Learning the Truth from Lies: Diatribe in Romans

This is going to be a bit of a second introductory post. Seventeen verses of commentary is a bit much to cover in a single blog post, and so rather than write you an entire book chapter at one go, I'm going to split up the necessary information. First, since what I'm basically doing is introducing you to Romans as one massive diatribe from the word "go," I want to take a moment to explain more thoroughly what that means.

Also, since I've gotten a bit of nasty feedback in the form of a suggestion that I'm showing you how to "nullify" scripture, I now have an excuse to explain more clearly the problem with citing diatribes without paying attention to rhetorical markers. (I prefer to think of such complaints as teachable moments.) Remember: scripture is not authoritative in its bare words, as though you could take them out of context with equal validity. The authority of the words of scripture derives in no small part from the ways their authors have used them, and it is twisting the words of scripture to use them in a contrary sense. The question is, in every case: how does the author use these words?

Paul is using the diatribe in Romans in order to teach his audience to tell truth from falsehood, and to correct falsehood with truth. This means that the text of Romans contains falsehoods. Paul is going to lie to us! And then, in every instance, he is going to expose the lie, contradict it, and present the truth. He is going to teach us, if we follow him, to expose the liars who say such things, and to correct them. Which is great! We want that! Except ... those liars are us. If we follow him, we are going to learn humility the hard way.

To the extent to which the words of Romans are authoritative, then, their authority lies in the fact that Paul uses them to correct lies that we ourselves believe—lies about ourselves, lies about others, and lies about God. This is Paul's witness to the truth, and it is a witness against us. As such it is a genuine service to the faith of the church.

Acknowledging Diatribe

The thing about diatribe is that it hasn't been viewed positively by most of our resources in Greek rhetoric. The classical handbook authors don't like it, any more than the grammarians thought it was worth teaching their students how the average man in the imperial streets used Greek. Diatribe has a reputation for being cheap and low, and easily misused. And if you're of a social class such that you're being tutored in rhetoric, the point is to teach you to speak well, to be respectable with respectable people.

This introduces a weakness into analyses like the one Hans Dieter Betz did on Galatians—which is genuinely brilliant—because they rely on formal rhetoric and the epistolary grammar of a literary text. And it's too high! While such seminal works in rhetorical criticism worked well to lower our sights toward where scripture actually sits, they don't get us all the way down to how low and common a thing Christ's bassinet really is. Scripture has much more in common with the speech of the people than with the more selective education of the upper classes.

Of course, that battle has also been fought, and we now acknowledge that Paul makes significant use of "lower," more common forms of persuasive oral rhetoric like the diatribe. And we got there by making comparisons with other Greek texts until we found closer matches. A major part of that work can be seen beginning with Stanley Stowers' dissertation on diatribe in Paul, written under his Doktorvater Abraham Malherbe. Bultmann had noticed diatribe in Romans long before, and most commentaries now find it to be a large enough crumb to pick up. The most thorough analysis I've seen recently is by Changwon Song, who does something similar to what I'm about to do, covering the majority of the middle of Romans as diatribe. And all of this works by identifying features used in common, and working out from them to identify criteria, and using those to figure out what's going on.

Building on this work without necessarily giving you all of it (this is, after all, a blog), I'm going to broaden the definition of diatribe out to something more functional. In the process, I'm going to tie it more closely to performance criticism, in which we talk about the texts as manuscripts of oral performances. Unlike Song, I'm going to (continue to) deny to you that Romans was ever a "letter," and so deny that any transformation was necessary to convert it from a classroom lecture to a piece of correspondence. The whole thing is a lecture, and it is the audience that is being taken to school. To understand that more clearly, we need to talk about what oral diatribe is and does.

How Diatribes Work

If you look up the word "diatribe" today, what you'll get is usually synonymous with the word "harangue": a kind of angry monologue. It's gotten a bad name, and some of that lies with the handbooks' attempts to "elevate" rhetoric away from common (ab)uses. And a style of rhetoric that involves parroting one's opponents in order to reject them decisively certainly lends itself to abuse! But another part of the blame lies with the fact that we've simply lost the art of discussing things from multiple perspectives in front of people. With that, we lost the positive meaning of the word. A diatribe is quite the opposite of an angry monologue. It's an instructional dialogue, a conversation walking through the issues associated with a controversy.

If you read Plato's dialogue "Euthyphro," the character of Euthyphro actually refers to Socrates' habitual teaching style as "diatribe." As I have suggested before, these dialogues are themselves a kind of staged discussion from multiple perspectives, a kind of meta-diatribe in which Plato teaches his audience while Socrates teaches the other characters in the dialogue.

Now, "Euthyphro," like several of Plato's Socratic dialogues, ends with no clear resolution of the issue under discussion. Most of the Cynic and Stoic diatribes, on the other hand, presume and argue toward a particular resolution. Think of this as the difference between seminars and lectures. (Also, of course, the difference between more and less nuanced styles of teaching.) Plato's Socrates routinely refuses to identify truth in the contradiction of falsehoods—he just keeps asking subversive questions, and lets the characters around him stumble through the possibilities as they understand them. Plato has displaced the burden of real objection to his audience, which marks a change from the single-perspective decisiveness of most other diatribes.

