Paul's critique of rhetoric: "mere words" and "real power" in 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5, 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:5, and 1 Corinthians 4:18–21

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Over the last thirty-five years, a consensus has developed that Paul’s self-presentation can be understood by comparison with the travelling rhetorical, philosophical, and religious teachers within his environment known as Sophists. Two passages in which Paul forcefully rejects any dependence on rhetoric (1 Cor 1:17‒2:5; 4:18‒21) have been analyzed for their rhetoric. This is perfectly acceptable. Rejection of some forms of rhetoric in favor of others is a long-standing rhetorical move. But one important feature of these passages, and the related 1 Thess 1:4‒5, has received little scrutiny. This is the Pauline antithesis between “mere words” and “real power.” Strikingly, in 1 Cor 4:19 Paul claims that on his return to Corinth, he will “find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power [οὐ τὸν λόγον τῶν πεφυσιωμένων ἀλλὰ τὴν δύναμιν].” The antithesis is, of course, rhetorical. For this very reason we need to understand the nature of the contrast. What kind of words is Paul deprecating? What kind of power is he valorizing? How far would he take the contrast? And what aspects of his social self-presentation do these passages highlight?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication"With Gentleness and Respect"
Subtitle of host publicationPauline and Petrine studies in honor of Troy W. Martin
EditorsEric F. Mason, Mark F. Whitters
Place of PublicationLeuven, Belgium
PublisherPeeters Publishers
Number of pages28
ISBN (Electronic)9789042942752
ISBN (Print)9789042942745
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

Publication series

NameBiblical Tools and Studies
PublisherPeeters Publishers
ISSN (Print)1784-8873

Bibliographical note

Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

An earlier version of this paper was given at the seminar “Paul and Rhetoric,” chaired by Peter Lampe, at the 2007 meeting of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas in Sibiu, Romania.


  • New Testament Studies
  • Pauline Epistles


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