And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Paul is drawing a distinction between two kinds of oral presentations or rhetoric, namely “persuasive words of human wisdom,” and the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Paul relied on the power of God in his preaching for the purpose of anchoring his reader’s faith in God rather than in the wisdom of men.
New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, has written a new book titled New Testament Rhetoric. He argues that our understanding of the New Testament would be enhanced if we were familiar with the established conventions of ancient rhetoric. He writes:
Though it is not completely clear at what point the division happened, there came to be two different approaches to rhetoric, one called Sophistic rhetoric and the other a more serious and substantive approach. Sophistic rhetoric was to rise in popularity during the period of the Roman Empire, not least because more and more orators were afraid of expressing contrary or controversial opinions and instead focused on being eloquent. The focus turned more to the form rather than the substance of the discourse. This is why Quintilian somewhat tamely defines rhetoric as the art of speaking well. This was closer to the Sophistic point of view than to the Aristotelean one that insisted that rhetoric had to do with philosophy and even the search for truth about something. Just how strongly many felt about Sophistic rhetoric can be shown by the strong even vehement and sarcastic comments made about it. Philo, for example, called it mere “shadow-boxing”, not a real contending for the truth of some substantive matter (p. 11).
Paul and the Sophists of the ancient world were motivated by two very different things.