About: this paper was delivered to Professor Peter Rodgers at Fuller Theological Seminary during my final quarter for a self-directed study on Socio-Rhetorical Analysis.
Socio-rhetorical analysis is but one of a myriad of critical methods for studying Scripture. This method is itself the combination of two different methods: sociological analysis and rhetorical analysis. In order to understand what socio-rhetorical analysis is used for, it would help to first understand what make up its parts. We will briefly summarize both sociological and rhetorical analysis as two separate methods for interpreting the New Testament, so that we may have a good foundation for combining the two into one critical method. Concerning New Testament studies, we will look at what sociology and rhetorical studies are used for, and we will see what advantages and disadvantages each of them have. Then we will determine how to proceed further in this quest for introducing ourselves to socio-rhetorical analysis.
Sociological and Rhetorical Analyses
Sociological analysis is defined by John Elliott as the critical study of Scripture “through the combined exercise of the exegetical and sociological disciplines, their principles, theories, and techniques.1 Elliott continues, saying that the method is sociological because it incorporates the perspectives, presuppositions, practices, models, theories, and research of the discipline of sociology, but it is also exegetical because it focuses on biblical documents while utilizing all of the subdisciplines of exegesis to determine the meaning of the text.2 For Elliott, sociological analysis not only asks what a text historically said, but also how and why the text was created, how it was to function, and what its social impact was intended to be.3 Sociology, as well as the other social-sciences, presuppose that the New Testament is a product of historical, social, and cultural conditioning, with the result that we must recognize the social and cultural factors that played a part in the lives of the authors and readers of the New Testament.4 In other words, since the text of the New Testament was written, delivered, and understood by humans in a particular social setting, we must interpret it in light of its original contexts. With sociological analysis defined, we should determine how it is used.
According to Howard Kee, the broader category of social-scientific perspectives generally approach the New Testament with questions ranging from seven categories, which are as follows: boundary, authority, status and role, ritual, literary (with social implications), group function, and social construction of reality questions.5 Broadly speaking, sociological analysis operates at five interactive levels in studying the New Testament. First, sociological analysis studies the social setting of the New Testament. Second, it describes the sociological dynamics of the New Testament world, including the interactions between the various social structures that maintain the status quo or disrupt society and engender change. Third, it uses sociological models to help define and analyze the ways in which groups and individuals exist and function within the multifaceted sociological matrix of their world. Fourth, sociological analysis studies the text of the New Testament within the sociological context of the Christian communities in the Roman world of the first century. Finally, it attempts to maintain a careful distinction between the sociological horizon of the interpreter and that of the text.6 By employing the theories and research of sociology to the New Testament, sociological analysis can in fact serve a good function.
Sociology has a good and bad potential for New Testament interpretation. Sociology has the potential, along with the other social-sciences, such as psychology, social and cultural anthropology, to shed “new light on the world behind the text (the world of the author), the world within the text (the narrated world of characters, intentions, and events), and the world in front of the text (the world of the reader).”7 Social-scientific approaches in general contribute to New Testament criticism by focusing “on the way meaning is generated by social actors related to one another by a complex web of culturally-determined social systems and patterns of communication.”8 Social-scientific perspectives also help to fill in the gaps with historical criticism, so that, taken together, there is a much more holistic approach to understanding the literature.9 Social-scientific perspectives help to correct the natural tendency to only seek out the theological propositions of the literature, “abstracted somehow from their literary and historical setting.”10 Social-scientific approaches also help us to see how we read and interpret the text in light of our own social and cultural factors.11
Specifically, sociological analysis is helpful in several ways. Sociological criticism helps us to distinguish our own social matrix from that of the New Testament.12 Sociological criticism helps us in understanding the sociological dimension of language.13 Sociological criticism also helps us to see that both Scripture and Christian faith are not limited to a purely spiritual dimension, but rather, they are part of an intricate human social matrix.14 Sociological analysis can be helpful, but it does have the potential to be harmful as well.
In general, social-scientific approaches risk anachronism, imperialism, and secularism.15 Beyond these, sociological criticism also risks interpreting Scripture from a purely human point of reference.16 Sociological criticism also risks forcing evidence to fit sociological models.17 It should also be pointed out that sociological criticism could lead to reductionism, thus explaining away the reality of God’s presence, power, and purpose in the interpretation of Scripture.18
Sociological criticism can be a very helpful tool for interpreting the New Testament. So long as it does not lead to a reductionist, imperialistic, anachronistic, humanistic, un-scientific attitude or practice, it can aid interpreters by helping them to see the human dimension of Scripture.
