[K:JNWTS 20/2 (Sep 2005) 69-72]

Book Review

David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003. 595 pp. Hardback. ISBN: 0-664-21917-9. $49.95.

Recently, New Testament scholarship (following a tradition in the Early Church and Reformation) has given more careful attention to rhetorical conventions. Aune's dictionary seeks to provide the reader with the necessary background to embark on the rhetorical (and literary) study of the New Testament—and in many ways it succeeds (at least on the rhetorical side of things).

Aune's entries on rhetorical terms are helpful. For instance, his sections on Exordium and Digressio are detailed and insightful. He also includes briefer entries on Narratio, Peroration, Proomium, and Prolepsis. However, he does not have sections on Probatio, Confirmatio, Transitus, or Strophe. Some of the less obvious terms among these (such as Probatio) might be helpful in subsequent editions, especially since some New Testament scholars use these terms without explanation. (As does Aune in selections on the epistles in the dictionary itself.) Admittedly, sometimes Aune does supply brief definitions of these terms when he lays out rhetorical options for interpreting different New Testament letters (i.e., "Probatio or Headings," p. 462 on 1 Thessalonians), but this may only occur later to the reader who is using it as a handbook. (Thus, since the work is not exaustive, an index of terms, while perhaps uncommon in dictionaries, may be helpful in this case.)

On the rhetorical triad—Ethos, Pathos, and Logos—Aune provides an extensive discussion of the first two. He also has a significant entry on enthymemes, which are the rhetorical form of logical syllogisms (in which one premise of the syllogism is assumed rather than stated). Page 153 presents an interesting chart of "Enthymemic Content." Further entries include the Diatribe (as an oral-literary style) and Chreia.

Aune deals with each of the New Testament epistles, noting some of their rhetorical conventions and suggested rhetorical structures. What is especially helpful about this volume is Aune's reference to the work of other scholars. In discussing a certain point (the use of rhetorical conventions by an author, suggested rhetorical structures for a letter, or literary techniques represented in a gospel), he continually refers to the views of other New Testament scholars. Sometimes this becomes a mini discussion in the history of New Testament scholarship (see for instance his discussion of Parables, pp. 332-333). Thus, one acquires a venue into modern New Testament scholarship—with references to more extensive work on a topic.

Of course, this work is also titled a dictionary of New Testament literature. And while rhetorical conventions function within literature, they do not comprise its totality. So Aune also has entries on Literature, Literary Criticism, Narrative Criticism, Narrative Asides, Novels (Greco-Roman novels), and Prose Rhythm (which may be used in Acts). He also includes discussions of Chiasm (along with Ring Composition), Inclusio, Intercalation, Irony, and other literary techniques. He has discussions of Character and Plot, but these are too brief to be very helpful. (Still, he at least distinguishes between flat and round characters—repeated again on Mark, p. 293). In his sections on the gospels and Acts, he discusses their literary techniques, noting views of various New Testament scholars, and giving examples from the text. On Luke-Acts, he also highlights the function of the speeches in the narrative. (Thus, the creative reader can fill in the blanks, and see the relationship between literary and rhetorical conventions in Luke-Acts and the other gospels.)

The selections on New Testament books and letters provide mini-introductions to each of them. But Aune's material on their authorship, sources, composition, and literary context is decidedly higher critical (with rare exceptions, see comments on the Messianic secret in Mark, p. 293), and must be handled with care. Also, even where his rhetorical and literary material is helpful, he rarely provides useful theological insights to his readers. Still, the rhetorical and literary insights of this volume can get you thinking about these yourself. And his references (within the entries) can refer you to more extensive work (fully referenced in an extensive bibliography at the end of the book).

Aune's higher critical preoccupations are further disclosed in entries on Early Christian Literature. Thus, he includes entries on "Q" (Sayings Source)—extensive for this work, the Gospels of Thomas and Peter (with an entry on the Apocryphal Gospels), on the Acts of Paul, Peter, Phillip, Thecla, and Thomas, and on the Apocalypses of Paul, Peter, and Adam. Further entries include the Pseudepigrapha NT & OT, The Testament of Levi, and Second and Third Baruch.

And there are entries on works from the early church such as the Shepherd of Hermes, The Letters of Ignatius, First and Second Clement, The Letter of Barnabus, and Polycarp's Letter to the Philippians. Aune's discussion of rhetorical conventions in First Clement and the Asianism of the letters of Ignatius reveals the influence of rhetoric on writers of the early church. Again, the New Testament is not far removed from them in its use of literary conventions.

New Testament writers used rhetorical conventions extensively. If we are to understand the dramatic redemptive-historical message of the New Testament, we would do well to study rhetorical conventions. God the Son (who is the paradigm of all human speech—and finally of all useful rhetorical and literary techniques) was made flesh. And he used these rhetorical and literary conventions to bring his word home to the Church—to bring himself to the Church—dramatically and eschatologically. Thus, his faithful ministers would do well to study to show themselves approved, accurately handling the word of truth. This eschatological glory is lost on Aune. But perhaps his volume, in spite of its faults, may help some along this road.

Scott F. Sanborn


1 Readers of this journal will note that Geerhardus Vos studied under this biblical-critical giant at Strasbourg (1886-1888). Culling Vos's works and manuscripts for his reflections on this question would be an interesting exercise.