Oral Texts? a Reassessment of the Oral and Rhetorical Nature of Paul's Letters in Light of Recent Studies

Article excerpt


The last thirty years of biblical scholarship have seen an emphasis on how rhetoric impacts the interpretation of NT texts. Rhetorical criticism has been generally applied as an examination of the persuasive elements within the NT, but also, more specifically, as a direct application of the categories of ancient rhetoric to these texts. Added to this is the rise of the "New Rhetoric," which applies modern understanding of rhetoric and persuasion as a means of interpreting the early Christian writings.1 Thus, the designation "rhetorical criticism" often needs to be properly introduced with its methodology clearly defined by each scholar in order to clarify which "rhetorical" method they are using. While a critique of this confusion may indeed be warranted, the purpose of this article is to challenge the popular application of categories found in the Greco-Roman handbooks to the NT writings-particularly Paul's letters.

The application to the NT of ancient rhetorical categories designed for the construction of speeches has many modern proponents, and there are numerous monographs and commentaries that apply this method. However, no recent NT scholar has been more outspoken for this type of rhetorical criticism than has Ben Witherington III. Witherington has, for the greater part of two decades, been refining and applying his own "socio-rhetorical criticism" of the NT.2 Further, he has also written more generally on the use of ancient rhetoric in interpreting the NT writings.3

While there is much to be admired in his large body of work, there are two foundational aspects of Witherington's approach to the NT that deserve a closer examination. The first is his analysis of Paul's letters (as well as other NT letters and homilies) using the categories found in ancient Greek rhetorical handbooks. As we will see, Witherington argues that Paul was a master of Greco-Roman rhetoric and applied common categories for oral speech to his letters. The second concerns the oral nature of the NT documents themselves, which develops from Witherington's understanding of the culture in which they originated. According to this understanding, the NT documents-particularly the Pauline letters-served as proxies for oral communication. These two features of Witherington's approach are tightly intertwined-the oral nature of the documents lending support for analyzing them using the categories of ancient speech.

Both of these features are highly problematic, and our goal in this article is to critique Witherington's approach in light of these difficulties. Given the breadth of his work, we will limit our discussion to Paul's letters since both the oral nature and rhetorical analysis find full expression by Witherington in application to this corpus. The first part of this article will present Witherington's articulation of these two features and his application of them to the NT. Each feature will be explored- especially in relation to Paul and his epistles. The second part will call into question these features and present a critique of their application to Paul's letters, suggesting some more plausible alternatives. Our desire as a result of engaging with Witherington's work is to further the discussion on the oral and rhetorical nature of Paul's culture and writing.


The following presentation of Witherington's argument, while drawing from several of his works, will focus on two that most fully develop his view on the oral and rhetorical context of the NT. These two works-New Testament Rhetoric and What's in the Word-are the most comprehensive presentations of Witherington's views on these subjects.4 The issue of the oral culture surrounding the NT will be examined first, as it stands as the rationale behind Witherington's use of rhetorical criticism. 5 As we will see, Witherington argues that the first century was a dominantly oral culture and Paul's letters were essentially oral speeches meant to be read aloud. …