Understanding Socio-Rhetorical Criticism

According to Ben Witherington, “socio-rhetorical criticism” is the study of ancient social history with a particular emphasis on the oral disposition of ancient cultures and their use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. This method examines the societal factors, literary works, and rhetorical techniques that were widely implemented in first century Palestine.

Defining “rhetoric” as “the art of persuasion,” rhetorical criticism allows exegetes to examine the New Testament’s adaptation of rhetoric to further each author’s particular theological agenda.[1] These rhetorical devices include literary and oral tactics, such as rhetorical questions, irony, hyperbole, personification, enthymemes, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, amplification, and assonance.[2]

Rhetorical and Historical Criticism

Socio-rhetorical criticism is not a new or innovative discipline for studying the New Testament. In fact, several church fathers, such as Origin and Chrysostom, utilized rhetorical analysis when commenting on the New Testament. This same practice continued through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation where both Martin Luther and John Calvin engaged in rhetorical criticism.[3] The examination of rhetoric is not an attempt to eliminate the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. Rather, it seeks to supplement historical criticism with additional information and even correctives to hermeneutical mistakes.[4]


As Dennis Stamps remarks, rhetorical criticism concentrates primarily on the means of persuasion through which the biblical writers communicated their message and the effects that rhetoric had on the original audience. It augments the exegete’s historical research in order to grasp the text’s persuasive effects on a Hellenistic culture. Researchers should investigate the rhetorical devices utilized in the New Testament because neither historical antecedents nor grammar is the sole determinant of a text’s meaning.[5] Craig Blomberg comments further, “Such rhetorical analysis, when accurate, does add one more dimension to the literary context—an understanding of the document’s narrative flow and an appreciation of why the authors say certain things in certain ways or places.”[6]

Socio-Rhetorical Presuppositions

Oral Texts

Socio-rhetorical criticism assumes that ancient rhetoric influenced the New Testament writers in their composition of Scripture. In order to discover the authorial intent of the biblical writers, readers must first attempt to understand the rhetorical contexts within which they wrote. One important context is the culture’s use of “oral texts,” where the people customarily heard a text read aloud.[7] While some suggest the literacy rate in the first century was upwards of ten to twenty percent, others argue that only two to four percent of the ancient Mediterranean people could actually read or write.[8] The majority would not have been able to read the New Testament nor did the authors intend for churches to read their writings privately or silently.


Martin McGuire documents that even the literate men of society would habitually read everything aloud, even private letters.[9] According to Stanley Stowers, epistolary literature was also a rhetorical act. He explains that rhetorical discourse heavily influenced the practice of ancient letter writing, making rhetoric the dominant form of communication in the Hellenistic world.[10] Everything, including the very act of writing itself, was part of a larger oral composition.[11] Stamps concludes, “As a result of the grounding of culture in rhetoric through education, rhetoric formed the basis for communication in the legal, civic, and social spheres of the Greco-Roman world.”[12] Because rhetorical recitation was the dominant form of communication, the New Testament authors designed their writings to act as a script for what would otherwise have been an oral presentation. Witherington writes, “Most ancient documents, including letters, were not really texts in the modern sense at all. They were composed with their aural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally delivered when they arrived at their destinations.”[13] As Philip Comfort explains, “Publication via oral proclamation was the prime form of publication in the early days of the church. The written word served to augment this mode of publication and to keep it consistent and therefore authoritative.”[14]


Furthermore, even if some members of the church were literate, copies of the New Testament were expensive and difficult to produce. Therefore, the ancient church adopted Jewish Second-Temple and synagogal worship practices that required professionally trained lectors to recite Scripture to the congregation (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13).[15] In fact, the earliest extant New Testament manuscripts would have made reading the texts strenuously challenging for the average reader who had little study, practice, or training in public recitation (cf. Acts 8:30).[16] Witherington writes, “Only someone skilled in reading … could place the emphases in the right places so as to communicate the message effectively.”[17] Likewise, the first century rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (i.e. Quintilian, ca. AD 35-100), wrote, “These artifices must not merely be produced in speech, but exhibited in the written version as well, at least if in writing it our design is to show how it should be spoken….Well, you ask, is an orator then always to speak as he writes? If possible, always” (Inst. 12.10.53, 55).[18] Accordingly, rhetorical criticism assumes that Paul intended to have his writings read aloud publically as if he were giving a speech in person.

