The Dialectical Nature of Early Christian Discourse
Scriptura 59 (1996), pp. 353-362
(Returned to original wording by author October 2, 2007)
I call the mode of analysis I use socio-rhetorical criticism (Robbins 1992, 1994a, 1994b, 1995, 1996a, 1996b). The goal is to analyze different modes of rhetorical argumentation with the aid of sociological and anthropological theories that help us to understand the multiplicity of earliest Christianity. While rhetorical analysis of discourse in classical Greece yielded three major kinds of social discourse--judicial, deliberative, and epideictic--rhetorical analysis of early Christian discourse yields six major modes: wisdom, miracle, apocalyptic, opposition, death-resurrection, and cosmic discourse. While the three classical modes of rhetoric emerged from the courtrooms, political assemblies, and civil ceremonies in the Greek city states, the six Christian modes of rhetoric emerged from activities of various groups of first century Messianites throughout a region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome. The pluriform administrative and social structure of the Hellenistic-Roman world gave rise to a variety of valued social modes of discourse that, interacting with one another, acquired an identity of Christian discourse.
My thesis, then, is that six major modes of discourse in dialogue with one another throughout the first century of the common era produced the phenomenon we now recognize as early Christian discourse. Since people who use different discourses regularly come together in common places, I will not assign different discourses strictly to different locations. Rather, the goal is to get some basic perception of the nature of each of the discourses. It will be possible in the present context to draw only a broad outline of this approach to diversity within earliest Christianity.
2. Antecedents to our Analysis
It is instructive to begin with analysis of antecedents to the approach in this essay. Analysis of multiplicity in early Christian discourse goes back at least to Ferdinand Christian Baur during the first half of the 19th century. In a mode characteristic of much history writing, [] Baur based his account on a polarity--a binary opposition in earliest Christianity. For him, evidence in 1-2 Corinthians revealed Judaizing associates of Peter who confronted Paul in Corinth with not having been a disciple of the earthly Jesus. This led to "an opposition between two parties" whose differences pulsated through Christianity for at least two centuries. Philippians 3.1-3 shows Paul's attack on false teachers who insist on the value of circumcision, and the letter to the Galatians, in Baur's view, opposes the same Judaizing false teachers Paul confronted in Corinth. The Pastoral epistles represent a later, postapostolic period when loyal Paulinists were confronted with Gnostic misuse of Paul. By formulating an attack by Paul on the Gnostics, the Paulinists who wrote the Pastoral epistles made a cordial move toward the Judaizers that contained the impulse toward "the Christian Church as a catholic institution." The Acts of the Apostles contributes to a Paulinist "rapprochement and union of the two opposing parties" through its presentation of Peter in a Pauline mode and Paul in a Petrine mode. Baur was convinced that this framework of binary opposition followed by rapprochement was the key for understanding the nature of the remaining New Testament writings, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the controversy surrounding Marcion, and the data in the Clementine Homilies (Kümmel 1972: 127-143). Baur's work, supported by the energy of a Hegelian philosophical dialectic and intricate work in early Christian texts, produced a heritage that remains vibrant and alive more than a century and a half later.
Ferdinand Christian Baur's binary or tri-partite approach to early Christian historiography is at its base a biographical approach. The authorization for writing a history of earliest Christianity in this way lies in the life and death of individual people who set the process in motion. Peter, Stephen, Paul, and James stand at the foundation of the framework. People who are "adherents" of Paul, Peter, or James carry the heritage of the founders forward for at least two centuries. Within the New Testament itself, the Acts of the Apostles authorizes this kind of historiography. In Acts, there is no attempt to write an account of the activity of every one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, nor of the seventy (or seventy-two) people Jesus sent out, according to the Gospel of Luke. Rather, the historiographical account focuses on Peter, Stephen, Philip, James, and Paul--a very interesting selection of people among all those who played a role in the birth and growth of Christianity during the first century.
