Rhetorical Criticism: History, Purpose, and Method

By Michael Morrison

My research goal is to explore the function of the new covenant in the parenesis of Hebrews. This is a question of how the argument of Hebrews works, that is, its rhetorical strategy. It is therefore appropriate to survey the investigative method known as rhetorical criticism, for this method is designed to study questions such as I have. I will begin with a brief history, clarify the method, and address problems within the discipline.


Duane Watson writes, "There has always been limited classical rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. This has almost always pertained to stylistic matters, especially figures of speech and thought, and matters of genre and form. For example, Saint Augustine analyzed the rhetorical style of the biblical writers, especially Paul, in Book IV of his work On Christian Doctrine, and the Venerable Bede in his De schematibus et tropis analyzed figures and tropes in both Testaments."1 "Melanchthon...wrote rhetorical commentaries on Romans and Galatians utilizing classical conventions of invention, arrangement, and style, as well as more modern conceptions of these.... Erasmus...provided rhetorical analyses of 1 and 2 Corinthians.... Calvin...besides noting rhetorical features (particularly stylistic) throughout his commentaries on the New Testament, gives a rhetorical analysis of Romans."2

Wilhelm Wuellner notes that the focus was on stylistics: "Rhetoric continued to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the Bible, whether as part of the traditional lectio divina, or as part of the via moderna cultivated by the emerging European universities beginning in the 12th century. One of the developments that affected sacred and secular hermeneutics was the virtual identification of poetics and rhetorics in the Renaissance."3

Thomas Olbricht writes, "Puritan scholars embraced particularly the grammar, rhetoric and logic of Peter Ramus.... The biblical scholars of the era borrowed from these insights, structuring commentaries according to the dictates of the Ramian logical divisions and subdivisions. Beginning in 1730, interest in oratory and rhetoric returned to the classical traditions, especially the Ciceronian."4 Ramus reinforced the identification of rhetoric with stylistic concerns.5

Folker Siegert writes that Johann Bengel's notes were "based on a masterful knowledge of rhetoric"; his Gnomon (1742) had the subtitle "from the natural (or inherent) strength of the words."6 In 1753, Robert Lowth published his lectures on parallelism in OT poetry.7 Jack Lundbom notes that classical rhetoric "experienced an earlier revival in the mid-18th century, when, for the first time, the works of Cicero and Quintilian became widely available and new textbooks on rhetorical theory and practice were written."8 Watson writes, "Germany became the center of rhetorical analysis of the New Testament in the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Important in this stream of tradition is Karl Ludwig Bauer's massive study of Paul's use of classical rhetorical techniques."9 Olbricht notes that Johann Ernesti started (or revived) a trend of stylistic studies.10 English scholars included John Jebb and Thomas Boys.11

The emphasis continued to be on style. Lundbom writes: "The 19th century also witnessed 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."12 Rhetorical studies were also done by Royaards, Wilke, Blass, Norden, Heinrici, König, Weiss, Bultmann, Windisch, and Bullinger.13 "Since this outpouring at the turn of the century, the rhetoric of the New Testament has received only limited treatment."14

The decline in rhetorical studies may have been caused by the limited usefulness of stylistic studies. Wuellner writes, "With the rise of historical (= scientific or modern) criticism, rhetoric became marginalised to the point of near extinction or at least increasing irrelevance, in contrast to its fifteen hundred year-long central importance to exegesis."15 Lundbom gives the same assessment: "Style, that darling of the Renaissance, dominated rhetorical instruction in other American colleges and universities through the end of the 19th century, with the result that by 1900 rhetoric found itself in sharp decline."16 Watson also: "New Testament studies became isolated from rhetoric"--perhaps because "rhetoric was truncated and had come to be understood as mere style or ornament."17

However, Lundbom notes there were the seeds of revival among secular scholars:

The beginnings of [modern] rhetorical criticism belong to a revival of classical rhetoric that took place in American colleges and universities between 1900 and 1925, a time, ironically enough, when an older rhetorical movement in many of the same institutions had only recently died out.... Cornell in the 1920s was the center of this new interest in classical rhetoric and became the place where rhetorical criticism was born.... It was Herbert Wichelns' highly influential essay, ‘The Literary Criticism of Oratory,' [1925] which defined ‘rhetorical criticism' and mapped out its agenda.... Wichelns was after a speech's persuasive quality.18

This eventually filtered into biblical studies through James Muilenburg, an OT scholar who had some background in classics and literature.19


After several decades of neglect among biblical scholars, rhetorical criticism received some revivifying publicity in 1968, when Muilenburg described the need for it and named the discipline in his SBL presidential address.20 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, particularly for the OT, and other scholars joined in. Rhetorical studies for the NT were stimulated especially by H. D. Betz with a lecture on Galatians in 1974 followed by a commentary in 1979.21

However, what Muilenburg called rhetorical criticism was not exactly the same as what secular literary critics called rhetorical criticism,22 and when biblical scholars became interested in "rhetorical criticism," some did not limit themselves to Muilenburg's definition.

