Rhetoric in the New Testament, Pt. 3 (1 and 2 Corinthians)

“Rhetoric in the New Testament” is, of course, far too large a topic to adequately explore in a short series of posts on a blog. One purpose of this post in the series is to demonstrate, mostly from some of the writings of the Apostle Paul, that classical rhetoric was known to at least one of the major writers of the New Testament. Another purpose is to show that concerns emanating from classical rhetoric, particularly from its long-running dispute with the Greek Sophists, are an important backdrop to understanding the milieu in which the New Testament was written.

My starting point for examining classical rhetoric in the era of the New Testament will be the remark of St. Augustine in the fourth century that the biblical writers generally speaking have their own special form of rhetoric, and that they do not spurn classical rhetoric so much as they simply do not make an ostentatious use of it (as do classical rhetoricians). The passage is worth citing at length:

I could, however, if I had time, show those men who cry up their own form of language as superior to that of our authors (not because of its majesty, but because of its inflation), that all those powers and beauties of eloquence which they make their boast, are to be found in the sacred writings which God in His goodness has provided to mould our characters, and to guide us from this world of wickedness to the blessed world above. But is not the qualities which these writers have in common with the heathen orators and poets that give me such unspeakable delight in their eloquence; I am more struck with admiration at the way in which, by an eloquence peculiarly their own, they so use this eloquence of ours that it is not conspicuous either by its presence or its absence; for it did not become them either to condemn it or to make an ostentatious display of it; and if they had shunned it, they would have done the former; if they had made it prominent, they might have appeared to be doing the latter. And in those passages where the learned do note its presence, the matters spoken of are such, that the words in which they are put seem not so much to be sought out by the speaker as spontaneously to suggest themselves; as if wisdom were walking out of its house,–that is, the breast of the wise man, and eloquence, like an inseparable attendant, followed it without being called for.[1]

Let us look at how these concerns operate in Paul’s first and second letters to the Corinthians.

Paul’s phraseology in 1 Corinthians 3:18 speaks of his opponents as “the sophists [debaters] of this age” (οι σοφοι εν τω αιωνι τομτω) who lack a specifically Christian power (δμναμις). But the Apostle’s point in this passage goes beyond merely mentioning the οι σοφοι (Sophists) by name. Despite appearing to eschew classical rhetoric and offering instead a radically non-rhetorical “simple” presentation of the Gospel, Paul not only refers to a great deal of classical rhetorical terminology, but even sometimes uses formal rhetorical techniques in the construction of his phrases.

Bruce Winter[2] argues that the Sophists had introduced into the Corinthian church a great deal of confusion by means of mixing the Christian call to discipleship and preaching the Gospel with sophistic oratorical terms for students of rhetoric and rhetorical techniques. The sophists called their “disciples” names such as are found in 1 Corinthians 1:26 – σοφοι (wise men), δυνατοι (powerful [speakers]), and ευγενεισ (ingenious). By contrast, Christians are usually called “disciples” by the simple, unadorned word μαθητησ.

More specifically, the Corinthians had apparently become convinced that a μαθητησ (humble follower) was actually a ζηλωτησ (a prideful emulator of a great master). As Paul’s argument against the Sophist disturbers of the church proceeds, he makes reference to more terms current in rhetorical theory – terms such as πιστισ (confidence or conviction),[3] αποδειξισ (clear proof),[4] δυναμις (power),[5] πειθω (persuasiveness),[6] and υπεροχη (superior feeling based on eloquence)[7]. The use of these terms shows that Paul is very aware both of classical rhetoric and how it is being used by his opponents as a tool of deception rather than of truth.

Throughout 1 Corinthians 1, Paul attacks every one of the sophistical claims: the superior status of these wise men (1:4-9), their efforts to imitate great masters (1:10-17), and their penchant for boasting (1:17-31). Chapter 2 opens with a deliberate attack on the Sophistical way of approaching a new audience – namely, an appeal to superior speech, wisdom and possession of knowledge. Verses 3-5 of that chapter appear to implicitly address the three traditional modes of rhetorical proof: pathos (“I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling” – not very inspiring from a rhetorical point of view), ethos (“my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”), and logos (“that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God”).[8] In chapter 3:1-4, Paul chides the Corinthians’ behavior by describing it in terms used by the sophists themselves, ζηλοσ (generous rivalry) and ερις (contentious disposition). At last, 1 Corinthians 3:18-23 reverses the confusion of disciple / wise man (μαθητησ / σοφιστης), particularly by declaring that the teachers belong to the students – the exact opposite of what Sophist teachers claimed about their disciples!

