Rethinking the Literary Structure of Ephesians

In an earlier post, I argued for the following chiastic structure in Ephesians:

A. Epistolary Prescript (Eph 1:1-2);
B. Exordium (Eph 1:3-23);
C. Narratio (Eph 2:1-3:13);
D. Prayer and Doxology (Eph 3:14-21);
c. Exhortatio (Eph 4:1-6:9);
b. Peroratio (Eph 6:10-20);
a. Epistolary Postscript (Eph 6:21-24).

In another post, I explained the complexities of the exhortatio in an effort to show that there is still only three broad sections there, so that the three sections of the narratio would still correspond neatly.

I looked at Ephesians first in light of rhetorical arrangement (exordium, narratio, exhortatio, peroratio), and then determined that there is a corresponding literary structure (a chiasm). I argued further that there is a smaller set of chiastic structures in both the narratio and exhortatio, so that there are several parallel points of comparison. I must admit, it seems as though such an analysis is getting to be so complex that I think my analysis is more genius than what the original author intended.

In addition, there are still some complexities with this arrangement and analysis that I do not think I can explain without coming up with an ingenious solution that the author did not intend. Here are two examples. First, if the narratio is made up of a chiasm, then the first and last points should have similarities. Ephesians 2:1-10 talks about grace, and Ephesians 3:1-13 mentions grace. Therefore, I concluded that they are similar and the narratio is arranged in such a way so as to form a chiasm. But this similarity is founded on a single word. Am I arguing that a single word is enough to form the connection and to construct a chiasm? It seems that I was attempting to make that argument. For the moment, we can say that I have a valid point and that there is such a chiasm. If that is the case, then the chiasm is betrayed by οἰκοδομὴ (Eph 2:21; cf. Eph 4:12), which breaks outside of the parallel and corresponding sections of the separate chiasms. My original literary structure is therefore not able to account for all everything in Ephesians. Therefore, it is not likely to be correct.

Second, the exhortatio is made up of more rhetorical units than what the narratio contains. I attempted to explain how it contains only three literary units that correspond with the three literary units of the narratio. But if that is the case, how does my explanation account fully for the use of περιπατέω (Eph 4:1, 17; 5:1, 15)? The exhortatio is marked up into separate units through the use of περιπατέω, which gives us at least four units, whereas the narratio only has three. In my original explanation, I maintained that the two middle units function together as one unit in two parts. While there may be some merit to my explanation, it does not quite account for everything. Would an audience who hears the letter read aloud also hear the two middle sections as one, or would they simply hear περιπατέω and associate it with a new section? Furthermore, how is it then that there is a connection between Christ’s sacrifice in Eph 5:1 and in the last literary section with Eph 5:25? These sections are supposed to be unrelated, and yet there is a strong connection. My explanation simply cannot suffice.

Therefore, it is better to adhere to the basic rhetorical arrangement and not attempt to find any sort of intricate literary structure. The style of epideictic rhetoric is itself redundant and permits for words and phrases to be used several times and embellished, which accounts for the things I have not been able to explain. Through the epideictic style, οἰκοδομὴ can be reused at any point, and likewise for περιπατέω. The same is true also of Christ’s giving himself up. Even though they are reused in different rhetorical units within the letter’s arrangement, the epideictic style not only permits it, but it expects it and it accounts for everything. There is no need to look further or deeper since the style itself provides us with a perfectly good explanation.

We will leave the letter’s arrangement to the following structure:

Epistolary Prescript (Eph 1:1-2);
Exordium (Eph 1:3-23);
Narratio (Eph 2:1-3:21);
Exhortatio (Eph 4:1-6:9);
Peroratio (Eph 6:10-20);
Epistolary Postscript (Eph 6:21-24).


Does Ephesians Have a Propositio?

