Rhetorical Nature of the Epistles

Another interesting aspect that I picked up from Wall’s introduction to the NT Epistles is the rhetorical nature of the biblical letters (“Introduction to the Epistolary Literature,” by Robert W. Wall in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X.). A simple definition of rhetoric is “The art of using language, especially public speaking, as a means to persuade.” This was a subject of intense interest and a highly valued skill in the Greek and Roman worlds.

The NT epistles bear characteristic marks that distinguish them from modern day writing; they were certainly different from what characterizes a blog. NT letters are closely connected with oral discourse. They represent what a writer would say in person if he were there, and they would have written to be read aloud before a group of people. This oral element of letters dictated their composition.

The oral nature of ancient literature can be seen in its font and presentation. Greek, the original language of the NT, was written in block letters with no spacing in its earliest form. Words are distinguished when it is read aloud. There would have been no bold, italics, or change in font to emphasize certain aspects of the letter – no hyper-links either.

The authors used techniques common in public oration to convey their point. The letters are often sequential, where new ideas are predicated upon what has preceded it in the letter. Repeated words and catch phrases would have provided emphasis.

Many scholars today classify NT letters according to types of oral discourse:

  • Sermons, as found in Hebrews and 1 John
  • Pastoral exhortation, like James and 1 Peter
  • Classroom instruction, as in Romans and Ephesians

The rhetoric of the NT letters normally is further classified into two types. Epideictic rhetoric is intended to persuade readers to change their understanding of something. A biblical word that relates this idea is repentance. Deliberative rhetoric was composed in order reinforce already existing beliefs and practices, which is similar to the idea of faith.

Paul and other NT authors often used rhetorical devices that were common in their day, and these are devices that are not always immediately recognized by modern readers. This is not to say, of course, that you can’t understand the letters. It just emphasizes the point that these are ancient documents 2000 years removed from our own time. Rhetoric in the NT is a fascinating study, and understanding it can provide insights into various aspects in the NT epistles.

One thing that we can do today to get a little closer to what the original audience experienced is to read the letters out loud in a single setting or possibly listen to them read by a person or with an audio CD. It may change our perspective on things. We may pick up on things that we don’t notice in partitioned, slow reading of a few selected passages. As we listen, we can try to imagine what it would have been like for the first audience to hear these words read aloud for the first time.

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3 Responses to Rhetorical Nature of the Epistles

  1. Kent says:

    Did you see that the New Interpreter’s Bible will soon be available in a digital edition from Logos Bible Software? We are partnering with Abingdon on the project. I thought you might be interested:


  2. Patrick says:

    Have you read any of Ben Witherington’s commentaries on Paul’s epistles? He approaches them from a rhetorical perspective. They’re quite good.

    • jnsweets says:

      Hey Patrick, I have read BW’s intro to his Galatians commentary, and it was pretty persuasive. He makes a strong case that Gal. 2 refers to an earlier situation from Acts 12-13 rather than Acts 15. I have his Acts commentary, but I have not been able to read much in it yet. It’s on my list. Thanks for the comment.

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