Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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1 Corinthians 9: Historical intertexture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Historical intertexture is present in nine verses that represent five contexts in 1 Cor. 9. The first instance occurs in 9.1: 'Have I not seen Jesus our Lord'? This statement evokes the image of at least one event in the past when Paul saw the Lord Jesus. Whether the statement is true or not, or exactly what the nature of that event might have been, the discourse does not say. The reader must go to evidence available outside this chapter to explore that intertexture, just like the reader must go to a text like the Septuagint, gospels or other discourse to explore the nature of oral-scribal intertexture.

The second instance of historical intertexture occurs in 9.11: 'If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits'? This verse refers to one or more events in the past when Paul and Barnabas (9.6), and perhaps some other associates, worked among the Corinthians to initiate a particular kind of spirituality. The nature of that spirituality will emerge as the analysis continues. At present, the issue is the reference to past activity among the Corinthians which creates historical intertexture in the text.

The third instance occurs in 9.12: 'Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ'. This verse refers to something which has not happened in the context of the activity of Paul and his associates with the Corinthians. Historical intertexture occurs again as the discourse refers to past (and perhaps present) endurance of hardship which comes from the necessity to provide their own livelihood as they work among them. We will return to the last half of the verse, which provides a rationale for not making use of the right. Only the first part of the verse contains historical intertexture.

Historical intertexture appears the fourth time in 9.15: 'But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision'. This is a reiteration of the reference in 9.12 with an addition that characterizes the discourse in the present letter as an historical event. The formulation, sending and arrival of this letter is an additional historical event; this event is not to be construed as a request for money or any other kind of provision, just as none of the other previous events were. Historical intertexture, then, may be oriented toward the future, the present or the past. This verse refers clearly to past and present, and perhaps implicitly to the future: (a) in the past Paul did not request or accept provisions for his livelihood from the Corinthians; (b) the present activity of the writing of the letter is not a request for provisions; (c) when the letter arrives and is read to the Corinthians, the letter will not at that time be a request for provisions.

The fifth occurrence of historical intertexture appears in 9.19-22 and contains a series of statements:

19 For though I am free from all men, I made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law--though not being myself under the law--that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law--not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ--that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.

This is the final instance of historical intertexture in the chapter, and it occurs just before the conclusion (9.24-27). These verses function as a summary, stated in positive terms, of events that did not occur when Paul and his associates worked among them. In positive terms, what Paul did not do--namely, he did not accept food or drink--was a matter of 'becoming a slave to all people'. This means that every time Paul worked with the Corinthians in the past, he found other means to live--either he lived extremely frugally, depriving himself, or he labored at some task like tentmaking to support himself. The point of interest here is the assertion that these activities did and did not happen in the past. The language of the discourse, then, is evoking an image of the history that leads up to this moment of writing the letter. This, again, is the nature of historical intertexture in a text. The discourse defines the past activity by using the image of a slave. Also, it divides the activity in terms of having become 'a Jew to Jews', 'one outside the law to those outside the law', and 'weak to the weak'. We will return to this aspect of the discourse in the discussion of social and cultural intertexture in the chapter.

In the Pauline discourse of 1 Cor. 9, then, historical intertexture occurs in the form of references to the past when Paul saw the risen Lord and when Paul and his associates worked among the Corinthians to nurture a particular kind of spiritual life among them. In addition, Paul refers to the present event of writing the letter and, at least implicitly, to the future event when this discourse will be read to the Corinthians. Historical intertexture in Pauline discourse, then, does not concern the baptism of Jesus and the exorcisms, healings and controversies he performed (Jesus' enactment of his 'authority') but the calling and work of Paul (Paul's enactment of 'his' authority). Pauline discourse, then, fills Christian discourse with a significantly different historical intertexture. The historical activity of Jesus is much less important than the historical activity of Paul and his associates. On the night Jesus was betrayed he broke bread and drank wine (1 Cor. 11), he was crucified and buried and he was raised (1 Cor. 15). This is the full extent of historical intertexture concerning Jesus in Pauline discourse. The really important historical intertexture concerns the work of Paul and those around him. Thus, much as Pauline discourse reconfigures and reconceptualizes the speech of Jesus, so it reconfigures and reconceptualizes the important historical episodes in Christian discourse.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 124-127.

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