Epideictic Rhetoric, Apophatic Theology, Sophism, Jesus Christ and Paul

Lately, due to someone unnamed who has written an unpublished article which I was blessed in reading, I’ve been studying epideictic rhetoric. I was able to turn to a great expert in this area (I leave everyone unnamed out of respect of them) and dialogue. Here are some of the thoughts that I’ve explored. First, I note that in doing this, I have to say that the early Christian communities could not have been as uneducated as we are led to believe in that they used recognizable rhetorical skill. Granted, we can believe that only Paul or certain 2nd century bishops were this educated, but what would be the value of writing letters in this manner if the audience wouldn’t ‘get it’?

I am using George A Kennedy’s Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition: From Ancient to Modern Times, and while I have not read all of it, he has provided some interesting clues as to Aristotle’s epideictic rhetorical style. I’ll give a treatment of Kennedy’s treatment first.

Kennedy notes (p73-76) that a hearer of the speech will either be a judge or a theoros, or spectator. The former looks at evidence about the past and the future. These decisions require a rhetorical skill which is either judicial or deliberative. The desired result has justice as secondary with personal harm (or group harm) as the primary concern of the hearer. The epideictic, however has the hearer as not a judge in the judicial sense. Kennedy interprets Aristotle’s epideictic ‘as the praise or blame of a man and that the final cause of such a speech is demonstration of the honorable or the shameful.’ Kennedy goes on to say that such a speech is suitable for funerals or sophistic speech.

Sophism is a philosophical pursuit of  “excellence” or “virtue,” which speculates about the nature of language and culture, employing rhetoric to persuade or convince others. Sophists, followers of this philosophers, believed they could find the answers to everything. Sophism has a strong connection to Christian, where Kennedy notes such early Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus used sophistic philosophy in the fourth century of the Christian era. Sophism, Kennedy remarks (p16-17), emphasizes the speaker, rather than the speech or audience. It presents an ideal orator which pushes society to a ‘noble fulfillment of national ideas.’ It is different from the Socratic method, which involves questions and answers, as it promoted speeches and lectures. It focused on the orator, not the audience. Kennedy notes that a handbook on epideictic rhetoric is preserved among the works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60-7bc), a Second Sophistic.

I pause to note that Christ was called a sophist, although perhaps as sarcasm. Lucian, a 2nd century Greek Satirist, alludes to Christ in these words:

“The man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. . . . Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws” (On the Death of Peregrine).

It is possible that Lucian confused the rhetorical ‘sophist’ with the early Church’s use of Sophia/Wisdom for Christ, although Lucian, we can be sure, is still being rather sarcastic.

Aristotle expands the epideictic to gods, animals and inanimate objects (Kennedy, p73). In doing so, he Kennedy notes that the lets the moral tone of philosophical rhetoric slip. The ancient philosopher starts to connect the audience through association of shared qualities to the object of the oration and gives the reason simply as persuasion. Aristotle goes a step further, which will soon be my point, in saying that if the speaker does not have enough to say about his opponent, than he should start to compare the subject to others and therefore combines qualities –

Again, if you cannot find enough to say of a man himself, you may pit him against others, which is what Isocrates used to do owing to his want of familiarity with forensic pleading. The comparison should be with famous men; that will strengthen your case; it is a noble thing to surpass men who are themselves great. It is only natural that methods of “heightening the effect” should be attached particularly to speeches of praise; they aim at proving superiority over others, and any such superiority is a form of nobleness. Hence if you cannot compare your hero with famous men, you should at least compare him with other people generally, since any superiority is held to reveal excellence.

In the issue of praise and blame, an object of comparison, regardless of reality, needs to be present in order to lead the audience to the ‘right way.’ Praise and blame may be given in negative or positive.