An alternative approach to the multiplicity of early Christian discourse appeared during the late 1960s with James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester's Trajectories through Early Christianity. Focussing on literary forms and genres, they expanded F. C. Baur's project by embedding early extra-canonical Christian discourses into his biographically conceived historiography (Robinson and Koester 1971: 20-70). Starting with 1-2 Corinthians--the same place F. C. Baur began--they established a framework for two trajectories: logoi sophon traditions and theios aner traditions. In the midst of the heterodox christologies that emerge in the context of these trajectories, the "kerygma" in 1 Cor. 15:3-5 establishes an orthodox "corrective" to guide Christians away from turgid fanaticism (p. 33), heretical interpretation (p. 34), potential heresy (p. 61), mistranslation of the kerygma (p. 62), and distorting transmission of traditions about Jesus (p. 62). One special contribution of their work is to add "Thomas Christianity" to the Petrine and Pauline forms of Christianity Baur identified (Robinson and Koester 1971: 114-157). Another contribution is to add a trajectory of Johannine tradition which includes both intracanonical and extracanonical gospels.
The trajectory approach to the history of early Christianity was a step toward a rhetorically based account, since the authors had their eye on different kinds of discourse. Yet they did not use the resources either of rhetorical or of social analysis in their work. []
Burton L. Mack in A Myth of Innocence (1988) was the first to attempt a rhetorical historiography of early Christianity. Using source analyses performed by form critics, plus Bultmann's view of the Hellenistic cult of Christ, Mack distinguished five different early Christian groups on the basis of: (a) miracle catenae; (b) collections of parables; (c) the Q gospel; (d) controversy chreiai; and (e) the Christ cult. Mack has taken this work further in Who Wrote the New Testament? (1995), describing early Christianity through five major discourses: (a) teachings from the Jesus movements; (b) fragments from the Christ cult; (c) Paul and his gospel; (d) Gospels of Jesus the Christ; and (e) visions of the cosmic Lord.
My analysis is a modification of Mack's work, using insights from Greco-Roman rhetoric, Mikhail Bakhtin's writings, sociolinguistic theory, and cultural anthropology. From my perspective, Mack's work still lacks a programmatic approach to dialogical interaction among the different modes of discourse in earliest Christianity. Also, Mack's work is still guided in certain ways by historical-critical impulses of the T�bingen school. These impulses, in some instances, hinder a methodologically consistent rhetorical analysis of first and second century Christian discourse. My goal, in contrast, is to remain more fully within the multiple kinds of early Christian discourse to analyze the different kinds of rhetoricity in each discourse and the relation of the discursive traditions to one another within the written traditions available to us.
3. Early Discourses as Rhetorical Dialects (Rhetorolects) of Jesus Messianism
To move beyond the previous analyses, it is helpful to supplement strategies we glean from Greek and Roman rhetorical treatises with insights into language developed by Mikhail M. Bakhtin and P. N. Medvedev in the writings now titled The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1978). This book sets forth an introduction to sociological poetics by critically analyzing and dialoguing with both European and Russian formalism. One of the key insights to be gained from Bakhtin's work is the dialogical nature of multiple voices in all literature, every society, and every culture. Language is not monological but multivocal. Bakhtin and Medvedev show that formalism makes a key mistake by presupposing that poetic language is a special language set apart from practical language. If I read James Robinson and Helmut Koester's analysis correctly, their distinction between orthodox and heretical trajectories is finally like a distinction between different languages rather than different dialects of the same language. If they were different dialects, they would continue to dialogue in a manner that enriched and enlivened each other. Instead, the trajectories go off their own way into different streams of language.
The use of Bakhtin's work in socio-rhetorical analysis and interpretation creates an environment for adapting vocabulary that sociolinguists use to describe languages and dialects. For sociolinguists, every language is a mixture of words and expressions from various cultures and regions, and it is always in a state of change. Given these dynamics, individuals and groups not only speak dialects, but they speak sociolects. A sociolect is "a language variety based on a social (rather than geographical) grouping, such as a social community, or a social class" (Benjamin H. Hary: correspondence; cf. O'Grady and Dobrovolsky 1993: appendix; Bolinger and Sears 1981: chapter 9).
