• Brian Chilcote

Rhetorical Questions Part 6: Implications for Interpretation

Updated: Nov 16

Rhetoric… So what? What are the implications for us, modern readers of the Gospel of John? And what might be of value in applying ancient rhetorical principles to our reading of the other gospels and Paul?


Have you ever heard these dodges or excuses when someone is called to account for something they said? "I didn't mean it that way... I was joking!" "It was just locker room talk." "I didn't expect to be taken seriously." "Oh that was just an inside joke." There are times when it's vitally important to get at the truth of something said or written but the tremendous complexities of human communication can stymie our best attempts to do so. Does it matter that there is a perceived species of rhetoric called "locker room talk" that allows the user to minimize the effect of a vulgar or offensive comment? What about the old adage, "there's always a grain of truth in every joke?"

Modern western society is probably the most literate in history, and rhetoric is everywhere. Analyzing the similarities and differences between the way we use words and the ways the ancients did can only help us get closer to understanding the writings of the Bible. If our Christian tradition represents the writings of Paul as absolute truth with eternal consequences, we would do well to understand his use of sarcasm or recognize when he transitions from a logical appeal to an emotional one.

The fact that the gospel stories might have been deliberately presented in thought patterns and language like that of ancient legal treatises indicates careful and well-planned schemes meant to persuade with maximum effect. It explains why John might have placed Jesus' angry temple episode in the beginning of the story, not toward the end as do the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Interrupting the raising of Lazarus / triumphal entry / farewell to the disciples stories would ruin the thematic flow and intent of the story. This means a) we can't be sure when the temple incident happened, and b) that it didn't really matter to original audience of John.

Something else to consider: we moderns usually take in the gospels piece by piece in small bites that can be covered in a half-hour Sunday sermon or devotional. Many American TV shows have at least two story arcs- one that covers the individual episode where we make a little progress toward the finale, and a second one that governs the entire season or seasons. Understanding that John is intended to be heard in its entirety as a complete story (like an entire season of a TV show) should make us wonder how the separate parts relate to the whole treatise. Every pericope (a unit of thought or episode) as originally composed in John has a function in addition to the suggested spiritual application to our lives in the moment.


Bingeing on a show is not always a bad idea! Reading a Shakespearean sonnet in two-line chunks once per week makes it more difficult to see the sonnet as a whole with its ebbs, flows and turning points. We talk about novels that the reader "can't put down" as another example of a compelling story that demands to be read in one sitting- even if you're up until 2 AM. And yet, many church traditions continue in a lectionary model where we divide a larger text into pieces in order to equally distribute it over a set period of time. The calendar, not the story, is in charge.


Working to keep our modern assumptions at bay in order to get as close as possible to an original meaning is a good idea, even if we find additional personal meanings along the way. It’s the same with any ancient text, or even recent ones; the original author had something specific and important to say, in John's case, at stake are the eternal consequences of believing or disbelieving the truths he proposes and defends.


Recognizing the sophisticated rhetorical design in the gospel of John means that the author or authors had some training or exposure to contemporary formal discourse procedures. This opens the door to questions about the gospel's source who seems a lot less like a rural Galilean fisherman and more like an urban Hellenized Christian who knew his way around written Greek and Roman legal proceedings.


Case in point: women were allowed to testify in Roman courts (not so in most other cultural settings), which may account for the otherwise counter-cultural insertion of the risen Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene.


An author's use of rhetoric, vocabulary, style and grammar can go a long way toward establishing whether or not a work is written by an expert writer, or a novice, or when the work was produced, and even what parts were borrowed from other written or oral sources.


Forensic rhetoric is focused on proving a point of view that will influence the audience's decision about past events. John's treatise is put before his audience in such a way as to put us in the judge's seat faced with a demanded verdict. Are we in or out? As the author examines witnesses and offers evidence in support of his argument, we are challenged to agree or disagree.


Finally, when we listen to John and draw a personal moral lesson or inspiration to strive on in our aim to participate in the Christ-following community, our conclusions must also connect in some way to the intentions of the original message. How we dig out those original meanings is why there are scholars! The question remains, though: is John's evidence for the divinity of Jesus enough to convince a skeptical scientistic twenty-first century American?


We have some hermeneutical (rules and assumptions we use to govern our interpretation) decisions to make. We are accustomed to a long tradition of removing texts from their context in order to make a theological point, reflecting a tendency to value the parts over the whole. We have presuppositions about both, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:


Rather, these efforts [to understand] unfold…through an interpretation of the whole of a text that proceeds from presuppositions about the parts; and, no less, through an interpretation of the parts that proceeds from presuppositions about the whole.


To Think about…


If an author's rhetoric values persuasion over accuracy, what does that mean for the Bible's authority to speak truth?


Can an untrained person really understand the Bible? Is it OK to simply trust the experts to tell us what it means?


Respond to this statement: "There are many ways in which you can approach the text, and your method will determine your interpretation. It is important then to be transparent about what is essential to you as a reader and recognize how that impacts the interpretations that you develop. Your interpretive goal will ultimately determine your Biblical hermeneutic."

Ellen White, Biblical Archaeology Society

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