Tuesday, November 19, 2019


Justin R. Howell, The Pharisees and Figured Speech in Luke-Acts. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe, 456. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017. Pp. xii, 386. ISBN 9783161550232. €94.00.

Reviewed by Jonathan Thiessen, Université de Strasbourg (jonathan.i.thiessen@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

Justin R. Howell has rendered significant service to the rhetorical study of the New Testament through publication of this examination of figured speech in Luke-Acts. Interpretation of the New Testament using Graeco-Roman rhetorical categories is not new, but the depth of ancient theory means that many features have been easily passed over. Figured speech is one of these. Known as λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος, or oratio figurata, "figured speech" was an elaborate technique in which one "says one thing while meaning something else," usually to criticise. Its purpose is not biting sarcasm; rather, it is concerned with the speaker's safety or the desire to communicate appropriately and respectfully, and it is expected to remain hidden, unlike irony. Howell's contribution is particularly welcome in that it is only the second full-length study to address the question of figured speech in the New Testament,1 and only a handful of articles have done so to date.2 Nevertheless, though the technique was extremely popular in the first century AD, and though its implications are immense for New Testament interpretation, it remains little known.

Howell opens his study with the question: why is Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees ambiguous? Though many have made this observation, Howell affirms, they have "left unanswered" (p. 2) the question as to why. Howell intends to respond to that question through identification of figured speech. Howell dedicates his opening chapter (p. 3-22) to defining this technique, discussing in turn related aspects such as allusion (ἔμφασις), discretion (ἐυπρέπεια), security (ἀσφάλεια), freedom of speech (παρρησία), irony (εἰρωνεία) and indirect speech (ὁ πλάγιος λόγος). Chapter two (p. 23-38) is a brief discussion of methodological questions, essentially relating to the interpretative approach used to study Luke-Acts. Chapter three (p. 39-60) constitutes an overview of theories and literature on the Pharisees, concluding that what is certain is that the group had strong religious and popular influence and that their political power in post-70 Judea became significant. Chapter four (p. 61-76) discusses the probable location for the writing of Luke-Acts as being Antioch in Syria. Howell examines the question of date and authorship in chapter five (p. 77-97), settling on a date between 105-120, and concluding that the author was most likely a Hellenistic Jew and probably not a companion of Paul.

Part Two of Howell's study addresses the question of the potential restriction of free speech (παρρησία), a situation which would require the use of figured speech. Howell examines in chapter six (p. 98-112) the possibility that Luke is indicating covertly by his mention of ἀσφάλεια in Lk 1.4 and παρρησία in Ac 28.31 that he as author is restricted in his writing. The Lukan Paul uses figured speech, as Howell argues in chapter seven (p. 113-140), particularly in the irony of his feigning ignorance of the high priest and the deception practised by claiming to be a Pharisee in Ac 23.5-6. More convincing to this reviewer is the demonstration in chapter eight (p. 141-167) that through subtle ambiguities and parallels in the description of the apostles' interaction with Gamaliel (Ac 5.33-40), Luke portrays him negatively and indicates that he and the Sanhedrin are opposing God.

In Part Three, Howell discusses Luke's moral diagnosis of the Pharisees. Chapter nine (p. 168-183) draws parallels between the Pharisees and those in need of healing, implying that the former themselves are ill. In chapter ten (p. 184-203), in a parallel to the accusation of Pharisees as being lovers of money (Lk 16.14), Howell finds insinuations that imply they are also lovers of glory and luxury in Lk 14 and 15. Though Howell's study of contemporary sources showing that these three passions were associated with injustice is convincing, the subtle connection he sees here with the ailment of dropsy (Lk 14.2) as a message about the destructive nature of the Pharisees' passions feels tenuous. Despite Howell's more hesitant conclusion to chapter eleven (p. 204-220), this chapter is satisfying and strongly argued: figured and allusive criticism of the Pharisees in the Beelzebul controversy (Lk 11.14-23) gives way to un-figured and frank criticism (Lk 11.37-52).

The confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the Kingdom of God are the theme of Part Four. Howell shows in chapter twelve (p. 221-236) that the expression ἐντὸς ὑμῶν in Lk 17.21 is deliberately ambiguous, meaning both "within you" and "among you." It contrasts the Pharisees and the Samaritan leper who, unlike them, is cleansed internally (the first meaning) and recognises Jesus as the kingdom (the second meaning). As demonstrated in chapter thirteen (p. 237-247), the refusal of the Pharisee in Lk 7.36-50 to anoint Jesus implies that he failed to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. In chapter fourteen (p. 248-258), Howell argues that the Pharisees' advice to Jesus in Lk 13.31 to leave Jerusalem in order to escape Herod's murderous intentions is hypocritical, for they are in fact seeking to expel him. Chapter fifteen (p. 259-276) interprets the parable of the nobleman who departs to receive power (Lk 19) as representing Jesus who faces opposition from the Pharisees on his return. The Pharisees, though unnamed, are also present in the episode of Zacchaeus (Lk 19.1-10), as Howell argues in chapter sixteen (p. 277-295). Howell concludes (p. 296-301) with discussion of the possible relationship between Luke and the Gospel of Marcion.

Howell's style is not easy to read, thanks to the intensely precise prose necessary for a doctoral dissertation. Nevertheless, he does achieve excellent precision and clarity, and his regular use of questions to move his demonstration forward is pleasing, constructively pointing out to the reader the direction his argument is taking. The text is almost entirely free of typographical errors.3 His discussion shows that he has consulted all five ancient sources that treat figured speech (Demetrius, Quintilian, Hermogenes, Ps.-Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Apsines), which is noteworthy given the absence of available English translations of the latter two. His treatment involves fine interaction with later patristic and Reformation interpretation in every chapter, often gleaning interesting later observations which point in the direction of Howell's argument. Parallels with rabbinic material shows he is well acquainted with that body of literature.

One shortcoming involves Howell's treatment of the sources on figured speech. Only eighteen pages (ch. 1) are dedicated to the discussion of the ancient theory of figured speech. The cursory nature of his treatment becomes apparent in the following chapters: Howell does not engage in depth with ancient rhetorical theory, usually referring to it briefly in the conclusions to each chapter. Here he generally restricts himself to a select number of characteristics of figured speech without exploiting the full breadth of techniques the handbooks describe. One consequence of the brevity of his discussion of the sources is his treatment of ἔμφασις/significatio as equivalent to λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος. The characteristics of figured speech that unify in the other handbooks show that significatio is a similar but separate figure.4 This poses problems for Howell's discussion, as five chapters depend exclusively on the references to discussion of significatio in Rhet. Her. 4.67 alone for their qualification as λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος (chapters 10, 11, 13, 15, 16). Howell's discussion of innuendo and insinuation in Luke is good; it does make use of rhetorical theory of λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος, but it could almost have been conducted without that theory. It would certainly have benefited from a deeper engagement with the rhetorical sources.

The study would also have benefited from a more precise discussion of the methodology of identifying figured speech, given the slippery nature of this rhetorical technique. Methodological discussion in ch. 2 does not concern figured speech, but rather interpretative approaches to Luke-Acts, and Howell's discussion of how to identify figured speech is limited to "analyzing the texts for possible signs of 'hidden' meanings or allusions, however they might surface" (p. 22). Discussion of a "grip" (ἀντιλαβή) or a "sign" (σημεῖον) for determining the presence of figured speech does exist in the handbooks (especially Ps.-D.H.), and would have benefited Howell's analysis.

