Posted by: chuckbumgardner | August 17, 2012

Porter and Dyer Take on Witherington

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While I am by no means an expert on rhetorical criticism of Scripture, I’ve been intrigued by the discipline and have done some reading on it, as well as on such related topics as literacy in the Greco-Roman world, ancient reading practices, Paul’s education, etc.  Anyone who knows anything about the academic work of Ben Witherington, III, knows of his “socio-rhetorical” commentary series on the NT, in which he engages both social backgrounds and rhetorical criticism in his interpretation of Scripture.  He contends that the NT world consisted of oral cultures, not text-based cultures, and that NT Scripture was shaped in such a way to be read aloud to its recipients.  Not least among the factors that lead him to this conclusion is the notion that the strong majority of even the civilized world was illiterate.  To him, the NT epistles are essentially rhetorical creations with an epistolary openings and endings tacked on. A NT letter is “a necessary surrogate for oral communication” (quote from this lecture).  All this leads Witherington to aver that NT letters are best interpreted under the rubric of rhetorical conventions, not epistolary conventions, in spite of the fact that they are indeed letters.

It is not seriously questioned that Paul and other NT writers use “micro-rhetorical” devices in their letters — chiasmus has been a particular interest of mine in this regard.  The more significant question is whether they used “macro-rhetorical” structure to shape their letters.  I have had my doubts on this point, in that there seems to be surprisingly little agreement on the rhetorical structure of particular letters, even though ancient rhetorical handbooks detail standard rhetorical patterns for discourse.

In the current issue of JETS, Stan Porter and Bryan Dyer (a Ph.D. student at McMaster) have fired a shot across the bow of the Witherington — or perhaps hit it amidships!  I’ll detail a few of the more pertinent points here.

1) Porter and Dyer take serious exception to Witherington’s characterization of the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures as largely illiterate.  They highlight the “book culture” present in the first century with well-known libraries and not unreasonable costs of book production.  They question the research of classicist William Harris that led both Witherington and Harry Gamble to posit a mere 5%-20% of the population as literate, further questioning the definition of “literate” — is that only those who can read and write, or does it include those who can only read?  Further, Porter and Dyer bring serious question to the commonplace that ancient reading was always, only done out loud (noted, e.g., in Achtemeier’s influential article a couple of decades ago) by citing a good number of instances in ancient Greek literature where silent reading is referenced (contra Achtemeier, who specifically avers that “[t]he oral environment was so pervasive that no writing occurred which was not vocalized.”).  Overall, the authors aver, Witherington overemphasizes the oral and neglects the written.

2) Porter and Dyer also object to Witherington’s “use of rhetorical categories to analyze Paul’s letters.”  For one thing, it is not clear at all that Paul was a rhetor (i.e., that he had formal training in rhetoric), and rhetoric “in the air” (used by others and picked up informally) would not account for the mastery of rhetoric Witherington claims for Paul.  And it is not clear at all that Paul meant to use rhetorical structure in his letters: for one thing, the merging of epistle and rhetorical discourse is not attested in Paul’s day, and there seems to be little agreement as to rhetorical structure of particular letters, which makes the broader theory suspect.

“In our examination of rhetoric and orality, we are not attempting to mitigate any understanding of the NT as constituting a persuasive document or even all attempts at applying rhetorical devices.  What we are challenging is the grounds for this type of rhetorical criticism based upon certain theories of orality—as clearly presented by Witherington—as being a method for interpreting these texts.” (341)


  1. […] Porter and Dyer Take on Witherington « Orchard Keeper. Share this:FacebookTwitterMorePrintEmailDiggLinkedInRedditStumbleUponTumblr […]

  2. […] 8/17/12  Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, “Oral Texts?  A Reassessment of the Oral and Rhetorical Nature of Paul’s Letters in Light of Recent Studies,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 55:2 (2012): 323-41.  (See this post.) […]

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