Rhetorical Performances

When producing the written texts, however, the writers knew that oral speeches seldom lacked a theatrical flare. Thus, Dieter Georgi stresses a second context concerning the role of theatrical performances in church. He clarifies that it was customary to make public readings a spectacular event of recitations and interpretations that attracted converts, captivated audiences, and impelled congregants to experience the spiritual power of sacred texts.[19] Amos Wilder describes the use of “didactic facial expressions,” as well as dramatic body movements, shapes, and gestures that accompanied sacred readings.[20] This stress on oral presentations is even noticeable among Paul’s critics, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account” (2 Corinthians 10:10, ESV).[21] Because the biblical writers composed their work in an oral-rhetorical culture, writers would have viewed their work as a theatrical performance and would not have expected a verbatim presentation each time a lector recited the text aloud.[22] Thus, not only did the New Testament writers and their original audiences relate to the written texts orally, but they also expected the lectors to utilize a dramatic presentation in order to convey their message.[23]


  1. Ben Witherington III, What’s in the Word: Rethinking the Socio-Rhetorical Character of the New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 1-2, 12. Quintilian wrote in the first century, “These persons have as a rule held that the task of oratory lies in persuasion or speaking in a persuasive manner: for this is within the power of a bad man no less than a good. Hence we get the common definition of rhetoric as the power of persuading” (Inst. 2.15.3 in Harold Edgeworth Butler, ed., The Institutio oratoria, Books 1-3, with an English Translation [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920], 302).

  2. For a broad examination of different rhetorical devices in the New Testament, see Duane F. Watson, ed., Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 50 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1991) and Stanley E. Porter and Thomas H. Olbricht, Rhetoric and the New Testament: Essays from the 1992 Heidelberg Conference, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 90 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1993).

  3. Carl Joachim Classen, Rhetorical Criticism of the New Testament (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 1-28.

  4. William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 83-87.

  5. Stamps, 26, 33-36. He writes in a footnote, “This is not to suggest that a historical perspective is unimportant; no textual interpretation can wholly divorce itself from the implications of history — the history of the author, the history in the text, the history of the text, as well as the history of the reader” (36n110).

  6. Craig L. Blomberg, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 113.

  7. Witherington, What’s in the Word, 2, 7-17. It was not until approximately AD 450 that the ancient world transitioned from a predominantly oral culture to a text-based society (see Henri Irénée Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, trans. George Lamb (1956; repr., Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), xiv and William Bedell Stanford, The Sound of Greek: Studies in the Greek Theory and Practice of Euphony [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967], 3).

  8. See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 3; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “The Social Location of the Marcan Audience,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 23, no. 3 (1993): 115; Meir Bar-Ilan, “Illiteracy in the Land of Israel in the First Centuries C.E.,” in Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, ed. Simcha Fishbane, Stuart Schoenfeld, and Alain Goldshläger (New York: Ktav, 1992), 2:55-56; and Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.

  9. Martin R. P. McGuire, “Letters and Letter Carriers in Ancient Antiquity,” Classical World 53, no. 1 (1960): 150. P. Botha refers to the ancient world’s form of reading as “imitation talking” (P. J. J. Botha, “Greco-Roman Literacy as Setting for New Testament Writings,” Neotestamentica 26, no. 1 [1992]: 206.).

  10. Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, ed. Wayne A. Meeks, Library of Early Christianity 5 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), 32-35.

  11. Harvey, 103.

  12. Stamps, 25.

  13. Witherington, What’s in the Word, 8.

  14. Philip Wesley Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography and Textual Criticism (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), 50.

  15. See James Tunstead Burtchaell, From Synagogue to Church: Public Services and Offices in the Earliest Christian Communities (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 272-338; G. Vermes, “Bible and Midrash: Early Old Testament Exegesis,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. Pater R. Ackroyd and Christopher F. Evans, vol. 1, From the Beginnings to Jerome (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 201; Harvey, 102-3; Comfort, 28; and Witherington, What’s in the Word, 7-8.

  16. Comfort, 3, 21, 51-53. Ancient scribes utilized scriptora continua when constructing New Testament manuscripts and oftentimes incorporated lectoral markings to help the reader decipher thought separations, thought pauses, and semantic units to aid in public readings (53-54).

  17. Witherington, What’s in the Word, 9; emphasis in original.

  18. English translation appears in Harold Edgeworth Butler, ed., The Institutio oratoria, Books 10-12, with an English Translation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922), 481.

  19. See his entire discussion, Dieter Georgi, The Opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986), 83-228. Witherington adds, “For one thing, it was believed that words, especially religious words, were not mere ciphers or symbols. They were thought to have power and effect on people if they were properly communicated and pronounced” (Witherington, What’s in the Word, 10).

  20. Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 56. For an ancient description of how speakers were to cultivate their apparel, hand gestures, body position, voice inflection, and other more nuanced and subtle methods for story-telling, see the first century writing Institutio oratoria by Quintilian.

  21. For a study of Paul’s need to out-perform his rivals and to defend his apostolic authority, see Richard F. Ward, “Pauline Voice and Presence as Strategic Communication,” Semeia 65 (1994): 95-107.

  22. This may explain the variations in New Testament narratives and textual traditions. See Vernon K. Robbins, “Writing as a Rhetorical Act in Plutarch and the Gospels,” in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, ed. Duane F. Watson, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 50 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1991), 142-68.

  23. See David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1987), 12-13.

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