Michael Wade Martin, and Jason A. Whitlark. Inventing Hebrews: Design and Purpose in Ancient Rhetoric. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 171. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv + 305.
The structure and rhetorical genre of Hebrews has been a matter of long-standing debate in Hebrews studies. Michael Martin and Jason Whitlark (henceforth, “the authors”) offer here an important and valuable contribution to this ongoing debate.
In the opening chapter the authors briefly outline the problem of structuring Hebrews. Various approaches have been applied to the structuring of Hebrews including thematic/topical approaches, structuring the discourse according to scriptural quotations, and the use of literary indicators to structure the discourse (i.e., the tripartite arrangement suggested by Nauck, the chiastic arrangement offered by Vanhoye, and the discourse analysis approaches of Guthrie, Westfall, and Gelardini). The authors opt for an audience-critical approach, that is, they believe that the structure of Hebrews should be ordered according to the expectations of ancient audiences, who would have anticipated a speech arranged according to Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions. The authors address two possible objections. First, there is no hard evidence that Hebrews is patterned after a synagogue homily. Second, while ancient speakers were not bound to rigid forms, their adaptability and creativity still must be assessed according to the expected elements of rhetorical arrangement. As a sort of an appendix to the chapter, the authors provide a survey of select proposals for the rhetorical arrangement of Hebrews [I do something similar in my book The Characterization of Jesus in the Book of Hebrews; see pages 17–20 and the accompanying footnotes].
The remainder of the book is divided into two unequal parts. Part 1, consisting of chapters 2 and 3, lays the foundation for the structural arrangement of Hebrews with particular attention to the rhetorical device of syncrisis. (Previous versions of these chapters appeared as two articles in the journal New Testament Studies.) Part 2, comprised of chapters 4 through 10, arranges the discourse of Hebrews according to ancient rhetorical design.
Chapter 2 deals with one of the key rhetorical devices of Hebrews: syncrisis or comparison. Hebrews employs a five-part epideictic syncrisis demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant to the old. This syncrisis is arranged both chronologically and topically from ultimate origins to ultimate eschatological ends. The authors first identify four key rules formulated by ancient progymnasmata regarding syncrises that are pertinent for Hebrews: (1) comparisons consider whole subjects according to their parts; (2) the parts to be compared are the encomiastic topics employed in praise of a person; (3) the encomiastic topics, chronologically arranged, serve as the compositional outline of the syncrisis; (4) when comparing things, one employs topics analogous to those used in comparing persons (pp. 25–29).
The authors then set forth their thesis regarding the argument and structure of Hebrews’ “syncritical project.” The authors identify five epideictic syncrises in Hebrews, outlined as follows (p. 30):
I. Angels vs. Jesus (1:5–14)
II. Moses vs. Jesus (3:1–6)
III. The Aaronic High Priests vs. Jesus (5:1–10)
IV. The Levitical Priestly Ministry vs. the Melchizedekian Priestly Ministry (7:1–10:18)
V. Mt. Sinai vs. Mt. Zion (12:18–24)
These five comparisons correspond to encomiastic topics used in syncrises of persons. The authors make the following correlations (pp. 32–33):
I. Origins: Syncrisis of Covenant Mediators
II. Birth: Syncrisis of Covenant Inaugurators
III. Pursuits – Education: Syncrisis of the Priestly Apprenticeships of Each Covenant
IV. Pursuits – Deeds: Syncrisis of the Priestly Deeds of Each Covenant
V. Death/Events after Death: Syncrisis of Covenant Eschata
In the remainder of the chapter, the authors elaborate on how each of these comparisons carry out the author’s syncritical argument.
In chapter 3 the authors demonstrate the relationship between the epideictic syncrises and the deliberative syncrises found in the hortatory sections of Hebrews. While some scholars have argued that Hebrews is primarily an epideictic oration, the authors side with those who contend that Hebrews is a deliberative discourse. First, the authors turn to the rhetorical handbooks to identify two characteristic traits of deliberative syncrisis: (1) as deliberative rhetoric, its aim is to show the merit (or lack thereof) of a proposed course of action; (2) as syncritical argument, it takes one of three logical forms: comparison to the greater, comparison to the lesser, or comparison to the equal.
