. 309–314). The work of two of Muilenburg’s students, Lundbom (1997) on Jeremiah and Trible (1994) on Jonah, exemplify very well the procedures and payoff of this approach.

Sometimes the scholar’s focus remains at the level of style and literary composition; often it presses beyond this to the question of how, and in what direction, the composition moves the audience. Some definitions of the discipline suggest that an analysis must properly include an account of the latter, namely the dynamics of persuasion, if the study is to be differentiated from (or within) literary criticism. Thus Alan Hauser (Watson and Hauser 1994 , p. 4) promotes the discovery and analysis of “the particular literary artistry found in a specific unit of Old Testament text” not as an end in itself, but as “the basis for discussing the message of the text and the impact it had on its audience.” (See the positions reviewed in Trible 1994 , pp. 48–49). An excellent study in line with these definitions is Yehoshua Gitay (1981). Gitay used classical (Greco–Roman) rhetoric as a framework for the study of Isaiah 40—48 , not on the supposition that the author of Deutero–Isaiah used or had access to classical conventions, but on the supposition that knowledge of the latter can help the scholar interrogate the text to discover its own strategies of persuasion, for example, in the uncovering of the text’s rational, emotional, and ethical appeals (1981, pp. 36, 62). Michael Fox’s study of enthymemes in Proverbs (2004, pp. 165–177) also focuses on the persuasive force of the text, here specifically on how the audience itself participates in being persuaded as it supplies the necessary premises that complete the logic of the discrete proverbs and their interconnection.

Rhetorical criticism of the Hebrew Bible has born much exegetical fruit. It has brought scholarly attention back to the text and the setting of its decisive composition or shaping, rather than allowing attention to remain on the pre–history of the text. This, in turn, has meant new insights into the compositional “logic” of the text in its current form, the structure of units of the text, and the import of the same for discerning the logical, narrative, or poetic coherence of the text. Rhetorical criticism has provided a new set of lenses for the determination of literary units within a text, whether at the micro–level or at larger levels of paragraphs or extended passages, as well as the relationships between these units (Meynet 1998 , pp. 317–336). It has called for attention to the internal correspondences and oppositions within a text, at its various levels of organization, which is important not only for exegesis but also for translators, so that their work can preserve key signals of literary connection and demarcation (e.g., through creating comparably parallel expressions or being careful to retain particular lexical equivalents at critical junctures; Meynet 1998 , pp. 337–340). The burgeoning of the disciplines of literary criticism and rhetorical criticism in the last decades of the twentieth century and beyond has greatly multiplied rhetorical approaches to the Hebrew Bible that continue to draw on modern, “secular” theory (Trible 1994 , pp. 55–87).

Rhetorical Criticism of the New Testament.

The study of the rhetoric of the New Testament is by no means a novel phenomenon. Scholars trained in rhetoric themselves have been attentive to the rhetorical dimensions of early Christian discourse. Augustine addresses the topic directly in the fourth book of his On Christian Doctrine. Philip Melanchthon analyzes the rhetoric of Romans and Galatians in the course of his commentaries on the same, as does Erasmus in his work on 1 and 2 Corinthians. (On the history of rhetorical criticism, see Watson 1988 , pp. 1–8; Mack 1990 , pp. 9–17). The decline of classical rhetoric in the modern curriculum brought about a corresponding decline in rhetorical criticism of the New Testament until the later decades of the twentieth century, when Hans Dieter Betz brought it to the fore in his work on Galatians (see especially Betz 1979 ) and George Kennedy promoted a methodology for rhetorical analysis (Kennedy 1984 ; see Mack 1990 ; and, in a welcome update on the method and its fruitfulness, Witherington 2009 ).