Muilenburg began by praising form criticism, which had been pioneered by Hermann Gunkel. He described what Gunkel had done: "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."23 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. Muilenburg said:

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.24

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, the way that it deviates from the "form." After the form has been determined, "there still remains the task of discerning the actuality of the particular text."25 Roy 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."26

Muilenburg noted some 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)."27 He noted that ancient scholars such as Jerome and the rabbis were often attentive "with matters of style."28 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.29

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,30 nor did he explain why he chose the term rhetoric. This was a problem, for the word rhetoric could include more than structural matters. Aristotle had defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion."31 As we will see below, this interest in persuasion was taken up by some modern 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 often on stylistics

Many rhetorical critics focus on stylistics. Some of them object to this characterization, so I will provide some evidence for it from my own observations and the opinions of other scholars. Howard writes, "Rhetorical criticism has tended to be primarily a literary concern, with emphasis upon stylistics."32 Kennedy says, "To many biblical scholars rhetoric probably means style."33 Even among secular rhetorical studies, this has often been true. In the Middle Ages, for example, "rhetoricians amassed lengthy lists of stylistic devices...which led to a view of rhetoric as chiefly ornamental."34 This led to a reduced interest in rhetoric, since it was not logical or scientific.35

Nevertheless, many biblical critics limited their rhetorical criticism to stylistic concerns. Muilenburg had set an agenda and an example that focused on style. In his speech, he mentioned three concerns: composition, structure, and literary devices. 36 In his commentary on Isaiah, he demonstrated a concern for structure and literary devices.37 Following are some typical comments that show his insight and 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.... The style is measured, quiet, terse, pregnant, and concentrated.... It is characteristic of the poet to end his poems with brief quotations.38

However, Muilenburg did not comment on how the stylistic devices supported the purpose of the passage. His analysis of style and his analysis of meaning rarely met.

Similarly, Kenneth Kuntz gives a detailed commentary on the stylistic features of Isaiah 51:1-16,39 but it seems to me that his analysis is a series of disconnected observations. At each verse, he notes the literary devices, then goes to the next verse. He says little about how these devices fit together, how they would help the original readers, or how they help us understand the passage. They remain a series of stylistic observations--a list of devices without much attention to how one verse relates to another to achieve a purpose.40

Need more than stylistics

Lundbom says, "Sad to say, much current rhetorical criticism of the Bible is...simply random and subjective reflections producing little or no yield."41 Patricia Tull says, "As important as stylistic analysis is for attending to particulars, it does not sufficiently account for all that texts do and come to mean."42 Wuellner notes the tendency of rhetorical critics to have a "preoccupation with biblical stylistics which has remained for centuries formalized, and functionless, and contextless."43 Howard writes, "Too often the analysis is merely a cataloguing of the ‘rhetorical devices' found in a text"--without asking what those devices are for. "As such, it is merely concerned with stylistics."44 Fox gives an illustration of people who liked style but ignored meaning:

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.45

The people liked Ezekiel's style, but were neglecting his message. Stylistic critics today may be neglecting the message in a different way--overlooking the purpose of 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."46

Function is sometimes neglected in NT rhetorical studies, too. Olbricht comments that structural studies "have not been strong on relating rhetorical observations to Paul's theology so as to ascertain why he proceeded as he did. Only to a modest extent have these studies helped us to comprehend better the text's power."47 Eugene Botha writes, "A mere listing or enumeration of different features contributes very little to understanding a particular document or passage."48 He comments on one scholar's work, "How the identification of this feature enhances the exegesis is, unfortunately, not indicated."49 Anderson writes, "It is very easy to label a particular passage or argument...by some Greek technical term, but unless rhetorical theory enables us to say something relevant concerning its use and function at that point, our analysis is pretty worthless.... It is the effect of such figures, both stylistically and argumentatively, that is important."50

Wuellner laments the tendency of rhetorical criticism to be reduced to stylistics and 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."51 Howard writes, "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."52 Jeffrey Arthurs writes, "In general... Muilenburg's brand of ‘rhetorical' criticism should be included with the literary criticisms."53

Whether or not rhetorical critics intend to concentrate on stylistics, many people54 perceive from the results that the focus has been stylistics--a description of literary features, verse by verse. Patrick and Scult characterize Muilenburg's paper as a call "for revival of an older form of analysis, frequently termed ‘stylistic criticism.'"55 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.'"56

Like morphology and grammar, literary devices are worth studying, but they are not an end in themselves--they are a means to an end.57 Yehoshua 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."58 Biblical studies normally go beyond structural descriptions to explore function and meaning. It is not wrong to appreciate the aesthetics of poetry for its own sake, but I want to go further--I want to know what the text is trying to accomplish. Stylistics has reached for me the point that form criticism had for Muilenburg: It is inadequate for the questions that I bring to the text--namely, what does it mean, and how does it convey that meaning? The text has a purpose, and a study of the text ought to try to understand the way it goes about that purpose.

