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Epistle as Literature: rhetorical presence

A Literary Study, Part Three—


Rhetorical Presence of the Letter

Rhetorical Presence and Ethos
Mimetic of Oral Discourse

The fundamental reason for casting any document in an epistolary format lay in the rhetorical dimension inherent in dialogue and when the dialogue could be further framed as friend speaking with friend, then the communicative distance between writer and reader immediately lessened

However, classical theorists were careful to distinguish written dialogue from its oral counterpart. In fact, Detmetrius immediately qualifies Artemon’s notion of letter as dialogue:

There is perhaps some truth in what he says, but not the whole truth. The letter should be a little more studied than the dialogue, since the latter reproduces an extemporary utterance, while the former is committed to writing and is (in a way) sent as a gift. (224)

At best, even the most private letter can only be substitutive of something more endearing. Yet, perhaps because the letter required both time and thought, its written dialogue could be regarded as a gift. Even the physical presence of a letter with inscribed names and wrapped contents suggest something gift-like.
There is also the sense of timelessness. Unlike spoken words, the words on a page have a large sense of permanency about them. Such words can be both held and seen, and although the permanency may be illusionary, such words represent a written record, an attempt to freeze the transitory nature of time.

Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth (2).

Even beyond the notion of dialogue though, the epistolary format brings with it other dimensions which make it immediately adaptable as a communicative tool.


Format of the Epistle—



One such dimension is the format itself. Since the letter includes both an opening and closing, the very style of the letter evokes a persuasive rhetorical setting. In Book III of his Rhetoric, Aristotle places arrangement along side of both style and proof with introduction and epilogue being essential features in persuasive discourse.

In the case of the letter, epistolary formulae not only offered a way to begin and end a dialogue, but also provided rhetorical opportunities for manipulating the core message itself. Notes Aristotle—

Once you have a starting-point, you can prove anything with ease. (1418a)

The hyperbole here, of course, emphasizes the effectiveness of arrangement in persuasion. Perhaps, even more illustrative is the perorational closing Aristotle cites as a way of ending his book:

I have spoken; you have heard; you know the facts; now give your decision. (III.xix.6)

The ending of Galatians, while not near as dramatic, retains a sense of forcefulness nonetheless by reiterating what has been argued:

From henceforth let no man trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.
Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (6:17, 18)

If others bore the marks of circumcision, Paul bore the scars of persecution on his body. Then, the argument shifts abruptly from flesh to spirit with a closing wish that the grace of Christ be with their spirit. Such a closure, of course, accords with Aristotle’s recommendation of ending with an expressive contrast between our position and that of our opponent’s:

Commend yourself, censure him, and hammer in your points (1419b).

As noted earlier, the complex opening formulae in Galatians likewise exhibits a skillful awareness of the rhetorical presence in argumentation.

The Dimension of Personality—



Co-jointly with the epistolary format, another dimension favoring the letter as a rhetorical device is the dimension of personality. Essentially, the appeal is one of ethos, yet the vitality, the coloring of the sentiments, the references to past experiences and recollections all combine to impart to the letter a force uniquely its own. For the recipient, the private letter represents the personalized interplay between two close friends. Even when the writer and recipient are not close friends, the dimension of intimacy lurks in the background. Any conversation that is meant for us alone carries with it its own sense of importance. Add to that the personality of the writer and the rhetorical setting changes dramatically, a point which Demetrius puts down:

The letter, like the dialogue, should abound in glimpses of character. It may be said that everybody reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer’s character, but none so clearly as in the epistolary. (227)

Even though the actual rhetorical setting of a letter may be contrived and even predetermined, the impression for the recipient focuses largely on the authenticity associated with spontaneity and genuineness. The intimacy of the moment elicits from the reader a reciprocal response.

