RHETORICAL QUESTIONS IN THE WORD OF GOD
Charles V. Turner
A characteristic of Eastern Semitic culture is the use of rhetorical questions. An American asked a Jewish friend why it was that when he was asked a question he always replied with a question. His friend replied, “Why not?” Not all cultures use rhetorical questions, but in Bible times, people indicated many kinds of meaning with rhetorical questions. This is quite different from American culture where a question is primarily used to ask for information. An answer to the question is expected.
A rhetorical question is no question at all. The one asking a rhetorical question is not asking for information. Instead, he is asking the question to communicate information. By using a rhetorical question, he may want to ridicule, call attention to a point, or emphasize a fact.
When we read questions in the Bible, we do not hear the voice inflections of the speaker, so we do not always know whether the question is a real one or a rhetorical one.
The Sinasina people use rhetorical questions primarily to ridicule. They will say, “Are your ears plugged up?” This means, “You should listen, stupid!” In Genesis 39:9 the question Joseph asked Potiphar’s wife is rhetorical, intended to express the horror of sinning against God. Joseph says, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” This is not a question asking for information. Joseph is speaking to Potiphar’s wife, who is tempting him to commit adultery with her. He is saying, “I most certainly will not do such a great wickedness and sin against God!” If the translator does not realize this and translates this verse as a real question, it would mean in many languages that Joseph was asking Potiphar’s wife for her suggestion on how they could get away with committing adultery together.
Matthew 18:12, which reads, “How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” If this was translated as a literal question in many languages, it would mean just the opposite of what was intended. It would mean, “A man who had one hundred sheep and one of them got lost, he surely wouldn’t leave the ninety nine while he went to look for a single lost one, would he ?” In this case, the question would be taken as ridiculing such a foolish idea. However, the question in the Bible was intended to show the reasonableness of leaving the ninety-nine to go and find the one lost sheep. It may be necessary to remove the rhetorical question and make it a statement of fact: “A man who has an hundred sheep, and one of them is gone astray, he will leave the ninety and nine and go into the mountains to find the one which has gone astray.”
A Rhetorical Question or a Real Question?
There are two things we must consider when interpreting a question:
- Is this a real question asking for information? If not, it may be a rhetorical question.
- What is the purpose being served by this question? If it is used to indicate the speaker’s attitude about certain actions, it may be a rhetorical question.
If someone other than the questioner answers a question, it is most likely a real question. However, if it remains unanswered, or if the questioner answers it himself, it is probably a rhetorical question. The context of each question will have to be carefully considered.
The Meaning of Rhetorical Questions
There are about 1,000 questions in the New Testament. These may be divided into two groups: questions asking for information and rhetorical questions. About 70 percent of the questions in the New Testament are rhetorical and as such are intended to indicate the following kinds of meaning:
- An emphasis on the negative or positive aspect of a statement.
- The certainty or uncertainty of a statement.
- The speaker’s evaluation of a situation, whether favorable or unfavorable.
- A command or exhortation.
- The introduction of a new subject or some aspect of a subject.
Rhetorical questions are used to indicate an emphasis on the negative or positive aspect of a statement. For example, Luke 12:14 reads, “Who made me a judge or divider over you?” By using the rhetorical question an emphasis is placed on the meaning, “No one made me a judge or divider over you!” In John 18:35 we read, “Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew?’” This rhetorical question emphasizes the fact that Pilate is not a Jew. He used the question to ridicule Jesus, who was a Jew.
Sometimes rhetorical questions are used to indicate certainty or uncertainty. For example, Luke 11:12 reads, “Or if he shall ask as egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” The rhetorical question here is intended to indicate the certainty of the fact that “He surely will not offer him a scorpion!” A similar example is found in I Corinthians 12:17, which says, “if the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing?” This rhetorical question is intended to indicate the certainty that there would be no hearing if the whole body were made up of only an eye. Matthew 6:30 says, “Shall he not much more clothe you.
Matthew 26:55 says, “Are ye come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take me?” This is a rhetorical question with the meaning of “You have come out to take me as you would a thief!” Mark 3:23 says, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” This is the rhetorical question which means “Satan certainly does not cast his own demons out!” Luke 16:11 says, “If therefore ye have not been faithful…who will commit to your trust the true riches?” This rhetorical question means, “If you have not been faithful, no one will commit the true riches to your trust!” Matthew 13:56 says, “Whence then hath this man all these things?” This rhetorical question means, “We are not sure from whom he learned all these things!” Matthew 6:31 says, “What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? Or Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” These are rhetorical questions meaning, “We are uncertain about what we will eat, drink or wear.”
Rhetorical questions are often used to express an evaluation of a situation or an opinion about what should be done. Matthew 7:3 reads, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” This is using a rhetorical question to say, “You should judge your own greater faults before you judge your brother’s minor faults.” Matthew 8:26 says, “Why are ye fearful?” This is a way of saying, “You should not be fearful.” Mark 2:7 says, “Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies?” This is an evaluation meaning, “This man should not speak blasphemies!” Mark 14:4 says, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?” This is their evaluation, meaning, “This waste of ointment should not have been made.”
