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

Reading time: 5 minutes

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. 

Aune on enthymemes in New Testament scholarship

Reading time: < 1 minutesIn a helpful 2003 essay, David Aune discusses “the use and abuse of the enthymeme in New Testament scholarship” (New Testament Studies 49, no. 3, 299–320). According to the article’s abstract,

Though the enthymeme is usually defined as a truncated syllogism, that definition does not go back to Aristotle. By the first century CE there were four ways of understanding the enthymeme in both Greek and Latin rhetorical theory, of which the truncated syllogism was just one. Aristotle’s theory of the enthymeme had little effect on the subsequent history of the enthymeme, just as his Rhetorica had only a restricted circulation and impact from the first century BCE on. In light of these considerations, the work of seven scholars who have used the enthymeme to understand argumentation in the NT is reviewed and critiqued.

Materially, the essays biggest contribution is Aune’s analysis of the formalist perspective on “enthymemes” that he found in the literature he surveyed. Another area of repeated concern is how easily it is for New Testament scholars to fall into incompletely outlining arguments.

For subscribers or users at subscribing institutions, see the essay in NTS, ProQuest, or other similar providers.

Cope’s introduction to Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”

Reading time: < 1 minutesE. M. Cope’s 1867 introduction to Aristotle’s Rhetoric (London: MacMillan) is available via Internet Archive in several different scans digitized by

Burkett on Aristotle’s “Rhetoric”

Reading time: 3 minutesTexas Christian University’s open, online thesis repository contains John Burkett’s treatment of Book III of Aristotle’s Retoric. The project is a commentary-style work on that book that strives to complete the project that William Grimaldi began with Books I and II. According to the abstract,

This new commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric III serves the purpose which the text held at the Classical Lyceum: elucidating Aristotle’s theory of style (lexis) and arrangement (taxis) for scholars, teachers, and practitioners of rhetoric. This commentary provides a much needed update because the last commentary, written by Cambridge classicist E. M. Cope in 1877, is now understood as a misinterpretation that reads Aristotle Platonically, takes seriously only rational appeals, assumes a mimetic theory of language that depreciates style, and misdefines central concepts like the enthymeme and common topics. Providing a new interpretation, this commentary may be summarized by three adjectives: Grimaldian, rhetorical, and accessible. First, this Grimaldian commentary applies the new rhetoric philosophy of William M. A. Grimaldi, S.J., which he explicates in Studies in the Philosophy of Aristotle’s Rhetoric (1972) and in his two-volume Commentary (1980-1988), wherein Grimaldi develops an integrated and contextual interpretation of the Rhetoric. Second, this rhetorical commentary observes the rhetoric in the Rhetoric since Aristotle typically practices what he teaches: writing with enthymemes, defining by metaphor, clarifying by antithesis, and arranging units by thesis, analysis, and synthesis. This commentary observes how Aristotle applies his three rhetorical appeals (êthos, pathos, logos), his theories of propriety (prepon), exotic (xenos), and virtue (aretê) in style, and the systems of Greek imagery, all of which develop a unified and interactive theory of invention, style, and arrangement. Attention is given to Aristotle’s creative theory of metaphor, being a tropos (turn) and a topos (place) of invention, functioning as a stylistic syllogism for creating knowledge with quick, pleasant learning. Arrangement also functions creatively with localized topical procedures for responding to the particular needs of each part of a composition. Third, this accessible commentary features text, translation, comments, and glossary for readers who may not be familiar with Aristotle’s idiom but who have an interest in his rhetorical theory and technical terms. Finally, incorporating recent scholarship, this commentary provides insights from classical rhetoric and new rhetoric, showing their interrelationship and how contemporary research in rhetoric builds on and helps to elucidate Aristotle’s expansive rhetoric as a general theory of language.

For the project’s full text, see TCU’s repository. On a personal note, I had the privilege of working for John while he was working on this project. Discussions with him about some of the more problematic approaches to Aristotle’s Retoric that are noted above proved quite enriching, helpful, and informative, and I’m delighted to see that his project is openly available for interested readers’ consumption.

Aristotle's Works in Greek and English at

Reading time: < 1 minutes

Portrait of Aristoteles. Pentelic marble, copy...
Aristotle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ah, so much the better:

Bekker’s Prussian Academy of Sciences edition of the complete works of Aristotle at volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, volume 4, volume 5

Oxford Translation of The Works of Aristotle at (contents by volume): vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4, vol. 5, vol. 6, vol. 7, vol. 8, vol. 9, vol. 10, vol. 11, vol. 12 (Wikipedia)