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  • Brian Chilcote

Is This a Rhetorical Question?

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

"So if you consider me a partner, welcome him [Onesimus] as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask." - Paul, Philemon v. 17-21

Does that sound a bit manipulative to you? If you received an email like this you might be a little suspicious of the writer's sincerity. "You are doing me a big favor- and oh, by the way, you own me your own life… I just know you'll go above and beyond for me…"

Paul is writing to Philemon, the owner of an escaped slave by the name of Onesimus, who has joined up with the Apostle's group and is now being sent back to his owner. In order to persuade Philemon to take Onesimus back without retribution, Paul employs the normal letter-writing conventions of his day to bring Philemon around to seeing things his way.

These verbal techniques fall under the umbrella term rhetoric. Educated Greeks and Romans were masters at the art of persuasion who highly valued the ability to orate with effect. Paul's letter to Philemon is a classic example of a letter-writing style that puts this style of persuasion on display. What sounds manipulative to us was normal and expected for Paul and his contemporaries. "I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel" (v. 13). To us it sounds like Paul has handed Philemon a one way guilt-trip ticket, but Philemon probably didn't take it that way.

A similar example of this letter writing style can be seen in a fourth century CE letter discarded in the Oxyrhynchus trash heap. Discovered in Egypt in the late 1800's Oxyrhynchus was determined to be a landfill overflowing with ancient trash including papyri of all kinds including this letter from one Judas to his wife, requesting help with a physical ailment resulting from a riding accident:

"To my lord father, Joses, and to my wife, Maria, Judas. To begin with I pray to the divine providence for the full health of you (both), that I find you well. Make every effort, my lady sister, send me your brother, since I have fallen into sickness as the result of a riding accident… So help me, my lady sister. Let it be your earnest endeavor to send your brother to me quickly, as I said before. For in emergencies of this kind a man’s true friends are discovered. So please come yourself as well and help me, since I am truly in a strange place and sick…"

Nothing like a little reminder that true friendship was at stake!

The study of Rhetoric as defined on a general everyday level simply means understanding the way we use words to accomplish a desired effect. It's about using certain words patterns to persuade, entertain, inform and even express emotions to listeners in whom we want to evoke a response. For example, asking a question can challenge a belief or establish loyalty in addition to simply gathering information from the questioned. When we phrase a command in such a way as to result in an action taken by the hearer, we're using a rhetorical technique.

In the ancient world, intentional use of rhetoric was recognized as valuable verbal toolkit carefully deployed to persuade an audience, leaving hearers no choice but to agree with the speaker's perspective. Plato records the use of a formal system of rhetoric as early as the fifth century BCE, though its central ideas were around a lot earlier.

Aristotle wrote The Art of Rhetoric in the fourth century BCE as a guide for those who needed to argue their case in court before a judge. Later, the science of rhetoric was adopted as a core curriculum in the academy; by Paul's day the Progymnasmata and other handbooks were published as training manuals on both oral and written communication. One consequence was that the common principles of rhetoric were taken for granted by the listening public whether one attended school or not. Paul was likely exposed to rhetorical training in Antioch as part of his schooling, and we can trace his use of everyday rhetorical conventions in his writing.

It stands to reason then, that the ancient documents we use as the authoritative source for modern church belief and practice should include some level of rhetorical analysis as one of the elements of Bible study. Discussion of genre is a good beginning, but digging a bit deeper into rhetorical structures can unlock a lot more in terms of getting closer to the original intent of the text.

Most of Paul's "letters" are structured like orations or speeches, affirming the tradition that they were in fact circulated and read aloud to various Christian communities around the Mediterranean. Paul's letter to the Romans is obviously speech-like while others like Philemon are more similar to typical ancient personal letters. There is scholarly debate on whether the authentic Pauline works that we possess should be treated as written or oral rhetoric, since we know there was such a division in the ancient world with separate sets of principles governing each. Most of the population in the first century did not learn to read; literacy for them was based on discussion of a text read aloud and the use of a professional scribe or amanuensis to compose an answer to a letter or speech they heard.

Stay tuned for part two of Rhetorical Questions

To Think about…

Name some rhetorical patterns we use in our own day. How does a text differ from an email and what drives those differences?

How is written sarcasm different from spoken sarcasm? Which one is easier to detect and understand?

How are letters and speeches different? Is the book of Hebrews a letter or a speech?


Fourth Century P. Oxyrhynchus 3314 p 49

Aristotle, The Art of Rhetoric

More about general ancient rhetoric:

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