Did Paul Write Letters or Speeches?

The study of Paul’s letters in light of classical rhetoric has gained a significant foothold in the larger field of New Testament studies. Nevertheless, the analysis of the Pauline letters on the basis of Greco-Roman rhetoric remains somewhat controversial and continues to be criticized in a variety of ways. One of those criticisms declares that classical rhetoric is a method for writing and evaluating ancient speeches, and, since Paul wrote letters, the suggestion that the canons of classical rhetoric should be used to analyze his writings is simply a category mistake, a barking up the wrong tree. Paul’s letters should be studied as letters, it is said, not as speeches. This, of course, raises the question: What exactly did Paul write? Letters or speeches?
Several points should be made here. First, Paul’s letters are remarkably dissimilar from typical letters in the ancient world. They don’t look much like the other letters of his day. For example, Paul’s letters tend to be a good bit longer than other epistles from the Greco-Roman world. This might suggest that while the documents that bear Paul’s name were certainly addressed and delivered as letters, there may be something else going on as well.
Second, given this dissimilarity between Paul’s writings and other letters of the period, there are limits to what can be done when his letters are analyzed on the basis of ancient epistolary convention. The beginnings and endings of Paul’s writings can be compared to other ancient epistles, but little is to be gained beyond that.
Third, we know that Paul’s writings were delivered to the various churches to be read aloud when the congregation assembled. Thus, when the original hearers first encountered the Pauline documents, they encountered them as speeches. When added to the evidence considered above, it is entirely plausible to suggest that Paul’s writings are certainly much more than letters. They are really manuscripts of speeches made in the presence of the addressees, speeches that Paul might have made himself were he present with the assembled congregation.
If Paul’s letters are indeed speech manuscripts, then the study of Paul’s letters in light of Greco-Roman oratorical standards is warranted. The letters are persuasive documents that were read like speeches; we should study them as such. Despite the ongoing criticism from some quarters of Pauline studies, rhetorical criticism is worth the time and attention of students of the apostle. Given the many rhetorical studies of Paul available, the question remains: where do we go from here? 

One thought on “Did Paul Write Letters or Speeches?

  1. Notwithstanding the fact New Testament scholars are drawing conclusions about Paul's style despite the unique character of his writings as having been 'God-breathed' – θεοπνευστος ([2 Tim 3:17]) therefore his work also exhibits the character of another, it's curious people are apt to seek Greco-Roman influence in his rhetoric rather than pharisaical influence (or Assyrian).

    [Acts 22:3] – Having hailed from Tarsus (an Assyrian satrapy somewhat hellenized under the Seleucide Empire), and having later studied at the feet of Gamaliel (a Pharisee who would have moulded Saul's thinking as a scholar [Acts 5:34]) it's not clear how hellenized pharisaical thinking had become; or even if the two modes of reasoning were compatible. Dissimilarity with other Greek texts could be explained either by the influence of the Holy Spirit, or by the influence of Gamaliel (or other influence on Paul, such as his upbringing).

    Have comparisons been made with extant pharisaical scholarship, for example, or assyrian work, for the sake of comparison against Paul's writing? Does Paul's writings reflect the same character as the ancient's prophet's speech, par chance?

    It seems this is more a question of the nature of 'inspiration' than it is of Paul's individual style, but even if that were not the case, other historical influences could be examined for character to explain proximity or departure from classical Greek/Roman influence.

    That type of enquiry would suggest other avenues we could explore from here – would it not?


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