Although  Apophatic Theology is not completely in our purview, I want to take the time to examine it in light of the above statements on epideictic and sophistic rhetorical philosophy. In Apophatic Theology, more philosophy it seems than theology, God is approached by what He is not. It is called ‘negative theology’ and is a large part of more mystical forms of Christianity, including sects of the Orthodox communions. In the West, Thomas Aquinas is credited with the revival of this form of theology and the use of Aristotelian rhetoric by Christianity. I note as well that C.S. Lewis advocated Apophatic Theology for the new Christian.

It seems that Paul used a mixture of this Rhetoric in his address to the Athenians atop Mar’s Hill. In Acts 17.23-31, Paul relates to the Philosophers the known and unknown about the Unknown God, relating what is unknown produces the known, pointing people to the God of the Scriptures.

Comments from Dialogue:

(Dialoguer) …Dale L. Sullivan’s, “Establishing Orthodoxy: The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch as Epideictic Rhetoric,” Journal of Communication and Religion 15.2 (1992).  Sullivan’s written lots on epideictic rhetoric — so he’s now an expert on it.  In fact, for Sullivan, even rhetorical criticism (i.e., expert analysis of others’ rhetoric) is itself “epideictic.”  You can read what Sullivan says to define “epideictic” — from Aristotle and then from Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca.  Sullivan’s claim is that “epideictic” rhetoric functions to make what’s orthodox in a monolithic culture even more orthodox.

(Dialoguer) …Here’s more from Michael F. Carter in “The Ritual Functions of Epideictic Rhetoric: The Case of Socrates’ Funeral Oration” Rhetorica, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Summer, 1991), page 230.  Carter is saying that Socrates, in giving a fine funeral speech, is greeted with suspicion by Menexenus because the speech was written by a woman, Aspasia.  The epideictic speech, therefore, must be fiction (if Socrates believes a woman).  Carter starts here by quoting Socrates and expounds:

“If you practice these precepts, you will come to join us as friends to friends, when your apportionment sends you forth. But if you neglect these precepts and behave basely, no one will receive you kindly” (247c). With these words Socrates invites Athenians to conduct their lives according to the models he has presented in his speech, to adhere to the values that have driven the city in the past and should drive it in the future. The true worthiness of each individual man who is eulogized is irrelevant here. The focus is on the image, the falsehood that is all the more true for being false, the fiction that inspires imitation. That is what epideictic rhetoric is all about.

(me) I came across a reference to Kennedy’s use of the term (the reference was in Sullivan’s article), so I am trying to catch up on that. I find that you are indeed correct in that even with Aristotle, much like the bible, Aristotle is approached instead of Aristotle approaching us. Carter’s quote has helped a great deal in understanding this issue. What then do we make of the early Christian communities if their leaders, such as Ignatius, whom they loved enough to preserve his letters, was educated enough in Aristotle to write letters in such a fashion – and not only the leaders, but those who would read them?

(Dialoguer) notice how on pg 73, he says that Aristotle considers the audience the judge of epideictic, and that Gorgias was for Arist. an example.  If so, then Ignatius would be to Arist. a sort of Sophist, if Ignat. is indeed writing as Gorgias did.  Ever read the Praise of Helen?  It’s the stuff Aristotle hated, praising of a woman, yes, but slippery in it’s conclusion, way too open ended

(me) Kennedy makes mention again (p74) of Isocrates where the author writes to ‘get an audience to make judgments about future policies for Athens and Greece.’ (Kennedy goes on to connect this, I believe, to the Christian mission to convert; however, seeing that both Paul’s and Ignatius’ letters were not written to convert, but written to protect the community in the expected absence of Paul or Ignatius, depending on the community. Ignatius’ letters were written, perhaps then, to protect the community, to call them to make a choice already in advance of heresies that might be coming in such a way that Isocrates, according to Kennedy, wrote. I think of Paul’s sermon to the Ephesians in Acts 20 in which he warns of future heresies from even within, and essentially calls the elders to stand with him, even after he has met his expected fate.

Or, if I may turn again, if epideictic was used as ‘performance’ especially, say, for funerals, then it would seem that in the light of Ignatius’ upcoming martyrdom it would be a proper speech to given, for himself.

