My last post was titled "A Mormon View of Paul." This post is more about the view of Paul that comes from reading Paul's own letters. It is easy to read Paul's letters through the lens of the gospels (which were written decades later), Orthodox Christianity (which emerged centuries later), Protestant scholarship (millennia later), and Mormonism (a fairly recent development). It requires real effort to bracket these later developments in order to try to understand Paul on his own terms. [Whether you agree with Paul as understood on his own terms is another matter, of course.]
The first point to stress is the fact that Paul and his co-writers were writing a letter. Unlike the later gospels, which essentially invented a new genre, letters were well understood by Paul and his audience. Giving instruction by way of a letter was a standard Hellenistic practice that Paul and other New Testament writers easily adopted and adapted to communicate with distant Christian communities. Moreover, there is a standard format to such letters:
- Opening formula, identifying sender, addressee, and a greeting.
- Thanksgiving, a short expression of thanks to the gods (a pagan writer) or to God (for Paul) for deliverance or good fortune.
- Body or message, by far the longest section in Paul's letters, much longer than in traditional Hellenistic letters, the length of which was generally limited to one papyrus sheet.
- Concluding formula, a wish for good health and a word of farewell (traditional), adapted by Paul to include closing greetings and benedictions.
In that list, I am following Raymond Brown's An Introduction to the New Testament; other scholars may use different terms for the sections. The outline provided before each book in a good study bible will identify the sections of each letter that correspond to that generic format for a letter. For example, my NIV Study Bible gives the following outline for Paul's letter to the Philippians:
- Salutation (1:1-2).
- Thanksgiving (1:3-11).
- Body (1:12-4:1), further broken into sections addressing particular topics covered in the letter.
- Final exhortations (4:2-23).
A second topic is how Paul presented his arguments in the body of each letter. Sure, he quoted scripture (from the Septuagint remember, not our Old Testament which derives from the Hebrew text) and argued his points. But how did an author in the first century quote scripture and make his points? When Jewish or Greek teenagers were taught to write persuasive essays or to make a persuasive speech, what were they taught to write or to say? The answer is that they were taught the arts of rhetoric, in partuclar ethos, pathos, and logos.
My discussion below follows Kyle Keefer's The New Testament as Literature: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008) and I confess I thought I was picking up something fancy when I read about this in Chapter 4, Paul and His Letters. Then what do I hear from my teenage daughter when giving the obligatory review of what she learned in school last night at the dinner table? Ethos, pathos, and logos, covered in English class as they wrote an evaluation of Albert Einstein's famous 1936 letter to a sixth-grader about science and prayer. I was impressed.
Here is how Keefer summarized Paul's approach (p. 56, reformatted, with emphasis added):
As a writer of Greek, Paul necessarily employed Greek rhetoric .... Although he was probably not trained as a classical rhetoritician, he certainly developed impressive literary skills. Ancient Greek writers, Aristotle in particular, described three means of rhetorical persuasion:
Ideally, all three would work together to convince an audience of the speaker's message.
- ethos, which centered on the persuasive status of the speaker;
- pathos, which appealed to the emotions of the audience; and
- logos, which referred to the order and logic of the content.
Whether Paul's rhetoric is persuasive or not will vary by individual, today as for his original audience. But understanding these three categories does help a modern reader at least understand what Paul was trying to do in certain passages. Again using Philippians as an example, when Paul states "whether I am in chains or defending or confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me" (Phil. 1:8 NIV), that's ethos, reminding the reader of Paul's qualifications to speak authoritatively about the Christian gospel. When Paul prays that "your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:9-11 NIV) that sounds like pathos. The emotional response Paul seeks to elicit from his first readers was, Yes! I want to discern what is best, and follow the gospel way of living so I can be blameless until the day of Christ! [See Philippians 3:17: "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you."]
Logos seems more familiar to modern readers and our "Just the facts, ma'am" attitude. Arguing to a religious or believing audience, we might cite the Bible just as Paul frequently cited the Septuagint. But where we might cite science, history, and the Google for additional support, Paul tended to draw analogies from Jewish thought and practice, from Greek culture, and from Roman law and administration. For example, when Paul counseled his readers in Philippi to "to discern what is best," my other study bible tells me the underlying Greek term is "ta diapheronta, a Stoic notion that means 'the things that matter.'" Philippi was a Roman colony and Stoic notions were likely more familiar to a Philippian audience than to other groups Paul wrote to. That is a logical appeal: Just as Stoics admirably try to screen out the noise and busyness of daily life to focus on the things that matter, so should we Christians also avoid petty bickering and selfish pursuits, instead focusing on the things that matter to followers of Christ.
My next post on Paul will look at E. P. Sanders, a scholar who revolutionized Pauline studies in the last generation. After that, I've got N. T. Wright's What Paul Really Said lined up.