REL 620 Textual Scripts in the Study of Religion:
Rhetoric and Ritual in Religious Practice
meets with
REL/ANT 619 Ritual Theory & Religious Practice

Gana AartiBible
                                Waving Preacher
Spring 2019
Fridays 10:00 am - 12:45 p.m. in HL 504

Instructor: Jim Watts (Ph.D.)
Office: 501 HL; Phone: 443-5713
E-mail: jwwatts

This course engages theories and descriptions of textual scripts that shape people's words, actions and experiences, both religious and secular, and that people manipulate for spiritual and social effects on religious performances, objects, cultures, traditions and themselves.

This iteration of the course focuses on theories of rhetoric and of ritual in religious practices. Rhetoric and ritual are separate subjects, each surrounded by a long and established history of academic discourse, beyond and outside of religious studies: ritual has been a preoccupation in anthropology from the origins of that field in the 19th century, while rhetoric has been the subject of theoretical discourse much longer, since the 5th century BCE. This course provides an introduction to both theoretical traditions with particular attention to their application to religious practices.

However, the topics of ritual and rhetoric are also entangled with each other. All forms of academic discourse are verbal, and so necessarily rhetorical. Theories about ritual as well as rhetoric are therefore themselves rhetorical. Yet ritual practices use words as, at most, only one element in bodily practices that involve time, space, various objects and most, if not all of the human senses. The rhetorical, that is verbal, nature of theory tends to distort and impede treatment of bodily activities that do not necessarily privilege or prioritize words. Furthermore, the words that rituals incorporate may be used for ritual purposes rather than or in addition to rhetorical ones. The problem in a nutshell is that verbal interpretation is a form of rhetoric, but ritual actions often resist reduction to verbalized symbols.

So this course also addresses the problem of how to describe rituals in words without turning rituals into systems of verbal symbols.

Conceptual Outline:
1.    Rhetoric about Rhetoric
2.    Ritual uses of Rhetoric
3.    Rhetoric about Ritual
4.    Ritual without Rhetoric
5.    Ritual in the Rhetoric of Religions

The course will proceed by bringing selected readings in the theories of ritual and rhetoric to bear on examples and case studies provided by both the instructor and the students. The seminar will begin by having each participant orient themselves and their research interests toward the topics of rhetoric and ritual. The instructor will introduces a selection of biblical and post-biblical texts that will serve as his reference points in discussions of the secondary literature throughout the course. Students will then bring other examples of rhetorical and ritual practices from disparate cultures and traditions to bear on the discussions and, especially, on their final research projects.

Course Requirements:
Students are expected to discuss in class all the required readings (listed below after Assignment). In addition, each student will (1) write and later present a report about one additional primary text or set of texts or examples with which to think about iconic or performative texts (ca. 600-800 words due January 31st), and (2) write a substantive and original research paper (ca. 4000-5000 words) in a format suitable for publication in an academic journal on a subject related to the course topic, presenting the class with a preliminary summary during the last class meetings. The finished research papers are due on or before May 15th. The student's work will be evaluated on the basis of class participation (20%), the written and oral primary text report (15%), the research presentation (15%) and the final research paper (50%). Late papers and reports will not be eligible for "A" grades.

Academic Integrity Policy:
Syracuse University’s Academic Integrity Policy holds students accountable for the integrity of the work they submit. Students should be familiar with the policy and know that it is their responsibility to learn about course-specific expectations, as well as about university policy. The university policy governs appropriate citation and use of sources, the integrity of work submitted in exams and assignments, and the veracity of signatures on attendance sheets and other verification of participation in class activities. The policy also prohibits students from submitting the same written work in more than one class without receiving written authorization in advance from both instructors. The presumptive penalty for a first offense by an undergraduate student is course failure, accompanied by a transcript notation indicating that the failure resulted from a violation of Academic Integrity Policy. The standard sanction for a first offense by a graduate student is suspension or expulsion. For more information and the complete policy, see

Disability-Related Accommodations
If you believe that you need accommodations for a disability, please contact the Office of Disability Services (ODS),, located in Room 309 of 804 University Avenue, or call (315) 443-4498, TDD: (315) 443-1371 for an appointment to discuss your needs and the process for requesting accommodations. ODS is responsible for coordinating disability-related accommodations and will issue students with documented Disabilities Accommodation Authorization Letters, as appropriate. Since accommodations may require early planning and generally are not provided retroactively, please contact ODS as soon as possible.

Religious Observances Policy
SU religious observances policy, found at, recognizes the diversity of faiths represented among the campus community and protects the rights of students, faculty, and staff to observe religious holidays according to their tradition. Under the policy, students are provided an opportunity to make up any examination, study, or work requirements that may be missed due to a religious observance provided they notify their instructors before the end of the second week of classes for regular session classes and by the submission deadline for flexibly formatted classes. For fall and spring semesters, an online notification process is available through MySlice/StudentServices/Enrollment/MyReligiousObservances.