It may be appealing to find a propositio in Ephesians, a formal section containing the premise of the argument, not least because the concept of thesis has been associated with propositio. As such, with the general contemporary understanding that oral and written pieces contain some sort of thesis, it follows in theory that no rhetorical work could lack a propositio. Does the Letter to the Ephesians have a formal propositio? In an effort to determine if Ephesians has a propositio, we will look first to the works of Lincoln and Witherington, and second to the works of Aristotle, Quintilian, and Ad Herennium, and, in the end, we will note the importance of this discussion.

We must remember first and foremost that Ephesians is epideictic rhetoric, which will prove important in our discussion from the primary sources. Second, two influential commentaries on Ephesians concerned with rhetoric have mixed information in support of a propositio in Ephesians, which are Lincoln’s Ephesians (vol. 42, WBC) and Witherington’s The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians. In his rhetorical outline of Ephesians found in his introduction to his commentary, Lincoln does not recognize a propositio whatsoever (xliii). His commentary has been a standard rhetorical treatment of Ephesians for a while now, and, yet, he does not recognize a propositio in Ephesians. In Witherington’s introduction to his commentary, he does not formally recognize a propositio as indicated in his rhetorical outline of Ephesians, but by way of a footnote he informally declares that Eph 1:9-10 functions as a propositio (20). However, in his discussion of both the eulogy (Eph 1:3-14; 227-237) and specifically Eph 1:9-10 (236), Witherington does not support his brief claim that Ephesians does have a propositio. He mentioned it in passing through a footnote, but he did not support that claim in any way.

Thus far, the secondary evidence for a propositio is rather weak, and it only gets weaker. Witherington argues later that Eph 1:15-23 is a sort of propositio as it is comparable to the peroratio, and he refers his readers to Schnackenburg’s Ephesians (85) to find support for that claim. Because Ephesians is epideictic rhetoric, Witherington claims that this propositio is not something to be proved as in deliberative or judicial (forensic) rhetoric, but rather it is something to be praised and expounded (239).

These two commentaries together have not been helpful and have merely raised additional questions. Lincoln’s work is not confusing. Clearly he does not support the view that Ephesians contains a propositio. Witherington is rather confusing. First, he unfoundedly argues for Eph 1:9-10 to be the propositio, and in his discussion of said verses he makes no mention or explanation of them being the propositio. Second, he argues for Eph 1:15-23 as the propositio but does not provide any support; instead, he points to a different work as evidence of his claim. But now we have some more questions. If Eph 1:9-10 is the propositio, what is Eph 1:15-23? Are there two present in Ephesians? If Ephesians does have a propositio, is it true that it would be of a different kind than that of deliberative or forensic rhetoric? Does epideictic rhetoric provide a propositio not to prove it but to expound it? At this point, we can only turn to the ancient documents in an effort to answer such questions.

In The Art of Rhetoric, Aristotle says very little about the use of a propositio in a rhetorical piece. For him, an enthymeme is a syllogism consisting of propositions (any necessary signs, probabilities, or signs that deal with the possible or impossible, that which has actually happened or not, that which is great or small, or that which is universal or particular). Aristotle says that every kind of orator must have propositions at hand (I.iii.7-9). Based on what he stated, it logically follows that Ephesians would have some sort of propositio. But what Aristotle is describing is a rhetorical tool and not a formal section of a rhetorical piece. In other words, he is describing a tool for making a good argument as opposed to a formal section of the argument that must fall in order and contain certain features. Since Aristotle does not go into any other details and because what he has written does not seem to help answer our questions at this time, we should move on to the next ancient document, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria.

When discussing forensic rhetoric, Quintilian states that there is an order to follow, which is the exordium, the narratio, the proof, the refutatio, and the peroratio. He identified that the section of proof could be broken down into a propositio and a digressio that are placed prior to the refutatio (Institutio Oratoria III.iv.1). He claims Aristotle as listing the propositio after the exordium (The Art of Rhetoric III.xiii), but Aristotle does not say the propositio goes after the exordium; instead, what he does say is that a basic statement is always necessary while a full statement is essential for forensic rhetoric, and he even provides the order of the speech as follows: exordium, statement of facts, proof, and epilogue. It seems that Aristotle and Quintilian do not mean the same thing when they use the word propositio (to be clear, Aristotle did not speak Latin, so we are speaking anachronistically; the term Aristotle used was προτάσις, meaning “proposition” or “premise”). Here is our first clue that there is a distinction between a formal section of the speech, the propositio, from figures of speech or premises of the argument being made, the propositions.

