Was Paul Trained in Rhetoric? A Look at 2 Corinthians 11:6

Over the weekend I started reading parts of the newest commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (BECNT) series. It is 2 Corinthians by George Guthrie from Baker Academic. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has said “it is an outstanding accomplishment for the Baker Exegetical series consistently to have produced what with only rare exceptions have become the best available commentaries on the Greek text of the New Testament book or books treated.” Not that my opinion matters much compared to Dr. Blomberg’s but I couldn’t agree more.

In the “Introduction” Guthrie says that Paul perhaps had training in rhetoric (p. 6). This, of course, raises questions about 2 Corinthians 11:6. (2 Cor. 10:10 is also relevant but this post will only address the former passage.) The passage reads, “I may indeed be untrained as a speaker . . .” (NIV) (“untrained” also in HCSB and NABRE. The NET, NLT, and ESV = “unskilled”; CEB = “uneducated”; MEV = “unplolished in speech”; Good News Translation = “amateur”.) Guthrie notes that Tarsus was “one of the great educational centers of the world at that time.” Here Paul received “a well-rounded education.” So what do we make of the Paul’s remark in 11:6? Guthrie translates the word as “amateur.” He further explains,

“The word ἰδιώτης could be used with a range of meanings. Generally, a peson who was ἰδιώτης lacked experience or training in a particular field of knowledge (e.g., government, military, medicine, oratory, etc.; cf. Acts 4:13) and therefore was an amateur or layperson as compared to a specialist of some kind. The word could also be used pejoratively of a ‘common’ person belonging to a low social class, but it often was used to distinguish an untrained person, or a ‘beginner,’ over against a professional or expert.” (p. 517)

Guthrie appeals to research done by Bruce Winter (Philo and Paul Among the Sophists: Alexandrian and Corinthian Responses to a Julio-Claudian Movement, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

“However, Winter makes the interesting observation that the word could also be used of those trained in rhetoric but who chose not to function as public orators or teachers of rhetoric. Thus ‘non-orators’ may indeed possess some knowledge of rhetoric, but they have abandoned ἀπάτη [apatē, fraud, trickery] in their practice of it.’ Indeed, Philo (Agr. 143) can use ἰδιώτης of those highly trained in rhetoric, and Isocrates (Antid. 201,204) celebrates those so trained but who chose to use their skills for the good of the community rather than for personal advancement.” (p. 517)

“Thus Paul admits he is not engaged professionally as a public orator. . .The ‘professional’ skill to which Paul alludes is the affected, or ‘ornamental,’ style of the Sophists rather than classical Greek rhetoric. He ‘admits’ that he does not possess their ‘skill’ in professional speaking—but this is not an admission that Paul was ignorant of Greek rhetoric, for his letters point to a knowledge of the art; indeed, ‘he must have had the basic training in rhetoric available to highly educated individuals in Greco-Roman cities’ (quoting Craig Keener); even this section of 2 Corinthians shows a detailed knowledge of rhetorical argument! Thus, rather than a humble admission of inadequacy, the apostle continues to speak somewhat tongue in cheek.” (p. 518)

By the way, as a complete aside. I don’t find too many pastors pointing out that we get our English word “idiot” from the Greek word ἰδιώτης so Paul must therefore be calling himself an idiot!

2 Corinthians is a hardcover with 736 pages and sells for $49.99.

George H. Guthrie (PhD, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including commentaries on Hebrews and James, and was a translator or consultant on four Bible translation projects. Guthrie is currently spearheading a biblical literacy effort to help churches train their members more effectively in reading the Bible well.

2 Corinthians



About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Bible Translation, Biblical Studies, Commentaries, New Releases. Bookmark the permalink.

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