Paula Fredriksen: Paul’s Letters as Greco-Roman Rhetoric

Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 63-64.

Paul’s letters are instances of Greco-Roman rhetoric. The conventions of ancient epistolary style and the rhetorical tropes that Paul employs to persuade his hearers need to be taken into account when we try to interpret his letters. Of these, we must attend particular to Paul’s use of diatribe (illustrative argument) and of prosopopoeia (“speech in character,” the rhetorical introduction of another “voice” or persona to sharpen the speaker’s arguments) when interpreting him. More globally, we need to be aware of the adversarial conventions of Greco-Roman rhetorical culture in general when weighing aspects of Paul’s teaching, especially with respect to his complaints about his apostolic competition. The goal of ancient rhetoric and its primary purpose was persuasion, not accurate description of an opposing side’s position. It taught speakers how to win oral arguments. If that was accomplished through artful overstatement, well and good: that is exactly what students of rhetoric were trained to do.

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