Language and Rhetoric

It is hard to think clearly about a passage when the first thing you learn about it is that it is crucially important. That’s been my experience, at any rate. When you learn, later on, that a good deal of its importance is that it is hotly contested and that “we”—our people—look at it like this and “they”—you know, those other guys, look at it like that, you know  just why it is so important.

By this point, you have learned nothing at all about the meaning of the passage, but you have learned other things. You have learned that one interpretation of the passage is a marker of membership in your community and you have learned that what is at stake in the interpretation of this passage is crucially important. Doing it wrong would be something like using the name of your ex-wife in the middle of the wedding ceremony where you are making promises to the woman who is going to be your new wife. Maybe. If she can recover from your getting that one little thing wrong.

Needless to say, neither of these gut-wrenching considerations is a friend of understanding what the passage says. I have three examples I would like to cite by way of illustrating this thesis. Each of them has a language component and another component—I think I will call it “rhetorical,” but I am not sure that is really the right word.


Here is the version I grew up on and if you grew up in the church, so did you. This is the King James Version.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

Here it is in in The Jewish Bible [1]

When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void with darkness over the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.

The language differences are obvious. What is treated as the act of God in the KJV is treated as the initial condition in the JB. Creation is an act in the KJV and a process in the JB—“God created” as opposed to “When God began to create…” And God doesn’t “create” anything in the JB. God “organizes” it, starting in verse 6 where “the expanse” separates water from water. God does “create” in the KJV and in the form in which it has become a controversy, God created “ex nihilo,” that is, from nothing.

rhetoric 1If the language differences are obvious, the rhetorical differences are not. At least not to me. There is an opposition in the KJV between nothingness and somethingness. In the JB, the tension is between disorganization and organization. If you imagine the authors of these two translations as having opponents who needed to be refuted, the opponents of the KJV translators would be saying that there was something before God created anything. The opponents of the JB would be saying that there was organization before God created an order.

So my goal in dealing with this passage is to unhook myself from the atmosphere of crisis in which I first learned what this passage means, and then to see what meaning is offered by the language; and then finally to see why the language that is there was chosen. It is those steps—steps two and three—that I have been calling “language” and “rhetoric.”

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was a radical act, of course, but it wasn’t an interpretive puzzle. That didn’t happen until the Gettysburg Address. Jefferson is crystal clear about what he intends.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Notice “one people” in the first line and “the powers of the earth” in the fourth. Jefferson aspires to a “separate and equal station” for this people, the people being the North American Colonists.

There is no question about what he is trying to do. So when he continues in the next line,language 2 “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” it is obvious that “all men” and “one people” refer to the same thing. He means that “all peoples are created equal.” That is the sentiment his argument requires and is, in the context, the only plausible meaning.

Fast-forward now four score and seven years and we get a new speaker, Abraham Lincoln, and a new controversy, slavery. The slaves are not “a people” as the North American Colonists were, at least they were in Jefferson’s aspiration. If slaves are to be free, it is going to have to be one by one and if Lincoln is going to rely on Jefferson, he is going to have to take “all men” and make it refer to persons, not to peoples. [2]

I remember the first time it occurred to me that there was no way Jefferson could have meant what Lincoln said he had meant. It would have been a massive and unnecessary detour in an argument that is, otherwise, quite straightforward. We are bound to the King by a social contract. He hasn’t kept his end up, (examples to follow, Jefferson says) so we are free of the contract and desire independence. One, two, three.

language 3And that same logic applies to Lincoln. There is no value at all for Lincoln in asserting the right of the North Americans to assume among “the powers of the earth” any status at all. The question Lincoln is addressing is not the equality of peoples but the equality of persons—some of them black and some of them white—so he borrows a phrase from Jefferson and twists it until it screams. The screams were covered by the sound of the cannons.

The Inspiration of Scripture

Here is the third zinger, the third of my illustrations about crisis and meaning.

This passage contains the famous words: “All/every Scripture [is] inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

This sentence comes from Raymond E. Brown’s Introduction to the New Testament (page 656). There are two interesting things suggested by the language. The first is that there is no way to specify the meaning of the Greek pasa as “all” or “every.” It could be either.  Both refer to the sacred scriptures of the Old Testament, one in a collective sense (all) and one in a distributive sense (every). The second language difference is that there is no “is” in the Greek text. So “all scripture is inspired by God” is a suspect translation. Another translation is “Every scripture that is inspired by God is also useful for…”refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be upright.” Those are the goals as they are given in the New Jerusalem Bible and they are an urgent reason for specifying the value of God-breathed scriptures.

Here again, the rhetorical intention guides our understanding of the language. Here is Brown’s assessment of it.

No matter how one translates the verse, the primary emphasis indicated by the context is less on the inspiration of all Scripture passages than on the utility of inspired Scripture for continuing what Timothy has learned from his childhood in order to teach and correct and thus to counteract evil impostors.

Paul—or some Paulinist unknown to us—is giving instructions to Timothy and is bearing language 4down on what the scriptures may be used for. These uses are absolutely central to Timothy’s duties as a pastor. Performing these tasks is as much a part of Paul’s argument as the equality of all peoples is a part of Jefferson’s.

The question of just why the scriptures are good for that—they are “God-breathed”—is interesting, but it is not on the to-do list of a harried pastor. “These are the tools I have,” the young pastor Timothy might be seen to be asking, “What are they good for, exactly?”

Much later controversies raised the questions about just what “inspired” means and in some very conservative arguments, it is said to mean “literally true.” God breathed these texts, the argument goes, so they must be true. And, the argument continues, at a much quieter level, “And furthermore, we must also be understanding them truly because they are, after all, God-breathed.”

In a similar passage in 2 Peter 1 (20-21) the metaphor is to “people who were carried along by the Holy Spirit” and who therefore “speak from God” and not from themselves only.


It’s hard, as I say, to pay attention to the meaning of a text or the direction of an argument when the first thing you learn about it is that it is vitally important and that there is only one clear meaning. There are some ways to do it, though. You can look carefully at the language that is used and you can locate the meaning of the language in the rhetorical goal of the author.

If there is a better way to understand the meaning of a text, I don’t know what it is.

[1] There is a lot of title here. I’ll give you what is says on the cover, starting at the top. It says “The Jewish Bible;” then “Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures;” then The new JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text; and then, last, “Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim.” JPS is a reference to the Jewish Publication Society.
[2] That change didn’t go unnoticed, of course. According to Garry Wills, (Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America) editorial columns all over the country screamed that Lincoln had perverted one of our founding texts. But there was a war on and Lincoln was the President and, by this stage of the war, the slaves needed to be freed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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