Although many practitioners also draw upon the insights of modern theorists of argumentation and rhetoric (e.g., Perelman and Olbrechts–Tyteca 1991 ), the rhetorical criticism of the New Testament draws most heavily upon the classical Greco–Roman handbooks on rhetoric as heuristic tools to assist in discovering appeals to ethos, emotion, and rational argumentation and to help explain the rhetorical force and construction of the appeal. (For basic surveys of Greco–Roman rhetoric, see Kennedy 1984 , pp. 12–33; Watson 1988 , pp. 8–28; Mack 1990 , pp. 25–48; deSilva 2000 , pp. 39–46; 2009, pp. 18–27.) The importance of allowing the rhetoric of early Christian texts freely to overflow the bounds of that stream—even to the point of flooding the plain—is also becoming increasingly apparent within this discipline. The rhetorical critic is tasked with describing the topics and strategies invoked by the text and with extending the rhetorical theory, as it were, to include what the critic finds in the text, rather than to proceed as if the text conforms in every respect to the tradition reflected in the Greco–Roman handbooks. The text can still be understood to promote the credibility of the author’s voice, move the hearers to feel emotions strategic to the author’s accomplishing of his or her goals, and communicate a logical argument, but it may do so in ways never envisioned or experienced by Aristotle, Cicero, or Quintilian (see, for example, deSilva 2009 on Revelation). Early Christian discourse intersects significantly with the topics and strategies of Greco–Roman rhetoric, but does not by any means overlap completely. It would be a mistake to deny the importance either of the impact of Greco–Roman argumentative forms and strategies on early Christian rhetoric or to neglect the distinctive style and argumentative strategies of any particular New Testament author, which could very much reflect the rhetorical strategies of the Hebrew Bible. Either/or thinking in this regard does not suit the complexity of the first century, nor the evidence of the texts themselves.

The practice of rhetorical criticism is not bound to assumptions about the formal training of the authors of New Testament texts in this discipline, though a strong case can be made for at least an elementary level of formal training in regard to some of these authors (e.g., the author of Hebrews). It does presume, to some extent, at least some inductive appropriation of the practice of effective oratory through observation and interaction with the same in their culture. The place of oratory in Hellenistic culture—and the penetration of Hellenistic culture into Judea—makes repeated exposure to such oratory, and thus the possibility of at least the intuitive imitation of its strategies, a possibility for every New Testament author.

Questions have been raised concerning the suitability of classical rhetorical theory to written compositions. Some scholars would prefer to see analysis of Paul’s letters, for example, draw not upon ancient rhetorical handbooks, but rather upon the epistolary handbooks of late antiquity (for example, those of Pseudo–Demetrius and Pseudo–Libanius from the third century ce or later). These handbooks provide catalogs of letter “types,” brief statements of the goals that might lead a writer to choose the style of one type over others, and brief models of letters of each type. These cursory handbooks were not meant to be comprehensive treatments of how to write persuasively. Rather, they appear merely to seek to add the necessary information for users to learn to adapt their previous training in logic and rhetoric to communicating in the medium of the letter.

The objection that one should draw upon ancient epistolary handbooks to the exclusion of classical rhetorical theory overlooks the oral character of many New Testament writings. Several “letters” are not letters at all. First John has no epistolary opening or closing, and thus gives every indication of being a written sermon. The “Letter” to the Hebrews likewise opens with a stirring paragraph designed to impact the ears of the hearers rather than their eyes (deSilva 2000 , 37–38), and with none of the typical letter–opening formulas. It, too, would be heard as a sermon—a “word of exhortation,” the genre label given by its own author (Heb 13:22 )—from its first words through the penultimate paragraph, where we encounter signs of an epistolary closing (Heb 13:18–19 , 22–25; Witherington 2009 , p. 20).

Moreover, even the true letters have a public character, being addressed not to a private reader but sent to be read aloud to the gathered community (see Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:24; Rev 1:3; possibly 2 Cor 1:13 )—the “assembly” of believers, who needed to be persuaded to respond to some circumstance in one way as opposed to another, or to be reminded of the fundamental values of the community they have joined. They represent the speech or sermon that the author would have delivered, had it been possible for him to be present. The “elder,” in fact, defers as much material as possible to his next face–to–face visit to the congregations, writing only what he deems essential for pressing exigencies in the letters (2 and 3 John). Once again, an either/or approach to the use of epistolary versus rhetorical theory does not suit the complexities of the evidence.

One practical application of the method would be to work through the following steps, first proposed by George Kennedy (see Kennedy 1984 , pp. 33–38; an alternative adaptation can be found in deSilva 2009 , pp. 26–27).

