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Witherington III, Ben
1 and 2 Thessalonians. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2006. XXXI, 286 S. gr.8°. Kart. US$ 30,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-2836-1.
Ben Witherington III is one of the most productive Biblical scholars today. In the series of »socio-rhetorical commentaries«, he has produced seven volumes this far. The commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians is the shortest one, yet comprising of 300 pages.
Overall, W. has an admirable ability to write academic studies which are easy to understand. It is not usual that you can read a commentary from the beginning to the end without a break. Yet, the text is informative and contains numerous details. W. discusses several crucial questions concerning the Thessalonian correspondence and penetrates some particular exegetical questions as well. All this is done so that even a first year student can easily follow the argumentation. Most of the text is not superficial or too popular for serious academic discussion – if you do not mind sentences like »As far as Paul is concerned, the only God who ever walked the earth was Jesus, not the emperor …« or that prophecy is »80 % inspiration but 20 % perspiration«.
In his commentary of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, W. discusses mostly with a handful of American commentators. He refers to but a few German, French or Scandinavian scholars. Luckily enough, John Chrysostom is among the partners in discussion. Despite this, Greek words are too often misspelled. The novel aspect in this commentary is, however, not its style but the approach, as it claims to be »socio-rhetorical«. Unfortunately, the theoretical foundation of the method is not quite as solid as it could be. Despite the title, the book does not even mention Vernon Robbins or his famous socio-rhetorical criticism. There are no references to sociological theories, and compared to e. g. John Elliott’s sociological study of 1 Peter »A Home for the Homeless«, W.’s use of this perspective remains superficial.
More weight has been put on rhetorical criticism. Whereas most modern commentators have difficulties when trying to make at least some references to rhetoric, typically to the rhetorical structure of the text, W.’s series is one of the first attempts to apply a more general rhetorical perspective to the whole document. Thus, he discusses the rhetorical genus of the epistles and illuminates the use of several rhetorical devices used by Paul as well. Moreover, W. reminds us about the effect of Paul’s rhetoric to the way theology is presented in his epistles (235–237). W. calls for great cautiousness when reconstructing theological insights based on Paul’s rhetorical expressions. This is important indeed, and resembles the exegetical perspective called derhetorization. Thus, rhetoric does not mean for W. only a list of technical devices, but a larger perspective from which Pauline texts ought to be studied.
W.’s discussion concerning the genus of 1 Thessalonians is valuable as well (21–24). It is typical for beginners of rhetorical criticism that all texts are assessed as deliberative, since this is the genus which the handbooks mostly discuss. However, religious documents seldom aim at decision-making. They aim at reinforcing, modifying, or emphasizing existing values, beliefs, and modes of behavior. This type of text is called epideictic. W. rightly sees 1 Thessalonians as epideictic, and this influences his interpretation of the epistle as a whole.
However, there are problems with W.’s use of rhetorical criticism as well. The epideictic genus, and the term narratio are described in an uncritical way, as if their goal was not to persuade the audience, but just to state the plain facts (24–25). However, several studies have shown that epideictic speeches and narratio were and still are some of the most effective means of influencing the audience. This is because the latter seems to describe the situation in a neutral way, and the former does not explicitly urge the audience to make a specific decision. Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral is a good example of such an insinuatio. W., on the other hand, argues that Paul did not use insinuatio, but was instead »frank and direct« (28, n. 94). This would make Paul a poor orator indeed. There would be no need for rhetorical criticism, as most rhetorical devices and strategies function only if their goal is not too obvious.
Even W.’s general understanding of rhetoric is problematic. He prefers »classical rhetoric« instead of »modern« one, since »Paul is quite innocent of the new rhetoric that has risen in the modern era« (XI). However, all rhetorical criticism is modern by nature, as ancient rhetoric aimed at creating affective speeches, not at analyzing them. If references to rhetoric are used as a historical criterion, we must be able to prove that Paul knew by name all the rhetorical techniques we refer to. It would be better to use references to ancient rhetoric as a modern, heuristic tool. But if any modern perspective for studying ancient phenomena is banned, then we should correspondingly use the grammatical studies of Apollonius Dyscolus instead of modern grammars of ancient Greek.
The view of rhetoric solely as a historical phenomenon results in difficulties with epistolography. For example, 1 Thess. 1:1 is said not to belong to the rhetorical exordium of the letter, since the verse is an epistolary phenomenon. Yet, the following verse 1:2 is labeled as part of the exordium based on its function to »establish the ethos of the speaker and establish rapport with the audience«. But when the author in 1:1 presents himself as a famous apostle and wishes divine grace and peace to the recipients, does not this support his ethos and contact with the audience as well? – Correspondingly, W. claims that 1 Thess. 5:25–28 cannot belong to the peroratio, since these verses have »an epistolary character and function« (28, n. 94). It remains unclear how this function differs from the function of the peroratio. Do not these verses emphasize the pathos-aspect and urge for future action, just as a good peroratio should do?
The book contains sections entitled »Bridging the Horizons«, in which the reader is introduced e. g. to imaginary letters from Thessalonike. The style becomes religious rather than critical: »One who reads 1 Thessalonians with an open mind and heart cannot be but touched by the deep pathos of the text and the profound love and concerns exuding from Paul …«. The emotions Paul shows are »absolutely genuine and sincere« (63). But how can we reliably assess the nature of Paul’s emotions? Paul is said to use »rhetoric rather than manipulation« – what is the difference?
W. neglects the possibility that we could find any development in Paul’s thinking (XIII). Moreover, on pages 201–204 he surprisingly presents Paul’s view on faith and good works as virtually identical with James 2:14–26!
The remarks above indicate that traces of W.’s own religious affiliation can be found elsewhere in the commentary as well. If this can be tolerated, and if one is not bothered by the flaws in methodology, the book is valuable indeed. It offers a well-grounded rhetorical perspective to the Thessalonian correspondence and many interesting discussions in exegetical details. They are presented in a clear and elegant manner.