Dissertation o’clock

This summer, I have the privilege of being able to devote three months to researching a fascinating topic: Paul and rhetoric. I am aware that for a lot of people – both inside and outside of the Church – that these topics will be neither familiar nor interesting; but in what follows, I hope to set out some of what I plan to research, and why I think it is worthwhile and interesting.[1]

I recognise that any study, particularly in the arts and humanities, risks being labelled as “ivory towers” material. For any study related to the Bible to be labelled as “ivory towers” material, would be regrettable. This would imply its being out of reach for most, which goes against the tradition in most Christian denominations of the Bible being accessible to all. Anyone who considers himself or herself to be a Christian need not be a scholar of the Bible, but would miss out in not being a student of the Bible – someone who desires to learn more about it and its grand narrative.

Although I am currently studying the Bible in an academic, largely non-confessional institution[2], I maintain that if biblical scholarship does not filter down in some way to the Church, then it risks being “ivory towers” material.

So, what about this topic: Paul and rhetoric? What relevance might this bear for society and the Church?

By way of some background, after Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul is probably the second most influential figure in Christianity. Of the 27 “books” of the New Testament – a series of documents from the first couple of centuries after Christ’s birth[3] – a significant proportion of them are letters from Paul to various churches around the Roman empire[4]. They are some of our best and earliest sources concerning the spread and origins of early Christianity, almost certainly predating the four gospels and Acts.

This is particularly astonishing given that Paul was initially an enemy of the Christian movement. He was a zealous Jew who went around persecuting those who called themselves Christians. One day, however, on the road to Damascus, he was blinded and had a vision of Jesus calling out to him: “Why do you persecute me?” A few days later, he went to a man called Ananias to have his sight restored, and the rest is history: he completely turned around and felt called to tell the Gentile (non-Jewish) world about Jesus Christ. Paul had a colossal influence in the shaping of early Christianity and Christianity today.

One of our most important documents of Paul’s is Romans: a letter to believers in Rome, which we think Paul composed in the mid-late 50s AD. As the longest of Paul’s letters (closely followed by 1 Corinthians), it provides us with a significant amount of our understanding about early Christianity and Paul. More perhaps than any other letter, it has been espoused and appropriated by many traditions within Christianity over the centuries. It has often been held up as a summary of Paul’s theology, something of a theological treatise. There are undoubtedly elements of the letter which provide great insight into Paul’s theology, but to describe it as a systematic summary of Paul’s theology perhaps goes too far: there are some important elements missing. In fact, more recently,[5] scholarship has moved away from viewing Romans as a theological treatise, but focuses on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and how Paul treats the two groups.

Coming from a background of languages and literature, I have come to appreciate literary style. Although written in relatively unpolished, common Greek, Paul’s letters can still be appraised stylistically. Yet, beyond literary appreciation, Paul always writes with a purpose and in Romans, he calls upon Jews and Gentiles to be united in Christ. The two ethnic groups’ histories may well be different, but they now have the same access to faith and God’s righteousness in sending Christ. The situation is complex, however, and to compound matters, Paul has never even visited this community in person. Consequently, as in other letters[6], Paul makes use of rhetorical arguments and devices while addressing the believers in Rome.

Today, rhetoric does not have wholly positive connotations. In the current run-up to the election in the UK, a lot of rhetoric is being thrown about. Words, however honest or empty they might be, are powerful. In antiquity, rhetoric was viewed much more positively and rhetorical training was an essential component in the latter stages of the education of the elite. There were rhetorical handbooks from the 4th and 5th century BC in Athens such as Aristotle’s, as well as later ones such as Cicero’s (in addition to his speeches) in the 1st century BC and Quintilian’s in the 1st century AD, roughly contemporaneous with Paul. In my research, I shall offer a few thoughts on the extent of Paul’s own rhetorical training, but there is a caveat that details regarding Paul’s education are scarce, so such thoughts will be somewhat speculative.

