New Testament Rhetoric

About: this paper was delivered to Professor Peter Rodgers at Fuller Theological Seminary during my final quarter for a self-directed study of Socio-Rhetorical Analysis.


If we are going to say that the authors of the New Testament were born into a region that was saturated with rhetoric, how much should we say the New Testament was influenced by Greek rhetoric? Was it more influenced by Greek rhetoric than Jewish rhetoric? What is Jewish rhetoric? These are questions we must consider if we are going to study the rhetoric of the New Testament, so that we might refrain from forcing a particular rhetorical structure upon the text that may or may not actually be present.

Rhetoric is simply the art of persuasion. Therefore, rhetoric is not only a Greek practice, but it is something that anyone uses when crafting an argument. Jewish authors would also practice rhetoric when writing the New Testament. However, did the Jewish authors use Greek arguments or Jewish arguments to persuade? We must also consider how the authors interpreted Scripture. How they interpreted Scripture would also impact how they formed their arguments. What we will find is that the Jewish authors of the New Testament used Jewish methods of interpreting Scripture, formulated their arguments around these interpretations, and followed generally accepted practices of Greek rhetoric, which they had been submersed in throughout their entire lives. We should now observe the various kinds of Jewish interpretation, which are as follows: targum; midrash; pesher; allegory; and typology.

Targums are Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Scriptures. (The correct plural form for targum is targumim; we will continue using targums to refer to the plural.) Targums were more than a simple translation. They were the result of a process in which the Hebrew Scriptures were “translated, paraphrased, and rewritten.” At least one targum has been found at Qumran, which demonstrates that targums existed as early as the first century BCE. Targums were conservative attempts at updating the text, answering questions raised by the text, or correcting the text.1 Targums were the product of translation and interpretation. One of the interpretive methods used by Jews was midrash.

Midrash is an interpretive method of inquiry, examination, or commentary. It is typically used to refer to rabbinic exegesis. It was the practice of the rabbis to attempt to update the teachings of Scripture by making them relevant and applicable to contemporary life, which was considered an appropriate and legitimate practice since Scripture is divine in character and could transcend time and culture. Midrash could be practiced in seven ways. First, whatever is true or applicable in a minimal way is surely applicable in an emphasized way (As Matt. 6:26 and Luke 12:24 demonstrate, Jesus notes that if God cares for the birds, then surely he cares for human beings.). Second, if similar words or phrases are present in both, then one passage of Scripture may be explained by another (As Mark 2:23-28 demonstrates, Jesus justified breaking the Sabbath just as David violated the law by eating consecrated bread in 1 Sam. 21:6.). Third, a principal rule could be constructed from a single passage (In Mark 12:26, Jesus noted that God, being the God of the living, when he says, “I am the God of Abraham,” in Exod. 3:14-15, is implying that Abraham would be raised from the dead, which also implies a general resurrection.). Fourth, a principal rule could be constructed from two passages of Scripture (In multiple places, such as Matt. 10:10 and Luke 10:7, it is understood from the commands to unmuzzle the ox from Deut. 25:4 and to share sacrifices with priests from 18:1-8 that those who preach are entitled to support.) Fifth, an argument can be made starting with something general that can move to a particular, or vice versa (In Mark 12:28-34, Jesus gives a general principle, that the greatest commandment is in fact to love the Lord with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, coming from Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18, respectively, which actually sums up all of the particular commandments of the Law.). Sixth, what can be stated from one text can also be stated in another text that is similar to the first (In Mark 14:62, Jesus implied that the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of God and will judge his enemies when he comes in the clouds as per Dan. 7:13-14, an implication based on Dan. 7:9, the Son of Man is to sit on one of the thrones that is set up before the Ancient of Days, and Ps. 110:1, the Messiah is to sit at God’s right hand.). Finally, instruction was held accountable to the context (As Matt. 19:4-8 notes, Jesus’ teaching against divorce placed Deut. 24:1-4 against the broader context of Scripture, so that the permission Moses gave for divorce was placed against the backdrop of God’s intention for marriage to go unbroken as seen in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.).2 Aside from these seven practices, there were two categories of midrash: halakah and haggadah.

Halakah is midrash that deals with legal rulings and therefore gives legal interpretation. The purpose of halakah is to place “an oral ‘fence’ around written Torah, making violation of it (written Torah) less likely.” Haggadah is midrash that refers to the interpretation of narrative; it is usually considered homiletical interpretation. Haggadah could be much more imaginative in order to fill in the gaps in Scripture for explaining any possible discrepancies, difficulties, or questions. Haggadah could not lead to legal rulings. As far as halakah is concerned, it was believed that all oral law was ultimately derived from Moses. The halakah that is in the Mishnah was likely already widespread during Jesus’ time due to oral transmission, so that nearly 200 years prior to its writing Jesus could have been quoting its halakah in one form or another, such as in Mark 2:16 (compare it with m. Demai 2:3) or Mark 3:1-6 (compare it with m. Shabb. 14:3-4).3

