Oral Texts? A Reassessment Of The Oral And Rhetorical Nature Of Paul’s Letters In Light Of Recent Studies -- By: Stanley E. Porter

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 55:2 (Jun 2012)
Article: Oral Texts? A Reassessment Of The Oral And Rhetorical Nature Of Paul’s Letters In Light Of Recent Studies
Author: Stanley E. Porter


Oral Texts? A Reassessment Of The Oral And Rhetorical Nature Of Paul’s Letters In Light Of Recent Studies

Stanley E. Porter

and Bryan R. Dyer

Stanley Porter is president, dean, and professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College, 1280 Main St. W., Hamilton, ON L8S 4K1, Canada. Bryan R. Dyer is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster Divinity College.

I. Introduction

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 i...

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