Monday, August 16, 2010

Why Rhetorical Criticism Part VII: Rhetoric as a Tool

In this, my last post on why I think rhetorical criticism is a valuable tool for investigating NT texts, I will summarize my previous conclusions (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI) and discuss why an ancient audience would be sensitive to rhetorical devices.

At the outset, let me say that I do not think RC is "the" tool or magical key that will unlock all of the long hidden secrets of the NT.  RC is only one tool in the bag of the NT critic and does not mean that the critic should ignore other valuable tools, historical critical or otherwise.

In this series I have made the argument that an ancient audience would have been sensitive to the practice of classical rhetoric.

First I discussed the fact that NT texts have a historical location, they were written by a specific person, at a specific time, in a specific location, and to a specific audience.

Moreover, I have argued that it is that audience, and that text, which is determinative for interpretation.  The text has integrity and a genre, and it is valuable to study the text itself, not just its parts in an attempt to uncover the world behind the text.

I have also pointed out that literary criticism, while looking at the integrity and genre of a text, ignores the world behind the text and thus removes the text from its historical situation.  In addition, literary criticism uses modern categories to interpret ancient texts.

I have argued that it is the original or "authorial audience" that should be determinative for interpreting a text.  Therefore, a critic ought to try and recreate the authorial audience and attempt to gain the competencies that that audience brought to the text. 

In an attempt discover these competencies I talked about the oral nature of the Greco-Roman world and its educational system.  I concluded that anyone writing or reading a text aloud would be aware of at least the rudiments of rhetoric.  They would then compose and read texts to more or less conform to the rhetorical mode of communication.  Therefore, even an uneducated audience member would be familiar with rhetorical figures and devices.

Much as modern literary theory dominates forms of communication in the present, so rhetorical theory dominated forms of communication in the ancient world.  Even an uneducated person today knows how stories are supposed to be told, even if they do not know the categories, such as plot, characters, conflict, denouement, etc.  So, an ancient audience would have certain expectations of how stories ought to be told or letters ought to be written, and these categories were built upon rhetorical theory.

Now, one must be careful at this point.  The rhetorical handbooks were limited in scope.  They were meant to train would-be orators to deliver specific kinds of speeches.  Therefore, one cannot slavishly apply rhetorical criticism to texts of other genres.  Yet, one can look for aspects of rhetoric in other forms of literature, such as the gospel and the epistle.  Even though these were not ancient speeches, as products of an educated class, they retain certain rhetorical forms.  These forms can be valuable for uncovering certain aspects of the text.  It is my hope that this blog can shine a light on many parts of NT texts that can be read anew through the lens of rhetorical criticism.

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