Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.32

Nina E. Livesey, Galatians and the Rhetoric of Crisis: Demosthenes - Cicero – Paul.   Salem, OR:  Polebridge Press, 2016.  Pp. 273.  ISBN 9781598151749.  $26.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alexandra Gruca-Macaulay, Saint Paul University, Ottawa (

The New Testament Letter to the Galatians continues to raise questions regarding the function of its sustained polemics against the primacy of Mosaic law and the requirement for male circumcision for gentile adherents to the early Christ movement. In Galatians and the Rhetoric of Crisis, Nina Livesey has sought to bring the Letter to the Galatians into a comparative analysis with selected passages from Demosthenes’ and Cicero’s Philippics from within a “rhetoric of crisis” framework, in an attempt to uncover “a viable explanation...for Paul’s stance regarding circumcision and Torah adoption of non-Jews” (p. 8).

In 1983 Cecil W. Wooten proposed that Demosthenes’ orations against Philip of Macedon, and Cicero’s against Antony, emerged from similar types of political crises that led to a distinctive form of rhetorical response: a “rhetoric of crisis.”1 According to Wooten, the aim of a rhetoric of crisis is to persuade an audience to take immediate action to protect its state from a perceived threat posed by a “totalitarian menace.”2 Wooten characterized the rhetoric of crisis as an attack against an opponent that presents “a clear-cut struggle between good and evil,” where victory is the only tenable outcome.3 As a result, such discourse is marked by an intensely urgent tone that draws upon features such as repetition and short sentence structure, as well as the use of conventional topoi and caricature that aim to accentuate and exaggerate the contrast between the character of an unequivocal enemy—Philip, Antony— and the noble ethos of the orator —Demosthenes, Cicero.

In Galatians, Livesey taking up Wooten’s model, argues that the author of Galatians, Paul, drew upon stylistic features that were similar to those used by Demosthenes and Cicero in their Philippics in order to create the appearance of a threatening external situation of crisis, “for the specific purpose of winning the Galatians to his side and away from his competition” (p. 176). Paul’s “emphasis on the ‘right’ position, that is, on his position, indicates that winning the Galatians to his side and from the side of his competitors is more significant than the issues themselves” (p. 36).

In each of her four chapters, Livesey first chooses examples from Demosthenes’ and Cicero’s Philippics to illustrate stylistic features common to classical rhetoric that could contribute to a rhetoric of crisis, and then turns to Galatians to argue that Paul availed himself of similar rhetorical features. Each chapter concludes with a summary that aims to show how the three authors crafted their works with comparable goals and rhetorical means.

In Chapter 1 Livesey argues that the authors in question created a sense of urgency through repeated words, phrases, and sounds. These repetitions at times helped to create short phrases that contributed to a rapid pace of delivery. In addition, Livesey notes cases of repeated words that refer to time in order to create a sense of “time running out,” and argues that these too aided the authors in fabricating a sense of imminent danger. Moreover, Livesey sees many of these and other repetitions as deliberate attempts to grow the chasm between the author’s position and that of his rival(s).

Chapter 2 is devoted to showing how each author actively fashioned his own credibility, most especially as a favourable contrast to his competitors. According to Livesey, as part of each author’s ethos-building initiative, acts of self-disclosure were intended to showcase the speaker’s trustworthiness. Thus, Livesey equates the manner by which Demosthenes and Cicero raised and addressed criticisms targeted at them by their opponents with Paul’s confession of having been an aggressive persecutor of the early Christian movement, and portrays all of these as ethos-building displays of candor. In addition, in the case of Paul, Livesey argues that his self-fashioning as an apostle was intended to contrast his own superior divinely chosen status with that of his competitors.

In Chapter 3 Livesey moves to pathos, and most especially, to the ways by which Demosthenes, Cicero, and Paul attempted to instill fear and hatred of their respective rivals in the audience. So, in Livesey’s analysis, Demosthenes “greatly exaggerates Philip’s treachery and plays loose with the facts,” Cicero turned Antony into a tyrant by using commonplaces associated with tyranny, and Paul conjured the demonic to provoke fear (p. 99, 101, 109). In the case of Paul’s rhetoric, Livesey argues that his use of βασκαίνω in Gal 3:1, intends to suggest “that his opponents participate in evil eye practices” (p. 112). Livesey does not raise other possibilities that might be suggested by βασκαίνω including more common idioms, such as those used by Demosthenes, that revolve around maligning or disparging, nor does she engage with rhetorical critic Troy Martin’s argument that ἐβάσκανεν in Gal 3:1 should be translated as “maligned.”4 Instead, Livesey argues that Paul portrays his competitors as participants in a “malevolent” practice in order to conjure “the demonic realm around his opponents” (p. 112).

