What is Rhetorical Criticism?

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Rhetorical criticism, like many approaches to biblical interpretation, can be understood and applied in a number of ways to both Old Testament and New Testament studies. For our purposes, rhetoric among the ancient Greeks can be concisely understood as the “art of effective communication.”

Does this so-called rhetorical analysis provide a helpful framework in our interpretation and application of biblical texts? Arising from dissatisfaction with historical-critical analysis of the Bible, rhetorical criticism is an author-centered interpretive approach that generally regards the ‘final form’ of the text as the object of investigation. In this way, rhetorical criticism may provide a helpful and compelling way forward.

Patricia Tull writes:

…many have begun to direct attention to the hortatory nature of the much of the Bible—that is, its effort to persuade audiences not merely to appreciate the aesthetic power of its language but, even more importantly, to act and think according to its norms. Thus while rhetorical critics often begin with textual, literary questions reminiscent of the approaches of the Muilenberg school, many also inquire about the ways in which a text ‘establishes and manages its relations to its audience in order to achieve a particular effect.’ [1]

Interacting with Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Tull demonstrates the confluence of rhetorical criticism with a more literary approach:

To Sternberg, biblical narrative is regulated by three principles coexisting in ‘tense complementarity’ with one another: ideology, historiography, and aesthetics. Although one might conclude that these principles would drive the discourse in contradictory directions, Sternberg is convinced that the Bible’s ideology is reinforced and underscored by its aesthetic choices. In Sternberg’s view, the most important rhetorical goal of biblical narrative is to inculcate in its readers a divine system of norms: By appearing to serve the readers, the narrator seeks to readers’ subjugation to God and God’s ways. In intricate retellings of biblical stories in which every word and every silence counts, Sternberg shows how the reader is ineluctably drawn into the narrator’s ideological orbit—that is, if the reader first lays aside his or her own opinions to ‘play by the Bible’s rules of communication.’ [2]

What do you think? Does this approach/method represent a viable way forward? Are there any issues inherent in its application to biblical texts?

[1] Patricia K. Tull, “Rhetorical Criticism and Intertextuality,” in Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application (Louisville: WJK Press, 1999), 160-61.

[2] Tull, “Rhetorical Criticism and Intertextuality,” 162. For a more comprehensive overview of Rhetorical Criticism and its application see Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 1-90.


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