• Brian Chilcote

Rhetorical Questions Part 5: The Gospel of John meets Cicero

Updated: Nov 16

It has been suggested that the gospel of John is organized similarly to a Ciceronian argument in a court of law (Cicero was a well known Roman lawyer / orator in the first century CE). If you buy that (and there are definitely many other plausible ways to approach John), it reinforces the idea that the author or authors of the Johannine story carefully constructed the composition to persuade you, the reader or hearer, that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah, and by assenting to the evidence presented, you gain life.

Reading John from this Roman legal standpoint results in some observations that might not be detected in a cursory perusal. First of all, seeing John as a legal brief puts it in the category of Forensic rhetoric as defined in Rhetoric Part two. Forensic structures aim to defend or prove the superiority of one interpretation of the facts and defend that interpretation against refutation. If John is in fact a long forensic argument, we should see:

  • Progress through the normal elements of persuasive rhetoric: Exordium, Narratio, Probatio, Propositio. Refutatio and Peroratio

  • A clear statement of the purpose for the treatise, somewhere near the beginning

  • Instances of words and phrases that one might hear in first century court case, terms such as "witnesses" "judge / judgment," and "testimony."

  • Responses to opponents in the form of narrative material that expresses conflict. (John characterizes his opponents as "The Jews" and "The World")

  • A general conformity to the basic structure typical of Roman legal briefs*

A quick scan of the gospel indicates three main sections, the middle being by far the longest:

  • A prologue- the famous "In the beginning…" section in chapter one

  • The main account (the narratio or confirmatio) of Jesus's activities from chapter one through twenty

  • An epilogue from the very end of chapter twenty through twenty one

Cicero didn't argue the same way in every case, and you notice that John's gospel is not in strict conformity to Ciceronian material, but there's enough of a family resemblance to affirm that the author or authors probably relied on culturally familiar patterns of thought, and those patterns look a lot like what one might have absorbed in the markets, courts, theaters and dinner parties in a Hellenistic Roman city of the period. Looking at John's prologue, we might ask if it is similar to other types of prologues in other Greco-Roman documents we know about. Quintilian is another Roman expert on oratory and he outlined at least three elements to be included in an Exordium: 1) something revelatory about the character of the author 2) gaining the attention of the audience you wish to persuade and 3) an introduction of key points you'll make in your speech. In chapter one of John, we find the author appealing to a higher authority- the highest, actually- in building a sense of respect in the reader / hearer. The author gives no details about himself, which leaves us with a kind of omniscient narrator, who knows his way around the Septuagint and Hellenistic thought. As he echoes the words of Genesis, he builds authority; it's an attempt to establish ethos, or confidence in the character of the speaker, and favorably dispose the audience toward what he's about to say. Does John grab your attention in his exordium? By using the pronoun "we," he pulls the reader up onto the stage and the center of attention. He then juxtaposes the believing in-group with the unbelieving out-group- those who did not know, accept or believe in the position the author is about to lay out. This creates in the audience a sense of special access as an insider. Finally, does the introduction to John offer a sneak peek at the details of his arguments? After the initial hymn or poetry, verses 6 through 15 seem to function as the exordium. Before calling the first witness to the stand (John the Baptist), the gospel characterizes its focus as a dilemma or a binary choice facing the reader. What you expect after John's exordium is a battle between Light and Darkness, in which the Light was not overcome (despite appearances to the contrary). After calling the Baptist to the stand, John turns to the judge and jury to clarify exactly what they will hear: John the Baptist was not the light (was this a refutation of a popular idea in circulation- that John the Baptizer was more messianic than John's community thinks?); Jesus is the light and receiving him gives us the authority to become children of God. For much more on the forensic rhetoric of the gospel of John, read Beth M. Sheppard's doctoral thesis The Gospel of John: A Roman Legal and Rhetorical Perspective found on the academia.edu website or a pdf here on etheses Read some Cicero in English in Against Catiline The "Pistoi" arranged in the gospel reveal insights about the author and audience of John, and the issues they were facing at the time when John was finalized. One theory has the book being composed in Ephesus, a large Hellenistic Roman walled city in which the ancient Greek goddess Artemis was worshipped in a grand temple. Diaspora Jews would have settled there along with Gentile converts which might explain John's focus on both the universality of Jesus and conflict with "the Jews." Being "put out of the Synagogue" (aposunagógos) was a problem that developed later in the first century as the identity of the Jesus movement hardened into something different than Judaism, so John retroactively applies it to conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees.


In addition, the nature of Jesus' divinity versus humanity was a later-developing controversy, but John has Jesus make statements that indicate a position of agreement that Jesus was fully divine and pre-existent as the logos. In second grade Language Arts we all learn how to write a story with a beginning, middle and end. Our plays and movies usually have three acts, and news articles always have a "lede," or short paragraph that itemizes the who, what, when, where and how of the story. Was John written in the format of a Roman legal brief? We don't have enough information to be certain, but it does demonstrate that the gospel writers knew how to construct arguments in Greco-Roman styles. Recognizing these literary customs does help identify clues as to the original authors' intent. To think about: What are other ways to characterize the structure and purpose of the Gospel of John?


Try outlining the gospel of John (or a shorter New Testament book) using the classical rhetorical categories Where can you find Ethos, Pathos and Logos in the gospel's arguments?


* Look at Cicero's speech entitled pro lege Manilia which argues in favor of conferring extraordinary powers on Pompey the Great to support Rome's war against Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus. The structure follows the elements outlined earlier in this blog. Note that Confirmatio is the same as Probatio.

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