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Book Reviews > New Testament > Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach to Paul’s Epistle

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach to Paul’s Epistle
Philip H. Kern
Details: 1998, Cambridge University Press, Amazon.comISBN: 0521631173
Posted: August 14, 2002


(This book is part of the Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 101)

The student encountering rhetorical analysis for the first time finds a confusing range of definitions of ‘rhetoric’.[1] In addition many of the definitions are so broad as to be misleading or limited in usefulness. This monograph, originally a University of Sheffield Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Loveday Alexander, does a great service in defining and clarifying many of the issues in rhetorical analysis particularly as it relates to Galatians.

Chapter 1 is a brief introduction which sets out the course of the book, highlighting the different ways the term ‘rhetoric’ is used and the conclusions which have been drawn from the ‘results’ of rhetorical analysis. The chief concern of the book is to determine whether or not it is legitimate to analyze Galatians (or more broadly, the rest of the NT) by comparison with the handbooks of classical rhetoric. In other words, Kern is challenging the methodological basis of much of modern rhetorical analysis.

Chapter 2, ‘Towards a Definition of Rhetoric,’ defines the key words used in rhetorical analysis. It is in defining the word rhetoric, itself, that one of the chief contributions of this book is made. Kern isolates four levels of rhetoric. Level 1 refers to universal rhetoric or strategic communication. This would include any sort of persuasion through any sort of communication (i.e., not simply oral or written). Level 2 then involves subsets of Level 1, different ways of communicating persuasively, such as painting, statuary, or oratory. Level 3 involves subsets of each sort of rhetoric found in Level 2. Thus, oratory, communicating persuasively with words (from Level 2), could be broken down to the different persuasive patterns used in different cultures, etc. One such culturally specific mode of discourse would be that used in the Graeco-Roman world. Level 4 differentiates between different modes used within Level 3 depending on certain venues. For example, the rhetoric of the Graeco-Roman world could be divided into handbook rhetoric, market language, classroom language, etc.

This differentiation is key to the argument of the book. In too many other works ‘rhetoric’ is used to refer to several of Kern’s four levels without explanation. Specifically, Kern criticizes rhetorical analysts for switching back and forth from universal oral rhetoric (Level 2) to handbook rhetoric (Level 4) without explanation or justification. Kern cites this imprecision as evidence of a poor methodological basis.

Chapter 3, ‘Methods of Rhetorical Analysis and Galatians,’ surveys the different approaches and corresponding presuppositions within rhetorical analysis particularly in studies on Galatians. When rhetorical analyses use the handbooks as their basis they too often give the impression that the handbooks are a homogenous unit with harmonious views on the preparation of speeches. However, Kern reveals serious differences among the handbooks noting that there were even debates among the rhetoricians themselves (42).

So the differences in rhetorical handbooks must not be underestimated. They extend not just to the theoretical positions taken by their authors, but even to the very elements of rhetoric which they deem worthy of inclusion . . .. Thus any confidence in finding unity among the handbooks is misplaced: they represent a wide range of attitudes and philosophies towards rhetoric. (41, 43)

Chapter 3 continues by surveying the history of rhetorical analysis. Kern suggests earlier works following the ideas of Muilenburg were more useful because they were interested in Level 2 rhetoric rather than Level 4 (the handbooks). Kern also summarizes and critiques the approach of Betz (Galatians is a speech) and the approach championed by G. A. Kennedy and D. F. Watson (the handbooks can decode rhetorical figures found anywhere).

In Chapter 4, ‘Rhetorical structure and Galatians,’ Kern ‘compares the shape of Galatians with structural guideposts provided by the handbooks’ (90). Here Kern interacts primarily with Betz since his analysis has the most attention to detail and subsequent analyses tend to build from him. With a closer examination of the parallels from the rhetorical handbooks cited by Betz, Kern shows that the handbook statements are not true parallels at all. Kern concludes that Galatians does not bear the structural markers of a classical speech.

In Chapter 5, ‘Rhetorical species and Galatians,’ Kern analyzes the arguments for identifying Galatians with one of the three species of classical rhetoric and concludes that Galatians does not conform to any of the three. Perhaps the key observation in Kern’s argument, and one he says many NT specialists miss, is that according to the handbooks the determination of the species of a speech (text) depends not simply on function and temporal distinctives but also (and perhaps most importantly) on the audience (121). Thus, for example, for a speech to be considered forensic it not only must be concerned with defending or accusing concerning some past action, but it also must be addressed to a judge or jury. The directions given in the handbooks are based on the assumption that the speeches will be given to a certain audience.

Kern, then, engages in a thorough critique of the arguments which have identified Galatians as forensic (Betz), deliberative (Kennedy, Vouga, Smit- in differing ways), or epideictic rhetoric. Kern presents searching criticisms, showing a number of instances where Betz parallels do not actually support his thesis, and criticizing Kennedy and others for combining ancient and modern rhetorical categories with little or no explanation or justification.

Chapter 6, ‘The Language of Paul’s Letters: 1’, surveys the opinions of early church writers, from the Greek and Latin fathers to Melanchthon, on the writings of Paul. This is especially important to the question of whether or not Paul used the categories of classical rhetoric because the church fathers in particular were very close to Paul in terms of time, language, and manner of education. A strong case is made with ample quotations that none of the church fathers, themselves trained in classical rhetoric, considered Paul’s letters to be examples rhetoric, nor do they give a precedent for modern rhetorical analysis.

Chapter 7, “The Language of Paul’s Letters: 2,” investigates Paul’s language in light of more modern studies that have sought to explain the ‘unique’ language of the New Testament. These studies highlight the fact that Paul did not use the cultured language which was a necessary component of classical oratory.

In the conclusion, Chapter 8, Kern lists some of the implications of his study. In addition to questioning entire schools of rhetorical criticism, this work, if accepted, calls for a re-evaluation of the background of Paul. If Paul’s letters do not give evidence that he had classical training, then the letters tell us nothing about the level of Paul’s education. Kern also lists some provocative suggestions for further study including Paul’s own discourse strategy (i.e., his own rhetoric as independent of the handbooks, etc.) and the use of proofs in Galatians. Kern suggests Paul’s ‘rhetoric’ is more Jewish than Graeco-Roman.

This is a solid work of scholarship characterized by attention to detail and careful analysis. Dr. Kern has classified a diverse discipline, outlining different schools of thought, differences and similarities between them, and their often unstated presuppositions. At the same time he has mounted a serious challenge to the legitimacy of any approach to rhetorical analysis which uses the classical handbooks on rhetoric as its basis (augmenting criticisms which have come from S. E. Porter and others). Dr. Kern argues clearly, forcefully, and persuasively that the rhetoric found in Paul (and the rest of the NT) is a different type than that which is described in the handbooks. Kern seems to suggest that rhetorical analysis is more useful when confined to stylistic issues, since stylistic devices are more common in broader ranges of rhetoric. Any future work on rhetorical analysis will need to interact with Kern’s criticisms.

1 The definition given by G. A. Kennedy is typical: ‘Rhetoric is that quality in discourse by which a speaker or writer seeks to accomplish his purposes’ (New Testament Interpretation through Rhetorical Criticism [Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984], 3).

Ray Van Neste

University of Aberdeen

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