Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

Religious Sites in Atlanta

Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



1 Corinthians 1:10-4:21: Ideology of power

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has emphasized for some years that interpreters should investigate the 'ideological script' of a text (e.g., 1988: 15; 1989: 12). In 1991, Elisabeth A. Castelli's analysis of the discourse of power in Paul's statements concerning imitation of him appeared in print (1991), and she exhibits how an interpreter may launch a programmatic analysis of ideology in a text. To establish a context for her analysis, she discusses traditional interpretation and briefly shows how most interpreters do not analyze the ideological aspect of Paul's discourse. Instead of investigating the way a text has set up issues as a way of getting to certain kinds of 'answers' or goals, interpreters either spiritualize the text--removing it from any historical or social context that implies complex dynamics of conflict and competition--or they presuppose or assert continuity, authority and unity in tradition (1991: 24-32). Castelli cites John Howard Sch�tz's investigation of the anatomy of apostolic authority in Paul (1975) and Benjamin Fiore's study of personal example in Socratic and Pastoral Epistles (1982) as two important exceptions to traditional approaches. Also, once she cites Graham Shaw's investigation of letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of 'manipulation and freedom' (Castelli 1991: 114; Shaw 1983), but she might have used this study with greater benefit in her own investigation. After establishing a context by exhibiting this absence in traditional interpretation, Castelli introduces Michel Foucault's 'analytic of power' (pp. 35-58) to position her own study. She describes her goal as describing 'how the text operates rather than what it means' (p. 18) and locates her interests between literary and sociological investigations (p. 38). Especially helpful for socio-rhetorical analysis of ideological texture, she presents a summary of Foucault's guidelines for analyzing power relations in a text (1991: 50, 122), which appeared as an Afterword in a major study of Foucault's work (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982: 208-26). Her summary yields the following principles:

  1. Define the system of differentiations that allows dominant people to act upon the actions of people in a subordinate position.
  2. Articulate the types of objectives held by those who act upon the actions of others.
  3. Identify the means for bringing these relationships into being.
  4. Identify the forms of institutionalization of power.
  5. Analyze the degree of rationalization of power relations.

Castelli does not attempt to follow these guidelines as actual steps in her investigation of texts (pp. 89-117), but after her analysis and interpretation she presents a paragraph for each principle, explaining what her investigation has revealed (pp. 122-4).

The centerpiece of Castelli's analysis is 1 Corinthians 1.10-4.21, and she personifies the discourse as 'Paul' in her interpretation. She observes repetition in the opening and closing of the unit, where Paul tells his readers 'I urge you' or 'I appeal to you' (parakalo hymas: 1 Cor. 1.10; 4.16; p. 102). The repetition of this appeal leads to analysis of 1.10-17 as the beginning and 4.14-21 as the ending of the unit. In the beginning unit, Paul fills the concept of 'difference' with negative meanings--difference 'must be erased in order to reestablish order' (p. 98). The discourse describes 'unity of mind' as the priority and unity within the community as the goal (1 Cor. 1.10-11). In this context, Paul describes his role simply as 'mediation' of the gospel: his own nature is 'contentless'; 'he is simply the conduit through which the gospel passes' (1 Cor. 1.17; p. 99). In this way Paul bestows on himself a privileged status with relation the gospel. Paul has special authority to speak and also he has 'an emptiness which removes him from the fray' (p. 99).

In the ending, 1 Cor. 4.14-21, Paul urges the Corinthians 'be imitators of me', calling himself their 'father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel' and indicating that he is sending Timothy to remind them of 'my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church' (1 Cor. 4.17). The patriarchal image of Paul as father is, of course, striking. At this point she explores the 'cultural intertexture' of Paul's image of father by investigating the broader context of a passage about fatherhood in Epictetus' Discourses that Fiore cites. As the passage continues it sets the role of the father alongside the role of a military general who 'oversees and reviews and watches over his troops, and punishes those who are guilty of a breach of discipline' (Epict., Discourses 3.22.95-6; p. 100). Her point is that 'the image of the father must be read in cultural context' and that Paul has evoked 'a role of possessing total authority over children' (p. 101). With this beginning and ending, '[s]ameness, unity, and harmony are to be achieved through imitation' of Paul, and 'difference is equated with diffusion, disorder, and discord' and 'placed outside the community'. Anyone who opposes Paul in any way, then, is not simply expressing a different opinion. Rather, 'it sets one in opposition to the community, its gospel, and its savior' (p. 103). The beginning and the ending of the unit evoke a frame of understanding that Paul is simply a medium for a gospel of unity versus discord. The discourse implies that Paul is not imposing himself in any way; rather at the center of the gospel is an 'ideology of sameness, identity', and anyone who is somehow different is automatically against the gospel itself, against the community, against Christ and therefore, of course, against Paul.

