Mar 3, 2015 Richard Mansfield

Witherington's Letters & Homilies

Dictionary of Jesus & the Gospels definition of socio-rhetorical criticism In tracing my family history, I’ve discovered a number of ancestors who fought in the American Civil War. One individual stands out, though: my second great grand uncle, James Marion Kelzer, who was a doctor tending to the injured. He stands out because of a number of letters that he wrote his wife Mary Ann. The letters are fascinating because they provide details of events that his service record would never include. His request for his wife to kiss their son for him, confirms the birth of Allen “Harry” Kelzer, who was my first cousin, 3x removed.

What’s fascinating about letters like this is that looking at them a century and a half later requires me to make many assumptions and inferences, often “reading between the lines” of particular details of events. I’ve noticed, for instance, that often James Kelzer, who normally writes with vivid details, seems to become more vague when writing about the actual battles, toning down the brutality of war so as not to overly concern his wife, Mary Ann.

Unfortunately, my Uncle James was killed during the Battle of Murfreesboro in 1863 and was buried in a mass Confederate grave. He never made it home to his beloved wife, Mary Ann. Nevertheless, his letters to his wife remain valuable testimony to the events surrounding his military service as well as his relationship with his wife even if they do sometimes require a bit of historical analysis to fully understand their contents.

In a similar way, Ben Witherington has been reading between the lines of New Testament letters for the past few years and has become the authoritative voice for socio-rhetorical criticism. What exactly is this method for understanding ancient writings? The Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek defines socio-rhetorical criticism as “The discipline concerned with the interpretation of the biblical text with special sensitivity to the way in which an author uses forms, traditions and rhetorical or literary devices to connect with an audience and communicate.”

The first edition of The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels provides an example of socio-rhetorical criticism in Mark’s Gospel:

Mark is found to be a biography depicting the career of a disciple-gathering teacher who enacted a system of thought and action. Mark portrays Jesus as a composite of the biblical prophets and the Greco-Roman philosopher-teachers. In so doing he makes Jesus understandable and identifiable to first-century Mediterranean society.

I’ve stated before that my favorite kind of biblical commentary is a backgrounds commentary. In reading some of Witherington’s previous works, I’ve found his socio-rhetorical analysis to be somewhat of a “sister” approach in looking at the text. Whereas backgrounds analysis looks at the history and culture surrounding the content of a passage, socio-rhetorical analysis does the same thing with the specific words the writer uses. It’s an analysis of the writer’s method of persuasion in conjunction with the particular audience to whom he is writing.

Letters & Homilies_120 Today, we are pleased to announce the release of Ben Witherington’s Letters and Homilies series for the Accordance Library. Witherington has divided these volumes according to the socioreligious context for which they were written, shedding new light on selected New Testament letters and their provenance, character, and importance. Two volumes focus on Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, covering the letters to Titus, 1-2 Timothy, 1-2 Peter, and 1-3 John. Additionally, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians provides commentary on Hebrews, James, and Jude.

Throughout, Witherington shows his thorough knowledge of recent literature pertaining to these texts and focuses his attention on the unique insights brought about through socio-rhetorical analysis that either reinforces or corrects those gleaned from other approaches.

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