I have read Robbins and Witheringtons different understanding of socio-rhetorical criticism and have better understood Ben Witherington III's method:

“socio-rhetorical criticism” is the study of ancient social history with a particular emphasis on the oral disposition of ancient cultures and their use of Greco-Roman rhetoric. This method examines the societal factors, literary works, and rhetorical techniques that were widely implemented in first century Palestine.

Defining “rhetoric” as “the art of persuasion,” rhetorical criticism allows exegetes to examine the New Testament’s adaptation of rhetoric to further each author’s particular theological agenda. These rhetorical devices include literary and oral tactics, such as rhetorical questions, irony, hyperbole, personification, enthymemes, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, amplification, and assonance.


Socio-rhetorical criticism assumes that ancient rhetoric influenced the New Testament writers in their composition of Scripture. In order to discover the authorial intent of the biblical writers, readers must first attempt to understand the rhetorical contexts within which they wrote. One important context is the culture’s use of “oral texts,” where the people customarily heard a text read aloud.

How can we do socio-rhetorical criticism on Matthew 13:31-32 using his method?

Matthew 13:31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

  • Craig Keener wrote a socio-rhetorical commentary on Matthew. I recommend checking that out: logos.com/product/7198/…
    – Dan
    Feb 11, 2022 at 17:33
  • I own this commentary, and a quick summary is that it continues Jesus' theme of his "hidden" kingdom as God's kingdom arriving/coming. Just as Jesus came as a meek servant, the mustard seed is small and inconspicuous, yet the inconspicuous/small becomes mighty—just as Jesus will be revealed as king. "[T]he glorious kingdom of the future is present in this age in only an obscure and hidden way, except to those with eyes of faith.... [I]t ... exhibits a very basic plot movement that contrasts present obscurity with future greatness" (Keener, 385, 388).
    – Dan
    Feb 11, 2022 at 18:00

1 Answer 1


To conduct socio-rhetorical criticism on Matthew 13:31-32, we would need to consider both the social context in which the text was written and the rhetorical strategies used by the author.

The social context of Matthew 13:31-32 is that it is part of a larger collection of parables that Jesus tells in response to questions from his disciples and the crowds. The parable of the mustard seed in particular is meant to convey the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven may start small, but will eventually grow to be large and all-encompassing. This would have been an important message for the early Christian community, which was likely facing persecution and struggling to establish itself as a significant religious movement.

In terms of rhetorical strategies, Matthew 13:31-32 uses metaphor and hyperbole to convey its message. The mustard seed is used as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, emphasizing the idea that something small and seemingly insignificant can grow into something much larger and more powerful. The hyperbolic language used to describe the mustard seed as "the smallest of all seeds" and the tree that it grows into as "the greatest of shrubs" further emphasizes this idea.

To conduct socio-rhetorical criticism on this passage, we might consider questions such as:

What was the social and cultural context in which this parable was written and originally heard? How would this context have influenced the meaning and significance of the parable for its original audience? How does the use of metaphor and hyperbole contribute to the message of the parable? What other literary devices are used in the passage? What might this parable have to say about the growth and development of the early Christian community? How might it have been used to encourage and inspire believers during a time of persecution and hardship?

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