Ethos, Behavior, and Credibility:
What Made the Words of Early Christ-Followers Persuasive?
A Response to Ben Witherington’s NEW TESTAMENT RHETORIC: An Introductory Guide to the Art of Persuasion in and of the New Testament (Wipf & Stock, 2009)
S. Scott Bartchy
Professor of Christian Origins & the History of Religion
Department of History UCLA.
Witherington wrote this book to persuade its readers “to do proper rhetorical analysis of the NT, and to stop disregarding, or belittling such a form of NT studies.” I agree that such work is absolutely essential for avoiding anachronistic and contextless reading and interpretation. The key concept here is context which, however, must be extended to a rich awareness of the dominant cultural values and social codes that profoundly informed all communication in the world of the early Christ-followers. The behavior of the NT writers in their Holy Spirit-formed communities – their characteristic ethos – was the foundation of their persuasiveness, not their right words as such.
0.1. Ben Witherington draws on his own extensive application of rhetorical analysis in his many well-known socio-rhetorical commentaries in this accessible and persuasive invitation to all readers who aspire to become considerate and competent readers of the New Testament documents, an invitation to join him in drinking deeply at the well of ancient rhetorical practices. For such knowledge provides the essential context for understanding their writers’ original persuasiveness. Only then will such readers be able to appreciate how much the intended meaning and persuasiveness of the words and sentences in the New Testament documents depended on the effectiveness of rhetorical conventions for communication, conventions that were well known and universally practiced in the world of Jesus and Paul.
0.2. While I basically agree with Witherington as far as he takes us in this book, here at the beginning of this paper let the macro-perspective that informs my response be clear. While it takes only the ability to read to acquaint oneself with the biblical writers’ words and sentences, it takes much more knowledge than that to ascertain what they meant by what they wrote. The study of ancient rhetorical patterns, intentions, and tropes certainly can help us overcome our natural ethnocentric and anachronistic lenses and take us a significant way toward understanding the words of the biblical writers. Beyond rhetorical conventions, however, the intended meanings of words and sentences in any cultural-social system are essentially dependent on hundreds of shared values, social codes of behavior, and life experiences as well as on a wide variety of potentially culturally-specific ranges of metaphorical associations triggered by the words they choose to use.
0.3 Thus my increasingly firm conviction is that a secure grasp of the complex interrelationships among the dominant cultural values and social codes that prevailed across all cultures in the ancient Mediterranean world is the absolutely necessary macro-context for understanding why any early Christian speaker or writer was persuasive. An increased awareness of the how of their rhetorical practices, important as it is, is not sufficient to explain why these speakers and writers became regarded as credible and trustworthy. This is especially the case because so much of what they said and wrote challenged and often rejected traditional and unquestioned patterns of interpersonal conduct as well as the hallowed values that justified such actions.
0.4. I divide my response to Witherington’s winsome invitation into three sections: 1) my points of strong agreement and appreciation; 2) why I am not persuaded that Witherington’s rhetorical analysis as such explains why the content of the early Christian documents was so persuasive; and 3) how a serious consideration of the “ethos” aspect of rhetorical analysis can help us grasp a more complex and convincing relationship between the behavior of the speakers and writers in the New Testament and their creation of innovative and controversial associations among familiar concepts such as honor, shame, kinship, purity and patronage. Their credibility, their trustworthiness, and thus their persuasiveness was at stake.
PART ONE: My points of strong agreement with Ben Witherington’s emphases in this engaging book.
1.1. I applaud Witherington’s strong emphasis on the critical importance of understanding clearly that the first hearers of the documents in the New Testament were raised in an oral culture. We should begin our attempts to understand and interpret any New Testament document by sternly reminding ourselves that the New Testament writers must have assumed that the vast majority of those for whom and to whom they wrote heard their words, not read them. As Philip Esler stresses early on in his socially-contexted commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “it requires a great leap of imagination for us to comprehend what it was for a group living in an oral culture to receive a communication like Romans. Yet it is an effort we must make.” To be sure, the same should be said about every writing in the New Testament. [As Esler further observes, these first hearers were assisted by their memories, trained to be extremely retentive – at a level that is exceedingly rare in a literate culture like our own (17).]
