BENJAMIN'S ADDRESS: A CLASSIC ANCIENT FAREWELL SPEECH
Scholars have recently taken an interest in the similarities that exist in the farewell speeches of many ancient religious and political leaders. Certain themes appear consistently in these farewell addresses, as if these ancient speakers were following a customary pattern. In some detail, King Benjamin's speech follows the same pattern. Knowing this enhances our appreciation and understanding of this masterful speech and its setting.
William S. Kurz has recently published a detailed study, "Luke 22:14-38 and Greco-Roman and Biblical Farewell Addresses," Journal of Biblical Literature 104(1985): 251-68, comparing twenty-two farewell addresses from the classical and biblical traditions. He finds that in Greco-Roman writings, the dying speaker, usually a philosopher or statesman, was concerned with suicide, the meaning of death, and life after death. However, in biblical farewell addresses, the speaker, typically a man of God, focused on God's plan, his people and covenants, or on theological interpretations of history. While some elements are peculiar to one or the other tradition, Kurz has identified twenty elements present in such farewell addresses in general.
Although Kurz knows no single speech which contains all of these elements, some contain more than others. Moses' farewell speech contains sixteen elements (Deuteronomy 31-34); Paul's, fourteen (Acts 20); Moses', thirteen (Josephus Antiquities 4.8.45-49, §§ 309-31); and Socrates', eleven (Phaedo). It is remarkable that King Benjamin's oration contains as many or more elements than any of Kurz' examples. Unlike the others, Benjamin's speech was recorded in full and was precisely preserved. The report of Benjamin's address is not a paraphrase and is longer and more detailed than such addresses found in the biblical accounts. Sixteen elements in Kurz' analysis appear directly in this speech and others may be implied.
Kurz signals four of his twenty elements as particularly common to addresses in the Old Testament and in the Old Testament Apocrypha: 1) the speaker proposes tasks for successors, 2) reviews theological history, 3) reveals future events, and 4) declares his innocence and fulfillment of his mission. These elements appear prominently in Benjamin's text. Furthermore, the emphasis in Benjamin's address is on the relationship of God to man, the speech ending with a covenant renewal. No trace of the Greco-Roman preoccupation with death occurs. Benjamin's speech thus fits illustriously into what may be an Israelite tradition of farewell addresses.
"Benjamin's speech appears to be as full an example of this ancient speech typology as is found anywhere in world literature," reports Jack Welch. A logical inference from this study is that Benjamin may have understood such a tradition and followed its pattern consciously. These rhetorical parallels would then indicate another ancient Near Eastern influence on the Nephite record. Those interested in comparing the completeness of Benjamin's address with any of the twenty-two addresses Kurz examined in his study can consult the detailed chart in his article, readily available in many libraries.