From the Anterior to the Posterior Focus in Studying Religious Texts: Rhetorical Arrangement and Ancient Letters Revisited

By Philip L. Tite

As an historian of early Christianity, I love reading written works from late antiquity. I have a particular fascination with ancient letters, be they communications between ordinary people doing their daily business or personal interactions with friends, family, or others (e.g., the Greek papyri letters from Egypt), or letters that were produced by and circulated among early Christians. In my recent research on an apocryphal Pauline letter from the second century, I struggled with the theoretical problems attached to the application of rhetorical methods to the critical interpretation (and explanation) of early Christian letters.

Although biblical scholars have made varied attempts to apply rhetorical arrangement to critical analyses of such texts, the function of arrangement has tended to take secondary place to that of imposing a set literary outline onto the compositional organization of a letter’s discussion. For those applying rhetorical arrangement to the Pauline corpus, the argument has been that Paul’s letters are really speeches that are only framed by epistolary opening and closing formulas. Two difficulties arise in my mind with regard to such attempts to discern such an organization of, for instance, a Pauline letter. First, as Stanley Porter, Carl Joachim Classen, and others have argued, the epistolary nature of the text is ignored, while, simultaneously, the content of the letter is forced into a framework that is largely alien to the epistolary medium of communication. Thus, the fact that these are letters being studied tends to be obscured if not divorced from analysis. In my mind, a rhetorical analysis needs to play a secondary, or, more aptly, a complimentary role to the epistolary analysis of such texts. Second, the rhetorical qualities of ancient discourse (however framed or delivered) are obscured by the fixed structural agenda that such studies tend to create. It is as if identifying compositional units is the end product of such work, rather than as a step toward discerning the broader, and more important aspect of rhetoric: i.e., rhetorical discourse attempts to persuade an audience, reader, or recipient to accept the author/rhetor’s position or to dissuade acceptance of an opposing position. Discursive interaction, not simple literary analysis, should be the focus of any rhetorical analysis.

Although the ancient rhetorical handbooks are concerned with ancient speeches, rather than letters, this does not mean that rhetorical arrangement is useless for early Christian epistolary analysis. These letters, including the internal letter bodies, are certainly not ancient speeches. They are letters – written to maintain an ongoing discursive engagement between writer and recipient(s) by means of an asynchronic mode of communication. Thus, we should not be looking for specific parts of speech, such as the exordium, narratio, propositio, probatio, and peroratio. Rather than identifying specific organizational components, and thus forcing epistolary content into formal speech structures, we can look at the discursive function of arrangement, a function that nicely applies to diverse communicative contexts. Quintilian, for instance, distinguishes arrangement as that which is expedient for persuasion:

Division, as I already stated, means the division of a group of things into its component parts, partition is the separation of an individual whole into its elements, order the correct disposition of things in such a way that what follows coheres with what precedes, while arrangement is the distribution of things and parts to the places which it is expedient that they should occupy. But we must remember that arrangement is generally dependent on expediency, and that the same question will not always be discussed first by both parties. (Quintilian, Orator 7.1.1-2; translation Butler LCL)

He goes on to discuss several examples of differing arrangements based on both types of contexts and an opponent’s arranged argument. Quintilian is certainly concerned about oral speeches, but his observations are helpful for other discursive modes of communication; i.e., that arrangement (or form) is dependent upon the discursive advantage that such form lends to the persuasive presentation of content (function).

With a similar concern over the relationship of form to function, Steven Lynn’s highly accessible discussion of rhetoric highlights that arrangement fits into broader mediums than the ancient fixation on speeches: “Arrangement, in its narrow sense, is concerned with identifying the parts of a text and organizing those parts into a whole. Classical rhetoric focused on oral speeches, but arrangement has evolved to deal with written texts and, more recently, the visual design of texts, as well as the interplay of visual and aural design in electronic media” (Steven Lynn Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 105).

With this broader – and for Lynn, more inclusive of the modern, multimedia – application of arrangement in mind, Lynn goes on to discern the interdependency between function (as tied into genre) and form (arrangement). Such co-dependent sides of a discourse work in tandem with the reception, or the idealized or hoped for context of reception, of the discourse in order to be both intelligible and persuasive. Lynn builds on Kenneth Burke’s definition of form to articulate this intersection of form, function, and anticipated reception: “Form is an arousing and fulfillment of desire. A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (Burke, Counter-Statement [Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968 (1931)], 124). Elsewhere in Counter-Statement, Burke further states: “Form, having to do with the creation and gratification of needs, is ‘correct’ in so far as it gratifies the needs which it creates. The appeal of the form in this sense is obvious: form is the appeal” (138). Thus, the focus should be on the potential influence on the posterior reception of the discourse, rather than the anterior mechanisms for constructing the discourse, while those anterior mechanisms only are adopted and, subsequently adapted, by a writer or speaker to serve that posterior rhetorical agenda.

The impact of the above discussion on a study of rhetorical arrangement in ancient religious letters, and I would contend within a broader analysis of religious texts within the academic study of religion, is obvious. Rather than looking for the presence of organizational components for simply establishing the outline of a particular text, it is necessary to look at the internal progression of a text as those sequencing elements unpack a discursive presentation to the reader or hearer that furthers the author’s persuasive agenda. This is where invention and arrangement work in tandem. Such a rhetorical analysis – or, perhaps more correctly, such a reorientation of a rhetorical analysis – can be applied to the epistolary context without forcing the content of a letter into alien compositional frameworks.

A brief caveat, however, is needed. Although I’ve stressed an inductive study of the rhetorical arrangement of a text, specifically with an eye on potential persuasive force that such arrangement adds to that discourse (what Quintilian calls expedience or utility), this does not mean that culturally specific modes of arrangement are unimportant for such critical analysis. As Lynn aptly notes, the effectiveness of a type of communication – be that a speech, letter, visual presentation, detective novel, job application, etc – is dependent upon the “audience’s awareness of function” (Lynn, 107), i.e., upon an awareness of forms (and, I would argue, intertextual content) that are available within a given cultural context. Consequently, it is helpful to recognize epistolary conventions that were present in late antiquity.

Although my comments in this blog focus on early Christianity (my primary area of study), I think this discussion is helpful within a broader religious studies context. In studying, for example, an American presidential speech (exemplifying motifs of civil religion, however understood), religious humor hosted on such sites as YouTube, or religious billboards addressing current and urgent political issues, we may gain more insight into human social interactions, including competing claims to moral authority within such social engagements, by directing our analytical focus less to the anterior mechanisms of a religious discourse (a focus which tends to conclude the analysis at the descriptive level) and more on the posterior agendas driving the utilization of such mechanisms to impact anticipated reception of a given discourse. A focus on the anticipated reception of a text thereby requires the theorization of the redescribed data sets as such data are situated within culturally specific frameworks of dynamic, rather than static communication.


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