In the beginning and ending of the unit, then, the discourse 'articulates the types of objectives held by those who act upon the actions of others' and 'identifies the means for bringing these relations into being' (principles 2 and 3 above). The discourse describes the stated 'objective' as a 'removal of dissension, quarrelling, and discord' and the 'means' as argument for unity of mind and judgment aided by Timothy's 'reminding' them of Paul's ways. When an interpreter looks at this from the perspective of the 'construction of power', according to Castelli, this approach enacts an 'ideology of sameness' that invests total power in Paul's speech and action. The discourse removes any implication that Paul has motives for himself in the exchange. He is doing this simply because he was sent by Christ to perform this task, and it is natural--simply built into Christ's bringing of salvation--that anyone who differs in any way from what Paul says is against Christ, against Christ's gospel and against the community.

The middle of the unit contains three parts. The first two parts contain a series of oppositions that establish the framework for defining those who are 'inside' versus those who are 'outside' the benefits of Christ. In Foucault's terms, these oppositions are 'the system of differentiations that allows dominant people to act upon the actions of the subordinate people' (principle 1 above). The oppositions are as follows:

  1. 1 Cor. 1.18-2.5

    those who are perishing/those who are saved word of the cross as folly/word of the cross as power of God wisdom of the world/power of God foolishness/wisdom weakness/strength

  2. 1 Cor. 2.6-3.5

    wisdom of this age/wisdom of God spirit of the world/spirit which is from God unspiritual person/spiritual person

This system of oppositions exhibits the matrix of a very high level of 'rationalization of power relations' (principle 5 above) in Paul's discourse. The mode of argumentation becomes progressively more ironic as it proceeds. The discourse introduces irony especially in the juxtaposition of strength and weakness in the first part, since 'Paul's self-ascribed weakness is itself a form of power' (p. 104; Schütz 1975: 229). The second part builds on this irony as it makes clear that their is no 'reciprocal' relation--no give-and-take--between Paul and the community. Paul simply gives to the community what they need. They are 'babes in Christ (3.1), not ready for solid food (3.2)'. Therefore they, like Paul, are empty of content until they are filled. Paul presents them 'the power of God' just as it came to him. In this he does not try to compete with 'the wisdom of men'. God's power itself is sufficient to deal with 'their wisdom'. The third part intensifies a 'hierarchical separation' between Paul and community by bringing another apostle, Apollos, into the discourse. This part of the argumentation asserts that Paul and Apollos are equal, since 'he who plants and he who waters are equal' (1 Cor. 3.8). This is simply a setup, however, since Paul supplants Apollos in the concluding section, becoming the singular model for imitation.

The beginning (1.10-17) and the middle (1.18-4.5) establish the context for the conclusion (4.16-21), which presents the final series of oppositions:

we are fools for Christ's sake/you are wise in Christ
we are weak/you are strong
we are held in disrepute/you are held in honor.

In this set of oppositions, Paul's ironic discourse employs sarcasm. As the discourse sets 'our' sufferings against 'your' wisdom, strength and honor, it reaches a 'rhetorical crescendo' that prepares for an abrupt shift to first-person singular:

I became your father in Christ through the gospel;
I urge you, then, be imitators of me;
I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways; as I teach them everywhere in every church;
I will come to you soon;
I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power;
Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

The conclusion invests Paul with total authority over the community. He is their father 'in Christ through the gospel', their 'model'. He is the example, the superior, filled person; they must lose their 'difference' from him in every way, becoming 'like' him as much as they can. Any way in which they are 'unlike' Paul is evil--against Christ, against the community and against God's ways of salvation.

Castelli's analysis of the manner in which Pauline discourse constructs power is a significant enactment of socio-rhetorical analysis and interpretation. She analyzes major rhetorical aspects of the inner texture of 1 Cor. 1.10-4.21, though a more complete analysis would be possible to show the intricate manner in which the unit proceeds. She exhibits 'cultural intertexture' of the discourse, as mentioned above concerning the image of the father. In addition, she refers to the 'oral-scribal intertexture' of Paul's reference to 'my ways in Christ', by comparing this expression with expressions about 'God's ways' in the Hebrew Bible (p. 110). In her brief discussion of 1 Thess. 1.6, she observes 'historical intertexture': the discourse builds on the Thessalonians' imitation of Paul as a historical 'fact', through which they have become a model to others (p. 92). A person could perform a fuller socio-rhetorical analysis of these passages by exploring the nature of the social response to the world in them, which is strongly conversionist, with significant utopian and gnostic manipulationist aspects. Also, an interpreter could explore the cultural nature of the rhetoric. In these passages, the rhetoric is significantly countercultural in relation to other Christians. It also would be informative to explore the cultural nature of the rhetoric in relation to Jewish and Greco-Roman tradition (see Robbins 1993c). Castelli observes that 'the institutional location of Paul's pastoral power' is the 'weakest link in the use of Foucault's model' (p. 123). She could have used with great benefit, however, the social systems of honor and shame, kinship, purity and limited good (especially spiritual good) in her analysis. Castelli explores the ideological texture of the discourse in an exceptionally powerful manner, raising significant issues for further discussion. In her view, Paul's discourse in 1 Corinthians 1-4 constructs a 'special position', 'a privileged position from which to speak' (p. 108) which interpreters need to assess carefully in relation to other voices in New Testament literature.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 195-199.

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