1. Determine the boundaries of the rhetorical unit for analysis.

A complete book might represent a single overarching unit (as would be the case with Galatians or Philippians) or a combination of units (as is arguably the case with 1 Corinthians, which takes up a number of disparate topics seriatim), with the result that the investigator should not make assumptions of the span of a rhetorical unit apart from some analysis of the matter. Even if one is committed to the analysis of an entire book, at some point it will be necessary to look for indications of the contours of constituent sections that make up the rhetorical steps in the argument and the path to persuasion. These constituent units might be marked by a combination of transitional words, inclusio, use of distinctive key words, change of mode, and many other such markers.

2. Describe the rhetorical situation and the exigency that calls forth the response found in the rhetorical unit.

A rhetorical focus calls for attention to be given to the interaction between author, text, and an audience facing a situation, so it is critical to get as clear a picture of that interaction as possible, including what provokes the composition of the text in question. In some cases, the answer will be quite straightforward (see 1 Cor 7:1a; Gal 1:6–9 ); in others, the answer can only be elicited from the text itself and other evidence concerning the historical situation with some difficulty and tenuousness (as is especially the case with narratives like the Gospels).

It is important even in these early stages to be attentive to how the author’s agenda is at work in how he speaks of the hearers’ situation, to what features of the hearers’ situation (among many such features) the author calls their attention, and how he might “problematize” features of the hearers’ situation that might not otherwise be problematic or significant to his audience and “normalize” other features that his hearers might find problematic.

3. Determine the rhetorical problem or the point at issue, and determine the rhetorical genre of the unit (whether it presses a deliberative, judicial, or epideictic agenda).

What is the sticking point at which the whole discourse, or at least the rhetorical unit, is driving? In Galatians, the point at issue seems rather straightforwardly to be whether or not the gentile converts in Galatia will submit to circumcision as a religious rite. In Philemon, the point at issue concerns whether Philemon will release Onesimus from the status of slave and allow him to return as Paul’s assistant. In Jude, the point at issue concerns whether the recipients will allow certain teachers to continue to exercise influence upon the congregation, particularly in regard to their moral example. In many rhetorical situations, there are also other agendas at work, which contribute, in turn, to the rhetorical problem. The presence and potential credibility of the rival teachers, for example, is a major component of the rhetorical problem that Paul must address—and anything they might have said to compromise Paul’s credibility adds layer upon layer to that rhetorical problem.

Determining the rhetorical problem is closely related to determining the “rhetorical genre” of the text. Rhetorical genre is directly related to the kind of goal toward which a text presses. If the sticking point has to do with a decision that the audience needs to make in regard to future action, the genre is “deliberative,” and the text can be expected to use the kinds of strategies common and appropriate to deliberative oratory. If the sticking point has to do with a call to the audience to render judgment in favor of one party and/or against another party in regard to the party’s past action, the genre is “judicial” or “forensic,” and the text can be expected to use, with some measure of adaptation, the strategies found in courts of law. If the sticking point has to do with the audience’s adherence to particular group values or acceptance of the correctness of a proposition, then the text will probably best be read in light of epideictic or “demonstrative” oratory, such as the orations that adorned public ceremonies by praising the fallen, hymning the gods or the virtues, or promoting a thesis.

4. Analyze the invention, arrangement, and style.

This is the most detailed step, and perhaps the most exegetically rewarding. “Invention” refers to the first step in constructing an oration, the step in which the orator gathers together the possible arguments at his or her disposal to address the various facets of the rhetorical situation. When studying a finished work, the rhetorical critic looks primarily for those appeals that the author finally selected for inclusion, rather than the larger range of possibilities.

Classical rhetorical theory teaches us to be alert for three different kinds of appeal. The first, and arguably most critical, is the appeal to ethos, the attempt to win the audience’s trust by displaying expertise, virtue, and concern for the audience’s best interests, and to render the audience attentive, well–disposed, and receptive. How does the author establish credibility and authority for his message and, if relevant, diminish the credibility of voices that present an alternative view of the situation and promote alternative responses? What resources and strategies (like labeling) does he employ, and how do these resources advance his authority over rival speakers’ authority? The second kind of appeal, the appeal to pathos, seeks to engage the hearers’ emotions. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, book 2, is particularly helpful here as an emic resource listing topics and situations likely to arouse eleven specific emotions, and hence helping the modern interpreter discern where a text, by evoking these topics, was likely to arouse a particular emotion. The rhetorical critic is interested not only in cataloging what emotions an author tries to elicit, but how these appeals to emotion potentially draw the hearers closer to the author’s persuasive goal. The appeal to logos, or rational argumentation, is the third major kind. What instances and patterns of rational argumentation, whether deductive or inductive, can be detected in the text? What argumentative topics and strategies are employed? What premises would the hearers have to share in order to find the argumentation “persuasive”?

