Rhetoric In the New Testament, Pt. 4 (Acts, Galatians, Thessalonians, Romans)

George Kennedy analyzes several speeches by Peter in the Book of Acts, and finds significant rhetorical features in them. For instance, Acts 1:16-22, though only six verses, appears to be an instance of a deliberative speech. This is seen, according to Kennedy, in the following structure: prooimiom (the opening word of friendly greeting, “Brethren”, in 1:16), narration (1:16-19, the brief retelling of the death of Judas), marshalling of proof (from Scripture itself, 1:20), and the closing statement recommending a particular action in the near future (1:21-22). This form of the classic deliberative speech is very short and lacks many other rhetorical devices which could have been used had the circumstances of this speech required them.[1]

A second example, the long speech in Acts 2:14-40, seems to exhibit an interesting combination of both judicial and deliberative rhetoric as follows. Verses 14-36 are explicitly judicial in that they first refute the charge of the Jews that those assembled at Pentecost are drunk and then indicts the Jews for their pivotal role in the death of Jesus. Both of these sections contain issues of fact, which in classical rhetorical theory was one type of stasis (basic issue) to be argued in a court setting. From verse 38-40 Kennedy sees a change to a deliberative mode of discourse, strongly urging the crowd to repent and be baptized. Verse 40′s summary, “with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them…” seems to clinch the idea that this speech falls into the classical category of deliberative rhetoric. Intriguingly, though, viewing the entire speech as a unit gives the outline: prooimiom (v. 14), proposition (in the form of an enthymeme, v. 15), proof (again, from Scripture, vv. 17-21), second prooimiom (v. 22), second proposition (vv. 23-24), second proof (from Scripture, vv. 25-28, amplification of proof (via exegesis of the Scriptural passage cited, vv. 29-35), and conclusion (v. 36).[2]

A third example is the speech of Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:2-53. According to Kennedy, in this example of clear judicial rhetoric, the stasis is antengklema, or “counter-accusation”, the purpose of which is to highlight the purportedly illegitimate jurisdiction of the court bringing the accusation. The structure of Stephen’s extended speech, given to him by the Holy Spirit, works out like this: prooimiom (7:2a), narration (2b-48), proposition (v. 51), and indictment in the form of proof (from historical evidence, vv. 52-53).[3] Kennedy sees no natural and proper classical rhetorical ending to this speech (arguing that it needs one of several possible devices that would be normally used to close out a judicial speech), but he does see an “epilogue” of sorts in vv. 54-56′s account of Stephen’s vision, which performs the “counter-accusation” function of the stasis of jurisdiction, namely, Stephen’s rejecting the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction over him by pointing out the location of the real court of law: the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Moving on, Kennedy sees deliberative rhetoric in Paul’s Thessalonian epistles, deliberative rhetoric in the epistle to the Galatians, and epideictic rhetoric in the epistle to the Romans.

I Thessalonians reads like a typical Greco-Roman letter of the day, beginning with a salutation and ending on a complimentary note. Between these comes an extended exhortation to stand firm in the Lord (and thus, the epistle is an example of deliberative rhetoric), spiced up by an extended narration (chapters 2 and 3) which are clearly an attempt by Paul to establish a favorable ethos (a conviction that he can be trusted) with his audience. The crux of Paul’s ethos here is his strong sense of identity with the Thessalonian church and its needs, seen especially in verses 2-3 and 3:10. Beginning with a refutation of slanders about his authority and desires relative to the Thessalonians (2:1-8), the construction of a positive ethos travels through highly emotional accounts of missionary experience (2:9-3:13) to a closing, and quite calm prayer (3:11-13). Nestled in the midst of this (2:14, 19) is a powerful rhetorical identification of Paul’s sufferings with the sufferings of the Thessalonian church. This is the rhetorical mode of persuasion known as pathos. 2 Thessalonians follows a similar plan, but with the entire omission of the narration.[4]