Focus on function

Numerous rhetorical critics have noted the need for a consideration of function:

Lundbom lists four main characteristics of good rhetorical criticism: 1) 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." 4) It focuses on the audience, "beginning with the original audience."65

Kennedy, after extensive study of classical rhetoric, defines rhetoric as "that quality in discourse by which a speaker or writer seeks to accomplish his purposes." 66 Stylistic devices are to be viewed for how they contribute to that purpose. "If rhetorical criticism...is 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."67

However, 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."68 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. It is interested in the situation of the text for the sake of argumentation."69

Does the text have an intent? A text does not have unlimited meanings; it can be used to eliminate some readings as spurious or mistaken. Paul 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."70 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 reading that makes sense--and, he notes, "literary approaches...can be of considerable assistance in discovering" legitimate meanings.71

Noble's observations are correct, but do not distinguish between author and text. For many rhetorical analyses, a distinction is not essential, for the author is not known, and Thurén's approach is all that we can achieve. Often, our only information about the author is the text, so when we discuss the intent of the author, we are discussing the intent of the author as implied by the text. We have to assume that the text accurately reflects the intent of the author. We want to understand how the text achieves its purpose, and in order to do that we need to discern the goal or purpose or intent of the text.

Rhetorical criticism focuses our attention on the text, not the history of religious beliefs, not the use of traditional genres, not the redaction history of the text. Rather, it continually tells 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.72

The purpose: persuasion

Some rhetorical critics summarize the "purpose" of the text with the word persuasion: the author wants to persuade the readers of a truth or persuade them to do something. Wuellner goes so far as to say, "Rhetorical criticism comes into focus primarily on one issue: The text's potential to persuade."73 As noted earlier, Aristotle defined rhetoric as a study of methods of persuasion.74 Rhetorical criticism therefore studies how the text attempts to persuade the audience. In biblical books, the authors wanted the audience to believe what they were writing, and, often, to respond in certain ways. They used various methods to support that goal, to persuade the audience, and rhetorical criticism studies those methods. Tull writes that many biblical scholars "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."75

The study of the methods of persuasion is a legitimate interest for biblical scholars, and it should be called rhetoric, for that is it is called among secular literary critics. Indeed, rhetorical criticism should include a study of persuasion, for otherwise it would be literary analysis, without any need for or claim to the name "rhetorical."76 So from this point on, when I use the term rhetorical criticism, I mean a study that includes methods of persuasion and is not just a list of stylistic devices. Style is only one of several components of persuasion.77

The interest in persuasion involves a disciplined attempt to identify the major purpose and meaning of a passage--an essential aspect of biblical studies--and the thought that went into its formulation. Howard argues that critics need to give more attention to persuasion:

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.78

Howard writes that for most secular scholars of rhetoric, "the study of the means of persuasion" is "foundational."79 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."80 Watson writes, "Of particular note is the work of Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, La Nouvelle Rhétorique: Traité l'Argumentation [1958; ET 1969], which conceptualizes rhetoric as argumentation and persuasion (not just style)."81 Trible comments on the "new" rhetoric of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca: "This rhetoric actually revived the old rhetoric of Aristotelian thought; it focused on persuasion and its means."82

The interest in persuasion not only has classical and modern support, it is a broader concept that includes the discipline of 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 study the historical and sociological setting carefully. Philip Esler writes, "Context and rhetoric are closely linked, since the speaker (or writer) must carefully align his or her communication with the nature and setting of the problem at hand to have any hope of persuading the audience to a particular point of view."83 This brings us to another concern of rhetorical criticism -- the audience. Persuasion involves an effect on an audience.

Effect on the audience

Watson's description of rhetorical criticism ends with a concern for the significance of the rhetorical devices--especially their effect on the audience: "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."84 Alexandre says that that scholars "who have devoted themselves to the theory of rhetoric in modern times...emphasize above all the concept of audience."85 Lundbom writes that rhetorical criticism focuses on the audience, "beginning with the original audience and extending up to current audiences."86 Thurén adds this important qualification: "Although this method does not necessarily provide us with accurate historical facts about the addressees, the author's picture of them is certainly reflected in the way he operates in the text."87

Thomas Sloan states, "The mark of modern rhetoric...is its shift of focus to the auditor or reader.... A concern for audience, for intention, and for structure is...the mark of modern rhetoric."88 Herbert Wichelns, a secular literary critic, distinguishes literary and rhetorical criticism: Literary criticism focuses on ahistorical features of the text, whereas rhetorical criticism "requires a description of the speaker's audience.... The effect of the discourse on its immediate hearers is not to be ignored."89 He says that rhetorical criticism "is not concerned 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."90 This definition focuses on author intent; in contrast, 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.91

Hauser gives a 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.92

Unlike reader-response criticism, which reports the response of modern readers, rhetorical criticism focuses on the effect on ancient readers. 93 Thus rhetorical criticism must always be historically rooted, with careful attention to the historical setting and the genre.94 It should not be separated from historical and form criticism.95 When we try to understand how the text would have affected the ancient audience, we must work to understand that ancient audience.96 Classen notes that exegetes should not only try to find out the author's background and intent, but also "the circumstances of the addressees, their situation, their problems and their feelings."97 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.98 We include psychological and sociological factors in the way the message is presented as well as how it might be received. As Kennedy notes, rhetorical criticism attempts to discern how a work "would be perceived by an audience of near contemporaries."99 Watson says, "It is a historical enterprise standing between ahistorical literary criticism and historical criticism."100

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."101 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."102 The modern interpreter must even consider the kinds of literature and ideas the audience had been exposed to before, whether supporting or conflicting. The original audience was sometimes critical and difficult to persuade.103 Indeed, an attempt to persuade usually implies some resistance. Fox notes that a study of effectiveness must 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.104

Fox 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."105 That is, the analysis should focus on the analysis, not the raw data. The critic must not only identify parallelism, repetitions, chiasms, 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 some subjectivity.106

Some critics speak of the intent of the author or text, some of persuasion, some of effect on the audience. Though there are differences in these foci, they overlap a great deal. There may be significant differences between an author's intent and the audience's response (e.g., the author wanted the people to repent, but they did not repent), but it is through an analysis of the structure, strategy and style of the text that we can speculate what the author was hoping for and whether it was achieved.

