David B. Gowler
Because Hellenistic culture influenced both Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism to varying extents, the New Testament Gospels cannot be understood in some pristine “Jewish” manner divorced from the wider culture. A careful reading of the Gospels, in fact, makes clear that they are multicultural; they merge biblical patterns with Hellenistic patterns and conventions.
This multicultural context is essential for understanding the words and actions of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels and, therefore, for the study of the historical Jesus himself. The recognition of the chreia form, for example, has significant implications for the study of the New Testament in general and the Synoptic Gospels in particular. In brief, the composition of the stories in the Synoptic Gospels is very similar to such exercises as the expansion and elaboration of chreiai found in other ancient literature and delineated in ancient rhetorical handbooks.
The best definitions of chreia appear within the compositional textbooks that eventually came to be known as Progymnasmata. The Progymnasmata, or “preliminary exercises,” were written for the purpose of instilling the fundamental skills necessary for students to progress into the more complex forms of composing longer speeches and narratives.
The two handbooks most important for the study of the Gospels are the ones by Aelius Theon of Alexandria (middle to late first century CE) and Hermogenes of Tarsus (second century CE). Although the fourth-century CE textbook by Apthonius came to be the standard by which other Progymnasmata were judged, it is too late to give us firm information about first-century practices. It does, however, provide valuable information about the chreia, when its definition is evaluated in light of the ones given by Theon and Hermogenes:
A chreia is a brief statement or action that is aptly attributed to some person or some-
thing analogous to a person (Theon 3–4).