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Rhetorical Criticism of the Hebrew Bible

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Rhetorical criticism became a distinct approach to Scripture in 1968, when James Muilenburg described the need for it and named the discipline in his SBL presidential address.1 Although various rhetorical-critical techniques had been used on Scripture before this, Muilenburg's speech helped provide definition, direction and impetus for this approach to the Scriptures. His students provided a nucleus of practitioners of this subdiscipline, and others joined in.

Unfortunately, what Muilenburg called rhetorical criticism was not exactly the same as what secular literary critics called rhetorical criticism.2 and when biblical scholars became interested in "rhetorical criticism," they did not limit themselves to Muilenburg's definition. As a result, this critical method struggles to define itself, its methods, and its boundaries. In some cases it is difficult to distinguish between rhetorical criticism and literary criticism, or other disciplines.

This paper describes rhetorical-critical methods, observing strengths and weaknesses, and argues that the field should not be narrowly defined and that a blurring of the boundaries is actually beneficial. Particular attention will be given to the methodological question of whether rhetorical criticism should focus on stylistics, or on the persuasive intent of the passage.

Muilenburg's Foundation

Muilenburg began by praising form criticism, which had been pioneered by Hermann Gunkel. "The magnitude of his contribution to biblical scholarship is to be explained in part by the fact that historical criticism had come to an impasse, chiefly because of the excesses of source analysis.... Gunkel never repudiated this method...but rather averred that it was insufficient for answering the most pressing and natural queries of the reader."3 Gunkel's move set a precedent for what Muilenburg wished to do, for he saw form criticism itself as having come to an impasse. He did not want to repudiate it, but to say that it was inadequate for the questions he brought to the text. To be more specific, Muilenburg said that "the circumspect scholar will not fail to supplement his form-critical analysis with a careful inspection of the literary unit in its precise and unique formulation. He will not be completely bound by the traditional elements and motifs of the literary genre; his task will not be completed until he has taken full account of the features which lie beyond the spectrum of the genre."4 In other words, the critic will look not only the ways in which a passage is similar to others, but also the way that it is unique. After the form has been determined, "there still remains the task of discerning the actuality of the particular text." 5 Melugin summarized it well: "A given text is almost invariably a mixture of the typical and the unique.... Good exegesis, then, will study both the typical and the unique."6

Muilenburg noted the historical precedents for the type of analysis he advocated: "The field of stylistics or aesthetic criticism is flourishing today, and the literature that has gathered about it is impressive. Perhaps its foremost representative is Alonzo [sic] Schökel...Estudios de Poetica Hebraea (1963)."7 He noted that ancient scholars such as Jerome and the rabbis were often attentive "with matters of style."8 Although Muilenburg used the word stylistics for these previous scholars, he was for some reason not satisfied with this term:

The aspect of all these works which seems to me most fruitful and rewarding I should prefer to designate by a term other than stylistics. What I am interested in, above all, is in understanding the nature of Hebrew literary composition, in exhibiting the structural patterns that are employed for the fashioning of a literary unit, whether in poetry or in prose, and in discerning the many and various devices by which the predications are formulated and ordered into a unified whole. Such an enterprise I should describe as rhetoric and the methodology as rhetorical criticism.9

Muilenburg stated three main interests: literary composition, structural patterns, and literary devices, all three of which concerned the way in which a passage was written. He did not explain why these three did not fit well under the term stylistics,10 nor did he explain why he chose the term rhetoric. This was a problem, for Muilenburg was not able to limit the way the word rhetoric was used, and it had long been used to include more than structural matters. In particular, Aristotle had defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion."11 As we will see below, this interest in persuasion was taken up by some rhetorical critics, and this interest tends to focus not so much on literary devices and structure, but on the purpose for which the literary devices are used.

Focus on Stylistics

Many rhetorical critics focus on stylistics. Some rhetorical critics may object to this characterization, yet they cannot escape the fact that it is a common one. Kennedy notes that "To many biblical scholars rhetoric probably means style."12 Even among secular rhetorical studies, this has sometimes been the case. In the Middle Ages, for example, "rhetoricians amassed lengthy lists of stylistic devices...which led to a view of rhetoric as chiefly ornamental."13 This led to a reduced interest in rhetoric, since it was not logical or scientific.14 Watson and Hauser write that at the end of the 19th century, "rhetoric was truncated and had come to be understood as mere style or ornament, that is, form had been separated from content."15 In his survey of the history of rhetoric in American universities, Lundbom notes: "The 19th century also witnesses a specialization of disciplines that truncated rhetoric to the point that it became associated primarily with belles-lettres. Its emphasis was now largely on correctness, style, and the aesthetic appreciation of literature."16

This changed in the 20th century, but many biblical critics continued to limit their rhetorical criticism to stylistic concerns. Muilenburg had set the agenda and the example. In his speech, he mentioned three concerns: composition, structure, and literary devices. In his commentary on Isaiah, he demonstrated a concern for structure and literary devices.17 His introduction, for example, includes eight pages for a discussion of style, with subheads including lyrical character, parallelism, meter, assonance, dramatic style, stylistic characteristics, imagery, rhetorical devices, literary types and forms, triads, structural patterns, and strophes. Five pages were used for the historical situation, and 15 for theological catch-words. There was no subhead for the overall message of Second Isaiah, or what the poet wanted people to do in response to his poetry. Such things were discussed in various sections of the commentary, but were not gathered into a distinct section for the introduction, as stylistic matters were.