Galatians provides another example of deliberative rhetoric, though Kennedy opens his section on the epistle by observing that some commentators have misleadingly identified it as an instance of judicial rhetoric because of its emphasis on “defense” (both Paul’s defense of himself and his defense of his Gospel). There is some prima facie plausibility to this sort of reading, especially given a thorough knowledge of the very serious theological disputes within the early Church, but Kennedy still argues for deliberative rather than judicial rhetoric in Galatians. This is because the narration of facts in the epistle seems more directly related to establishing Paul’s credibility (ethos) against the Judaizers, and thus the divine origin of his Gospel. The whole point, indeed, of the Galatians letter is to exhort the Christians there toward a specific action, and exhortation in strong terms is one of two kinds of deliberative rhetoric (the other kind being dissuasion). Paul’s argument in the epistle is a sustained case that Christians are not to observe the Law of Moses but the Law of Christ instead, and exhorts them to make a decision (via deliberation) about their immediate future lives as Christians and toward the Judaizing disrupters of the peace.

Kennedy’s analysis of the rhetorical structure of Galatians expounds this pattern: salutation (amplified by two topoi, the divine nature of Paul’s apostleship and an announcement of the doctrine of Christian freedom in Christ, 1:1-3), prooimiom (an attention-grabbing, biting attack on his opponents, 1:6-10), proposition (there is no other Gospel, 1:8), proof (working out of the headings in support of the proposition, 1:11 ff.), narrative (1:13-2:14), second heading, narration, and proof (3:1-4:11), anticipation of objections (3:23-4:11), strong appeal to pathos (4:12-4:20), further proofs (4:21-6:10), and epilogue (6:11-18).

Some specific rhetorical figures which seem to be evidenced in the book are: epidiorthosis (a correction, 1:7), epicheireme (an argument which, unlike an enthymeme, states all of its parts, 2:15-20), synkrisis (a striking antithetical contrast between two things, 5:19-24), and pleonasm (amplifications of the pastoral points in chapter 5). Interestingly, Kennedy ends by contrasting the classical rhetorician’s tactic of proliferating arguments in order to get all possible angles of a dispute with the tactic of Christian rhetoric, which “focuses on a few [arguments] presented as absolute in their validity.”[5]

Finally, in the book of Romans Kennedy sees a use of epideictic rhetoric, which he explains as follows. The structure outlines like this: prooimiom (including introduction of topoi, 1:8-15), proposition (1:16-17), narration (of the power of God in salvation, 1:18-2:16), arguments on specific topics (situations of Jews and Gentiles, the nature of faith, the matchless love of God from which nothing can separate us, explanation of Jewish concerns to Gentiles, pastoral issues, 2:17-15-13), epilogue (15:14-33), postscript (establishing personal connections between Paul and the members of the Roman church, 16:1-23). Some rhetorical devices found in the book include: pleonasm (deliberate redundancy for rhetorical effect, 1:29-31), strategically-placed rhetorical questions (2:21-23), paradox (4:18; 6:20), climax (5:3-5), and amplification (16:25-27).[6]

As a final and thought-provoking point about specific examples of classical rhetoric in the New Testament, Kennedy observes that the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is a splendid example of anaphora, which is the rhetorical technique of repeating the first word or group of words at the beginning of successive clauses (“By faith…By faith…By faith…By faith…”). This is not only pleasing to the eye and ear, but results in a progressive building of rhetorical “tension” and at last culminates in a satisfying resolution (“because God has provided something better for us”).[7]

Much more could be said, but it seems good to close out this series by returning to where we began: St. Augustine’s remark in On Christian Doctrine 4.4.6 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 the classical rhetoricians).


1. George A. Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pg. 116.

2. Ibid., pp. 116-118.

3. Ibid., pp. 121-122.

4. Ibid., pp. 141-144.

5. Ibid., pp. 144-152; cite from pg. 151.

6. Ibid., pp. 152-156.

7. Ibid., pg. 156.

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