Rhetorical Analysis: An Introduction to Biblical Rhetoric

  • Roland Meynet
  • Jan 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

Roland Meynet. Rhetorical Analysis: An Introduction to Biblical Rhetoric. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series, 256. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. 386 pp. $85.00 hc. ISBN 1-85075-870-0.

The driving passion of the book is to convince the reader that the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—follows identifiable rhetorical techniques. These are primarily, Meynet believes, of two kinds: parallelism and concentric constructions (that is, “chiastic” structures or “introverted parallelism”). His conviction is that an awareness of these literary elements is an important key for understanding the message of particular passages, sections, and even entire books of the Bible. In the Introduction (pp.37-42) Meynet argues that these techniques reflect the “specific organizational laws of biblical texts” (p. 37) and that they are characteristic of the cultural milieu that produced the Scriptures. Therefore, unlike American rhetorical criticism that has sought to ground its analysis in foreign Graeco-Roman categories, he attempts to surface what is inherent in the biblical material itself.

The author develops his argument in two ways. The first part of his presentation is historical (Part I, chapters 1-3; pp. 44-166). He attempts to demonstrate that his textual observations are neither totally new nor eccentric by tracing the same sort of textual observations done by others since the eighteenth century. The second, and largest, part of the book (Part II, chapters 4-8; pp. 167-350) explains the components of “rhetorical analysis” with multiple examples drawn from the entire Bible. The conclusion (pp. 351-59) briefly summarizes the work and then offers a few additional examples drawn from Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Islamic texts.

The historical survey of other authors, who were cognizant of these techniques, tends to highlight the work of a few authors in each of the last three centuries. In the eighteenth century the pioneer would have been Robert Lowth in England, who pointed out the ubiquitousness of parallelism in Hebrew poetry and categorized it into several basic types (chapter 1: “The Forerunners”). In the nineteenth century two scholars stand out: John Jebb, who also focused on parallelism but also began to observe chiastic structures, while extending his investigation into the New Testament; and Thomas Boys, who was the first to give extensive attention to chiasm throughout the Bible (chapter 2: “The Founders”). The most important person of this last century would have been Nils Wilhelm Lund (chapter 3: “Rediscovery and Expansion”). Besides the value of seeing that Meynet's concerns are not novel, the greatest value of Part I is found in that he quotes large portions of the work of all these authors. This is no mere summary based on secondary sources, but rather an informative discussion based on the original documents. On the other hand, the citations sometimes are too long, and the reading can get tedious; one gets the sense that this is overkill by a zealous author with a cause.

Part II attempts to offer a detailed systematic presentation of the techniques of parallelism and concentric structures in the Bible. Chapter 4 presents the foundational presuppositions of Meynet's work, which he succinctly summarizes as:

The biblical texts are well composed, if they are analysed according to the laws of biblical rhetoric, and the study of their composition enables one to understand them better, as far as the analysis brings to light their inner logic. (p. 169; italic his)

Biblical scholars, in other words, are to train themselves to discern the inner logic of coherent and well-crafted biblical texts. Chapters 5 and 6 explain the wide variety of kinds of each technique and are replete with a wide variety illustrations—from one line to large sections of the Bible (these are drawn primarily from Amos; Psalms 113, 146; and Luke). Chapter 7 explains how this approach can be visualized by textual rewrites and diagrams. The multiple possibilities available through computer fonts allow for the scholar to organize and present the structural analysis in creative ways. These analyses once again can range from those of smaller pieces to those of longer passages and are to build on one another as one moves to the study of larger wholes.

Meynet sees four principal fruits of this sort of analysis (chapter 8). First, attention to details can help to better delimit literary units. Second, this study can aid in the interpretation of texts; “form is the gateway to meaning” (p. 332). Third, rhetorical analysis can assist the translator in being alert for key terms and more respectful of syntactic structures. Finally, this approach can inform the task of textual criticism by granting more credence to the final form of the text; difficulties can sometimes be solved by consideration of structure.

There is much in Meynet's book to commend it to those interested in more literary approaches to biblical study. This work provides helpful insights and tools for a closer observation of the text. Evangelicals, too, will applaud the author's very positive valuation of the received text, whether in the analysis of a passage or in the wrestling with a text critical problem.

At the same time, however, the book does not lend itself to an easy reading. One would hope for more concise discussions and fewer examples. This reviewer found himself getting bogged down time and time again and flipping ahead to see what sections to skim or skip over entirely. Neither will all agree with Meynet's readings nor be convinced that the chiastic structures that he champions are as ubiquitous as he believes.

Based on my own work in Amos, I did not understand some of his structural arrangements (even at the level of a line or individual verse; e.g., the parallelism he suggests for 1:5, where “him that sits” is linked with “the scepter” and not with “and him that holds”, p. 277) nor do I agree with his views on some larger passages (e.g., he argues that the ultimate sin of the nations in Am. 1-2 is the violation of mutual agreements or covenants in order to link their sin with that of Judah and Israel). Also, a fuller literary reading goes beyond mere structures and their implications for ascertaining meaning to issues, for instance, of characterization and plot. To limit a rhetorical appreciation to structural observations can result in sterile readings that miss other dimensions of literary richness, power, and significance.

Of course, it is to be expected that there will not be full agreement with such a long presentation. The contribution of this book lies rather in the attention to detail at all kinds of level. Thoughtful readers will appropriate much of what Meynet has to offer to enrich in their future study of the Bible.

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary

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