Muilenburg began each section of the commentary with an analysis of structure, particularly the number of strophes and the meter, with comments about repetition or other devices. Following are some typical comments that show his insight and careful attention to detail:

The stylistic unity of the opening poem lies in the imperatives; that of the second poem lies in the interrogatives.... The poem proper is composed of nine strophes, grouped in triads.... The climax falls in each case upon the third member of the triad.... The Hebrew poet is fond of repeating key words at the beginning of strophes.... The threefold occurrence in a single strophe is a common stylistic device.... The strophe is a model of literary form and style. Each word registers its effect, each line adds something distinctive, each stroke contributes to the portrait of the servant of the Lord. Verbs and nouns of great import mingle and blend. The style is measured, quiet, terse, pregnant, and concentrated.... It is characteristic of the poet to end his poems with brief quotations.18

Muilenburg gave much more attention to style than other commentators did. He did not neglect form-critical concerns, word meanings, or other exegetical questions. For example, he wrote, "the point in all these lines is the universality of praise; even the most obscure and remote places join with the sea and the desert in the hymn of rejoicing"19—but he did not comment directly on how the poetry supported the meaning of the passage. Perhaps the connection was obvious to him, but to me it seems that his analysis of style and his analysis of meaning were parallel tracks that rarely met. Form and style are related to content, but he did not explain how they were.

Similarly, Kuntz gives a detailed commentary on the stylistic features of Isaiah 51:1-16,20 but it seems to me that his analysis is a series of dead-end streets. At each verse along the pathway, Kuntz pauses to note the literary devices being used, then backs out and goes to the next verse. He says little about how all these devices fit together, or how they help us understand the message of the passage, or how they would help the original readers. They remain a series of observations about literary style—a catalog of trees, grasses and herbs without much attention to the ecosystem they are in. Kuntz says little about how one verse relates to another to create the passage as a whole.21

For example, when Kuntz discusses how Strophe V recapitulates themes from previous strophes, he touches on poetic devices (164), but most of the connections he mentions could have been done just as well with prose as with poetry. Kuntz is describing poetic devices, but not saying much about how they work.22 In his conclusion, he says that the poet's "intense lyricism vividly conveys his assurance of impending salvation" (165)—but Kuntz does not explain how the lyrics convey the assurance any better than prose could have. He does not explain how the style relates to his observation that the passage is "helping Israel to realize her calling."23 Kuntz's conclusion itself has no subhead and is only one paragraph—a rather abrupt ending with some broad generalities. This suggests that the many details have not been synthesized or integrated; they remain as scattered bits of data.

I am not alone in my assessment. Whether or not rhetorical critics of the Hebrew Bible intend to concentrate on stylistics, many people24 perceive from the results that the focus has been stylistics—a description of literary features, verse by verse. Patrick and Scult illustrate this when they characterize Muilenburg's call as a call "for revival of an older form of analysis, frequently termed `stylistic criticism.'"25 Similarly, Black identifies Muilenburg's proposal as "the study of the characteristic linguistic and structural features of a particular text in its present form.... For Muilenburg, `rhetoric' is virtually synonymous with `literary artistry.'"26

Clifford illustrates the tendency of some rhetorical critics to neglect synthesis. In discussing the difference between form criticism and rhetorical criticism, he cites the example of the Biblisher Kommentar and the Hermeneia commentaries, which have separate sections for text, form, setting, interpretation, and aim. Clifford says, "`Interpretation' and `aim' ought to be reserved for the study of how this text uniquely shapes the conventions of the genre and adds its own novum."27 But this is an inadequate definition of "aim." The aim of a passage should include more than how it alters the genre—it should include its message, i.e., what the passage is aiming at. The aim of the passage is to convey a message, not to shape a genre. The genre is a tool, not the focus. It is shaped only to serve a particular goal. Clifford's definition focuses on technique, not the message.

Clifford is correct when he writes, "Rhetorical criticism cannot of course merely be a simple minded recording of the rhetorical techniques used in a composition"28—and I believe that the reason he felt it necessary to write this is because in practice rhetorical criticism can degenerate into a catalog of devices, with not enough attention given to how those devices function in the passage. Yet he also writes, "Rhetorical criticism...should be eager to increase its repertory of examples. It is not gushy literary appreciation but critical analysis of rhetorical technique."29 Clifford does not intentionally exclude purpose, but his focus is largely on technique.

