Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The χρεία (chreia), which could be translated as "anecdote" but is usually left untranslated, is defined by Theon as:
"a brief saying or action making a point, attributed to some specified person or something corresponding to a person." (Theon 96, Kennedy)
The chreia is usually the third exercise in the ancient progymnasmata
A chreia is thus a very broad category of either sayings or actions.  What distinguishes it from a maxim is that a maxim can be anonymous, and only in a chreia can there be actions as well as sayings.

Much work has been done on the chreia in New Testament studies, so I will try not to rehash that information here (see Hock, Ronald F. and Edward N. O'neil. The Chreia and Ancient Rhetoric: Classroom Exercises. Leiden: Brill, 2002.).

The chreia, having such a broad definition, makes it useful for evaluating much of the work in the New Testament.  Almost any brief saying or action done by Jesus in the gospels could be considered a chreia and evaluated according to the discussions of the preliminary exercise.

One interesting example might be the story of the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8.  Theon says that chreias can be verbal, actional, or mixed.  That is, a chreia can be a saying, or an action, or may contain both.  The story in John 8 would be a mixed chreia containing both saying and action.  Twice in the story Jesus bends down and write in the dirt, hence the action part of the chreia.  But, he also adds a saying, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her," hence the verbal part of the chreia.

Some of the interesting aspects of chreias are that they can be inflected in different grammatical cases, expanded or contracted, confirmed or refuted, and restated.  Of specific interest to NT scholars might be the idea of expansion or contraction of sayings.  For example, in source critical discussions it is often assumed that the shorter version of a saying is the more original.  Yet, with the knowledge of the progymnasmata, it becomes clear that students learned both to expand and contract source material, erasing the certainty of the more original form.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

διήγημα and διήγησις or narration and narrative

The second of the preliminary exercises in the progymnasmata is narrative.  Hermogenes makes a distinction between διήγημα (diegema, narrative), and διήγησις (diegesis, narration), the first being the part, the second, the whole.  That is a diegema is a short narration of an event which is part of a larger whole of a diegesis or narrative.  Thus, the story of Jesus healing of a blind man in Mark 8 is a diegema whereas the gospel of Mark is a diegesis.

Theon lists six aspects of narrative: (1)Person (prosopon), (2) Action, (3) Place of Action, (4) Time of Action, (5) Manner of Action, and (6) Cause of these things.

For some time now, New Testament criticism has engaged in literary analysis of the NT.  One criticism of that type of analysis has been based on terminology, namely that the concepts and terminology for literary criticism is based on modern literature which may or may not correspond to the terminology of ancient literature.  I think that this is a potent criticism.  Yet, looking at the progymnasmata, we can come up with an ancient terminology and see how it might correspond to modern literary terms.

For example, in the list above, many of the terms used can be related to modern literary terms.  Person can go with Character.  Action with Plot, Place and Time with Setting.  So, we can begin to build an ancient literary criticism using the progymnasmata. 

This can be more fully carried out as one continues with Theon's list of properties of Person (prosopon).  Thses lists are called topoi lists from the Greek topos. Theon writes:
"The properties of Person are origin, nature, training, disposition, age, fortune, morality, action, speech, death, and what followed death." (Theon 78, Kennedy).
Using these categories, one can start to build an ancient view of character, or as modern literary criticism would say, "characterization."  That is, these are the aspects through which the ancients looked at a character.

Michael Martin, in a recent article, has persuasively argued that the topoi lists found in the progymnasmata, can be viewed as a template for ancient biographies, specifically the gospel of Luke.  See Micheal Martin, "Progymnastic Topic Lists: A Compositional Template for Luke and other Bioi?," New Testament Studies 54 (2008), 18-41.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Memory and Figures of Speech

This year I actually attended more sessions at this SBL than I think I ever have.  Amidst a number of (mostly mind-numbing) presentations, one stood out, at least for my area of research.  The presenter was Dr. Robert K. McIver from Avondale College, and, aside from his great Aussie accent (or was it Kiwi? I can't tell the difference), his topic was fascinating. 

