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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Paul’s Skills as an Orator: Evidence Against Lukan Authorship?

Next up in our skeptic’s arguments against Lukan authorship is the supposed disagreement between Paul’s rhetorical skills as depicted in Acts and as decpited by Paul himself. According to our skeptic, “Paul is everywhere presented in Acts as an outstanding orator. He defended himself with eloquence in front of Tertullus (Acts 24:1-21). Through his mastery of public speaking, Paul was able to keep a tumultuous Jewish crowd silent for some time (Acts 21:40-22:21).” But when it comes to Acts, “the picture we get from Paul's own letters is the exact opposite! Paul himself recounted his opponents' critique of him: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible." 2 Cor. 10:10.

Let us stop for a reality check. Our skeptic is presuming to judge the speaking skills of Paul – in the running for the most influential evangelist of all time – from 2,000 years distance based on the insults cast by Paul’s enemies. Why does he feel it necessary to take Paul’s enemies at their word? Because in his opinion, Paul did not give “a direct counterargument.” I am not sure what our skeptic thinks qualifies as a “direct counterargument,” but Paul certainly pushes back. As for those who concede the strength of his letters while diminishing the power of his oration, Paul warns, “Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present.” 2 Cor. 10:11. That does not sound like a concession to me. Perhaps our skeptic thinks an appropriate response would be to shout, “am to!” Alas, Paul’s rhetoric is at least better than that.

Additionally, “[t]here are those who take this and other his utilization of the categories of rhetoric, especially that of assuming a suitable level of humility with regard to his oratorical skill. This is especially appropriate in a book such as 2 Corinthians, where Paul wishes to be seen boasting not in his own abilities, but in what has been accomplished among the believers in Corinth – they are his commendation.” Stanley E. Porter, Paul in Acts, page 196. Note Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 3:1-3:

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

So, Paul not only warns that his presence will match his letters, but he lets his accomplishments (rather than his own boasting) defend himself. If Paul was such a failure of a speaker, how had he so succesfully established the Corinthian church itself?

Which brings us to our next reality check. If Paul was such a failure at public speaking, how did he establish so many churches in so many different cities? Paul was not simply a letter-writer, he was a founder of churches. One of the most successful the world has ever known. Does our skeptic think that Paul founded these churches by writing letters? No. Letter-writing was what Paul did to churches that were already established. Could Paul have been such a successful evangelist if he was a pathetic speaker? Very unlikely. Especially when the countervailing evidence is an insult cast against Paul by his enemies that Paul rejects. Furthermore, to laud Paul’s letters but not his orator skill is problematic. “[T]here is a basic contradiction in this criticism, since the theological content of his preaching must have been overwhelming: otherwise he could not have written such letters and have been successful as a missionary.” Martin Hengel, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch, pages 3-4.

In any event, this argument is simply not that relevant to the issue of authorship. Having chosen to select Paul as his hero for the second half of Acts, the author – even if a companion of Paul – is not obligated to portray Paul as a bumbling idiot of a speaker. Of course, a bumbling idiot of a speaker would not have been the successful evangelist that Paul was, and would not have merited such a place in Acts’ history in the first place. Stacked up against such a weight of counter evidence, the statement in 2 Cor. 10:10 is insufficient to raise an issue as to Lukan authorship.


Paul, of course, admits that in approaching the people of Corinth, he came not "with eloquence or superior wisdom", for he resolved to "know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." He continued, "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisom, but on God's power." (1 Cor. 2: 1-5).

So, when your skeptic says that the level of Paul's oratorical skills are portrayed as being different in Acts and in 2 Corinthians, is it possible that this difference results from Paul's choice to be less erudite in reaching out to the community in Corinth as he says he was in 1 Corinthians? But of course, that would require accepting the Bible as having some historical value and we can't have that, can we?


Another aspect of this I'm working on is what you point to. Paul does not seem to be much impressed with formal rhetoric. Corinth, however, was obsessed with it. This does not mean that Paul was an unpersuasive speaker. Far from it. I don't see how he could have been as succesful as he was unless he could be convincing.

Perhaps an analogy would be whether I could win an argument despite my ignorance of the formal rules of debate ( And, in fact, I have won many arguments in Court -- on paper and by oral argument. But I would be flailing in the confines of a heavily regulated debate environment. Unless I took the time to study and adapt myself to it. But I see no reason to do so. And Paul, though revealing some knowledge of formal rhetoric in his letters, could certainly have chosen not to engage in such formal rhetoric.

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