(Dialoguer) Jesus using sophistic (even epideictic) rhetorics; Ignatius prophesying his own martyrdom perhaps in his epideictic letter writing.  I myself tend to think Aristotle’s classes of epideictic, forensic, and politic rhetorics are not quite as discrete as he wanted them to be.  And it’s rather convenient for him to use epideictic as the catch-all, catching all that’s NOT either forensic rhetoric or politic rhetoric.  Jesus would, for example, would praise an unrighteous judge (as being like God) after telling a parable in which there was the unrighteous judge.  That praise (of God and of the judge for the virtues of being Giving and for Granting requests) is epideictic.  But in the very same parable, there’s a whiny woman who is using persuasive rhetoric to get the judge to listen.  That is deliberative, political rhetoric.  And similarly, that the parable has a judge in it makes us think of Aristotle’s class “forensic” (i.e., judicial) because the judge is almost having to try a case in the parable: whether or not the woman has a just or injust situation that he can rule on.  The thing Luke is doing by retelling the parable is showing the judicial rhetoric of Jesus in the context of Law disputes with the Pharisees and disciples.  So, is Luke 18:1-18 epideictic, political, or judicial rhetoric?

As you can tell, my questioning is at best worse.I am no rhetorician.

Moving Towards a Conclusion:

If we examine Paul’s enemies – for example, in the Galatians – we could see that the enemy is not real in a literal sense, but in a figurative sense. The same can be said of the fear of slipping away in Hebrews, in that by using the fear and the figure of outsiders with bad doctrine, or doctrine which could be if the Church didn’t watch, then the new Way could become a simple sect of Judaism with Jesus only as a prophet. Take for example Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of the church at Ephesus,

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock– his church, purchased with his own blood– over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you– my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you. (Act 20:28-31 NLT)

Paul could not name an attack, past or ongoing, against the congregation, but used the future ‘mights’ as a method in which to shore up the ‘here and now.’ The Apostle mentioned that some from the group before him would lead the charge to distort the truth. Had the audience not be receptive to such a method, if Paul used epideictic rhetoric, then could they not have turned in on themselves at Paul’s behest? Instead, Paul is using a speech which engenders in his audience and alert outlook so that even in their own introspection, they seek to hold to what Paul has taught.

And what of the gospels?, in which the writers constantly united Jesus with God whether by divine qualities, actions, or statements? The same can be said of the first real confrontation between Mark’s Jesus and His religious community. In healing the paralyzed man (Mark 2), Jesus simply says ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (divine) which enraged the Pharisees (human). Jesus then knew what they were thinking (divine) and replied by questioning them. Turning to the sick man, He simply said to rise and walk (divine), which the man did. The power of Jesus, and His divine humility (positive), is contrasted against the emotional and ineffectual pharisees (negative).

And of John? In John’s Gospel, we find long speeches given by Jesus in which it is left for the audience, in the story and the readers/listeners, to decide if they believe. Simply put, the Prologue John 1.1.-14 (and the epilogue, 1st John 1.1-4), is a speech which far surpasses the Synoptics in producing evidences of the supernatural decent of Jesus Christ.

And then, again, of Paul? Paul met with many enemies, some of which are still undefined and those that are still wrestled with today. (Even in the Apocalypse, we find the term Nicolatians, which has baffled scholars and theologians since the reception) If Paul was writing in epideictic style, especially in Galatians as a whole, then Paul’s enemy was simply time, in that he was fighting to prevent what he saw could happen once the last of the original voices were lost.

For those you who want a better treatment – one that makes sense – try this post here. This post is only meant to stir conversation and hopefully give me a better handle on a few of these issues.

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2 Replies to “Epideictic Rhetoric, Apophatic Theology, Sophism, Jesus Christ and Paul”

  1. Joel,
    Watch out with that Aristotelian logic (lol), the chief of which is the central archievement of which was (is) the doctrine of the syllogism. Of course it was the logic of Roman Catholicism for many, many years! This can see be positive to me, and development in doctrine.

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