His primary thesis was that there are two types of memory: gist memory and verbatim memory.  He noted that if a person is asked to listen to a story or piece of information, and then later asked to repeat that information, the type of memory used is "gist" memory.  That is, a person can remember the gist of what was said, but rarely uses the same wording.  Yet, if the information comes in aphorisms, then the information is often remembered "verbatim," or at least fairly closely. 

McIver used two pools of data.  The first pool was the double tradition from the synoptic gospels.  He found that there was "gist" correlation between narrative material in Matthew and Luke, but "verbatim" or near verbatim correlation between the aphoristic material in the two gospels.  The second pool was some controlled experiments he did with his students in which he asked them to repeat information.  He found the same correlations: "gist" correlation with narrative material and "verbatim" correlation with aphoristic material. 

McIver was interested in looking at the composition of the gospels, specifically with possible oral tradition.  What interested me is the possible connection with the third chapter of my dissertation in which I argued that Luke used powerful and "memorable" figures of speech to communicate his role-reversing message.  What McIver referred to as aphorisms, I would argue can actually be classified more specifically as figures of speech.  I argued that where the Lukan Jesus' message was most likely to run counter to the Greco-Roman value systems, he embedded that message in easily memorable and memorizable figures of speech.  Placing this information in this form helped his message to take root in the minds of the audience.  McIver's work  bolsters my argument and I would love to pursue this work further. 

Robert K. McIver, Avondale College, "Oral Performance, Memory Capacity, and the Aphorisms of Jesus," SBL national Conference, Atlanta, GA, 11/21/2010. SBL Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rhetoric of presentations at the SBL

In pedagogy training as teachers we are taught not to rely on a manuscript. We are taught to know our material and to talk normally. We are taught not to use jargon, but to translate our ideas into readily intelligible phrases. Yet, you arrive at the SBL expecting the opposite.
Speakers reading from a manuscript filled with jargon is the norm. Sometimes, if your mind slips and you miss a definition, the remaining minutes of a paper become an endless stream of meaningless words.

Few people can actually read from a prepared manuscript well. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary is one of the only few that I have seen do this well on a regular basis. Most of the presenters at SBL don't do this well.

So, why is this necessary? I think it is a result of an unfortunate ethos at SBL. Namely an ethos of oneupmanship. Some members in the audience are like vultures ready to go in for the kill on the slightest mistake of the presenter. Therefore, to avoid any opportunity for the vultures, presenters carefully prepare their manuscripts and fill them with jargon and definitions to avoid being taken to task by members of the audience. Yet, is this the best way to move scholarship forward? I am not sure that there is an easy answer.

I do not see the ethos at SBL changing any time soon. Perhaps the answer is to take a page out of the ancient rhetorical handbooks. First, stylistically, do not fill your papers with jargon, learn to communicate with "normal" words. Second, perhaps a little practice with the rhetorical tasks of memory and delivery might be of help. Trying to memorize a paper full of jargon will immediately signal the presenter that he or she should work some more on the manuscript, to learn to communicate their ideas in a more rhetorically effective manner.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Friday Figure

This week's Friday Figure comes from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount:
Matt. 6:34 μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε εἰς τὴν αὔριον, ἡ γὰρ αὔριον μεριμνήσει ἑαυτῆς·
me oun merimnesate eis ten aurion, e gar aurion merimnesei eautes
Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. 
This is a great example of the figure chiasm in which the word order of two words in one clause are reversed in the second clause.  In this example, the words μεριμνήσητε (worry) and αὔριον (tomorrow) are reversed in the second clause to bring a nice balance and ornament to this saying of Jesus.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The μῦθος or Fable

The first of the progymnasmata, or preliminary exercises is the fable, or μῦθος in Greek, from which we get the word myth.  The word itself is polysemous, but one basic definition is story. 

Theon defines fable as “a fictional story which images the truth (Μῦθός ἐστι λόγος ψευδὴς εἰκονίζων ἀλήθειαν).” The definition is fairly simple, but like the chreia, the fable can be expanded or contracted, inflected, confirmed, refuted, and woven into a narrative.