Quintilian states later that it was possible for the narratio to be left out and the propositio to fill its place, where it would function as a brief summary statement of the facts (IV.ii.30). He also lists the proposition first before the statement of facts as it is reported to be in the school of Theodorus (III.ii.27). Quintilian never permits such a thing, but it appears that there was some flexibility in the order in some opinions and schools in antiquity. Again, while discussing forensic rhetoric, Quintilian describes the propositio as the beginning of the proof. He provides two kinds of examples. First, the demonstration of the main question. Second, the enunciation of individual arguments. Whens speaking of the first kind, he says also that it is not always necessary to use the propositio (IV.iv.1). In any case, the propositio must always be clear and lucid, for its purpose is to prevent obscurity. Furthermore, it must be brief and contain neither any excessive words nor redundancy, for its purpose is to explain what will be said. Finally, whatever is the order within the propositio, it must be followed exactly in the proof section of the speech (IV.v.26).

In sum, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria discusses the propositio as a formal section of the speech, which is not the same as how Aristotle speaks of it. His manual also discusses the propositio in connection with forensic rhetoric. Ephesians is not of the forensic type, but rather it is epideictic. However, there are some things that we can determine at this point. First, as a formal section of a rhetorical speech, the propositio followed the narratio. Second, there was the opinion that existed prior to or during the time Quintilian wrote that allowed the propositio to precede the narratio. Third, the propositio is connected to the proof. Fourth, the narratio could drop and the propositio could take its place. Last, the function of the propositio was to provide in summary form the order of the proofs about to be taken up; it functioned like a road map complete with directions for where the orator was taking his audience. Because he discusses the propositio in connection with forensic rhetoric, we must be cautious to attribute this information from Quintilian to the Letter to the Ephesians. We should look also to Ad Herennium to attempt to answer our questions.

This ancient text has some important aspects for this discussion, not least because it is the only one to go into more detail for epideictic rhetoric, while Aristotle and Quintilian discuss the propositio in terms of forensic rhetoric only. But even in Ad Herennium there is some flexibility of terminology or some confusing aspects. When discussing the perfect argument for forensic speeches, the use of the propositio is included as the first part of the argument. It is followed by the reason, then the proof of the reason, then the embellishment, and concluded with the résumé. It is the propositio that sets forth in a summary form what is intended to be proven (II.xviii.27-28). We see agreement here between Quintilian and Ad Herennium in that the propositio is like a road map for the speech. However, Quintilian speaks of it as a formal section of the speech, whereas Ad Herennium speaks of it as the beginning of an argument. Both are speaking in terms of forensic rhetoric. We must determine if the two texts are speaking of the same thing, however, for we have seen how Aristotle and Quintilian, while utilizing the same terminology, had in mind two separate things. Shortly after speaking of the perfect argument, Ad Herennium uses a different term, expositio, in reference to what we called the propositio earlier (II.xx.32), which is our second clue that the terminology between the two texts are concerned with different things. It seems that Ad Herennium is talking about something else than Quintilian, something more along the lines of Aristotle’s use of the term.

Ad Herennium speaks of two kinds of arrangements, first of the individual argument, and second of the entire speech. We have seen the order suggested for the individual argument, which starts with the propositio or expositio. For the entire speech, it should have an introduction, a statement of facts, a division, a proof, a refutation, and a conclusion. This ancient text permits for a different order of the whole speech, such as the proof before the statement of facts, but only when the situation demands it. Still, this discussion in Ad Herennium is concerned with forensic rhetoric (III.ix.16-17). This arrangement is similar to Quintilian’s with the addition of the division. The division, according to Ad Herennium, is the part of the speech that identifies what matters are not only agreed upon but also contested, and it also identifies what points are going to be taken up (I.iii). What Quintilian calls the propositio sounds quite like what Ad Herennium calls the division. As indicated already, what we have seen thus far in this ancient text has pertained only to forensic rhetoric. However, it does discuss epideictic rhetoric, and we will focus on what it says about the division.

