Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

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1 Corinthians 9: Social Intertexture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Social intertexture occurs when the discourse refers to information that is generally available to people in the Mediterranean world. The presupposition is that the discourse evokes images of 'social reality' that every member of Mediterranean society could describe in a series of sentences.

There are nine instances of explicit social intertexture in 1 Cor. 9:

  1. 9.7: 'Who serves as a soldier at his own expense'?
  2. 9.7: 'Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit'?
  3. 9.7: 'Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk'?
  4. 9.10: 'the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop'.
  5. 9.13: 'Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings'?
  6. 9.17: reference to being a steward.
  7. 9.19: reference to being a slave.
  8. 9.20: reference to being a Jew.
  9. 9.24-27: reference to being an athlete.

The first five instances refer to six common social roles in the Mediterranean world: soldier, vineyard planter, shepherd, plowman, thresher and temple worker. Dale Martin's research has shown that 1 Cor. 9.17 refers to the managerial position of a steward (oikonomos) in Mediterranean society (1990: 80-1). These positions were generated by wealthy people who needed their household watched over when they went away or needed to have someone who would hire people to work in their fields or vineyards. 'Stewards' regularly did not have to work with their 'bodies', so their work was more prestigious than the work of laborers. Also, these positions allowed people to do other people favors--stewards functioned as 'brokers' of the benefits of the patron over them--and they allowed stewards more freedom than laborers to establish their own times of working and to do things in ways they themselves preferred.

Dale Martin's investigation shows, in addition, that many stewards in Mediterranean society were 'slaves'--middle-level 'managerial' slaves. The existence of this level of slave calls into question many previous interpretations of 1 Cor. 9. This evidence suggests that Paul is not completely demeaning himself, but is referring to a type of slavery that could, in fact, be a means to attain upward social mobility. '[N]aming oneself the slave of an important person was a way of claiming status for oneself' (p. 48). Thus, Martin suggests, being a 'slave of Christ' could offer people of lower status a way of attaining a higher status among their peers. In addition, being a slave entrusted with a stewardship gives a person a higher status than someone who receives a wage (pp. 80-1). This would mean that Pauline discourse uses the term 'wage' (misthos) in 9.18 ironically to refer to that which Paul receives for his preaching of the gospel: Paul does not actually receive a 'wage'; he receives 'a reward', the opportunity to 'boast' that he offers the gospel 'free of charge' to people 'of his own free will'.

In 1 Cor. 9.20, Pauline discourse refers three times to 'Jew(s)' and juxtaposes four occurrences of the phrase 'under the law' with the term. This is another instance of social intertexture, since it was widespread knowledge that Jews submitted themselves in special ways to the laws of their founder Moses. It will be necessary to comment further about the categories of those 'without the law' and 'the weak' under Pauline culture below.

The last four verses of the chapter contain resonant social intertexture when they refer to various kinds of athletes. Martin does not explore this social aspect of Pauline discourse in the context of the slave imagery in the chapter. Russell Sisson has supplemented Martin's analysis with evidence that the movement from the image of the slave to the image of the athlete is natural as the result of the widespread use of the image of the athlete in the literature of the moral philosophers of the time (Sisson 1994). But this takes us into cultural reasoning, so let us turn from social intertexture to cultural intertexture.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 127-128.

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