Required Texts:

Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, SU library online

Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Culture, SU library online
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Bird library reserves

George Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric, Bird library reserves

Kimberley Patton, Religion of the Gods, Bird library reserves

Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, Bird library reserves
Victor Turner, Forest of Symbols, Bird library reserves

Arnold Van Gennep, Rites of Passage, Bird library reserves

I recommend that you buy the required textbooks, but they are also available on 3-hour reserve or by hyperlink through Bird Library. The assigned articles, except those hyperlinked below, are available  through Blackboard.

For further resources relevant to the topic of this course, consult the Bibliography at the end of the syllabus. 

Topics and Readings (for full citations, see bibliography below):




Jan 18
Where Watts is coming from

Azatiwada's inscription

Watts, “Ritual Rhetoric in the ANE”

PIC of Greek krater (in Louvre) showing blood sacrifice

Watts, “Rhetoric of Sacrifice”

Bible: Leviticus 4, 12, 15-17

Watts, “Texts are not rituals”
Jan 25 Rhetoric about Rhetoric 1: persuasion

Aristotle, Rhetoric 1.1-3, 2.1

Burke, Rhetoric of Motives xiii-xv, 19-46 
Feb 1 Where YOU are coming from Student presentations of one piece of primary material about religious rhetoric or ritual, or both
Feb 8 Rhetoric about Rhetoric 2: cross-cultural rhetoric

Kennedy, Comparative Rhetoric, prologue & chs. 1, 2, 4, 6

Mao, "Reflective Encounters"
Feb 15 Ritual uses of Rhetoric 1:
speech acts

Austin, How to do Things with Words, 1-24

Rappaport, Ritual and Religion, chaps. 1, 2, 4, 5.
Feb 22 Ritual uses of Rhetoric 2:
ritual texts
Goody, "Construction of a Ritual Text"
Bell, "Ritualization of Texts"
Larson, "Gospels as Imperialized Sites of Memory"
Wilkens, “Infusions and Fumigations”
Mar 1
No Class
No Assignment (see next line)
Mar 4-5
SU's REL joint symposium with Bochum's CERES Attend as your schedule allows
Mar 8
Rhetoric about Ritual 1:
the linguistic turn
Lévi-Strauss, Naked Man, last chapter
Geertz, Interpretation of Culture, chaps. 1, 4, 5, 6 
Mar 22
Rhetoric about Ritual 2: theorizing “ritual”

Staal, “Meaninglessness of Ritual”

JZ Smith, “Bare Facts of Ritual”
Asad, "Toward a Genealogy of Ritual"
Mahmood, "Rehearsed Spontaneity"
Mar 29
Rhetoric about Ritual 3: theorizing performance Due: Paper topics and texts
Tambiah, “A Performative Approach to Ritual.”
Grimes, Ritual Criticism, chaps. 1, 9, 10.
Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, 13-17, 47-54, 67-142, 182-223.
Apr 5
Ritual without Rhetoric 1: ritual experience
Freud, “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.”
Van Gennep, Rites of Passage (all)
Apr 12
Ritual without Rhetoric 2: embodied metaphors
Due: Paper thesis, bibliography and outline

Turner, Forest of Symbols, 19-92

Lakoff & Johnson , Metaphors We Live By, 3-19, 36-40, 57-59, 234-235, 256-257
Boivin, “Grasping the Elusive and Unknowable”
Apr 19
Ritual in Religious Rhetoric
Patton, Religion of the Gods , 3-23, 161-187, 239-247, 307-216 and browse what is in between.
Apr 26  Student paper presentations
May 10  Due: Research papers


Course Bibliography:

Comparative Rhetoric:

  • Kennedy, George A. Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction. New York: Oxford, 1998.
  • Hauser, Gerard A. "Philosophy and Rhetoric: An Abbreviated History of an Evolving Identity." Philosophy and Religion 40 (2007), 1-14.
  • Lipson, Carol S. and Roberta A. Binkley (eds.). Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004. (= RBBG)
  • Lipson, Carol S. and Roberta A. Binkley (eds.). Ancient Non-Greek Rhetorics. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor, 2009. (= ANGR)
  • Mao, LuMing. "Reflective Encounters: Illustrating Comparative Rhetoric." Style 37/4 (2003), 401-425.
  • Watts, James W. "Ritual Rhetoric in Ancient Near Eastern Texts," in Ancient Non-Greek Rhetorics (ed. Lipson and Binckley, 2009), 39-66.

