Since, then, we wish to have our hearer receptive, well-disposed, and attentive, I shall disclose how each state can be brought about. We can have receptive hearers if we briefly summarize the cause and make them attentive; for the receptive hearer is one who is willing to listen attentively. We shall have attentive hearers by promising to discuss important, new, and unusual matters, or such as appertain to the commonwealth, or to the hearers themselves, or to the worship of the immortal gods; by bidding them listen attentively; and by enumerating the points we are going to discuss.[1. Rhetorica Ad Herennium, 1.4.7]
I have recently been studying the book Hebrews, and in the midst of my research concerning the opening lines I happened upon a note regarding the rhetorical nature of the prologue, and was made curious enough to dig a little deeper.
In the ancient Roman world, rhetoric stood at the height of education and human endeavor. To be a good public speaker was a necessity for any advancement in civic life, and one’s skills at rhetoric were invaluable in all areas from commerce to politics.
Of course, rhetoric was just as useful, if not more so, in one’s literary production. A Demosthenes could achieve universal renown as an orational prodigy, a Cicero could become well nigh immortal. So influential were the most skilled rhetoricians that their writings would be studied, emulated and treasured for centuries. Some would even be seen as the absolute pinnacle of language.
In such a culture, to write was not simply a casual effort, especially if one is writing with the intent to persuade, exhort or direct. The very words one might use, the order in which they were used; the very way in which the sounds and rhythm flowed from one to another were not meaningless minutiae but rather the substance of how one’s work would be perceived. In many respects, the style of the presentation was paramount, even in comparison to the content or argument conveyed.
As can be seen from the opening quotation, the ancients were as keen to tout the new and the novel as the modern world. We are used to this: New! Never Before Seen! Shocking Discoveries! Mysteries Revealed! Exclusive Interview! Whenever any type of media makes this claim- be it a book, television show, product, etc.- one can see a timeless principle of rhetoric at work: whenever you want to get the audience’s attention, tell them that what they are about to hear or see is new.
Humans love the new; they are often quite taken with the novel. The strange and the peculiar are never wanting for an audience. This principle can even come to characterize entire communities. In Acts 17 during Paul’s visit to Athens we are given an intriguing insight into the Athenian pathos at the time:
“May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)[2. Acts 17:19-21 NIV]
While the ancient world was certainly not monolithic, at least not anymore than the modern world, such a description was not altogether foreign to any other urban center in the nascent period of Christianity.
That brings us back to the opening lines of Hebrews. The author begins in fine rhetorical style, setting the direction of the rest of the discourse within the exordium. The exordium is the opening segment of an oration or discourse, and within rhetorical theory it was of utmost importance, for it essentially set the stage for the remainder of the discourse and had the ability to favorably dispose one’s audience to what followed. So Quintilian:
In giving an exordium at all, there is no other object but to prepare the hearer to listen to us more readily in the subsequent parts of our pleading. This object, as is agreed among most authors, is principally effected by three means: by securing his good will and his attention, and by rendering him desirous of further information. These ends are not to be kept in view throughout the whole pleading, but they are pre-eminently necessary at the commencement, when we gain admission, as it were, to the mind of the judge in order to penetrate still farther into it.[3. Quintillian, 4.1.5]
We can see the author of Hebrews taking this approach to heart. Considering Hebrews’ primarily Jewish audience, the author both attempts to dispose himself favorably with the audience by referring back to a shared and illustrious history concerning God’s revelation to the Jews, but then redirects to discuss the new- how God’s revelation is new and definitive in the Son.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.[4. Hebrews 1:1-2 NIV]
It is interesting to note that in this exordium the author does two things very subtly. First, by mentioning God’s revelation through the prophets, the author places what he is about to write firmly within a specific tradition, so that the intent is that what is to follow in not in conflict with the previous revelation of God through the prophets. However, through what follows, the author simultaneously describes the superiority of the revelation through the Son which, while in a sense superseding the previous revelation, does not thereby render it invalid or meaningless. This juxtaposition will be more fully developed in the very next phrase:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.[5. Hebrews 1:3-4 NIV]
The Son is thus described by means of language which locates him in the ‘time’ before creation- the Son stands above and beyond and before it, being the agent of creation itself. As the Son is identified as being the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being, the Son is identified as divine. Since the prophets were believed to be inspired by God, the argument is clear- the same God who inspired the prophets who hold such an illustrious place in Jewish history has himself been revealed in the Son, and as such this new revelation is not really new at all, but is the culmination of the entire prophetic tradition. Thus, in this exordium the author has managed to construct a rather robust theology of revelation that straddles both the blossoming Christian tradition of his hearers as well as their Jewish heritage.
But the author of Hebrews has some more rhetorical tricks up his sleeve. Back to the first sentence. Here the author begins with a periodic sentence, which is a sentence whose clauses build upon each other, leaving the main idea for the end of the thought. This type of rhetorical structure was especially popular in the exordium, as it compelled the reader or listener to wait in anticipation for the payoff. Quintilian again:
A period must have at least two members; the average number appears to be four, but it frequently admits of more. Its proper length is limited by Cicero to that of about four iambic trimeters, or the space between the times of taking breath. It ought fairly to terminate the sense; it should be clear, that it may be easily understood; and it should be of moderate length, that it may be readily retained in the memory. A member longer than is reasonable causes slowness in a period; those that are too short give it an air of instability.[6. Quintilian 9.4.125]
Full periods are very proper for the exordia of important causes, where it is necessary to excite solicitude, interest, or pity. They are also adapted for moral dissertations and for any kind of amplification.[7. Quintilian 9.4.128]
In Hebrews 1 we can find this periodic sentence employed within the exordium in the words we have already considered. While the phrase In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways is, in this English translation, an independent clause, its meaning is intrinsically and grammatically tied in Greek to the subsequent phrase but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. In actuality, the payoff of the period occurs in verse 3:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.[8. Hebrews 1:3 NIV]
Thus, for the readers of this epistle the construction of the periodic sentence leaves one in anticipation throughout via this succession:
God has spoken in the past through the prophets.
Now God has spoken through the Son
This Son is heir of all things
The world was made through this Son
This Son is the radiance of God’s glory
This Son is the exact representation of God’s being
The Son sustains all creation by the power of his Word
The Son has provided purification from sin
The Son is at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven
Through this continual stacking of clauses, the author hopes to drive home a very important point- the Son is divine, the Son is superior to the prophets and the angels.
Modern readers may wonder why, if the author wished to convey this, he did not simply say ‘the Son is God’ or ‘the Son is divine.’ Simply put, to state the case in such a way within the parameters of rhetorical persuasion was an even stronger way of stating the case. After all, the entire point of the rhetorical endeavor was not to deliver information but to favorably dispose one’s audience to the argument and to state the case in such a way that it would captivate the intellect. Quintilian describes it as such:
But we should be careful that this copious kind of style is used when the judge not only thoroughly understands the case, but is captivated with the eloquence of the pleader, resigns himself wholly to its influence, and is led away by the pleasure which he experiences.[9. Quinitilian 9.4.129]
The author of Hebrews’ audience was clearly not unfamiliar with the subject matter, as he employs terminology that presupposes some prerequisite knowledge. However, given the general intent of exhortation that is to follow in this epistle, a good rhetorical style demanded a robust exordium, especially as the author’s purpose initially is to demonstrate the superiority of the Son. Thus, we should not surpassed that the author clothes his meaning in such verbosity, as the very act of doing so demonstrates his meaning far more than the bare statements the modern reader might desire or expect.