Some rhetorical questions are used to indicate a command or exhortation. For example, Mark 14:6 says, “Why trouble ye her?” This is a way of saying, “Stop troubling her!” Romans 14:10 says, “Why dost thou set at nought thy brother?” This is a way of using a rhetorical question to say, “You should not set at nought your brother!”
- Introduce a New Subject
Sometimes rhetorical questions are used to indicate the start of a new subject or to introduce some new aspect about the same subject. For example, Matthew 11;16 says, “But whereunto shall I liken this generation?” This is a way of saying, “I will tell you what this generation is like” (and then going on to say what it is like). Another example is Matthew 12:48 where Jesus says, “Who is my mother? And who are my brethren?” These rhetorical questions mean, “I will tell you who my mother is and who my brethren are.” (Then he tells them who they are). John 13:12 reads, “Know ye what I have done to you?” This is a rhetorical question meaning, “I will tell you the meaning of what I have done to you.” In Mark 13:2 Jesus says, “Seest thou these great buildings?” Jesus is using a rhetorical question to say, “I will tell you something about the great buildings you are seeing.” In Matthew 11:7 Jesus says, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” (This was spoken about John the Baptist.) This rhetorical question means, “I will tell you about this person you went into the wilderness to see.”
OTHER USES OF RHETORICAL QUESTIONS
Rhetorical questions are often used to prohibit an action. We read in I Corinthians 6:16, “What? Know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body?” In this verse, the rhetorical question is used to condemn an action and prohibit it from taking place. Paul says in I Corinthians 3:5, “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed?” Paul is using a rhetorical question to belittle and prohibit the factious attitude of putting one servant of God above another. In Matthew 3:14 we read, “But John forbade him saying, “I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?” John is using a rhetorical question to show a polite disapproval but not an absolute refusal to do what the Lord wanted him to do. Mark 4:41 says, “And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Here the rhetorical question is possibly used to show surprise and astonishment, but it could also be a real question.
ADJUSTING RHETORICAL QUESTIONS
The translator must find out how rhetorical questions are used in the ethnic language. Some language groups do not use rhetorical questions at all. Others use them in ways different from those used in the New Testament. Rhetorical questions are a reflection of the culture.
Sometimes the speaker wishes to reduce the harshness of an action, as when John registered a polite disapproval of his baptizing Jesus. John said, “I have need to be baptized of thee and comest thou to me?” Because other cultures are different from biblical culture, they may use rhetorical questions in ways that are different from the ways used in New Testament. We will need to know what the function of a question is in a particular verse, and we will need to know how this meaning can be translated into the ethnic language. If a question in the Bible is consistently misunderstood in an ethnic language where the people use rhetorical questions only to ridicule or emphasize the negative aspects of an action, some adjustments may be necessary.
There are at least three possible ways to adjust rhetorical questions to make them understand in the way intended.
- Change the question into a statement.
- Change negative questions to positive ones.
- Supply an answer to the question.
- Change the Question into a Statement
In John 18:35, Pilate asks Jesus, “Am I a Jew?” If this question is repeatedly taken to mean that Pilate was not sure whether he was Jew or not and therefore was asking Jesus if He know, it might be necessary to change this to the statement, “I am not a Jew!” Matthew 5:13 says, “If the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted?” This may need to be changed to read, “If salt has lost its savour, the savour cannot be restored.” Matthew 5:46 says, “If you love them which love you, what reward have ye?” This may need to be changed to read, “If you love only those who love you, you will not be rewarded for that.” Romans 3:9 says, “Are we (Jews) better than they?” This may need to be changed to read; “We (Jews) are no better than they are.” Romans6:15 says, “Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?” This may need to be changed to read, “We should not sin just because we are not under the law, but under grace.” Hebrews 1:5 says, “For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son?” This may need to be changed to read; “He has never said to any of the angels at any time, you are my Son.”
- Change Negative Questions to Positive
It says in John 7:19, “Did not Moses give you the law?” This question may need to be changed to read, “Moses gave you the law.” Matthew 5:46 reads, “Do not even the publicans the same?” This question may need to be changed to read, “Even publicans do that.” In Matthew 13:55 it says, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” This may need to be changed to read, “He is only the son of a carpenter.”
- Supply an Answer to the Question
In Romans 8:31 it says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” We can supply the answer: “No one!”
In 2 Corinthians 6:15 it says, “And what concord hath Christ with Belial?” We can supply the answer: “None at all!”
In Mark 8:37 it says, “Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Because this verse is often taken to mean that a man can give something in exchange for his soul, an answer to the question may be given, “He can’t give anything in exchange for his soul!”