Questions, Chreiai, and Honor Challenges: The Interface of Rhetoric and Culture in Mark's Gospel
Mark's gospel constantly presents people asking Jesus questions and him answering them
with a counter-question. Robbins' treatment of "questioning" material in the Gospel of Mark
compared the teacher-student relationship in Hellenistic literature to the way Jesus deals with his
disciples, which on balance illustrates an edifying and productive educational exercise.(1) Yet,
many chreiai in Mark record enemies, not students, asking Jesus questions in episodes hardly
irenic and never exchanges of information. On most public occasions Jesus is engaged in a
controversy(2) or challenge/riposte exchange.(3) These Markan chreiai embody the aggressive nature
of the controversy/challenge in the rhetorical form of a question, which functions as a weapon
wielded against Jesus to test and, if possible, defeat him. Questions, then, serve as weapons with
lethal intent, for they do not seek information from Jesus but attempt to embarrass him. Jesus,
moreover, generally defends himself by answering a question with a question, thus making his
own aggressive thrust at his opponent.
A full investigation of the phenomenon of questions in Mark entails three related items.
First, we need data on "questions" in antiquity: who asked questions of whom, why and in what
context? Second, we examine the chreia for two reasons: (1) many chreiai begin with a question
asked of a sage and (2) the chreia is undoubtedly the dominant form in which Mark reports the
controversies of Jesus. Scholarship indicates that chreiai often served to celebrate the wisdom or
cleverness of a sage(4) and thus honor him for this prowess. Third, this rhetorical material
embodies the pivotal cultural values of antiquity, namely, honor and shame. We argue, then, that
the chreia describes the typical "challenge/riposte" exchange which is a common form of social
intercourse among ancient Mediterraneans. Hence, an in-depth appreciation of Jesus'
controversies requires analysis of all three aspects for a truly thorough study of Mark's
presentation of Jesus as an honorable person. Jesus is at least as good as the best of the ancient
sages! He is certainly typical of sages in the Mediterranean world! He warrants our highest praise
I. Questions in Ancient Literature.
"Questions" are more than statements in an interrogatory form, for they provide points for
dispute, quarrel, discussion and the like.(5) While a "question" may be a sentence in an
interrogative form, it frequently functions as a topic for debate, a controversial point, a difficulty,
a quarrel and a puzzle. It is only occasionally a disinterested quest for information.(6)
To appreciate how the ancients understood "questions" we should examine the social forums in
which questions might be asked, such as forensic rhetoric, philosophy, education and
A. Questions in Forensic Rhetoric
Quintilian describes the various ways in which both questions and answers can be stated
to achieve special rhetorical effect. Concerning questions he notes: "What is more common than
to ask and enquire? For both terms are used indifferently, although the one seems to imply a
desire for knowledge, and the other a desire to prove something" (Inst. Orat. 9.2.6)(7). This native
informant distinguishes seemingly neutral questions seeking information from aggressive ones,
that is, those which "desire to prove something" either in attack or defense of something. He then
itemizes different types of questions and their rhetorical aims (9.2.6-11). There are "simple
questions" such as: "Who are you and from whence do you come?" Yet questions are asked "not
to get information, but to emphasize our point." From Cicero he draws the following example:
"What was that sword of yours doing, Tubero, that was drawn on the field of Pharsalus?"
(Cicero, Pro Lig. 3.9). Some questions put an audience on the spot: "We may also ask what
cannot be denied, as 'Was Gaius Fidiculanius Falcula, I ask you, brought to justice?'"; some are
calculated to stump an opponent: "We may put a question to which it is difficult to reply, as in
the common forms, 'How was it possible?' 'How can that be?'" Our purpose might simply be "to
throw odium on the person to whom it is addressed" or "to embarrass our opponent and to
deprive him of the power of feigning ignorance of our meaning" or to provoke "indignation, as in
the line: 'Are any left that still adore Juno's divinity?'" Finally, questions may shame people into
action: "At times they may express a sharp command, as in: "Will they not rush to arms and
follow forth from all the city?" Therefore, Quintilian illustrates the rhetorical use of questions as
aggressive or combative tools, which either support our attack, prevent the person questioned
from denying accusations, cause difficulty in replying, throw odium, embarrass, and shame
someone. Questions, then, often function as weapons.
Answers, like questions, are more than neutral exchanges of information and are likewise
crafted for special rhetorical effect (Inst. Orat. 9.2.12-16). Either because it makes a better
defense or increases the the power of an attack, "One question is asked and another is
answered." For example, "a witness for the prosecution was asked whether he had been cudgeled
by the plaintiff, and replied, 'And what is more, I had done him no harm.'" Or the purpose may
be "to elude a charge, a very common form of a reply. The advocate says, 'I ask if you killed the
man?' The accused replies, 'He was a robber.'" Another kind of answer is "the dissimulatory
reply, which is employed solely with the purpose of raising a laugh." Answers, like questions, do
not convey information neutrally, but continue the game of attack and defense. Thus, questions
and answers should be examined in terms of their rhetorical function, which only occasionally
has to do with a simple transfer of information.
B. Questions in Philosophical Discourse
Socrates asks two types of questions, not distinguishable in terms of their rhetorical form
but only by context.(8) Playing the role of midwife, Socrates asks questions to give birth to the
truth already existing in his dialogue partner; these are not aggressive, challenging questions. Yet
Socrates questions Sophists to expose their fallacies and shame them; these questions are highly
aggressive as one notes in the following remark:
If you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, neither merely ask questions nor
criticize for the sake of gaining honor (µ µ ) since your acumen
has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them--but do you yourself
answer and tell what you say the just is (Rep. 1.336C).
Philosophers, then, can ask questions to score points by ridiculing the answers given. Similarly,
Apollonius asks a series of questions to bring his pupil Damis to the realization that he has little
or false understanding.(9) He explains to his disciple that "my question which I asked you to begin
with was a fair one, although you thought that I asked it in order to make fun of you" (2.5).
Whether or not such was the intent, it was experienced by the one questioned as ridicule.(10) In
many extant writings of philosophers and serious thinkers in antiquity, the topic for discussion
appears in the form of a question.(12) This may be simply the title of the discourse or the actual
opening lines of the treatise which begin with a formal interrogative asked the sage. Inasmuch
as these topics are hotly debated, philosophical questions have a combative or aggressive
quality. Moreover, they seem to function rhetorically as the occasion to honor the sage's wise
words and thus burnish his reputation.
The diatribe seems to be a refined form of philosophical education.(13) Stowers' treatment
of this yielded one useful conclusion which pertains to the dialogical shape of the diatribe. The
speaker initially engages his audience by means of questions, such as , ',
, , or non vides enim. Subsequently an interlocutor raises objections and false
conclusions to the material proposed, which are expressed as questions introduced by ,
, , , or quid ergo. These questions are rarely neutral requests for
information, as Stowers makes very clear: "The diatribe is not the technical instruction in logic,
physics, etc., but discourse. . .where the teacher employed the 'Socratic' method of censure and
protreptic. The goal of this part of the instruction was not simply to impart knowledge, but to
transform the students, to point out error and to cure it."(14) Thus the tone of questions in a diatribe
is combative, even downright hostile; pointing out another's contradictions will most likely be
taken as an offense.
