How to Understand Paul’s Hermeneutic through Aristotle’s Rhetoric

Rhetoric and hermeneutics aren’t two separate things.1 Instead, they mirror and interpenetrate each other. As H.-G. Gadamer summarizes,

There would be no speaker and no art of speaking if understanding and consent were not in question, were not underlying elements; there would be no hermeneutical task if there were no understanding that has been disturbed and that those involved in a conversation must search for and find again together.2

This observation means that, in principle, one should be able to clarify hermeneutics by leveraging rhetoric and vice versa. A key case in point is how Aristotle’s concept of the enthymeme provides a way to gain purchase on Paul’s hermeneutic.

What Is the Enthymeme for Aristotle?

Authors have spilled a good bit of ink attempting to define what Aristotle means by the “enthymeme” that plays such an important role in his rhetorical theory. Aristotle calls enthymemes “the body of proof” (Rhet. 1354a [Freese, LCL]; σῶμα τῆς πίστεως) but nowhere explicitly defines the category.

The typical “textbook definition” tends to try to define enthymemes around either (a) their formal incompleteness in missing one or more premises or (b) their use of more tenuous premises. But Lloyd Bitzer helpfully situates the enthymeme by comparison to other types of syllogisms that Aristotle discusses. Bitzer suggests that

(1) Demonstrative syllogisms are those in which premises are laid down in order to establish scientific conclusions; (2) Dialectical syllogisms are those in which premises are asked for in order to achieve criticism; (3) Rhetorical syllogisms, or enthymemes, are those in which premises are asked for in order to achieve persuasion.3.

Thus, on Bitzer’s reading, the distinguishing features of the enthymeme are not its completeness or incompleteness or the kind of premises it involves. Rather, three features distinguish an enthymeme. These features are

  • the context in which it occurs (rhetoric),
  • the way its premises are obtained (asking of the audience), and
  • the end toward which it is employed (persuasion).

The enthymeme is a deductive argument that occurs in a rhetorical context just like the example is an inductive argument that occurs in a rhetorical context (Aristotle, Rhet. 1356b–1357a, 1394a, 1419a).4

How Can Study of Enthymemes Clarify Paul’s Hermeneutic?

When it comes to Paul’s hermeneutic, Aristotle’s concept of the enthymeme proves particularly helpful by highlighting how Paul asks his audience for premises for his arguments.

Sometimes, Paul states those premises outright, sometimes he leaves them unstated. Similarly, Paul’s enthymemes sometimes involve him in scriptural interpretation, sometimes not. But when they do, the fact that he must ask for his premises means that his request discloses part of the hermeneutical world within which he and his audience understand their Scriptures.

This disclosure is not a slip or break in the argument, if one really wants to understand it. Instead, it’s an invitation to imagine how Paul might be correct.5

And a serviceable approach for accepting this invitation is to arrange the text’s claims into a standard syllogistic format. This format is often too cumbersome to use in a given rhetorical situation. But it provides a mechanism for highlighting the premise(s) that Paul may be requesting from his audience as he appeals to their shared scriptural tradition.

So, for instance, Romans 15:1–7 discloses three assumptions that Paul thinks are reasonable bases for argument that he shares with his audience.

  1. At least in certain places, the Messiah’s voice may be found in the psalmist’s.
  2. Experiencing insult and pleasing oneself are mutually exclusive.
  3. All Israel’s Scriptures may foster the perseverance, encouragement, and hope of Jesus’s followers.


As more work gets done along these lines a fuller picture emerges of the hermeneutic world within which early Jesus followers interpreted their Scriptures. That world has features that tend to look a bit odd to modern eyes. But as it comes progressively more into view, even those features that previously looked unlikely to fit may, in the end, make sense as well.

Would you like to read a fuller version of this discussion? If so, drop your email address in the form below, and I’ll send you a copy of my Trinity Journal essay that discusses this approach to Paul’s hermeneutic in more detail.

  1. Header image provided by Wikimedia Commons

  2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, “On the Scope and Function of Hermeneutical Reflection,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. David E. Ligne, 1st paperback ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 25. 

  3. Lloyd F. Bitzer, “Aristotle’s Enthymeme Revisited,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 45.4 (1959): 405; underlining added 

  4. See also John Walt Burkett, “Aristotle, Rhetoric III: A Commentary” (Texas Christian University, PhD diss., 2011), 462–63; William M. A. Grimaldi, Aristotle: A Commentary, 2 vols. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1980), 1:48; William M. A. Grimaldi, Studies in the Philosophy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1972), 53–82. 

  5. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 317. 

1 comment

  1. Dr. Stark,
    I appreciate the above quote from Gadamer. It seems given what I know of Gadamer (all thanks to you by the way 🙂 ) he places great emphasis on dialectic as the mode of understanding. He is incredibly optimistic about the conversational possibility. The end of the quote seems to point in that direction. In terms of the Aristotelian project(s), while he differed in many ways from his teacher Plato, he inherited from Plato a disdain for the relativism of the likes of Protagoras and the other pre-Socratic sophists. The sophists (both ancient and modern) house their arguments within rhetoric. What is actual is relative to what one might be persuaded to understand. Maybe I am stretching a bit here but it seems to make sense that Aristotle would want to “beat the sophist’s at their own game” so to speak. So by utilizing a rhetorical approach such as the enthymeme, and further seeing such as “the body of proof”, this would suit his intended aim. If this is an accurate picture of Aristotle’s project, I wonder how this affects understanding how Paul is utilizing this within his hermeneutics? Do we see this in Paul because it is a faint echo of Aristotelian thinking within Paul’s intellectual climate? Or is Paul intentionally drawing on Aristotle much like he is aware of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and others such as Epimenides? Does Paul utilize the enthymeme much like I proposed of Aristotle, as a polemical and rhetorical approach to give “the body of proof” to his interlocutors? Paul writes letters and they are, by nature, occasional. Which gets us back to Gadamer’s dialectic. How should we understand this rhetorical approach within a dialectical scheme and its capacity to give understanding? I am curious about these relationships and appreciate the work you are doing here.

    Oh by the way, I apologize for the ever lengthier responses to your posts. 🙂

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