Ephesians as Epideictic Rhetoric

The Letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians) reflects an epideictic style of rhetoric. The letter does not seek to prove anything, and therefore it is not forensic or judicial rhetoric. Ephesians does not seek to persuade, so it is not deliberative rhetoric. Instead, the letter seeks to praise God for his work. This art of praise is called epideictic rhetoric. We will look in more detail at the features of epideictic rhetoric, and we will see that Ephesians utilizes this class of rhetoric. In this discussion, we will consider the following ancient works on rhetoric: Aristotle’s Rhetoric; Cicero’s Brutus and Orator; the Ad Herennium; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Aristotle wrote one of the first manuals on rhetoric. In Rhetoric, he described the three classes of rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric is that which persuades or dissuades and is usually concerned with the future, but sometimes it can be concerned with the present. Its goal is to persuade people to do something because it would be good or to dissuade from something because it would be bad. Forensic rhetoric is that which seeks to prove or disprove and is usually concerned with the past. Its goal is to prove or disprove something to be either just or unjust. Epideictic rhetoric is that which promotes or demotes and is generally concerned with present circumstances, although it does not exclude past or future. It seeks to promote the honorable and demote the dishonorable (I.iii.3-9). We are concerned with epideictic rhetoric. Its focus is on praise. But what is praised in epideictic rhetoric?

According to Aristotle, noble deeds and people were praised in epideictic rhetoric. Aristotle defined “noble” as that which was worthy of praise or that was good and therefore pleasant. In his view, virtue was necessarily noble. Now virtue consisted in justice, courage, self-control, splendor, generosity, liberality, gentleness, and practical and speculative wisdom. Therefore, these same things were noble since they were virtuous. As a result, these virtues were to be praised. Furthermore, things done not for one’s own sake were noble and worthy to be praised (I.ix.1). Aristotle also thought that praise should be founded on actions that were done according to a moral purpose of a worthy person (I.ix.32). He also thought that praise and advice could easily be interchangeable, so that while we could praise that which ought to be done, we could also alter our phrases to make them simple suggestions (I.ix.35-37). Epideictic rhetoric was about praise, but within the praise there could be some advice, suggestions, or counsel.

One of the main features of epideictic rhetoric was amplification. Narratives may contain elements of the person’s life that amplify praise, such as anything that person did alone or first, or if the actions surpassed all expectations. Amplification consisted in superiority, which was one of the noble things worthy of praise (I.ix.38). Therefore, the praise was based upon glorious deeds (II.xxii.6).

Aristotle held that there were four parts to a rhetorical speech: the exordium; the narratio; the proofs; and the peroratio (III.xiii.4). He thought that each class of rhetoric used these four sections in different ways. For epideictic rhetoric, the exordium was like a prelude to a song. It had a key note throughout that linked it with the rest of the song. The source for the exordium could be praise, blame, exhortation, or dissuasion. According to Aristotle, the exordium was constructed in such a way that it made the audience believe that they were sharing in the praise or the blame that was being delivered (III. xiv.1-11).

In epideictic rhetoric, the narratio was a disjointed set of facts that were one part in-artificial and one part artificial. The facts were in-artificial in the sense that the orator would tell the facts as they were, but they were artificial in their presentation, for the orator would artfully tell the facts by showing that the actions did take place, whether they were incredible, of a certain kind, or of a certain importance (III.xvi.1). But the facts themselves were not disputed (I.ix.40). The narratio was to have a sense of moral character. It was to make clear the moral purpose of the facts, and that purpose was the end goal for the audience. Furthermore, the narratio was to draw upon the emotions (III.xvi.1-10). According to Aristotle, epideictic speeches did not have a formal set of proofs. Instead, amplification within the narratio functioned to prove the things that were honorable or useful. The validity of the facts themselves were taken on trust (III.xvii.3).

The peroratio served four functions according to Aristotle. First, it served to dispose the listener favorably towards the orator and unfavorably towards the adversary. Second, it amplified or depreciated. Third, it served to heavily excite the emotions of the audience. Finally, it recapitulated the proofs. It would appeal to pity, anger, jealousy, or emulation (III.xix.1-6).

