Rhetorical criticism is a method of examining words, seeking to understand the author’s techniques and how they affect the intended audience. Rhetoric refers to the discipline of persuasive writing or speaking. Criticism, in this case, means “analysis” rather than “disapproval.” When a person applies rhetorical criticism to the Bible, he attempts to uncover the writer’s motivations, use of rhetorical devices, and cultural background in order to more accurately interpret the meaning of the text. Rhetorical criticism looks for literary forms and patterns and how they are used to enhance certain ideas. This method focuses solely on the text, as written, rather than discussing alterations or prior versions.
Rhetoric, as a discipline, is concerned with how certain words and arrangements of words will be perceived by an audience. Basic information can be presented in various ways, to various effects. A speaker or writer can use rhetoric to present information through shock or through reassurance. Rhetoric can downplay an issue or grab attention. Rather than assuming a text can only be understood through a surface-level, “plain reading,” rhetorical criticism accepts the idea that writers use techniques such as exaggeration, symbolism, wordplay, poetry, parallelism, repetition, connotation, and so forth to convey meaning.
Clearly, rhetorical criticism covers a broad view of the writer’s intent. More specific approaches to rhetorical criticism focus on narrower concerns. Ideological criticism zeroes in on the “big ideas” of a text and how the writer uses an audience’s response to those concepts. Narrative criticism views the meaning of specific words and phrases in the context of the writer’s story—as pieces of a whole. Generic criticism looks at the words as part of some specific category, such as wisdom literature or prophecy, and interprets them accordingly.
Proper use of rhetorical criticism helps explain biblical statements that are easy to misunderstand if taken out of context. A good example of this is Jesus’ remark about “hating” one’s family (Luke 14:26). In terms of pure rhetoric, this is an example of hyperbole, or deliberate exaggeration. Modern people use hyperbole when saying things like “I’ve told you a million times” or “this suitcase weighs a ton.” In context, people who hear such remarks don’t interpret them with wooden literalism. They get the point. In ancient writing, comparisons were often framed in black-and-white terms for the sake of clarity, leading to frequent use of hyperbole.
Further, rhetorical criticism also looks to the culture and vocabulary of the speaker and the original audience. This is sometimes called socio-rhetorical criticism. The “hatred” referenced by Jesus in the above example was not interpreted in His culture exactly as the English word hate is today. Jesus’ point and the words He used refer more to preference or lack of preference. This can also be seen in statements such as Romans 9:13, which uses similar phrasing to describe God’s choice between Jacob and Esau.
Generic criticism, which looks at the overall “type” of the text, can also be useful for the student of the Bible. For example, Paul’s letters of Galatians and Romans follow the pattern of judicial arguments, as used in his era. In other words, large portions of those texts are written as if by a lawyer presenting arguments before a judge. That perspective is useful when seeking to interpret Paul’s meaning.
As with any method, rhetorical criticism can have drawbacks. Meaningful rhetorical criticism requires a grasp of the original languages and cultures involved. That is well beyond the ability of a typical Bible student. Some rhetorical techniques are obvious even in translation, such as Jesus’ remarks on cutting off one’s hands to avoid sin (Matthew 5:30) or questions asked only to point out an obvious answer (John 10:32). However, a surface-level reading of any particular English translation can lead to misinterpretation of some passages.
It’s crucial to remember that techniques express meaning, but they are not, themselves, the meaning of the text. For instance, we might easily recognize symbolism or exaggeration in a statement, but that doesn’t mean we can dismiss that statement entirely. It may be symbolic, but it still means something. Taken to the extreme, virtually anything could be ignored simply by claiming the writer or speaker was being sarcastic. Perhaps he was, but is there any reason to think so in that particular case? Broadly speaking, rhetorical criticism is focused on techniques: the “how” instead of the “what.” This means it’s not an absolute measure of meaning. Narrative criticism, a subset of rhetorical criticism, is somewhat more useful in determining meaning, since it deals with major themes and ideas more than with bare literary forms.
Fortunately, the drawbacks of rhetorical criticism are offset by the nature of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20). Christ’s fundamental order to the church was not “go and print Bibles.” His directive was to practice discipleship. The relationship between a more mature Christian and a less-experienced one offers context and understanding in Bible study (Acts 8:29–31).