The second major heading of classical rhetoric involved “arrangement,” the strategic lining up of one’s arguments and appeals in a sequence that would produce the optimal effects. The speeches given in the settings envisioned by the writers of the classical handbooks tended to be rather uniform in this regard. A judicial speech would begin with an introduction largely devoted to dispelling or creating prejudice, launch into a narrative that interpreted the facts of the case in either the worst or the best possible light for the defendant, announce a proposition in regard to the interpretation of the evidence (whether for guilt or innocence), line out the proofs in support of the proposition, then close with a rousing peroration rife with emotional appeals. The deliberative speech proposing one course of action over another was outlined similarly, save for not needing the narration.

It is probably in regard to analyzing the arrangement of New Testament texts that scholars have drawn the most criticism. While a few texts may indeed be fitted to the basic pattern of the deliberative or judicial oration (Galatians, in fact, comes rather close), many cannot—despite the attempts of committed scholars to force them into this mold. This is a particularly important area in which to allow the text to display its own arrangement, and to take special care in the heuristic use of classical handbooks.

The third element of rhetoric was attention to style, to creating appropriate verbal ornamentation, thinking about use of figures of speech and thought, and attending to the proper emotional level or tone of the parts of the speech. As style was pursued not for its own sake, but as a tool enhancing persuasive impact, rhetorical critics ideally analyze it in terms of its contribution to persuasion and not in and of itself.

Classical rhetorical handbooks also covered two additional areas—“memory,” as the speech would be communicated without manuscript or notes, and “delivery,” reflecting on the effective use of voice, gesture, and the like. These areas are not as readily applicable to the analysis of an ancient text. While the smaller units of the Gospel tradition certainly enjoyed oral performance on the basis of memory, and the same might be true of the Gospels as wholes, this was not the case at least for the epistolary literature of the early church. Indeed, the only testimonies in regard to the oral performance of the latter indicate that memory was not involved, as the texts were to be “read out loud” to the church from the manuscript (see Col 4:16; 1 Thess 5:24; Rev 1:3; possibly 2 Cor 1:13 ). Similarly, Paul may make scattered comments about his delivery as opposed to that of his smoother rivals, but we have no access to the actual performance of any of his letters, however he might have coached his messengers in this regard.

5. Evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of the rhetorical unit in its engagement of invention, arrangement, and style in meeting the rhetorical problem or exigency.

At this step, the “analyst” truly becomes a “critic.” Is the rhetoric of the text up to the challenge of persuading the audience in this situation? Generally, this step must content itself with answering questions like, “what would the audience have to believe to be true in order to accept and be persuaded by the rhetoric of this passage?” “Did the author adequately take into account and undermine opposing arguments and complications in the rhetorical situation?”

An Extended Example: Hebrews 5:11–6:12 .

The so-called “Letter” to the Hebrews provides an excellent field for the practice of rhetorical criticism. The work opens not as a letter but as an oration, with a well-crafted sentence designed to capture the attention of auditors. The author’s attention to rhetorical practice extends beyond invention to the principles of style and ornamentation.

1. Determine the boundaries of the rhetorical unit for analysis.

This section explicitly interrupts the development of the topic of Jesus as the one “appointed by God to be a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (5:10) to address the audience. The author brings this digression carefully back to the same place that he left his audience at 5:10, repeating the same language in 6:20 (“having become a high priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”), so that he can resume the discourse in 7:1—10:18. An inclusio formed by the words “you have become sluggish” (5:11) and “in order that you not become sluggish” (6:12) also marks this segment as a rhetorical unit, highlighting the role of 6:13–20 as a transition back to the topic at hand.

