Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.4


R. Dean Anderson, Jr., Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Paul. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology, 18. The Netherlands: Kok Phraros, Kampen, 1996. Pp. 315. ISBN 90-390-0142-1.


Reviewed by C. Clifton Black, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas TX 75275-0133.

Whatever classicists might make of the phenomenon, the past two decades have witnessed an explosion of research and publication in the field of biblical rhetoric. Taking the measure of a broad swath of that scholarship, Anderson's monograph, the product of his doctoral studies at the Theological University of Kampen (Broederweg), is an attempt to draw classics and New Testament studies into closer conversation. Specifically, the author endeavors to appraise the application of Greco-Roman rhetorical theory to particular letters of the apostle Paul. Owing to his inductive procedure, Anderson's primary thesis is not directly articulated. Still, a consistent thesis emerges throughout this study: namely, when viewed in the light of ancient theoretical canons, Paul's letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians do not exhibit, nor do they evidently intend to execute, the kind of argumentation that would have been reckoned satisfactorily persuasive by a hypothetical professor of rhetoric contemporaneous with the apostle (cf. p. 28). In these letters Paul is insisting on and explaining his views about the gospel, sometimes in a manner analogous to that of popular philosophers (pp. 141, 196). Because he is typically not sustaining an argument as such for those views, the direct application of rhetorical theory to Paul's letters is severely limited and in some cases irrelevant (pp. 144, 166, 205, 238).

Anderson's own argument proceeds in the following manner. In Chapter One (pp. 13-28) he outlines the adoption of rhetorical concepts by modern New Testament investigators, with special attention to the approaches of George A. Kennedy and Burton L. Mack (the latter heavily influenced by Ch. Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca). Anderson's survey of the current methodological scene points up, without resolving, some theoretical quandaries, such as the inadequacy of classical norms to describe a universal rhetoric and the modern, not ancient, philosophical underpinnings of "the New Rhetoric." Chapter Two (pp. 29-92) reviews eighteen ancient treatments of argumentation and style, distinguishing both school rhetoric from philosophical rhetorical theory and rhetorical theory from rhetorical practice. In the light of their later influence, Demetrius's treatise De Elocutione is deemed "quite useful" for rhetorical analysis of Paul's letters (p. 47), whereas "Aristotle's Rhetoric should be avoided" (p. 57). Abstract treatments of KOINOI\ TO/POI and integrated STA/SIS theories are adjudged less relevant to Pauline interpretation than Quintilian's more eclectic approach (pp. 82-90). A transitional third chapter (pp. 93-109) considers the relation of rhetoric to epistolography and concludes that, while ancient letters should not be forced into rigid rhetorical categories, Paul's letters could have been generally influenced by rhetorical methods of style and argumentation.

On the strength of that conclusion, the second half of this monograph is devoted to rhetorical analyses of Galatians 1:1-5:12 (Chapter Four, pp. 111-67), Romans 1-11 (Chapter Five, pp. 169-219), and 1 Corinthians (Chapter Six, pp. 221-48). Each of these studies incorporates a critical review of recent scholarship, an overview of Paul's presentation, comments on Pauline argument and style, notes on these letters' rhetoric, and a concluding assessment of their affinity with -- and most conspicuously their deviation from -- the rhetorical standards of Paul's day. In Galatians "Paul is better likened to a philosopher whose pupils have departed from his doctrines than to a defendant on trial, a prosecutor in court, or a politician in an assembly" (p. 166). Chapters 1-5 of Romans offer a persuasive argument for a philosophical QE/SIS proposed in 1:16-17; Romans 6-8 shifts to teaching and exhortation; Romans 9-11 takes up problems briefly addressed in 3:1-9 (pp. 215-16). Unlike Galatians and Romans, the body of 1 Corinthians bears little resemblance to a speech and "cannot be analysed in terms of sustained rhetorical argumentation" (p. 238). Paul's characterization of his own preaching in 1 Corinthians 1-4 ("not with eloquent wisdom, ... not with plausible words ... taught by human wisdom": 1:17; 2:4-5, 13) reflects virtually nothing of his views on rhetoric and "should not be interpreted against the specific background of Graeco-Roman rhetorical theory" (p. 248).

General conclusions are offered in Chapter Seven (pp. 249-57). Because rhetorical genres and classical standards of argumentation and style cannot be properly applied to Galatians, Romans, or 1 Corinthians, Paul appears to have had no direct knowledge of rhetorical theory (pp. 251-55). Such theory best serves as a contrastive foil for interpreting the Pauline letters (pp. 255-56). Reflecting on scholarly trends, Anderson perceives a need for more discerning interpretations of those primary sources in rhetorical theory that are most appropriate for interpreting Paul (pp. 256-57). The volume is completed by a select bibliography (pp. 259-73), indexes of ancient works, modern authors, and rhetorical terms in Greek and Latin (pp. 275-302), and a select glossary of Greek rhetorical terms (pp. 303-15).

