Bruce Winter on the Presence of Rhetoric (Or Not) in Corinthian Correspondence

Translating Truth: The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation is a collection of papers originally presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in 2004. Each of the five authors was part of the Translation Oversight Committee for the English Standard Version (ESV). This is the final post of a 5-part series, evaluating Bruce Winter’s paper, “Revelation Versus Rhetoric: Paul and the First-century Corinthian Fad.”


This series of posts is ending on a somewhat anticlimactic note, because the final paper in this book doesn’t contain much explicit discussion on translation. Most of the paper revolves around a discussion of Paul’s use of rhetoric (or lack thereof) in 1 Corinthians, and it is not until the final paragraph that a brief application to translation is presented. Nevertheless, I will attempt to engage with the material presented in this article as it relates to translation, specifically the case for essentially literal translation. It would not have been included in this volume if the authors/editors had not thought that it somehow advanced their thesis.

Summary of the Article

Winter argues in this paper that in his Corinthian correspondence, Paul rejected the use of rhetoric, a popular “fad” during that time, and instead used an informal, non-epistolary writing style. Such an approach was also reflected and defended by Seneca the Younger in letters to his close friend, Lucilius. Winter provides four arguments in favor of this view:

1) The relationship between Paul and the Corinthians. Winter demonstrates that Paul viewed his relationship with the Corinthians as very intimate. Paul calls them “brothers,” a term that was not only uncommon to use outside of biological family relationships, but was also considered improper. By using this term, Paul showed that he considered the Corinthians as family. The argument here is that if Seneca the Younger’s relationship with a friend prompted him to reject rhetoric in his personal letter writing, then it is likely that Paul would have also done so with the Corinthians.

2) Paul’s self-disclosure about his own approach to communication with the Corinthians.  Winter points out that in 1 Cor. 2:1-5, Paul explicitly rejects the use of rhetoric in his proclamation of the gospel, recounting how he came in “weakness, and fear and much trembling” (2:3) so that their “faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (2:5).

3) Paul’s thoughts on revelation and the mind of Christ. Paul contrasts the wisdom of men and the wisdom of God in 1 Cor. 2:6-16, pointing out that only a person with the Spirit can have the mind of Christ. Because he is speaking revelation from God, his wisdom will not conform to the wisdom of the world.

4) Paul and the “grand style.” Winter presents some evidence that Paul intentionally abandoned the use of rhetoric in his letters, based on some scholarly comparisons of Paul’s letters with ancient rhetorical handbooks. The accusations that Paul’s letters were seen as “weighty” in 2 Cor. 10:10 also suggests that Paul’s opponents saw his style as “inappropriate to the sophisticated culture of letter writing in his day.”


Winter provides only a brief application to translation following his arguments: if Paul’s letter-writing style was plain, our translations should read the same way. Assuming that Winter’s thesis is correct and Paul’s letters truly represent a plain, informal, personal style of writing, (I do think there is merit to his arguments), I agree that a translation should attempt to retain that kind of style. In my assessment, style is something that is often overlooked and underapplied in Bible translation. That said, this paper’s inclusion in Translating Truth implies that essentially literal translations do a better job retaining this kind of plain style than dynamic equivalence translations. On this point I would like to hear from Winter how he sees this to be true. As I see it, the attempt to preserve plain, informal speech is at odds with the essentially literal approach. In trying to preserve exegetical ambiguities, word-for-word correspondence, and what the text says (as opposed to what the text means), an essentially literal translation will inevitably require more work to understand, as essentially literal proponents readily admit. The result is a translation that doesn’t sound plain, personal, and informal. It appears opaque, distant, and formal. The ESV translation of 1 Corinthians does not read like an informal letter to a close friend. The NLT, on the other hand, reads much more plainly.

Essentially literal translation philosophy has its strengths, but retaining the plain and informal style of Paul’s original letters is not one of them. Therefore, Winter’s arguments in this paper do nothing to advance the case for essentially literal translation. If anything, they strengthen the case for its alternatives.

2 thoughts on “Bruce Winter on the Presence of Rhetoric (Or Not) in Corinthian Correspondence

  1. Very nice critique.

    I would like to add that whatever the view of rhetoric in 1 Corinthians, Paul still uses rhetorical devices even if he is not being highly rhetorical in a formal sort of way. But, less controversially, Paul’s letters and even non-literary papyri can be somewhat opaque to us because of differing conventions. Is it “functionally equivalent” enough to leave the address “From Paul, To the Corinthians” or should we restructure the letter and put “Dear Corinithians” at the beginning and “From Paul” at the end? I just ask this because ultimately, no matter what translation you go with, you are going to lose something if you don’t study the epistolary, rhetorical, and cultural conventions and norms of the time. It seems to me that the things conveyed by putting his name at the beginning of the letter cannot be conveyed by putting them at the end. And yet it should not be lost on the reader that this was the way letters were written back then. In addition, the reader should be aware that a) blessings b) flattery c) prayers to the gods were also a normal part of letter-writing in the ancient world. Many of these things cannot be conveyed in translation at all (unless one has a very heavy paratext), and they can only be appropriately conveyed if examples of other ancient letters are included. I guess the question I have is, “where is the line?” But I suppose that is something we all must wrestle with . . . and the question doesn’t go away when you’ve given someone a course in ancient epistles. You always have to leave some things out that could have been put in. The communicative process is revealed, then, as far from perfect.

    Amazingly, we can get a lot out of an ancient letter without all this information.

    Nonetheless, in 2 Corinthians, how you structure your translation can deeply affect how the letter is understood. It has often been claimed that 2 Corinthians is a combination of two or more letters. But it has been observed among those who work in languages in which the first person plural pronoun must specify inclusivity or exclusivity that if one sees these pronouns in 2 Corinthians as primarily exclusive (i.e. applying to the apostles, but not to the Corinthians), the need to see two letters in 2 Corinthians disappears. Is this something that should be made explicit even in languages that do not require the distinction between inclusive and exclusive pronouns? Or are we meddling too much if we try to make the letter comprehensible in such a way. Again the question of where to draw the line on how literal we are to be comes to the fore.


    • I agree that even though Paul may have been avoiding formal rhetoric in his letters, rhetorical devices and elements of formal rhetoric are still discernible. I would also agree that restructuring Paul’s letters into modern forms, while perhaps making the letter more natural sounding to the modern reader, would remove vital elements from the text. (For example, I think it is very important that Paul introduces himself as an apostle at the beginning of most of his letters. For one, it establishes the authority he often employs.) I think the reader needs to have a healthy understanding that even though they are reading in their language, they are reading a text that was not written in their time, culture, or language. As you pointed out, most readers will get that letters were written differently 2,000 years ago, so that kind of radical restructuring isn’t necessary.

      Re: your question of where is the line? I often answer that question in light of focus. If explaining a particular biblical custom or historical detail will detract from the main idea in focus in that particular passage, then it’s probably best left out. Footnotes or glossaries are a good place to insert those kinds of things.

      It would be interesting to see a translation that took a firm position on issues of integrity! It really does affect how you read the text if you read 2 Cor. 10-13 before 1-9. As with any hotly contested issue like that, I like to find some way to make the reader aware of the options. Integrity might be a good thing to address in a book introduction, for example.


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