There is often substantial overlap between the apparent intention of the text and the probable effect on the audience, so an analysis that focuses one can also suggest much about the other. In a few 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 an important and obvious objection is not addressed."107 We might even judge that an argument would be persuasive for one audience but not another, and in such cases we generally conclude that the text was not designed for the more resistant group. Such conclusions must be based on the evidence of the text and its probable historical context. In most cases (since we are working with implied authors and implied audiences) we have to assume that the author was competently addressing the concerns of the audience.


As recently as 1999, Watson notes that "the field is currently occupied with the refinement of methodology."108 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."109 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."110

Kennedy offered a methodology based on classical rhetoric.111 Black goes so far as to say, "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."112 However, other scholars have promoted other "rhetorical" perspectives, each with its own methods. Trible lists five perspectives for rhetoric: the traditional focus on persuasion, the sociological perspective, the experiential, the dramaturgical, and the postmodern.113 However, the last three "methods" are so poorly defined that they do not offer much hope for reproducible results. As Black says, "In most of these studies, the interpretive tactics and exegetical implications have not yet come completely into focus."114 I will examine the more "traditional" approach to rhetorical criticism, starting with Kennedy, and then look at a sociological approach.

Kennedy describes five stages of analysis. The first stage is defining the rhetorical unit, the amount of text to be studied.115 This may be an entire book of the Bible, or a section within a book. Lundbom notes that "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."116

Rhetorical criticism generally treats the text as we have it, rather than separating it into hypothetical sources, fragments, and interpolations.117 Classen writes, "The most obvious approach seems to be always to regard a text as a unit, assuming that it has a unity, and only when this turns out to be impossible to try to explain why this seems impossible and for which reasons several elements seem to have been put together or why something is missing."118 As Classen notes, rhetorical criticism can be applied to a hypothetical reconstruction. For example, if we suspect a verse to be a later interpolation, we could analyze the way the passage communicates without it, and then with it. If the argument seems to work better without it than with it, then rhetorical criticism could be used in support of judgments about redaction. This would necessitate a concerted effort to understand the passage with the verse, as well as without. As an example of rhetorical criticism being used to investigate literary history, Watson uses it to evaluate the literary dependence between Jude and 2 Peter.119 Regardless of its redaction history, however, the end result of a text's history is still a text, notes Paul Beauchamp, and it "begs to be treated as a finished product."120

Kennedy's second stage of rhetorical criticism is discerning the rhetorical situation. This includes the cause of the text, the reason it was written, 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. The "situation" includes other explanations of the same events, other answers to the same questions, etc. 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." 121

Third, "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."122 Tull notes that the attempt to persuade usually implies the existence of some resistance, i.e., a rhetorical problem, but it is often a challenge to ascertain what the problem was.123

The fourth 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."124

The fifth step is putting it all together--estimating the effectiveness of the passage for the situation and purpose.125 This step also serves to put the pieces into a cohesive whole, rather than leaving them as fragments or disconnected steps of a methodology. For example, the critic may ask, 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? As Kennedy acknowledges, this may entail a revision of earlier steps: "These stages are set forth...as a sequence, but it is better to view them as a circular process, for the detailed analysis of later stages may in fact reveal aspects of the rhetorical problem or a definition of the species or stasis which was not obvious on first approaching a passage."126

To summarize, Kennedy describes these steps:

  1. Determine the rhetorical unit

  2. Define the rhetorical situation

  3. Describe the rhetorical problem, if any

  4. Consider the arrangement of material

  5. Review the success of the passage in meeting the situation.

Watson, while claiming to reproduce Kennedy's steps, states them somewhat differently:

  1. Determine the rhetorical unit

  2. Analyze the rhetorical situation

  3. Determine the species of rhetoric, the question, and the stasis

  4. Analyze invention, arrangement, and style

  5. Evaluate rhetorical effectiveness.127

In most biblical literature, we can discern the situation only through the text, so for practical purposes we must determine the primary question or purpose of the text before we can describe the situation. Lauri Thurén recognizes this when he includes the goal of the text within the rhetorical situation.128 His next concern is to analyze "the means utilized in a text in order to achieve the goal of the discourse. These means include both the total strategy of the text and the techniques used to serve this strategy"--that is, the invention of arguments, their arrangement, and how stylistic devices help achieve the goal.129 In effect, Thurén presents a two-step method: determine the goal, and analyze the method of achieving that goal.130 He later describes a more detailed five-step method, which improves upon Kennedy and Watson:

  1. Define the rhetorical unit. "If we begin by defining the units, such an analysis can only be preliminary and suggestive."131

