• Brian Chilcote

Rhetorical Questions Part 4 Literary Devices

Updated: Nov 16

While only a few privileged denizens of antiquity had access to an education in rhetoric, nearly everyone experienced it in some way as they moved about in their day-to-day lives. Public political orations in the marketplace, theater presentations, speeches at festivals, funerals and dedications were regular occurrences that featured rhetorical flourishes. For the sons (sorry- no girls allowed) of the elite that were enrolled in the academy, their course of study included a rigorous curriculum with topics like the use of Fable, Narrative, Chreia, Proverb, Refutation, Encomium, Vituperation, Comparison, Impersonation, Description, Thesis or Theme, and Defending or Attacking a Law. In Greek style rhetorical training, points of argument were known as "pistoi," the same root word translated "faith" in much of the NT. Pistis connotes proof, belief or conviction, the desired favorable state of mind of a judge when you have proved your case.


A brief digression (Ha- another literary device!) about the gospels here. Biblical scholarship has wrestled with the genre of the gospels for centuries with no clear consensus. Are they ancient "Bioi," or biographies of well-known figures in history similar to Plutarch's Parallel Lives, a study of 32 pairs of Greek and Roman lives? Are they sui generis- literature in class by itself with no real parallel in the ancient world? Are they a distinctive form of historiography relying heavily on eyewitness testimony? The four gospels certainly show features of ancient literary conventions and ignore others. Be that as it may, all four gospels follow the general expectations of ancient writers by including structures and literary devices that were readily identifiable to their first century audiences.


One example of an oft-used literary device is "chreia," a short, useful anecdote that ends with a pithy maxim that the reader or hearer can learn from. They usually start with the words "upon seeing…" or "On being asked…" or "He said…" One example from Plato: "Socrates the philosopher, when a certain student named Apollodorus said to him, 'The Athenians have unjustly condemned you to death,' responded with a laugh, 'But did you want them to do it justly?'"


Chreiai can be expanded to include the setting, the identity of the inquirers who get the ball rolling and the reactions of those in attendance. Matthew's gospel assembles strings of parables and Chreiai together, for example,


When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” - Matthew 8:18-22


In the same way that a modern politician might signal that she is about to dodge a question by saying, "Let me be perfectly clear..." This series of revealing verbal portraits of Jesus would have been instantly recognizable as Chreia, included for the purpose of informing the hearer about attitudes and values Jesus held out as worthy of emulation.

Scattered throughout the gospels are literary devices straight out of the progymnasmata handbook . Just as we use specific conventions for emails that would never be included in a cover letter, we can expect ancient writers to adhere to certain forms of verbal expression that best fit with their intended purpose. Some other examples are:


  • Simile- “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:27)

  • Metaphor- “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)

  • Metonymy- (where a larger concept- in this case physical violence- is represented by specific object) “…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matt 26:52b)


An interesting literary device that is more Jewish in character is Chiasm. It takes its name from the Greek letter chi or "x" because there's a point in the middle where the concepts in the text meet. It's everywhere in Old Testament poetry and shows up in the gospels as well. The nice thing about chiasm is that you can reliably detect the main point of a passage by finding the hinge point in the pattern. Here's an example:


A - Story (Matthew 1-4)

B - Teaching - Sermon on the Mount with 7 "blesseds" (Matthew 5-7)

C - Story (Matthew 8-9)

D - Teaching (Matthew 10)

E - Story (Matthew 11-12)

X - Teaching - Parable of the Kingdom (Matthew 13)

'E - Story (Matthew 14-17)

'D - Teaching (Matthew 18)

'C - Story (Matthew 19-22)

'B - Teaching - On the Temple mount and the Mt. of Olives 7 woes (Matt. 23-25)



'A - Story (Matthew 26-28)

Looking into Matthew's chiastic structure in a bit more detail reveals the author's deliberate plan for the gospel account. This is not a random hodgepodge of events in no particular order, rather, it employs a well-known rhetorical scheme whose structure would not have escaped notice in the ancient world.


The first teaching section, Matthew 5-7 is a sermon. On a mountain (very important in the Matthean account). It features seven "makarioi" or blessings. The fifth teaching section forming a counterpart to the first (noted as B and 'B) also occurs on a mountain and enumerates seven woes.


After appearing in chapter 3, in the first story section, John the Baptist plays a major role in chapters 11 and 14, or story elements E and 'E.


The hinge point is a chapter featuring parables that reveal secrets about "The Kingdom." Implication? This section of Matthew should be read with questions about the kingdom of God in mind.


Would we twenty-first century believers tell the story of a Messiah this way? Probably not. There would be little reason for us to process historical events into a contrived structure that echoes the Old Testament literary patterns. But since one of Matthew's goals is to show how Jesus was a "True Israelite," the expected Messiah with deep connections to all of the Old Testament, the author or compiler of the gospel determined that chiasm was the most persuasive means of communicating to a chiefly Jewish audience.


Our modern expectations of an account of actual events are far different than those of first century writers and speakers. Would it look more like a documentary film or a tell-all book? A record of events in order from start to end, with pertinent accurate details and citations that support our narrative- that's our preferred way of getting at the reality of what actually happened. Editorializing, including our opinion about how the reader should respond, shifting elements of the story around to fit our agenda for writing- none of these would fly with today's reading public.


News accounts that project a bias are all too common, but we still expect accuracy and precision over commentary and opinion when it comes to representing truth. Modern biographies are thick with references and citations to assure the reader that there is some consensus on the speech and deeds of a historical figure, and that the writer is not just making things up.


On the contrary, most ancient writings reflect a higher value on persuasion, on encouraging the emulation of virtue and avoidance of vice. They had no qualms about putting speeches in the mouths of their subjects based on what they should have or would have said. It's probable that in the case of the gospels, the authors pulled from a number of oral traditions that preserved the basic idea of what Jesus said or did, but there was no way to precisely record the words and actions of yesterday's events. No video cameras or phones to record conversations. What we have in the gospels and Acts are later representations of what Jewish-Christian faith communities remembered, filtered through many seasons of theological reflection.

To Think About...


Does it make a difference to your hermeneutic to know that the episodes in the gospels were composed well after the fact and theologically processed in Jewish-Christian faith communities?


Can you find other smaller chiasms in the gospels? Here's a website that suggests that Chiasm is everywhere in the Bible


And here's one on "Markan Sandwiches"

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