The rhetorical Word of God

A few weeks ago I posted concerning Ben Witherington’s article about John Chrysostom and how to read the Old Testament. Today I’ll highlight yesterday’s post from Witherington entitled SACRED TEXTS IN AN ORAL CULTURE—How Did They Function?

I believe that the best way to understand the Bible is to first try to understand the culture of that period and try to understand what the author was trying to say, and what his audience would have understood him to say. After that, we can talk about whatever personal revelation you may have had about the verse and whether it fits within your personal theology. Mr. Witherington seems to agree, and has some interesting things to say about First Century culture and how it relates to understanding the New Testament. He points out that the First Century culture was primarily geared toward oral rather than written communication, rhetorical rather than literal:

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.

He then comments about what the written New Testament tells us about the First Century Church:

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.

As his blog post is actually a transcript of a recent lecture, it is longer than the average blog post, and he discusses in some depth how written texts were used in that culture, and gives suggestions concerning their interpretation from a first century rhetorical point of view. For example, it is important to realize that ancient rhetorical devices differed from ours today, and certainly differed from both ancient and modern literary devices. To analyze the New Testament from purely a literary point of view, he suggests, leads to misunderstanding, as does misunderstanding which style of rhetoric is being used. For example, Ephesians is an epideictic homily, which does not contain a thesis statement. Romans, on the other hand, is “a masterpiece of deliberative rhetoric:”

Understanding the rhetorical signals helps with difficult passages such as Rom. 7.7-25, which as it turns out is a tour de force use of the rhetorical device called ‘impersonation’ where Adam and his kin are allowed to speak of their plight in the first person.

Witherington’s approach is fascinating, to say the least. He sums up:

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 is one thing to pick the Bible apart, as some have done, to build various cases or to simply tear down cases. It’s quite another to get a fresh viewpoint which releases even more life from the Scriptures.

2 thoughts on “The rhetorical Word of God”

  1. Yes. Literary criticism has been held in disdain by fundamentalists, but rather than saying “they’re just stories,” it does have important things to lend to Bible study. I thought you’d appreciate his point about the letters meaning to be read, such as with poetry or plays. An interesting approach.

  2. In many ways Witherington’s approach is very similar to a “literary” approach to the scriptures (my preferred approach) which recognizes the use of rhetorical devices and a creative human contribution to the text. Rather than reducing the scriptures to theological conclusion, the literary perspective handles these texts as avatars of dynamic process, as “living word.” Viewed in this way the Bible provides its own continually fresh aspect and, for many of us, makes Bible study ever surprising, enjoyable, and deeply satisfying.

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