2. Describe the rhetorical situation and the exigency that calls forth the response found in the rhetorical unit.

The author responds to what he perceives to be a crisis of commitment on the part of some members, at least, of the congregation, in the face of society’s ongoing disapproval and marginalization of members of the Christian group (10:32–34) and the failure of God’s promised homeland to materialize (4:1–11; 10:13–16; 13:13–14). A number of converts have already withdrawn from open association with the group, perhaps in an attempt to rehabilitate their reputation in their neighbors’ eyes and regain their place of belonging in their physical homeland (10:24–25). This impression is reinforced throughout the sermon wherever the author speaks of the danger facing the audience (2:1–4; 4:1, 11b; 6:6; 10:26–31, 39a; 12:15–17) or of the posture that he recommends adopting (3:6b, 13–14; 4:11a, 14, 16; 6:1, 12; 10:19–25, 35–36, 39b; 12:1–3, 12–13, 28; 13:12–14).

3. Determine the rhetorical problem or the point at issue, and determine the rhetorical genre of the unit (whether it presses a deliberative, judicial, or epideictic agenda).

The audience faces a choice between continuing openly in their association with one another, and the name of Christ, and muting this commitment out of regard for their neighbors’ disapproval. The situation calls for deliberation and a decision about how to proceed in the future. Hebrews represents primarily deliberative oratory, giving advice about which course to pursue. The author employs topics typical of deliberative rhetoric, promoting his preferred course of action as just (12:28), expedient (10:35–36; 13:12–14), feasible (4:14–16), and the alternative course as unjust (6:4–6; 10:29), inexpedient (2:1–2; 4:1; 6:8), and the like. Epideictic passages like 11:1–40 ultimately serve the larger deliberative goals (e.g., by demonstrating the nobility of manifesting “faith” by persevering as opposed to “shrinking back”).

4. Analyze the invention, arrangement, and style.

Hebrews 5:11–6:12 issues a second call for an attentive hearing, a facet of attending to ethos and appropriately presented in the middle of a speech (Rhet. Her. 3.14.9). The author dares to challenge and even reproach the hearers in 5:11–14, which could either enhance his credibility (he cares enough to speak to them frankly, showing his honesty and investment in them) or risk alienating the hearers. He guards against the latter by balancing reproach with assurance and expressions of confidence in the hearers in 6:9–12 , using the technique of palliation following frank speech (Rhet. Her. 1.4.9).

The author engages the hearers’ emotions throughout this unit, first appealing to feelings of shame (see Aristotle, Rh. 2.6) by suggesting that the hearers have failed to measure up to what might reasonably have been expected of them after so long a time in the Christian faith ( 5:11–14 ). He goads them to prove themselves “mature” by being more pro–active in their profession of faith and reinforcement of one another’s commitment. This strategically moves their focus away from the expectations of their non–Christian neighbors, who have used shaming to motivate the converts to be less actively and openly “Christian.”

The author promotes aversion from the contrary course of action by arousing fear in connection thereto. Having developed the Son’s honor and authority (Heb 1:1–14; 2:5–9 ), the author can now warn against affronting this Son ( 6:6 ) as a dangerous course of action, marking out the perpetrator as an object for divine vengeance (“fire,” 6:8 ). Responding with ingratitude to God’s favor shown the hearers in Christ would also justifiably arouse the benefactor’s anger. The author thus portrays a scenario involving an “imminent evil that causes destruction or pain” (Aristotle, Rh. 2.5.1), an essential ingredient for stimulating fear. The impossibility of help (Aristotle, Rh. 2.5.12), here expressed as the impossibility of restoration ( 6:4 ), also enhances fear through the removal of its opposite, confidence.

The appeal to fear is balanced by an appeal to confidence, an emotion potentially aroused by the author’s invocation of the topic of it being well between the hearers and God, with the latter favorably disposed to help them, and the topic of the expectation that theirs will be a favorable outcome ( 6:9–12 ; see Aristotle, Rh. 2.6). This, in turn, palliates the hearers and orients them yet once more toward the course of action to which they are being exhorted.

Appeals to rational argumentation are evident throughout this unit. The author invites the hearers to commit to a (general) course of action, “pressing on to completion,” as the logical consequence (“Therefore,” 6:1 ) of their failure to realize their full, expected potential to this point ( 5:11–14 ). He supports this with a rationale (“for,” 6:4 ) framed as an argument concerning the consequences of the contrary course of action, namely “falling away” through re–assimilation into the larger society (Heb 6:4–6 ). A stylistic feature—the repetitive use of participial phrases in 6:4–5—creates an impression of having enjoyed a wide variety and rich supply of benefits, hence God’s generosity toward them. This move amplifies the disgrace and injustice of shirking the obligations of the patron–client bond that generosity has created.

