Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Battle of the Rhetoricians

In 1 Esdras 3-4, Darius who had been eating and drinking, sets up a contest of rhetoricians:
Each of us will present an argument about what is most compelling, and the one whose account appears the wisest, Darius will give him a great gift (1 Esdras 3:5)
The whole trope of a rhetorical contest has deep roots in ancient Mesopotamia, being a popular genre for both Sumerian and Akkadian rhetors, but it is most known from Greek and Roman uses and abuses. The contest in Esdras seems to owe more to the Greco-Roman style contests.

The first rhetor insists that the most powerful influence over men is wine (1 Esdras 3:17-24). His arguments sound like a advertisement for the Word of Wisdom:
All men who drink it err in judgment (1 Esdras 3:18).
And when he wakes from wine, he cannot remember anything he has done (1 Esdras 3:23).
The second rhetor argues that the most powerful influence over men is the king (1 Esdras 4:1-12). After all, whatever he commands just or unjust is done.

The third rhetor argues that the most powerful influence over men is women (1 Esdras 4:13-32). For those who think that the ancient world was filled with misogynist brutes, This passage is well worth the read.

Zerubbabel argues that the most powerful influence over men is the truth (1 Esdras 4:34-41). His argument is that:
Wine is unjust; kings are unjust; women are unjust; all the children of men are unjust; and all their works are unjust; such are all things. But the truth is not among them, and they are destroyed in their iniquity (1 Esdras 4:37).
(The Greek uses the same term for both iniquity and unjust.)

Zerubbabel wins the contest. His gift for winning is to be transferred to Coile-Syria and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

The choice of things that influence men is interesting: wine, women, rulers, and truth. Darius is depicted as an idealist because truth probably has the least actual practical influence in human affairs.