Wuellner laments the tendency of rhetorical criticism to be reduced to stylistics, and then to rhetorical devices. "Reduced to concerns of style, with the artistry of textual disposition and textual structure, rhetorical criticism has become indistinguishable from literary criticism, as is evident in the works of two leading literary critics: L. Alonso- Schökel and R. Alter."30 Other analysts have suggested ways to distinguish the two disciplines, as noted below.

Of course, it is not wrong to appreciate art for its own sake or appreciate the aesthetics of poetry for its own sake, but as a biblical scholar, I wish to go further than an appreciation of artistry—I want to know what the text is saying. In other words, the stylistics version of rhetorical criticism has reached for me the point that form criticism had for Muilenburg: It is not wrong, but it is inadequate for the questions that I bring to the text—namely, what does it mean? Does the artistry exist for its own sake, or does it serve a purpose? I believe it serves a purpose, and our study of stylistics is not complete until we have investigated its purpose, its function in the message of the text. The text has a purpose, and a study of the text ought to strive to understand the way it goes about that purpose—and this endeavor falls into the field of rhetorical criticism. It is something that rhetorical criticism should consider.

As Tull says, "A text is more than the sum of its words. As important as stylistic analysis is for attending to particulars, it does not sufficiently account for all that texts do and come to mean."31 Watson would agree with the importance of stylistic analysis—his description of rhetorical criticism lists numerous stylistic concerns, but it ends with a concern for the significance of the devices:

Rhetorical criticism of the OT seeks a knowledge of the forms, genres, structures, stylistic devices, and rhetorical techniques common to the literature of the ancient Near East to understand better how these can contribute to our interpretation of the OT.... At every step, close attention is given to repetition, parallelism, strophic structure, motifs, climax, chiasm, and numerous other literary devices. Such close examination of composition is an attempt to achieve a better understanding of the movement of the author's thought, intent, and message, and to determine how the rhetoric would be experienced by the audience.32

Interest in Persuasion

Watson and Hauser write, "Defining rhetorical criticism is problematic because it is often difficult to know where to draw sharp lines between it and other forms of literary criticism.... There is some disagreement about the basics of rhetorical criticism among those who practice it.... There is substantial diversity among those who call themselves rhetorical critics and see themselves to be following Muilenburg's lead. For example, there is disagreement regarding whether or not it is sound method to ask questions concerning the intent of the writer."33

As noted above, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a means of persuasion, and this concern for function and purpose has been repeated by some (but not all) modern critics. Kennedy, after extensive study of the classical rhetoricians, defines rhetoric as "that quality in discourse by which a speaker or writer seeks to accomplish his purposes." This broad definition includes persuasion without using the word.34

Kessler notes the deficiencies of form criticism, and notes with approval that form critics are now paying more attention to function: "Not only the setting, but also the function or intention (Zeil) is emphasized, which is a traditional rhetorical concern."35 But he does not elaborate much on rhetorical criticism itself. He offers it as "a label for the leading candidate for synchronic criticism, particularly if its definition is attempted along the lines of both classical rhetoric and the new rhetoric. Rhetoric has proven to be a flexible term, which is another advantage for its use." 36 He left it to others to provide more flesh for this term.

Howard writes that for most secular scholars of rhetoric, "the study of the means of persuasion" is "foundational"—but "this dimension has been all but lacking in Old Testament `rhetorical' criticism."37 The focus in Hebrew Bible studies has been structure and style. "Indeed, the literary interest of Old Testament rhetorical criticism is such that many of the papers in the SBL Rhetorical Criticism section are virtually indistinguishable in terms of method from those in the SBL literary or narrative sections or groups."38 Dozeman writes that "recent discussion of rhetorical criticism has sought to expand the scope of the method beyond a descriptive study of stylistics, in order to probe the persuasive power of texts to influence action or practice."39 Watson and Hauser write, "Of particular note is the work of Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, La Nouvelle Rhétorique: Traité l'argumentation [1958], which conceptualizes rhetoric as argumentation and persuasion (not just style)."40 Trible comments on the "new" rhetoric of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca: "An English translation of their original French edition appeared in 1969.... This rhetoric actually revived the old rhetoric of Aristotelian thought; it focused on persuasion and its means."41

Lundbom summarizes four main concerns of modern rhetoric: 1) It is analytic, not prescriptive. It is a method for analyzing existing communication, not a technique manual for future speakers. 2) It is concerned with structure and persuasion, not just style. 3) It goes beyond a list of figures—"it wants to know how figures function in discourse." And 4) It focuses on the audience, "beginning with the original audience."42 Some critics speak of authorial intent, some of persuasion, some of effect on the audience. Though there are important differences in these foci, they overlap a great deal. There may be significant differences between an author's intent and the audience's probable response (e.g., the people would not repent), but it is through an analysis of the argument, of the strategy and method of persuasion, that we can speculate what the author was hoping for and whether it was achieved. This is speculative, but a legitimate part of our effort to understand the text.

