In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rhetoric of the New Testament

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Greco-Roman Rhetoric
  • New Testament Rhetoric
  • Invention, Arrangement, and Style
  • Oral and Literary Conventions
  • Chreiai, Progymnasmata, and the Gospels
  • Epistolary Conventions, Rhetoric, and the Epistles of the New Testament
  • Hermeneutics
  • Rhetoric and Ideology
  • Disputed Pauline Epistles
  • Hebrews
  • Catholic Epistles and Revelation

Biblical Studies Rhetoric of the New Testament
Duane F. Watson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0106


Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. In the Western world, its practice is rooted in Greece and Rome where the ability to speak well was essential to political life and perpetuating the power of the upper class. Rhetoric provided the content of secondary and tertiary education as it prepared the sons of the wealthy to take their places in the judicial and political system. Rhetoric was carefully systematized and influenced both oral and written speech. Its use is evident in the New Testament at every turn, including the Gospel writers’ development of the sayings of Jesus into more elaborate pronouncement stories, Luke’s composition of the speeches in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s sophisticated use of argumentation in 2 Corinthians 10–13, and John’s multivalent and emotive use of imagery in Revelation. Rightly, rhetoric has been used intermittently throughout church history to interpret the New Testament. Its use is conspicuous in the writings of the early Church Fathers up to and including Augustine, only to be mentioned sporadically by a handful of scholars during the medieval period. Its use is revived in the Reformation, especially by Philip Melanchthon, and continued to be a vital part of interpretation until the end of the 19th century with a crescendo of works produced in Germany. It plays only a nominal role throughout most of the 20th century, until the mid-1970s when works by Hans Dieter Betz and George A. Kennedy, among others, revived the role of rhetoric in interpretation. In fact, rhetoric is currently one of the more prominent tools used in New Testament interpretation, both as a historical enterprise using Greco-Roman rhetoric and in broader studies using modern rhetoric to understand the functions of rhetoric.

Reference Works

The majority of rhetorical analysis has been conducted according to Greco-Roman rhetoric. Lausberg 1998 and Martin 1974 provide the thorough discussions of Greco-Roman rhetoric with extensive primary source citation, with the former being more comprehensive. Porter 2001 discusses Greco-Roman rhetoric in the narrower context of the genres and works of the New Testament. A growing body of literature also uses modern rhetoric in which the New Rhetoric of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969 has often been central.

  • Lausberg, Heinrich. Handbook of Literary Rhetoric: A Foundation for Literary Study. Edited by David E. Orton and Richard Dean Anderson. Translated by Matthew T. Bliss, Annemiek Jansen, and David E. Orton. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1998.

    The major compendium of Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition arranged according to the five divisions of ancient rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

  • Martin, Josef. Antike Rhetorik: Technik und Methode. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 2.3. Munich: Beck, 1974.

    Another major compendium of Greco-Roman rhetoric arranged according to the five divisions of ancient rhetoric.

  • Perelman, Chaim, and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Translated by John Wilkinson and Purcell Weaver. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1969.

    Lists, explains, defends, and refutes various types of rhetorical arguments.

  • Porter, Stanley E., ed. Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period: 330 B.C.–A.D. 400. Boston: Brill, 2001.

    An important collection of essays in three parts: defining rhetoric according to genre, invention, arrangement, style, delivery, and memory; rhetoric in practice in different genres, including biography, history, epistle, and apocalyptic; and rhetoric in the works of individual writers, including Luke, Paul, and John.

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