In my view -- that of a New Testament scholar, not of a professional classicist -- this book's argument is tightly constructed, conversant with primary and secondary scholarship, and well written. Anderson cautions his reader to bear in mind a range of interpretive possibilities in the estimate of Pauline rhetoric, refusing pretense to knowledge that no one can reasonably claim. His pursuit of methodological clarity in studying rhetorical theory and practice is admirable though not unprecedented, as he well appreciates (pp. 229-38; cf. Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians [Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie, 28; Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck) 1991]). Many of Anderson's conclusions seem to me perceptive, well founded, and welcome. For instance: "It is very easy to label a particular passage or argument in Paul's writings by some Greek technical term, but unless rhetorical theory enables us to say something relevant concerning its use and function at that point, our analysis is pretty worthless" (p. 34; see also pp. 83, 92). For that declaration alone, Anderson will receive three cheers not only from experts in rhetoric but also from many Pauline specialists, of late bombarded by arcana from Heinrich Lausberg's Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik (2 vols.; München: Huebner, 1960) that remain distanced from the actual exegesis of Paul's letters.

On the other hand, New Testament scholars may be disappointed to find in this monograph few original insights into Galatians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians. This outcome may be partly a function of Anderson's essentially negative proposal that Paul's letters do not appear to have been constructed with rhetorical categories in mind. Moreover, Anderson's decision to test that thesis with reference to not one but three major Pauline letters in the space of about 140 pages inevitably guarantees a comparatively superficial treatment of any of them. This more expansive project may, however, render the book friendlier and more serviceable for classicists who want a sense of the Pauline forest and do not require that every sapling be notched. Such readers should be warned that Anderson's circle of Pauline interlocutors tends to be narrowly restricted to those having written on rhetoric and lacks some otherwise important voices (among others, C. K. Barrett, J. Christiaan Beker, Victor Paul Furnish, J. Louis Martyn, and Wolfgang Schrage). Some of Anderson's judgments would strike many Neutestamentlers as surprisingly stodgy: for example, Paul's "upbringing in Jerusalem under Gamaliel" and his learning "the trade of tent-making" (p. 249) are items gleaned not from Paul's own writings, but from Luke's stylized portrait of him in the Acts of the Apostles (18:3; 22:3). Conversely, Anderson's catalogue of sources for ancient rhetorical theory should prove helpful for New Testament interpreters, most of whom (including myself) are incompetent to render fine judgments on his dexterity with those late classical and Hellenistic documents.

This monograph revolves around two questions: (1) Do Paul's letters demonstrate knowledge of ancient rhetorical theory? (2) How might a critic conversant with such theory assess the rhetorical merits of those letters, whatever Paul's knowledge or lack thereof? These are two very different questions, as Anderson acknowledges (p. 92). In his conclusions, however (pp. 251-55), the author's answers to the second question -- underlining the letters' obscurity, often undefended argument, and lack of TO/POI -- have become bases for his response to the first: "Paul had no real contact with rhetorical theory as such" (p. 251). If I correctly understand Anderson's reasoning, this inference seems a non sequitur. Some scholars may have too hastily assumed that Paul was well versed in rhetorical theory; on that point Anderson is probably right. Yet I wonder if he may have jumped to a conclusion at the opposite extreme. Even if the author's assessments of Pauline rhetoric be conceded -- and they do not appear to me incontrovertible -- how could a negative reality, particularly an absence of "knowledge" or "consciousness" of anything, ever be proved?

Ironically, Anderson's own treatment may have demonstrated a fair degree of rhetorical effectiveness in Paul's letters, though certainly no slavish adherence to theoretical canons. Much depends on how an issue is framed, and how high one sets the burden of proof. For instance, I agree with Anderson that the blistering rebuke of the Galatians in that letter's opening (1:6-10) "is hardly in accord with rhetorical theory" (p. 122). Neither does it jibe with epistolary convention or Paul's own style elsewhere, but I do not reckon the heuristic usefulness of either epistolary or rhetorical analysis nullified by that fact. Similarly, one need not view 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 as a "programmatic approach to rhetoric" (p. 239) in order to appreciate the contrast that Paul draws between "persuasive [words of] wisdom" (PEIQOI=[S] SOFI/AS [LO/GOIS], 2:4) and "the word of the cross" (1:18). A formidable challenge to the author's thesis seems embedded in his own judgment that Romans 1-5 and 9-11 offer a "connected extended argument" (p. 183). ( Pace Anderson but with many commentators, I consider Romans 6-8 a tightly connected extension of that argument, rather than interruptive "teaching and exhortation.") Accept Anderson's claim; grant the undeniable variability in contemporaneous rhetorical theory and practice; and the suitability of a temperate analysis of the rhetoric of Romans seems to me incontestable.

The great strength of Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Paul lies in its sensible insistence that Paul's letters not be distorted by the imposition of ill-fitting literary precepts or concepts. If this book does not herald rhetorical criticism's coming of age, it surely promotes the maturation of that approach in biblical interpretation. The volume is filled with learned observations and important caveats, at times overstated. The "all-or-nothing" tinge of the author's contentions is most unfortunately evident in the characterizations of some scholars with whom he disagrees: one "show[s] no real grasp of ancient rhetorical theory itself" (p. 119); another "conveniently ignores [a relevant] fact" (p. 170). Such remarks are gratuitous. Valuable and thought-provoking, Anderson's contribution gains nothing from exaggerating others' weaknesses.