A Short Review of C. Clifton Black and Duane F. Watson’s “Words Well Spoken: George Kennedy’s Rhetoric of the New Testament”

Black, C. Clifton and Duane F. Watson, eds. Words Well Spoken: George Kennedy’s Rhetoric of the New Testament. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008.

C. Clifton Black is Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church (Princeton Seminary web page). Duane F. Watson is Professor of NT Studies at Malone University and holds a PhD from Duke University.

Black, Watson, and the other contributors to this volume dialogue with George Kennedy’s work in the fields of rhetorical criticism and biblical studies, addressing specific points of contact where Kennedy’s work touches their own, in order to acquaint the reader with both Kennedy’s work and the field of rhetorical criticism as a whole. Editors Black and Watson present eleven chapters of contributions from various authors touching the fields of rhetorical criticism and NT studies. The book includes a short introduction by Black and Watson followed by a concluding afterword by George A. Kennedy, in whose honor the book is written. Strangely, however, Black and Watson claim in the introduction that the book is not intended to be a Festschrift (3). This is surprising (if not a little humorous), as the format and contributions exhibit that the book is precisely what the editors say it is intended not to be. Chapters 2 through 10 all begin with helpful introductions to the content of each author’s contribution, from Margaret Zulick’s “Brief History” of rhetoric (chapter 2) to Greg Carey’s “Pathos in the Book of Revelation” in chapter 10.

Zulick begins with a history of rhetoric from its classical origins in Aristotle to the patristic, medieval, and Renaissance eras and even to the modern movements in North America. In tracing the development of rhetoric, she acknowledges in Augustine’s writings the lack of “inventions” in his arguments in lieu of hermeneutics (as if that were a bad thing, 10). She also notes the revival of rhetoric in the humanist tradition that in many ways opened the door for its resurgence in “revolutionary France, Britain, and America” (11). From this American revival she notes the “too often overlooked tradition of Protestant preaching” as it bears on American political discourse (15). In chapter 3, Thomas Olbricht outlines in detail the influence of Kennedy’s work in the United States (though his comments on Kennedy are so deferential they border on hagiography). He concludes with a helpful section on the rhetorical analysis of Scripture, noting the neglected contributions of Philip Melanchthon (31).

Chapter 4 is Duane Watson’s contribution detailing the influence of Kennedy on the rhetorical criticism of the NT. In this chapter he outlines Kennedy’s five-step methodology (53), noting Kennedy’s belief that the NT writers were familiar with rhetoric, making rhetorical criticism a “historical enterprise” (43). Watson elaborates on Kennedy’s work in drawing out the rhetorical features in the Gospels, including familiarity with chreia (a saying or action useful for living) and progymnasmata (ancient rhetorical exercises; 46). Watson briefly addresses rhetoric in the Pauline Epistles and the Book of Revelation as well as the work of Vernon Robbins (55). C. Clifton Black’s contribution in chapter 5 addresses the curious lack of appeal for Kennedy’s methodology among scholars of the Gospels. This chapter is highly speculative, asking many questions but offering few answers. The exception is Black’s application of Kennedy’s methodology in seeing the Gospels, not as speeches, but containing speeches (71). Watson concludes with an insightful consideration that rhetoric is in some way “the Creator’s desire to communicate” (76).

Vernon Robbins’s chapter on rhetography—i.e., descriptive or pictorial language used to evoke images in the mind of the hearer or reader—is one of the delightful highlights of the book (81). He contrasts rhetography (pictorial narration) with rhetology (argumentative narration), noting (via Kennedy) that the NT writings have a blend of both for the purpose of persuading its recipients. Kennedy’s terminology for these two types of rhetoric are “radical rhetoric” and “worldly rhetoric” respectively (85). Kennedy and Robbins conclude that the first-century Christians blended these two types of rhetoric rather than conceive of a new type of rhetoric altogether (87; but see “Paul’s ‘new’ rhetorical vision” in Hester’s chapter 9 [148]). In chapter 7, Blake Shipp notes Kennedy’s influence on the interpretation of Acts and considers the usefulness of several rhetorical approaches for the text of Acts. He concludes (along with Kennedy) that Acts was originally meant to be read aloud—as were the other NT texts—and this inherent communal reading function influences its rhetorical impact and features (114-115; Also cf. Brian J. Wright’s work on this topic in Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window Into Early Christian Reading Practices).

Chapters 8 and 9 deal with Kennedy’s influence on the study of the Pauline Epistles. In chapter 8 Frank Hughes gives a thorough run-through of recent scholarship in the rhetorical study of Paul (128-131) and considers the implications of rhetorical criticism for Pauline studies (131). He poses the question that, if Paul was actually “doing rhetoric,” are interpreters supposed to “look the other way and talk about matters other than rhetoric,” or are they to address it head-on (133)? In chapter 9 James Hester considers Paul’s Epistles as “epistemic,” i.e., creating knowledge in their recipients (153-154). Hester, like Kennedy and others, see the NT texts as containing speeches as “rhetorical artifacts” meant to be spoken aloud for full rhetorical emphasis (145). Chapter 10 is Greg Carey’s contribution of pathos in the text of Revelation and the book’s boundary-breaking rhetorical genre (164). Chapter 11 contains Kennedy’s own concluding remarks (to put it nicely).

Words Well Spoken is a book spotted with nuggets of exegetical gold but unfortunately buried beneath layers of requisite academic sentiment bordering on “boot-licking.” In addition to the necessary endnotes in each chapter, this book of merely 255 pages suffers from a mass of needless girth at the end (62 pages of bibliography, index, and it includes Kennedy’s CV of all things!). The chapters are also unnecessarily crowded with authors’ autobiographical self-pandering and lengthy veneration of Kennedy and his work throughout. Many of the contributions do contain a great deal of insight for novices and seasoned scholars alike, especially those by Robbins, Shipp, and Hester. These authors and others add a great deal of merit and usefulness to the book. However, Kennedy’s afterword is an ill-fitting and odd mix of scholarly testimony and secular humanist manifesto. He scarcely touches the topic of rhetorical criticism in two out of eleven pages. This book is a noble effort but laden with dead weight that should have been off-loaded to save the ship (à la Acts 27), rhetorically-speaking, of course.


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