The term sociolect still is not quite accurate for the socio-rhetorical phenomenon I am analyzing in New Testament discourse. Though usually it is best not to create new vocabulary for New Testament scholarship, I have decided to accept the advice of the sociolinguist Benjamin H. Hary--a colleague at Emory University--to create a new term to [] carry the concept I am introducing. It appears that I am analyzing rhetorical dialects in New Testament discourse. For sociolinguists, it appears that the term "rhetorolect" would be a natural abbreviation for "rhetorical dialect" (cf. lects in Hary 1992: xiii; 1995: 74-95; 1996: 727-728). A rhetorolect is a form of language variety or discourse identifiable on the basis of a distinctive configuration of themes, topics, reasonings, and argumentations. Six major rhetorolects appear in early Christian discourse: wisdom, miracle, apocalyptic, opposition, death-resurrection, and cosmic discourse. Each type of discourse is a rhetorolect which certain early Christians may or may not have spoken and intermingled with other discourses. Speakers or writers may work primarily in the context of one rheterolect, or they may energetically intermingle various rhetorolects in their discourse. Whatever rhetorolects emerge, either consciously or unconsciously on behalf of the speaker or writer, the choice introduces distinctive socio-rhetorical features to their discourse.
By their nature, rhetorolects interpenetrate one another and interact with one another like dialects do when people from different dialectical areas converse with one another. The interaction of rhetorolects in early Christianity created new configurations of speech as the movement grew. Every early Christian writing contains a configuration of rhetorolects that is somewhat different from every other writing. These differences, interacting with one another, create the overall rhetorical environment properly called early Christian discourse. An awareness of different rhetorolects in early Christian literature calls for a new analysis and interpretation of early Christian writings both inside and outside the New Testament to ascertain their participation in and contribution to early Christian discourse. Another insight about rhetorolects comes from Clifford Geertz's distinction between culture and society. According to Geertz, culture is organized in a "logico-meaningful" way, while society is organized in a "causal-functional" way. Rhetorolects contain reasoning that reveals the logico-meaningful integration of a culture:
This means that rhetorical reasoning generates, nurtures, and integrates a particular culture--that is, a system of beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and convictions with accompanying discourse to express them. In the words of James Peacock:
In the context of this broader look at culture, different rhetorolects contain reasoning that reveals the logico-meaningful integration of different minicultures within a larger, overarching culture. A rhetorolect, then, contains certain major and minor premises that provide theses about God and the world supported by rationales, clarified by contraries, and embellished by analogies, examples, and support from ancient tradition.
Another insight from Bakhtin's work is the observation that any significant form of discourse contains multiple speech genres (Bakhtin 1986). This is helpful as one begins to investigate different rhetorolects in early Christian discourse. While a particular genre of [] speech--like miracle story--may be an avenue into a particular rhetorolect, multiple genres will advance this way of speaking within early Christianity. Let us, then, get a brief glimpse of six different rhetorolects in early Christian discourse.
3.1 Wisdom Discourse
One of the rhetorolects in early Christianity is wisdom discourse. This discourse presupposes that Jesus is a transmitter of wisdom from God to humans. Followers of Jesus perpetuate this tradition, transmitting wisdom from Jesus to others. It is remarkable how thoroughly the Epistle of James is dominated by wisdom discourse. A number of scholars currently are arguing that the Epistle of James may be the earliest document in the New Testament (Wachob 1993; Johnson 1995: 118-121), and there is good reason to entertain this possibility. Central to the wisdom rhetorolect in James is the belief that God gives generously and ungrudgingly to all humans--good or evil, just or unjust, grateful or ungrateful. This view appears in James 1.5:
This reasoning is a basis for acting both with restraint and with love towards others:
This reasoning also occurs in Q material. In Matthew 5.44-45, it takes the following form:
In Luke 6.35, it appears as follows:
In Gospel of Thomas 94-95, this reasoning occurs in the following form:
Didache1.5, in turn, reads as follows:
Central to the wisdom rhetorolect in early Christian discourse, then, is a view of God as generous even to those who are ungrateful. Sayings of Jesus elaborate this view in many directions including arguments from the opposite like Luke 12.22-23/Matt 6.25:
Arguments from analogies to plants and animals elaborate this view, as well as arguments from examples like turning the other cheek (Matt 5.39/Luke 6.29) and giving beyond what someone takes from you. This reasoning extends into a perception that the poor are blessed and the rich have difficulty entering the kingdom of God. This rhetorolect also includes narrative parables that exhibit the difficulties of people like the Rich Man who stored his grain in barns (Luke 12.16-20; Gosp Thom 63) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31).