The authors identify six explicit deliberative syncrises in Hebrews: 2:2–4; 4:2; 6:13–20; 10:28–29; 12:9; and 12:25. These six syncrises share two features: (1) each syncrisis adopts the classical deliberative aim of the advantageous/disadvantageous, that is, perseverance in the faith is advantageous to the audience, while apostasy is disadvantageous; (2) each syncrisis is a comparison to the lesser: what is true in the lesser case (the old covenant) is also true in the greater case (the new covenant). Five of these deliberative syncrises (with the exception of 12:9) are directly related to the five epideictic syncrises identified in chapter 2. In the remainder of the chapter the authors demonstrate how each of the five deliberative syncrises not only follow logically from the five epideictic syncrises, but they also derive their topics from them.
Chapter 4 briefly discusses the ancient compositional theory of arranging an ancient speech. Ancient speeches consisted of four main parts: exordium, narratio, argumentatio (which could be further subdivided into different parts), and peroratio. According to the authors, all the parts of a speech were optional except for the argumentatio. Hence, the authors propose beginning with an identification of the argumentatio when analyzing the structure of a discourse. Identifying the individual proofs will aid in ascertaining the argumentatio of a speech.
In chapter 5 the authors attempt to identify the argumentatio in Hebrews. They begin, once again, by returning to the rhetorical handbooks to identify the key features in argumentatio. First, there are three types of speeches that have different aims. Deliberative speeches use exhortation and dissuasion to move an audience to make a decision about a future course of action that is advantageous or disadvantageous. Judicial speeches employ accusation and blame to persuade an audience to decide whether the actions of a defendant in the past are just or unjust. Epideictic speeches use praise and blame and address the audience as a spectator who is not required to render a judgment. Second, argumentatio employs deductive (such as enthymemes) and inductive (such as examples) proofs for its argumentation. Third, argumentatio draws upon standard topics regarding persons or things/actions/deeds for making its argumentation. Fourth, argumentatio uses argumentative amplification. Fifth, they contain propositio or summary statements or claims to be demonstrated by proof. The propositio can occur multiple times in a speech and may take the form of advice or exhortation.
Having established the main features of argumentatio, the authors turn their sights on Hebrews. They argue that the five deliberative sections (2:1–18; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:20; 10:19–12:17; 12:25–29) are the argumentatio. They give close attention to the first of these deliberative sections, identifying the probatio at 2:2–4, the propositio at 2:1, and the amplificatio at 2:5–18. Then in an extended outline on pages 117–126, the authors detail the various parts in each of the deliberative sections and demonstrate that they evince the characteristic features of argumentatio that they identified in the first part of the chapter.
In chapter 6, the authors argue that the epideictic sections previously identified (1:5–14; 3:1–6; 5:1–10; 7:1–10:18; 12:18–24) form the narratio of Hebrews. The purpose of epideictic is to amplify, and syncrisis or comparison is one of the commonest means of amplification. This is precisely what we find in these epideictic sections. Furthermore, epideictic has an auxiliary function; it can serve deliberative rhetoric but deliberative rhetoric never serves epideictic. The authors argue that the narratio in Hebrews is a “disjoined narratio,” that is, it is distributed piecemeal throughout the discourse, alternating with the deliberative sections. The authors then advance eleven arguments (see the summary on pages 132–133) that support their contention that these epideictic sections constitute the narratio of Hebrews. With meticulous attention to detail, the authors demonstrate that these sections fulfill the requirements as the narratio.
In chapter 7, the authors seek to identify the exordium of Hebrews. The exordium seeks to gain favor with the audience by earning their goodwill, attentiveness, and receptivity to the message. The authors contend that 1:1–4 achieves this purpose. Moreover, the exordium is not intended to introduce the central claims of the speech, which is what we find in 1:1–4. The authors give four additional reasons for demarcating the exordium at 1:1–4: (1) the authors have already delineated the narratio and the argumentatio; (2) it evinces a periodic form; (3) it contains a hymnos in verses 3 and 4; (4) verse 4 forms an appropriate transitional link with what follows. The authors also identify a secondary exordium at 4:14–16, which introduces the longer section devoted to the topic of pursuits (5:1–12:13). The secondary exordium seeks to win the favor of the audience, it briefly enumerates the major points to come in the following section, it fits well between the argumentatio of 3:7–4:13 and the narratio of 5:1–10, and verse 16 forms an appropriate link to the next section.