1.2. I completely agree with Witherington’s observation that all the New Testament texts “reflect a considerable knowledge of Greek, of rhetoric, and indeed of general Greco-Roman culture” (3a), and it is this “considerable knowledge of general Greco-Roman culture” to which I will return in part two of this response.
1.3. I strongly commend Witherington’s reframing of the letters in the New Testament as discourses, homilies, and rhetorical speeches (3b). In his words: “The dominant paradigm when it came to words . . . was rhetoric, not epistolary conventions” (5b).
1.4. I also strongly agree with his insistence that, in contrast to the modern hermeneutical method pioneered by Vernon Robbins and others, our “primary and first task is to ask the appropriate historical questions about the New Testament text and what the ancient authors had in mind” (6d). While we may assume that the writers of the documents in the New Testament are like us in terms of human nature, they are significantly not like us “in terms of the cultural interpretation of human nature.” They were raised (enculturated) in a foreign cultural matrix, with a cultural script much different from our own.
1.5. For example, Witherington asks what Paul, as one of these ancient authors, hoped to accomplish when writing his masterful letter to Philemon, the legal owner of the man Onesimus. What action was Paul so eager to persuade Philemon to take? Witherington’s approach leads him to begin his answer by illuminating appropriately the first-century cultural context of that brief communication. Witherington rightly warns the considerate reader that “what might well appear manipulative in one cultural setting might appear quite normal and appropriate in another” (222). Indeed, Witherington concludes: “What I would stress is that everything Paul does in this letter is completely normal and accepted practice in his age” (223) – and I would add, especially normal in communication between two strong males.
1.6. Those commentators who accuse Paul of displaying high-handedness and emotional arm-twisting in dealing with Philemon simply reveal their ignorance of the pertinent rhetorical conventions. On the other hand, those readers who gain a solid knowledge of ancient Mediterranean rhetoric should find it easy and illuminating to agree with Witherington in this regard. Indeed, in my judgment, this one example by itself should lead the competent reader to conclude that such culturally-sensitive analysis is absolutely essential for avoiding anachronistic and contextless reading and interpretation of all the New Testament documents.
1.7. Furthermore, if you have developed a rich awareness of the social and legal context of these few, potent sentences, as Witherington has done, as well as become sensitive to the rhetorical conventions he describes, I will be surprised if you then do not agree with him (and with me) that “Philemon is a short piece of rhetoric meant to put pressure on Philemon to set Onesimus, the slave, free,” (223), that is, to manumit Onesimus and make him both Philemon’s freedman in legal terms and his new “brother in Christ” in God’s eyes. In part two, when discussing the overwhelming significance of honor and shame values, I’ll return briefly to this letter to propose a further insight into how Paul sought to persuade Philemon to deal with the Onesimus-situation.
PART TWO: Why I am not persuaded that rhetorical analysis as presented in this book explains why the content of the early Christian documents was so powerfully persuasive.
2.1. When I came to the section in this book titled “Beyond the Basics–Cultural Scripts and Ancient Persuasion” (16-19), my heart lifted in anticipation of Witherington’s elaborating in some detail on the third component in persuasive communication beyond logos and pathos, namely ethos. But my hopes were frustrated. To be sure, Witherington rightly emphasizes the importance of grasping the profoundly collectivist character of ancient Mediterranean culture, in which the individualism that we so highly prize in our own culture is suppressed for the sake of family honor and group loyalty (17).
2.2. Yet, I could not agree that Paul is uncritically embracing this perspective when he regularly refers to “you” in the plural form (“y’all”) and stresses the priority of the participation in “one body in Christ.” Rather, the controversial and “unnatural” unity Paul has in mind is created by God’s Spirit as community-forming power. And it is the fruit of his Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – that make possible living in reconciled human relationships characterized by agape-love (Gal. 5:22-23).
