Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 2 (Rhetoric and Sophistry)

In Part 1 of this series, we saw that even while teachers such as Plato and Aristotle were seeking to develop rhetoric into an art form that would be of great service to finding truth and expressing it well, there was another class of people who were deeply interested in rhetoric: the Sophists. These itinerant teachers of rhetoric were not so much interested in establishing truth by means of effective speaking, but rather interested only in effective speaking for its own sake. Often, the Sophists would use the rhetorical arts to persuade others of various positions regardless of whether those positions were true or false.[1] Other times, the Sophists used the art of words – sometimes torrents of words – to convince others that professional practitioners of a particular art (say, medicine) were in no way superior to a Sophist who had not studied the art in question, but could give pretty speeches about the art in question.[2]

Plato and Aristotle viciously mocked the Sophists and their understanding of rhetoric itself. For instance, Plato’s Gorgias represents the Sophist by that name as dishonestly seeking to convince others via mere wordplay that he is an expert on any given topic under the sun. According to Aristotle, the Sophistical use of rhetoric aimed to inculcate its students not with the tools to speak well (the “art” of rhetoric), but merely with the results of the Sophists themselves speaking well. That is, Sophistical rhetoric did not teach men how to craft their own words well, but only how to imitate the Sophists and thus, to trick others.[3]

But for all the efforts of Plato, Aristotle, and others like them to stamp it out, the Sophistical tradition was alive and well in the era of the writing of the New Testament. Training in classical rhetoric was a part of the basic educational curriculum in both the Roman Republic and Empire. The first and second centuries after Christ have, in fact, come to be called “the Second Sophistic Period,” because they represented a thoroughgoing attempt to use the oratorical disciplines not so much for purposes of persuasion, but in order to conserve in an age of decline the values of the old pagan society.[4] The Sophists of this period were interested in using rhetoric to expound philosophical ideas (largely forms of Platonism and Stoicism) and to teach others to declaim in the style of the grand orators of old. Their speeches tended to be “wordy, smooth, and bland in thought, though sometimes impassioned in style.” Often, their goal was “the expression of the traditional values of Hellenic culture in an age dominated by the realities of Roman rule and later by the threat of Christianity.”[5]

This last theme, the danger of Christianity, is of particular importance for evaluating the relationship of classical rhetoric to the worldview of the New Testament. The sophists of the Second Sophistic Period had a definite program:

…Their noblest themes, voiced on great public occasions but often implicit also in declamations, were the beauties of Greek religion, mythology, literature, and art; the historical achievements of classical Greece, including the defeat of the Persian invasions; the idealism of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato; the moral excellence of great Greeks of the past; and, taken as a whole, what it meant to be Greek. Though they could celebrate and flatter Roman emperors or governors, and though they avoided direct criticism of Roman institutions or Christianity, the total effect of their work was to define a distinct culture that belonged to them and their audiences by inheritance as Greeks. This culture, as they saw it, was intellectually and morally superior, though politically, economically, and militarily subservient to the rule of Rome; it had richness of historical experience, sophistication, and beauty lacking to the vulgar, anti-intellectual perversities of the Christians. There is a persistent note of nostalgia in the work of the sophists.[6]

It is against this backdrop of the sustained Sophistical attempt to portray classical pagan culture as demonstrably superior to the “barbarism” of the new religion, Christianity, that the concerns of rhetoric may be seen to be operating in the background of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. That topic will be taken up in my next post.

1. An excellent example of this Sophistic tactic in operation is found in Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus.

2. Gorgias says exactly this in Plato’s dialogue Gorgias, at 456a-456d.

3. “On Sophistical Refutations” 1.1, in The Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 8: Aristotle I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Inc., 1982), pg. 253.

4. See George A. Kennedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 230-256.

5. Ibid., pg. 232

6. Ibid., pp. 232-233

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