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Ben Witherington on socio-rhetorical criticism

We were recently at the visit of Ben Witherington III to Churches of Christ Theological College. I see him as a sort of American NT Wright: his scholarship has a deeply pastoral dimension and he’s right in on the public discourse (radio programs, TV documentaries, popular books, blogging). BW3 was providing an introduction to his field, socio-rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. These are my notes from the afternoon. He has also recently published an introduction to NT rhetoric.

The ‘socio’ bit


1. Honour and shame. All the NT language of least/last/lost, slave/servant, etc is pejorative language outside the NT, but the NT appropriates this language and constructs new meaning. Prime example: Phil 2:5-7, which claims that Jesus is the God who ‘humbled himself’, literally ‘having the mind of a slave’, an unthinkable idea in the first century.

2. Dyadic personality

3. Limited good

4. Patrons and clients. 2% of the populace owned more or less all the wealth and therefore became the sugar daddies (patrons) for others (clients). It was a barter economy. Clients would become ambassadors for their patrons, so patrons referred to their clients as ‘friends’. This is the meaning of the NT language of friendship: eg Jesus is not offering his disciples companionship but allowing them to be his representatives. In 1 Corinthians, Paul rejected the Corinthians’ offer of money not because he just wanted to work for free, but because they were trying to rope him into a patron-client relationship. Yet the language the NT prefers is the language of spiritual family rather than friendship — an idea more or less unknown in contemporary Judaism. And the language of spiritual family is countercultural to our modern usage of family too. Today, ‘family church’ = ‘a church for nuclear families’, but the radical language of spiritual family is quite different to James Dobson!

5. Reciprocity. In the first century, no one believed in ‘something for nothing’ — everything had to be earned. Christian theology’s persistent preoccupation with God’s free grace was deeply unsettling!

6.  Patriarchal orientation. We can’t make the claim that there are too few women in the NT. Jesus was the first rabbi to have female disciples and, scandalously, he allowed them to travel with him. He is clearly and intentionally challenging the patriarchal paradigm.

All of these cultural values are brought under the close scrutiny and critique of Jesus and the gospel, so the better we understand these values, the better we understand the meaning of Jesus and the gospel.

The ‘rhetorical’ bit

Christianity had no temples, no sacrifices, or any of the usual trappings of a religion. At one point it was classed as one of the illicit ‘superstitions’ along with things like the Isis cult. One of the reasons that Christian leaders turned to persuasion was because they had some real explaining to do for first-century minds!

Rhetoric does not refer to fancy language fireworks or empty spin. It is the art of persuasion — BW3 calls it the ancient art of preaching. His advice to preachers: read Quintillian’s handbook on oration!

NT study has sporadically recognised the rhetorical background of the NT. The early church fathers knew the exact rhetorical ins and outs of the NT because they largely belonged to the same thought world (eg Chrysostom). Much more recently, classics courses at uni would train people in Greco-Roman rhetoric, meaning they could see rhetoric throughout the NT, but rhetoric has dropped out of classics courses in recent generations. Rhetorical criticism has been resurgent since around 1980 (George Kennedy especially).

The NT world = oral culture

BW3 stresses that biblical cultures were oral cultures from first to last. Text was always secondary; oral performance was always primary. The phrase ‘word of God’ in the NT refers in 99% of occurrences to oral proclamation, and never refers to the Hebrew Scriptures (which are referred to as ‘the writings’).

The important question: How then do sacred texts function in an oral culture? (First-century scribes were less like secretaries and more like IT technicians: highly sought after and well paid.) The NT documents were designed to be spoken and heard. The oral basis of these texts explains the format of the earliest copies: there is a complete lack of punctuation, spaces, paragraphs, annotations, etc because these texts are for reading aloud. It’s not surprising that Ambrose spoke of Augustine as the only man he knew who could read in silence without mouthing the words!

An oral culture:

  • Prefers and trusts voice over text
  • Sees texts as simply surrogates or scripts for oral performance
  • Believes words have inherent power, especially divine words

The difference between ancient and modern texts is that modern texts are designed to be read ‘cold’ and ancient texts are not.

