Pltypus just sent me a mail telling me about Doctor Ben's "The Problem of Evangelical Theology". He finished it this morning (and is still sane enough to write mails). I just wrote him a reply talking about the socio-rhetorical method in NT interpretation. I have not read Witherington's book on it. But I've discussed with La Tey over the past several years on NT exegesis so I hope we're on the right track. I'm putting up the contents of the mail verbatim below:
Actually most scholars (worth their salt) are already practicing the socio-rhetorical perspective. Witherington was only further developing his method originally applied to his research on the Wisdom Traditions behind the sayings/acts of Jesus (see his earlier work on Christology - remember that volume that La Tey mistook for his passport into JB?). But in practice, it's terribly dangerous to apply that method consistently - you'll end up stepping on everyone's toes!!! Hahaha!
Take for example the common misuse of Galatians. Everyone (since Luther) uses that as the polemical document, the manifesto against justification by works. In truth, it's got little to do with that or to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The socio-rhetorical method demands that we: (i) understand the social concerns of the writer's/audience's times and (ii) to understand the style/dialogue/arguments of the original writer and audience (interlocutor). Luther's application of Galatians may not be wrong (and God can use a person's understanding/application of a text to spark off something...) but note that I said application. It is not the primary socio-rhetorical meaning of the text.
The socio-rhetorical meaning (I suggest) is closer to the following:
i) Christianity was not a distinct religion as yet - it was still very much a Jewish sect made up of mainly Jewish followers who meet in synagogues. They never built churches - the only reason they meet up at home was somewhat like why we met up in homes for Care Group meetings all those years back. They were renegades who believed that they finally discovered the true meaning of the Jewish Faith.
ii) In time, more and more Gentiles joined their numbers. Now, Gentile proselytes to Judaism in the 1st Century were required to be circumcised, observe the Passover, etc. So it was quite natural to assume that the Gentiles who convert to the Jewish-Christian groups do the same. In short, a cultural/racial conversion before a spiritual/moral one (even Christianity practice this everywhere it went - that's why people say we join an "ang-moh" religion - after all, we have to become Presbyterians, Methodists, Wesleyans, Anglicans, etc.)
iii) Observe that Paul had no contentions with Jews continuing their observance of circumcision, feasts, etc. but he felt that the Judaizers should not impose this upon Gentile converts (their acceptance by God was already evidenced by the Holy Spirit). To do so would be to go back to the "old wineskins" and not recognizing the "new wineskins and the new Wine of the Spirit that is poured into them".
iv) Paul also had personal reasons for the above. In fact, the version of Judaism preached by Stephen (a Hellenist) was the major stumbling block to him. Here was a Greek-speaking fellow quoting the Septuagint and speaking out against the ENTIRE JEWISH SYSTEM of being accepted before God and positing instead that Jehovah's favour rest upon those who call upon the Name of a crucified-blasphemer! The Damascus Road experienced convinced him that it was the system of Stephen that was accepted by God rather than the ENTIRE JEWISH SYSTEM that he had learned since a child. ("Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" - God identifies Himself not with the persecutors of Stephen, the Jewish Religious Authorities but with the renegade sect of which Stephen was representative! God always identified Himself with Israel as "my people" but with Stephen in an even more intimate union - ME!) This, to Paul, was an eschatological event of the first magnitude - GOD IS AT WORK AGAIN RECONCILING THE WORLD UNTO HIMSELF and it's by this new system, this thing preached by Stephen and not that of the Jewish System.
v) Therefore, Paul saw the threat of the Judaizers (and Simon Peter's defection to their side) towards the entire NEW system that is the basis for his whole conversion, faith and direction in life - not to mention God's personal revelation.
This was the socio-rhetorical context of Galatians. Does it have anything to do with Roman Catholicism, justification by works/faith, etc.? Does it give license to "anathemize" anyone with a "different gospel" (specifically referring to the old Jewish "wineskins" and not modern movements that sound different from what we've been taught!!!)?
We also see that this was not a continued problem as Galatians was among the earliest of the Christian epistles. The later church no longer have this problem because: (i) the main problem of Jewish people being the majority in Christian assemblies no longer existed as Gentiles soon outnumbered Jews; (ii) they became distinct from Judaism because they started building churches away from synagogues; (iii) Jerusalem was destroyed so there was no more center of Jewish worship - the Judaizers all shut up after that; (iv) they started facing other sorts of problems (like in the Corinthian church, and later with the aceticism people and the proto-Gnostics, not to mention the persecutions under Nero and Domitian).
Alas, long-held habits/views are terribly difficult to change. Fundamentalists have been taught (via their ill-informed teachers and their endless handbooks) to read the Bible through the lenses of the Reformers. Truth be told, most of the socio-political (and even doctrinal) issues that confronted the Reformers in their times are now either irrelevant or analyzed to death! Does the Bible have a relevant message for all times? It sure does. But is every part of the Bible to be read in the same way as written directly to us? Not at all. In fact, the Bible was never written directly TO us (though it is, indeed, FOR us). The socio-rhetorical method acknowledges this and attempts to understand the original meaning of the text to its original recipients via the social contexts of the original sitz-im-leben and the rhetorical concerns/arguments of the authors. Then, AND ONLY THEN, do we proceed to find an application of the implications behind Holy Writ to us in our sitz-im-leben. To read the Bible in the style of the Fundamentalists (see my latest blog posting for Reformanda's and Vincit's application of this - also using Galatians) is to apply the sitz-im-leben application-message of the 16th century to the sitz-im-leben anathemizing blogs of the 21st century!!! If it were not so tragic, it would be grand comedy!
I'm smiling... :)