December 14, 2008

Rhetoric at the Boundaries by Longenecker

Rhetoric at the Boundaries: The Art and Theology of New Testament Chain-Link Transitions
Bruce Longenecker

Waco: Baylor University Press
2005, 305 pp., hardcover, $49.45

Bruce Longenecker has discovered a missing link in New Testament criticism and interpretation which he has identified as the “chain-link transition.” By carefully analyzing the form, utility, and theological significance of the chain-link interlock, Longenecker demonstrates the importance of this rhetorical transitional device and how the neglect of this construction has led to faulty interpretation of key New Testament texts. The author, who will soon be taking a new post at Baylor University, has made an important contribution to New Testament studies that will require multiple interpretive endeavors to be revisited and revised.

Because the chain-link construction has been so little known, Longenecker’s task is twofold. He must demonstrate both that the chain-link interlock existed in the ancient world and how an understanding of the device is important for interpreting texts. To accomplish the first task, the author’s method involves a “triangulation of evidence” in which he relies on three areas of evidence: (1) first- and second-century Graeco-Roman rhetorical handbooks, (2) sources prior to or contemporary with the New Testament, and (3) the New Testament itself (9). The result is three mutually reinforcing pools of data which together make a convincing case for the existence and regular use of the chain-link construction in ancient texts.

Longenecker first cites evidence for the chain-link transition from the second-century text How to Write History by Lucian of Samosata who speaks of attaching components of a narrative together like a chain. It is from this text in Lucian that Longenecker derives the term “chain-link transition.” He then cites evidence from Quintilian’s late first-century Institutio Oratoria which speaks of textual units being interwoven to strengthen one another as two people who join hands for mutual stability and strength. Longenecker believes that Lucian and Quintilian are referring to the same type of construction which he models as “A-b/a-B” where “A” and “B” are major textual units whose material interlocks across a textual boundary (indicated by “/”). The overlapping of material from two distinct units across a boundary is a distinct characteristic of the chain-link construction making it an “inter-unit” construction and distinguishing it from “intra-unit” features such as inclusio, chiasm, or alternating parallelism.

Some may object that this evidential basis is far from strong enough to conclude that something like a chain-link construction was a well known and viable feature of ancient rhetoric. Longenecker anticipates this objection, though, and points out that the widely accepted chiastic structure does not appear in the rhetorical handbooks until the fourth-century CE (9, 253). He also points out that neither Quintilian nor Lucian provide any instruction on proper use of the chain-link transition indicating that their readers were likely familiar with the form and function of the construction.

The author offers further support from his second evidential database, sources prior to and contemporary with the New Testament. Longenecker cites evidence from nine ancient sources including the Old Testament, Philo of Alexandria, Plutarch, and Josephus. He notes that the presence of the chain-link transition in both Hebrew and Graeco-Roman sources suggests that the construction was not limited to Graeco-Roman rhetoric but was characteristic of wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern literature.

Having shown that the chain-link transition was discussed in ancient rhetorical handbooks and that the device was widely used in literature prior to and contemporary with the New Testament, Longenecker moves to his third evidential database showing fifteen occasions in the New Testament where the chain-link transition occurs. Using material from the gospel of John, Luke-Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation, he demonstrates the importance of knowing the form of the chain-link for interpreting texts and shows how commentators have often misunderstood these texts because they were unaware of chain-link constructions.

For example, Longenecker shows how discussion of the much debated Romans 7:25 would benefit from an awareness of chain-link transitions. Interpreters have been keenly aware that Paul’s statement in 7:25a, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” fits better with the content of 8:1-39 than it does with that of 7:7-25. Longenecker cites proposed solutions that suggest the text was misconstrued in transmission or was the product of scribal confusion. The author shows that such explanations are unnecessary because the transition from 7:25-8:1 is structured by a chain-link interlock and that 7:25a is not poorly located but, rather, it is the anticipatory interlock in the chain-link construction. This text which has been used as an occasion to question Paul’s rhetorical skill is actually a carefully structured chain-link transition.

Two major contributions of this volume are worth noting. First, it provides a methodological basis for further study of chain-link transitions not only in the New Testament but in the many available non-canonical Jewish and Graeco-Roman texts. Longenecker’s work was not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, it draws attention to the chain-link construction and provides the foundation for further study by other.

A second major contribution of this book is its demonstration that New Testament scholarship has been weakened by lack of familiarity with first-century rhetorical conventions. Despite recent growth, rhetorical criticism remains a small field within the New Testament guild. Rhetoric at the Boundaries demonstrates the importance of attentiveness to the rhetorical structure of New Testament texts and how a lack of awareness regarding rhetorical conventions can lead to poor interpretation. Longenecker is to be commended for drawing scholarly attention to an important but neglected phenomenon, the chain-link interlock.

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