C. The Literary Genre: "Questions and Answers"
Sze-har Wan recently outlined the history in antiquity of the genre "Question and
Answer" (µ ).(15) He credits Aristotle with the first "zetematic work," which
has survived as fragments in Porphyry's µ µ; most of those fragments contain a
question introduced by . He notes the remark of Prophyry that "in the Alexandrian
Museum it was the custom for questions to be posed and developed solutions written down."(16)
There is considerable debate, however, about the source and meaning of the "questions": were
they objections or criticisms raised about a document or aspects of a text? In many instances,
they seem to be challenges frequently raised about an author or document or topic which issued
in apologetic responses.
D. Questions in Education
"Education" is a catchall term for situations where the formal purpose of question and
answer is the direct transfer of information. Iamblichus' Life of Pythagoras contains a sample of
questioning and answering which communicates the chief ideas of the sage on three topics: (1)
what a thing is, (2) what is the best in a category, and (3) what should be done or avoided.
Those, then, on what a thing is, are as follows: for example, what are the islands of the
blessed? Sun and moon. . . Those on what is best, are, for example: what is the most just
thing? To sacrifice. . .What is the wisest of things among us? Medicine. What is the
But while this format appears to be a simple exchange of information, we remember that it is
sectarian information, which surely has in mind other philosophies which are herein criticized.
Hence, there are right and wrong answers, thus winners and losers. The questions, then, imply a
contest, a game, or a combat.
E. Questions and Entertainment
Participants at symposia raised for discussion questions which served as the evening's
entertainment (i.e., Plutarch's Table Talk and Athenaeus' Deipnosophistai). But even
entertainment may entail playing a competitive game of sparring with the weapon of one's wits.(18)
Suetonius records how the emperor Tiberius delighted in trying to stump his banquet guests with
hard questions about mythology: "He used to test even the grammarians . . . by questions like
this: 'Who was Hecuba's mother?' 'What was the name of Achilles among the maidens?'"
(Tiberias 70.3). Tiberius asked these questions as part of a game, "to test even the grammarians,"
which reminds us that such questions, while "entertaining," were also very competitive. Finally,
Plutarch describes a most deadly question contest between Alexander and the Gymnosophists.
Because they were "reputed to be clever and concise in answering questions," Alexander put
difficult questions to them, with the proviso that "he would put to death him who first made an
incorrect answer" - a pleasant evening was had by all!(19)
In one of the topics or "questions" discussed after a banquet, Plutarch relates a
conversation on the very topic of "questions" (Table Talk 2.1 629E-631C). Because this
discussion theorizes about the social propriety of asking questions, we examine it more closely.
Plutarch concludes: "To sum up: those who wish to give happiness rather than distress put
questions of such sort that the answers are attended not by blame from the audience but by praise,
not by hatred and anger but friendliness and good will" (2.1 631B-C). Obviously, questions can
be very aggressive and agonistic. The conclusion explains the observation about a certain
Gobryas who admired the Persians precisely because "They asked each other such questions as it
is more agreeable to be asked than not and joked each other on matters about which it was more
agreeable to be teased than not" (629E). Thus, an important distinction is made: questions can be
both agreeable or disagreeable and friendly or hostile.
Plutarch's report elaborates on agreeable questions,(20) but a mirror reading of what makes
a question agreeable provides clues to disagreeable questions as well. If agreeable questions are
those asked (1) on topics about which the answerer enjoys expertise or unique knowledge and (2)
which touch on his successes, conversely, disagreeable questions would be those (1) about which
the answerer has little or no knowledge and (2) which expose his misfortunes or failures. Thus it
is agreeable for an "expert" to be asked about esoteric matters such as "astronomy or dialectics."
Plutarch concludes, "People are pleased with those who ask them questions on subjects which,
because they themselves have knowledge of them, they are unwilling to go unknown and lie
hidden" (2.1 630B).(21)
II. Questions and the Chreia
The chreia, one of the ten fundamental genres taught budding writers and orators in the
second level of education,(22) is defined as "a concise reminiscence aptly attributed to some
character."(23) Concerning the chreia(24) we have myriads of examples as well as formal rhetorical
theory from the rhetorical handbooks known as the progymnasmata.(25) Aelius Theon(26) classified
the chreiai as (1) sayings chreiai (), (2) action chreiai (), and (3) mixed
chreiai, a combination of saying and action (µ). He distinguished two kinds of sayings
chreia: one recording a simple statement of the sage (: "So-and-so said....") and
the other noting his response to a question or provocation (: "When asked about X,
so-and-so responded. . ."). The responsive chreia, moreover, could be either (1) a question
requiring a simple yes or no answer ( ' ); (2) a question demanding
a longer answer ( µ); or (3) a question seeking some explanation
( ' )(27). In this study we focus on the responsive chreia, with
attention to the question asked which prompts the sage to answer, often answering a question
with a question.(28)
Are the questions asked the sage neutral or hostile? Is the answer testy and defensive? In
their summary remarks on the topic, Hock and O'Neill point out an antagonistic context for many
chreiai: ". . .chreiai depict philosophers in typical situations, such as chiding students, attacking
vices, responding to critics, debating with one another."(29) "Typical situations," they indicate,
consist of conflict and push and shove: "chiding," "attacking," "responding to critics,"
"debating" and the like.(30) The collection of chreiai by Hock and O'Neil amply illustrate the
aggressive manner in which the sage is provoked to speak; for example: "Anacharsis, when
reproached (µ) by someone because he was a Scythian, said, "I am by birth, but
not in manner of living"(31); and "Diogenes, when someone rebuked () him for his
poverty, said: "You poor devil, I have seen no one playing the tyrant on account of his
poverty, but all do on account of their wealth."(32) Our previous survey of the various forums in
which questions were asked suggests that we should presume an agonistic context.(33) Questions,
even among philosophers, were more likely attempts to prove something or score points, rather
than neutral requests for information.(34)
III. Questions and Honor Challenges.
Remembering that questions frequently have a polemical or combative quality, we turn
now from rhetoric to culture to study how questions function as honor challenges. Honor is the
abstract, general term which both natives and anthropologists use for a person's worth, value,
respect, reputation and fame.(37) Honor refers to two social actions: one's claim to pride and the
acknowledgment of that claim;(38) the claim, of course, may be rejected outright or challenged.
Regarding the sources of honor, a person may be ascribed it by another or achieve it on his/her
own merits. Ascribed honor refers to inherited or bestowed worth: birth into a respectable family,
commission as procurator, or studying under a renown teacher. Achieved honor is earned the old
fashioned way, by effort and merit, namely, prowess in military, athletic, and artistic fields,
benefactions, and by the common practice of challenging another and taking his worth and value
as one's own. Yet honor describes a social dynamic whereby people compete for prestige and
respect, and it is this to which we must attend.(39)
A. The Agonistic Nature of Society in Antiquity
Students of Greco-Roman literature increasingly recognize the agonistic nature of social
life in antiquity.(40) Take for example Plato's description in his Laws of the world in an intense and
constant state of warfare, city against city, village against village and man against man: [Clinias
speaking] "He meant, I believe, to reprove the folly of mankind, who refuse to understand that
they are all engaged in a continuous lifelong warfare against all cities whatsoever. . .Humanity is
in a condition of public war of every man against every man, and private war of each man with
himself (Laws 1.625E-626E).(43)
In such an agonistic and competitive environment, the pursuit of honor, that is
µ, takes on special importance. µ can be rendered positively as "love (and
pursuit) of honor"(44) or negatively as "ambition," as Augustine does in The City of God.(45)
Xenophon represents the positive, if elitist, view: "The pursuit of honor (µ) is not a
natural component of the irrational animals nor of all human beings; those who have a natural
desire for praise and honor are at the greatest distance from cattle--they are considered to be men,
no longer mere human beings" (Hiero 7.3). But with most people passionately pursuing honor,
virtue becomes vice and a source of endless enmity with winners and losers.
