Posted in theology

Paul’s diatribe: Not what you think!

By Elizabeth Prata

God raised up a great mind.

Albert Barnes said in his book Early Training of the Apostle Paul:

“It is, in a great measure, by raising up and endowing great minds that God secures the advance of human affairs, and the accomplishment of His own plans on earth. All minds have their origin in God; and great minds seem to be created by Him as “He creates great oceans, great mountains, great worlds,” as proofs of His own greatness, … by bringing upon the stage from time to time some mind qualified by high original endowment to give a new impulse to human affairs; to lift up the race to a higher level; and to perform, in a single generation, what might have been otherwise the slow work of centuries, or what might not have been done at all.”

Barnes is speaking of Paul.

Paul wrote 13 books of the New Testament. GotQuestions has a list of the books he wrote and the possible time frames in which he wrote them

Galatians (AD 47)
1 and 2 Thessalonians (AD 49—51)
1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans (AD 52—56)
Ephesians, Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians (AD 60—62, during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment)
1 Timothy and Titus (AD 62)
2 Timothy (AD 63—64, during Paul’s second Roman imprisonment)

Pau was learned. He knew the different schools of philosophy, how to construct a speech and the different rhetorical styles. One of those styles was the DIATRIBE. This essay explores how Paul used diatribe in his letters, particularly 1 Corinthians 15:35-36 and the shining example of diatribe, Romans 2.

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

The average private letter in the Greco-Roman world was 90 words long, and the average literary letter was 200 words long. Typically, a letter would fit on one papyrus sheet—or roughly the size of a piece of paper in a modern notebook. By comparison, Paul’s letters average around 1,300 words. Paul’s shortest letter (to Philemon) is 335 words long, and his longest letter (to the Romans) is 7,114 words long. Source- Zondervan Academic

7114 words is about 14 pages single spaced. That’s a long letter. The Romans would have been amazed, given the average literary letter was about 1300 words. But it’s amazing that the Holy Spirit had so much to say and inspired Paul to restrain himself yet present so much doctrine in such a short space! If you think about it, philosophical books try to explain their foundational precepts in book long treatises. Not the Spirit. Paul succinctly presented an entire Godly doctrine of righteousness in JUST 7114 words!

Part of the reason his letter to the Romans is so clear is his use of Diatribe;


We usually think of diatribe as a passionate negative venting, or an angry tongue lashing. It may be thought of that way today but in Greco-Roman times it meant something different.  A diatribe is “A form of ancient rhetoric in which the author or speaker debates a hypothetical interlocutor (opponent) as a form of argumentation,” according to the The Lexham Glossary of Theology

The diatribe style’s main characteristics include dialogue with imaginary questioners or opponents; (an interlocutor), question-and-answer repetitions; questions with objections as a transition to the next topic. If that sounds familiar, a diatribe was actually an extension of the well-known Socratic method. In that method which Socrates made famous, a teacher asked continual questions until a fallacy was exposed or the student was led to the correct point.

Paul’s probing questions developed critical thinking skills in his recipients and enabled them to approach the subject logically. Christianity is a thinking religion!

The Lexham Bible Dictionary outlines several types of address are common in a diatribe- Romans chapter 2 is a particular example of this characteristic. Paul uses the loose term “O’ man” as the imaginary opponent in verses 1-5.

The reader will see use of the second person such as: “you” “yourself” (Romans 2:4, 17–25; 11:19; 14:4). Think: who is the “YOU” Paul is speaking of? When it’s a generality and not specific person it usually means the author is using a diatribe style.

Emphatic Rejection”: Paul frequently uses the expression “May it never be!” to reject a question raised by the interlocutor. In Paul’s letters, when you see this expression it almost always means he is using the diatribe style.

Also common in Paul’s writing are hypothetical questions such as, “What then shall we say?” (Romans 4:1), and the shorter “What then?” (Romans 3:1; 1 Corinthians 3:5; Galatians 3:19).

“Paul’s letters and the letter of James include key features of the diatribe form. Tracing these features can help the interpreter follow the flow of the text’s argument. Furthermore, analyzing a diatribe can shed light on questions that a letter’s original recipients might have asked, thereby indicating something about the passage’s context.” Woodall, D. L. (2016). Diatribe. In J. D. Barry, The Lexham Bible Dictionary

An orator skilled in rhetoric used methods like diatribe to construct their speeches. They were also used in written matter like letters because letters were read aloud to others, to the whole church, or to those who could not read.

Whether speaking or writing, Paul was a fantastic communicator.

He was gifted enough to use the quotes from other writers and philosophers to bring the message of the Gospel. His letters conveyed various tones, and ranged from simple to complicated sentences.

He could communicate to the socially lowly like jailors or fishermen, or to youths, or to kings. Paul’s writing ranged from classical logic with diatribe, to the nurturing and joyous, to angry and sarcastic. Above all, in addition to being spiritually brilliant thanks to the Spirit, Paul was also emotionally real.

For all that brilliance and training, Paul bowed his knee not only in spirit and in body to Jesus, he bowed his amazing intellect too. He knew full well he was brilliant and talented, he listed his credentials in Philippians 3. But he found his reason for living- and it wasn’t to display rhetorical tricks for their own sake, nor to communicate deftly to win philosophical arguments, nor to split fine points of the Pharisaic Law. but to promote the Gospel to the lost sheep of the world, for salvation to the glory of Jesus.

God created Paul’s mind and providentially orchestrated all Paul’s life in training and schooling until the moment when it would be used for God’s glory. We are still benefiting from the mind of Paul, indeed, the Mind of God who created Paul, this very day.

‘Bring the scrolls!’ 2 Timothy 4:13


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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