Cicero’s Brutus and Orator

Cicero was an important rhetorician who was from Rome but studied rhetoric in Asia Minor. It was from Cicero that many later rhetoricians derived their style. We cannot miss what he had written about rhetoric. While he wrote other important works on rhetoric, we will be looking at two, Brutus and Orator, as they supplement Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Cicero noted that there were two types of rhetoric—Attic and Asiatic. Attic rhetoric was a dry and colorless style (Brutus, 284-291). Asiatic rhetoric had a rich language dressing, but it lacked in weight and authority compared to Attic. Asiatic had two types itself. There was a kind that was full of wisdom and meaning, it was well-versed, and it was charming with its balance and symmetry. Then there was a kind that was swift, forceful, ornate and refined in vocabulary, which was a general trait of Asia at the time, and it provoked admiration (325-327).

In terms of delivery, Cicero said that it was important for the orator to address the audience in the manner that they approve. It was important to use rich diction when addressing the people around Asia Minor (“Caria, Phrygia, and Mysia”), not rich diction with the Rhodians, certainly not rich diction with the Greeks, and the opposite of rich diction though pure and well-chosen words with the Athenians (Orator, 24-25).

Cicero described the epideictic class of rhetoric as that which increased one’s vocabulary and had a greater freedom in rhythm and sentence structure. It often contained a neat sentence structure with symmetrical sentences. It was permitted to use well rounded and defined periods. Epideictic rhetoric was ornamented purposefully and openly, so that words corresponded to other words in equal measure. Clauses would end in similar ways and with similar sounds (Orator, 37-38). Cicero described it as having a sweet, fluent, and abundant style with bright metaphors and sounding phrases (42). For Cicero, the narrative was to be credible, clearly expressed, and presented with the tone of everyday conversation. The whole speech was to be adorned with praiseworthy language and amplification (124-126). In addition, the orator was to use carefully chosen words and phrases, metaphors, and figures (134-135). Of all the possible figures given, there were six that we will highlight. First, the orator was to portray the talk and ways of men. Second, the orator was to warn the audience to be on their guard. Third, the orator was to take the liberty to speak boldly. Fourth, the orator was to digress briefly. Fifth, the orator was to pray or curse. And sixth, the orator was to place him or herself on terms of intimacy with his or her audience (137-138).

Ad Herennium

Ad Herennium was another ancient systematic work on rhetoric. It reiterated what Aristotle stated, that epideictic rhetoric was that which was devoted to the praise or blame of a person (I.ii.2). Furthermore, external circumstances, physical attributes, or qualities of character could all function as proof for epideictic rhetoric (III.vi.10-11). When praising the person under discussion from the point of view of the audience listening, it was important for the orator in the exordium to refresh the audience’s memories of the person’s actions. The orator could also say that we do not know what to praise in particular, fearing that in discussing several things we might neglect even more. But the orator must pass on anything that would carry like sentiments (III.vi.12).

Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria

Quintilian was a contemporary of Jesus and Paul. He was a Roman skilled in the art of rhetoric. He wrote a massive manual on rhetoric, the Institutio Oratoria. We will give special attention to his work on this matter.

Quintilian wrote that the rhetorician was to start with a historical narrative, the exposition of the facts, which possessed a force that was proportionate to the truth (II.iv.2). This narrative was to be neither extremely elaborate nor dry, but it was to be written with special care (II.iv.3-4, 15). Of the more important themes, the narrative was to involve the praise of famous men and the denunciation of wicked men. According to Quintilian, one’s mind benefited from the facts and one’s character benefited from the contemplation of virtue or vice (II.iv.20).

Quintilian understood that the epideictic class of rhetoric amplified and embellished its themes. In epideictic rhetoric, when praising the gods, it was important to express respect of their majesty in general terms and to praise the special power of the individual god in focus and the work it had done to benefit humans. It was also important to record its exploits as handed down from antiquity (III.vii.6-8). When praising men, it was important to praise the deeds of the hero, especially when he was the first or only man or one of the few to perform the deed. In addition, it was important to praise any achievements that surpassed everyone’s expectations and emphasize what was done for the sake of others rather than what was achieved for himself (III.vii.16). And the rhetorician was also to include the audience by utilizing a few words of praise for the listeners in an effort to win their favor and to advance the case (III.vii.24).

