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Spring 2015 · Vol. 44 No. 1 · pp. 102–103 

Book Review

Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education: Comparative Rhetoric and 2 Corinthians 10–13

Ryan S. Schellenberg. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013. 405 pages.

Reviewed by V. George Shillington

Ryan Schellenberg’s book, Rethinking Paul’s Rhetorical Education, should put to rest the scholarly judgment that Paul wrote his letters out of a sophisticated understanding of rhetoric he had learned from masters in Greco-Roman society. Paul’s rhetoric, strikingly evident in 2 Corinthians 10–13, is Paul’s own “voice” expressing itself out of Paul’s social location, which was not that of formal education in the art and skill of effective persuasion. This SBL publication is a somewhat revised version of his dissertation at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. Schellenberg is currently Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Fresno Pacific University.

The author deserves high praise for the depth and breadth of research, and for the clear and persuasive manner in which he has presented his argument. It should be observed that the author wrote rhetorically in his own “voice” out of a highly sophisticated social location of academia. Schellenberg presents his argument in three principal parts, each one tied integrally into the other as follows: Part 1: “Paul’s Rhetorical Education in Recent Scholarship”; Part 2: “Querying Rhetorical Criticism of 2 Corinthians 10–13”; Part 3: “Rhetoric as Informal Social Practice.”

Part 1 traces the movement among some modern scholars—H. D. Betz, for example—toward the position that Paul’s rhetorical expression in his letters could be traced to educational sources such as Quintillian’s Institutio Oratoria. Schellenberg sets up this position (which he believes to be a consensus among New Testament scholars) for the purpose of proving it wrong, especially so in his analysis of the kind of rhetorical expression found in 2 Corinthians 10–13, said to be the “Letter of Tears” (62–68; cf. 2 Cor 2:4). His aim is to demonstrate that Paul’s unschooled rhetoric came out of his social location of tent making, a lowly trade of the time (Acts 18:3). “His voice comes from a more tenuous place. His is a rhetoric that arises from vulnerability, desperation, and defiance” (311).

Part 2 opens up key texts in 2 Corinthians 10–13 with a view to discerning evidence for or against formal rhetoric. He concludes that Paul’s rhetorical skill in his catalogue of hardships, his fool’s speech, and his ironic boasting in weakness, is not that of Paul the scholar, but of Paul the man thinking and living and writing out of social location, marked by human passion and innate power of persuasion. Comparison of Paul’s letter, represented in 2 Corinthians 10–13, with other letter types described in Pseudo Demetrius, does not lead to the conclusion that Paul wrote out of a formal {103} education in rhetoric. That there is a general resemblance between them is undisputed, but proves nothing more than that.

And so we come to Part 3, wherein Schellenberg puts the final stamp on “rhetoric as informal social practice” by using the best of formal rhetoric to do so. “Attributing to Paul a formal rhetorical education,” claims Schellenberg, “fails to explain the nature of Pauline discourse. It brings to light more idiosyncrasies than it resolves” (185). Adverting to the work of George Kennedy about the theory of “general rhetoric,” Schellenberg sets forth Paul’s rhetoric as that which “constitutes all human communication” (186). On the issue of Paul’s self-praise in 2 Corinthians 10–13, the author compares Paul’s rhetorical flourish to that of the Iroquois orator Red Jacket of the eighteenth century. Though unschooled, Red Jacket became an oratorical force to be reckoned with, not only among the Iroquois people, but also with respect to English-speaking Americans. Another rhetorical voice from the past, compared to Paul’s, is that of the uneducated evangelist Billy Sunday. Sunday was able to draw crowds to his meetings by his dramatic use of informal, general rhetoric. Paul’s way of persuading the Corinthians to think differently may be compared to the “general rhetoric” of these unschooled modern people, according to Schellenberg.

So much more could be set out in praise of Schellenberg’s scholarly work in proving Paul’s argumentation in 2 Corinthians 10–13 to be that of informal, general rhetoric as compared to the rhetoric of educated pundits in Greco-Roman society. I would urge those interested in the subject to work through this masterful dissertation, destined for citation in future publications on Pauline studies.

We come now to evaluative comment: more inquisitive than evaluative. I wondered about the uncritical use of Acts to generate an image of Paul as a non-elite tradesman who would not have attended schools of rhetoric in the city of Tarsus. The same author/redactor of Acts has Paul educated in Jerusalem at the feet of an educated Jewish leader. But that piece of “Acts information” is dismissed in a single stroke as the theological inclination of the author of Acts. Why that and not the other? I suggest that the focus should be on the primary material, the letters of Paul written in the 50s, as compared to the Pauline traditions in Acts written long after Paul’s mission. I also wondered why Schellenberg felt it necessary to treat 2 Corinthians 10–13 as the “letter of tears” to which Paul alludes in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4. How does this disputed position help establish the thesis that Paul was employing general rhetoric in 2 Corinthians 10–13?

Finally, while I concur with Schellenberg’s view that Paul was not formally educated in Greco-Roman rhetoric—a view I espoused in my commentary on 2 Corinthians—I am not persuaded that this conclusion enables {104} a more accurate interpretation of Paul’s thought arising out of the situation implied in the rhetorical address encoded in the letter of 2 Corinthian 10–13.

V. George Shillington
Professor Emeritus
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

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