A Prolegomena to Reading the New Testament: “Rhetoric, History, and Theology: Interpreting the New Testament”
Todd Still and Jason Myers, eds. Rhetoric, History, and Theology: Interpreting the New Testament. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2022.     “Any scholar approaching the New Testament is confronted with a multiplicity of tasks. There is the time period in which the text under discussion was written, the way in which it was written, and the… The post A Prolegomena to Reading the New Testament: “Rhetoric, History, and Theology: Interpreting the New Testament” appeared first on VoegelinView.




Todd Still and Jason Myers, eds. Rhetoric, History, and Theology: Interpreting the New Testament. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2022.



“Any scholar approaching the New Testament is confronted with a multiplicity of tasks. There is the time period in which the text under discussion was written, the way in which it was written, and the attempted aim(s) of its author(s) in their purpose and plan for producing such a text.” This statement is true even for lay readers in our age of mass literacy and post-Reformation interpretative spirituality. To read the New Testament, or the Bible more generally, without consideration or knowledge of the history, rhetorical composition, and theological interpretations of the text, is to come to a rich and dense oasis filled with sustenance unprepared and without the ability to fully enjoy where one is dwelling and traveling.
One of the tasks of any good religious and biblical studies program is to expose students to the “multiplicity of tasks” in reading the Bible be it for scholarly or pastoral and spiritual purposes. This entails some degree of immersion in the cultures and ideas of the ancient Near East, biblical writing styles and genres, and historical theology (and the best programs will also provide language training). In this new book, Rhetoric, History, and Theology: Interpreting the New Testament, editors Todd Still and Jason Myers bring together a compilation of essays written by various New Testament scholars that do exactly that (while honoring the eminent biblical scholar Ben Witherington in the process), and, in doing so, have provided a concise and erudite introduction to the New Testament that guides its readers into the complex world of biblical scholarship and the even more complex world of the Bible.
Revelation is the key foundation for Christianity, as it is for Judaism. Bill Arnold notes, “While everyone agrees that God’s revelation is foundational to what we believe as Christians, theologians do not agree on the form(s) of revelation.” Is physical appearance important to revelation? This has precedent in Near Eastern religion where mystic union with the numinous object which contains God predominates. Or is it the oral communication, the speech revelation, that matters? “Especially in predominantly oral cultures,” Arnold writes, “spoken words had their own power.” It is longstanding Christian tradition that God “spoke” creation into existence and throughout the Old Testament theophanies God speaks to the prophets.
The Apostle Paul’s reliance on the Jewish Scripture (as well as the other New Testament authors) may strike one as an oddity if “spoken words had their own power” and the revelations of God in the Torah were oral in nature from which one supposes that oral revelation is the crowning pinnacle of biblical theophany (as it frankly is in the Old Testament narratives). After all, great lengths are taken by the authors or the Torah narratives to hide God’s physicality and portray the importance of God’s speech as the foundation of revelation to Abraham, the Patriarchs, and the Prophets. This is a radical break with the numinous theophanies of the broader Near Eastern culture in which ancient Israel was situated. This concept of oral revelation and minimizing God’s physical appearances is carried forward with the ultimate theophanic revelation in Exodus at Sinai. But because “the text minimizes the physicality of God in order to move immediately to the verbal content,” it is not hard to see how or why orality eventually gives way to written revelation and why Paul and the other New Testament writers subsequently rely on the written Old Testament as their basis of revelatory faith more than the oral tradition.
This leads to a niche debate in biblical interpretation, going back to Julius Wellhausen, whether the religion of the ancient Israelites was altered by the written Torah which became the basis for the eventual development of Judaism. As Wellhausen himself wrote, “it is a thing which is likely to occur, that a body of traditional practices should only be written down when it is threaten to die out, and that a book should be, as it were, the ghost of a life which is closed.” Yet this thesis of rupture between the theophanies of ancient Israel and the written Torah of Judaism fails to see the continuity in the post-exilic biblical composition which wasn’t something new but something going back to the very heart of the religion of ancient Israel: oral revelation from God now transmitted to written preservation where the written preservation is the oral revelation. The oral revelations are what the post-exilic compilers decide to preserve and emphasize irrespective of textual redaction.