In most books of the Bible, it is clear that the authors wanted the audience to at least believe what they were writing. They use various methods to support that goal, to persuade the audience. The study of their persuasive methods is a legitimate interest for biblical scholars, and it should be called rhetoric, for that is what it is called among secular literary critics. Indeed, it is necessary for rhetorical criticism to include a study of persuasion, for otherwise the rhetorical criticism would be literary criticism, without any need for or claim to the name "rhetorical." Moreover, the interest in persuasion involves a disciplined attempt to identify the major purpose and meaning of a passage—an important aspect of biblical studies—and thus it can make an important addition to biblical study methods.

Kennedy writes, "If rhetorical to be useful it must embrace more than style.... The ultimate goal of rhetorical analysis, briefly put, is the discovery of the author's intent and of how that is transmitted through a text to an audience."43 Howard cites Aristotle and argues that critics need to give more attention to persuasion. He notes that "the focus upon persuasion essentially has remained paradigmatic in the field until the present day."44

Old Testament rhetorical critics would benefit greatly from self-consciously focusing upon the speeches and other discourses in the Bible with an eye to discerning the means of persuasion practiced.... We may note here the point that all religious writing may be seen as "rhetorical" in the sense that it attempts to change behavior (and to convince). In that sense, the entire Bible is rhetorical, and biblical rhetorical critics can study the arguments of any biblical author to discern the means of persuasion used.45

In studying literary devices, critics are studying some of the means of persuasion, even if they are not studying them as a means a persuasion. "Too often the analysis is merely a cataloguing of the `rhetorical devices' found in a text"46—without taking the next step of asking what those devices are for. "As such, it is merely concerned with stylistics."46 I agree with Fiore: "The method ought to identify not only the rhetorical elements and structure but also their function in the flow of argumentation."47 On a more positive note, Tull writes that many biblical scholars have noted the classical definition of rhetoric and that "many have begun to direct attention to the hortatory nature of much of the Bible—that is, its effort to persuade audiences not merely to appreciate the aesthetic power of its language but, even more importantly, to act and think according to its norms."48

The result is that some rhetorical critics focus more on style or on literary structure or composition. Others focus more on persuasion, the argumentation of a passage, the purpose of the author or the communicative impact on an audience.49 Tucker describes it in this way: "Narrowly, rhetoric is viewed as discovering the means of persuasion (Aristotle). More broadly, rhetoric is the art of speech and composition. These two views—of rhetoric as the art of persuasion and of rhetoric as the art of composition—persist into contemporary biblical scholarship."50 Trible writes that rhetorical criticism "has become a full-fledged biblical discipline practiced in different ways. The differences relate to two distinct, though not incompatible, understandings of rhetoric: the art of composition and the art of persuasion."51

Kikawada described his approach to rhetorical criticism: "to describe not only what the text says but also how it conveys the message."52 Fox notes that "this definition is closer to the traditional understanding of rhetorical criticism," but he faults it (unfairly, I think) for neglecting "suasion." 53 Fox notes that previous rhetorical critics have "focused almost exclusively on revealing the formal features of a text," and he notes with approval Aristotle's interest in persuasion.54 Fox's interest is not just the meaning of the text, but the way in which that meaning is brought out. He views a focus on technique, to the neglect of meaning, as insufficient:

Ezekiel himself emphatically rejects an aesthetic or strictly literary approach to his prophecy as trivial and irrelevant. God tells him that his fellow countrymen flock to hear his words "...but they will not obey them, for they treat (them as) love-songs (?) [sic] in their mouths, while their hearts are set on nothing but gain. To them you are just a singer of love-songs who has a sweet voice and plays skillfully; they hear your words, but will not obey them" (33:31-32). Ezekiel's artistry was drawing crowds, and that presented him with a dilemma.55

The people liked Ezekiel's style, but were neglecting his message. We also need to do more than enjoy the rhetorical skill— we need to be attentive to the message itself. Stylistic critics today are not necessarily neglecting the message, of course, but sometimes they neglect the way that style helps conveys the message. Fox says, "If the formal structures that the critic claims to discover are indeed rhetorically effective, he should show not only that they exist but what they do and how they work."56

Effect on the Audience

Wichelns offered a useful distinction between literary criticism and rhetorical criticism, in that the latter "is not concerned with permanence, not yet with beauty. It is concerned with effect. It regards a speech as a communication to a specific audience, and holds its business to be the analysis and appreciation of the orator's method of imparting his ideas to his hearers."57 Patrick and Scult focus more on the effect of the text on the audience:

Rhetorical criticism, as it developed from Muilenburg's ideas and those of his students, did not quite add up to a fully developed method of interpretation which integrated the language of the text itself with its subsequent effect on audiences. What was needed was a fuller understanding of rhetoric as the way a text manages its relationship with its audiences—an understanding which grows out of the ancient and modern traditions of rhetoric and hermeneutics.... The `rhetoric' in rhetorical criticism must be broadened to its fullest range in the classical tradition, namely, as the means by which a text establishes and manages its relationship to its audience in order to achieve a particular effect.58

Watson and Hauser give a "functional" definition of rhetorical criticism that includes both style and function, including the effect on the audience:

