In 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.
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Much ink has been spilled in attempting to define the enigmatic category of “enthymeme” that plays such an important role in Aristotle’s rhetorical theory. Aristotle calls enthymemes “the body of proof” (Aristotle, 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. In his 1959 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, however, 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. (405; underlining added).
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, what sets apart the enthymeme is the manner in which and purpose for which the argument’s premises are obtained.