2.3. Witherington continues by pointing out the critical importance of our understanding how patron-client relations worked (in what I inelegantly call the “suck up” system, all the way up to the emperor) in an economy far different from our own so-called free market and meritocracy. And Witherington rightly calls our attention to how radically different and strange Paul’s message of God’s free gift of salvation had to sound to his hearers in such a context. Paul’s hearers had been raised to think of their divinities in terms of quid pro quo. Witherington then writes: “It surely must have been a hard sell in many quarters, requiring considerable rhetoric to persuade” (18).
2.4. Perhaps Witherington assumes here that his own readers would automatically focus on the ethos-aspect of rhetoric, but I do not think that such an insight would ever spontaneously occur to persons raised in Euro-American culture. Three pages earlier, Witherington observed that “ethos was all about establishing the speaker’s character and making clear he was trustworthy and believable” (15). So it is precisely here when Witherington calls attention to the tough rhetorical situation Paul faced that I hoped to find an emphasis on the decisive importance of Paul’s own engaging behavior for his ability to speak and write persuasively against the grain of powerfully resistant traditional values (15).
2.5. Witherington notes that “lots of things could affect one’s ethos,” a speaker’s or writer’s believability. I had hoped, then, that he would emphasize the fact that the counter-cultural content of so much of early Christian teaching put special pressure on its evangelists and teachers to behave in ways that appealingly demonstrated and convincingly clarified the meaning of their message. In short, in Witherington’s introduction to New Testament rhetoric, he pays insufficient attention to the “rhetorical situation,” as one in which a primary barrier to effective communication was the Christ-followers’ major criticism of the dominant cultural values and social codes in the early Roman Empire.
2.6. For example, why did anyone pay attention to Paul’s sentences, especially when he used words such as “honor,” “brothers and sisters,” “spiritual power” and even the word for “God” in ways that pushed so provocatively against the grain of the dominant Greco-Roman cultural values and social codes that had shaped the lives, thinking, and behavior of his converts until they met Paul? Did not Paul put his own credibility on the line with every word he spoke, with every sentence he wrote, not least when he then exhorted the Christ-followers in Corinth: “imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; see 4:15-16)?
2.7. Did Paul not frequently refer to his own behavior as the persuasive motivator of the actions his exhortations intended to effect? Remember, for example, that Paul included himself in his overturning of conventional wisdom and social practice, when he wrote: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1), basing his reversal of values on the fact that “Christ did not please himself” (15:3). Paul points out to the Corinthians that he “did not come [to them] with eloquence or human wisdom” as behavior to illustrate his claim that “God chose the foolish things of the world” (1 Cor. 2:1, 1:25). Then seeking to encourage imitation of his actions, Paul writes “when we are cursed, we bless, when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered we answer kindly” (1 Cor. 4:12-13).
2.8. Later Paul calls attention to his credentials in Christ – “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1) – precisely in order to emphasize his amazingly humble statements that follow: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (9:19) and “I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (10:33-11:1). He continues to persuade by his own example: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the assembly I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. [So] “brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children!” (1 Cor. 14:18-20).
2.9. With such passages as these in mind, Brian Dodd, the author of Paul’s Paradigmatic “I”: Personal Example as Literary Strategy (1999) finally comes to the following firm conclusion: Paul’s personal example was “intrinsic to Paul’s leadership and literary style.” Dodd then notes what would seem to be a truism: “all who follow expect those who lead to embody the values they represent and proclaim” (238). To this obvious observation I add that the pressure on such leaders, then as now, to “embody the values they represent” increases directly with the intensity of their challenging and undermining the currently dominant cultural values and the related social codes.