Rhetorical criticism is a form of literary criticism which uses our knowledge of the conventions of literary composition practiced in ancient Israel and its environment to discover and analyze the particular literary artistry found in a specific unit of Old Testament text. This analysis then provides a basis for discussing the message of the text and the impact it had on its audience.... A rhetorical critic will basically do two things in studying a text: analyze the literary features of the text, to the maximum extent possible, from the perspective of literary style discernible in the works of ancient Israelite writers; and articulate the impact of the literary unit on its audience.59

Unlike reader-response criticism, which focuses on the response of modern readers, rhetorical criticism focuses more on the effect on ancient readers. Thus rhetorical criticism necessarily includes a consideration of the historical setting and the genre.60 It can never become separated from historical criticism and form criticism.61 As Kennedy notes, rhetorical criticism attempts to discern how a work "would be perceived by an audience of near contemporaries."62 Watson says, "It is a historical enterprise standing between ahistorical literary criticism and historical criticism."63

Gitay emphasizes the importance of understanding the audience: "The goal of sound rhetorical criticism is to study the conditions which make an effective communication possible. The major principle of effective communication is the reader's expectations."64 It involves a study of how people think and come to conclusions: "Rhetorical analysis reveals the speaker's strategy of appealing to or mastering the audience's mind."65 The modern interpreter must even consider the kinds of literature the audience had been exposed to, whether supporting or conflicting. The original audience was critical, too, and often difficult to persuade.66 Fox notes that a study of effectiveness must also include the setting:

The effectiveness of a particular prophecy did not derive from that utterance alone. Factors external to the discourse in question would bear strongly upon its effectiveness. These include the weight of the prophet's entire career, the theological and social contexts of the prophecy, which predisposed the audience to a certain attentiveness (or not receptiveness) to prophecy as such, and the prophet's prior accuracy in prediction.67

Fox illustrates his method with his analysis of Ezekiel 37, suggesting a possible function for the "irrational" claims of the text and how they might serve to win the audience to Ezekiel's view. "Strange, shocking, and bizarre images...are needed when one seeks to break down old frameworks of perception and to create new ones.... Ezekiel's primary strategy is boldly to affirm the absurd."68 He describes Ezekiel's approach as that of a spectator: "Ezekiel does not predict the national resurrection, he sees it imaged in a present event.... The prophet simply tells what he saw and heard.... `Here is what I saw. I too was surprised. Now believe it or not.' This stance gives an impression of objectivity."69 He viewed the multi-stage nature of the resurrection as a technique "to intensify suspense and to focus attention of the climatic success to follow."70 He concludes by reviewing how the literary devices serve to persuade the audience:

The first two strategems of this discourse, imagery and argumentation, are clearly directed to the accomplishment of Ezekiel's manifest goal in this chapter, the preservation of the nation's hope and thus its will to survive. The third strategem, the permutation of the meaning of rûach, points to a further goal—implanting in the people a particular understanding of the meaning of their survival.71

Whether or not we agree with Fox's analysis of Ezekiel 37, we must commend him for attempting to sketch the function of the peculiarities of the passage. His focus is not on literary devices, but on the way in which the text attempts to get an idea across to the audience.72 As his abstract says, "Rhetorical criticism should focus on the analysis and evaluation of the suasive force of discourse rather than on its formal literary features or structure."73 The synthetic work of seeing the passage as a whole, as an ecosystem, is more difficult than cataloging the literary devices. The critic must not only identify parallelism, repetitions, etc., but also attempt to ascertain how they might function psychologically and sociologically. This is inevitably subjective, but still an essential part of understanding a biblical text. Even stylistics involves subjectivity.74

But detailed analysis of literary devices is still necessary, for only by turning over all the stones can the critic discern which stones hide the gems. Only by examining all the trees and shrubs can the biologist speak meaningfully about the ecosystem. We do not want an impressionistic painting of a forest—we want to know how the forest actually functions. Allen's analysis of Psalm 73 provides an illustration. It is only after 12 pages of detailed work that he can draw the conclusion that "the poet appears to be deliberately ranging over earlier vocabulary and reversing its context."75 It is only after a detailed study of style that he can comment that "rhetorical criticism has been able to style was employed for the passionate reinforcement of meaning."76 But the article appears to give a lot more attention given to style than to meaning, and I still do not understand how the style reinforced the meaning. However, it seems that the article was designed to illustrate rhetorical criticism as a method, perhaps more than it was to expound Psalm 73 itself. Thus the details were important, to show the kind of preliminary work that must be done in this methodology.

