Okay, so this is the first assignment for the Rhetoric class. Don’t judge me too harshly.
Aristotle gives three forms of rhetoric: the political, the forensic and the epideictic, or ceremonial displays of another person’s character. Further, the ancient philosopher notes that the hearer is the one who determines the “speech’s end and object.” Aristotle’s teleological focus of rhetoric, which he defines as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,” may suggest for the Sermon on the Mount a more sophisticated view of the speech, to the end that Jesus was seeking to enact happiness (the goal of the political) as well to render justice (the goal of the forensic). While epideictic rhetoric may be used to view Jesus’ intent, it would only be valid if Jesus was intending to praise a single, model, individual while penalizing one who wasn’t a good citizen. The goal of this essay is not to prove that Jesus was using rhetoric, but to examine what might Aristotle say about the way in which Jesus spoke.
Aristotle notes that persuasion, in oral uses, is reliant upon the character of the speaker, the frame of mind of the audience, and the proof of words of the speech. To add to this is the ancient philosopher’s instructions that character is persuasive, but that emotions are also to be included as tools for the speaker. It is who is saying it and what reaction is received from the audience. Christ, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, takes the position of the Jewish sage (on a mountain). Before this, however, the character of Jesus is firmly grounded as one who is coming from God with a mission to Israel, with a second mission to the Gentile hinted at early on. He even experiences the reception in synagogues and the cities due to popular teachers (Matthew 4.23). His character, then, is one which should be known, especially after passing the tests in 4.4-11, which have a resemblance to three texts from Deuteronomy (6.13, 16; 8.3). Further, with this connection to Deuteronomy, the character of Jesus is not only tested, but Jesus is connected to the Lawgiver in Deuteronomy, which foreshadows the Blessings (similar to Deuteronomy’s structure) in Matthew 5.1-12. This should lead us, then, to examine the Beatitudes in light of Aristotle’s note that “ethical studies may fairly be called political; and for this reason rhetoric masquerades as political science.” Jesus, then, with his character tested, is able to deliver a political discourse without signaling openly that he is challenging the socio-political structure of his day, which is called by Aristotle and enthymeme.
This concept of enthymeme is central to Aristotle’s rhetoric, as he goes so far as to say that the “one who effects persuasion through proof does in fact use enthymemes or examples: there is no other way.” For Aristotle, the enthymeme allows the speaker to state something in such a way as to have the audience supply the premise. If Jesus was not yet ready in Matthew to announce the Church, or the Kingdom, openly, his use of the Deuteronomic system of Blessings may have signaled to the audience that he was intent on re-establishing the society called for by Deuteronomy and may have allowed the audience to see Jesus as the Prophet-Like-Moses (Deut 18.15-19). The enthymeme would have been used to allow the audience to choose to see Jesus either as another sage, or to draw, that is if they had hears to ear, that he was the Messiah. This would have given the audience a ‘buy-in’, if one will, which Aristotle notes excites “the louder applause” because they themselves had figured out the words of Jesus.
Returning to the style of speech, I first note that the Sermon on the Mount encompasses Matthew 5-7 and is divided into different subsections. There are the familiar beatitudes in the first part of chapter 5. Following that is the discourse on Salt and Light and the re-establishment of the Law. Chapter 6 deals with good works and the proper motivation. Finally, in chapter 7 false judgment and false prophets are spoken against, giving rise, at the end of that chapter, to a connection to epideictic rhetoric. Taken as a whole, and if heard aloud, Jesus may be seen as engaging in the deliberation about what brings happiness (blessedness), which is the usual enumerated virtues, but so too the lack of materialism, the avoidance of false prophets, proper motivation in doing good things and in properly applying the Law. If forensic rhetoric is to be found in defending himself against charges of being the false prophet who had come to abolish the Law, leading Israel to follow after other gods. Further, he urges out-of-court settlements as well as establishes the proper reactions, justice, to those wronged by divorce, murder, and adultery. In regards to finding the epideictic, I must be cautious at this point, but if taken as a whole, the one who follows Jesus into the new kingdom will be praised, and happy (blessed), but the one who abuses the Law and others, as well as seek material gain, which might lead them to follow false prophets will be damned. Of course, given that Matthew is written, it may meet Aristotle’s rationale of epideictic (Fortenbaugh, 119), but given the fact that the culture was oral and not literate, the Sermon on the Mount was meant to be read aloud, rather than read privately.
During the Sermon of the Mount, if Jesus was using a principle similar enough to the enthymeme, then there would have been no need to call attention to specific examples neither state a general principle for his discourse. To do so would have the words of Jesus, according to Aristotle, move from the realm of rhetoric to the realm of science. Further, given the direction of the Sermon of the Mount, I note Fortenbaugh’s words on 112, “Moreover, the orator is concerned with persuading a particular audience and therefore must argue from the beliefs and conceptions actually held by a given audience.” The audience in question then, was not just the historical audience in Matthew’s writings, but the audience which heard Matthew’s Gospel spoken aloud.
One of the areas in which Aristotle may disagree with Jesus is the friendliness to the establishment. Fortenbaugh notes (115) that for the ancient philosopher, someone like Jesus, who was in a position of authority should be friendly to the “established political arrangement.” This was clearly not the case, given the Sermon of the Mount signaled out materialism, false prophets, and the Scribes and Pharisees as well as the later confrontations between Jesus and the political and religious establishments. While the limitations of searching the Matthean mind is that we cannot know his rhetorical background, if we take Aristotle’s rules as a near universal constant, then we can note the (even unintended) similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and Aristotle’s methods of rhetoric, while allowing for dissimilarities, given perhaps, more to who Jesus was than the collected speeches of what Jesus said.
 Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, Mt 4:23 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
 Craig S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament, Mt 4:1-11 (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
 Fortenbaugh notes on 110 that the use of the enthymeme is motivated by “audience psychology.” I may surmise, given the dating of the composition of Matthew, that the audience psychology was at a very nervous state. If the Sermon on the Mount was read aloud, as Aristotle notes about Rhetoric, after the destruction of the Temple, with the violent use of the Imperial Cult, with Jews being dispersed, along with Messiah-believers being turned out of the synagogues, then the words of Jesus promising a renewed Deuteronomic Kingdom may have be as political as Aristotle notes ethics usually are and every bit as psychologically needed as we have seen in the modern area during times of war and destruction.
 Fortenbaugh notes that virtue is an important point of epideictic rhetoric (112). He writes that for Aristotle, virtue is “most at home in epideictic”.
- Review: Kingdom Ethics-Part 1 (simuliustusetpeccator.com)
- Greg Beale on “Recognizing Exaggeration in the Teachings of Jesus (anchorforthesoul.org)
- Greg Beale on “Recognizing Hyperbole in the Teachings of Jesus” (anchorforthesoul.org)
- D.A. Carson on the Lutheran approach to the Sermon on the Mount (anchorforthesoul.org)
- G.E. Ladd on the Sermon on the Mount 2 (anchorforthesoul.org)