  2. Identify the rhetorical situation. "The first step in identifying the rhetorical situation of a text is to determine into which rhetorical genus the text can be classified.... We are actually surveying what type of response from the audience the text is designed to produce.... The forensic genre is used when the speaker wants to judge past events, the deliberative genre when he wants to elicit a decision about some expedient action to be taken in the near future, and the epideictic to consolidate or diminish assent to some value, to praise or blame something."132 One should also ascertain the status (stasis), or the main issue of the text, the main angle of the argument. But the most important part of the rhetorical situation, Thurén says, "is to create a picture of the audience which is implied in the text, to distinguish its premises and expectations."133

  3. Examine the rhetorical disposition, "discerning different parts of the text and identifying their envisioned convincing and persuasive effects." This is not just a study of the structure, Thurén cautions, for it must acknowledge that the rhetorical situation changes from one part of the text to another, since the text itself is affecting the audience. "The author's appeal modifies the implies addressees' thoughts."134 The introduction affects the audience's attitude toward the author, the explanation of one point affects the way that another will be received, etc. "At the end of the text the author has, as a result of his argumentation, a different implied audience in front of him."135 Because of the changing situation, "the function of the techniques and arguments is largely determined by their position in the text."

  4. Analyze the rhetorical devices and style, asking "the function of particular devices of style in their interactive context, what attitudes they should evoke in the audience, how do they contribute to the interaction desired by the author."136 These techniques then help us see the author's view of the situation.

  5. Last, consider the synchronic whole, "to what degree it meets, as a unit, the rhetorical exigency."137

Based on Kennedy, Watson, and Thurén, I propose the following steps, viewing them as a circular process in which later steps may necessitate revision of earlier conclusions:

1. Determine the rhetorical unit: What is the text?138

2. Determine the question: What is the text trying to communicate?139 How is it attempting to influence the audience?

3. Determine the situation: How did the original setting aid or hinder the message? Where did the author and audience agree and disagree?

4. Determine the strategy

a. Invention: What arguments are used, and what assumptions do they make?

b. Arrangement: What is the structure, and the species of rhetoric?140

c. Style: What literary devices are used, and how do they contribute to the purpose of the text?

5. Evaluate the effectiveness of the strategy for the situation.

Vernon Robbins has described a different methodology for "socio-rhetorical criticism," focusing on five aspects of the text: "(a) inner texture; (b) inter-texture; (c) social and cultural texture; (d) ideological texture; and (e) sacred texture."141 Inner texture, he explains, involves "the repetition of particular words, the creation of beginnings and endings, alternation of speech and storytelling, particular ways in which the words present arguments, and the particular ‘feel' or aesthetic of the text"142--in other words, stylistic matters. Under inter-texture, Robbins includes the rhetorical situation, including the text's references to previous literature and language, cultural customs and values, and history. Social and cultural texture "concerns the capacities of the text to support social reform, withdrawal, or opposition and to evoke cultural perceptions of dominance, subordinance, difference, or exclusion."143 This would include the text's attempts to persuade or influence the audience. Ideological texture involves the way that the author and readers "position themselves in relation to other individuals and groups.144 This would overlap what Robbins calls the social texture, and would overlap as well with the sacred texture, which asks how humans relate with the divine.

Robbins presents some helpful questions for clarifying the setting and purpose of a text, but this falls short of a methodology of rhetorical criticism.145 Although in theory one might examine stylistic details to ascertain the purpose of a text, in actual practice we usually have a provisional translation and understanding long before we probe the details that help convey the message. It is with this preliminary understanding that we can explore the sociological questions that Robbins highlights--e.g., Is the text attempting to shape culture, ideology, and/or the readers' relationship with the divine? This question is another way of asking how the text is attempting to influence or persuade the audience, and in some cases it can shed light on the purpose of the text. Likewise, a consideration of ideology and group membership may be important in understanding the social dynamics that helped or hindered the communicative purpose.

The goal of rhetorical criticism is not to end with an ideology of the author and audience (as interesting and useful as that may be), but to focus on the text, particularly the way the text achieves its purpose within its situation. Some circularity is inevitable, for the text is our window into the situation, and then that hypothetical situation is used as the basis for better understanding how the text would work in such a situation. It is after we grasp the complexity of the situation (including its sociological dynamics) that we can better appreciate the way that stylistic details contribute to the message. For that reason I prefer the sequence of steps outlined on page 31, while retaining Robbins' concerns as helpful supplementary considerations.

The importance of classical rhetoric

Thurén identifies two methodological questions that should be addressed: "A typical view of rhetorics contains two types of obstacle which prevent an effective use of rhetorical criticism: rhetorics is seen either as pure stylistics, whether positively or pejoratively understood, or as strictly bound to Greco-Roman school rhetoric."146 I have already argued that rhetorical criticism should analyze the methods of persuasion, not just list stylistic devices, and I have described a methodology appropriate for that purpose. Now I will address whether rhetorical criticism of the NT should use modern rhetorical approaches, or whether it should use only the rhetorical theories of the ancient world.