Still, even as outliers in this way, Plato's dialogues fit the genre. Diatribe is a way to teach without simply dropping information on your audience. It's a way to help them come to their own conclusions, using what they already know, in ways shaped by your arguments. The speaker is not actually holding an open conversation with the audience, prompting them and expecting them to respond, but the conversational mode of the diatribe is still directed at the audience. The diatribe models audience participation in its performance in many of the same ways that we still use to model audience interaction in educational television programming. (Especially with kids!)

As a form of persuasive speech, diatribe is designed to bring the audience around to the speaker's way of looking at the subject, and to do that without simply telling them "you should believe this, for these reasons." And once that happens, many diatribes do break down into direct speech to the persuaded audience. Paul is no exception to this, here in Romans. Breaking into longer speeches, however, doesn't mark the end of the diatribe. It marks a point in the argument where the speaker assumes that the audience is solidly with them. (If they're wrong, and not interestingly wrong, the game is lost!)

Oral diatribes work, at rock bottom, by convincing the audience that a plausible falsehood is genuinely false, and that something else is true in its place. To do this, the diatribe style uses more obvious falsehoods, in combination with truth already known to the audience, to walk from the one to the other. In the process, new truths are created, and new arguments built on them. Rhetorical questions, contradictions, and staged dialogue involving shifts of speaker/character are simply among the standard tools used in this process. When we see those tools used, we know there's a diatribe going on.

It's worth noting, for us moderns who have grown up on textual arguments, that the arguments used in an oral diatribe don't always need to be perfectly logical and perfectly successful on their own. It's more analog than digital. The question in the oral context is whether the process of the argument is persuasive to the listener, who has no choice but to follow or reject the speaker at each step along the way. The steps of the argument are therefore the steps your audience needs to get from here to there.

Of course, the spread of literacy changed the game significantly. The default of readable text rather than audible speech changes the demands of persuasive argument, making it possible to break out and analyze every single point at leisure. An oral-culture audience may be giving its best critical attention to what the speaker is saying, but a textual culture simply has more attention to devote, and cannot be forced to follow along to the next point if this one doesn't work. The disputations of medieval scholasticism are built on such a foundation—as, for that matter, are the earlier Rabbinic and Patristic disputes, though at a lesser level of literacy generally. Theses, argued individually, buttressed with their own justifications at every point.

However, when walking through an oral diatribe in text, we're not looking at a collection of individual, well-defended theses. We're looking for subtler signs than you would find in a textual argument, we're looking for persuasive tactics and the buttons they push in the audience, and we're looking at the sequence of buttons the speaker pushes to get the desired result. (They don't call it "forensics" for nothing.)

Diatribes at Work: Falsehoods and Truth

Of course, medieval examples can be very useful, precisely because they are so broken down, as texts, into distinguishable elements—and also because we're so good at reading texts.

Imagine I were to say to you that St. Thomas was of the opinion, in question 92 of the prima secundæ, that "the law does not make people good." If you follow that link, you will notice that all of the arguments that "the law does not make people good" appear first, and then Thomas contradicts them, and responds by claiming that every law that is worthy of the name has the intention of producing good behavior. Thomas is of the opinion that genuinely binding laws are designed to regulate human behavior toward virtue and away from vice. While he does repeatedly say that "the law does not make people good," this is not his opinion; he says it in order to quote a commonly-held falsehood and correct it with the truth as he understands it.

Now suppose I said to you that the Formula of Concord declares that "original sin is only an external obstacle for [our] good spiritual powers, and not a loss or lack of them." Again, follow the link and read the context, and you will note that the Formula does indeed say this—but in order to refute it. The proper opinion to be cited is that "original sin is ... rather a corruption so deep that there is nothing sound or uncorrupted left in the human body or soul, in its internal or external powers." Once again, we have a text that cites a commonly-held falsehood in order to correct it with the truth.

Should anyone cite the negative opinions of these texts as though their authors believed and encouraged them? Of course not! Why, then, would we do the same thing to scripture?

But, of course, both of these examples have been easy—not just because they are in texts, but because their authors took pains to illustrate which parts were false and which parts were true in contradiction. The mistake in citing these opinions is obvious from even a simple reading of their contexts. And that is because both documents announce plainly that the things I've cited from them are contrary to their authors' own opinions.

But that's to be expected. Neither of these documents is interested in uniting its audience across such a division of opinion. Heretics with false opinions are known and condemned as such, and only those who agree are friends. In other words, you don't convince a heretic by calling them a heretic—you convince your friends by calling others heretics. In Romans, however, Paul does not have this luxury—he faces a harder challenge than this sort of preaching to the choir.

