“[They] assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as god. I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition. ‘’
– Pliny the Younger
New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism by George A. Kennedy; University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill.
Christianizing the Roman Empire by Ramsay MacMullen; Yale University Press; New Haven.
The New Testament is not a book. In common with the Old Testament, to which it can in some ways be regarded as an appendix, like the Apocrypha, it is a library. It is a library of books which have been arranged along a shelf in a most interesting and curious manner, which could quite possibly have been intended to be chronological order–i.e., order of date of publication.
Consequently, almost any general statement about the New Testament has no better status than a general statement about the contents of a library would have. Each of the volumes in this library, separate as they are in origin, having been subsequently collected and bound together, demands to be studied in its own right. To lump them together as if they were one document and then proceed to discuss something called the language or the style or the grammar of the New Testament is a wholly unscholarly proceeding.
Just as little, incidentally, is it licit to treat them collectively as a single source for certain historical events. Until their relationship with one an other has been determined—until we have established (if we can) whether Nos. 2 and 3 on the shelf were written by authors using No. 1, with or with out any other preexisting materials—further study or comment is procedurally unsound.
This protest is wrung from me by the essay of a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina, in New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. That anyone who was writing Greek around the beginning of the Christian era was to some extent, directly or indirectly, influenced by the practice and teaching of rhetoric in the schools of the Mediterranean world during previous centuries is obviously not possible to dispute; but to attempt to interpret in the light of it the Christian library called the New Testament as if it were a unitary and homogeneous work is inherently perverse.
Let me take a crude illustration. The speeches in the Acts of the Apostles belong to the same historiographical tradition as the speeches in Thucydides and can be permissibly studied for form, content, and historical relevance in the same light. But the speeches in the gospels? Take the two monsters in the first gospel, the so called “Sermon on the Mount” (Mat thew 5-7) and the eschatological discourse in Matthew 24-25. They are not conceived as speeches at all, but dissolve on examination into jumbled collections of prophetic and didactic material, which have been assembled together almost mechanically and subsequently worked over with commentary and elaboration. If, as I happen to believe it possible to demonstrate, gospel No. 3 was an attempt to present No. 1 in a form intelligible and acceptable to a literate and critical readership, it is possible to invoke the precepts of rhetoric to illuminate the form of the editorial work which its author undertook—for instance, by way of taking the beginning and the end of the so-called Sermon as a veritable address and tucking away the rest of the material from it in other parts of his book, wherever he could find a suitable niche.
In these circumstances it cannot be through rhetorical criticism but through textual and source criticism that even a literary, let alone historical, evaluation of the books must be sought. The perversity of doing otherwise is not lessened by the fact that specimens of rhetorical figures and commonplaces can of course be culled from anywhere in the New Testament library. No doubt the “beatitudes” exemplify anaphora (repetition); the series of “but I say unto you” sections can exemplify antithesis (contrast); and “blessed are ye when men revile you” exemplifies apostrophe (direct address). But this is as unenlightening as to classify “I came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them” as prokatalepsis (anticipation of objection) or to analyze the angel’s message to Joseph as a series of enthymemes.
The demand for priority to be accorded to textual criticism is really related to the great imperative of all historical writing and historical research: chronology. Sequence in time is not evidence of causation (post hoc non propter hoc), but reverse sequence of time is certainly disproof of causation. The course of history may ever and again lose itself in fens and bogs, but what it does not do is to flow uphill. Hence the maintenance of a chronological structure is indispensable to all history.
The price of a chronological structure, a price which causes it to be too often neglected, is that the more strictly it is adhered to, the more difficult it becomes to group events under headings and subjects. Lines of development, which in reality ran parallel, demand for the purpose of exposition to be presented separately, thus break ing the chronological framework. It is a perennial problem of balance, which Professor MacMullen has not quite successfully solved in his pursuit of the rate and the causes of the spread of the Jesus religion through the Roman world between 100 A.D. and 400 A. D. Earlier than 100 A.D. he could not have started; for the earliest datable sources for the existence of the religion belong to the second decade of the second century A.O. Later than 400 A.D. he does not pursue his theme, because by then, though “pagans still made up a good half of the population,” “they had been taught to keep quiet.”
In outline, Professor MacMullen finds that before Constantine’s Edict of 312 A.D. Christianity spread slowly, quietly, and upon the whole at lower social levels. The means of its spread he identifies not primarily as argument or preaching but as wonder-working. Every time a cure which other gods had failed to effect was secured in the name of Jesus, the beneficiary and his family became potential recruits. The case is cynical but convincing. What is more, there is interesting documentary evidence to support it, of which I can draw attention to a specimen.
In Matthew 8:13, the centurion who came asking for the healing of his son had faith—not stated why—that Jesus could order the cure. He was told: “Get you home; as you have believed, so it shall be”; and the text concludes with the words “and the lad was cured in that hour.” Now, in the corresponding passage in John (4:50-53), the man was told: “Go, your son lives,” whereupon “he believed the word which Jesus spoke to him and went his way.” The conclusion runs: “and the father discovered that the son had got better at the precise hour when Jesus said to him ‘your son lives’ and he himself believed.” However, an interpolator, ruining the vital point, has added after the word “believes” the words “and his whole household.” So powerful, even at the cost of destroying the point of the gospel narrative, was the conviction that the result (not the cause) of a miraculous healing was the conversion of a household!
The effect of Constantine’s conversion was revolutionary: except during brief periods of reaction it became advantageous, not least for the upper and official classes, to adopt the emperor’s god—a god who now for the first time was of the kind who excluded all competitors. Still, the balance between Christianity and paganism wavered until, in the last two decades of the fourth century, the armed power of the state was used (e.g., under Theodosius), not merely to put down Christian heresies but to support pogroms against pagans.
In support and illustration of this thesis, a large volume of cited evidence is marshaled. Consistent and intelligible though the thesis is, the chronology of the material is crucial. Unfortunately, the author’s determination to pursue individual —topics, such as “How complete was conversion?” or “Conversion of intellectuals,” ensures that the reader’s grasp of the all-important chronological framework is distracted and the total impression therefore becomes less convincing than it might have been.
If strict chronology can be established, it is not beyond possibility that the thesis itself might be used with effect in analyzing and dating the Pauline and other materials, not to mention the gospels and the rest of the library itself.