Watson asks, "Can the canons of Greco-Roman rhetoric be used to interpret all genres which intend to persuade?"147 Some interpreters, without necessarily making this claim, nevertheless evaluate NT materials with classical patterns as if that is the only appropriate method. Black writes that some scholars tend "to press oracles or letters into elaborate rhetorical schemes of organization (from proem to epilogos),"148 as if those were the only correct way to analyze them. However, 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.149

However, Hellenistic culture was not the only influence on NT writers; their methods of explanation and exhortation may also be influenced by ancient Hebrew patterns.150 Moreover, even if the NT writers had studied Greek rhetoric, they would not necessarily be using those patterns in the letters they wrote. Just as Hebrew writers modified Hebrew forms/genres to suit their purposes, and Greek writers adapted rhetorical forms,151 so the biblical writers could adapt basic patterns to suit their 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."152 Therefore Watson is correct when he writes, "Restrictive reliance upon the rhetorical handbooks can lead to an imbalanced view of the New Testament documents."153 Olbricht agrees: "Texts must be scrutinized for their own distinctive features and means of proof rather than forced into a formalized straight jacket of ancient rhetoric."154

But in favor of Greco-Roman rhetoric, 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 categories 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.... In understanding how their rhetoric worked we have little choice but to employ the concepts and terms of the Greeks."155

In other words, people in all cultures seek to persuade in one way or another, but 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 structures and figures of speech.

However, we must be open to the possibility that writers used devices and approaches that have no Greek counterparts. It is possible to analyze everything with the classical Greek model, but it is also possible that other models may be even better. 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 more about persuasion since the ancients.

Anderson argues that we could build on the work of Aristotle, "but would we not then be better off refining that system and using the benefits of modern research in creating a universal grammar of rhetoric? Is this not in fact what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca have attempted in their New Rhetoric? This would seem to be a much better universal tool than a Greek ‘system' written c. 2000 years ago."156 Classen writes, "There is no good reason to maintain that a text could and should be examined only according to categories known (or possibly known) to the author concerned."157 Übelacker is of the opinion that the Greco-Roman handbooks should not be used as the standard by which NT writers are to be judged.158 Anderson concludes: "Analysis of argumentative patterns is probably better approached via modern rhetorical theory. Modern rhetorical textbooks will often provide a better system for analysing argumentative patterns that those of ancient rhetorical theory."159

Classical models were designed primarily for judicial situations, legislative deliberation, and public ceremonies. They were not designed to cover didactic occasions160 (such as the lectures in which rhetoric was taught), religious exhortations,161 or letters.162 Stanley Stowers writes, "Letter writing remained only on the fringes of formal rhetorical education throughout antiquity. It was never integrated into the rhetorical systems and thus does not appear in the standard handbooks. This means there were never any detailed systematic rules for letters."163 Stanley Porter says, "There is little if any theoretical justification in the ancient handbooks for application of the formal categories of the species and arrangement of rhetoric to the writing and analysis of the Pauline letters."164 Philip Esler concludes that "the lack of a formal relationship between rhetoric and epistolography renders it an exercise of dubious value to enquire whether Galatians is judicial per se...or deliberative per se."165 These categories were not designed to fit all letters.

Since the ancient manuals of rhetoric were not designed for analyzing letters or religious writings, it does not make sense to insist that Greco-Roman rhetoric be the only or even the primary pattern for rhetorical criticism. The fact that it can be useful does not mean that it is the most useful analytical tool. Robert Jewett writes, "I believe that the New Rhetoric and closely associated linguistic theories offer a more comprehensive grasp of epistolary communication."166 Olbricht says, "We are helped little by simply superimposing the categories of classical rhetoric upon these documents."167 Although some methods of persuasion may remain the same, we should also expect to find some differences when we look at other speaking situations and written communication, such as letters or narratives. The rhetoric of religion is also different than the rhetoric of the courtroom.168 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, especially 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.169

The classical writers (who were writing manuals for speakers) focused on the speaker, not the audience's perceptions. Anderson identifies this as a methodological problem when he notes that the rhetorical "treatises were written in order to aid an orator in the preparation of speeches, and were not designed as an analytical tool for speeches already written."170 Thurén notes that "ancient rhetoric per se offers no method for analyzing a discourse; it was designed to produce it. Modern rhetorics, on the other hand, while adopting some renewed insights from ancient rhetoric, has an objective which is more descriptive and analytical.... [It] has a more adequate perception of the discourse itself, and explains many features of a discourse in more accurate terms."171 Further, the classical rhetors overlooked some techniques--for example, they did not analyze irony.172 So we cannot assume that classical models provide a complete system. They do not answer all our questions, even though they are a useful starting point.

Anderson identifies some further problems with using ancient rhetoric: "A fundamental question concerns the most appropriate sources for determining the kind of school rhetoric taught in the first century AD.... It is important to clearly distinguish between the rhetorical theory of philosophers and school rhetoric. In this respect, for example, it will be shown that a treatise such as Aristotle's is not a helpful source for our purposes."173 Thurén writes, "Aristotle's theses cannot be used as a description of the mainstream ancient way of reasoning. On the contrary, he acquired his reputation by presenting novel and radical opinions."174 Wuellner notes, "There never existed a uniform or unified system of classical rhetoric.... ‘Classical' rhetoric and its legacy consisted of a wide diversity of theories and practices."175 Anderson lists seven ways in which Aristotle's work does not describe first-century practice.176 Nevertheless, some rhetorical critics have used the Aristotelian model as the model for rhetorical criticism. This mistake would not be made if critics used modern as well as classical rhetoric.

In summary, I argue that NT rhetorical criticism should not limit itself to the patterns of ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric, even though Greco-Roman rhetoric may be useful. Rather, the insights of modern rhetorical theorists may also be used to gain an understanding of how a text attempts to meet its rhetorical situation. 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.


