Rhetorical Narrativism: A Rhetorical-Critical Reading of the Early Christian Gospels

Recently, while trying out the online goodies at UHD’s library, I discovered that ProQuest hasn’t listed my dissertation abstract yet.  So, in order that it has some sort of web presence, I’ll just post it here:

Duncan, Michael Gary. Ph.D. The University of Memphis. May 2009. “Rhetorical Narrativism: A Rhetorical-Critical Reading of the Early Christian Gospels.” Major Professor: Brad McAdon, Ph.D.

This dissertation introduces a new approach to rhetorical criticism of the early Christian gospels, which I call rhetorical narrativism. This approach is necessitated by the relative inattention of historians of rhetoric to the early Christian period, defined here as 35 CE-425 CE, due to the mistaken assumptions that there is little Christian rhetoric present before Augustine, and that the rhetoric present in early Christian work is dependent on Greco-Roman models. In this approach, the Greek texts that have come down to us of the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are considered to be rhetorical narratives that also employ hermeneutical rhetoric. Furthermore, in contrast to a common understanding of these texts, the gospels were written by authors with as much free control over their compositions, arguments, and sources as any ancient author, in contrast to the “weak authorship” assumptions of the Q hypothesis that dominates mainstream biblical source criticism. This approach also suggests that due to their institutionalized power over interpretation, rhetorical critics should more explicitly explore their own subjectivity toward Christian beliefs when analyzing the arguments within the gospels.

Rhetorical narrativism is demonstrated through three case studies which focus, respectively, on the rhetorical composition of the various post-resurrection accounts, the conflicting material relating to John the Baptist, and the evolving portrayals of Judas Iscariot. The conclusion suggests that the author of the Gospel of Mark is the originator of much of the rhetorical narrative found in the gospels, having composed the text with a polemical aim of undermining the authority of the original apostles. A closing excursus on pedagogy notes this approach and the texts of the gospels can be useful for teaching the analysis of arguments, the nature of source documentation, and critical thinking, even to Christian students with strong beliefs about the texts in question.

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