Debate and rhetoric in the ancient world (Acts 15)

Although the ability to speak persuasively has always been important, the formal study of rhetoric may be tracked back to the fifth century B.C. Around 467 B.C. the tyrant Hieron died on the island of Syracuse, initiating a debate about land ownership among the inhabitants of the island. A man named Corax used this debate as an opportunity to offer training in the art of courtroom disputation and persuasion. A number of the city’s inhabitants hired Corax as a private tutor, and the practice of systematic rhetoric was born. Corax’s approach travelled to the cosmopolitan world of Athens, and rhetoric quickly became one of the most significant intellectual disciplines.

The most renowned group to embrace rhetoric was Sophists, a society of philosophers who believed that useful opinion was far more significant than knowledge or truth. They established an educational system that taught young men the “art” of language and persuasion. The Athenian political landscape, characterized at the time by change and unrest, offered the Sophists the opportunity to become quite wealthy in their pursuit. They prided themselves in their ability to debate from either side of an argument. This fact, which demonstrated their relative view of truth and justice, coupled with the exorbitant fees the Sophists charged, led many Athenians to distrust them.

The Greek philosopher Plato held only disdain for Sophists, believing that rhetoric’s strength lay in its ability to attain and convey truth in the pursuit of justice – not in its power per se. The most renowned advocate, however, of systematic rhetoric in the ancient world was Aristotle, who insisted that value and truth had to be a part of the rhetorical process. A good rhetorician, he emphasized, needed to understand the argument as well as the human emotion surrounding it, maintain a worthy character, understand the relevant type of oratorical expression and be gifted with a natural persuasive ability. The persuasive process, he insisted, was accomplished by employing one or more of the three categories of appeal: logos (reason), pathos (emotional appeal) and ethos (virtue and goodwill).

Whether he was spreading the gospel via spoken word or pen, it is obvious that the apostle Paul to some degree employed the rhetorical training ha had most certainly received (2 Corinthians 5:11). On the other hand, Paul was careful to avoid verbal trickery and insisted upon reliance on the power of God in winning people over (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Even though systematic rhetoric has often been criticized as immoral or unethical, it is important to appreciate its value when it is properly employed.


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