A kind of midrash called “proem” was used in the synagogue, and it appears to have been used in several places of the New Testament. Proem midrash typically started with the text for the day followed by a second text that opened the discourse. The opening text was then followed by an exposition that could contain additional Old Testament references, parables, or commentary that was linked to the initial texts with link-words. This exposition was then followed by a final text that usually repeated or alluded to the text for the day. The New Testament use of the proem midrash typically does not include the initial text from the Pentateuch, they often lack a second text, they often have a final text that does not allude to the initial text, and they generally have an eschatological orientation.4 Therefore, if we do see a proem midrash in the New Testament, we should not make too much of it; we should tentatively describe it as such and allow room for a better explanation if there is one.

Pesher was another kind of interpretive method that the Jews were familiar with. It is all about explaining the mysteries of Scripture. In pesher, the interpreter has the advantage of knowing things found in Scripture that the original author did not. It understands Scripture as being fulfilled throughout history.5

Allegory was yet another kind of interpretive method that the Jews were familiar with. Allegory extracted a symbolic meaning from Scripture, assuming that a deeper meaning could be found beyond the letter of the text. Although the interpreter is aware that Scripture occurs within history and has a literal meaning, the symbolism that the interpreter sees is brought to focus and emphasized.6

One other form of interpretation that the Jews utilized was typology. Typology is the practice of comparing Old and New Testament individuals and institutions. It shows patterns or figures present in the Old Testament that are paralleled, fulfilled, or transcended in the New; but typology does occur within the Old Testament itself, so it ought not be understood that it only occurs across the testaments. Note that typology is different than allegory. Allegory can ignore history whereas typology must embrace it.7

Between midrash and typology, these methods of interpretation are best summed up with these words:

Allegorization discovers morals and theological symbols and truths from various details of Scripture. Pesher seeks to unlock the prophetic mysteries hidden in Scripture. Midrash seeks to update Torah and clarify obscurities and problems in Scripture. And typology represents the effort to coordinate the past and present (and future) according to the major events, persons, and institutions of Scripture.8


Targums were available to the authors of the New Testament; the Septuagint was not the only translation that they had available. But thought patterns and interpretive methods among the Jews were also available. We must keep midrash, pesher, allegory, and typology in mind when analyzing the text of the New Testament, for the authors, being Jews, likely used any one of these when interpreting Scripture and making it relevant for the body of Christ. Their rhetoric would have been built around these methods. But would their rhetoric include other tools? What about Greek rhetorical features?

If Greek rhetoric was widespread, we should consider a few things. First, could rhetoric be written, or was it solely oral? Aristotle understood that rhetoric could be oral or written.9 Second, what was the style of rhetoric? The style was to be clear but not commonplace without appearing to be artificial.10 Metaphors and similes were to be used but with some caution.11 Aphorisms, riddles, paradoxes, jokes, word-plays, proverbs, and hyperbole are all possible tools for rhetorical style alongside of metaphors and similes.12 Third, what are the core features of rhetoric? Any rhetorical arrangement must have two things. First, it must have a statement of the case. Second, it must have a proof. It may also have an exordium and an epilogue, but it is not necessary. All the arrangement must have is a stated case and some proof.13 But what kind of proof are we referring to?

According to Aristotle, there are two kinds of logical proofs14, enthymemes and examples. Enthymemes are deductive while examples are inductive. Enthymemes can consist of probabilities or signs, and they can be demonstrative or refutative in nature. Signs can be necessary or unnecessary; if unnecessary, there is movement either from the particular to the universal or vice versa. In general, enthymemes are deductions based upon either general truths or special, topical truths.15 There are 28 topics for deductive, demonstrative enthymemes. These topics range from opposites, to definitions, to judgments, or to analogies.16 Enthymemes and examples were used to formulate an argument of three different kinds, either deliberative, forensic, or epideictic.

There are three kinds of rhetorical arguments: deliberative; forensic or judicial; and epideictic. Deliberative rhetoric attempts to exhort or dissuade, is focused on the future, and desires an expedient end (or harmful). Forensic rhetoric accuses or defends, but its focus is on the past while it desires justice (or injustice). Epideictic rhetoric attempts to praise or blame, focuses on the present, and looks upon the noble (or disgraceful).17 Both deliberative and forensic rhetoric require that the orator establish his or her own trustworthiness by means of practical wisdom, virtue, and goodwill (knowledge of the emotions).18

Now, did the authors of the New Testament employ the art of Greek rhetoric? Did these authors use one of the kinds of rhetorical arguments? Did they use these types of proofs? Are the New Testament documents constructed in such a way that we can legitimately say that the authors used a genuinely Greek rhetorical style? It appears that the answers to these questions are all, “Yes.”

