Rhetorical Questions, Part 2: How to Win an Argument the Greco-Roman Way
Updated: Nov 16
So you want to convince a judge, jury or marketplace crowd to support your policy, vote for your candidate or find your client not guilty. There's an oration for that. Read on to learn some basics about ancient rhetoric and how it can affect our understanding of the New Testament.
Ancient rhetoric was organized on a macro level into three major categories:
Deliberative- used when you want to convince an audience to accept or reject a proposed future action, especially in legislative settings, where the cost or benefit of a certain policy is being deliberated. Commonly uses examples from the past to predict future outcomes
Forensic- Answers questions of justice, particularly in cases where a recent past behaviors or events are on trial. A prosecutor uses forensic methods to defend or prove that his or her interpretations of the facts are superior in truthfulness to any other view.
Epideictic- Praising (encomium) or blaming (invective) a person or a person's work usually in the context of formal ceremonial or commemorative events. Includes themes of personal virtue and vice with the intended outcome of affecting future behavior.
Mixed into history of rhetoric was an ancient idea that the written word had power beyond regular spoken language. Archaeological evidence shows that since the beginnings of writing, the inscriptions, engravings and even some types of graffiti we've found were thought to possess a numinous energy investing the words themselves with magical qualities. Of course the very earliest examples of written language we have were related to business accounts, it wasn't long until governmental officials began using texts as a tool of authority. It was a natural outcome for an unlettered public to equate power with the abilities of learned scribes who could "freeze" the words of the king on a block of sandstone.
This is one piece of the origin story of why many faith traditions venerate the physical scrolls on which their holy books were written, like the Qur'an and the Jewish Torah scrolls. When read to the assembly, the words take on a metaphysical significance as they are freed from the symbols marked on the parchment or papyrus and made alive in the breath of the reader.
Into this background we find the earliest of churches, populated by a mix of both Jews and Gentiles, both to varying degrees Hellenized (assimilated into a "Greek" way of seeing the world) and all under the political and social realities of Roman rule. Their Bible consisted of various books of Hebrew origin, including the Torah plus other works both familiar and unfamiliar to the modern canon. Most of them used texts from the Septuagint, a Greek translation from Hebrew, which we find quoted by various New Testament authors.*
Ben Witherington III in his book New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament says this:
"In terms of both structure and content, most NT documents look far more like rhetorical speeches. Some are in fact straightforward sermons, "words of exhortation" as the author of Hebrews calls his homily; some are more rhetorical speeches suitable for assemblies where discussion would then ensue (e.g., after dinner discussions at a symposium), but all are profitably analyzed in detail by means of rhetorical examination."**
What are some things we can look for in our New Testament documents? Ancient speeches were typified by at least six defined elements that when crafted together provided framework for an airtight case for your position. They are as follows:
Exordium- the beginning of a discourse, in which the goal is to favorably dispose your audience to what's coming
Narratio- An explanation of the essentials of the topic at hand, for example, "Three weeks ago, Sylvester the cat conspired to viciously kill and eat Tweety Bird for lunch. Using premeditated subterfuge and manipulation, he convinced the Old Woman to open Tweety's cage door. Tweety was then heard to say that he thought he saw a "puddy tat."
Propositio- This is the speaker's thesis statement. This sometimes appears before the narratio and commonly lays out the prosecutor's theory in contrast with the claims of the defendant.
Probatio- This is where the individual points of argument in favor of the speaker's position are laid out, weakest to strongest.
Refutatio- As you might have guessed, this part contains a refutation of the claims made by an opponent. Romans 9-11 is a classic case of refutatio, arguing against the idea that God has abandoned his chosen people, the Jews.
Peroratio- A summary and amplification of the speaker's main points, usually accompanied by appeals to the audience's emotions or assumed virtues. It's a final move in a persuasive game geared toward leaving the judge with no choice but to agree.
Woven throughout these six elements are these threads:
Ethos- phrases that establish rapport with your audience, usually found in the exordium. We do this naturally today when we start off with a laugh or bestow a compliment on our audience. Use ethos techniques to put your audience at ease and in a position from which they can trust you.
Logos- content that centered on evidential arguments, sometimes charged with emotion in the probatio and refutatio. Logos describes the meat and potatoes of your presentation- a string of arguments called pistoi
Pathos- most noticeable in the final peroratio, pathos refers to the appeal to the emotion and virtue of the hearer. The anthology of writings we call the New Testament doesn't slavishly adhere to all of these rules all of the time, It was common for rhetors to mix and match according to the persuasive work at hand. While there is quite a bit of flexibility in the structure and content of biblical documents, the elements outlined here can help an interpreter get closer to the intent and message aimed at their original hearers. Watching for rhetorical elements is especially valuable in assisting modern readers who otherwise unconsciously apply modern conventions to ancient writings and miss crucial details that influence interpretation. Want to get closer to what Paul and the early Christian community were thinking? They left us some juicy clues in there use of first century rhetoric.
To think about...
Where do you recognize Ethos, Logos or Pathos in this blog post? Try reading Ephesians looking for the six elements listed above.
What virtues is Paul calling for in Ephesians 6?
Next- Part 3: So What? Persuasive reasons to know something about rhetoric
**Witherington III, Ben, New Testament Rhetoric: An Introduction Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament