Convincing Early Christians: The Rhetoric of Paul

Uses of emotion in Paul are usually less extensive, but his descriptions of his hardships at times function to evoke pity or love. His descriptions of those he considers dangerous intend the opposite; they evoke revulsion or at least make them so unattractive (perhaps untrustworthy or selfish) that his readers will not want to associate with them. So arguments that rely on emotion play an important role in his letters. This is not a reason to dismiss them. Rhetoricians of the time regularly noted that arguments from emotion are often the most persuasive.

See Also: Paul: Apostle and Fellow Traveler (Abingdon Press, 2014)

By Jerry L. Sumney
Professor of Biblical Studies
Lexington Theological Seminary
August 2015

The apostle Paul is often seen as a harsh, narrow-minded authoritarian who issues edicts to browbeaten little groups of people. These demands are commonly seen as perversions of the loving ideas of Jesus. Such portraits misunderstand both Paul and Jesus. Part of the reason people have this impression is that what Paul says can only be understood clearly if we recognize that everything Paul wrote was intended to address specific circumstances that have arisen in his churches. His letters are real letters sent to specific people to respond to particular circumstances that they face. Sometimes they have sent him a message or even a letter of their own asking for advice or describing what at least some in that church see as a troubling development. This means that we cannot be sure that what Paul talks about in his letters is what he would have thought most important. He is reacting to questions and problems rather than just setting out what he thinks members of the church should believe or do. Before Paul had arrived in their cities, most members of his churches had never heard of Jesus or the church and many knew little of the God of Israel. As a result, they need help in understanding what is expected of them in this new religious community.

To better understand Paul we should give thought to how all of his writings come from and must communicate with an environment that is very different from ours. Many of his views develop out of his Jewish identity. A growing number of interpreters argue that he never stopped being an observant Jew. The only time he would have behaved in ways that compromised or violated this way of living was when that interfered with his ability to associate with Gentiles who had become members of the church.

Since Paul’s churches included at least a few members who would have been wealthy enough to get an education that gave them familiarity with the philosophical ideas of the day, we also have to think of how his discussions may have had connections with some debates within those circles. All members of his church would have been familiar with how religions of the first century functioned, particularly what kinds of things gods expected or wanted. So he must show how church membership was either like or unlike associations with those religions. All of this means that he writes in and to a religious and cultural environment that was very different from ours. This should lead us to expect that what he says to those people may be difficult for us to understand clearly.

As we have noted, Paul wrote letters that address very specific circumstances. So not only do we have to know about the wider world that he writes in, we also need to know as much as possible about the specifics of the problems he tackles. In addition, he seldom simply gives a command or issues an edict. Most of the time, his instructions or advice include reasons for adopting that point of view. So he works at convincing the recipients that what he recommends is better, that is, more consistent with what he sees as the gospel.

In what follows, I will describe some of the ways Paul makes his case in his responses to issues raised in his churches. I will not be able to present all the evidence for each approach that Paul takes when trying to convince his readers to accept his advice. For a fuller presentation you can look to my Paul: Apostle and Fellow Traveler (Abingdon, 2014). I think it will be clear, however, that Paul does not simply issue edicts to be obeyed. In fact, he thinks that every member of the church has the Spirit of God living in them. This presence of God enables them, he believes, to discern the will of God (see 1 Thess 4:9 where he says that they are “taught by God”)—even if that takes some (or much) guidance. So he must give them reasons to come to the same views he holds.

Paul draws on a wide range of types of arguments. (When I use the word argument, I do not mean a heated debate or fight, but rather the giving of reasons for adopting one view over others.) Ancient rhetoricians said arguments are based on logical reasoning (logos), emotional response (pathos), and relying on the character of the speaker (ethos). Paul uses all three types. In practice, it may be difficult to distinguish among these in some places but it seems clear that Paul often builds a logical argument. On the other hand he makes use of the other types of arguments regularly and sometimes leans on them extensively. The short letter of Philemon is an excellent example of rely on pathos (emotion), to move the recipient to do what Paul wants. As he begins his argument he identifies himself as an old man and a prisoner and then identifies the slave who is returning to his master as his newly claimed son (vv. 9-10). In addition, since Onesimus (the slave) has become a church member he is now the owner’s brother. Then Paul says that if Onesimus owes Philemon (the owner) anything, Philemon should put it on Paul’s tab. Then Paul says he won’t mention that Philemon owes his very self to Paul for bringing him the gospel (vv. 18-19). The pity and sense of debt and obligation Paul evokes is almost comical and it is the central argument of the letter. Apparently it was successful because someone saved the letter.