2.10. Lastly in this section on cultural scripts, Witherington reminds us about the overwhelming importance of our understanding that for everyone born into the world of Jesus and Paul achieving honor and avoiding shame at all costs was the chief goal of life (18). For this reason, it is impossible to overestimate the power of these dominant cultural values in shaping human behavior. Males especially sought to dominate every human encounter outside one’s family and close friends, and retaliation and revenge were the only honorable responses to insults and humiliation. Since generally in our culture we think that money is far more important than honor and the concept of shame seems to have disappeared from our consciousness if not also from our vocabulary, Witherington could have (and in my judgment, should have) spent far more than half a page in discussing these values and the consequent social codes. In light of the fact that he rarely incorporates honor concerns into any of his chapters dealing with the biblical documents, I am puzzled by his decision to bring up the topic in this book.
2.11. In any case, I add to the good contexting that Witherington has done of Paul’s Letter to Philemon by suggesting that when Paul writes that if Onesimus owes Philemon anything (which he clearly does), he, Paul, will cover the amount, Paul is not making a straightforward promise but rather intends to shame Philemon into forgiving Onesimus. In effect, Paul states, “if you, Philemon, are so small, after I’ve praised you so highly for your generosity, that you will not absorb this loss, then I will do so.” And to this challenge to Philemon’s honor Paul adds “And don’t forget that you owe your new life in Christ to me.”
PART THREE: how a serious and expanded consideration of the “ethos” aspect of rhetorical analysis can help us grasp a more complex and convincing relationship between the behavior, that is the ethos, of the speakers and writers in the New Testament and their persuasive creation of innovative and controversial associations among familiar concepts such as honor, shame, kinship, purity and patronage.
3.1. As I have sought to understand the ethos-aspect of early Christian communication that so strongly challenged and pushed against the grain of the dominant culture, the work of the socio-linguist, Alan Millar, in the department of philosophy of Stirling University in Scotland, has been quite helpful. John Riches introduced his work to me in his very stimulating book, Jesus and the Transformation of Judaism (Seabury Press, 1982). Following Millar, Riches asks the questions: “How is it possible to say new things in a particular given language? How does language change and grow? How do we take account of this in interpreting the utterances of figures in the past?” (viii).
3.2. Then Riches carefully distinguishes between knowledge of a person’s utterances (an act of speech or writing) and our understanding of what the person intended to say. Riches then asserts that “the central task of interpretation is to make the transition from knowledge of what is uttered to knowledge of what is said” (29). A speaker’s or writer’s utterances express both the sense of the words and an indication of the effects on the hearers and readers which the speaker intends. Examples of such intended effects include the audience’s coming to believe something, or to feel something, or to do something (30).
3.3. To make the move from what was uttered to understanding what was said or written requires first that we understand not only the conventional meanings of individual words and their relationship to each other in the broad cultural context of the speaker/writer but also the conventional associations these words have outside a specific sentence as they are used in other sentences within a given language. Genuinely new ideas can be expressed and new actions generated thereby as the speaker/writer brings together two factors: 1) the cancelling of conventional associations of words and then linking them with unfamiliar, perhaps puzzling and offensive associations; 2) the physical circumstances and actions/behavior of the speaker.
3.4. In short, the words and sentences help define the new unconventional behavior, and the striking and perhaps strangely appealing behavior clarifies what may be ambiguous in the unfamiliar associations of words in these new sentences. The behavior, that is the ethos, demonstrates and verifies the meaning of these sentences. This means, as I see it, that in-depth consideration of the ethos and behavior of the speakers and writers whom we meet in the New Testament is absolutely essential to understanding the cutting-edge of their message. This emphasis on behavior is supported by the classical scholar E.R. Dodds who concluded his 1963 Wiles Lectures in Belfast with these words: “Christians were in a more than formal sense ‘members one of another’: I think that was a major cause, perhaps the strongest single cause, of the spread of Christianity.”