In epideictic rhetoric, the speech should be structured according to four sections, which are as follows: the introduction, the statement of the facts, the division, and the conclusion. In the portrayal of life, the external circumstances, physical attributes, and qualities of character of the person being praised or blamed functions in and of itself as the proof of the speech, which is why there is no section of proof or refutation (Ad Herennium The statement of facts is permitted to be skipped if the introduction is done correctly, but if it is to be included, Ad Herennium requires that it follow the method of forensic rhetoric (III.vii.13; cf. I.viii.12-I.ix.16). It is the division that sets forth the things intended to be praised or blamed. It is the division that recounts the events, observing their precise sequence and chronology, and the portrayal of the life should follow a specific order, first by observing the external circumstances, second by observing the physical advantages, and last return to external circumstances (III.vii.13).

To summarize the situation, it appears that Ad Herennium’s division sounds like Quintilian’s propositio, while Ad Herennium’s propositio sounds like Aristotle’s propositio. Quintilian’s propositio is a formal section of the entire speech, while Aristotle’s and Ad Herennium’s is a formal section of a proper and perfect argument within the speech. Only Ad Herennium discusses the arrangement of epideictic rhetoric itself, but it does not include the use of propositio in said arrangement.

Based on our findings, we can now attempt to answer our questions, and we will do it in one fell swoop. It is difficult to say if the letter includes a formal section identified as a propositio. Aristotle did not consider a propositio to be a formal section of a speech and does not discuss it in relation to epideictic rhetoric. Quintilian did recognize the propositio to be a formal section of a speech, but he does not discuss it in relation to epideictic rhetoric. Ad Herennium recognizes the division to be a formal section of a speech, and it sounds rather similar to Quntilian’s understanding of the propositio, and it discusses the division in relation to epideictic rhetoric. However, in its discussion, it states that the narratio comes first and then the division. Ephesians does have a narratio, but after it concludes it goes straight into an exhortatio, a paraenetic section functioning as the proof. If Ad Herennium’s division is the equivalent to Quintilian’s propositio, it is hard to show one present in Ephesians following the narratio. We did see that there was an opinion present at the time of Quintilian’s writing that listed the propositio before the narratio, so it could be possible at the very least to have the propositio precede the narratio. However, even if that is the case in Ephesians, and if Eph 1:9-10, 1:15-23, or 1:20-23 is considered to be the propositio, the expected exactness and summary fashion for a propositio betrays these verses as they are not precise, they do not set forth exactly the points that are about to be taken up by the author, and they are not in summary form, but rather, they are redundant and superfluous. Furthermore, where the propositio precedes the narratio is discussed it is in relation to forensic rhetoric. We still have no indication that it was possible or acceptable to have such an order in epideictic rhetoric. The closest we get is in Ad Herennium’s acceptance of the narratio dropping out and the division taking its place in epideictic, but we know Ephesians contains a narratio. Even if Ephesians did have a propositio, there is no indication in Aristotle, Quintilian, or Ad Herennium that the purpose of propositions differ from epideictic to forensic rhetoric as Witherington suggested, that the propositio is something to be expounded rather than proven. What we see here is how difficult it is to provide a good explanation in support of a propositio in Ephesians. It seems very unlikely that one is present if we take the term to mean a formal section of the rhetorical piece.

