Was Paul a good preacher?
The gospel spread in spite of Paul’s preaching, rather than because of it, suggests David Instone-Brewer
As a new Baptist minister, I became known for announcing my arrival with the roar of the grungy motorbike I used to get around. It wasn't an intentional ploy to attract attention, but it didn’t do me any harm.
For the apostle Paul, getting the attention of the locals when he was preaching in a new town was important. At first, he went to strong Jewish communities where a visiting preacher trained by the famous rabbi Gamaliel would always be welcome (eg Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:1,10,17; 18:4). He did succeed in getting noticed – though often in the wrong way (being labelled as a heretic pushing a new type of Judaism).
Paul’s next step was to take his message to Gentiles. After this, the synagogue invitations dried up. He needed a new platform, so became a public speaker. Before the age of broadcasting, the opportunity to hear someone who could speak well was a form of free entertainment and this is one reason why churches were full and even politicians drew crowds. But there was a problem: Paul wasn’t very good at public speaking. His detractors found him uninspiring and said there was little in his delivery to get excited about (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul himself admitted he wasn’t a good orator. He seemed to think it didn't matter because the message was more important (1 Corinthians 2:1-7). But communicating effectively does matter.
When a Greek orator arrived in a new town, he would advertise a free show, hire a hall and pay people to chalk up notices with the time and venue. Visits to the gym, the bathhouse and the barber were essential in order to get performance-ready, with full chest and leg-hair plucking recommended in order to restore a youthful, shiny look. Artfully letting your toga slip to reveal toned muscles during vigorous arm waving and emotional outbursts was a part of good onstage delivery.
When Paul invited the general public to hear him speak (Acts 19:9-10), his stage presence didn’t enthral them. Instead of “eloquence...with wise and persuasive words”, he spoke "in weakness with great fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:1-4). The rhetorical flourishes, emotional persuasion and choreographed anguish and anger with which other public speakers thrilled audiences in those days was not part of his repertoire. Paul, it seems, simply spoke, and spoke simply.
The art of public speaking
Perhaps this was a conscious choice, but probably it was due to his education. Jewish scholars learned how to debate from the Hebrew Bible using proof-texts, with logic. Roman students also learned law and logic, but in addition they studied rhetoric –the art of public speaking.
A number of thick ‘textbooks 'on rhetoric from that time have survived and many scholars have analysed Paul’s writings in the light of these. He certainly knew how to write well, using techniques similar to those described in the manuals: irony, asking and answering questions, appealing to shared emotions etc. However, Paul doesn’t appear to have used any of the recommended stage-craft skills. Occasionally he raised his arms to indicate the start of a speech (Acts 13:16; 26:1), but that's about it. His detractors summed it up: "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive” (2 Corinthians 10:10).
Other Christian preachers, like Apollos, did use these techniques, and to great effect. Apollos was eloquent, knowledgeable and “spoke with great fervour” (Acts 18:24-25). He’d grown up in Alexandria, where Jews had taken advantage of Greek education. The writings of Philo (a contemporary Jewish preacher in Alexandria) suggest that Jewish audiences were sophisticated and loved complex sermons, especially ones based on allegory. Paul’s congregations were probably just as sophisticated, but they often went away disappointed.
Some of the pressure that Paul felt is evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he tried to show that complex allegory wasn’t beyond him (Galatians 4:24-26). Scholars have struggled to make sense of this, but the allegory is broken; although we can see what he means, his methodology is faulty.
Perhaps Paul should have studied rhetoric like preachers in the 19th Century. Some of their textbooks are illustrated copiously with engravings of hand gestures, arm waving flourishes and even facial expressions to emphasise a library of different meanings. I don’t think these could have turned a mediocre speaker into someone as naturally gifted as Spurgeon, but that generation regarded public speaking as something worth studying, and most modern Bible colleges agree.
Homiletics and the Spirit
I’m envious of American pastors who generally have better training in public speaking than their British counterparts. They diligently study homiletics, where they learn the importance of making messages relevant, employing engaging stories and involving the emotions. In my Bible college we had ‘Sermon Class 'where we learned by preaching to each other and then receiving constructive criticism. My turn didn't go well. After a few minutes, the instructor nodded off – and snored! When I stopped, the sudden silence mercifully roused him. He then accurately summarised what I had said while he slept – he must have heard many similar sermons.
Paul did make an important point: preaching the gospel is different from other speaking. Even without using oratorical techniques, his message still spread. It ‘worked’ because the gospel carries its own persuasive power (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Of course, the Holy Spirit can work without any human skills, but the gospel is too important to deliver without care and forethought. And now, with the unexpected rise in virtual church, we have to learn online presentation skills, too. But when it comes to hair plucking in preparation for the pulpit? Well, I know where I draw the line.