We find ourselves on firmer ground, however, when we consider the long line of commentators and scholars (e.g., Origen, John Chrysostom, John Calvin) who have acknowledged Paul’s use – whether consciously or not – of ancient rhetorical techniques. I have spent enough time studying the New Testament to realise that it is practically impossible to have a new idea, and initially, I rather naively thought that Paul and ancient rhetoric would be relatively untilled ground. It turns out, however, that Paul and ancient rhetoric is an important field within Pauline studies, and much attention has been paid to it, especially over the last 30 or 40 years. That said, it is still a developing field.

My research for this Masters dissertation focuses on the early chapters of Romans, namely the section 1:18-3:20. If you have never read it or are unfamiliar with this section, I can assure you that it is one of the liveliest sections in the Pauline corpus. Moreover, there are some significant discrepancies in scholarly consensus. There have been some important contributions to Pauline scholarship in recent years, which have paid attention to the apostle’s rhetoric (especially his diction and the use of the diatribe in the dialogical sections) and have offered substantial re-readings of the text. Here are some of the questions that have emerged, which I plan to tackle:

  • To what extent is 1:18-32 the voice of Paul? Does it just depict Gentiles or all of humanity as well?
  • How does 1:18-32 function, rhetorically, as a transition to 2:1f.?
  • Whom does Paul address in the diatribe at 2:1f.? Is it a Jew, Gentile or both?
  • Whom does Paul address in the diatribe at 2:17f.? Is it the same person as in 2:1f.? Could it conceivably be a Gentile? Does the phrase “if you call yourself a Jew” provide a cast-iron guarantee that the interlocutor is Jewish?
  • What can we conclude about Paul’s use of rhetoric in 1:18-3:20? Can we ascribe an overall type of (ancient) rhetoric to the section as some scholars have?

By doing this, I hope to shed some light on why this portion of Scripture is written as it is. A rhetorical reading forces us to think about Paul’s overall strategy in addressing the original hearers of the letter. As one scholar, Lauri Thurén, suggests, it is a “dynamic” rather than a “static” reading.

I know that I will not draw conclusions that everyone will agree with – inside the Church and outside of the Church – but my hope is that in wrestling with this portion of Scripture, I will understand more of the mind of the original writer of the letter, who was inspired, I believe by God, to write it. Acknowledging that Paul writes rhetorically in this section provides a helpful vantage point and may well help us move forward in understanding more of what he wanted to convey in his gospel about Jesus Christ.

I hope that whether you think this gospel has lasting value or not, you might think that at least some of this is worth researching.

[1] Conversely, many people have been kind enough to enquire about what I am researching in this Masters dissertation and, to my mind, have shown more than a polite interest. Some have even impressed me with their knowledge about Paul and/or ancient rhetoric!

[2] The Faculty of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh (New College) still enjoys links with the Church of Scotland and Scottish Episcopal Church and still prepares a good number of ordinands for full-time ministry.

[3] Compare the Old Testament – a collection of 39 “books” most probably all written some 300-400 years before Christ’s birth.

[4] There is some debate concerning the authorship of these letters. As an analogy, think of the modern-day process of editing and it emerges that it is very rare for any piece of writing to be written by one individual. In broad terms, based largely on linguistic considerations, 7 letters (Romans, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon) are viewed as indisputably Pauline, a further 6 (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, Titus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) more disputably Pauline: letters originally and largely composed by the apostle but perhaps touched up by Pauline editors soon after. Some early voices in the Church even attribute Hebrews to Paul as well. The message from all of this is that he is connected with roughly half of the New Testament – even more when we consider his presence in much of Acts and the famous remark in 2 Peter 3:15-16 about Paul and his difficult letters!

[5] In no small part because of movements like the New Perspective of Paul (championed by scholars such as N. T. Wright, E. P. Sanders, Dunn) to challenge elements of the Old Perspective (going back to Luther and the Reformation). There have even been attempts to go beyond the New Perspective, such as the current apocalyptic perspective.

[6] Especially, perhaps, in Galatians.


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