The author confirms this rationale with another rationale (“for,” 6:7 ), an argument from analogy ( 6:7–8 ), drawn from familiar agricultural scenarios. The social knowledge of patronage and reciprocity shared by author and audience contributes to the latter’s acceptance of the “impossibility” of restoring those who have made a noxious return for favors shown. Indeed, agricultural imagery was well suited to illustrating reciprocity scripts (see Seneca, De beneficiis 1.1.2; 2.11.4–5; 4.8.2; Pseudo–Phocylides 152; Isa 5:1–7 ). Ultimately, any course of action that alienated the divine benefactor must therefore be judged inexpedient ( 6:8 ), while the just course, namely that of continuing as a loyal, trusting client of God ( 6:1 ) and making a fair return for God’s benefits ( 6:7 , 9–10), results in the preservation of goods already enjoyed and the acquisition of greater goods in God’s future ( 6:11–12 ). (For a detailed analysis, see deSilva 2000, pp. 209–248.)

5. Evaluate the rhetorical effectiveness of the rhetorical unit.

The author shows considerable care in regard to maintaining ethos throughout this passage. He arouses emotions that strategically position his hearers to move in the direction of responding as he wishes. The logical development of the passage is clearly marked and strongly argued—and anchored in foundational social logic (e.g., reciprocity). To the extent that the audience reasons within the parameters of the Christian worldview (including the topics suggestively named by the author in 6:1–2, namely “resurrection of the dead” and “eternal judgment”), the author’s rhetoric should be highly persuasive, since the hearers must consider advantage and disadvantage in terms of the circumstances they may find themselves in after death and for eternity.


Rhetorical criticism invites precise attention to the text in its essentially final form as a thoughtfully crafted composition. In particular, it invites attention to the text as a vehicle for exerting influence upon hearers or readers and upon their orientation and responses to their situation. Classical rhetorical theory provides a helpful heuristic framework especially for analyzing the persuasive impact of Jewish and Christian texts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, though this framework may yet be helpfully expanded on the basis of close study of surviving specimens of Hellenistic and Roman speeches. The discipline would also be advanced by conducting an Aristotelian examination and classification of the rhetorical settings and strategies employed across Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian discourses in order to help bridge the gaps between the purposes and topics of classical oratory and the writings of the Bible.

[ See also Form Criticism, subentry Hebrew Bible; Form Criticism, subentry Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical Books; Form Criticism, subentry New Testament; Genre Criticism; Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, and the Bible; Orality Studies and Oral Tradition, subentry Hebrew Bible; Orality Studies and Oral Tradition, subentry New Testament; Performance Criticism; Socio-rhetorical Criticism; Source Criticism; Speech-Act Theory; and Synchronic Interpretation.]


Aune, David E. The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. A comprehensive reference work on the terminology, theory, and history of application of literary and rhetorical approaches to the New Testament. The vast majority of the entries were written by Aune himself, bringing a unity of perspective to the volume.Find this resource:

    Betz, Hans Dieter. Galatians. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979. The first major critical commentary foregrounding classical rhetoric as an exegetical tool. Betz gives a great deal of attention to the arrangement of Galatians after the structural pattern of a judicial oration, as well as to the discovery and analysis of Paul’s appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos.Find this resource:

      deSilva, David A. Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio–rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews.” Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2000. A commentary oriented primarily around a rhetorical–critical approach to the Letter to the Hebrews, embedding the study of intertexture and socio–cultural scripts and topics into this framework.Find this resource:

        deSilva, David A. Seeing Things John’s Way: Rhetoric and the Book of Revelation. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. An investigation of the persuasive strategies and effects of Revelation using questions generated from the standpoint of classical rhetorical theory, but answering these in terms of Revelation’s very distinctive topics and strategies.Find this resource:

          Jewett, Robert. Romans: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006. A critical commentary framed throughout with a view to rhetorical analysis of Romans. An appropriate counterpart to Betz, 1979, showing the maturation of the discipline.Find this resource:

            Kennedy, George A. New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill, N. C.: University of North Carolina, 1984. The first, and still quite valuable, introduction to rhetorical criticism as a methodology.Find this resource:

