The Apostle Paul and Rhetoric

We all know there are famous speeches that last the test of time.  Some orators are able to say things that make the events that they are describing seem more spectacular than they actually are.  Great rhetoric is instantly identifiable, and upon hearing just a few words, the listener is able to know who said the words, what they were talking about, and what the nature of the speech was (all without hearing the speech in full).  Take for example these opening lines: “We will fight them on the beaches,”  “I have a dream,” and “Four score and seven years ago.”  Every culture has rhetoric that children learn from an early age.  We know these speeches instantly even though Churchill was decades ago.  Gettysburg was centuries ago as well, but the speech lives on.  Finally, Martin Luther King Jr. is from a time past, but his “I have a dream” is still as recognizable as it was that day.

The question must be asked, which is greater, the rhetoric or the subject matter?  Is it the subject matter that makes the speech great, or is it the rhetoric that makes the subject matter great?

In the ancient world, around 480 BC there lived a prominent Greek statesman, orator, and Athenian General named Pericles.  He was well-known and was widely regarded the most prominent in each of those areas.  Now, when Athens was attacked by the barbarians, the Greeks successfully held them off and gained military victory.  Upon winning this battle, the leaders called together the great rhetoricians to write speeches to commemorate the victory.  Pericles wrote one of these speeches.  His was the greatest.  In fact it was so moving that grown men who had fought began to weep instantly upon hearing it.  It was so powerful that today on the anniversary of the speech it is still read today.

There is a problem though.

Even though the Athenians held off the barbarians in this attack, in a subsequent attack a short time later, the Athenians were beaten.  The defeat is more significant for the Greeks than the victory, obviously, but today we only remember and celebrate the victorious speech by Pericles.  It isn’t remembered because of a lasting victory, but because of lasting rhetoric.

In this case, it wasn’t the event that made the speech great, it was the rhetoric that gave meaning to the event itself.

Even Aristotle says, that he knew it was a folly of a speech, “but it causes my heart to soar like an eagle.”  It adds significance to the events that they don’t have.  His (Pericles) eloquence is so strong it adds meaning to the events!  It is purely his rhetorical skill that makes the speech memorable.

Now Paul was extremely well learned in the intricacies of Greek oratory.  In fact, in his book 1 Corinthians, he uses this very model found in Pericles.  The passage we are going to look at has 17 points of reference to the Pericles speech!  It has four sections of four verses.  It is a rhetorical gem in comparison to Greek oratory.  Here is the passage:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.   18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,  “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?


21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,  24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.


 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,

29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.[1]

Now we instantly see the four sections.  As interesting as this is, it gets even more stimulating.  In the entire passage, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians not to employ lofty rhetoric above the Gospel itself.  He is saying “it isn’t the rhetoric that makes the Gospel special, it is the Gospel that makes the rhetoric special!”  Despite this, and in seeming defiance to his own admonition, Paul breaks into a rhyme!  Now, if you are warning against trendy rhetoric, the last thing you would encourage is a rhyme scheme.  Look at verse 23:

23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,”

This is a powerful verse.  It is amazing that he declares that Christ dying is a stumbling block to Jews.  They were waiting for a political leader who would free them from oppression in this world.  Jesus talked about freeing people from sin.  The fact that He died was not seen to the Jews as a victory, but instead it was viewed as a defeat.  How can a leader lead if they are dead?

It is a truly remarkable phrase.  I think the fact that Paul employs the rhetoric he has been warning against makes it all the more special.   Look at what it says in the Greek:

“hēmeis de kēryssomen

Christon estaurōmenon,

Ioudaiois men skandalon

ethnesin de mōrian.”

Do you see the rhyme?  He is using incredibly powerful and straight forward rhyme scheme here with an easily flowing cadence to get this message of “Christ crucified” across.  The problem is, there is no rhyme scheme like this found in any Greek poetry.  Where is it from?  It is Hebrew.  Paul has taken Hebrew literature and translated it to Greek.  Do you know how difficult this is to do?

Paul is reversing what happened with Pericles’s speech.  Pericles tried to give meaning to meaningless events through rhetoric.  Paul is saying it is not the rhetoric that gives power to the Gospel, but the Gospel that gives power to the rhetoric.  As a matter of fact, if you are using rhetoric to add power to the Gospel, the Gospel no longer has power—its all about the messenger!

The fact that Christ is deity, died, and resurrected—is power enough.

Here is the challenge I would leave with you—are you relying on your gifts and using God, or are you relying on God and using your gifts?  It is a powerful question we must all ask ourselves.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Co 1:17–2:2). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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