An important tool of modern rhetorical criticism is argumentation theory. The New Rhetoric, the influential book of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, has the subtitle "A Treatise on Argumentation." A less influential but helpful theory of argumentation is that of Stephen Toulmin.177 Anderson goes so far as to say that NT rhetorical scholars "have tended to emphasise rhetoric in terms of argumentation."178 This focus on the rational component of persuasion may be an attempt to counterbalance the tendency of some rhetorical critics to concentrate on style.179

Aristotle wrote that there are three components of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos,180 which correspond to 1) the reputation of the speaker, or the way in which the audience's attitude toward the speaker can change during the message, 2) the mood of the audience, and the way that the speaker can change the mood during the message, and 3) the rational part of the message, the facts and implications that are brought out in the message, which would also take into consideration the facts (or misunderstandings) the audience had before the message began. Thus part of a persuasive message (often the introduction) might be only tangentially related to the main purpose--it is designed instead to increase the audience's confidence in the speaker, and thus improve their willingness to listen to the discussion of the main issue. Vocabulary and style may influence audience emotions toward the author and the topic. Alan Mitchell says, "Every rhetorical venture seeks to persuade the audience on the basis of something more than mere logic.... The speaker is persuasive...because in the meeting between speaker and audience there is a recognition of truth, compelling as much for the way the speaker articulates it as for what is said."181

Argumentation theory, although it does not leave emotion completely out of the picture, focuses on the rational part of the message.182 Argumentation theory acknowledges that people rarely use formal logic in making day-to-day decisions, but there is a process of presenting and evaluating data. Compier writes: "In human affairs decisions must usually be made before all the facts are in, in an inescapable and perpetual state of imperfect knowledge. Rhetoric offers a technique by which persons can argue their way toward mutually agreed upon course of action based on probability, not certainty, and ‘informed opinion,' not ‘scientific demonstration.'"183 Data is given, claims are made, warrants may be given as rationale, qualifications may be noted, and uncertainties acknowledged.184 Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca list numerous methods that people use to support their conclusions: the rule of justice, arguments by comparison, the argument of direction, argument from authority, illustration, model, analogy, and many others.185

Arguments usually do not follow rigorous logic; they appeal to experience, generalities and probabilities. They do not even state all the facts. Compier writes, "Any writer assumes that his or her readers could read between the lines; the author did not need to state all the presuppositions and implicit knowledge held in common with contemporary readers."186 For that reason, an argument that is effective with one audience is not necessarily effective with another, since a different audience may have different presuppositions and knowledge. Argumentation theory must consequently consider the audience as an essential component of the argument--it is the audience that must supply part of the data and often supply the rationale between data and conclusions.187 Alexandre writes that rhetorical critics "emphasize above all the concept of audience, since they realize that rhetorical argumentation, in order to be effective, not only implies principles and premises accepted by the listener but must also adapt itself to the listener and his already-existing convictions."188

Thurén writes, "One of the most fruitful, but also difficult tasks, is to reveal hidden, implicit elements in an argumentative structure.... We shall ask which basic information he omits, supposing that the addressees are familiar with it, and furthermore, what kind of statements he chooses as a starting-point for his argumentation taking their agreement for granted."189 If the argument would be valid only if a particular concept is included, then the rhetorical critic generally assumes that the audience had that concept.190 An audience with that concept is the audience implied by the text. The author may have been completely mistaken, but the author is likely to know the audience better than the modern critic does. In this way, argumentation theory can help us understand the audience.

Argumentation theory focuses on the logic of an argument, but this should not be the only tool of rhetorical criticism, just as stylistics should not be its only approach. Persuasion uses both logic and emotion--not only objective arguments but also subjective appeals to ethos and pathos. Since people are influenced by their emotions, any study of "the means of persuasion" must include the speaker's attempts to influence the audience's emotions. Even if the critic thinks that these attempts are improper, substandard, or unethical, they should be included in any study of the persuasive force of a message. As we look at style, structure, and even logic, we must remain aware of the nonrational dimensions of persuasion.191 This may even help us in contemporary communications.192 Aristotle's trio of ethos, pathos, and logos remains a helpful grid for modern rhetorical critics.

Rhetorical criticism of Hebrews

Rhetorical criticism has been applied to Hebrews in a modest number of studies. Some are studies of specific sections,193 but others are of the entire work. Notable among the latter are dissertations by Daniel Buck and Ronald Davis, commentaries by David DeSilva and Craig Koester, and monographs by Paolo Garuti, George Guthrie, Keijo Nissilä, and Walter Übelacker.194 Although several older works made some use of Greek rhetorical terms,195 the works I cite above use rhetoric as an analytic tool throughout Hebrews. Numerous smaller studies have also been published.196

I will explore the rhetoric of Hebrews in more detail in a later study. Here, I want to address a preliminary matter--the classification of Hebrews into a rhetorical genre. Aristotle described three categories of speech: the judicial, the deliberative, and the epideictic. In general, these ask the audience to (respectively) decide about what someone else did in the past, decide what the audience is to do in the future, and praise a person or reinforce a value that the audience currently holds.197 The genre or purpose often influences the style. Watson writes: "Epideictic usually employs amplification to stir emotion rather than arguments to effect proof. Deliberative chiefly relies upon ethos and examples and comparison of examples; whereas judicial is characterized by the use of enthymeme."198 How has Hebrews been evaluated in these categories?

