Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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1 Corinthians 9: Sensory-aesthetic texture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

This section will deepen the analysis of 1 Cor. 9 through an aspect of its sensory-aesthetic texture. While there are various ways to do this, the focus here will be on the range of senses the discourse evokes and the manner in which the discourse embodies these senses (cf. Malina 1993: 73-82). A key to the discourse is the manner in which it, in the end, embodies the full range of the senses it evokes in an image it creates of the `Paul' who embodies the gospel of Christ.

The first verse of the discourse begins with appeals to the entire body of Paul: Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? (9.1a,b). Then the discourse moves to the eyes of Paul: Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (9.1c). Then it moves to the relation of the working body (or hands) of Paul to the entire bodies of the people whom the discourse is addressing: Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? (9.1d). The discourse begins, then, with appeals to the status of Paul's entire body, and the special function of his eyes and hands. The work of his hands establish an important point of view concerning the status of the bodies of the people the discourse addresses: from the perspective of this discourse, the `religious' status of their bodies is a product of Paul's working body. This sequence ends by evoking an image for all to see: the Corinthians are `the seal' of Paul's apostleship in the Lord. People do not need to depend on Paul's eyes to know that he is an apostle of Jesus the Lord. Anyone can use their own eyes to look at the Corinthians: they are the visible medallion of honor that anyone with eyes can see.

In 9.3 the discourse shifts to judgments of the mind that people make concerning Paul. Paul begins with aspects of his mouth. With this letter he is making a defense, evoking a setting of speech from his mouth. He stays with the mouth as he discusses food and drink (9.4). Then he moves to entire bodies of people as they travel and as they are related to one another as wives and fictive kin. Then he shifts to entire working bodies and how they get living support and food for their mouths (9.7).

In 9.8-10 the discourse refers directly to Paul's own speaking mouth and then to written law that he claims comes from God's heart (`concern') and mouth. Then the discourse uses the image of working bodies that sow grain to interpret the words Paul and his associates have spoken to the Corinthians and the harvest it would be appropriate for them to reap from the Corinthians. At this point, spoken words have attained the value both of agricultural work that produces food and of holy work that produces spiritual nurture.

In 9.13 the discourse shifts to people who work with their bodies in temples and get their food from this work--eating temple and altar food. In 9.14 the discourse claims that the mouth of the Lord commanded that those who use their mouths to proclaim the gospel should get their living from this work. An attendant result of this imagery can be the implication that the people who receive the gospel are like a holy temple and altar with which apostles and their associates work. In 9.15-16 Paul claims that he does not use these rights to receive food so he can use his mouth for boasting in addition to preaching the gospel.

In 9.17 the discourse evokes the function of the will. Is the will located in the mind? Or is it in the liver or intestines? Wherever it is located, suddenly the imagery has moved beyond body, eyes and hands to the will in the body. Using his own free will, when he preaches with his mouth without taking food for his mouth, a reward or wage emerges on its own. The reward is that Paul can make the gospel free of charge.

In 9.19 Paul moves to the social identity of his body. Though his body is free from all people, he makes it a slave. He makes his body Jewish to win Jews, outside the law to win those outside the law, and weak to win the weak. In other words, he makes his body socially different to win socially different people.

In 9.24 the imagery shifts to the feet as it refers to runners. In 9.25 it refers to athletes, another social identity for the body, and asserts that all of them exercise self-control in all things. In this concluding setting, the discourse again refers to a visible phenomenon signalling honor. In this instance it is the wreath regularly placed on the head. The wreath of athletes regularly withers up and is temporary. For exercising self-control as they preach the gospel, refusing support so they can offer the gospel free of charge, Paul asserts that they compete for an imperishable wreath. He ends by referring to his feet not running aimlessly and his hands pommeling his own body, rather than shadowboxing in the air, to subdue his entire body, lest after using his mouth to preach the gospel he be disqualified.

The focus on parts of the body throughout the chapter crescendos to running with the feet and pommeling the entire body with the hands as an image of exercising sontrol over the body. Aesthetically this imagery calls for implanting the gospel in one's complete body. Simply having the gospel in one's mind, mouth, eyes, feet or hands alone will not suffice. The discourse makes two moves here. On the one hand, it insists that the gospel must be fully embodied, or perhaps the body must be fully gospelized. On the other hand, the discourse creates the image of Paul as one who fully embodies the gospel, or perhaps whose complete body has been gospelized.

As Paul uses words to explain what appear to be ordinary phenomena, the words begin to transcend their usual meanings to create aesthetic meaning effects that evoke an image of mind, heart, will, strength and hope all focused on `bodily' living the gospel of Christ. This discourse, then, evokes a deeply embodied aesthetic. Mind over matter is not nuanced richly enough to describe the aesthetic. Rather, the image is fully-embodied freedom-slavery. In the end, there is neither concern for body nor concern for freedom, even though both body and freedom are significant topics of reasoning and argumentation. Freedom is slavery, slavery is freedom, bodily concerns are spiritual concerns and spiritual concerns are bodily concerns. They do not cancel each other but fulfill one another.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 89-91.

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