B. The Rationale for Conflict: Perceptions of Limited Good
Why win/lose? Why not win/win? In his analysis of peasant societies, George Foster
describes how peasants perceive all things in the cosmos, including honor, as limited in amount
and thus scarce:
By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in
such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural
universes--their total environment--as one in which all of the desired things in life such as
land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power
and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply,
as far as the peasant is concerned. . .in addition there is no way directly within peasant
power to increase the available quantities.(46)
If something valuable exists in limited amounts, he continues, "It follows that an individual or
family can improve a position only at the expense of others."(47) Hence, if someone acquires honor
by prowess or cleverness, then others will perceive themselves as losing. Thus love of honor
(µ) is a risky business. Many will interpret claims to honor as encroachments on their
own worth and either refuse to acknowledge them or challenge them. If the claims pertain to
matters of wisdom, the challenger might express this by asking hard questions! The perception of
limited good, Foster has shown, leads directly to the aggressive phenomenon of envy.(48)
How ancient is this perception of limited good? In addition to the Baptist's surprising
remark that it is acceptable for Jesus to increase at John's own expense (3:30),(49) we find the
concept expressed widely. For example: "People do not find it pleasant to give honor (µ)
to someone else, for they suppose that they themselves are being deprived of something."(50)
Plutarch described a person hearing an outstanding speaker and expressing envy at his success:
"As though commendation were money, he feels that he is robbing himself of every bit that he
bestows on another" (Plutarch, On Listening to Lectures 44B; see Old Men in Public Affairs
787D). Philo explains the error of polytheism in terms of limited good: the more honor and
regard given to deified mortals, the less there is for the true Deity (Ebr. 110; see Josephus,
Ant. 4.32). Hence, Greco-Roman literature provides ample evidence that it viewed its social
relations as an agonistic and competitive world in which success in gaining honor, a paramount
value, generally came at the expense of others. Thus envy flourished and few claims were likely
to go unchallenged.
C. Challenge and Riposte: Choreographing Honor Claims
Bruce Malina studied the extensive field reports of those who reported on the endless
game of challenge and riposte in twentieth-century Mediterranean cultures.(51) He suitably
customized the anthropological generalizations with sensitivity for interpretation of documents
from the ancient world and describes the typical steps in the choreography of honor challenges:
(1) claim to honor, (2) challenge to that claim, (3) riposte to the challenge, and (4) public verdict
by onlookers. Shortly we will consider two issues: (1) how questions serve as challenges and
answers function as ripostes and (2) how the responsive chreia is formally structured as a
challenge and riposte exchange.
D. The Responsive Chreia and the Typical Honor Challenge
Responsive chreiai were introduced in various ways indicative of the aggressive or
competitive nature of the questions asked. Hock and O'Neil observed that responsive chreiai
frequently are provoked by "praise, reproach or rebuke,"(52) which provocation should be
culturally interpreted as a challenge to the honor, reputation and worth of the sage. The response
of the sage to the provocative challenge should likewise be culturally interpreted as a riposte to
the challenge. "Challenge and riposte" are but the scientific or etic labels for what the natives
understand in terms of a provocation to which a "response" is made. On this point, the etic
description adequately fits the emic data; scientific notions of honor challenge describe in more
general terms what is encoded in the responsive chreia. Hence, chreiai describe provocations or
challenges of some sort. Moreover, when we compare the formal elements of a typical responsive
chreia with the choreography of an honor challenge, we can observe a striking homology. After
all, the very classification of a chreia as "responsive" means that it responds to something, a
provocation or challenge.
Formal Elements of a Responsive Chreia Compared with Those of a Challenge to Honor
Responsive Chreia Challenge to Honor Followed by Response
Presumption of wit or wisdom by a famous Claim of prowess by someone
person (the person's reputation)
Provocation, in a question, reproach or Challenge, verbal or physical
Response, an answer to a question or a retort Riposte, verbal or physical
to a rebuke
Verdict: honor, recorded by those Verdict: honor or shame, awarded
immortalizing the event proportionately by onlookers
Thus we have the requisite interpretative tools to assess the controversies of Jesus in the Gospel
of Mark: (1) data on "questions" as a challenging weapon, (2) knowledge of the responsive
chreia, which embodies both provocative questions and answers, and (3) the cultural framework
of honor challenges in world of limited good, which is the cultural background of most
IV. Questions in Responsive Chreiai in Mark: Challenge and Riposte
My survey of the Gospel of Mark surfaces at least the following examples of responsive
chreiai in Mark: 2:1-12, 15-17, 18-22, 23-28; 3:1-6, 22-30, 31-35; 4:35-41; 6:1-6; 7:1-13; 8:11-13; 9:9-13; 10:2-9, 13-16, 17-22, 35-41; 11:27-33; 12:13-17, 18-27, 28-34, 35-37. We label these
as "responsive" chreiai because they correspond closely to the rhetorical definition of this type as
found in Aelius Theon and other authors of progymnasmata.(53) Dibelius noted that the form of a
chreia might be somewhat fluid, but always contained a "situation" which evoked or provoked a
saying.(54) Most of the chreiai listed above have a brief setting, followed by some word or action
which requires Jesus to respond. In one case, enemies "watched him, to see whether he would
heal on the sabbath" (3:2), which action provokes a response from Jesus; in another instance, a
storm causes the disciples to rebuke Jesus with a question (4:37-38). But the general pattern of
the Markan chreiai begin with a provocation which requires a response by Jesus. Most of these
chreiai portray enemies and critics of Jesus issuing the provocation, the tone of which appears
quite hostile. Yet Mark also contains exchanges between teacher and disciple, some of which
depict the disciples asking questions requesting information (4:10-13; 10:23-31) or problems
presented to Jesus for a solution (7:14-22; 9:38-41) or Jesus sternly questioning disciples for their
failure to understand (8:14-21).(55) We focus, however, on the situations where critics or enemies
provoke Jesus, generally by a censorious remark or action, to which he cleverly responds. In
particular, we examine the role of questions, both in the provocation and the response.
A. Responsive Chreiai Provoked by Challenging Questions
From our list we can identify twenty responsive chreiai which begin with a provocation(56)
in the form of a question. Fourteen of them start with someone asking Jesus a question, while a
few begin with Jesus asking questions of others. For example:
2:16 "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
2:18 "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast,
but your disciples do not fast?"
7:5 "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders,
but eat with hands defiled?"
10:2 "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
11:28 "By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority
to do them?"(57)
Other episodes begin with Jesus asking questions; for example:
3:4 "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?"
12:35 "How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?"
What we have learned about the use of questions leads us to see that the questions asked of Jesus
and by him are never dispassionate requests for information,(58) but challenges which put him, his
disciples or his opponents on the spot. Mark notes this when on occasion he narrates that Jesus'
questioners seek to "argue" with him () and to "test" him () (8:11), or
when Pharisee and Herodians come "to entrap" () Jesus in his speech (12:13).(59) By
the same token, the questions which Jesus asks in 3:4; 11:17 and 12:35 should likewise be
assessed as aggressive weapons.
From a literary point of view, Mark quickly teaches his audience a list of Jesus' enemies.
