TIP of the day: from the blogs - rhetorical criticism

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Sun, Jan 24 2016 12:55 AM

A personal note: I am fond of a number of text critical methods not because I agree with their presuppositions or that I agree with the truth of their results but because like special lens on a camera, they help bring different details into view for consideration ... and looking at new details from a new perspective never hurts. I may need to see it to support a new argument or to undermine a false interpretation.

From Rhetorical Criticism of the Hebrew Bible by Michael D. Morrison

. . .

A Method

Kennedy has offered the most useable methodology, based on classical rhetoric, designed for the New Testament, but useful for the Old as well.87 Black goes so far as to say that "Kennedy's primary contribution is methodological: the presentation of a distinctive manner of exegesis that is lucid and systematic, far more painstaking than Muilenburg's proposal, and insightfully undergirded by classical erudition.... Kennedy's method both invites new ways of pondering old questions and opens modern eyes to neglected dimensions of ancient literature."88

Kennedy describes five stages of analysis: First, defining the amount of text to be studied, a passage that has a message to convey. Lundbom notes that "Delimitation of prophetic speeches is difficult.... The attempt, in any event, has to be made. Synchronic analysis that pays little or no attention to literary units will not pass for rhetorical criticism and ends up being a throw-back to precritical study of the Bible."89

Second, discerning the situation. This includes the cause of the text, the mood of the audience, the mood of the author, and their social values. This is subjective, speculative, and complex, but crucial for understanding the rhetoric. Part of the "environment" are other explanations of the same events, other answers to the same questions, etc. The very attempt to persuade usually implies the existence of some resistance. Tull writes, "The disputed rhetorical environment surrounding many biblical texts, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, is difficult for us to perceive because we no longer have access to many of the voices to which these texts were responding."90 Kennedy observes that

This roughly corresponds to the Sitz im Leben of form criticism.... The critic needs to ask of what this audience consists, what the audience expects in the situation, and how the speaker or writer manipulates these expectations.... Plato asserts that a true philosophical orator must know the souls of his audience.... In many rhetorical situations the speakers will be found to face one overriding rhetorical problem. His audience is perhaps already prejudiced against him and not disposed to listen to anything he may say; or the audience may not perceive him as having the authority to advance the claims he wishes to make; or what he wishes to say is very complicated and thus hard to follow, or so totally different from what the audience expects that they will not immediately entertain the possibility of its truth.91

Watson and Hauser note the potential complexity: "Rhetorical analysis using modern rhetoric is often combined with literary criticism, text linguistics, semiotics, social description, stylistics, reader-response criticism, discourse analysis, and/or speech act theory. These cross-disciplinary studies and their trends are as yet difficult to identify and categorize."92 Sociology is the focus of socio-rhetorical criticism, which Robbins defines as "an approach to literature that focuses on values, convictions, and beliefs both in the texts we read and in the world in which we live."93 Wuellner comments that this method "ends up in the service of the historian's interest in social description."94 The focus is more on the audience, and the text is analyzed not so much for what it is saying, but for what hints it might give us about the audience. The same result is seen in form criticism, which uses the text as a window into ancient history, rather than focusing on the text itself.

The third step in Kennedy's method is to describe the structure of the passage as a strategy for the communicative purpose: "Consider the arrangement of material in the text: what subdivisions it falls into, what the persuasive effect of these parts seems to be, and how they work together—or fail to do so—to some unified purpose in meeting the rhetorical situation. In order to do this he will need to engage in line-by-line analysis of the argument, including its assumptions, its topics, and its formal features, such as enthymemes, and of the devices of style, seeking to define their function in context."95 The fourth step is similar: identifying the stylistic devices, with particular attention given to their function in persuading the audience of a view.

The fifth step is putting it all together—estimating the effectiveness of the passage for the situation and purpose. This step also serves to put the pieces into a cohesive whole, rather than leaving them as fragments or disconnected steps of a methodology. The critic may ask, for example, Have I explained how the structure supports the message? How do the words and the style work together to affect the audience in their situation?

. . .

Strengths of Rhetorical Criticism

I conclude this paper by reviewing some of the strengths of rhetorical criticism. First, it generally treats the text as we have it, rather than fragmenting it into numerous hypothetical sources, fragments, and interpolations. Form criticism had tended to divide, and was more a tool of historical analysis than an effort to understand the text. Muilenburg, for example, often argued for the unity of a passage based on consistency of style and argument.114

However, there is no theoretical reason why rhetorical criticism could not also be applied to a hypothetical reconstruction. For example, if we suspect that verse 13 to be a later interpolation, we could analyze the way that the passage serves to communicate a purpose without verse 13, and then with it. Indeed, if the argument seems to work better without verse 13 than with it, then rhetorical criticism could be used in support of judgments about redaction.115 But this would still necessitate a concerted effort to understand the passage with the verse, as well as without.

Trible, on the other hand, seems to believe that rhetorical criticism has an ideological commitment to "final form" and cannot be used to promote any transpositions. She argues that Jonah 4:5 would make better sense if it came after 3:4, but then argues against the transposition.116 Similarly, she refuses to question whether chapter 2 is a later addition, even though it would be a very useful exercise to compare the effect of the book with the psalm, and the book without it.117 Such a comparison would highlight what the chapter actually contributes to the book. This ideological commitment is a personal one, not a necessary part of rhetorical criticism itself.

The second strength of rhetorical criticism: it is historically rooted (unlike modern literary criticism or reader-response criticism). When we try to understand how the text would have affected the ancient audience, we must work to understand that ancient audience.118 We see the readers not as passive recipients of a speech, but as thinking people who are able to interact with the text and choose whether to respond to the message.119 We include psychological and sociological factors in the way the message is presented as well as how it might be received.

The third strength of rhetorical criticism is that it focuses our attention on the text, not the history of Israelite religious beliefs, not the use of literary genres, not the redaction history of the text. Rather, it continually points us to ask, What does the text say, and how does it go about saying it? What is it trying to do, and how does it attempt that? As Kennedy says, this method comes closer than others in explaining what most Bible students want explained in the text: its message.120 But we seek more than an explanation of the logic of the words—by including stylistic analysis, we become more aware of the nonrational dimensions of argumentation.121 And this analysis may help us communicate the message today: not only what the text says, but also ways we can use to persuade others of its truth.122

(sorry the footnotes didn't copy across).

Also see the reading list: Rhetoric and Rhetorical Criticism

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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