3.5. Here is one example of what can be gained by taking such an approach. In Romans 12:10 Paul begins his exhortation by urging the brothers and sisters to outdo each other (a competitive attitude hammered into them since childhood) but not in seeking honor (as they had been taught to do) but rather in “taking the lead in giving honor to each other.” Paul had made such a striking reversal of cultural values thinkable and doable by his own treatment of his converts.
3.6. Consider one more example of how my emphasis on ethos can help us read with greater understanding, namely, Luke’s well-known summary passage in Acts 4:32-35 that begins with “all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own.” In vs. 33 we read: “with great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and [God’s] great favor was upon then all.”
3.6.1. Before I quote vs. 34, note carefully that by ignoring a critically important word at the beginning of vs. 34 most English translations of these four sentences give the reader the impression that this is a list of important, yet only loosely related, activities in the life of the early Christ-followers in Jerusalem. The reader of the Greek original, however, immediately sees the causal link between vs. 33 and vs. 34, because the second word in vs. 34 is “γαρ” = a causal conjunction that introduces the reason or cause of the immediately prior statement. So a correct translation of vs. 34 should read: “For there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold . (35) They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” The credibility, the ethos, of the apostles’ preaching that God had raised Jesus from the dead was based on their living with each other as a resurrection-community, that is as people who were convinced that Jesus’ teaching about sharing was God’s will, which God had confirmed by raising Jesus from the dead.
3.6.2. In the English translations of other New Testament passages, “γαρ” is regularly translated “for,” as indeed it is when this word appears a second time later in vs. 34 itself! It is the first “for” that is absent from almost all English translations of vs. 34.
3.6. 3. There are two English translations known to me that render the verse correctly: the NASB: “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners . . . ,” and the NEB: “For they had never a needy person among them, because all who had property . . .” The reader of these translations sees a faithful presentation of the meaning of the Greek text which states an intrinsic connection between the ethos, that is, the character and behavior, of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem, and their powerful and persuasive testifying to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (vs. 33). These translations rightly stress the essential connection between the appealing behavior that both made believable these Christ-followers’ claim that God had raised Jesus from the dead and demonstrated the “great favor” granted them by God. That is, the “one-heart-and-mind” manner of these believers in sharing with each other made plausible and persuasive in Jerusalem their claim to be God’s Spirit-filled people. In short, if these Christ-followers had not been treating each other in ways that met their economic and social needs, as Jesus had taught, their claim that they were following the person whom God had raised from the dead would have lacked the necessary credibility and persuasiveness, the requisite rhetorical ethos .
As all historians are aware, the reading of any sentence, paragraph, and document outside of its original context is prone to anachronistic and ethnocentric distortions. This problem becomes especially acute with far reaching results when the text in question is regarded as a sacred text, when–as in the case of the writings of the New Testament– the words of a human being become regarded as the Word of God. For as revelation from God, the words are assumed to be eternally true, severed from the limitations of time and space — and thus of culture. As divine words, their vulnerability to being read in accord with the changing cultural values and social scripts of various readers through the centuries has had enormously wide-ranging social and psychological effects – and too often for the worse.
Thus an irony: The more that words are believed to have an unchangeable meaning, the more vulnerable they are to distortion of their original intent. Ben Witherington calls us to a deeper appreciation of how early Christian speakers and writers employed and modified the forms of ancient rhetoric to communicate their life-giving message. I am truly grateful for his persuasive invitation. Now I await his next book in which he emphasizes the critical importance of the ethos of these Christ-followers for making their words and sentences appealing, believable, and persuasive. Or perhaps he has already. According to the blurb for his recent book, The Indelible Image: the Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament, Vol. 1 (IVP, 2009), Ben Witherington stresses that “behavior affects and reinforces or undoes belief.”
 See, e.g., his Conflict and Community in Corinth (Eerdmans, 1995), The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1998), The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 2001), Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Eerdmans, 2004), Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2Timothy and 1-3 John, Vol. 1 (Intervarsity Press, 2006), Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians (Eerdmans 2007), and Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Eerdmans, forthcoming Sept. 2011). Also note his What’s in the Word: Rethinking the Socio-Rhetorical Character of the New Testament (Baylor University Press, 2009).