Such a dimension of authenticity lends itself to the general approach followed in New Testament rhetoric. In fact, primarily the gospel message resides in the ethos or character of the person promulgating the message. After all, the New Testament writings ultimately arise out of an oral tradition with the gospel message essentially as a spoken message. Like Socrates, Jesus himself left no writings. Unlike Socrates, though, Jesus “went throughout every city and village, preaching” (Lk. 8:1).

And unlike Greek epidictic oratory which had dramatic spectacle as an intended goal, the proclamation of the gospel focused on securing the adherence of an audience, a point which can be readily seen in Agrippa’s well known response to Paul: “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Persuasion lay at the heart of the gospel oratory address, yet message and speaker reinforced the overall persuasive stance with the credibility of the one directly impacting the credibility of the other. Consequently, the New Testament writings are replete with such statements as: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:7). There is the well-known dictum of Paul which asks a series of rhetorical questions:

How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Rom. 10:14, 15)

Naturally, just as oral discourse and speaker are concinnously interrelated, so the epistolary format likewise frames itself in the presence and ethos of the person writing the letter. In Galatians the question of Paul’s status as an apostle fundamentally becomes a question of the authenticity of his character.


To Be Read Aloud—




Yet, such authenticity becomes even more compelling when we consider the fact that in antiquity the letter was customarily read aloud. There are, of course, copious references in Aristotle, Cicero, and even Quintilian focusing on the importance of the sound of prose in public address, and Socrates countered that Gorgias’ oratory displays were but the mere pandering to an audience, having more sound than reality (463). More definitive that these references, though, is Augustin’s shock of seeing Ambrose read in silence:

But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. (VI.3)

Certainly, it seems logical enough that if a discourse is meant to be understood, it is meant to be heard. In addition, the comparing of a letter to a dialogue would necessarily include some mimetic sense of a spoken exchange between friends. In fact, the very cadence of words and the corresponding rhythm in spoken language have a communicative function as important as the thoughts and sentiments the words seek to inscribe. A scream, after all, may not be word, but there is no question that the scream communicates. Classical theorist understood the close bond between sound and meaning.

Seemingly, the New Testament epistles were read aloud in a public setting. The opening statement in Revelation bestows a blessing both on the reader and the listener:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy. . . .(1:3).

Especially significant here is that the reader is cast in the singular, and the audience in the plural, suggesting one reader but a group of listeners. Other references specifically enjoin the formal reading of a letter:

I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren (1 Thess. 5:17).

Neither posting the letter nor distributing copies could fulfill the specifics laid down by this religious injunction. The words are very clear as to what was to be done. Similar wording occurs at the close of another epistle:

And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea. (Col. 4:6)

In this instance, the rhetorical force is not only directive, but causative: not only send this letter, but have it read as well.

Clearly antithetical to Augustin’s comment of surprise is the narrative reference in Acts, seemingly describing what had to have been a common scene— a man reading to himself, but reading aloud:

Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? (8:29, 30)

That reading aloud was the common practice in antiquity, and that the epistles sent to churches were intended to be read before an assembled audience evidence an awareness of an oral dimension in discourse.

In the case of churches, the public reading of a letter imparted a sense of vividness to the message as well as creating a sense of cohesion among those who made up the audience. Since the reading took place before an assembled group, the experience was something shared, a notion very germane to the gospel. That the New Testament letter was thought of in this way can be readily illustrated. At the close of a number of the epistles there is often a litany of personal names. Romans, in fact, even includes a personalized greeting from the amanuensis who had transcribed the letter:

I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord” (16:22). As can be seen, this reference is not appended to the letter as an isolated post-script:
Timotheus my workfellow, and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipater, my kinsmen, salute you. I Tertius, who wrote this epistle, salute you in the Lord. Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you. Erastus the chamberlain of the city saluteth you, and Quartus a brother. (16:21-23)

In referencing himself, Tertius thereby places his role within that of a larger community, a community inclusive both of those who write such greetings, and of those who receive them. After all, a letter must have both sender and recipient; here, of course, the appeal invokes a rhetorical identity in which unanimity is strengthened by referencing a mutual convergence of one group with another.


