Rhetorical Criticism In Old Testament Studies -- By: David M. Howard, Jr.

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 04:1 (NA 1994)
Article: Rhetorical Criticism In Old Testament Studies
Author: David M. Howard, Jr.


Rhetorical Criticism In Old Testament Studies

David M. Howard, Jr.

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois 60015

Rhetorical criticism in Old Testament studies—indeed, in biblical studies in general—had its origins in a self-conscious way in 1968, when James Muilenburg issued his now-famous call to go beyond form criticism and focus upon the unique features of a text. Since then, biblical rhetorical criticisms have flourished. However, in Old Testament studies, rhetorical criticism has tended to be primarily a literary concern, with emphasis upon stylistics. Classical and contemporary rhetorical criticisms are very different, however. These focus particularly upon the suasive aspects of spoken discourse. This paper reviews the history of rhetorical criticism in Old Testament studies and in the field of speech and rhetoric, comparing and contrasting approaches. It then issues a call to biblical scholars to practice a truly “rhetorical” criticism, based upon speech and persuasion.

Key words: Rhetorical criticism, Old Testament, rhetoric, speech, persuasion

I have profited in this essay from discussions with J. Kenneth Kuntz, Jared J. Jackson, Robert L. Scott, James L. Boyce, G. Michael Hagan, Michael A. Bullmore, and Mark Roberts.

A recent essay by W. Wuellner entitled “Where Is Rhetorical Criticism Taking Us?” asked where the discipline of rhetorical criticism was leading biblical studies and answered that it was pointing the way to a synchronic reading of texts that “makes us appreciate the practical, the political, the powerful, the playful, and the delightful aspects of religious texts.” In particular, it promised to lead biblical exegetes “out of the ghetto of an estheticizing preoccupation with biblical stylistics which has remained for centuries formalized, and functionless, and contextless.” A new rhetorical criticism was highlighted, one that

“approaches all literature, including inspired or canonical biblical literature, as social discourse.”1

Wuellner is a New Testament scholar, and rhetorical studies have flourished in that field; however, in Old Testament studies, the situation has been somewhat different. The present essay asks a question logically prior to Wuellner’s: What is the nature of the “rhetorical criticism” that has been practiced in Old Testament studies in the last two and one-half decades? The answer suggested is that it has been primarily a literary and stylistic exercise; it is somewhat removed from what is called “rhetorical criticism” by those who study rhetoric in its th...

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