Quintilian described several parts of the speech. In describing the exordium, Quintilian likened it to a prelude of a musical masterpiece, for it won the favor of the audience before setting into the regular portion of the song. The exordium functioned to provide an acquaintance or introduction with the subject matter, assuming that the audience was not already familiar with it. It served to equip the listeners with a ready ear for the rest of the speech (IV.i.1-5). But the exordium was not free from restraint; it did not let loose the emotions. The peroratio, in contrast, was unrestrained. It gave way to the full reign of emotions. It could use fictitious speeches, call the dead to life, appeal to friends and family, and tug on the strings of the heart (IV.i.28). Quintilian also stated that it was to recapitulate the arguments of the speech. In the peroratio, the rhetorician was to display the full strength of the case and attempt to excite envy, goodwill, dislike, or pity. He added that in the peroratio the whole torrent of one’s eloquence must be let loose, which would primarily be done through amplification and the free use of ornate words and magnificent reflections (VI.i.1-11, 51-52).

When it comes to eloquence, it was expected that the rhetorician would ornament the speech with the most attractive reflections, brilliant language, use of figures, magnificent metaphors, and an elaborate composition (VIII.iii.12). When it came to amplification, the rhetorician could expound or augment the narrative, making the event most impressive, he could draw up a memorable comparison, he could make a logical inference, or he could build up an idea or concept throughout a series of clauses or sentences (VIII.iv.3-27). When it came to reflection, Quintilian was referring to the appeal to one’s opinion, giving the speech a personal touch (VIII.v.1-7). Of particular interest, Quintilian also stated that exhortation or paraenesis was viewed by some to be an acceptable form of figure (IX.ii.103). Figures were a way of employing eloquence, but Quintilian noted that they had an effect on proof (IX.i.19).

Note also Quintilian’s position on writing. He wrote that writing and oratory went together. He thought that the speech was preserved in writing and could be brought to light to meet the demands of particular circumstances (X.iii.6).

Ephesians as Epideictic Rhetoric

We have seen what five ancient texts have to say about epideictic rhetoric. So, how does Ephesians compare?

Ephesians has a vast amount of epideictic features. After the epistolary prescript, the letter starts with praise (Eph 1:3). Ephesians is concerned with praising God for what he has done in and through Christ for the benefit of the people. It also denounces the old lifestyle of the Gentiles (Eph 2:1-3, 12; 4:17-5:14), so it both promotes and demotes. It begins with a section purely devoted to the praise of God (Eph 1:3-14). God’s work is good and therefore worthy of praise. God’s work in and through Christ consisted in justice (Eph 1:20-22), splendor (Eph 1:19; 2:7), generosity (Eph 1:8; 2:4), liberality (Eph 1:6-7; 2:4-10), gentleness (Eph 2:4), and wisdom (Eph 1:8). In sum, the subject matter of God’s work is comprised of that which was considered to be virtuous and noble, and therefore it is worthy of praise. Furthermore, it emphasizes that God performed these deeds for the listeners and not for his own sake (Eph 1:3-14, 20; 2:4-10, 14-18; 4:7-12; 5:2, 25). The praise was also based upon the moral end of God’s actions. God performed his work in us through Christ in order that we might fulfill the good works that he predestined for us to do (Eph 2:8-10). Epideictic rhetoric was especially concerned with amplification by emphasizing deeds that the person or god being praised were done alone or done first, if the actions surpassed all expectations, or if they reflected superiority. Ephesians contains such elements. In relation to Christ, there is a surpassing or superior greatness of his power for those who believe (Eph 1:19). In Christ, there is a surpassing wealth of his grace (Eph 2:7). And Christ’s love surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:19). Christ’s power, grace, and love surpasses all expectations. But Christ is also superior in position, because God has placed him in authority over all things (Eph 1:20-22; 3:20-21; 6:9). The letter is adorned with several notable figures. It portrays the talk and ways of men (Eph 2:1-3, 12; 4:17-5:14). It warns the audience to be on their guard (Eph 4:27; 5:15-16; 6:10-18). It takes the liberty of bold speech (Eph 4:17-5:14). It contains a brief digression (Eph 3:1-7). It contains a couple of prayers (Eph 1:15-23; 3:14-21). And the letter is placed on intimate terms between the author and the audience (Eph 3:13; 6:19-20). There are at least eight long sentences of Ephesians, which are as follows:

Eph 1:3-14;
Eph 1:15-23;
Eph 2:1-7;
Eph 3:1-7;
Eph 3:8-12;
Eph 3:14-19;
Eph 4:11-16;
Eph 5:18-24.

