Does the Corinthian Correspondence Betray that Paul was Rhetorically Trained?

The two recent reviews of Ryan S. Schellenberg’s Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10–13, mentioned in the previous post by David, are worth having a look at, for those interested in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. They take part in a lively ongoing debate about the extent to which the apostle Paul employed, and was trained in, Greco-Roman modes of oral and epistolary rhetoric.

The two reviewers of Schellenberg’s work (Duane Watson and Frederick Long) have both made solid contributions to this debate, arguing that the Corinthian correspondence in particular evidences Paul’s training in formal rhetoric. The book they review suggests otherwise – arguing that the rhetorical features visible in the Corinthian correspondence are sufficiently accounted for by ‘general rhetoric.’

One of the reviews points out that this debate is currently vigorous, with a recent interchange between New Testament scholars Stanley Porter (who argues that Paul’s argumentation exhibits functional correspondence with general persuasive techniques) and Ben Witherington (who argues that Paul knowingly makes use of standard rhetorical conventions of his day – see his book New Testament Rhetoric). Others who have taken part in this debate include Margaret Mitchell, who argues that 1 Corinthians is an elegant example of deliberative rhetoric, employed by a trained rhetorician (see her book Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation), and R Dean Anderson (Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Paul) and Philip Kern (Rhetoric and Galatians: Assessing an Approach) – both of whom argue against Mitchell’s approach. As well as this, there are the volumes co-/edited by Porter (e.g. Rhetoric, Scripture and Theology), and the more recent multi-author work Paul and Rhetoric.

It should be pointed out that approaches to Paul’s use of formal rhetoric have become refined over the last couple of decades, especially due to the work of those above. Duane Watson, for example, has pointed out that it is usually too simplistic to apply a singular rhetorical ‘genre’ to a New Testament letter. His recent account of the ‘rhetoric’ of 1 Peter, for example, makes the point that ‘First Peter does not closely follow the conventions of Greco-Roman rhetoric in its invention and arrangement, but many of those conventions are present’ (52). His resulting analysis is appropriately cautious and nuanced.

My own contribution to this discussion comes in my monograph Paul and the Rhetoric of Reversal in 1 Corinthians: The Impact of Paul’s Gospel on his Macro-Rhetoric. I don’t deal head-on with the issue of Paul’s rhetorical training; but I suggest that whatever rhetorical resources Paul had at his disposal (including those of his Hebrew heritage), they have become subservient to the transforming impact of his kerygma of the crucified-and-risen Christ – which affects his language use at multiple levels.

“Jewish” and “Greco-Roman” Contexts of 1 Corinthians

In 2010 a new major commentary on 1 Corinthians appeared, by Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner:

The commentary has just been reviewed by Korinna Zamfir in the Review of Biblical Literature. Zamfir raises some interesting questions about the ways in which assumptions concerning the contexts of the letter affect our interpretation.

For Zamfir, Ciampa and Rosner are so focused on Paul’s “Jewish” background, that they unhelpfully downplay the Greco-Roman characteristics of Paul himself, and the audience to which he is writing. Zamfir is disappointed that the authors reject Margaret Mitchell’s contention that the letter utilises a Greco-Roman macro-rhetoric. Zamfir also points to an implication in the commentary that “pagan” society had no regard for sexual morality, whereas the (Jewish) Paul was committed to high ethical standards. She wishes Ciampa and Rosner were more sensitive to the complexities of religious life for “Gentile Christians coming from a Greco-Roman cultural and religious background” and concludes that throughout the work the Greco-Roman background has been disappointingly downplayed.

Is this fair? I think it’s true that the great strength of Ciampa and Rosner’s commentary is its attention to the Old Testament and Jewish themes that illuminate the letter – themes that are all too absent in Margaret Mitchell’s analysis. It may be that the strong emphasis on OT/Jewish contexts in the letter is in fact a reaction to a perceived over-emphasis on Greco-Roman backgrounds in many examinations of the Corinthian correspondence over the last couple of decades (this sort of corrective was certainly the burden of Rosner’s doctoral dissertation).

My own view is that Ciampa and Rosner’s emphases, while provocative and debatable at times, are useful in bringing the Old Testament and Judaism back into the picture in the study of this letter. I would want to tweak their presentation of “Jewish” ethics by insisting that Jewish ethics was itself impacted and shaped by the Hellenistic world; and I would probably give a little more prominence to the Greco-Roman character of the letter’s micro-rhetoric (but not macro-rhetoric). But I think that the commentary is a useful contribution in calling attention to neglected elements of the first century context of the letter.

Two recent items of Corinthiaka from Australian scholars

I’ve recently noticed two pieces about 1-2 Corinthians from Australian scholars, which are worth noticing:

Firstly, here, in a description of the “New College Lectures” at the University of New South Wales, David Starling suggests that 1 Corinthians may be thought of as setting a trajectory that validates the systematic codification of Christian theology.

Secondly, in the September newsletter for the Society for the Study of Early Christianity at MacQuarie University, Paul Barnett considers “chronology and the Corinthians.” Drawing on Paul’s letters, Acts, and documentary evidence (e.g. the Gallio inscription), Barnett develops the following timeline:

  • 33 1st Easter
  • 34 Damascus event
  • 47 Jerusalem meeting
  • 48 First missionary journey
  • 50 Arrival in Corinth

He then focuses on the “Corinthian years,” suggesting the following timeline:

  • Visit 1: Acts 18:1-18
  • Letter 1 (‘previous’) 1 Cor 5:9
  • Letter 2 (First Corinthians)
  • Visit 2 (‘painful’) 2 Cor 2:1
  • Letter 3 (‘tearful’) 2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8, 12; 10:8-11
  • Letter 4 (Second Corinthians)
  • Visit 3: Acts 20:2-3

Barnett goes on to argue for the unity of 2 Corinthians, suggesting that Paul’s pastoral approach to the complex situation in Corinth explains the perplexing nature of the letter’s structure. He concludes:

In any discussion of the tone and content of the letter we should note: (a) the trying circumstances that Paul had faced prior to his eventual meeting with Titus, (b) the (mostly) grim news Titus brought about the Corinthian response to the ‘tearful’ letter and their welcome to the new ministers, and (c) the unexpected readiness of the Macedonian congregations in contributing to the Collection that Paul encountered as he travelled from Neapolis to Berea.

The full version of the paper is available on request from the SSEC office.