Watson reports that "Von Soden (1899: 11) proposed that Hebrews was judicial rhetoric," but this opinion has been abandoned.199 Some commentators classify Hebrews as epideictic, and some as deliberative. This reflects the commentators' view on the situation and purpose of Hebrews: If the audience is seen as simply apathetic and lethargic, then Hebrews is epideictic, designed to strengthen their faith and keep them where they are. If the audience is drifting away and they need to change their behavior, then Hebrews is judged to be deliberative. Pfitzner states that "Hebrews conforms more closely to epideictic oratory."200 Seid "classifies Hebrews as a written speech of encomium (epideictic rhetoric) belonging to the genre of synkrisis."201 Aune also calls Hebrews epideictic.202 However, "Nissilä...classifies Hebrews as a speech conforming to the conventions of ancient deliberative rhetoric.... Übelacker...also argues that Hebrews is deliberative rhetoric."203 Lindars also categorizes Hebrews as deliberative.204

Several commentators choose both epideictic and deliberative. "Attridge argues that Hebrews is mainly an epideictic oration with some deliberative elements.... The purpose of Hebrews is to keep the audience faithful to the Jesus tradition and values and commitments."205 "DeSilva...classifies the letter as deliberative rhetoric which relies upon epideictic rhetoric. Which species of rhetoric dominates depends in part upon the hearer."206 Thurén says, "Rhetorically the text can be divided into epideictic and deliberative passages."207 Olbricht says: "Hebrews best conforms to the epideictic genre in its superstructure even though the body of the argument may be conceived as deliberative."208 Marie Isaacs writes, "Parts of its paraenetic sections could be classified as deliberative, since they are aimed at leading the readers to take some paths of action and to avoid others. In other respects, it conforms more closely to epideictic speech...in its exposition largely seeks to reinforce already established Christian convictions."209

This mixture of genres is not unusual. Rhetorica ad Herennium notes that epideictic "is only seldom employed by itself independently," but epideictic praise is often used in sections of judicial and deliberative speeches.210 Watson writes, "Quintilian makes it clear that the threefold division is arbitrary and there are numerous gradations of each of the three styles (12.10.66-68).... All three species of rhetoric rely on the others, each often temporarily using the other."211 Kennedy notes that "any one speech may involve deliberative, judicial, and epideictic elements."212 Some orators would deliberately use one genre to accomplish the purpose of a different genre.213 Black writes,

The distinction between judicial, deliberative, and epideictic discourse is not hard and fast. Quintilian (Inst. 3.4.16) admits that the lines between the different species of rhetoric are sometimes blurred: like judicial rhetoric, deliberative discourse often inquires about the past (ibid., 3.8.6), and both species are frequently colored by epideictic concerns (ibid., 3.7.28; 3.8.15). In both theory and practice, the identification of the species of rhetoric affords a relative, not an absolute, indication of the primary intentions of a speech."214

Several facts suggest that categorizing Hebrews into a rhetorical genre is an exercise of dubious value:

  • The three-part scheme was not designed to cover letters, didactic or religious messages.

  • The scheme was designed to guide the creation of messages, not to analyze the results.

  • Genres were flexible, often mixed, and could be used outside of their primary purpose.215

  • The rhetoric of Hebrews may be influenced by Jewish tradition as well as Greek styles.

  • The evident lack of agreement among scholars as to which genre Hebrews is.216

Lane concludes, "Hebrews cannot be forced into the mold of a classical speech."217 Guthrie says it well: "Hebrews is not easily categorized according to any one speech form of ancient Greek rhetoric.... While the speech forms in the classical handbooks were crafted in the judicial and political spheres, the book of Hebrews has the characteristics of the hellenistic synagogue homily. This form, while containing a wide range of rhetorical features described in the Greek handbooks, can not be forced into the mold of a classical speech. Rather, the author's means of argument follow the rhetorical and exegetical skills of the rabbis."218 And what Olbricht says about another letter applies as well to Hebrews: "Must we force 1 Thessalonians into one of the categories, regardless? In the spirit of Aristotle, I think not; rather, we should add a genre."219

Further, Kennedy admits, "In general, identification of genre is not a crucial factor in understanding how rhetoric actually works in units of the New Testament."220 The purpose of a written work must be ascertained before a genre can be assigned; hence the genre is a label at the end of a process, not a help toward anything else.221 Assigning a genre is a NT version of form criticism, which Muilenburg found inadequate. As Classen says, "A term alone does not really assist one in understanding the letter's intention or any of its details."222 Malina agrees: "To mark off a pattern still does not yield information about the meaning of the pattern."223 Watson concludes, "Making Hebrews conform to the typical elements of arrangement now seems forced.... There is a move beyond simplistic labeling of a New Testament letter as one of the three rhetorical species. It is recognized that these letters are mixed letters, that is, they use all three species of rhetoric."224

In summary, Hebrews should be analyzed on its own terms, not forced into a mold it may not fit. Rhetorical criticism, with its interest in argumentation and the persuasive influence of the text upon the audience, can help scholars investigate how a text communicates its message.