More interaction with secondary literature on figured speech would have been helpful, especially that related to the New Testament. None of the earlier studies mentioned above (notes 1 and 2) are cited, nor are studies treating figured speech in non-Christian literature by Bernard Schouler, Pierre Chiron, Lucia Montefusco, Christopher Craig, or Laurent Pernot.5

Howell's treatment is essentially "a study of Lukan Pharisees" (p. 61): despite the title, figured speech is here simply used as a tool toward that study. Howell's study deals with text-internal Pharisees, rather than historical Pharisees as the author or his readers may have known them. Though Howell evokes this issue briefly, he never distinguishes clearly between the rhetorical and social-historical aspects to his approach.

In spite of these remarks, Howell's contribution is an important landmark in the study of New Testament rhetoric. In his defence, as concerns methodology and discussion of literature, it could be argued that no study currently exists reviewing the literature on figured speech in the New Testament, or proposing any concrete methodology for identifying it in that context. Despite the need for a more in-depth engagement with the sources and literature, Howell's results are impressive. Readers who disagree with Howell's positions on the history of the Pharisees post-70 or on the historical provenance and occasions for the composition of Luke-Acts will nonetheless find his discussion of λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος suggestive and stimulating. What is essential in such a study is that it opens the door to further examination of figured speech in the New Testament. Not everyone will be in agreement with what exactly the hidden messages are, but recognising that ancient authors commonly communicated indirectly is an important step, not only for Christian literature, but for pagan as well.


1.   The first is Jason Whitlark, Resisting Empire: Rethinking the Purpose of the Letter to "the Hebrews," Bloomsbury T & T Clark, London, LNTS, 2014.
2.   The first to do so was Benjamin Fiore, "'Covert Allusion' in 1 Corinthians 1-4," CBQ 47, 1985, pp. 85-102. The only other articles or books dealing with the question for more than a few pages are: David Hall, "A Disguise for the Wise: μετασχηματίσμενος in 1 Corinthians 4.6," NTS, 40, 1994, pp. 143-49; James Jaquette, "A Not-So-Noble Death: Figured speech, friendship and suicide in Philipians 1:21-26," Neotestamentica, 28, 1994, pp. 177-192; Corin Mihaila, The Paul-Apollos Relationship and Paul's Stance Toward Greco-Roman Rhetoric, London 2009, pp. 61-65, 203-212; J. Paul Sampley, "The Weak and the Strong: Paul's Careful and Crafty Strategy in Romans 14:1-15:13" in L.M. White and O.L. Yarbrough, eds., The Social World of the First Christians, Minneapolis, 1995, pp. 40-52; Malcolm Heath, "John Chrysostom, rhetoric and Galatians," Biblical Interpretation, 12, 2004, pp. 369-400; Ian H. Henderson "Reconstructing Mark's Double Audience" in E.S. Malbon, ed., Between Author and Audience in Mark, Sheffield, 2009, p. 6-28; Jason Whitlark, "'Here We Do Not Have a City That Remains': A Figured Critique of Roman Imperial Propaganda in Hebrews 13:14", JBL, 131, 1, 2012, pp. 161-179.
3.   The only significant error I noticed was on p. 156 n. 35 where the end of A. Loisy's citation has been cut off.
4.   The following features of λόγος ἐσχηματισμένος as found in the five sources indicate that it should be considered as separate from significatio as discussed in Rhet. Her. 4.67: its name "figured speech," its distinction from a mere figure, its motivation for reasons of safety and tact, its use on a large scale in both declamation and literature, and its hidden nature.
5.   Bernard Schouler, "Le déguisement de l'intention dans la rhétorique grecque," 1986; Pierre Chiron, "Les rapports entre persuasion et manipulation dans la théorie rhétorique du discours figuré," 2003; Lucia Montefusco, "Ductus and color: The Right Way to Compose a Suitable Speech," 2003; Christopher Craig, "Treating oratio figurata in Cicero's Speeches: the case of pro Marcello," 2008; Laurent Pernot, "Les Faux-Semblants de la Rhétorique Grecque," 2008; "Greek 'Figured Speech' on Imperial Rome," 2015.

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