Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



1 Corinthians 9: Cultural intertexture (ex. 1)

Paul: 1 Corinthians

The first instance of cultural intertexture with Jewish diaspora discourse in 1 Cor. 9 is the interpretation of Deuteronomy 25.4 in 9.8-10: Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same?... Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? The 'law' to which the discourse refers is not Roman law, Greek law, or Egyptian law--it is Jewish Torah. Torah is not a common social phenomenon; it is a cultural phenomenon created by a particular group of people in the environs of the Mediterranean world. Torah is part of a complex network of presuppositions, dispositions, attitudes, thoughts and actions embodied in people to whom literature during the first century refers as Jews.

In 1 Cor. 9.8-10, the discourse establishes a polarity between 'human authority' and 'the law of Moses'. Then the discourse tells the reader that 'God' was referring 'not to oxen' but to 'humans'. In other words, the discourse purports to give an 'authoritative' interpretation of the passage in the Torah which 'God' spoke. While the context of the verse about oxen resides, as mentioned above, in a setting of seventeen chapters of sayings that concern humans, a special principle had been formulated in diaspora Jewish culture that 'the law does not prescribe for unreasoning creatures, but for those who have mind and reason' (Philo, Special Laws 1.260; Loeb 7:251). On the other hand, in another place Philo specifically refers to 'the kindly and beneficent regulation for the oxen when threshing' (Philo, On the Virtues 146; Loeb 8). It appears, then, that both the context of the verse in the Torah and a general approach to Torah in diaspora Jewish culture support the approach in Pauline discourse, even though it would have been possible to focus on the oxen themselves.

Another instance of intertexture with diaspora Jewish discourse is the athletic imagery which appears at the end of 1 Cor. 9. When Pauline discourse begins to use athletic imagery, it refers to running a race (9.24). Running a race was obviously a well-known social phenomenon among Mediterranean people, but it was a particularly Greco-Roman cultural phenomenon in its origin and perpetuation. Because of its widespread presence, this phenomenon was readily accessible to a person in Jewish diaspora culture. Philo used the imagery of running a race in his discussion of the pursuit of moral or religious virtue and its rewards (Philo, Allegorical Interpretation III.48; Sisson 1994: 101). According to Philo, a person must keep on the racetrack during the race, which lasts one's entire lifetime :

If on his way [the one who aspires to be good] does not become exhausted or give up and collapse, or carelessly swerve aside from the straight course but...completes life's race without falling, when he comes to the finish, he will receive crowns and prizes worthy of his efforts. (Philo, Migration of Abraham 133; Sisson 1994: 101)

Philo uses the analogy of the footrace to describe the obstacles that can cause one to fail in the pursuit of goodness (Philo, De Agricultura 180; Sisson 1994: 101). Thus, for Philo, the pursuit of a virtuous life is like running a race, and the race is not completed until the end of one's life. The race itself occurs on a racetrack directed toward God, and running off the track is a matter of running away both from 'oneself' and from God. The race itself is an obstacle course that regularly causes a person to stumble and fall. If people keep on track, however, and do not give up, they will win the greatest of crowns and prizes.

When imagery of athletic activity is extended beyond running a race, the nearest additional images regularly are wrestling and boxing. Philo frequently uses analogies of wrestlers and boxers in competition or training to describe the moral and religious life (Philo, On Dreams I.129-130; cf. II.145-146). In 1 Cor. 9.26, Paul refers to shadow-boxers, people who 'beat the air' with their hands. Philo compares the pretensions of 'sophists' who do not have training in dialectic to the exhibitions of shadow-boxers who have no experience in real competition (Philo, Worse Attacks the Better 41-42; Sisson 1994: 103). Then in 1 Cor. 9.27, Paul refers to the possibility of being disqualified. Philo also discusses disqualification in the context of the pursuit of virtue (Philo, On Joseph 138; Sisson 1994: 106). The concluding verses of 1 Cor. 9 (9.24-27) refer not to one particular test or another, but to the test of one's entire life. Philo also considers the testing to refer to one's entire life (Philo, On Rewards and Punishments 4-6; Sisson 1994: 102, n.56). If the virtuous person is able to endure the test, the prize is no ordinary prize but a special encounter with the divine:

The task of him who sees God is not to leave the sacred arena uncrowned, but to carry off the prizes (brabeia) of victory. And what crown (stephanos) more fitting for its purpose or of richer flowers could be woven for the victorious soul than the power which will enable him to behold The One Who Is with clear vision? (Philo, Change of Names 81-82)

The language of Philonic discourse uses the same words for prize and crown as the Pauline discourse. For Philo, the prize is 'beholding The One Who Is'. Paul refers, in contrast, to an 'imperishable crown' (9.25). While Philo directs the focus on seeing God, which Moses came close to experiencing on Mount Sinai, Paul directs the focus on the enclothing of the perishable person with 'the imperishable', something which he perceives to have occurred in the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15.42, 53).

In the midst of all of these similarities between Philonic and Pauline discourse, there is a striking difference in their use of the image of the slave. For Philo, the slave is the opposite of the athlete:

The athlete and the slave take a beating in different ways, the one submissively giving in and yielding to the stripes, while the athlete opposes and withstands and shakes off the blows that are falling upon him. (Philo, Allegorical Interpretations III.201)

Philo characterizes the slave as a passive, slovenly person in contrast to the athlete, who actively engages and endures the beating of his body. For Philo, the difference between the two is the result of using or not using 'reasoning' (logismos):

The man of knowledge (ho epist�m�n) . . . stepping out like an athlete to meet all grievous things with strength and robust vigor, blows a counter-blast to them, so that he is not wounded by them but regards each of them with absolute indifference. (Philo, Allegorical Interpretations III.202)

Finally, then, the free person--the one not enslaved--is indifferent to death itself as well as the hardships and disgraces that exemplify people who have a lower status in life:

[H]e who adjusts himself and his to fit the present occasion and willingly (hekousi�s) and also patiently endures the blows of fortune,...who has by diligent thought convinced himself that, while what is God's has the honor of possessing eternal order and happiness, all mortal things are carried about in the tossing surge of circumstance and sway unevenly on the balance, who nobly endures whatever befalls him--he indeed needs no more to make him a philosopher and a free man. (Philo, Every Good Man Is Free 23-24)

For Philo, slavery is something to be avoided. The athlete, who is the model of the one who seeks God and God's virtue, avoids slavery by using right reason. God's athlete, then, is truly free.

There is, however, an interesting tension in Philo's writings. While he regularly differentiates slaves and athletes, describing slaves as 'passive' and depraved in contrast to the athlete who endures the test and wins the prize, he knows about the kind of slaves Martin has called middle-level 'managerial' slaves (D. Martin 1990: 80-1). Moreover, Philo discusses this kind of slave in the context of 'freedom':

There are others born as slaves (douloi), who by a happy dispensation of fortune pursue the occupations of the free (eleutheroi). They receive the stewardship (epitropoi) of houses and landed estates and great properties; sometimes too they become the rulers of their fellow slaves.... Still all the same they are slaves though they lend, purchase, collect revenues and are much courted.
... But you say, 'by obedience to another he loses his freedom'. ... For no one wills (hek�n) to be a slave.... [N]o one would deny that the friends of God are free. Surely when we agree that the companions of kings enjoy not only freedom but authority, because they take part in their management and administration as leaders, we must not give the name of slaves to those who stand in the same relation to the Olympian gods, who are god-lovers and thereby necessarily god-beloved.... (Philo, Every Good Man Is Free 35-42)

In the end, Philo is not willing to use the term 'slave' for the one who is a slave but not enslaved. Paul, it appears, moved beyond this to say, 'I have enslaved myself to all' (1 Cor. 9.19). In order to put Paul's use in its proper context, and to bring to light the nuances of its distinctiveness, we must look beyond the boundaries of diaspora Jewish culture.

In summary, the writings of Philo of Alexandria reveal that a Jew living in the context of Mediterranean society could easily incorporate athletic imagery about running a race, wrestling and boxing. Evidence from Philo suggests that one of the most natural contexts for this imagery would be the pursuit of virtue as God requires it. Philo, in contrast to Paul, establishes a polarity between the slave and the athlete as he discusses the person of virtue. Nevertheless, Philo knows about 'managerial' slaves who, though slaves, are so free in their activities that they are not properly called slaves.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 129-133.

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