The authors of the New Testament used Greek rhetorical features. Logical and qualitative proofs (progressions) are used throughout narrative discourse, for example, in Mark 15 to bring out the significance and meaning of the death of Jesus.19 According to George Kennedy, all three types of rhetoric are seen in the New Testament; the Sermon on the Mount is deliberative, Jesus’ speech and prayer in John 13-17 is epideictic, and 2nd Corinthians is forensic.20 Therefore, we can be certain that although the authors of the New Testament were Jewish and did utilize Jewish exegetical methods, they also used Greek rhetorical features when composing their documents. Why was this possible?

The Mediterranean world had been overtaken by Greek culture due to Alexander the Great. As a result, Jewish thought processes were influenced by Greek culture, which is evident in Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, and Josephus, a late-first century CE Jewish historian employed by the Romans. Because of this Hellenization, Greek was used as the language of the New Testament; in fact, some of the authors of the New Testament likely had some Greek education. Jews did study rhetoric. In fact, one of the most famous rhetoricians around the time of Christ was a Jew named Caecilius of Calacte. Therefore, a Jewish author could write a document using Jewish interpretive methods and Greek types of rhetoric during the first century CE.21

What do we have here? On the one hand, we have Jewish exegesis. These interpretive methods help us to see how the authors would have utilized, understood, and applied the Old Testament. They could use these interpretations when writing a document; therefore, these interpretations had an important role in formulating their arguments. On the other hand, we have Greek rhetoric. Whereas Jewish exegesis helps us to see how the authors interpreted the Old Testament, it in no way excludes Greek thought processes and rhetorical influences for the composition of the document. We can conclude that Jewish authors could compose documents according to Greek rhetoric and allow their interpretations of Scripture to function within that structure. Jewish exegesis could be a tool used for proof, for example, within the argument. Did the Jewish authors use the types listed by Aristotle? The authors of the New Testament probably did not use the classical features of rhetoric, but they would have been likely to use one of the kinds of rhetoric, especially since they were approaching a Greek audience, who, if the author wanted to be accepted, would have expected a well-constructed argument of the kind described by Aristotle, for example.22

When we read the New Testament, we should attempt to hear the words as the original Greek-speaking audience would have heard them.23 In so doing, we will need to analyze the argument of the text, which is the rhetoric. But because the authors of the New Testament were Jewish, we should also consider the fact that the documents were not solely influenced by Greek thought, but also, and perhaps primarily, by Jewish thought. However, the Jewish authors, when speaking to a Greek audience, would have had good cause to tailor their arguments in a Greek rhetorical fashion so as to gain their audience’s approval. Therefore, we can legitimately say that the documents of the New Testament were primarily influenced by Jewish interpretation and thought, but Greek rhetoric also had an impact on the composition of each document as well.










Aristotle. Art of Rhetoric. Translated by J. H. Freese. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006.


Ellis, E. Earle. “How the New Testament Uses the Old.” New Testament Interpretation: Essays on principles and methods. I. Howard Marshall, ed. Eugene, Oregon: Wift and Stock Publishers, 1977. 199-219.


Evans, Craig. “Jewish Exegesis.” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Kevin Vanhoozer, Craig Bartholomew, Daniel Treier, and N. T. Wright, eds. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 2005. 380-4.


Kennedy, George. New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London, England: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.


Robbins, Vernon. Exploring the Texture of Texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996.

1 Craig Evans, “Jewish Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Kevin Vanhoozer, Craig Bartholomew, Daniel Tereier, and N. T. Wright, eds. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 2005), 380

2 Evans, “Jewish Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 381-2.

3 Ibid., 382

4 E. Earle Ellis, “How the New Testament Uses the Old,” New Testament Interpretation: Essays on principles and methods, I. Howard Marshall, ed. (Eugene, Oregon: Wift and Stock Publishers, 1977), 203-6.

5 Evans, “Jewish Exegesis,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 383.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 382-3.

9 Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, translated by J. H. Freese, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2006), xlv.

10 Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, xliv-xlv.

11 Ibid., xlv.

12 Ibid., xlviii.

13 Ibid.

14 Logical proofs are not the only kind of proofs that are available in rhetoric. There are two basic levels of proofs—inartificial and artificial. Artificial proofs can be of three kinds—ethical, emotional, or logical (cf. Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, xxxvi).

15 Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, xxxvi-xxxvii, xliii.

16 Ibid., II. xxiii, 297-325.

17 Ibid., xxxvii.

18 Ibid., xl-xlii.

19 Vernon Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1996), 27.

20 George Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London, England: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 39-85. Chapter two is “Deliberative Rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount, The Sermon on the Plain, and the Rhetoric of Jesus” (39-72). Chapter three is “Epideictic Rhetoric: John 13-17” (73-85). Chapter four is “Judicial Rhetoric: Second Corinthians” (86-96).

21 Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, 8-11.

22 Ibid., 10.

23 Ibid.