In the fourth and final chapter of her analysis, Livesey takes up Wooten’s argument that central to a rhetoric of crisis is a “disjunctive” mode that unambiguously contrasts the position of the opponent with that of the speaker, thereby offering the audience “mutually exclusive clear-cut alternatives” (p. 129). For Wooten, in a disjunctive mode existing dichotomies, e.g., freedom and slavery, are exploited in order to distinguish the stark consequences of a choice between the speaker and his opponent.5 In Livesey’s approach, however, Paul creates oppositions between concepts that would not have been considered to be inherently oppositional. So, for example, Livesey claims that when Paul develops his argument that opposes “works of the law” with πίστις (which Livesey translates as “trust,” leading to difficult readings of verses such as Gal 2:16 “we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through trust in Jesus Christ. And we have come to trust in Christ Jesus...,” etc.), the ensuing dichotomy is a sui generis fabrication by Paul. Moreover, since, according to Livesey, the sole purpose of these disjunctures is clearly to delineate between two competing groups, the concepts that underlie them “are not in and of themselves significant” to the author (p. 160). In this manner, Livesey is able to claim that the actual topics of law/Torah, circumcision, and faith hold no real significance for Paul since they are but instruments towards his goal of opposing a rival group.

Livesey concludes her argument by re-stating her position that a rhetoric of crisis produces a sense of “an imminent crisis where none exists” (p. 171). The actual situations on which the three orators urgently sought their audience’s assent “take a back seat to the authors’ desire to gain supremacy over their competition” (p. 171). By asserting that each author’s interest in the topics used to invent his argument is limited to their utility as vehicles towards his victory over his rivals, Livesey is able to conclude: “In Paul’s case, he develops the adoption of works of Torah and circumcision into a crisis, not for theological, sociological, or political reasons, but simply because they reflect the position of his competitors. He advances hyperbolic reasons why the Galatians should not adopt circumcision. These rites are caught up in the middle—innocent victims—of his polemical fight with his competitors” (p. 176).

Livesey’s rhetoric of crisis approach to interpreting Galatians raises a number of questions. Wooten’s argument was rooted in his view that a rhetoric of crisis could be effective in cases where an established society felt threatened by some type of invasive opponent. As the voice of a prevailing society, the orator could readily shape the disjunctive “us,” and “them” that lies at the heart of a rhetoric of crisis. However, in contrast, Paul in Galatians is a disruptive element who attacks deeply valued traditions such as circumcision and the law, and therefore cannot readily blend his audience’s worldview with his own. Likewise, Wooten’s model needed a clearly identified enemy to create a credible sense of imminent danger. As Livesey herself observes, in Galatians the rivals are not identified; an absence that has led to much continued debate as to whether the letter’s polemics reflect an intra- or an inter- community conflict. How then is the requisite “us” and “them” dichotomy that underlies a rhetoric of crisis effected when the “them” is not named? Connected to this question is the role of the claim of universal unity in Gal 3:28, not treated by Livesey – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female...” – and how this argument for unity is compatible with a stridently oppositional rhetoric of crisis.

Perhaps the larger set of questions, however, relate to Wooten’s model itself, and specifically to whether the model adequately manages to explain how conventional rhetorical practices are transformed into a distinct and efficacious rhetoric of crisis. Better put, in a review of Wooten’s book, B.P. Newbound asked, “If Cicero’s rhetoric just reflects a real crisis, it is unremarkable; if it does not, why did his audience ‘believe’ it?” 6 In other words, there is nothing distinct about a rhetor seeking to craft a favourable ethos, or to develop passionate invective aimed at a perceived enemy. However, if indeed the entire rhetorical situation was “engineered,” as is Livesey’s claim in the case of Galatians (p. 17), then we are left to wonder how this rhetorical subterfuge might have been accomplished.


1.   Cecil W. Wooten, Cicero’s Philippics and Their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).
2.   Ibid. 170–71.
3.   Ibid., 58.
4.   Demosthenes 1 Aristog.. 80, 83; Chers.. 19, 22; Cor.. 132, 139, 190, 242, 252, 307, 318, 108, 119; Fals. Leg.. 24; Lept.. 24; Mid.. 210; Meg.. 19; Troy Martin, ‘Apostasy to Paganism: The Rhetorical Stasis of the Galatian Controversy,’ in The Galatians Debate: Contemporary Issues in Rhetorical and Historical Interpretation, ed. Mark D. Nanos (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 83 n. 53.
5.   Cecil W. Wooten, cit., 62–63.
6.   B. P. Newbound, review of Cecil W. Wooten, Cicero’s Philippics and their Demosthenic Model: The Rhetoric of Crisis, Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984): 238.

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