Homer, Plato, and others had a hand in the formation of rhetoric, but it was Aristotle who systematized classical rhetoric and applied it to the arts and sciences.19 The combination of the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world with the presence of Rome came the standard institution of rhetoric for education in order to prepare “Roman citizens for advancement in public life.”20 The authors of the New Testament were undeniably born into a culture that was saturated with a strong rhetorical tradition.21 As a result, studying the New Testament with a keen eye on the rhetoric employed is helpful for understanding the argument and meaning of the text. Now that we understand how rhetoric applies to biblical studies, we should define rhetorical analysis as a discipline.
It is arguable that rhetorical criticism was originally defined, as taken from James Muilenburg’s 1968 presidential address to the Society of Biblical Literature, as the recovery of particularities of any given passage while paying special attention to the intention and historical context of the author and the readers along with the form and content of the text.22 Instead of defining rhetoric as “literary artistry,” George A. Kennedy defines it as “the disciplined art of persuasion as practiced and theorized by Greeks and Romans of the classical and Hellenistic periods.”23 In terms of the discipline, Kennedy contends that we should attempt to hear the biblical authors’ words as a Greek-speaking audience would have heard them, which involves an understanding of rhetoric, particularly those norms of rhetoric around the Mediterranean antiquity.24
Kennedy offers a six-step method for practicing rhetorical criticism. First, determine the rhetorical unit. Second, define the rhetorical situation—the persons, events, and relations that factor into pressuring a verbal response. Third, identify the primary rhetorical problem addressed by the discourse, either by determining the specific question at hand, the stasis, or by ascertaining the kind of judgment that the audience of the discourse is asked to render, whether it is judicial, deliberative, or epideictic. Fourth, consider the arrangement, the taxis, of the parts into a unified discourse, which, if it is judicial rhetoric, will have an elaborate arrangement. Fifth, analyze the invention, the crafting of arguments based on proofs, which are êthos, the persuasive power of the speaker’s authoritative character, pathos, the emotional responses generated among the listeners, and logos, the deductive or inductive arguments of the discourse itself, and style, the text’s choice of words and their formulation in “figures of speech” and “figures of thought,” of the discourse. Finally, evaluate the unit’s rhetorical effectiveness while reviewing the whole analysis.25
Rhetoric utilized various theories for developing its arguments. The following should be noted when practicing rhetorical analysis: the type of rhetorical argument, how the argument is progressed and presented, and the intention of the argument. Logical arguments could be inductive by use of paradigms or deductive by use of enthymemes, which are deductive arguments that omit either the major or minor premise in a syllogism, a full statement of a major premise, a minor premise and a conclusion in which the major or minor premises can be assumed by the speakers or writers; when enthymemes run from premise to conclusion, they are typically marked by signal words in Greek such as gar, ara, or oun; when enthymemes run from conclusion to premise, they are typically marked by the Greek word hoti.26 And what of the three types of rhetoric? What are they and what are they for? Forensic or judicial rhetoric
defends or accuses someone regarding past actions; deliberative speech exhorts or dissuades the audience regarding future actions; epideictic discourse affirms communal values by praise or blame in order to affect a present evaluation. These three rhetorical genres seek different kinds of response from the audience. Forensic: Is it just? Deliberative: Is it expedient? Epideictic: Is it praiseworthy?27
Part of the presentation of the arguments is the style. Style, the combination of diction and composition, was important for classical rhetoricians; metaphors, hyperboles, synecdoches, antitheses, chiasms, and rhetorical questions are all examples of the stylistic tools that could be used in rhetoric.28 Generally speaking, rhetorical speeches, whether forensic, deliberative, or epideictic, followed a particular structure.
A rhetorical speech consists of six parts. First, there is the introduction (exordium) where the character of the speaker is defined and the central issue is addressed. Second, there is the narration (narratio) where the events related to the central issue are narrated. Third, there is the proposition (propositio) where the central theses are summarized. Fourth, there is the confirmation (probation) where the logical arguments are presented. Fifth, there is the refutation (refutatio) where the arguments of the opponents are refuted. Finally, there is the conclusion (peroratio) where the basic points are restated and a sympathetic response is evoked. Depending on the kind of rhetoric being used, whether judicial, deliberative, or epideictic, this six-part structure may have a more simplified version.29 Now that we understand the basics of rhetoric and how it is studied and applied in New Testament criticism, we should consider the strengths and weaknesses of rhetorical analysis as a discipline.