As for the use of rhetorical techniques, several examples commend themselves. Winter argues that in 4:6 Paul uses two rhetorical devices. The first is known as “antithetical status,” which contrasts two things – in this case Paul’s “idiocy” with the Sophists’ “wisdom.” The second is called “covert allusion” (described by the Apostle as λογοσ εσχηματισμενος), which uses oblique references and irony to make tough points in a way that will not unduly offend the hearers. 2 Corinthians 10:13 gives an example of irony, which when combined with 11:6 creates the impression that Paul could speak with eloquence if he wished, but he deliberately chooses not to do so for theological reasons.

Winter cites L. Hartman’s judgment that Paul provides “a theological interpretation of his behaviour when defending himself in the first chapters of 1 Corinthians he became a kind of ‘anti-rhetorician’ in order that it might be evident from whence came the power and the effect.”[9] Even something as simple as the notation in 9:15-19 of his “secular work” is a calculated snub on the Sophists, who routinely expected the cities in which they plied their art to support them out of gratitude for their civic service. Paul is not like them: he works with his own hands for his support, and does not depend on others who are “wowed” by his clever mode of speaking.

The withering “anti-rhetorical” critique of the sophists continues in the next epistle. For in 2 Corinthians 1:12 Paul declares that he has not acted according to the σοφια σαρκικη (again note the reference to the sophists in the term σοφια), and in 10:4 he contrasts the methods of his ministry, fitted for spiritual men (πνευματικοι) with the fleshly power (σαρκικα αλλα δυνατα) of the world. In 10:10 Paul makes a big point out of his physical weakness, something that was the bane of the professional orator, who was expected to carry his body as powerfully as he thundered with his voice.

In 11:6 we find Paul referring to himself as “unskilled in speech.” This is a translation of the technical term “idiot” (ιδιωτης τω λογω), which was used by teachers of classical rhetoric to describe people not trained in the techniques of speaking well. Finally, we again find the snub on the Sophists’ disdain of manual labor in verse 16 of chapter 12, which refers again to Paul’s gainful employment (tent-making) outside of preaching, which fits very nicely with the fact that the sophists were known to be money-hungry and to use their rhetorical arts to fleece their audiences.

All of these intriguing facts about the text of the Corinthian epistles leads another scholar to conclude that “Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is largely deliberative [rhetoric], though it contains some judicial passages…Second Corinthians, on the other hand, is largely judicial except for chapters 8 and 9, which are deliberative.”[10]

As we proceed through analyses like this, it is noteworthy that a number of these scholars are not Christians. To some extent, they are performing these types of analyses as a way to “reduce” the biblical text to the status of any other old text from the Ancient world.[11] Nevertheless, I believe that these analyses points out a significant example of the Holy Spirit working with the existing categories of the mind of the one He is inspiring. From a Christian perspective, then, this recalls B.B. Warfield’s explanation of divine inspiration as being like God pouring His light through stained glass windows that were purposefully designed to color the light in a particular way. In other words, viewing these and similar New Testament passages through the lens of factors such as classical rhetoric can help us understand the Divine Word better.


1. “On Christian Doctrine” 4.4.6, trans. Rev. Professor J.F. Shaw, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series I, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995), pg. 577.

2. Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul Among the Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

3. A term used by Aristotle in his On Rhetoric, I.I.1356a.

4. Referred to by Quintilian in his Oratorical Institutes 5.10.7.

5. Aristotle, On Rhetoric I.II.2.1.

6. The stated goal of rhetoric!

7. Aristotle, On Rhetoric, II.2.7.

8. A brief reminder of the meaning of these terms: (1) the truth and logical validity of the position being argued (rhetorical logos), (2) the speaker’s ability to convince his audience that he can be trusted (rhetorical ethos), and (3) the speaker’s successful arousing of favorable emotions in his audience so that they not only intellectually agree with what has been argued but also wish to act on it (rhetorical pathos). See Aristotle On Rhetoric, trans. George A. Kennedy (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 37-39.

9. Philo and Paul Among the Sophists, pg. 161.

10. George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pg. 87.

11. An exception would be Ben Witherington III, whose recent work New Testament Rhetoric (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009) I have not yet had time to survey, and so am not citing from in these essays.

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