Oral cultures feature oral memory. Imagine the Sermon on the Mount was a single sermon of a few hours in length (BW3 takes it as a ‘Best of Jesus’ collection) — there would have been first-century listeners who could recite it more or less verbatim immediately afterwards. They had truly expansive oral memories! Len Firth’s comment: you can see this kind of thing today, eg Sudanese Christians don’t have the OT written in their own languages, but they still know most of the OT! And wherever a culture depends on texts, texts have the unintended but inevitable effect of disabling oral memory.

Paul’s letters are not letters! Letters were just a few lines. Paul’s writings are diatribes, discourses, speeches — entirely designed for speaking. They only have epistolary features at their very beginning and end. The rest is surrogate speech: Paul couldn’t be present in person and so uses rhetorical conventions to communicate in the next best way.

The basics of Greco-Roman rhetoric

Three basic elements:

  • Ethos (‘sucking up’ to the audience)
  • Logos (argument)
  • Pathos (deep emotional appeal)

Thus 1 Cor 1 has Paul praising the Corinthians’ gifts (ethos) but we later (logos) find him criticising the same gifts! And the abrupt beginning of Galatians is because Paul is so mad with them. Note also that this is a basic shape for good preaching! Establish rapport, then move deeper, then make the big appeal.

Three kinds of rhetoric:

  • Forensic — for the law courts
  • Deliberative — for the assembly
  • Epideictic — for the agora or the honorary banquet (to entertain), or the funeral (to eulogise), or the battlefield (to fire up)

The first-century emotional conventions were very different to ours. So the NT is stacked with emotionally freighted language for highly affective listeners. What persuaded then may not persuade now! Paul’s approach and style in writing to Philemon would today be seen as totally manipulative!

Case study: Galatians is deliberative rhetoric

Here’s the guts of the Greco-Roman rhetorical structure of Galatians. The thesis statement is especially important to note, and the points at which it is repeated and amplified.

  • 1:6-10 = exordium (introduction)
  • 1:11-2:14 = narratio (establishing the facts)
  • 2:15-21 = propositio (thesis statement; Galatians has an especially long one!)
  • 3:1-6:10 = probatio (supporting arguments)
  • 4:21-5:1 = possible refutatio (refuting counter arguments)
  • 6:12-17 = peroratio (emotionally ‘seals the deal’, appealing to the whole person, and concludes with what action to take. A good sermon = preaching for a verdict)

Q & A

Q: How do we teach rhetorical criticism to students? BW3: Socio-rhetorical criticism shows that the NT is not hifalutin theology or turgid ethics — it involves argument and strident engagement and defence! We can and should do this in our own preaching! When BW3 explains this to his students, the penny drops: there is more theological freight in just one of Paul’s sermons (eg Galatians) than in the last 23 of yours combined! And that’s just one of Paul’s sermons! He must’ve thought his listeners were smart! He didn’t dumb down — he boiled them up! God has gifted everyone with the ability to understand at some level — so don’t insult their intelligence but tease their minds into active thought! Be clear, by all means — but do not be superficial or simplistic. We have a simple faith but not a simpleton’s faith. We call each other to lifelong learning! It’s not about instantaneous improvement: take the long and deep path with people.

Q: What about rhetoric in the Gospels? BW3: The Gospels mostly use micro-rhetorical conventions. Mark and Luke are far more rhetorical than Matthew and John. Mark uses enthymeme: his stories all end with a memorable theological slogan from Jesus. Luke-Acts uses summaries of speeches as a rhetorical move. Rhetoric formed part of every level of education; Mark makes use of the basic level of rhetoric, while Luke employs rhetoric from all three levels of education.

Q: How do we communicate the contributions of socio-rhetorical scholarship to our understanding of the Bible amidst the anti-intellectualism of evangelical Christians? BW3: Evangelicalism is a huge umbrella, even in America. ‘Evangelical’ just means high Christology + high view of Scripture, and there’s a truly wide-ranging spectrum within that, eg in BW3’s own denomination, the Methodists.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

    1. Definitely. He’s been steadily working his way through writing NT commentaries and has written some other good stuff too. Even a novel!

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