These long sentences further demonstrate the letter’s redundant but ornate style, which was typical of the second kind of Asiatic rhetoric for the area of Asia Minor.

Ephesians contains an exordium in 1:3-23. The exordium contains a key note throughout that links it with the rest of the letter. Christ is the key note. Christ rings throughout the exordium, but then he also rings throughout the rest of the letter. In the exordium’s eulogy (1:3-14), Christ (either “in Christ” or the equivalent) appears 10 times within 12 verses. Throughout the rest of the letter, Christ appears as follows:

1:15 (faith in Christ);
1:20 (God’s work in Christ);
1:22 (all things subject to Christ);
2:5 (God made us alive with Christ);
2:6 (God sat us with Christ);
2:7 (God’s stored up immeasurable riches for us in Christ);
2:10 (we were created in Christ);
2:12 (we were formerly without Christ);
2:13 (now in Christ we are near);
2:14 (Christ is our peace);
2:20 (Chris is the cornerstone);
2:21 (in Christ the church is joined together);
2:22 (in Christ the church was built spiritually);
3:1 (Paul is prisoner for Christ);
3:4 (the mystery of Christ);
3:6 (in Christ Gentiles are fellow-heirs);
3:11 (God’s eternal purpose is carried out in Christ);
3:21 (glory be to God in Christ);
4:7 (Christ gave gifts);
4:13 (we are to measure up to Christ’s stature);
4:15 (the church grows up into Christ);
4:21 (we are taught in Christ);
4:32 (God forgave us in Christ);
5:8 (in Christ we are light);
5:22 (wives subject themselves to their husbands as to the Lord);
5:24 (Christ is the head of the church);
6:1 (children obey parents in the Lord);
6:4 (fathers train up their children in the instruction of the Lord);
6:5 (slaves serve as though it is to Christ);
6:9 (masters share the same Master as their slaves);
6:10 (be strong in the Lord).

In addition to the key note, the exordium is connected to the narratio and exhortatio by other various topics, which are presented thusly:

1:2, 20 (heavenly places) – 2:6; 3:10;
1:5, 9, 11 (good pleasure, will, accomplish, counsel) – 2:10; 5:15-17;
1:6, 8, 14, 18-19 (praise glorious grace, riches of grace, immeasurable greatness) – 2:4-7; 3:1-13; 4:1-16;
1:7 (forgiveness of sins/trespasses, redemption) – 2:4-7;
1:8-9, 16, 18 (wisdom, insight, mystery, enlightened, revelation) – 3:1-13, 19; 5:3-14, 15-16, 32;
1:10 (fullness) – 3:19;
1:11, 14 (inheritance) – 3:6;
1:12, 18 (hope) – 2:11-13;
1:13 (truth, gospel, salvation) – 4:17-5:14;
1:20 (God raised Christ from death and seated him in the heavenly places) – 2:5-7;
1:20 (God made Christ head of church) – 4:15; 5:25.

Within the exordium, the rhetorician was also to make the audience believe that they were sharing in the praise that was being delivered. Ephesians 1:3-14 utilizes “us” throughout, which includes the audience in the praise being given to God. It also refreshes the memory of the audience as to the deeds of God before going into further detail in the narratio.

