The Apostle and the Rhetorician

Cesare Maccari
Cicero Denouncing Catiline, 1888

A few months ago, I found myself reading (for no explicit purpose other than reading leisure) some of the speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman orator. There I discovered a surprising turn-of-phrase in one of his famous denunciations of Catiline. Cicero is here referring to how they were able to uncover the Catilinian conspiracy:

… not on the basis of intelligence or of any human wisdom, but as a result of many unambiguous signs from the immortal gods… (Cicero, In Catilinam II)

Elsewhere, speaking in praise of Julius Caesar, Cicero uses yet another surprising turn-of-phrase:

Rightly, therefore, you [Caesar] alone are invincible, since you have utterly vanquished the nature and power of victory itself [that is, by granting clemency to an enemy]… (Cicero, Pro Marcello)

These phrases are surprising in their usage because, for the Christian reader, they sound strangely familiar. As one reads Cicero, this déjà vu occurs over and over again.


Maybe this is ought to be unsurprising, given that Cicero is the “master rhetorician,” or given the number of direct Cicero quotes populating the (massive) body of St. Augustine’s City of God, or, even, given Cicero’s strong reception in the Medieval and Renaissance writings that, in turn, undergird the majority of our Western canon.

But the reasons for the déjà vu become evident whenever one turns to the epistles of the Apostle Paul. For instance:

… my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power… (I Corinthians 2:4)


The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15:56-57)

The relationship between the first excerpt and Cicero in In Catilinam II is pretty self-evident, but the second relationship needs a little explication. In Pro Marcello, Cicero is praising Caesar for developing, as it were, a new mode of victory. Rather than being victorious over his enemies through political execution or expulsion, Caesar has pardoned Marcellus and thus won both his allegiance and (in Cicero’s hopeful speech) the allegiance of the Roman people. (Cicero is well aware, of course, how tenuous such an allegiance could be should Caesar continue to aggregate power in the office of the dictator.) At the end of I Corinthians, Paul alludes to imperial themes of victory and power, but then he confers those terms of victory to the “Lord” (kurios, a term of sovereignty!) Jesus Christ, who, of course, was crucified under the Roman rule and later raised from the dead. In Pro Marcello, Cicero marvels at Caesar’s new form of victory through diplomacy; but in I Corinthians (and in chapter fifteen especially) Paul marvels at Christ’s new form of victory through death. The allusion between the two texts when read as a whole is pretty incredible.


What is particularly intriguing about Paul’s rhetorical allusions (to Cicero and to other Greco-Roman writers, like Plato, etc.) is how many of them occur just within I Corinthians! This is an intriguing textual reality, something that commentators have observed, given that Paul makes his most provocative case against rhetoric here:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (I Corinthians 2:1-5)

Craig S. Keener, in the IVP Bible Background Commentary (New Testament), observes: “Paul here appeals to the Corinthians’ own conversion… It was the powerful preaching of the weakness of the cross, not humanly powerful rhetoric, that had saved them.” And yet, as Keener and others observe, I Corinthians is a text charged with masterful rhetoric.

This is a fascinating tension: the very apostle who, to the Corinthians, appears “humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when… away” (II Corinthians 10:1), who declares that none shall be saved through smooth writing or wise thinking (cf. I Co. 2:1), still nevertheless uses classical Greco-Roman rhetorical mastery when addressing that same community. I especially appreciate Keener’s observation, elsewhere in his commentary, that the Corinthian church was comprised of both the upper- and working-classes and that the upper-class preferred Apollos’ rhetorical presence while the working-class preferred Paul’s more layman addresses. It would appear that the Corinthian church’s infamous divisions had something to do with their socioeconomic and education distinctions, and the preference of one community for one style of address… Could it be possible that Paul’s letter, written in masterful Ciceronian rhetoric, is then a direct address (and, thus, a rebuke) to these upper-class élites in light of their disinterest in Paul’s plainspeech pastoral approach?

There are many interesting studies that could be pursued on the basis of the relationship between the writings of Paul and Cicero, as well as the possible (however dubious) relationship between Paul and Seneca during the former’s tenure in the Roman prison. Observing this allows for a rhetorical hermeneutic that most readers of Paul’s writings miss altogether.

For further thoughts on the relationship between Paul and Cicero, here’s a wonderful blog from Nathan Campbell, an Australian pastor-theologian.


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