Rhetoric and Religion:

  • Aichelle, George et al. “Rhetorical Criticism.” In The Postmodern Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. 149-186.
  • Aristotle. Rhetoric. Translated by J. H. Freese. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1926.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. M. Holquist. Austin: U. of Texas, 1981.
  • Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U. of California, 1969 [1950].
  • Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Berkeley: U. of California, 1970 [1961].
  • Combrink, H.J. Bernard. “The Rhetoric of Sacred Scripture.” In S.E. Porter and T.H. Olbricht (eds.), Rhetoric, Scripture and Theology (JSNTS 131; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 102-123.
  • Jost, Walter and Wendy Olmstead (eds.). Rhetorical Invention and Religious Inquiry. New Haven: Yale, 2000.
  • Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • O'Banion, John D. Reorienting Rhetoric: the Dialectic of List and Story. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.
  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen, 1982.
  • Pernot, Laurent. “The Rhetoric of Religion.” Rhetorica 24/3 (2006): 235–254.
  • de Romilly, Jacqueline. Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
  • Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Rhetoric and Ethic: The Politics of Biblical Studies. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.
  • Watts, James W. "The Rhetoric of Sacrifice," in Ritual and Metaphor: Sacrifice in the Bible (ed. Christian A. Eberhart; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 3-16.

Rituals and Ritual Theories:

  • Asad, Talal. "Toward a Genealogy of the Concept of Ritual." Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993. 55-79.
  • Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Bell, Catherine. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Bell, Catherine, ed. Teaching Ritual. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Boivin, Nicole. “Grasping the Elusive and Unknowable: Material Culture in Ritual Practice.” Material Religion 5/3 (2009) 266–287.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Tr. R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1977.
  • Blakely, Sandra, ed. Gods, Objects, and Ritual Practice. Atlanta, GA : Lockwood Press, 2017.
  • Blondeau, A.-M. and K. Schipper. Essais sur le rituel. 3 vols. Louvain-Paris, 1988, 1990, 1995.
  • Buc, Philippe. The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Burkert, Walter. Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion. Cambridge: Harvard, 1996.
  • Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Cunningham, Graham. Religion and Magic: Approaches and Theories. New York: NYU Press, 1999.
  • Driver, Tom. The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. New York: Harper San Francisco, 1991.
  • Freud, Sigmund. “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices.” 1907. Available among other places in Readings in Ritual Studies, edited by Ronald L. Grimes. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996. Pages 212-217. Also at:
  • Gane, Roy E. Ritual Dynamic Structure. Gorgias Press, 2004.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic, 1973.
  • Goody, Jack. “The Construction of a Ritual Text.” In The Power of the Written Tradition (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2000), 47-62.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Rev. ed. Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Grimes, Ronald L. Ritual Critcism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia: U. of South Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Harvey, Graham. Ritual and Religious Belief. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Klingbeil, Gerald A. Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007.
  • Kreinath, Jens, Jan Snoek, and Michael Stausberg, eds. Theorizing Rituals: Issues, Topics, Approaches, Concepts. Studies in the History of Religions 114. Leiden: Brill, 2006.
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  • Larson, Jason T. “The Gospels as Imperialized Sites of Memory in Late Ancient Christianity,” Postscripts 6 (2010/2012), 291-307 = Iconic Books and Texts (ed. Watts; 2013), 373-88.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Tr. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoepf. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Naked Man. Tr. J. and D. Weightman. New York, 1981. (French, 1971).
  • Mahmood, Saba. "Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat." American Ethnologist 28/4 (2001) 827-853.
  • Patton, Kimberly. Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (Oxford, 2009).
  • Platvoet, Jan and Karel van der Toorn, eds. Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour. SHR 67. Leiden: Brill, 1995.
  • Porter, Barbara Nevling. Ritual and Politics in Ancient Mesopotamia. New Haven, CT : American Oriental Society, 2005.
  • Rappaport, Roy A. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge UP, 1999.
  • Rappaport, Roy A. “Logos, Liturgy, and the Evolution of Humanity.” In Fortunate the Eyes that See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995. 601-32.
  • Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2003.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. “The Bare Facts of Ritual.” History of Religions 20 (1978) 112-127; reprinted in Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 53-65.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. “The Domestication of Sacrifice.” In Violent Origins: Ritual Killing and Cultural Formation (ed. R. G. Hamerton-Kelly; Stanford: Stanford U.P., 1987), pp. 191-235.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Staal, Fritz. “The Meaninglessness of Ritual.” Numen 26/1 (1979), 2-22.
  • Staal, Fritz. The Science of Ritual. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1982.
  • Tambiah, Stanley J. “A Performative Approach to Ritual,” Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 113–69.
  • Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.
  • Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1969.
  • Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Tr. M. B. Vizedom and G. L. Caffee. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1960.
  • Watts, James W. Ritual and Rhetoric in Leviticus: From Sacrifice to Scripture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Watts, James W. “Text Are Not Rituals and Rituals Are Not Texts, with an Example from Leviticus 12,” in Text and Ritual in the Pentateuch (ed. Christophe Nihan and Julia Rhyder; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming). 
  • Wilkens, Katherina. “Infusions and Fumigations: Literacy Ideologies and Therapeutic Aspects of the Qurʾan.” In Sensing Sacred Texts. Ed. J. W. Watts. Sheffield: Equinox, 2018, 115-136. Reprinted from Postscripts 8 (2012/2017), 115-136.