Ephesians contains a narratio in 2:1-3:13. This section portrays the moral goal for the audience (Eph 2:10; 3:10). It also draws upon the emotions, which is what it does at the end (Eph 3:13). It mainly functions to tell the facts in the tone of everyday conversation but in a careful and artful way where the facts carry like sentiments. Since the narratio was also to be amplified, it could build up ideas or concepts throughout a series of clauses or sentences. Ephesians 2:1-3:13 tells the facts in everyday language and with the use of artful description, but it mostly builds upon concepts and ideas throughout a series of clauses and sentences to amplify the facts. It is easy to see the amplification through the series of clauses, which is made plainly evident here:

2:1 (dead in transgressions);
2:2 (used to live in sin);
2:2 (used to follow the course of the world);
2:2 (used to follow the ruler of the power of the air);
2:3 (used to live according to the desires of the flesh);
2:3 (was a child of wrath by nature);
2:4-5 (but God made us alive with Christ);
2:4-5 (God is rich in mercy);
2:4-5 (by grace you are saved);
2:6 (God raised us up with Christ);
2:6 (God sat us with Christ);
2:8-9 (by grace you’re saved);
2:8-9 (it is not by your works);
2:10 (we are created for good works);
2:11 (we were Gentiles or “uncircumcision”);
2:12 (we were without Christ);
2:12 (we were aliens and strangers);
2:12 (we had no hope);
2:12 (we were without God);
2:13 (but in Christ we have been brought near);
2:14 (he is our peace);
2:14 (he made both of us one person);
2:15 (he abolished the law);
2:16 (he reconciled both through the cross);
2:17 (he proclaimed peace);
2:18 (through him both have access to God);
3:1 (Paul is prisoner for Christ);
3:2 (Paul was commissioned to preach God’s grace);
3:3 (the mystery was revealed to Paul);
3:5 (mystery was not revealed in earlier generations);
3:5 (but it has been revealed now to the apostles and prophets);
3:6 (the Gentiles become fellow-heirs);
3:6 (the Gentiles become members of the same body);
3:6 (the Gentiles have become sharers in the promise of Christ);
3:7 (Paul serves to spread this gospel);
3:8 (it was for Paul to bring this news to the Gentiles);
3:9 (and to make everyone see the mystery);
3:10 (the wisdom of God is to be revealed through the church);
3:11 (this was according to God’s eternal plan in Christ);
3:12 (in Christ we have bold and confident access to God).

Note also the artful language in the narratio, which is demonstrated as follows:

2:19 (citizens of God’s household);
2:20 (God’s household was built upon the foundation of Christ, who is the cornerstone, and on the apostles and the prophets);
2:21 (this whole structure is a holy temple).

Generally, Ephesians tells the facts as they are. But in a few instances it proclaims the facts with vivid images. The facts are built up and amplified, following in good epideictic style for the area of Asia Minor.

Ephesians contains a set of proofs in 4:1-6:9. This set of proofs is in the form of an exhortatio. Both Aristotle and Quintilian admitted that praise can easily turn into counsel. Aristotle stated that epideictic speeches did not have a formal set of proofs, but rather, the narratio heavily utilized amplification. Quintilian stated that exhortation was understood by some to be an acceptable figure, and figures were associated with proof. Therefore, it is permissible to see Eph 4:1-6:9 as the set of proofs of the rhetorical composition.

Ephesians 6:10-20 constitutes the peroratio. This section serves the letter in four ways. First, it disposes the audience favorably towards God and unfavorably towards the devil (Eph 6:11). Second, it amplifies by use of metaphor and ornate imagery (Eph 6:14-18). Third, it excites the emotions, appealing to terrifying imagery (Eph 6:16). Finally, it recapitulates both the narratio and exhortatio. The counsel to put on the armor of God in order to be able to stand in the wicked day (Eph 6:13) echoes the whole of Eph 4:1-6:9. Indeed, for there are many connections between the narratio and the exhortatio with the peroratio, as seen here:

6:11 (“wiles”) – 4:14;
6:12 (enemy is rulers, authorities, world powers, spiritual forces) – 2:2; 3:10;
6:13 (evil day) – 5:16;
6:14 (truth) – 4:15, 21, 25; 5:9;
6:14 (righteousness) – 4:24; 5:9;
6:15 (peace) – 2:14-15, 17; 4:3;
6:16 (faith) – 2:8; 3:12, 17; 4:5;
6:17 (Spirit) – 5:18;
6:18 (pray in the Spirit) – 5:19-21;
6:19-20 (pray also for me to speak boldly) – 1:15-23; 3:14-21.