The revelations of God preserved in the Hebrew Bible which inform the Christian inheritance of these texts therefore maintain continuity with the oral revelation thesis rather than break from it. For oral revelation to be preserved written revelation logically follows, hence the Bible becomes the locus of revelation and not oral transmission down through the ages which is subject to alteration, misremembering, and extra-revelatory addition (though this is also an argument for critical skepticism concerning what has been preserved). Likewise, the Bible’s breaking from ancient Near Eastern numinous physicalism in its oral revelation (which is given prefatory guidelines since the first revelation we read in the biblical chronology is God’s speaking of creation in Genesis 1) to written revelation is a major transformative moment in human consciousness. Scripture takes on authority and supplants the custodial guardians of the oral revelation and the numinous idol makers which implicitly drives greater literacy and need for education as a result because reading Scripture is now the wellspring to access Divine revelation.
In a very brief introductory chapter, Arnold highlights what many now take for granted but still fight over: the Bible as revelation. The Bible is revelation because it preserves, in some form, the original oral revelation of God to the patriarchs and prophets. That revelation is what mattered, but the preservation of that revelation would be impossible without “newly inscripturated word[s].”
The idea of the Bible as the deposit of God’s revelation is not a Protestant invention as certain critics claim for their own rhetorical agenda, it is the very basis on which the religion of Judah adhered and was carried forward into Christianity by Paul and various other New Testament authors. One only need to cross reference the New Testament’s many direct references and allusions to the Jewish Scripture to realize this. The opening chapter by Bill Arnold sets the stage for why the New Testament is the continuation of the revelatory tradition inherited from the Old Testament text.
The rhetoric of the Bible, then, is important because its rhetoric is the revelatory spirit of communication. Biblical rhetoric, informed by its contextual and cultural history, informs theology. We, as twenty-first century readers, are the inheritors of this long tradition. And we mustn’t forget the Bible, the written word, as revelation when interpreting the New Testament.
With the basis of the Bible as the revelation of God for the reasons heretofore explained in Arnold’s chapter, the rest of the book proceeds to provide windows into reading the New Testament: the construction and use of characters and characterizations, internal rhetoric, cultural and historical roots of those characters and characterizations, while also rebutting some of the various other interpretative schools of New Testament scholarship.
We encounter, for example, the Jewish contexts of femininity and the portrayal of women in Luke. The cultural and historical context matter because it is from the cultural and historical context that theological expositions are crafted drawing on the rhetoric and description of Martha and Mary in Luke’s gospel. Furthermore, an understanding of the cultural and historical context allows us to better understand the story that is found in the New Testament gospel and this knowledge permits us to stand guard against overly politicized interpretations seeking a “transgressive” Jesus motivated more from contemporary causes than any semblance to first century Levantine social culture.
We also encounter the problem of authorial intention in interpretation. For instance, what makes the Gospel of John unique? Beyond the Jerusalem-focus and the rather structured story plot, the Gospel of John tells the perspective of “the disciple Jesus loved.” Realizing the authorial window to a text is crucial to its interpretation. “John’s Gospel,” Richard Bauckham writes, “is written from a perspective of a perceptive witness, the Beloved Disciple.” Because of this, the Gospel of John is much more unique than the synoptics as it gives us a more personal and intimate window into Jesus than the broad omniscient biographical narrators of the synoptics.
The Gospel of John emphasizes the love of Christ and having a relationship with Christ just as the Beloved Disciple did. (John uses apage and agapao more than the three other gospels combined!) Once realizing that John’s Gospel shares the perspective from a disciple whom Jesus considered a very close friend, it isn’t surprising that we meet the other close friends of Jesus in John’s Gospel and that friendship is the central theme from which self-giving love emanates in the text (that most famous line of love being sacrifice for one’s friends is only found in the Gospel of John). If we miss this authorial perspective, we miss the purpose to which the Gospel of John was written in its rhetorical form—to share the reality of God’s love through friendship with Jesus, a friendship that the Beloved Disciple experienced during Jesus’s ministry and now wishes to share with others which is reflected in the rhetoric of the text.
