Was Paul the Best, Worst Communicator or is Something Else Going on?

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There is a place in Paul’s writing that confused me for the longest time. What is the confusing statement?

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words,” – 1 Corinthians 2:4

When I hear “wise and persuasive” I think of Paul. I think of him first because of his pedigree,

“If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” – Phil 3:4-6


“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today.” – Acts 22:3

Furthermore, how does a Paul who lacks persuasive abilities fit with the content of the letters we have from Paul where his rhetoric (the art of persuasion) is remarkable? Paul was thoroughly trained in rhetoric. Rhetoric is a word that has a specific meaning that we aren’t used to. In Greek philosophy, rhetoric was a method of persuasion through speech and writing. There were specific conventions used in order to be persuasive that date back to Aristotle that are prevalent in Paul’s writings. Ben Witherington has done extensive work in this area in his socio-rhetorical commentaries. Paul’s letters are classic Greek rhetoric to the “t”. Paul is one of the most persuasive people in all of scripture. Read Romans looking for how he makes his points masterfully and persuasively, making an argument, anticipate their questions and/or rebuttals, asking their question for them and then answer them in his next argument. That is how you write a letter to people a month’s journey away who won’t have you in person to dialog with. Read Philemon and tell me Paul is not persuasive.

Paul saying he didn’t come with persuasive words is persuasion at its finest. Paul most certainly did come with persuasive words. Paul’s point is that he doesn’t want the Corinthians (who are Greek and value philosophy and good rhetoric almost to the point of idolatry) to do what good Greeks in that day do – get caught up on the way the argument is made rather than on the truthfulness of the content. In other words, Paul is painting himself as an unpersuasive person so that they don’t become followers of Paul but instead get pointed to Christ. This is why 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 ends the way it does,

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

It is important that the Gospel not be clouded by charisma and skill. That does not mean we avoid trying to be persuasive. It does mean that we don’t make the message about ourselves.


3 Responses

  1. Great breakdown, Matt. This is a perplexing statement at first glance. I’ve thought that but never took the time to analyze it as you have done. This statement can pretty easily come off as some form of disingenuous humility where we read what Paul is saying but in the back of our mind we’re really thinking, “There goes Paul being all humble again!” If we stop there, Paul is saying what he is supposed to say, but we all know different. We know he’s brilliant!

    Your takeaway fits right in line with the argument he makes in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians as well…contra those who claimed to be followers of Apollos, Peter, Paul, Jesus (as if Jesus was one like the others). If they believe Paul to be wise and persuasive only because Paul prepared himself to be wise and persuasive, the true power of his message will be lost. If they follow Paul and not the Christ, he has led them to a place where he has not desired to lead them. That would be a great shame for Paul or anyone else who claims to represent Christ.

  2. This fits with Paul’s argument in Hebrews where he talks about himself at war with himself in not wanting to do things, but doing them anyway. Paul seems every intent on being humble to the point of being self-effacing.
    But then again I have always considered Paul to be somewhat of the “brute squad” mentality. He personally entered into people’s houses and had them placed in jail. While true he might have been learned and educated, his over all zeal turned him into a monster in persecution. This same zeal also meant that when he worked for Christ, he was passionate and dedicated and humble and active beyond many of his peers.
    But was he an artful linguist?
    I can for one attest to the fact that even though you know the words, relating the words across to another person might be a different story. Personally I can be eloquent in my writing, but in direct conversation I am often times abrupt and not much of a gabber. I am much more attuned to action, than talk. And yet with the Spirits help I believe Paul was able to overcome any short comings he had. This should be a lesson for me as well. Paul’s content was great, even though his content might have been shaky.

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