For a limited time you can save 20% on the Ben Witherington III Collection (5 vols.) by using coupon code BW35 at checkout. In this collection Witherington employs and explains his socio-rhetorical approach to the study of the New Testament.
We recently chatted with him about his approach and its implications. Learn more about the Ben Witherington III Collection (5 vols.), and grab it today for 20% off before time runs out!
When you talk about rhetorical criticism, what do you mean exactly?
When I talk about rhetoric I’m not talking about modern politics, modern interests of how language works, or how persuasion happens. I’m interested in the question of how ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric helps us to understand the New Testament, and whether or not the writers of the New Testament used such a methodology. As a historian, the first question is, “Did the writers of the New Testament use rhetoric?” Did they use this kind of methodology to persuade people about Jesus Christ? For me the answer is clear enough: yes, to one degree or another. Some writers in the New Testament use it minimally, but others are really quite seasoned practitioners of Greco-Roman rhetoric in the way they present their material, ranging from Paul to the author of Hebrews to Luke and various others. That’s what I’m interested in.
Is this a new approach? Why don’t we see it more often?
This isn’t really a new approach. Many of the Church Fathers—John Chrysostom, to take one example—viewed the letters of Paul, the Book of Acts, etc. as rhetorical in character. So this is simply the reapplying of a methodology of interpreting the text that has been used throughout church history.
What happened in American education, and to some degree in European education, is that we stopped requiring people to take the Latin and Greek classics (ranging from Homer to Caesar to others). Then, unsurprisingly, we had less and less understanding of or study of rhetoric. Rhetoric is a part of all that classical study. Aristotle’s famous treatise on rhetoric is in some ways the beginning of the whole art of persuasion and how to do it properly in Greek literature. I’m reintroducing the contemporary audience to a time-honored methodology—one that the Church Fathers were quite certain provided all kinds of insight into the text.
My socio-rhetorical work focuses on both rhetorical and social issues. On the social side, the first focus is on social history. How does the ancient social and cultural context—along with knowing how it works and knowing its conventions—help us better understand the New Testament? I have nothing against social scientists’ readings of the New Testament using modern methodology, but the first task should be to read the New Testament in light of its own context and immediate social world. I try to do the historical tasks first, both on the context side and on the content side of investigating the New Testament in light of the conventions of those aids, in terms of literary and rhetorical persuasion, and in terms of the social context.
Can you give some examples where this methodology has influenced your doctrine or understanding of theology?
Absolutely. It’s all interrelated. Let’s take a classic example: certainly the most commented-on passage in the whole New Testament is Romans 7, in particular Romans 7:6–25.
I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. (Rom. 7:9)
Who is this “I” person, referring to the struggles he has had with sin? In the modern study of the matter since the Reformation, you would frequently hear agreement with Luther, that this is Paul talking about his own personal experience. That whole analysis has some definite problems. This person—who seems to know better but can’t do better and is still in bondage to sin—doesn’t seem to match up with the Paul who wrote Galatians 1 and the Paul who wrote Philippians 3 and 4, in which he says, “In regard to the keeping of the Law I was blameless.”
This is where rhetoric absolutely helps. One rhetorical device is called impersonation. That is, you do what is called “speech in character.” You speak in the first person, and in terms of the oral presentation, you are going to change your voice and intonations, as if you were a different person speaking. Rhetoric shows us that the person speaking in Romans 7:6–13 is Adam. He is describing what happened to him in the Fall. He existed before there was any law, and when the commandment came in, he disobeyed it, he died, he became self-aware. So this is not Paul describing his Christian or preconversion experience, this is Adam describing his prefallen and fallen experience.
Romans 7:14–25 gives us a first-person description of what life is like for all those who are in Adam—fallen human beings who need to be redeemed by Jesus Christ. Once you recognize the rhetorical device of impersonation, you won’t make the horrible mistake that Luther made of thinking the Christian life involves both bondage to sin and freedom in Christ. It’s a contradiction in terms! That’s as much of an oxymoron as “Microsoft Works”—you can’t have it both ways. And in the immediate context, Paul says that’s not the case. In Romans 7:4 and 5, he says explicitly that the law of the Spirit and life has set the Christian free from the law of sin and death, and he says this again emphatically in Romans 8:1–3. So the person described is somebody other than the Christian! If you know the rhetorical signals, you won’t make a mistake about that.
If you read Quintilian’s handbook on how to do rhetoric properly, he says that if you’re going to speak in the voice of a famous historical person, then you need to introduce that historical person shortly before you do so. That’s just what Romans 5:12–21 does. It introduces both the first Adam and the alternative—Christ, who is the eschatological Adam. So a person listening to Romans will hear all about Adam in Romans 5, and a few minutes later in Romans 7, that person will hear about the experience of the first Adam, reflecting those who are in Adam and not in Christ. This absolutely affects our theology!
That has powerful implications. Do you still hear rhetorical impersonation in today’s sermons and speeches?
Of course! If I started saying, “You will do me a favor, after which I will do you a favor, and if you don’t do me a favor, you’ll be sleeping with the fishes,” [you should have heard his impeccable Marlon Brando voice!] you would know that I’m not speaking as me, but as the Godfather! Anyone who’s at all familiar with that movie, or even those who aren’t, would realize that I was speaking in a voice other than my normal voice. And that’s the way impersonation works. Even knowing about normal rhetorical devices changes the way we look at the text.
What are some ways the layperson can examine Scripture in this way?
The first thing I would want to hammer home is what I often say: a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. And when I say “a context” I mean the original context. The original linguistic, rhetorical, social, literary, religious context. Study the Bible in its original context, and do not jump the hermeneutical gun by asking, “Well how does this apply to me?” first. Honor God’s Word by studying it in its original context and letting it speak as it spoke to its first audience. The meaning of the text today is exactly the same as the meaning of the text in the first century AD. God’s Word in terms of its meaning and cash value has not changed over 2,000 plus years. What changes, of course, is the application or personal significance it may have for you. But those questions are second-order questions. The first task is to determine what this text means. Having done that, then you can ask the second-order questions.
What I have said to laypeople over and over again is this: you need to become an actual student of the Bible. And that means you’re going to have to do some reading, some studying, and by all means you need to read some good commentaries that deal with the original historical contexts, and accustom yourself to realizing that the world of the Bible is a very different world than we live in today. Some of the values of then and now overlap, but many differences also exist, some of which are actually contradictory.
To learn more about Witherington’s methods, be sure to check out his other books available from Logos and his Logos Mobile Education course The Wisdom of John: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Johannine Literature.
Save 20% now on the Ben Witherington III Collection (5 vols.) with coupon code BW35.