Biblical Studies Paraenesis
by
James Starr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0143

Introduction

The word paraenesis, or parenesis, transliterates the Greek parainēsis, which originally meant any kind of advice, instruction, or counsel. In New Testament studies it has been used in three different ways. Beginning with the form critics of the 1920s, paraenesis was understood as a literary genre for a string of loosely connected ethical imperatives, often including lists of vices and virtues, household codes, and examples to be followed or shunned. In this view, paraenesis consisted of traditional moral teaching that was appended to several New Testament letters, without intrinsic connection to the letter’s theological concerns. Closer analysis has not confirmed the existence of paraenesis as a literary genre, and therefore the form-critical view has largely been abandoned. By way of reaction, many scholars have sought to understand paraenesis in terms of its ancient meaning as an umbrella term for any kind of instruction, moral or otherwise. This preserves the meaning of the term as understood in the Greco-Roman world, but it has the disadvantage of including so much that the term finally becomes meaningless. If all of the New Testament is described as paraenesis, then the term does nothing to advance our understanding. Moreover, defining paraenesis as (moral) instruction fails to take into account the genuine insights of form criticism that certain texts in fact distinguish themselves by their style and character. Although no consensus yet exists, a large number of scholars now view paraenesis in terms of its social function, as an amicable reminder of moral practices entailed by agreed-upon convictions. This style of moral exhortation had developed in the psychagogy of Hellenistic philosophical circles and Jewish wisdom traditions, and it found natural expression in Paul’s pastoral correspondence with his congregations. Although the bulk of injunctions were self-evident truths of popular morality, they were now positioned in a particular context as necessary consequences of certain theological beliefs. On this reading, the body of New Testament letters can be seen as moving logically forward to explicate specific moral implications of Christian faith.

General Overviews

Scholarly understanding of paraenesis has developed rapidly in the last quarter century, so students new to the field will want to begin with one of the more recent treatments. Fiore 2009 offers a readable abridgement of Fiore 1992. Aune 2003 gives a comparable first entry for students into understanding paraenesis. The presentation in Popkes 1995 demonstrates well how scholars have wrestled with different understandings of paraenesis. New Testament dictionaries tend not to give much attention to paraenesis, since the Greek equivalent parainēsis does not appear in the Greek New Testament (the cognate verb paraineō appears in Acts 27:9 and 22). Those words in the New Testament that are most closely associated with paraenesis are parakaleō and paraklēsis, and these are analyzed in Schmitz and Stählin 1967.

  • Aune, David E. “Paraenesis.” In Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric. Edited by David E. Aune, 334. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003.

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    Accessible first stop for students that introduces them to the major ancient texts and New Testament passages that have shaped the modern understanding of paraenesis.

  • Fiore, Benjamin. “Parenesis and Protreptic.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 5 Edited by David Noel Freedman, 162–165. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

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    Helpful first introduction to paraenesis, with a special focus on paraenesis’s formal features and use in the New Testament letters.

  • Fiore, Benjamin. “Parenesis.” In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4. Edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 382–383. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2009.

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    An updated and abbreviated version of Fiore 1992.

  • Popkes, Wiard. “Paränese I: Neutestamentlich.” Theologische Realenzyklopädie 25 (1995): 737–742.

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    Surveys the Greek terminology related to paraenesis, the evidence from the New Testament, its social function, and its theological character. Includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Schmitz, Otto, and Gustav Stählin. “parakale/w, para/klhsij.” In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 5. Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 773–799. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967.

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    Paraenēsis does not appear in the New Testament; instead, more general terms for exhortation and appeal are used. This exhaustive survey examines the use of the closely related terms parakaleō and paraklēsis in the Septuagint, Greco-Roman texts, and the New Testament. Originally published 1954.

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