Rhetography: Seeing Biblical Texts through Visual Exegesis

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by B.J. Oropeza | Azusa Pacific University

Consider pictures and their indirect power to communicate.

In American culture, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of V-J Day portrays a returning sailor smooching a passing nurse with such force that the nurse’s body is arched backwards. That picture paints a thousand words. It symbolically represents passion about coming home and gratitude for staying alive after a horrible ordeal in which many soldiers were not as fortunate.

As persuasive pictures can paint many words, so biblical words can paint persuasive pictures. The “persuasive picture” is what rhetography attempts to highlight from biblical texts.

According to ­Vernon Robbins and the Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity work-group to which I belong, rhetography (­rhetoric + graphic) is essentially an interpretative layer of text attuned to persuasive and sensory words that evoke images or graphic pictures in the mind. This way of interpreting Scripture complements traditional exegesis. Exegesis, of course, involves a close reading of the text to observe key words, grammar, syntax, structure, and patterns so as to draw out the author’s potential meaning.

Similarly, rhetography, which employs visual exegesis, attempts a close examination of the images and pictures that the words of text might elicit for the purpose of persuading readers and auditors.1 In this manner, spatial direction becomes important for the biblical interpreter. The rhetographer takes special notice of what is up, down, center, on the side, foregrounded, or backgrounded in the images evoked. Moreover, this interpretation is sensitive also to other sensory data, such as sounds, smells, and tastes in the text.

Rhetography may be a new term, but it has predecessors in the ancient world. Rhetorical handbooks, among other things, encouraged students who aspired to be persuasive orators to exercise the discipline of ekphrasis, which attempted to use “descriptive language bringing what is portrayed clearly before the sight” (Theon, Progymnasmata 7 [118]). The biblical authors communicated their teachings, messages, and narratives in relation to the gospel of Christ, and, similar to the students of progymnasmata, they show signs of wanting their messages to be highly descriptive and to persuade those who read and heard them. There appears to be good reason, then, for exploring a visual manner of interpretation.

One example of how rhetography can amplify the words of Scripture is found in 2 Corinthians 10, ­especially verses 4–6:

For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but powerful in God’s service to the casting down of strongholds, casting down reasoning, and every high thing setting itself up against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience whenever your obedience is complete.2

We notice a surplus of images related to warfare here, though of course Paul is contextually speaking about a war on false ideologies caused by religious opponents who have infiltrated the minds of his Corinthian auditors. If we pay attention to what is visual in this passage, Paul’s words seem to evoke his taking on the role of a commander in the army of Jesus Messiah and negotiating with soldiers in the army who have abandoned their posts and are now listening to the enemy forces while on the verge of defection. This prompts the rhetographer to imagine Paul in military gear standing outside the walled city of Corinth as he entreats with clemency (10:1) those inside and urges them to lay down their weapons rather than be punished by the stronger force outside.

This negotiation process includes the Lord’s authority (10:8), an exchange of threatening letters (10:9–11), and territory that has been wrongfully taken by boastful opponents (10:12–18). Paul’s terms of peace, if rejected, will ensue with a destructive “battle” the next time he approaches the city, and the full extent of his apostolic authority will be used to confront opponents. The Corinthians have been graphically forewarned!

This new way of viewing the text unleashes scenic pictures that may be compelling enough to appear on film or in graphic novels. Much more could be said about rhetography and its use. For further examples and its theory, one may wish to consult the growing number of volumes in the Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity series (SBL Press). 

This essay was first published in Didaktikos: Journal of Theological Education. Sign up here for a free subscription for theological faculty.

B.J. Oropeza is professor of biblical and religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. His books include Exploring Second Corinthians (SBL Press, 2016) and Exploring Intertextuality (Cascade Books, 2016). He is currently coediting two books—one on intertextuality for Bloomsbury Press, another on perspectives on Paul for Baker Academic—and writing a socio-rhetorical commentary for SBL Press on Romans.

  1. This type of reading is linked with socio-rhetorical interpretation, a hermeneutic interested in studying rhetoric and social and cultural elements of the text. See Vernon K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts: A Guide to ­Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996).
  2. Translation is from my Exploring Second Corinthians: Death and Life, Hardship and Rivalry (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016), 545.
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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