Those who ask Jesus questions all turn out to be his adversaries who constantly criticize him,
plot his harm, test him, seek to entrap him, and the like. Even if Mark does not label their
question in some way as hostile and challenging, the general character of the narrative indicates
that questions are agonistic weapons, simply because they come from Jesus' enemies.
B. Responsive Chreiai Which Answer a Question with a Counter-Question
The rules for the chreia in the progymnasmata indicate that a "response" or answer is
necessary to a challenging question. After all, the function of a "responsive" chreia lies in its
showcasing the wisdom and cleverness of a sage by his successful reply. The sage must say
something clever and witty or lose his reputation because the provocation challenges his role and
reputation. While many chreiai report some clever statement by the sage, Mark overwhelmingly
presents Jesus responding by answering a question with a counter-question.(60) It is striking that of
the fourteen responsive chreiai which begin with a question asked of Jesus, twelve of them cast
his answer in terms of a counter-question by Jesus. Consider, for example, these four samples:
2:19 "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?"
2:23-26 "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry...?"
11:29-30 "I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority
I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? Answer me."
12:15-16 "Why do you put me to the test?...Whose likeness and inscription is this?"(61)
If questions serve an aggressive function, then Jesus expertly plays the game and wields his
weapons as well as or better than his opponents. By the code of ancient rhetoric concerning the
grounds for praise, Jesus displays extraordinary prowess, and thus merits the loyalty and respect
of his disciples.
C. Rhetoric: Responsive Chreiai vis-à-vis and Culture: Challenge-Riposte
Yet we are not finished, for we should examine the responsive chreiai in Mark in the light
of what cultural anthropology describes as the ubiquitous game of push and shove or challenge
and riposte. Earlier, we suggested a homology between the key elements of the responsive chreia
and challenge-riposte exchange, which we more formally examine now. In terms of its native
rhetorical form, the responsive chreia contains a provocation which occasions a response. The
provocation in Mark nearly always consists of a critical question asked of Jesus; and the response
likewise comes in the form of a counter-question. Insofar as we have been successful in arguing
the aggressive or hostile nature of questions, the responsive chreia in Mark portrays a contest or
controversy. In terms of cultural anthropology, these pivotal elements of provocation and
response fully reflect the common social interchange labeled by the social scientists as challenge
and riposte. Why bring in the cultural material? What purpose does it serve? Knowledge of
challenge and riposte exchanges makes salient what often is unclear, namely, the hostile and
aggressive character of most responsive chreia in Mark.
Similarity of Rhetorical Responsive Chreia and Cultural Challenge-Riposte in Mark
Chreia: Provocation Chreia: Response Public Verdict
Culture: Honor Challenge Culture: Riposte
Mark 2:1-12 2:6-7 2:8-11 2:12
Mark 2:15-17 2:16b 2:17 -----
Mark 2:18-22 2:19 2:19-22 -----
Mark 2:23-28 2:24 2:25-28 -----
Mark 3:1-6 3:2 3:4-6 3:6
Mark 3:22-30 3:22 3:23-30 ------
Mark 4:35-41 4:38 4:39-40 4:41
Mark 6:1-6 6:2-3 6:4-6 -----
Mark 7:1-13 7:5 7:6-13 ------
Mark 8:11-13 8:11 8:12-13 -----
Mark 9:9-13 9:10-11 9:12-13 -----
Mark 10:2-9 10:2 10:3-9 -----
Mark 10:13-16 10:13 10:14-16 -----
Mark 10:17-23 10:17 10:18-19 -----
Mark 10:35-41 10:35, 37 10:36, 38 10:41
Mark 11:27-33 11:28 11:29 -----
Mark 12:13-17 12:13-15a 12:15b-17a 12:17b
Mark 12:18-27 12:18-23 12:24-27 12:28
Mark 12:28-34 12:28 12:29-31 12:32
While it is true that not all responsive chreiai are hostile, the ones listed here all contain a
provocation which is either a criticism of Jesus' behavior, a question to trap him in his speech or
a hostile scrutiny of his words and actions. Rhetorical analysis according to an emic description
of the responsive chreia labels these as "provocations" which occasion or demand a response
from a sage; cultural analysis according to etic description of competitive social exchange labels
them as challenges which require a riposte.
Recalling Pitt-River's definition of honor as a claim to worth which is acknowledged,(62)
we quickly see that Mark's narrative consists of a constant testing of and refusal to acknowledge
Jesus' claim to be a reforming prophet or an authorized son of God. In the initial appearance of
Jesus in public, he entered the synagogue on the sabbath and taught. Here, at least, Mark notes
that the crowds were "astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority"
(1:21). Teaching presumes a claim to a certain role and social standing, for not all people have
voice in Mark's world.(63) In Mark 1:21-28, then, the claim to honor is embedded in the public
activity of teaching, which in this case is acknowledged, first in v 22 and at the conclusion of the
pericope: "And they were amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, "What is
this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him"
(1:27). In this case, acknowledgment is equivalent to a public verdict of honor to Jesus with
accompanying increase in reputation and respect: "And at once his fame spread everywhere
throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee" (1:28). Inasmuch as he is said to perform better
than the Scribes, they are publicly judged as losing respect and reputation.
Yet after that, many refuse to acknowledge his role and status. While not wishing to
reduce the entire conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, Scribes etc. to issues of envy,
nevertheless, in a world where all goods are thought to exist in limited supply and where there is
intense competition for honor, we expect challenges to claims. Ideally, since it is God who
ascribes to Jesus his role and status (1:11), there ought not to be challenges to God's sovereignty.
Certain characters in the narrative audience of Mark, however, do not evaluate Jesus' honor as
ascribed by God (3:22) and others see it simply as personal achievement (6:2-3); and since they
would typically perceive themselves as losing honor and respect as Jesus gains it,(64) they
challenge his claims. This, we maintain, is what happens in all of the responsive chreiai that we
are examining; that is why the critical and hostile questions asked of Jesus are challenges to his
identity and authority, that is, to his worth or honor. Those who stand to lose face and respect
envy Jesus in turn (see Mark 15:10) and express that envy in terms of challenges. But Mark
records that Jesus was always highly successful in answering his critics, that is, in delivering an
appropriate riposte to the challenges. And, as we saw, his favorite rhetorical weapon is the same
one used on him, namely, the question.
Of considerable importance to this study is the assertion that the conflictual social
relations described in the Markan chreiai take place in public, which is the arena where grants of
honor or shame are awarded the participants. In our table above, the public verdict appears in the
narrative only occasionally.(65) But we are quick to note that the ancient world presumed that
males were in "public" all the time, except when in the privacy of their household. The
evangelist often tells us that Jesus is "in public," either in the synagogue, on the streets, traveling
to another town, teaching in the temple, etc. Thus some audience always observes both challenge
and riposte. Even when Jesus appears to be "at home," we must be careful to read these passages
in the light of the gender division of ancient society; for, when unrelated males are gathered
together even "at home," this is still "public" in the sense that it is exclusively male territory and
thus a public spectacle. Hence, even when Jesus was "at home" (2:1), his residence was filled
with unrelated males, both friends and enemies. Hence, the narrative does not always spell out
that a public observes provocation and response/challenge and riposte, but an audience is there
and does its job of observing the challenge and riposte and awarding victory and honor to one
party and defeat and shame to the other. Moreover, the very gospel presumes another public,
namely, Mark's readers, who serve as an audience who also credits Jesus with honor and respect.