Uses of emotion in Paul are usually less extensive, but his descriptions of his hardships at times function to evoke pity or love. His descriptions of those he considers dangerous intend the opposite; they evoke revulsion or at least make them so unattractive (perhaps untrustworthy or selfish) that his readers will not want to associate with them. So arguments that rely on emotion play an important role in his letters. This is not a reason to dismiss them. Rhetoricians of the time regularly noted that arguments from emotion are often the most persuasive. Further, arguments from emotion recognize that humans are more than just logical machines. Sometimes things such as empathy or sympathy play into our decision-making processes in constructive ways. Just think of the commercials that try to get you to give money for things such as animal shelters. They do not just tell you the facts, they play sad music while showing pictures of injured animals that you will be helping. That is using emotion to convince viewers to give to a cause that a logical argument might lead you to give to without the emotion. But advertisers know that emotion will move more viewers to give.

We are familiar with the formal use of ethos (character) primarily in things such as introductions to speakers where someone recites the credentials, positions, and accomplishments of the person about to speak. Those introductions serve to demonstrate that the speaker is an authority on the topic. In the ancient world, people had to give those introductions for themselves. Paul does this in a number of ways. Most commonly he does it in the greetings of his letters where he introduces himself as an apostle or as one called by God or some other description that he thinks will prepare the readers to accept his advice. But he uses it in other places as well. The first chapter and a half of Galatians is devoted to Paul telling of times when he withstood people who wanted to require Gentiles to convert fully to Judaism in order to be full members of the church or to be saved. These stories serve to show that he is the person they should listen to as some in Galatia are arguing that Gentile church members should submit to circumcision and begin to observe holy days and perhaps the food laws of Judaism.

Similarly, in 2 Corinthians Paul spends a good deal of space talking about the ways that he has worked for the benefit of the church at Corinth. He says he has endured financial hardships, persecution, and mental anxiety for them. These efforts on their behalf are among the reasons he gives for them to reject the other teachers who have arrived calling themselves apostles and telling the Corinthians to cut ties with Paul.

Paul uses arguments from emotion and character in powerful ways, but he devotes more space to making reason based arguments. He also employs multiple kinds of arguments in this category. In some places he bases his argument on the recipients’ own experience of God. In Galatians 3:1 he says that their experience of the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives should be the only piece of evidence they need to see that they should not listen to the other teachers. After all, he asks, if the very presence of God is already within you, what could beginning to observe some elements of Torah that only Jews observe bring you?

Examples serve in Paul’s arguments in various ways. In Galatians Abraham is an example to how to be rightly related to God. He assumes that all the recipients honor Abraham as a paradigmatic ancestor. Abraham is the pattern for the way God relates to humanity. Paul emphasizes that Abraham did not observe the Torah (because it was not in existence) and yet was right with God. So Paul shapes the story of Abraham to demonstrate that his Gentile church members do not need the controversial elements of Torah observance to be right with God (3:6-19). Abraham serves again as an example of how Gentiles are right with God in Romans 4.

Citing examples is a central argumentative strategy in Philippians. Paul calls on the Philippians to imitate Christ (2:1-11), himself (1:12-26; 4:12-17), Timothy (2:19-24), Epaphroditus (2:25-30), and people like Epaphroditus (2:29-30) and Paul (4:17). All those in the list are implicitly or explicitly imitators of Christ. The point Paul makes with the example of all of these people is that the readers, like those exemplars, should put the good of others above their own good. That is the attitude Paul calls the Philippians to adopt in the midst of an argument between leaders (4:2-3). He also uses bad examples to show the Philippians what behavior to avoid (4:18-19). While Philippians depends on example more than other Pauline letters, it is a regular element in his attempts to persuade readers to shape their lives as he thinks the gospel demands.

