Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



Matthew 9.20-22: Argumentative texture

The Gospel of Matthew

One of the most obvious forms of argumentative texture is logical or syllogistic reasoning, which produces what Kenneth Burke has called logical progressive form (Burke, Kenneth (1931: 124; cf. Robbins 1984: 9-12). An interesting instance of syllogistic reasoning in a narrative context occurs in the Matthean version of the Woman who Touched Jesus' Garment (Matthew 9.20-22). As the woman approaches Jesus, she reasons in her mind: 'if I only touch his garment, I shall be made well'. Rhetoricians contemporary with early Christianity called this kind of statement an 'enthymeme':

a statement with a supporting reason introduced by for, because or since or an if ... then statement. In contrast to a logical syllogism, the premises and conclusion are ordinarily probable, not necessarily logically valid. A premise may be omitted if it will be easily assumed by the audience. (Kennedy 1991: 315; Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.2.8-22, 2.22)

Obviously the narrator presents the enthymeme in the form of 'if ... then' in the mind of the woman. A major problem, however, is that only some people in Mediterranean society may consider the reasoning to be 'ordinarily probable'. Two chains of reasoning appear to underlie the statement by the woman. One chain leads to the conclusion that Jesus possesses special healing powers. Different cultures have different presuppositions about the manner in which healers received such powers. Perhaps they were born with such powers, perhaps they were given these powers sometime during their life without any choice of their own or perhaps they did something extraordinary to receive such powers. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the narrators appear to presuppose that Jesus received these powers from heaven at his baptism, where the holy spirit entered into him (Matthew 3.16; Mark 1.10; Luke 3.22). Perhaps the woman's point of view is the same as that of the narrator in each Gospel. Another chain of reasoning leads to the conclusion that touching Jesus, who possesses exceptional powers, while make her well. It is difficult to know precisely what the accompanying presuppositions might be concerning such touching. Would people think there was a possibility that touching a person with such power could cause him or her to die? Such a view existed in biblical tradition about the ark of the covenant, where Uzzah touched the ark of God and died (2 Samuel 6.6-7). If so, some people may consider the woman either to be foolish or to be courageous. In any case, underlying reasoning focuses attention on the exceptional powers of Jesus, and perhaps there would be some presupposition that this woman's approaching of Jesus from behind and touching him could lead to her death. The particular drama of the story occurs when Jesus' statement breaks into these chains of reasoning and introduces a new chain. Jesus' response in the Matthean version pays no attention to his own possession of healing powers, while the Lukan version (Luke 8.46) does. Jesus' comment in the Gospel tradition turns the attention away from himself toward the woman: 'Your faith has made you well'. Jesus' response is a perfect deflection of excessive praise in a traditional culture, like Epameinondas's comment: 'But it is your doing, men of Thebes; with your help alone I overthrew the Spartan empire in a day (Plutarch, On Praising Oneself 542c; Robbins 1987: 512-13/1994a: 197-200). Not his power but theirs was the cause of their victory; likewise, not Jesus' power but the woman's faith was the cause of her healing. There are two aspects of the story that have special interest from a socio-rhetorical perspective. First is the selection of the term 'faith', pistis, among a number of possibilities. Her action could have been considered to be a result of foolishness, simplemindedness, silliness or despair if it had been unsuccessful or disastrous. Or her action could have been understood to be the result of boldness, hope or courage (which would mean 'manliness'; Robbins 1987:506/1994a: 191). At the moment the story features Jesus' selection of 'faith', 'trust' or 'belief'--however pistis should be translated--it creates a particular logic that nurtures 'Christian' culture. To be Christian is to believe that faith heals. But, second, the story does more than this. When Jesus' statement in the Matthean version performs the healing and creates the wellness (Held 1963: 217; Robbins 1987: 507/1994a: 192), it creates the concept of 'faith' within her. In other words, 'faith' does not exist apart from specific attitudes, dispositions and perceptions among a particular group of people. When Jesus names the woman's action faith, and the simultaneous result is the healing of the woman, the story creates a particular 'culture of belief'. Language, then, does not simply 'represent' things, it creates 'reality' for people.


From: Robbins, Vernon K. (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 59-61.

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