Thus students of the controversy stories in Mark should examine them both in terms of
their emic rhetorical form (responsive chreiai) and their cultural dynamics (honor challenges and
ripostes). If the template of a responsive chreia highlights the provocation and response of a sage,
the challenge-riposte model emphasizes the aggressiveness and hostility of the provocation and
the requirement of an honorable riposte. And our appreciation of how questions are weapons
which are wielded either as aggressive challenges or responsive ripostes underscores the
combative character of the responsive chreia in Mark. At stake in each confrontation is the
reputation and fame of Jesus as wise sage and prophet.
D. Telling Winners and Losers
In two ways Mark tells us who won or lost in the game of challenge and riposte: either
silence or hostile reaction. According to the rules of the game, when a questioner asks a question
which stumps or silences the person questioned, this constitutes a victory. Epictetus offers a
classic illustration of this:
When someone in his audience said, Convince me that logic is necessary, he answered:
Do you wish me to demonstrate this to you? --Yes.--Well, then, must I use a
demonstrative argument? --And when the questioned had agreed to that, Epictetus asked
him, How, then, will you know if I impose upon you? --As the man had no answer to
give, Epictetus said: Do you see how you yourself admit that all this instruction is
necessary, if, without it, you cannot so much as know whether it is necessary or not?
The initial request provokes or challenges Epictetus; although not itself in the form of a
question, it calls into question the teacher's status. Epictetus answers this with a question, in
fact, a series of questions, all of which have the purpose of exposing the ignorance of the
questioner/petitioner and so reducing him to silence: "the man had no answer to give." Thus
narrative audiences know who won the contest by observing who is "reduced to silence."
Failure to answer a question indicates loss of ability and so the end of the game, which means
loss of honor. Having the last word was important, then as now.(66)
Mark narrates how on one occasion Jesus asked a question, to which those questioned
could not or would not reply: "'Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm?' But they
were silent"(3:4) -- a silence clearly signaling victory for Jesus. On another occasion, Jesus asks a
counter-question which his audience refuses to answer: "'Was the baptism of John from heaven
or from man?' . . . They answered, 'We do not know'" (11:30, 33). The audience knows that
Jesus' question has put the chief priests and the scribes in a no-win situation; hence their
"silence" or refusal to answer counts as defeat: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do
these things" (11:33b). Finally Mark narrates how, after unsuccessfully attempting to defeat Jesus
in the stylized game of questions (12:13-34),(67) his questioners were silent and silenced: "And
after that no one dared to ask him any questions" (12:34).
In a second mode, Mark indicates that those who were bested in the question/counter-question exchange express their defeat by plotting vengeance to avenge their humiliation. Those
silenced by Jesus in 3:4 subsequently plot his destruction (3:6), which in the culture should be
interpreted as their attempt at revenge for their loss. Similarly those reduced to silence by Jesus'
question concerning the temple subsequently plot revenge: "'Is it not written, My house shall be
a house of prayer for all the nations' (11:17) . . .they sought a way to destroy him" (11:18).
Similarly, Mark reports Jesus' victory in various ways. Luke expresses the ideal public
verdict of a challenge-riposte exchange with the notice: "As he said this, all his adversaries were
put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him"
(13:17). Yet Mark communicates this same sense of victory in his account of the reactions of the
public observers of the challenge-riposte exchanges: (1) amazement at his words (:
2:12); (2) glorification of God for his actions (: 2:12); (3) awe at his performance
( : 4:41); (4) amazement at his response (µ: 12:17); and (5)
crowds gladly hearing him (12:37). On one occasion, the scribe who had asked Jesus a hard
question praises his answer: "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that God is one. . ."
(12:32). Yet the narrative, while providing these occasional reports of Jesus' success and his
enemies' loss, continually, although implicitly, acknowledges Jesus' success and so his
worthiness of honor and prestige.
V. Conclusions and Further Questions
A. What Do We Know If We Know This?
In terms of rhetorical background, our survey of "questions" indicates that how they
function more often than not as competitive, even hostile weapons intended to inflict major
damage. Questions score points, draw blood, and shame opponents. The same interpretation
applies equally to the phenomenon of answering a question with a counter-question, which also
is an aggressive weapon. And by observing who is reduced to silence, we have narrative clues
about who triumphed in the question game and who lost. Moreover, we now know more about
both the form and function of the responsive chreia. By focussing on why and how a chreia is
labeled "responsive," and by bringing to bear the material on "question" vis-à-vis the provocation
of a responsive chreia, we have a better understanding of both the shape and intent of the
responsive chreia in Mark. We note in particular the importance of appreciating that the occasion
for a responsive chreia is a provocation, often a question asked, an objection stated, or a reproach
or insult given.
In terms of Mark's cultural world, the anthropology of honor and shame situates
responsive chreiai in their appropriate cultural context and further enriches our appreciation of
the rhetorical strategy of reporting chreiai, namely, to honor the clever sage by showcasing his
prowess in the culturally valued game of quick-wittedness. Furthermore, we have learned more
about the pursuit of honor in the ancient world as well as the agonistic nature of most social
intercourse. It is imperative that we appreciate how the ancients viewed all things in terms of a
limited good perspective and so played a zero-sum gain in terms of honor: if someone gains,
another must lose. Hence, all honor claims threaten others; and those who are threatened
challenge lest they be losers in the game of gaining respect and repute. Moreover, the
anthropology of honor and shame describe the typical choreography of conflictual social
relationships which are stylized in the rhetorical form of a responsive chreia. This form (claim,
challenge, riposte, and public verdict) provides the social and cultural framework for responsive
chreiai. We argue that what rhetoricians call responsive chreiai are homologous with what
anthropologists identify as challenge and riposte exchanges. Finally, anthropological discussions
of honor and shame represent the reflections of scholars who have done years of exacting field
work. This study of both the "question" and the responsive chreia should rightly be considered as
one more piece of field work; we now have an important emic or native report about ancient
In terms of Mark's rhetorical education, this survey of both the "question" and the
responsive chreia provide native evidence of what we call the "great code" of honor and shame in
the ancient Mediterranean world. Students able to write Greek at the level represented by Mark
typically learned this through progymnastic education, which taught them to write chreiai.
Moreover, even as they learned the rhetorical form of the chreia, they likewise learned the code
of honor which is embodied in it: how to attack, provoke, and challenge, as well as how to
respond and answer. Although I would maintain that the values of honor and shame permeate the
ancient world in areas of social life independent of education, here at least we find a formal
school, not simply for learning rhetorical genres, but for refining one's sense of the dominant
cultural values of honor and shame. Since Greco-Roman rhetorical education was available from
Britain to Babylon, we may safely speak of a "Mediterranean" literary culture and value system
which incorporated most of what was left of "Hellenization" after Alexander. Rhetorical
education itself embodied as well as spread the culture of honor and shame.
Finally, when all of this material is brought to bear on Mark, we appreciate first of all
how the evangelist regularly employs the rhetorical form of the responsive chreia to showcase the
wisdom and cleverness of Jesus. The frequent use of the responsive chreia in Mark, moreover,
indicates that Jesus was forever under siege and always challenged. This means that in the eyes
of the evangelist, he lived a typical agonistic public life, both claiming and defending his claims
to special role and status, and being very successful at it. He is, as are most honorable people in
antiquity, a skilled combatant! He accepts challenges (i.e., questions) and parries them expertly
by asking counter-questions in turn. No turning of the cheek here! If questions are weapons, then
Jesus deserves an Olympic medal for prowess in asking questions which silence his opponents!
