Beyond Greco-Roman Rhetorical Criticism

Rhetorical Criticism exists with the intention of describing and evaluating processes of communication. To date it has frequently been hampered, with respect to the New Testament, by assumptions, terms, and categories that do not exactly fit the New Testament documents. In this paper I will suggest ways of describing and evaluating the persuasive techniques of New Testament letters by paying attention to the distinctive environment in which they commonly arose. The documents of the New Testament arose in an environment in which Jesus was experienced and conceptualised as died-and-exalted Messiah and archetype. This experience-formed conceptualisation is evidenced in the arrangement and formulations of many New Testament letters, such that they might be characterised as exhibiting kerygmatic rhetoric. This is not to deny the adoption of Greco-Roman epistolary or rhetorical features in these letters; but rather to be attentive to the context in which such adoption or adaptation occurred: that of a cultural group decisively (and thus linguistically) transformed by the kerygma of Jesus Christ. In congruence with developments in linguistics and the study of discourse more broadly, this conception of New Testament rhetoric emphasises concept over form, and particularity rather than generality of sociocultural setting. It may be that this approach will provide useful questions and terminology for assessing the persuasion of both New Testament and early patristic writings – but especially those of Paul.