              Lundbom, Jack R. Jeremiah: A Study in Ancient Hebrew Rhetoric. 2d ed. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1997. An excellent example of rhetorical criticism of the Hebrew Bible in terms of its interest in literary structure and composition.Find this resource:

                Mack, Burton L. Rhetoric and the New Testament. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1990. A helpful introduction to the history and method of rhetorical criticism, though some of the examples are rather flawed.Find this resource:

                  Mack, Burton L., and Vernon K. Robbins. Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels. Sonoma, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1989. An innovative approach to the Jesus traditions as examples of chreiai (brief narratives of a saying or action of a famous person, normally with an indication of the setting that called it forth or that it impacted) and passages from the Gospels as elaborations of chreiai (an exercise well–attested in the elementary exercises in rhetoric), contributing to understanding variations between traditions (restatement and paraphrase being basic exercises) and the logic behind the arrangement of sayings.Find this resource:

                    Meynet, Roland. Rhetorical Analysis: An Introduction to Biblical Rhetoric. JSOTS 256. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. A detailed and excellent introduction to rhetorical criticism as pursued mainly by scholars of the Hebrew Bible. This work is less useful for the study of New Testament and Hellenistic Jewish texts because of the author’s dismissal of the relevance of classical rhetoric for any biblical text.Find this resource:

                      Mitchell, Margaret M. Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993. An important example of the application of classical rhetorical theory to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians as deliberative rhetoric aimed at overcoming factionalism within the Corinthian churches.Find this resource:

                        Muilenburg, James. “Form Criticism and Beyond.” JBL 88 (1969): 1–18. The programmatic essay that helped push scholars of the Hebrew Bible toward analyzing the extant form of a text as a purposeful composition, and not as a field for excavating older traditions for their witness to the history and religion of ancient Israel.Find this resource:

                          Olbricht, Thomas H., and Jerry L. Sumney, eds. Paul and Pathos. SBL Symposium Series 16; Atlanta: SBL, 2001. A helpful collection of essays modeling judicious analysis of appeals to the emotions of the hearers, one of the more slippery facets of rhetorical criticism.Find this resource:

                            Perelman, Chaim, and Lucie Olbrechts–Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. An important example of a modern theory of rhetoric to which biblical scholars often look for guidance in their investigation of the ancient texts.Find this resource:

                              Porter, Stanley E. Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period 330 B.C.—A.D. 400. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001. An excellent resource on the practice of rhetoric in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, with attention to the contributions of individual theorists and the development of rhetorical theory.Find this resource:

                                Trible, Phyllis. Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1994. The first portion of this book locates rhetorical criticism against the background of the many literary (and related) criticisms and approaches found in biblical scholarship and traces the history of its development. The second portion proposes a method for rhetorical criticism and displays the fruits of this method through a detailed analysis of the book of Jonah.Find this resource:

                                  Watson, Duane F. Invention, Arrangement, and Style: Rhetorical Criticism of Jude and 2 Peter. SBLDS 104. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988. A thorough (and groundbreaking) analysis of Jude and 2 Peter consistently using the canons of rhetoric found in the classical handbooks. The dissertation is also valuable for the rich introduction it provides to Greco–Roman rhetorical theory.Find this resource:

                                    Watson, Duane F. The Rhetoric of the New Testament: A Bibliographic Survey. Blandford Forum, UK: Deo Publishing, 2006. An updated edition of the New Testament portion of Watson and Hauser, 1994.Find this resource:

                                      Watson, Duane F., and Alan J. Hauser. Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994. An extensive bibliographic resource, listing articles and books written from a rhetorical–critical approach, either by the compilers’ definition or the self–definition of a study given by the author. Each half is preceded most helpfully by an introduction to the history and approach of rhetorical criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Hauser) and the New Testament (Watson).Find this resource:

                                        Witherington, Ben, III. Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1998. Witherington foregrounds rhetorical analysis in all of his commentaries, but his treatment of rhetoric in Galatians is perhaps his most detailed and satisfying. This volume is also an important corrective to Betz’s analysis of Galatians as forensic rather than deliberative rhetoric.Find this resource:

                                          Witherington, Ben, III. New Testament Rhetoric: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2009. A survey of the rhetoric of Mark, Luke, the sermon summaries in Acts, and the epistolary literature of the New Testament by the most prolific author of studies conducted in a classical rhetorical mode.Find this resource:

                                            David A. deSilva