The few instances where Jesus' questions begin episodes indicate that the evangelist was not
simply presenting him as a defensive expert who fends off challenges, but in addition as someone
who also initiates conflict. This conflict, if read in the light of honor and shame, functions to
shame his opponents and win him further honor.
B. Further Questions
Thus far we have focussed on questions which occur in the genre known as the
responsive chreia. But Mark's gospel contains many other instances of questions asked.(68) It is
beyond the scope of this article to analyze each instance; but the materials presented here about
the aggressive nature of questions provide important interpretative background from the cultural
world of Mark and should be taken into account as we interpret each instance. Proper assessment
in light of the materials presented in this article should lead to a sharper understanding of the
rhetorical strategy of Mark, which has much to do with acknowledging the honorable claims of
1. Vernon K. Robbins, Jesus the Teacher. A
Socio-Rhetorical Interpretation of Mark
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 136-66.
2. On the controversy form, see Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition (New York:
Harper and Row, 1968) 39-54; and Arland Hultgren, Jesus and His Adversaries: The Form and
Function of the Conflict Stories in the Synoptic Tradition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing
3. For the interpretation of Jesus' controversies in anthropological terms as challenge/riposte
exchanges, see Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. Neyrey, "Honor and Shame in Luke-Acts: Pivotal
Values of the Mediterranean World," The Social World of Luke-Acts. Models for Interpretation
(Jerome H. Neyrey, ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991) 29-32 and 49-52; Richard L.
Rohrbaugh, "Legitimating Sonship -- A Test of Honour. A Social-Scientific Study of Luke 4:1-30," Modelling Early Christianity. Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in Its Context
(Philip F. Esler, ed.; London: Routledge, 1995) 183-97; and Jerome H. Neyrey, "The Trials
(Forensic) and Tribulations (Honor Challenges) of Jesus: John 7 in Social Science Perspective,"
BTB 26 (1996) 116-23.
4. Ronald Hock and Edward N. O'Neil (The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric. Volume I. The
Progymnasmata [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986] 49) talk about both a humorous and a didactic
function, all to the credit of the sage. See also Henry A. Fischel, "Studies in Cynicism and the
Ancient Near East: The Transformation of a Chria," Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of
E. R. Goodenough (ed. Jacob Neusner; Leiden: Brill, 1968) 372-411. Yet not all chreiai function
to give honor to the sage. Henry Fischel describes a chreia which is meant to "ridicule the sage as
absent-minded, impractical or other--worldly, and demonstrates that he contradicts his own
principles in word or deed" ("A Chreia on Absent-Mindedness," Rabbinic Literature and Greco-Roman Philosophy [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973] 79). If not praise or honor, then blame or shame.
5. A semantic word field for "question" would include: 1. µµ (point of dispute,
question); 2. (examination, quarrel, dispute); 3. µ (matter of doubt, question,
puzzle); 4. (question for discussion, difficulty, puzzle); 5. µ (that which is
asked, question); 6. (questioning, interrogation); 7. µ (that which is sought,
question, inquiry); 8. (inquiry, question); 9. (main question of an investigation).
6. We will not attempt to analyze or classify types of questions. On the topic of "rhetorical
questions," see Wilhelm Wuellner, "Paul as Pastor: The Function of Rhetorical Questions in First
Corinthians, L'Apôtre Paul. Personalité, Style et Conception du Ministère (A. Vanhoye, ed.;
BETL 73; Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1986) 50-72 and Duane F. Watson, "1 Corinthians
10:23-11:1 in Light of Greco-Roman Rhetoric: The Role of Rhetorical Questions," JBL 108
7. All texts and translations of Greco-Roman literature are taken from the Loeb Classical Library.
8. See Gerasimos Santas, "Socratic Questions and Assumptions," Socrates. Philosophy in
Plato's Early Dialogues (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) 57-96; Michael C. Stokes,
Socratic Conversations (London: Athlone Press, 1986); Ian Kidd, "Socratic Questions," Socratic
Questions (Barry Gower and Michael Stokes, eds.; London: Routledge, 1992) 82-92; Gregory
Vlastos, "The Socratic Elenchus: Method Is All," Socratic Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1994) 1-38.
9. Epictetus spoke about a process of interrogation (i.e., Socratic questioning) which he called
the "contest of 'question and answer.'" The phrase "question and answer" (
) seems to be a code word for Socratic questioning (1.7.3, 4, 26).
10. The practice of conducting philosophical discussion by means of question and answer
survives Plato and becomes a disputation genre found commonly in the works of Cicero and
11. For example, the interlocutors in Cicero's The Nature of the Gods ask aggressive questions
of one another. Cotta, who speaks in defense of Stoic doctrine, asks Velleius, the Epicurean, a
testy question: "But as for your master Epicurus. . .which of his utterances is, I do not say worthy
of philosophy, but compatible with ordinary common sense?" (1.22.61). One cannot mistake the
aggressive tone in another question put to Velleius: "What if your assumption, that when we
think of god the only form that presents itself to us is that of a man, be entirely untrue? Will you
continue to maintain your absurdities?" (1.29.81). On occasion, a questioner asks a series of
questions and answers them himself to show the absurdity of the position being maintained (see
(3.39.93). Scoring points seems more important than finding the truth.
12. For example, topics in Epictetus' discourses are introduced by a formal interrogative, such
as , or . These questions and answers distinguish different schools of thought and so
have embedded in them a polemical edge to them. Epictetus' questions differ in content and
tone from Plutarch's Greek Questions and Roman Questions, which give evidence of more
neutral antiquarian or historical interests. Plutarch's Questions () are thought to depend in
form on Ps-Aristotle's Problems; see H. J. Rose, Roman Questions of Plutarch (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1924) 49. Other examples of this sort of "question" in Plutarch would include
Quaestiones Naturales ( ), Quaestiones Platonicae ( µ) and
Quaestionum Convivalium Libri (µ µ ).
13. Stanley K. Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans (SBLDS 57; Chico, CA:
Scholars Press, 1981); see also his article "The Diatribe," Greco-Roman Literature and the New
Testament (ed., David E. Aune; SBLSBS 21; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 71-83.
14. Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans, 76. Epictetus amply illustrates the
way in which questions are used in diatribal censure and indictment; see 2.25.
15. Sze-kar Wan, "Philo's Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim: A Synoptic Approach,"
SBLSP 1993: 24-33; see Heinrich
Dörrie and Hermann Dörries, "Eratopokriseis," RAC 6 (1966)
342-70. I am indebted to Gregory Sterling for allowing me to consult his analysis of this genre,
which is forthcoming as The Jewish Plato: Philo of Alexandria, Greek-Speaking Judaism, and
16. Schol. Hom. Ad Il. 9.682 cited by Wan, "Philo's Quaestiones et solutiones in Genesim," 27.
17. Life of Pythagoras 82; see John Dillon and Jackson Hershbell, Iamblichus. On the
Pythagorean Way of Life (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991) 107.
18. Plutarch's Dinner of the Seven Wise Men recounts a "contest (µ) of wisdom" between
the kings of Ethiopia and Egypt (152F).
19. Plutarch, Alex. 64.1-11; the same contest is reported in Clement of Alexandria, Strom.
20. "Men are glad to be asked what they are able to answer easily, that is, questions about
matters in which they have experience; for about what they do not know, either they say nothing
or are chagrined as though asked for what they cannot give or they reply with a guess and an
uncertain conjecture and so find themselves in a distressing and dangerous situation" (Plutarch,
Table Talk 2.1 630A).