Furthermore, the whole letter is concerned with praising God for what he has done in and through Christ on our behalf. The peroratio follows in that path, for it instructs the audience to put on the armor of God. Not only has God done all the things previously described in the letter, but he also provides the equipment necessary for withstanding the wiles of the devil. He is still doing glorious things by providing for us!

Conclusion

We have seen what the ancient’s thought about epideictic rhetoric. We have seen how Ephesians reflects this class of rhetoric. Furthermore, we have explored the rhetorical composition of Ephesians as epideictic rhetoric in light of the ancient texts concerning rhetoric. As a result, we have determined that Ephesians is an epideictic rhetorical composition, and that it contains an exordium (Eph 1:3-23), a narratio (Eph 2:1-3:13), an exhortatio (Eph 4:1-6:9), and a peroratio (Eph 6:10-20). There are some who say that Paul was not trained in rhetoric. Regardless if it was Paul who wrote Ephesians or whether the author was trained in rhetoric, the letter contains a vast amount of rhetorical elements, especially of the epideictic class, and it certainly has the main parts of a rhetorical composition. Furthermore, even Quintilian understood the importance of writing down one’s speeches for the very purpose of being able to bring them out when in need. A letter could function in this way. A speech could be recorded in a letter and then read aloud to an audience. Simply because Ephesians is a letter does not mean that rhetorical principles do not apply. On the contrary, letters were read aloud in the early church! Finally, the people in the region in and around Ephesus expected to be spoken to in a particular way according to Cicero, which was a vibrant, ornate, and redundant style. Ephesians reflects this style. It makes perfectly good sense for it to reflect this style, because if it was written to an audience in the region of Asia Minor, and if the audience expected it to have a vibrant, ornate, and redundant style, then the author, if he had a right mind, would have met the expectations of his audience. Therefore, regardless of authorship and training, we can say that Ephesians is an epideictic piece of rhetoric and it reflects the style that was expected by the area that Ephesus was located in.

The fact that Ephesians reflects the epideictic style helps us to see the flow of the letter (from exordium to peroratio). It also helps us to account for the long sentences and the redundant but ornate style. Ephesians has a different style from that of the undisputed letters of Paul. Despite the stylistic difference, which in itself does not indicate that Paul could not have been the author necessarily, it seems best to understand the difference in light of the delivery requirement of the recipients of the letter. Those in Asia Minor expected to receive something in a particular way, and Ephesians reflects that expectation. If Paul did write Ephesians, we can state positively that he wrote it in a different style so as to meet the expectations of his audience. When reading and interpreting Ephesians, we would do well to remember that it is a rhetorical composition of the epideictic class. It will help us as we determine what the author was driving at, emphasizing, and communicating.

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7 thoughts on “Ephesians as Epideictic Rhetoric

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  6. Hi James,

    Thanks for your excellent article on Ephesians as epideictic rhetoric. I’m currently working on a doctoral thesis on the application of rhetorical critical insights to expository preaching, and have found it a very helpful resource. Two questions: has it appeared in a publication anywhere, or is this where I can best reference it? And did you use anything other than the primary sources in your analysis? – if so, I’d be interested in accessing them.

    Thanks,

    Tim.

    Tim MacBride
    Lecturer, NT and Preaching
    Morling College, Sydney, Australia

    • Tim,

      Thank you so much for your comment. Allow me to respond to your inquiries:

      1. No, this blog post has been published neither in a peer-reviewed journal nor in a book.
      2. I used only the primary sources in this analysis as it was preparatory work for my thesis topic. I used the Loeb Classical Library series to have access to the original language plus an English translation with introductions all in one source.

      To critique my own work, it is lacking a few sources from Cicero, both from his De Oratore and examples from his own speeches. It’s one thing to speak in terms of manuals and theories. It’s another to speak about actual examples. I have not yet compared Ephesians to examples, although I have compared it to the manuals. What I have done is a great start, but I had planned on pursuing a PhD and finishing up this research. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that I will be working on a doctorate, so it has become more of a lifelong and self-paced research interest.

      Blessings,

      James

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