Rhetorical analysis has positive and negative potential. Rhetorical criticism risks imposing its structures on a text that resists it, a method referred to as “cookie-cutter” criticism. However, it is also capable of illuminating the text of the New Testament afresh and challenging modern interpreters to apply itself in a manner similar to the early Christians.30
Both sociological analysis and rhetorical analysis are helpful for studying Scripture even though they both have potential risks. Both run the risk of forcing models and structures onto the text that simply do not belong there. But when done carefully and correctly, both forms can illuminate Scripture in a way that strict theological study cannot. Both help to demonstrate that Scripture is the product of both God’s inspiration and human’s participation.
Sociological analysis helps to show how Scripture is part of an intricate social matrix that must be taken into consideration for a more holistic interpretation. Rhetorical analysis helps to show how the authors of the New Testament logically crafted their arguments in order to present something intellectually stimulating and appealing for presenting the message of their faith. Taking the two together would create a very illuminating study of Scripture. Both the social factors involved for simply understanding the text and the rhetoric of the text itself would prove to be a very stimulating study.
From here, it will be important to study both forms of criticism in more detail. Sociological theories and models should be sought out, considered, and applied. Classical rhetoric manuals would also be helpful, such as that of Aristotle, for example. In other words, the next step will be to learn and apply the theories of sociology and rhetoric at an introductory level. Soon thereafter, we will be able to combine the two disciplines into one method and apply it to a portion of Scripture.
Barton, Stephen. “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives.” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation. Joel Green, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995. 61-7.
Black, Clifton. “Rhetorical Criticism.” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation. Joel Green, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995. 256-77.
Elliott, John. A Home for the Homeless: A sociological exegesis of 1 Peter, its situation and strategy. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981/London: SCM, 1982. 7-8. Quoted in Barton, Stephen, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation, Joel Green, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995. 61-7.
Hansen, G. “Rhetorical Criticism.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid, eds. Downers Grove, Illinois, and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1993. 822-6.
Kee, Howard. Knowing the Truth: A sociological approach to New Testament interpretation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989. 65-69. Quoted in Barton, Stephen, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation, Joel Green, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995. 61-7.
Mulholland, M. Robert. “Sociological Criticism.” Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on methods and issues. David Black and David Dockery, eds. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001. 170-86.
1 John Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A sociological exegesis of 1 Peter, its situation and strategy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981/London: SCM, 1982), 7-8, quoted in Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 68.
2 Elliott, A Home for the Homeless, 7-8, quoted in Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 68.
4 Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 68.
5 Howard Kee, Knowing the Truth: A sociological approach to New Testament interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 65-69, in Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 69.
6 M. Robert Mulholland, “Sociological Criticism,” Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on methods and issues, David Black and David Dockery, eds. (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001), 174-5.
7 Stephen Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation, Joel Green, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995), 67.
8 Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 69.
9 Ibid., 70-1.
10 Ibid., 71.
11 Ibid., 73.
12 Mulholland, “Sociological Criticism,” Interpreting the New Testament, 176.
13 Ibid., 177.
14 Ibid., 178.
15 Barton, “Historical Criticism and Social-Scientific Perspectives,” Hearing the New Testament, 74-6.
16 Mulholland, “Sociological Criticism,” Interpreting the New Testament, 178.
17 Ibid., 179.
18 Ibid., 179.
19 Clifton Black, “Rhetorical Criticism,” Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for interpretation, Joel Green, ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carlisle: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. and The Paternoster Press, 1995), 257.
20 Black, “Rhetorical Criticism,” Hearing the New Testament, 257.
22 Ibid., 259.
23 Ibid., 261.
25 Ibid., 261-2.
26 G. Hansen, “Rhetorical Criticism,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, and Daniel Reid, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois, and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 822.
27 Hansen, “Rhetorical Criticism,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 822-3.
28 Ibid., 823-4.
29 Ibid., 823.
30 Black, “Rhetorical Criticism,” Hearing the New Testament, 275-6.