21. Among the celebrated solvers of conundrums and riddles, one thinks of Oedipus, Samson
(Judg 14:12-20) and Solomon (1 Kgs 10:1-5; Josephus, Ant. 8.143); se. 8.143); see James L. Crenshaw,
"Riddles," ABD 4.721-23.
22. The chreia enjoyed a long history in Greek literature; see Jan F. Kindstrand ("Diogenes
Laertius and the Chreia Tradition," Elenchos 7  219-43. Important current studies of the
chreia include Ronald Hock and Edward O'Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 3-60; Burton
Mack and Vernon Robbins, Patterns of Persuasion in the Gospels (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge
Press, 1989); see also Burton Mack, "Decoding the Scripture: Philo and the Rules of Rhetoric,"
Nourished with Peace (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1984) 81-115.
23. The definition is from Aphthonius, as cited in Hock and O'Neil, The Chreia in Ancient
24. On the significance of the chreia in relationship to the gospels, see in particular Vernon
Robbins are uniquely valuable: "Classifying Pronouncement Stories in Plutarch's Parallel Lives,"
Semeia 20 (1981) 33-42; "Pronouncement Stories and Jesus' Blessing of the Children: A
Rhetorical Approach," Semeia 29 (1983) 43-74; "A Rhetorical Typology for Classifying and
Analyzing Pronouncement Stories," SBLSP 1984: 93-112; "Pronouncement Stories from a
Rhetorical Perspective," Forum 4/2 (1988) 1-31; "The Chreia," Greco-Roman Literature and the
New Testament (David Aune, ed.; SBLSBS 21; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988) 1-23 and
"Introduction: Using Rhetorical Discussions of the Chreia to Interpret Pronouncement Stories,"
Semeia 64 (1994) vii-xvii.
25. The progymnasmata used in this study are: Aelius Theon of Alexandria (Spengel II.112.20-115.10; see James R. Butts, The "Progymnasmata" of Theon. A New Text with Translation and
Commentary [unpublished dissertation: Claremont, 1986]); Hermogenes of Tarsus (Spengel
II.14.8-15.5; see C.S. Baldwin, Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic [New York: Macmillan, 1928] 23-38); Menander Rhetor (see D. A. Russell and N. G. Wilson, Menander Rhetor [Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1981]); Aphthonius of Ephesus (Spengel II.42.20-44.19; see Ray Nadeau, "The
Progymnasmata of Aphthonius in Translation," Speech Monographs 19  264-285 and
more recently Patricia P. Matsen, Philip Rollinson and Marion Sousa, eds., Readings from
Classical Rhetoric [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990] 266-88).
26. Theon 3.22-70 (Butts, The "Progymnasmata" of Theon, 186-95).
27. The following examples illustrate the first two species of the responsive chreia. As an
example of the first kind, i.e., a questions with a simple yes and no, Hock and O'Neill cite:
"Diogenes, on leaving the baths said 'No' to the one who asked if many men were bathing, but
'Yes' to another who asked if a large crowd was there" (Diogenes Laertius 6.40; Hock and
O'Neill, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 29). Illustrative of the second type of question which
seeks a longer answer is the anecdote about Aristotle: "When someone inquired why we spend
much time with the beautiful, 'That,' he said, 'is a blind man's question'" (Diogenes Laertius
28. Readers will quickly note that the broad category of "responsive chreia" described by ancient
rhetoricians has been further distinguished in the modern classification of "apophthegms" and
"pronouncement stories"; see Jan Kindstrand, "Diogenes Laertius and the Chreia Tradition,"
221-24. See in particular Robert Tannehill, "Types and Functions of Apophthegms in the
Synoptic Gospels," ANRW II.25.2 (1984) 1792-1803 and "Introduction: The Pronouncement
Story and Its Types," Semeia 20 (1981) 6-10; Vernon K. Robbins, "Classifying Pronouncement
Stories in Plutarch's Parallel Lives," Semeia 20 (1981) 33-42; and Paula Nassen Poulos, "Form
and Function of the Pronouncement Story in Diogenes Laertius' Lives," Semeia 20 (1981) 54-59;
and Robert C. Tannehill, "Varieties of Synoptic Pronouncement Stories," Semeia 20 (1981) 107-11, 114-16.
29. Hock and O'Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 4.
30. In Tannehill's classification of pronouncement stories, he notes how the tone differs from
type to type. Some types either develop tension (correction story ) or begin with it and embody
conflict (objection story); see his "Introduction," 6-7; "Varieties," 103-4 ). Yet inquiry stories are
by classification neutral requests for information or questions ("Introduction," 10; "Varieties,"
114); yet Tannehill describes a "testing inquiry," which is far from being a neutral request for
information ("Varieties," 115). The aggressive tone of the objection chreia was noted by other
contributors to the Semeia 20 issue, notably Robbins and Poulos.
31. From Gnom. Vat. 15, cited by Hock and O'Neill, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 30.
32. From Stobaeus 4.33.26, cited in Hock and O'Neill, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 31.
33. Diogenes Laertius' collection of chreiai frequently records the provocation as some sort of
agonistic challenge by noting how it is stated in some form of reproach or ridicule; chreiai might
begin with some form of (1) : 1.104; 2.68, 69, 72; 4.47; 5.17; 6.1, 4, 6, 49, 56,
58, 63, 66, 67; 7.171, 174, 182; 8.82; (2) : 2. 36, 70; 5:18; 9.29; (3) or
µ: µ: 2.76; µ: 2.50, 74, 76, 80; 4:49; 6:47; (4) or
µµµ: 2.75, 77 or : 2.79.
34. In regard to rabbinic literature, David Daube studied three types of questions in rabbinic
literature (The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism [New York: Arno Press, 1973] 141-69).
In the chapter "Public Retort and Private Explanation," he outlined one form as: " (1) a
question by an outsider, (2) retort good enough for him but not revealing the deeper truth, (3)
the request of the disciples, and (4) the full explanation in private" (p. 142). In certain stories
beginning with a question, the sage answers by asking his own question (pp. 144-45).(35)
35. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, 144-45.
36. Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, 158-69.
37. Major anthropological studies of Mediterranean honor include J. G. Peristiany, Honour and
Shame. The Values of Mediterranean Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966);
Julian Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem or the Politics of Sex (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1977) and "Honor," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 6.503-11; David D. Gilmore, Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean (Special
Publication of the American Anthropological Association # 22; Washington, D.C.: American
Anthropological Association, 1987). For adaptation of this material to the cultural world of the
New Testament, see note # 3 above; see also the recent issue of Semeia edited by Don Benjamin
and Victor Matthews, Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible, Semeia 69 (1996).
38. Julian Pitt-Rivers defines honor as:
"Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but
also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is
also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellent recognized by society, his right to pride"
(The Fate of Shechem, 1).
39. See Esther Goody, Questions and Politeness. Strategies in Social Interaction (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1978) especially pp. 17-43.
40. On the agonistic nature of ancient society, see Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Society in
Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1988) 29-56; Peter Walcot, Envy and the Greeks, 52-76; and Alvin W. Gouldner, Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory (New
York: Basic Books, 1965) 41-77; David Cohen, Law, Violence, and Community in Classical
Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) esp. 70-75, 90-101, 128).(41)
41. David Cohen, Law, Violence, and Community in Classical Athens, 70-75, 90-101, 128.(42)
42. Christopher A. Faraone, "The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells," Magika
Hiera. Ancient Greek Magic (C.A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink, eds.; Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991) 10-17.