Similarly, Trible is well aware of the need to discuss function, not just list stylistic devices, but her analysis of the chiasms and other devices of Jonah does become tedious. Her own stylistic devices also become tedious, particularly when she calls attention to them.77 Some are also of dubious validity, such as when she claims that her chapter 2 is emphasized by being surrounded by chapters 1 and 3.78 But her book is an attempt to teach rhetorical criticism, and as such, the artificial examples and detail are not out of place. But for most analyses, Alonso-Schökel's aphorism is appropriate: "With the sweat of your forehead you shall produce fruit. Share the fruit, not the sweat."79


Watson notes that "the field is currently occupied with the refinement of methodology."80 Wuellner says, "Neither Muilenburg nor his school worked with an identifiable model of rhetorical criticism, though pleas were made that the practice of rhetorical criticism needed a methodology."81 Watson and Hauser more charitably say that Muilenburg "laid down a rudimentary methodology."82 Trible says, "Muilenburg never developed a comprehensive statement of rhetorical criticism. He worked by intuition; he shared evolving perceptions; he did not construct a system."83

The primary methodological question seems to be whether rhetorical criticism should include the question of persuasion. Is the discipline to simply describe the literary devices, or should it probe into the more difficult and more speculative area of how those devices are used in service of the argumentation? A detailed identification of the devices is necessary, but if critics stop at that point, their work is probably better called literary criticism. When "rhetorical" critics focus their work on literary devices, they produce three problems for the disciplines: 1) They may dislike the term stylistics, but that is how others describe what they are doing, thus creating unnecessary terminological confusion, 2) Their work is essentially literary analysis, and they gain nothing by trying to call it rhetorical analysis. 3) The disciplines of rhetorical and literary criticism become difficult to distinguish, and there is no value in having two words for the same approach.

As noted above, I believe that rhetorical criticism must include the interest in persuasion. We want to understand what the text is saying, and how the details of the text help it convey its meaning. Although literary criticism may touch on such questions,84 it is rhetorical criticism that gives special attention to them. Like morphology and grammar, literary devices are not an end in themselves, but are normally a means to an end.85 Gitay writes, "Style is a tool for achieving effective communication and must be studied as an integral part of the message and the rhetorical situation of a given text; the study of style is never an end in itself."86 However, just as morphology and grammar may be studied in themselves, literary devices may be, too—but biblical studies normally goes beyond structural descriptions to explore function and meaning. Rhetorical criticism does this by focusing on persuasion, on the purpose of a passage.

The interest in persuasion not only has classical support, it also is able to encompass stylistics and sociological interests. The stylistics are seen not just for their artistry, but also for their purpose—and the interest in persuasion requires that the interpreter takes the historical and sociological setting seriously.

A Method

Kennedy has offered the most useable methodology, based on classical rhetoric, designed for the New Testament, but useful for the Old as well.87 Black goes so far as to say that "Kennedy's primary contribution is methodological: the presentation of a distinctive manner of exegesis that is lucid and systematic, far more painstaking than Muilenburg's proposal, and insightfully undergirded by classical erudition.... Kennedy's method both invites new ways of pondering old questions and opens modern eyes to neglected dimensions of ancient literature."88

Kennedy describes five stages of analysis: First, defining the amount of text to be studied, a passage that has a message to convey. Lundbom notes that "Delimitation of prophetic speeches is difficult.... The attempt, in any event, has to be made. Synchronic analysis that pays little or no attention to literary units will not pass for rhetorical criticism and ends up being a throw-back to precritical study of the Bible."89

Second, discerning the situation. This includes the cause of the text, the mood of the audience, the mood of the author, and their social values. This is subjective, speculative, and complex, but crucial for understanding the rhetoric. Part of the "environment" are other explanations of the same events, other answers to the same questions, etc. The very attempt to persuade usually implies the existence of some resistance. Tull writes, "The disputed rhetorical environment surrounding many biblical texts, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, is difficult for us to perceive because we no longer have access to many of the voices to which these texts were responding."90 Kennedy observes that

This roughly corresponds to the Sitz im Leben of form criticism.... The critic needs to ask of what this audience consists, what the audience expects in the situation, and how the speaker or writer manipulates these expectations.... Plato asserts that a true philosophical orator must know the souls of his audience.... In many rhetorical situations the speakers will be found to face one overriding rhetorical problem. His audience is perhaps already prejudiced against him and not disposed to listen to anything he may say; or the audience may not perceive him as having the authority to advance the claims he wishes to make; or what he wishes to say is very complicated and thus hard to follow, or so totally different from what the audience expects that they will not immediately entertain the possibility of its truth.91

Watson and Hauser note the potential complexity: "Rhetorical analysis using modern rhetoric is often combined with literary criticism, text linguistics, semiotics, social description, stylistics, reader-response criticism, discourse analysis, and/or speech act theory. These cross-disciplinary studies and their trends are as yet difficult to identify and categorize."92 Sociology is the focus of socio-rhetorical criticism, which Robbins defines as "an approach to literature that focuses on values, convictions, and beliefs both in the texts we read and in the world in which we live."93 Wuellner comments that this method "ends up in the service of the historian's interest in social description."94 The focus is more on the audience, and the text is analyzed not so much for what it is saying, but for what hints it might give us about the audience. The same result is seen in form criticism, which uses the text as a window into ancient history, rather than focusing on the text itself.