Chapter 8 turns to a discussion of the peroratio of Hebrews. The authors aver that 13:1–25 forms the peroratio for the entire discourse, while 12:14–17 functions as a secondary peroratio. First, 13:1–25 appears at the end of the discourse after the argumentatio, where we would expect to find it. Hebrews 12:14–17 meanwhile is located at the end of the lengthy central section, forming an inclusio with 4:14–16. The authors identify four functions of the peroratio: (1) it disposes the audience favorably toward the speaker; (2) it amplifies the proofs of the case; (3) it stirs up the emotions of the audience; and (4) it recapitulates the arguments of the speech. The authors contend that 13:1–25 and 12:14–17 fulfill the expectations of the peroratio. First, the authors claim that the two passages do recapitulate the content of prior components of the discourse. Second, the two passages do appeal to a variety of emotions. Stylistically, they excite the emotions through a variety of techniques: the usage of asyndeton, vivid description, metaphorical language, exhortations, and the doubling of words. Moreover, they also employ key examples. Third, they exhibit brevity.
In chapter 9, the authors basically sum up the arguments of chapters 5 through 8. Their arguments advance two accomplishments. First, the argumentation of the previous four chapters demonstrates that Hebrews conforms to the conventional expectations of classical rhetoric. Second, it demonstrates that Hebrews has primarily a deliberative aim.
In chapter 10, the authors draw some implications from their study of the rhetorical structure of Hebrews. First, they propose that “Hebrews is our earliest self-identifying Christian speech (or sermon) to an assembly of Christ-followers” (p. 261). This has three implications: (1) there was a need for deliberative sermons for the early Christians because of the precarious social context in which they lived; (2) some early Christians did have a high level of rhetorical training; (3) Christians readily adopted classical forms of rhetoric to advance their own purposes. Second, the authors propose that Hebrews’ warnings against apostasy were “directed against imperial pagan culture and not non-Christian forms of Judaism” (p. 265). They advance four reasons for this conviction. Ultimately, they claim that “the comparative rhetoric of Hebrews . . . is intended to heighten resistance to pagan imperial culture and is in no way aimed at other forms of Judaism” (p. 270). [One can read Jason Whitlark’s monograph, Resisting Empire, for a further elaboration of this thesis]
This is a meticulously argued book. While at times the prose gets a little tedious because of the detailed argumentation, it is necessary in order to show how the different parts of the discourse of Hebrews fit together and meet the expectations of ancient classical rhetoric. While the proposal that Hebrews is deliberative rhetoric is not a new thesis, the rhetorical structure of a disjointed narratio and argumentatio, along with a dual exordium and peroratio, is completely novel. But their arguments are well-grounded in the rhetorical handbooks of antiquity. They adduce copious references and quotations from these handbooks to bolster their argument. I think they have persuasively demonstrated that Hebrews is primarily deliberative rhetoric. Certainly, one might question certain parts of the argument. For example, I am not fully convinced that Hebrews 13 engages in recapitulation—at least not to the extent that the authors propose—largely because the chapter seems to introduce so many new themes not addressed elsewhere in the discourse. Nevertheless, I do believe they have correctly identified it as the peroratio, because of its location, appeals to emotion, and the stylistic features that they highlight. Their proposal that the epideictic rhetoric is meant primarily to praise the new covenant according to the ancient topoi of persons is a very intriguing thesis and is certainly worthy of consideration. At the end of the day, the authors have presented a formidable argument for the rhetorical structure and genre of Hebrews. Any future studies on the structure of Hebrews will need to seriously engage with the arguments advanced in this book. Certainly scholars and advanced students who are interested in Hebrews or the application of classical rhetoric to New Testament studies will find this book of great interest.
I want to thank Jason Whitlark and Cambridge University Press for sending me a review copy of this book. Furthermore, a much abbreviated review will appear in a future issue of Religious Studies Review.