Reading St Paul’s letter to the Galatians in the light of Classical Rhetoric
In the classical Greek and Roman civilisations, rhetoric was an academic discipline that guided all acts of solemn verbal and written communication. The letter being studied in this dissertation gives good insight into the use of the principles of rhetoric as “the chief weapon at the service of truth”. Like any good set of tools, the implements provided are no good by themselves as a means to an end. Likewise, the principles of rhetoric by themselves are not sufficient in persuading the hearts and minds of those to whom argument or information is directed. Along with their use, the person using them must have a certain body of knowledge at their command, and must show great social and moral integrity. Through this unity of tools, knowledge and honour it is easy to see why the classical ideal of a great man was described as “a good man speaking well.”
Born in Tarsus, Paul, through his parents, has right to Roman citizenship and therefore a high level of education. It is known that he was educated at the school of Gamaliel, the great Rabbi, which would have provided him with a classical education containing, no doubt, lessons in the art of effective communication. Being a zealous Jew, he would have made the scriptures his own and through combining this body of knowledge to the arts learned in school, he would have proved himself a formidable influence and a strong character capable of persuading many.
The character of the one seeking approval from a peer group or an unconvinced audience is a most important facet of influence. Aristotle points out that there are three things that inspire confidence in an orator’s character: common sense, a polite, well disposed attitude, and a sound moral reputation. These must be present in an individual if the confidence of the audience is to be gained. Paul from the outset of his letter to the Galatians strives to gain this confidence. Having struck an initial tone of seriousness, he moves to engage the memories of his audience, reminding them of their outstanding kindness to, and care of, him when he was forced to stop in their lands because of illness. Once engaged in memory, they hear ‘ab initio’ of his character and reputation, one which is in line with the ‘recognised leaders’, which serves to show the Galatians that “his authority comes not by a community but through a community by God.” He uses the term apostle as his title, showing that his life now has a missionary purpose. This purpose is to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles, a purpose he explains was understood and confirmed by the Church at Jerusalem, through prayer, as being God’s will.
Historical examples of public documents, written at the time of Paul, show an organised rhetorical structure was commonly used. They usually begin with a greeting and a thanksgiving or exordium. This is then followed by the promotion of a thesis or propositio, followed by several arguments or probationes, and concluded by final remarks or peroratio and a last greeting. The letter of St Paul to the Galatians fits this mould accordingly except for one very striking omission. There is no thanksgiving. Instead it has been replaced by a statement of astonishment. This is well placed to grab the attention of the audience and to set the tone regarding the seriousness of the contents.
Classical rhetoric employs three general goals or aims of communication. Arguments are formed to persuade, to inform and to entertain and in each case a very definite goal is attached. Persuasion is linked to future events and situations and so arguments of this type are presented to influence politically towards a decision. Arguments developed to inform usually point to the past and tend to conclude with a condemnation or exoneration, whilst those arguments that allude to the present are usually reserved for ceremonial speeches. Since the central theme in this letter highlights the perils of the new gospel that promote the enslavement of a people through the Law, the thrust of Paul’s letter is one of looking towards the future, persuading all to live a life of freedom in Christ.
Paul has only one message in this letter and that is “the singularity of the Gospel” he carries. He teaches justification by faith in Jesus Christ and not through the Law, something that he himself has not learned from human mouths but through a direct revelation from the Christ. Pope Benedict XVI explained in the Year of St. Paul that being justified “means being made righteous, that is being accepted by God’s merciful justice to enter into communion with him and, consequently, to be able to establish a far more genuine relationship with all our brethren.”
The message contained in the letter is communicated using three classic rhetorical modes of argument. The first Paul engages with is autobiographical in nature when he presents the Galatians with accounts of previous personal conflicts and underscores his present high moral and spiritual standing. This is done to convey ethos to the audience, after all Paul is no stranger to them. He then moves to arguments that engage the experience of the audience and finally promotes scriptural argument using the story of Abraham as being the father of the seed - the singular seed – Christ, into who all are baptised in order to share in the linage of, and promise made to Abraham.
The Galatians were “steeped in the paganism of their day” and it was incumbent upon Paul to presents himself as one who shows interest and knowledge in their everyday reality. By alluding to the fruits of self indulgence in 5:19-21, vices that were common place before they received the spirit, Paul shows that he recognises them as a people who are living in an evil age and who long deeply for freedom. Hence, Paul uses the theme of freedom throughout the letter in order to appeal to their deepest yearnings. It is well established that this use of pathos is crucial in communications that are designed to win over the hearts and minds of an audience and to strongly enhance fundamental arguments within the text. He constantly contrasts freedom with slavery in order to demonstrate the crucial difference between justification through faith in Jesus and through the Law. One leads to freedom and the other to slavery. In 5:13 Paul serves to remind the listeners that true freedom is attractive but needs definition and that freedom can leave the door open to licence as it seemingly had done in Galatia.
According to Aristotle, “Persuasion is a form of demonstration, for we are most fully persuaded by something when we believe it to have been clearly demonstrated” The six arguments, which now follow, constitute the logos of this letter. “Logos (Greek for 'word') refers to the internal consistency of the message--the clarity of the claim, the logic of its reasons, and the effectiveness of its supporting evidence.” The arguments that Paul makes are rabbinic in structure , arguing from the lesser to the greater as can be seen especially in the argument regarding Abraham’s offspring 4:21 – 5:1. This mode, obviously learned in the school of Gamaliel, is employed because of the willingness of the Galatians to receive the rabbinic arguments of those carrying the new gospel. He aims to persuade the Gentile Christians that the works of the law are not required for justification.
These six arguments found in 3:1-4:31 can be placed into one of three main groups: autobiographical, experiential and scriptural argument which in this case is “primarily centred on Abraham” . The autobiographical argument style tends to use arguments from current and past life events. Paul uses this mode in his fifth argument to remind the Galatians of how they treated him “like an angel” whilst he was with them and now questions how he could have become their enemy. In the first and fourth arguments Paul uses experiential arguments to strengthen the message he sends. Firstly he reminds them that the works of the law were not present in their lives when they first received the Spirit and that having received the Spirit they received freedom from the slavery they once had to “elemental spirits of the universe” . He points out that by accepting the rigours of the law being promoted by the agitators, they will simply re enslave themselves to empty ritual. The strongest argument delivered by Paul is the Scriptural element we find in arguments two, three and six. Here Abraham is the primary focus. It is obvious that the agitators spoke of God’s covenant with Abraham and the outward sign of circumcision as a mark of that covenant. In his second scriptural argument, Paul also employs what is known as “terminological argument” where, in 3:8, he plays on four key words: faith, righteousness, Gentiles and blessing and links them in such a way that it is made clear to the Galatians that all are made righteous independently of circumcision.
To conclude, Paul’s use of rhetoric throughout this “most Pauline of the Pauline letters” and indeed throughout all his correspondence is the hallmark of his pastoral strategy. Having been brought into Christ not by human teaching but by revelation, which in itself is an apocalyptic term , Paul tries to express the urgency of his message in a way that always argues and explains but never brow beats. In this way, he not only teaches but himself gains a deeper understanding of the role of Christ in the history of salvation, within the community of believers. Although as St Peter states there may be “some things in them hard to understand”, St Paul’s letters prove that no one can fault him for making theology dull.
Múlier, ecce fílius tuus, Totus Tuus! Fergal