We can look at Ephesians itself and see if it contains a propositio, so that we are not relying on the ancient rhetorical manuals only. We know that Witherington has argued for both Eph 1:9-10 and Eph 1:15-23 to be the propositio. Disregarding the fact that the propositio was supposed to follow the narratio, we can entertain these two portions of Ephesians. Starting in Eph 2, we have the following thought structure: grace and gift (Eph 2:1-10); new person, alienated (Eph 2:11-22); wisdom, mystery, household (Eph 3:1-13); walk worthily of the calling in unity, in grace, and with the gifts (Eph 4:1-16); walk not as the Gentiles but as God does in love, as a new person no longer alienated (Eph 4:17-5:14); carefully walk in wisdom even in the household (Eph 5:15-6:9); be strong in the Lord (Eph 6:10-20). Is there a verse or a set of verses in Ephesians that carefully details each of these points to be taken up? Witherington first asserted Eph 1:9-10 as the propositio, which reads, “revealing to us the mystery of his will, according to his good will which he predestined in him for the plan of the full measure of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, all things in the heavens and all things on the earth in him” (my translation). Comparing the thought structure to this translation, there seems to be no premise clearly defined and laid out indicating where the author is headed. Ephesians 1:9-10 cannot be a propositio. Witherington also asserted Eph 1:15-23 as the propositio. Due to length, we will summarize that section of Ephesians. It starts out by expressing personal feelings from the author to the audience (vv. 15-16). It talks of faith, love, and giving thanks. The author declares the content of his prayer (vv. 17-19). He wants God to give them a spirit of wisdom and a revelation in his knowledge. He wants them to be enlightened for for them to know the hope of his calling. He wants them to know the riches of his glorious inheritance and the overpassing greatness of his power. In vv. 20-23, the power mentioned in v. 19 is further explained. That power was at work in Christ when he was raised from the dead and caused to sit down at God’s right hand in the heavenly places. All things were placed under his feet and he was given as head over the church, which is his body. To be sure, there are themes present here that are found later and earlier in Ephesians, so we can say that it is connected to the rest of the letter. But as a propositio, it does not work, for it is lengthy, redundant, and it does not provide any set of premises that will be taken up in any particular order. Comparing its content to that of the thought structure of Ephesians, there is no apparent relationship.

We can thus conclude that Ephesians bears no propositio. It does not have a road map indicating where the orator is headed in exact detail. It does not have a section in connection with proof that lists the premises of the argument. It does not have a brief and non-redundant thesis following the statement of facts that provides the points to be taken up. Ephesians does not have a propositio, which is an acceptable fact because the letter is epideictic rhetoric and does not require one in the way that forensic or deliberative does.

We have only looked at three ancient texts. Surely others ought to be examined. However, The Art of Rhetoric, Institutio Oratoria, and Ad Herennium are three powerhouse texts on ancient rhetoric. If these three texts cannot be combined to demonstrate the presence of a propositio in Ephesians, it is doubtful that other texts would prove otherwise. It seems that our conclusion is safe, but there is a possibility of another ancient text informing our understanding, thus requiring a change, and, therefore, we must remain open to the possibility of being wrong. Yet, we are in good company, for Lincoln did not recognize a propositio in Ephesians, and, even though he argued for two different texts in Ephesians to be the propositio, Witherington did not provide any concrete evidence in support of one.

Why is this discussion important? Does it really matter if Ephesians has a propositio? This discussion is ultimately important for understanding Ephesians as a whole. Ephesians is constructed of several different rhetorical parts that relate to each other. One cannot fully understand and appreciate a smaller part of Ephesians without understanding the letter’s bigger picture. It is essential for understanding the context of Ephesians to consider its rhetorical features. If it did have a propositio, we would see a central set of premises that would be taken up in a particular order. We would be able to follow the argument of the author and know which parts of the letter are the major premises through a metaphorical road map. But Ephesians does not have one. It is imperative that Ephesians be understood according to its kind, epideictic rhetoric, and that we do not try to force other rhetorical features onto this letter, such as a propositio. If we force other features onto the letter, we can draw incorrect conclusions about the letter and its contents. We need to be careful and not careless. If we want to be true to the text, we have to let it speak for itself. Ephesians does not bear the markers of a propositio in accord with the ancient texts we examined. Therefore, based on such evidence it is important for us to conclude that Ephesians does not have a propositio, and, as a result, we can more properly study the other features that it does possess, an exordium, narratio, exhortatio, and peroratio, in order to accurately ascertain its meaning and value, which is why this discussion is important.