Wisdom discourse is widespread in the Q material, the epistle of James, the Sermon on the Mount, special Lukan material, and the Gospel of Thomas. This discourse is both deliberative and epideictic. From the perspective of Bryan Wilson's sociology of different types of religious responses to the world, this discourse is gnostic-manipulationist (Robbins 1996a: 148-149; 1996b: 73). It presupposes that proper insight into life can equip people to live satisfactorily in the world.
3.2 Miracle Discourse
Another rhetorolect in early Christianity produces miracle discourse. This discourse presupposes that God responds to humans in contexts of danger or disease and that Jesus is the mediator of these benefits to humans. "Fear" and "cowardice" are common topics in this discourse, and belief is perceived to be the proper response (Robbins 1994d). Central to this rhetorolect is the reasoning that all things are possible for God. From this presupposition flows various conditions which people must fulfill in order to receive extraordinary benefits in times of crisis, special need, or affliction. In Mark 9.23, the reasoning occurs as follows: "If you can! All things are possible to the one who believes." In Mark 9.28, the statement is made that prayer (in addition to faith) is required with certain kinds of unclean spirits.
The story of the Cursing of the Fig Tree, intermingled with the cleansing of the temple, elaborates miracle argumentation further (Mark 11.12-25). When the disciples see the withered fig tree and call it to Jesus' attention, Jesus responds at first as he responded to Jairus--"Have faith in God"--adding God as the one to whom faith is to be directed. Jesus elaborates this statement, including an argument from the contrary: He who requests an incredible thing (like casting Mount Zion into the sea) and does not doubt in his heart, but believes what he says (like the woman with the flow of blood), it will be done for him (as it was for her). The next verse then integrates the topic of prayer with the other topics. The reader now is to understand that the statements of Jairus, the woman with the flow, the father of the demoniac boy, and blind Bartimaeus were prayers (Robbins 1994d). The logic seems to be this: if a person asks out of belief, that plea is a prayer to God. The final verse then integrates the topic of forgiveness with this well-elaborated miracle argumentation.
It is informative that this thaumaturgic rhetorolect appears in James 5.15-18:
Example and ancient testimony: Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
Wisdom discourse, then, with its emphasis on the generosity of God, naturally bridges toward miracle discourse. The issue with miracles is the conditions under which God will [] do them. While God may give food and clothing generously to all people, it is obvious that God intervenes for healing and other crises only under certain conditions. Prayer, anointing with oil, confessing of sins, etc. describe some of these conditions.
In rhetorical terms, miracle discourse is primarily epideictic and deliberative. Through praise and censure, the stories of Jesus' healing nurture a worldview in which God offers relief and restoration to people in contexts of belief and prayer. People must follow certain guidelines for these special acts of benevolence to be granted. From the perspective of Bryan Wilson's typology, this discourse is thaumaturgical (Robbins 1996a: 149; 1996b: 73). Moses and Elijah are precedents for Jesus in this discourse. As miracles from God attended their leadership, so miracles from God attend the leadership of Jesus. There is no significant social conflict in this discourse. In the context of the burdens of life, people turn to leaders who intercede to God for special help.
3.3 Apocalyptic Discourse
Apocalyptic discourse proceeds on a presupposition that God will act in a decisive way soon to destroy the evil in the world and preserve the righteous. The reasoning underlying this rhetorolect is well expressed in 2 Baruch 13.4, 11-12:
Apocalyptic discourse, then, is concerned to describe the context and timing for God's bringing of retribution to the unrighteous. Perhaps it will be very soon, perhaps it will be a bit longer, perhaps there will be definite signs of its coming, perhaps people will not be able to anticipate it. Whatever the position is, the subject matter that occupies the discourse is the nature of people's actions, God's actions, the actions of various figures God may send, and events that occur in heaven, on earth, and in Sheol during the endtime.
1 Thessalonians 4.3-6 puts the reasoning of apocalyptic discourse in the following terms:
Apocalyptic discourse, then, is an alternative to both wisdom and miracle discourse. Wisdom discourse will bridge into apocalyptic discourse, however, when a conviction arises that the lack of gratitude for God's benevolence has become so great that God has decided to act decisively to punish the unrighteous and vindicate the righteous. In turn, miracle discourse may bridge into apocalyptic discourse, if the crisis in life moves beyond a perception of an individual illness to a widespread illness throughout society. Apocalyptic discourse argues that people's lack of righteous response to God's benevolence brings God's vengeance upon the unrighteous in a dramatic intervention by God into the affairs of the world.