At times Paul calls on general cultural presuppositions to bolster his arguments. He expects readers to think that marriages should last until the death of a spouse (Rom 7:1-6). Likewise he cites the expectation that women will have long hair and men short hair in his discussion of how men and women should dress while leading worship (1 Cor 11:14-15). His discussions of whether he accepts money to support his ministry from the Corinthians and of whether believers should marry both echo discussions of the same matters among first-century philosophers. Likewise, his call for the Corinthians to do what is “advantageous” (for the community) rather than what is personally permissible (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23) relies on a well-known theme in civic speeches.

More important than cultural assumptions, Paul often draws on what his church members already believe to make his case. Sometimes he refers to what they already believe about God or the Spirit or Christ and then draws implications from that belief to contend that what he calls them to do is consistent with that belief while what they are considering is not. In his argument against promiscuous sex (including employing the services of prostitutes) in 1 Cor 6:12-20 he mentions that God’s Holy Spirit lives in them and so their behavior must be holy (see also 1 Cor 3:16-17). In the same argument he reminds them of Christ’s resurrection and their own to assert that God cares about bodies and so bodily behavior. Earlier in 1 Corinthians Paul bases his argument on the belief in the foundational death of Jesus for the sake of others. He makes this accepted “message of the cross” (1:18) the pattern of behavior for leaders and all believers.

Among the common ways Paul supports his views is to cite an authority. He regularly cites Scripture and already formulated confessions and liturgies of the early church. In nearly all of his letters he cites passages from the Hebrew Bible. He sometimes cites a phrase from a single passage (e.g., Rom 3:4; 4:7-8) and at other times he strings together a whole group of citations (e.g., Rom 3:10-18). Such citations can appear at crucial places in an argument as in Gal 3:13, where Paul interprets the death of Jesus with Deuteronomy 21:23. In Romans 4 Paul cites specific texts from Genesis but also draws on the chronology of the Genesis story about Abraham to argue that Gentiles do not need to become Jews to be full members of the people of God. He cites the prophet Hosea to make the same point in Rom 9:25-26.

The Hebrew Bible clearly functioned as an authority for the early church. This would be obvious at the very beginning when all members of the church were observant Jews, but it remains the case in Paul’s predominantly Gentile churches. At times he identifies his quotations and allusions as Scripture, other times he seems to assume they will recognize them without such indicators. This use of Scripture indicates that Paul sees a clear continuity between the ways God has spoken and acted in the past and the way God speaks and acts in Christ and the church. Even as he asserts that the Law is not the means to a relationship with God, he contends that who God is and even his gospel message is revealed through the Law and the prophets (Rom 3:21).

Paul’s assumption that the Hebrew Bible remains an authority for the whole church becomes clear in Romans. He cites Scripture more often in Romans than in any other of his letters. Romans addresses a church Paul did not found and had never visited. When he writes them, he wants to include them among the churches he represents when he goes to Jerusalem with a collection taken up from his churches. This gift is to represent an acknowledgement from the predominantly Gentiles church that they owe their existence to the earlier Jerusalem church. Paul wants the Roman church to be among those that make this statement. So part of what Romans intends to accomplish is that they accept Paul as their apostle and so their representative. To do this he needs to show them that his gospel is that of the wider church, including them. His citations of Scripture demonstrate that he draws his teaching at least in part from the authority that they all accept. Of course, there is much more to his argument that they acknowledge him as their apostle than this, but it is one element of his persuasive strategy.

Beyond Scripture Paul quotes and alludes to statements the church had already developed as ready condensations of their beliefs and interpretations of their practices. Among the clearest examples are Philippians 2:6-11 and Galatians 3:27-28, both of which play important roles in his argument. Galatians 3:27-28 is widely recognized as a baptismal liturgy that developed before Paul was influential in the church and outside of his sphere of influence. It asserts that in baptism believers are identified with Christ in a way that eradicates the importance of all markers of social status. He uses it to support his argument that Gentiles do not need to convert more fully to Judaism to be full members of the church. This formula says that no ethnic identity grants status in Christ. He cites a part of this same liturgy in 1 Cor 12:13. So it is a widely known and used formulation. He assumes that it carries enough authority in his churches that he can cite it as evidence for the position he wants the recipients to adopt.