Hellenistic Influence—




For reasons which we have outlined the epistolary format especially lent itself to the tone and appeal of early Christianity. In fact, the acknowledged dominance of the epistolary genre in the New Testament corpus makes it impossible to separate the message of the New Testament from its literary form. In this respect, of course, Deissmann was correct in arguing that the personal letter was the religious soul of the New Testament. His mistake, though, lay more in exuberance than in misunderstanding the ambiance evoked by the personal letter.

Yet, one point that needs to be stressed is the marked absence of the epistolary device as Old Testament literature. That is not to say that the Old Testament never mentions letter-writing. It does. In fact, even at a age generally conceded to be earlier than that of Homer the official letter seems to have been commonly employed, though, at times, in a rather sinister fashion. David gave Uriah a sealed letter for Joab. That letter carried Uriah’s own death sentence (2 Sam. 11: 14, 15). Jezebel wrote a similar letter in Ahab’s name to frame Naboth, assuring that he would be summarily condemned and executed (2 Kings 5:5-7). Naaman, the Syrian commander, came to Israel accompanied by a royal letter whose contents understandably brought consternation on the part of the recipient:

And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, Now when this letter is come unto thee, behold, I have therewith sent Naaman my servant to thee, that thou mayest recover him of his leprosy.

And it came to pass, when the king of Israel had read the letter, that he rent his clothes, and said, Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy? wherefore consider, I pray you, and see how he seeketh a quarrel against me. (2 Kings 5;5, 6).

Not all instances of letter-writing, though, carried such grim pronouncements. The written decree of Cyrus, the Persian monarch, both initiated and assured the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple (Ezra 1:2-4).

However, what is noticeably absent in the Old Testament corpus is the personal letter. There are no private letters such as we find with Cicero or Pliny (Roberts 8). There are no epistolary literature forms either. In fact, not one Old Testament book is framed as an epistle. Only in the apocrypha do we encounter a single book whose opening approximates that of a letter:

The Jewish brethren in Jerusalem and those in the land of Judea, To their Jewish brethren in Egypt, Greeting, and good peace. (2 Maccabees 1:2)

Stirewalt argues that the epistolary opening to 2 Maccabees is a later insertion, rather than part of the original (Greek, 183). Whether Sitrewalt’s position is correct or not, the reader is directly addressed in 2 Maccabees with the book being described by its writer as a summarized account of the Maccabean revolt. For our purposes though, the question is not whether the epistolary introduction is authentic, but rather the singularity of an epistolary format in an Old Testament book. Admittedly, 2 Maccabees originates during the Hellenistic period, much later than the conquests of Alexander the Great.

What all of this suggests, of course, is what we have been arguing all along—— the New Testament evidences a Greek influence with the most conclusive part of the evidence being the epistolary form itself. Further, the rhetoric of the New Testament has its roots in a classical origin, not in the sense that Betz infers. Galatians is a letter, not a forensic speech. Essentially, what Cicero offers is not a mechanical heuristic sequencing a compendium of rhetorical steps: exordium, narratio, propositio, and probatio. Even these logical categories are conditioned by the exigencies of time and circumstance. Yet, Betz’s notion of classical rhetoric impacting the literary form of New Testament discourse is quite accurate, but the form is that of the common Greek letter.

In this respect Deissmann was correct, but as we have seen, his separating letter from epistle eventually resulted in a dichotomy that led epistolary studies away from rhetorical underpinnings and toward the circumscribing of an epistolary grammar. Even Betz’s approach in some ways is itself another attempt at indexing and labeling.

What this means that whether Lightfoot, Deissmann, White, or Betz, the fundamental paradigm has remained essentially one of grammar with only the indexing and literary contexts changing from sentence level, to epistolary convention, to Ciceronian rhetoric. This dissertation has sought to argue for a classical rhetorical foundation, but one subsumed in an epistolary framework and sculpted by a consummate literary skill and rhetorical grace.


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