From the perspective of Bryan Wilson's terminology, this discourse is revolutionist (Robbins 1996a: 147-147; 1996b: 73). Certain people bring chaos and evil into the world that is intolerable to God. Evil is so fully developed that only God can satisfactorily deal with it. No humans are able effectively to counter the evil and put it aright, because evil has [] gotten out of hand. This rhetoric is highly judicial. If people are guilty, they will be condemned; if people are not guilty of unrighteous action, they are acquitted and preserved in the new environment that God creates.
3.4 Opposition Discourse
Central to opposition discourse is the reasoning that people to whom God has given a tradition of salvation in the past currently enact a misunderstanding of God's saving action that must be attacked and replaced by an alternative system of belief and behavior. In other words, this discourse is embedded in sharp disagreement with other kinds of Jews over the conditions and behaviors that enact walking in God's ways in the world. In Bryan Wilson's terminology, this discourse is reformist (Robbins 1996a: 149; 1996b: 73). It presupposes that people on earth can change the system of behavior by confronting it, attacking it, and enacting different behavior that offers God's blessing to people.
The gospel of Mark presents the reasoning underlying opposition discourse in the following argument by analogy:
This discourse contains attacks on specific behaviors and beliefs. It presupposes an alignment of the speaker with God, against people who claim to understand God who really do not know the will and the ways of God. Central to this way of reasoning, then, is the belief that:
Opposition speech contains a combination of judicial and epideictic speech with a deliberative goal. The view is that Jesus Messianism is a distinct alternative to other kinds of Judaism, and activities should be reformed according to new insights into the manner and conditions in which God offers eternal benefits to people on earth.
3.5 Death-Resurrection Discourse
Central to death-resurrection discourse, according to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, is the following reasoning:
This discourse differs from the other discourses by its central dependence on proof from scripture. The other rhetorolects reconfigure many aspects of scripture in their discourse, often gleaning arguments from example or analogy in support of the argumentation. Death-resurrection discourse, in contrast, relies on direct citation of testimony from scripture to support its reasoning. During the first two decades, it is likely that this kind of discourse was introversionist in nature (Robbins 1996a:148; 1996b: 73). During the decade of the 50s, however, Paul developed it into a conversionist and reformist mode of discourse. Programmatic socio-rhetorical analysis of the dramatic effect of this use of death and resurrection discourse during the third and fourth decades of early Christianity (50-70 CE) still awaits modern interpreters.
3.6 Cosmic Discourse
Cosmic discourse became a significant rhetorolect within Christianity between twenty-five and fifty years after its beginnings (55-70 CE). This discourse is fully epideictic in nature, [] exhibiting the authority of Jesus by placing him in a position of power alongside God in the cosmic order.
The nature of this discourse is to heighten the christological reasoning in the other discourses. Wisdom discourse became wisdom brought to earth by the one through whom the world had been created. Miracle discourse became the signs of the redeemer doing the work of God while he was on earth. Apocalyptic discourse either lost its temporality in the service of cosmic intervention in the regular processes of life or intensified the temporality into a dramatic cosmic drama that completely and dramatically destroyed heaven, earth, and hell and replaced it with a new creation. Opposition discourse was no longer an encounter between people that could lead to reform on earth, but a confrontation between people in darkness and people saved by the light. Death and resurrection discourse, in turn, became a story of the glorification of the redeemer from heaven who came to dwell in the flesh for a time before returning to heaven to be in the realm of the divine.
The goal of this essay has been to get an initial socio-rhetorical insight into the multiple discourses in early Christian literature. Following the lead of insights by Clifford Geertz and James Peacock, it has been possible to locate syllogistic reasoning central to six different discourses in the New Testament. The presence of this reasoning signals the nature of these discourses as rhetorical dialects, which we have called rhetorolects through the encouragement of the sociolinguist Benjamin Hary. Each rhetorolect contains special reasoning about God's action and the implications of this action for the life of human beings on earth. Each rhetorolect contains major and minor premises that, when elaborated, generate further discourse. The activity of repeating this discourse and living out its implications generates cultural worlds in which people live. The limitations of space and time have made it possible only to give a most basic picture of these rhetorolects. A presentation of the full nature of each rhetorolect and the manner in which all the rhetorolects dialogue with one another to create Christian discourse must await other settings.
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