In Philippians 2:6-11 Paul quotes what most recognize as a long liturgy, perhaps a hymn. It speaks of the willingness of the pre-existent Christ to take on human form and endure death for the sake of humanity. It continues by celebrating that God responded to this by raising Christ from the dead and exalting him to the place of ruler of the cosmos. The rhythmic structure suggests that it is poetic and the vocabulary used in it is different from what appears elsewhere in Paul’s letters. So it seems to be written by someone else and inserted here by Paul to support the instructions he is giving. Most Pauline scholars think this is a very early piece and may come from the predominantly Jewish part of the church. Some, however, contend that it more likely came from within the Pauline churches. Either way it shows the way Paul draws on set formulas of the church to convince his readers to listen to his advice. When he draws on these known confessions and liturgies he is showing that the advice he gives is coherent with what they already believe.

As we saw with his citations of Scripture, Paul cites more pre-formed traditions in Romans than in any other letter. Again he seems to see these shared formulations as a way to assure the Roman church that his teaching and their beliefs are consistent with each other. These confessions and liturgies help him convince them to recognize him as their apostle. He also hopes it will enable them to provide support for further mission work that he hoped to do in Spain.

A significant case of Paul’s citation of a tradition that shows how he preserves the teaching of the earliest church appears in 1 Corinthians 16:22. As Paul closes this letter he uses the phrase “maranatha,” which means “Lord come.” Maranatha is an Aramaic phrase. It seems to be one of the earliest liturgical formulations of the church. It asks Christ to come. Interpreters are divided over whether this asks Christ to come to bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God or asks him to be present at their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. For us here, it does not matter which it is. We should note that this liturgical exclamation was formulated in the Aramaic speaking church, the language of the earliest church in Jerusalem. Paul can repeat this exclamation (which he uses to plead for the Second Coming) to a Greek speaking church and expects that they will know what it means. In this case, Paul has taught them an Aramaic formula to recite in their worship. He maintains the connection between that earliest church and his predominantly Gentiles churches even to the extent that he teaches them to recite liturgies in Aramaic.

Paul’s reliance on such traditions, and they appear regularly in his letters, demonstrate that he is not the maverick he is sometimes accused of being. He is not the originator of the believe in the exaltation of Christ or of the interpretation of his death as something that deals with human sin. These and other important beliefs of the early church are codified in traditions before Paul has the influence to shape what is in them. He interprets these traditions to determine what believers who encounter new situations and issues should believe and do.

We have seen that Paul uses all kinds of methods to convince his readers to adopt his advice. It should not be surprising to see him working in this way. All biblical texts intend to persuade their readers to think certain ways and to behave in certain ways. As we observe the ways Paul writes we get a glimpse not only of what he thinks, but also of how much of that thought he shares with his congregations and the rest of the church of his day. We also see him attending to the needs of his churches as he tries to help them think about what it means to be in the church. Paul’s arguments in his letters are attempts to guide these new believers as they encounter new situations and ideas and face difficulties brought on by their adherence to this movement and its God.

Comments (1)

Thanks for many useful points. I found the implications of the idea that Paul wants to be commissioned by the Romans as their man in Jerusalem very interesting.
However, I wonder if the evidence is being asked to carry rather a lot of weight.
Maranta does show that some Christians didn't want to lose touch with Aramaic but.the fact that we have hardly a line of Christian literature in Aramaic surely makes it difficult to see this connection as more than slight and sentimental. If there had been an Aramaic chuch in Jerusalem able to create formal liturgies that were recognised elsewhere would they not have been cherished enough for some formulae to have survived recognisably and for some reference to this venerable authority to be clearly made?
Nowhere in the NT are people encouraged to read the scriptures in Hebrew.
Can we really be so sure that the famous passage in Philippians Isaac hymn or a liturgy or such? It is not in any sense introduced as a quotation or as anything but an instruction from the writer personally, from a religious sentiment that is his own. I see no presupposition that someone else's authority or even someone else's poetry is being invoked.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 08/18/2015 - 13:13

Article Comments

Submitted by Keith on Mon, 07/24/2023 - 05:12


I'm curious as to this line in relation to debates about limits/lack of limits women preaching, teaching, pastoring.

In Galatians Paul empasuaea the witness of thd Holy Spirit and miracles ... in Acts 2 the Holy Spirits equipping both men and women is referenced for all gathered in the house - both men and women, speaking in tongues and declaring God's deeds.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.