43. The translation is that of A.E. Taylor in The Collected Dialogues of Plato (eds. Edith
Hamilton and Huntingon Cairns; Bollingen Series LXXI; Princeton: Princeton University Press,
44. Xenophon, who thinks positively of µ, praises the Athenians for this most noble
pursuit: "Athenians excel all others not so much in singing or in stature or in strength, as in the
love of honor (µ), which is the strongest incentive to deeds of honour and renown"
45. "He [God] granted supremacy to men who for the sake of honour, praise and glory served the
country in which they were seeking their own glory, and did not hesitate to prefer her safety to
their own. Thus for one vice, that is, love of praise, they overcame the love of money and many
other vices" (5.13). Negative evaluations of µ abound in Greek literature; see Plutarch,
Precepts of Statecraft 805F and Old Men in Public 788E.
46. George M. Foster, "Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good," American
Anthropologist 67 (1965) 296, emphasis in the original; see also his article "Cultural Responses
to Expressions of Envy in Tzintzuntzan," Southwest Journal of Anthropology 21 (1965) 24-35.
Students of classical Greece have indicated the applicability of this notion to aspects of ancient
Hellenic culture; see Walcot, Envy and the Greeks 22; David Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and
Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991) 183-98 and Law, Violence and Community in Classical Athens, 26, 63-70; J. Elster,
"Norms of Revenge," Ethics 100 (1990): 862-85.
47. Foster, "Image of Limited Good," 297, emphasis in the original.
48. George M. Foster, "The Anatomy of Envy: A Study in Symbolic Behavior," Current
Anthropology 13 (1972) 168-69.
49. I am indebted to Prof. K.C. Hanson for pointing out Judges 7:2 as a typical illustration of this
in the Hebrew scriptures. God requires Gideon to reduce the size of his force to ridiculous
smallness lest by his victory with a numerous army Gideon boast that "My own hand has
delivered me" and thus deprive God of God's share of the glory.
50. Anonymus Iamblici in H. Diels, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (5th edition; ed., W.
Kranz; Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1935) 2.400E.
51. Chief among these studies is that of Pierre Bourdieu, "The Sentiment of Honour in Kabyle
Society, Honour and Shame. The Values of Mediterranean Society (J. G. Peristiany, ed.;
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) 191-241.
52. Hock and O'Neil, The Chreia in Ancient Rhetoric, 30-31.
53. Martin Dibelius classified many of these same incidents as "Chria" in his form-critical study
of the Gospels (From Tradition to Gospel [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965] 152-61.
Rudolf Bultmann, however, labeled them "apophthegms" (The History of the Synoptic Tradition,
12-23) with a sub-species of apophthegm called "a controversy story" (39-54).
54. Dibelius (From Tradition to Gospel, 155-56).
55. On the relationship of teachers and disciples, see Robbins, Jesus the Teacher, 136-62.
56. In the pioneering study of the "pronouncement story" in Semeia 20, various authors called
attention to stories which begin because of some "stimulus" or "challenge" (Tannehill,
"Introduction," 7 and 8). Others talk about the "adversive" character of the certain stories and
note the "role of adversary" in them (Robbins, "Classifying Pronouncement Stories," 35 and 39);
still others indicate how they begin with some sort of "faultfinding" (Poulos, "Form and Function
of the Pronouncement Story," 57) or "testing" (Tannehill, "Varieties," 103, 107, 115).
57. Other examples in Mark are: 2:6-7, 24; 4:38; 6:2-3; 9:10; 10:17; 12:14-15, 23, 28.
58. We allow, of course, for the Markan pattern that Jesus' disciples ask him the inner or
parabolic meaning of his remarks when in private (see 4:10-14; 7:17-22; 10:10-12, 23-31) -- a
different type of question and answer.
59. Concerning the agonistic nature of the public discourse with Jesus, the narrator signals the
provocation with terms such as: (1) catch (): Mark 12:13; (2) snare (): Luke
11:54; (3) snare (): Matt 22:15; (4) lie in wait for, ambush (): Luke 11:54;
(5) argue with (): Mark 8:11; 9:14; (6) test (): Matt 16:1; 19:3; Mark 10:2; and
observe so as to find cause for criticism: Mark 3:2.
60. On counter-questions as typical responses to questions, see Bultmann (History of the
Synoptic Tradition, 41): "The reply [in a controversy dialogue] to the attack follows more or less
a set form, with special preference for the counter-question or the metaphor, or even both
together." Bultmann's observation, while remarkably intuitive, is in no way supported by any
relevant parallels classical rhetorical literature.
61. Other examples include: 2:8-9; 3:23, 33; 4:40; 10:3, 18, 38; 12:24.
62. Pitt-Rivers, The Fate of Shechem, 1; see also "Honor," International Encyclopedia of the
Social Sciences 5.503-4.
63. Commenting on the inaugural appearance of Jesus in Luke's gospel, Richard Rohrbaugh
discusses who has sufficient status to have public voice in antiquity; see "Legitimating Sonship --
A Test of Honour," 186, 194-95. Not all males have public voice; very few if any females do (see
1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-13); see Victor H. Matthews, "Female Voices: Upholding the Honor
of the Household," BTB 24 (1994) 8-15.
64. For example, the disciples of John the Baptizer complain to their teacher that Jesus' success
comes at their expense (John 3:26); far from issuing a challenge to Jesus, the Baptizer declares
that in this case it is appropriate that "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30). Similarly,
John reported to Jesus that "a man cast out demons in your name and we forbade him, because he
was not following us" (Mark 9:38). The disciple challenged the rival exorcist because he
perceived that success was coming at Jesus' expense. Yet Jesus called off the challenge, stating
that in the long run any success of the alternate exorcist would redound to Jesus' reputation: "Do
not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak
evil of me" (9:39).
65. Luke 13:17 records the classic illustration of a public verdict. After Jesus healed the woman,
the ruler of the synagogue asked a provoking question and was answered by Jesus' counter-question. The narrative audience then delivers a public verdict, awarding honor to Jesus and
blame to his challengers: "As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the
people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him" (13:17).
66. Yet we must distinguish silence-as-defeat from silence-as-dismissal. A sage might remain
silent when questioned as a gesture of disdain to the questioner, indicating that he does not
consider himself in any way challenged by a stupid or improper question. For example, see the
actions of Epictetus: "When an impious man asked him to define piety, he was silent; and
when the other inquired for the reason, 'I am silent,' he replied, 'because you are asking
questions about what does not concern you'" (1.86). Hence, on the two occasions when Jesus is
silent during his trial (Mark 14:60-61; 15:2-5), I am inclined to read his behavior in terms of
honor and shame, rather than a facile allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who was
described as "a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Isa 53:7). It
is one thing to give a riposte to the challenges to Jesus' honor ("Are you the Christ, the Son of
the Blessed?" 14:60; "Are you the king of the Jews?" 15:2); but quite another to disdain to
answer frivolous and false charges. Yet either in speech or in silence, Jesus maintains his honor
before his questioners.
67. Daube, "Four Types of Question," 158-69.
68. For example, Mark 1:24; 3:23, 31-34; 4:10, 14, 21, 30, 48, 40; 5:7, 9, 30-31, 35; 6:37-38; 8:4,
5, 11, 12, 17-21, 36-37; 9:9-12, 19, 28-29, 33, 50; 10:26, 35, 38; 11:5, 17; 14:19, 20, 37, 60-62;
15:2-5, 9, 12, 14, 34.