But authorial intention can equally have multiple layers. Gary Burge draws our attention to something that one of my professors at Yale drew our attention to when studying the Gospel of John: the use of irony, misunderstanding, and multi-layered dichotomies within the text. If John “is aware of his reader and he invites us to experience the same revelatory tension found among his characters” who subsequently finds oneself saturated in these multiple layers of meaning, then we as readers in the twenty-first century must have some awareness of the multifaceted rhetoric of the Gospel of John if we’re going to receive the message as John intended. As Burge argues, “I sit and listen as an outsider,” when first reading or encountering John’s Gospel. However, in time, the listener or reader realizes John’s authorial voice is acting as a mentor and one becomes an insider who is now aware of the fullness of truth and meaning that John is communicating.
On a broader point, authorial intention overlaps with the rhetoric of all New Testament texts being read. Rhetoric informs the meaning of words and sentences and what should be taken by its listeners or readers. This also means theology cannot escape the spirit of rhetoric; when we draw our theologies from the text we are reading, understanding the rhetoric—for instance, the use and frequency of love in the Gospel of John—will affect our theological construction of what is being communicated. Here we return to God’s revelation through communication, something that all the New Testament writers presuppose since they write records of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus for us to hear. “Ears to hear” anyone?
Cultural context is equally important to any reader of the New Testament. For instance, the strong language of sonship is sometimes presented as Romanist ideology infiltrating the Gospels. This is patently false, or at the very least misleading, as Craig Keener explains. Sonship obedience and care for one’s father was widespread across the whole of the Mediterranean, and especially so in the Levantine socio-cultural filial context and not, therefore, unique to the Augustan ideology of Roman pietas. Furthermore, Jesus as obedient Son tells us about the model of faithfulness that the authors are seeking to communicate. Realizing the “pervasive” father-son culture of Levantine and Mediterranean antiquity also equips readers to deal with subordinationist claims on Christological issues as well as preparing readers for dealing with Sonship Christology in Trinitarian theological controversies.
Likewise, the New Testament writers quote from Plato, Greek drama, and other Greek sources which indicate their familiarity with those works. This, too, potentially impacts how we read the “household codes” of the Pauline (and deutero-Pauline) epistles. Judith Gundry makes a compelling case that the Pauline household code in 1 Corinthians is written, in part, as “a critical engagement with Aristotle’s topos of household management.” When we read New Testament literature about the family, realizing that these works didn’t emerge in a vacuum but were also responding to the culture of family life and management around them (mid/late first century Antiquity) is deeply important for our contemporary discernment of meaning to be drawn from said texts. It also gives us pause to consider whether too much Greek accommodation down through the centuries has tainted the original meaning of various New Testament writings which are far from positive in their inclusion of Greek philosophical material.
Rinse and repeat through the various New Testament texts that all New Testament scholars and readers encounter. What is the rhetoric and why is it being employed? How is it being employed? What signification is drawn (theologically) from the rhetoric being used? Also, what is the historical context and cultural backdrop to the stories, depictions, and characterizations in the New Testament writings?
We who are now two millennia removed from that history and culture can have serious problems when reading culturally, sexually, and political (in)sensitive language and depictions in the New Testament writings. Understanding the New Testament’s history and cultural context aids us in navigating these difficult passages as well as equips us to recognize when other interpreters lack that knowledge when they write or speak on the same passages. It also prepares readers or scholars who have explicit theological and pastoral ends for their task: the communication and living witness of truth in love. We live by speech united in love.
In this remarkably readable volume, which includes chapters by Jeffrey Weima and N.T. Wright, Rhetoric, History, and Theology acts as an enriching guide into the complexities of the New Testament while simultaneously honoring the seventieth birthday of a preeminent Methodist biblical scholar. Pick up and read is good advice. But familiarizing yourself with the rhetorical goals, culture and history, and the theological and Christological commitments of the various authors is an indispensable aid in picking up and reading the New Testament. This book is a great companion guide as it provides some of that context for readers to build from when dealing with most influential book in human history.

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