 As Bruce J. Malina observes: “The words we use do in fact embody meaning, but the meaning does not come from the words. Meaning inevitably derives from the general social system of the speakers of a language. What one says and what one means to say can thus often be quite different, especially for persons not sharing the same social system.” See Malina’s New Testament World: Insights for Cultural Anthropology, 3rd edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) 1-2. It is the general symbol system of any society that conveys the dominant cultural values and social codes that authority figures so profoundly ingrain in children that when they grow up they take these values and the related codes entirely for granted as normal.
 For a useful definition of “culture,” see Clyde Kluckhohn and A. L. Kroeber: “Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts: the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values.” Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions (Harvard Peabody Museum, 1952) 181.
 See the mandate regarding those in need stated in Deut. 15:7: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand . . .”
 See, e.g., NRSV: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many . . .” RSV: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many . . .” NIV: “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time . . .” NAB: “There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property . . .” Contemporary English Version: “And no one went in need of anything. Everyone who owned land . . .” KJV: “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors . . .” The TNIV offers an innovative rendering that also obscures the direct causal connection between behavior and credibility, beginning the sentence in vs. 33: “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all (34) that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time . . .”
 The Latin Vulgate is also correct: “Neque enim quisquam egens erat inter illos. Quotquot enim possessors . . .”
 Note that Witherington overlooks these causal connections and the a-b-a structure of this passage. Instead, in his socio-rhetorical commentary on The Acts of the Apostles (Eerdmans, 1998) 207, Witherington comments that vs. 33 has been seen as something of an insertion into a summary about property, citing approvingly Luke Timothy Johnson’s conclusion that Luke’s intent is to place the apostles in the middle of the community’s life to begin to indicate the relation of authority to property (cf. Acts 6:1-6) and that vs. 33 “prepares us for the remark in vv. 35-36 about laying funds at the apostles feet.”
 Acts 4:32 and 34-35 which surround vs. 33 in an inclusio-form display Luke’s repeated emphasis (see also 2:42-47) on the integral connection between the behavior of the early Christians, whose lives had been transformed to share possessions with each other, and the persuasiveness of the Christian message of Jesus’ resurrection, which created the basis for such a striking behavioral change. See my “Divine Power, Community Formation, and Leadership in the Acts of the Apostles,” in Community Formation in the Early Church and Today, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002) 89-104.
Here is my response to his response. Basically, I think he is correct, except that I was not trying to write a handbook on socio-rhetorical criticism in general. This book just focuses on the rhetorical side of the equation.
In his helpful critique, Scot Bartchy quite rightly says that I did not give enough attention to the ethos issue in this little book. I entirely agree with him. One of the things I struggled with in writing this book is how much of the socio- side of socio-rhetorical should I bring into this discussion, since I deal with both in all my commentaries. It was a judgment call, and with hindsight I think Scot is right— I should have said more. Thus far, this textbook has been used in classes where my commentaries are also used, so I had trusted that the socio- side of things would be more adequately treated when they got to the commentary proper. Honestly, my own students have found that dealing with all the new but basic info about Greco-Roman rhetoric including issues of invention and arrangement and not just micro-rhetoric, overwhelming enough, especially when they learn that Paul’s letters are actually more like speeches, that perhaps my judgment to leave the social context issues more to other books was not a bad idea. Still, Scot is right that understanding the tight social networks in early Christianity, and the tendencies to close bonding in that whole culture are keys to understanding why Christianity persuaded so many people. Call it peer pressure if you like, but in the first century if people who were your patrons, or parents or close friends became Christians, there was already considerable social pressure to go and do likewise in that collectivist culture. Besides all this, who doesn’t want to be loved and appreciated, and as Gerd Theissen pointed out years ago, the love ethic of Christians and their familial approach to one another likely drew many to Christ and his church.