The third step in Kennedy's method is to describe the structure of the passage as a strategy for the communicative purpose: "Consider the arrangement of material in the text: what subdivisions it falls into, what the persuasive effect of these parts seems to be, and how they work together—or fail to do so—to some unified purpose in meeting the rhetorical situation. In order to do this he will need to engage in line-by-line analysis of the argument, including its assumptions, its topics, and its formal features, such as enthymemes, and of the devices of style, seeking to define their function in context."95 The fourth step is similar: identifying the stylistic devices, with particular attention given to their function in persuading the audience of a view.

The fifth step is putting it all together—estimating the effectiveness of the passage for the situation and purpose. This step also serves to put the pieces into a cohesive whole, rather than leaving them as fragments or disconnected steps of a methodology. The critic may ask, for example, Have I explained how the structure supports the message? How do the words and the style work together to affect the audience in their situation?

Methodological Questions

I have argued that rhetorical criticism should analyze the methods of persuasion, not just catalogue literary devices, and I have described Kennedy's methodology as an approach for that purpose. But we must ask, Is Kennedy's method appropriate for Hebrew Bible scholars? Is it not based on a different culture and era? Actually, the question arises within NT studies, too. Watson writes, "Many interpreters consider rhetorical analysis of the NT solely using Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions to be too limited... Ancient rhetoric does not address all theoretical, practical, and philosophical questions posed by speech.... This approach assumes that the NT authors were familiar with rhetoric either from formal education or through interaction with oral and written Hellenistic culture, which was permeated with rhetorical practice."96

Watson and Hauser ask, "Can the canons of Greco-Roman rhetoric be used to interpret all genres which intend to persuade?"97 This is doubtful, and I have not seen anyone claim that they can, nor have I seen anyone claim that rhetorical analysis must be done solely using Greco-Roman conventions. However, some interpreters do seem to force biblical materials into a classical pattern. Black writes, "Those who share Muilenburg's sensitivity to the distinctiveness of specific texts may discern, in the studies by Gitay, Betz, Jewett, and Watson, a disquieting tendency to press oracles or letters into elaborate rhetorical schemes of organization (from proem to epilogos).98

Just as Hebrew writers modified the form/genre to suit their purposes, and other Hellenistic writers adapted rhetorical forms,99 so the biblical writers (even if they had studied rhetoric) would adapt basic patterns to suit their particular purposes. As Black notes, "Biblical documents appear to be mixtures of many genres, blithely compounded by their authors from an enormous range of literary and oral components.... While rhetorical models may function as heuristic guides, particular texts often resist preset patterns."100 Therefore Watson and Hauser are correct when they write, "Restrictive reliance upon the rhetorical handbooks can lead to an imbalanced view of the New Testament documents."101

Kennedy claims that

Rhetoric is...a universal phenomenon which is conditioned by basic workings of the human mind and heart and by the nature of all human society. Aristotle's objective in writing his Rhetoric was not to describe Greek rhetoric, but to describe this universal facet of human communication.... It is perfectly possible to utilize the catgories of Aristotelian rhetoric to study speech in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere.... What is unique about Greek rhetoric, and what makes it useful for criticism, is the degree to which it was conceptualized.... 

Though the Jews of the pre-Christian era seem never to have conceptualized rhetoric to any significant degree, the importance of speech among them is everywhere evident in the Old Testament, and undoubtedly they learned techniques by imitation. In understanding how their rhetoric worked we have little choice but to employ the concepts and terms of the Greeks [since the Hebrews had no such terms]."102

In other words, even though all cultures seek to persuade in one way or another, our terminology about persuasion is based on the Greek model, because they were the ones who first analyzed persuasion, and they did a good job. Their categories are useful for most of what we see around the world. We can use Greek names for their argumentation, just as we do for their poetic structrues and figures of speech—but we must be open to the possibility that writers used devices and approaches that have no Greek counterparts.

Nothing in Kennedy's methodology requires literature to be conformed to classical models. Rather, the focus is more general: on the way in which the text seeks to affect the audience. Classical models may provide a useful starting point, but they are not the last word in methods of persuasion. For biblical studies, our question is, How does this text persuade an audience?, and scholars have learned a thing or two about persuasion since the ancients. For one thing, the classical writers (writing manuals for speakers) focused on the speaker, not the audience's perceptions. And the classical rhetors overlooked some of the techniques–for example, they did not identify chiasmus as a device even though they sometimes used it.103 So we cannot assume that classical models provide a complete system. They do not answer all our questions, but they are a useful starting point.

Classical models were designed for speakers, primarily for judicial situations. Although some methods of persuasion may remain the same, we should also expect to find some differences when we look at written communication, such as letters104 or narratives.105 The rhetoric of religion is also different than the rhetoric of the courtroom.106 For these reasons, Kennedy writes,

To what extent is an awareness of the conventions of different literary forms essential for valid rhetorical criticism? The answer seems to be that it can be helpful, but that it is not fundamental.... An awareness of genre (genos) may, however, contribute to an understanding of the rhetorical situation, expecially the author's perception of his audience, and it may explain the presence of various features in the work.... In general, identification of genre is not a crucial factor in understanding how rhetoric actually works in units of the New Testament.107

What Classen writes about the NT could also apply to the Hebrew Scriptures: "There is no good reason to assume that a text could and should be examined only according to categories known (or possibly known) to the author concerned."108 But still, our basic question remains the same: How does this text try to persuade the audience? What is it trying to say, and how does it go about saying it? We use any tool, whether ancient or modern, to help us understand how the text functions.

