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 9: Ideology in Individuals and Groups

Paul: 1 Corinthians

At this point I will engage only a few moments in some prominent interpretations from the perspective of socio-rhetorical criticism to argue that interdisciplinary interpretation is a better mode of current interpretation than eclectic or fragmentary modes. Underlying my approach is a presupposition that both fragmented and eclectic interpretations can be very misleading. In fact, I consider partial information, at certain levels of interpretation, to lead to false conclusions. I will explain.

At the beginning of one's work, partial information usually does not lead to false conclusions. At initial levels of interpretation, all partial information is true. A major reason is that an interpreter is working off of basic aspects of texture and intertexture in the text without adopting a strong form of intellectual discourse for commentary. For example, as one begins to interpret assertions about freedom in 1 Cor. 9, all data about freedom in New Testament texts and in literature of diaspora Judaism and Greco-Roman culture is true data. The reason is that all the data is true 'in its own context', and the interpreter's goal is to gather as much data as possible in the hopes of finding certain especially good data to aid in the interpretation of the concept of 'freedom' in 1 Cor. 9.

At a certain point in the gathering stage, interpreters decide they have found enough relevant data to give a 'thick interpretation' of the text. This is the stage where they begin to enact some aspect of modern intellectual discourse. The tendency is to adopt a primary location in one influential current mode and to use other modes eclectically. Eclecticism creates an especially fertile context for ideological texture to dominate over other textures in the text. Socio-rhetorical criticism recommends an interdisciplinary rather than eclectic mode of analysis and interpretation. The reason is that an interpreter may investigate multiple textures of the text with fuller resources from various intellectual disciplines. This in turn can lead to fuller exploration of the textures of the text the interpreter has decided to explore.

Let us take an example concerning the interpretation of the statement 'Am I not free'? at the beginning of 1 Cor. 9. In addition to comparing the assertions in 1 Cor. 9 with the thirty-nine other occurrences of nouns, adjectives and verbs built on the stem eleuther- (free-) in the New Testament, the interpreter will use other data. What will the data be? C. K. Barrett quotes Epictetus 3.22.48 because of its interrogative diatribe style, but there is no discussion of assertions about freedom in the Epictetus text. The quotation simply suggests that some other people were talking about freedom. This is either an eclectic or subdisciplinary use of the Epictetus text. Barrett's interpretation of 1 Cor. 9 asserts that Paul means that 'every Christian is free' and that a person is right to suspect that there was a special gnostic emphasis on freedom in Corinth (1968: 200). At the beginning, then, Barrett generalizes Paul's question about freedom so that it refers to 'every Christian', rather than keeping the question in the context of the succeeding question about being an apostle. Then Barrett writes: 'Do you suppose that because I limit my freedom out of love my freedom does not exist? If any Christian can claim to be free I can do so, for am I not an apostle? (p. 200). Once an interpreter generalizes the issue to 'every Christian', there is no special reason to pursue the reasoning in the Epictetus text about the freedom of one who has been 'sent by God'. This is the moment the analysis and interpretation becomes eclectic or subdisciplinary rther than interdisciplinary. At this point the Epictetus text becomes subsidiary to the Pauline text. The interpretation does not return to the Epictetus text to see what it says 'on its own terms'. The problem is that another verse in 1 Cor. 9 indicates that Paul's preaching of the gospel is 'a compulsion' (9.16). This raises the problem of how anyone who is being compelled to do something can be free, precisely an issue the Epictetus treatise discusses at length. When interpreting 9.19, Barrett asserts that Paul 'is free because, having been made free as a Christian, he cannot become the slave of men: 7.23' (p. 210). Barrett brings discourse from 1 Corinthians 7, which asserts that members of the community should not become slaves of men, into the discourse of chapter 9, which is concerned with the freedom of one who is an apostle. Either eclectic or subdisciplinary use of the Epictetus text creates an environment for 'Christianizing' the discourse in such a manner that any consideration of 'outside' discussions of freedom are superfluous.

Conzelmann, in contrast, perceives the issue not to be about the freedom of Christians or about apostleship 'in general' but about Paul's own particular freedom (1975: 152). In this context, he cites the Epictetus discussion of wandering Cynic preachers, but he directs interpretation away from it by asserting that the issue here is a concrete controversy. When Conzelmann comes to 9.19, he writes the following assertion: the freedom which he [Paul] claims for himself takes the concrete form of service. (p. 159) This statement is fascinating indeed, since it is virtually exactly the assertion the Epictetus discourse makes. Either eclectic or subdisciplinary use of the Epictetus text, however, allows it to drop out of sight. There is no reference to Epictetus at this point in the commentary; the implication is that this is an especially 'Christian' understanding of things. Eclectic or subdisciplinary use, rather than interdisciplinary use, of the Epictetus text creates an open space for ideologically oriented implications in the commentary. Without stating more, the impression is left that surely no 'pagan' could have ever come up with such an idea.

If an implication of this commentary is that a distinctive contribution of Christian discourse to Mediterranean thought and belief was that a person could be both free and serve other people, this implication is false. As indicated above, commentators usually refrain from actually making such a statement. As a result, the particular selection of comparative data and the absence of certain kinds of statements encourage the implication, but the commentator makes no explicit comment one way or another. The commentator has covered himself. Or has he? He has covered himself only if we accept interpretations that reinscribe the power play of only one aspect of New Testament discourse through eclectic or subdisciplinary practices of analysis and interpretation. The goal, rather, should be to display the inner nature of multiple power plays at work in the discourse through interdisciplinary strategies of analysis and interpretation. In the end, these commentators encourage the reader to draw a false conclusion--a conclusion the discourse indeed may have been designed to evoke from its implied hearer/reader but which we need to see and understand rather than simply be submissive to. A closer look at the commentary suggests that the commentator has used eclectic or subdisciplinary strategies to enter into a personal dialogue with the text under the pretense of interpreting the dialogue for us. The problem is the interpreters' limited construal of the context of the dialogue. In the end, the commentators have limited the context of the dialogue by asserting 'a concrete controversy' for it. This limiting of the context of the voices results in a highly inadequate exhibition of the historical, social, cultural and ideological voices in dialogue in the text. Socio-rhetorical interpretation provides the opportunity to move beyond this kind of limited commentary to interpretation that seeks the multiple voices in the discourse itself.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 232-235.

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