Diatribe in Romans

Paul's audience in Romans is already divided, Jew against pagan and Hellene against barbarian. This pits native Judeans against gentile converts, and vice versa. And Paul disagrees with both sides! Rather than reinforce the division between these groups by taking one side or the other, Paul wants to overcome both sides and unite them. To do this, he is actually going to make it appear as though he takes sides, at various points, in order to teach both sides using their own lies about themselves and each other. Paul is going, in each case, to counter the common lies with both common and superior truths.

This means he's going to tell each side their own lies, first. And they're going to agree with him! They will agree, and you might also agree. And that's fine, that is what Paul intends, because it gives leverage on persuading you otherwise if you think he agrees with you. At least, it does so as long as you keep listening, because Paul is going to use this leverage to correct you both. And I, for my part, will do my level best to show you where and why from the rhetoric of the text itself. It's not marked out anything like as clearly as the parts are in either the Summa or the Formula of Concord, because Paul is doing more delicate work—but even when they are subtle, the signals are there.

If you want a quick-and-dirty way to get into the diatribe in Romans, and a place where you can see at a glance the obvious markers of diatribe style, have a look at Romans 3. The NRSV, like most English translations, makes no effort to distinguish characters and voice parts here—which is good, because it's not trivial to figure out who's saying what, and where the lines start and stop. What you think the context is will affect what you think is going on here. The manuscripts certainly don't say; that knowledge would have been carried in the person of the performer. With that in mind, I encourage you to go play with this material on your own! I do plan to give you my opinion on it, up to 3:26, and you can also check out Stowers' opinion, among others—but right now it is most important that you should form your own opinions, and as directly from the text as possible.

(To misquote Gordon Gekko, "The Greek, for lack of a better word, is good. The Greek is right, and the Greek works. The Greek clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the epistolary spirit.")

Of course, the diatribe in Romans doesn't start at chapter 3! That's just where the audience gets into the performance. But if that's the case, then where does it start? The beginning of Romans 2 serves as a contradiction to what comes before it. And in diatribe, what precedes a contradiction is in some way false, to be corrected by what follows it. This suggests that at least something about the end of Romans 1 isn't the truth. But what part, and how far back does it go? And to what extent is it false? We can only get there by walking carefully through the speech from the beginning.

Song has suggested that the diatribe begins at 1:16, and usually we take 1:16-17 as a unit. The critical texts certainly paragraph it that way, and verses 16, 17, and 18 have definite parallels to one another. We also generally take 1:18-32 as a unit, and rightly—in spite of what I'm about to suggest about 1:16-17. You see, 1:16 doesn't stand on its own; the use of the particle gar marks this verse, as it does in the two that follow it, as follow-up or support for a prior claim. Nor does gar stand after a question here, either express or implied, for us to set 1:16 off as the beginning of an answer. No; 1:16a, "for I am not ashamed of the proclamation," is an explanation relative to the prior claim made in 1:14-15: the proclamation Paul is eager to preach is just as worthy of sophisticated citizens of the Hellenistic world as it is of senseless barbarians. But it is worthy of these wise Greeks because it was first worthy of the Judean people, and its truth is subsequently revealed to all who trust God.

And if 1:14-17 is a unit, as I believe that it is, 1:18-32 is framed as though it would also support that claim. Romans 1:18-32 is simply the presentation of the other side of the matter, as anyone familiar with double-predestinarian systems will attest. The general good, followed by the specific evil that limits it. So the contradiction in chapter 2 reaches at least back towards 1:14, asking the audience to reconsider what parts of 1:14-32 are really true, and what parts are falsehoods that they nonetheless believe.

Before all of this, we have a two-part "exordium," or introduction, in 1:1-7 and 1:8-13. These two parts seem to be unrelated to the argument that begins to unfold from 1:14, little more than "front matter" prefacing the real discussion. This is why Song suggests that 1:1-15 is only part of the letter, and does not belong to the hypothetical earlier version of the classroom diatribe he describes, which runs from 1:16 to the end of chapter 14. However, from a performance-critical perspective, I will insist to you that no amount of setting the stage for a discussion is irrelevant to how that discussion plays out. (Says a man who just took two long posts in order to even begin touching the text of Romans in commentary!)

Moving Right Along

However I break it down from here—likely into more and smaller pieces than I had originally planned—I intend to show you how the first chapter of Romans functions rhetorically, how the contradiction and sustained argument of chapter 2 functions in response to it, and how the clearly conversational arguments in chapter 3 function to lead the audience away from chapter 1 toward better opinions of themselves and one another because of Christ.

You are welcome to all of this in blog form because the church has need of it. My audience is as divided as Paul's was, if not moreso. And this is legit work, most of which has been hanging around waiting for me to turn it into publishable pieces, while I've been doing more immediately productive work. Primary NT scholarship, after all, isn't what I'm seeking a degree in right now! Besides, Romans commentaries are a dime a dozen. The rest of this one can be written properly, someday, if someone really wants it.

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