Authorial intent

Is it legitimate to seek the author's intent? Dozeman says that many interpreters "reject any claims that the interpreter could uncover an author's intention, and that a hermeneutic based on author's intent could provide a basis of interpretation."109 Thurén is willing to seek the intent not of the author, but of the text: "Rhetorical criticism takes historical information seriously, but instead of being [merely] descriptive it seeks to penetrate the intention of the text.... Its main objective is not to reconstruct the original, historical, real readers or the real author..., but to focus on the text as a more or less independent argumentative entity."110 Trible notes that "texts do reveal authors" but also notes that the meaning of a text may extend beyond what the author intended.111 However, the text itself can be used to eliminate some readings as spurious or mistaken.

Noble (arguing primarily against reader-response theories) describes how a text may refute some readings as erroneous: "Anyone who comes to Genesis with questions about, say, quantum field theory or the life of Julius Caesar will not receive any sensible answers; but to admit even this much already makes some concessions to objectivism—namely, that the text has sufficient independent `thereness' to refute at least these attempted interpretations."112 Noble argues that the legitimacy of a meaning can be tested against a text, and scholars can come to conclusions as to whether one reading makes better sense than another. Yet there may be more than one legitimate reading, more than one reading that makes sense—and, he notes, "literary approaches...can be of considerable assistance in discovering" legitimate meanings.113

Noble's observations are correct, but still do not distinguish between author and text. For many rhetorical analyses, a distinction is not essential, and Thurén's approach is all that we can achieve. We want to understand how the text presents its argument, and in order to do that we need to discern what the argument actually it—the goal or purpose or intent of the text.

There is often substantial overlap between the apparent intention of the text and the probable effect on the audience, so an analysis that focuses on the effect can also suggest much about the intent of the text. In some cases we are told how people responded to the message (e.g., by burning the scroll, Jer. 36:21-27), and we can see that there was a difference between the author's intent and the actual response. In some cases we may judge an argument weak and unlikely to persuade the audience—e.g., "the author seems to want the people to do such-and-such, but he is not addressing an important objection." In making such a judgment, we are admitting that the author had an intent that is at least somewhat discernable. Such conclusions must be based on the evidence of the text and its probable historical context. Our focus is to ascertain how the structure and style support the argument, for the original audience, for subsequent audiences, or for audiences today.

Strengths of Rhetorical Criticism

I conclude this paper by reviewing some of the strengths of rhetorical criticism. First, it generally treats the text as we have it, rather than fragmenting it into numerous hypothetical sources, fragments, and interpolations. Form criticism had tended to divide, and was more a tool of historical analysis than an effort to understand the text. Muilenburg, for example, often argued for the unity of a passage based on consistency of style and argument.114

However, there is no theoretical reason why rhetorical criticism could not also be applied to a hypothetical reconstruction. For example, if we suspect that verse 13 to be a later interpolation, we could analyze the way that the passage serves to communicate a purpose without verse 13, and then with it. Indeed, if the argument seems to work better without verse 13 than with it, then rhetorical criticism could be used in support of judgments about redaction.115 But this would still necessitate a concerted effort to understand the passage with the verse, as well as without.

Trible, on the other hand, seems to believe that rhetorical criticism has an ideological commitment to "final form" and cannot be used to promote any transpositions. She argues that Jonah 4:5 would make better sense if it came after 3:4, but then argues against the transposition.116 Similarly, she refuses to question whether chapter 2 is a later addition, even though it would be a very useful exercise to compare the effect of the book with the psalm, and the book without it.117 Such a comparison would highlight what the chapter actually contributes to the book. This ideological commitment is a personal one, not a necessary part of rhetorical criticism itself.

The second strength of rhetorical criticism: it is historically rooted (unlike modern literary criticism or reader-response criticism). When we try to understand how the text would have affected the ancient audience, we must work to understand that ancient audience.118 We see the readers not as passive recipients of a speech, but as thinking people who are able to interact with the text and choose whether to respond to the message.119 We include psychological and sociological factors in the way the message is presented as well as how it might be received.

The third strength of rhetorical criticism is that it focuses our attention on the text, not the history of Israelite religious beliefs, not the use of literary genres, not the redaction history of the text. Rather, it continually points us to ask, What does the text say, and how does it go about saying it? What is it trying to do, and how does it attempt that? As Kennedy says, this method comes closer than others in explaining what most Bible students want explained in the text: its message.120 But we seek more than an explanation of the logic of the words—by including stylistic analysis, we become more aware of the nonrational dimensions of argumentation.121 And this analysis may help us communicate the message today: not only what the text says, but also ways we can use to persuade others of its truth.122