Given this basic definition of the exercise of fable, it seems to me that the parables of Jesus fit nicely into this category.  If that is the case, then perhaps we can find insight into the composition of such stories from the progymnasmata.  

A couple of notes.  First, one of the things that you can do with a fable is inflect your main subject in varying cases.  I have given an example of this here as I discussed the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  In that parable, the term father is inflected in all five cases, clearly distinguishing the father as the focus of the parable. 

Another interesting aspect of this preliminary exercise is the practice of adding a summary statement that sums up the theme of the parable. Theon writes,
"It is possible to provide a conclusion whenever, after the fable has been stated, we venture to bring in some gnomic statement fitting it... There can be several conclusions (epilogoi) for one fable when we take a start from the contents of the fable, and conversely one conclusion when many fables reflect it." (Theon, 75, Kennedy). 
Several of Jesus' parables get such a concluding "gnomic" statement or maxim.  An interesting example would be the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16.  After the parable, Jesus rattles off several maxims that capture the theme of the parable.  Jesus says:
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
All six of these gnomic sayings are used to summarize and interpret the parable of the unjust steward.  The most interesting of these comments to me are the last two.  All of the rest of the comments are found in Luke alone.  The last two about serving two masters is a parallel with Matthew and the wording is nearly verbatim.  Now, depending on which source theory you are working with, Luke has taken this saying either from Q or from Matthew and placed it with his special L material in this place. Which of these options makes the most sense? 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I received an email the other day with a list of "actual" GED questions and the "actual" answers given.  Whether or not these were real GED questions and answers does not concern me.  What I did find interesting though is that what made these so funny was that almost every answer had misused or mis-characterized a word.  In rhetoric this is a stylistic vice called a barbarism.  It often had to do with using foreign words in an incorrect manner, really, any misuse of a word would qualify as a barbarism

Here are some of my favorite examples from the GED questions:

Q. What happens to a boy when he reaches puberty?
A. He says goodbye to his boyhood and looks forward to his adultery
Q. What is the most common form of birth control?
A. Most people prevent contraception by wearing a condominium.
Q. What does the word 'benign' mean?
A. Benign is what you will be after you be eight.
Q. What is a turbine?
A. Something an Arab or Shreik wears on his head.
Q. Explain one of the processes by which water can be made safe to drink.
A. Flirtation makes water safe to drink because it removes large pollutants like grit, sand, dead sheep and canoeists.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rhetoric for Sundays

I have often wondered at the effectiveness of the little messages that are posted on church marquees (as I have often wondered about the effectiveness of Christian bumper stickers).  Has anyone ever wandered into a church because of some profound message on a marquee?  Nevertheless, I do enjoy the comic factor of these messages, often mis-communicating what is trying to be said.

Take this one, for example, that my wife pointed out to me yesterday as we drove to church:

Playing off of the metaphor in Mark 1:17, this sign tries to get cute with its message.  This metaphor made sense in its original contexts as Jesus was calling his disciples who were actually fishermen.  In fact, in the original context, this was actually a nice use of both metaphor and epanodos in which a word (fisherman, ἁλιεῖς, halieis), is used with a slightly different meaning in Mark 1:16 and Mark 1:17.  Yet, this sign illustrates how a metaphor can be taken too literally and too far.  The metaphor works in Mark because it is a play on words and is not carried too far.  Yet, here, the context is actually gruesome.  The sign has tried to play on words, "he'll clean them" as in, he will make them clean.  But in the context of the metaphor, cleaning a fish is far from what Christians ought to be communicating with regard to the work of Jesus in the life of a believer.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Friday Figure

This week's Friday Figure is a slight deviation from my norm.  I am foregoing my biblical figure this week and posting a video from the film "V for Vendetta."  The movie, which centers on a Guy Fawkes figure, seemed apropos to post today since today is Guy Fawkes day in commemoration of the day that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament in 1606.  The clip contains one of the more masterful examples of the figure of speech alitteration.  Enjoy!

HT to Peter Pope at Magnificent Vista for drawing my attention again to this video.