Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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Emory Department of Religion

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1 Corinthians: Interpretive traditions

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Ideology resides not only in biblical texts; it also resides in interpretive traditions that have been granted positions of authority. One form of ideological challenge has come from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the first woman president of the Society of Biblical Literature, who has called on the guild of American biblical scholars to identify and evaluate the political ideology that guides the interpretations it sanctions and the series of publications it nurtures (1988). Her call was based on a critical theory of rhetoric that considers discourse to generate reality, not merely be a reflection of it (1987: 387). In other words, discourse creates a world of pluriform meanings and a pluralism of symbolic universes, and this means that discourse is always implicated in power (1988: 14). The discourse of historical interpretation, therefore, has ideological texture:

In the very language historians use to describe their projects they not only provide a certain amount of explanation or interpretation of what this information means but also give a more or less overt message about the attitude that the reader should take with respect to the historical 'data' and their interpretation. (Schüssler Fiorenza 1985b: 50)

Working carefully in a mode of critical rhetorical analysis, Schüssler Fiorenza identifies an ideological feature in contemporary investigations where all interpreters 'follow Paul's dualistic rhetorical strategy without questioning or evaluating it'; namely, they presuppose that 'he is right and the 'others' are wrong' (p. 390). Careful analysis of rhetorical arrangement and the rhetorical situation evoked by the discourse suggests that Paul countered the baptismal self-understanding of the Corinthians --whereby their community relationships overcame patriarchal divisions between Greeks and Jews, slave and free, men and women, rich and poor, wise and uneducated-- with a patriarchal line of authority through himself (God, Christ, Paul, Apollos, Timothy, Stephanas and other local co-workers) which introduces patriarchal subordination of women to men (God-Christ-man-woman: 1 Cor. 11.2) (p. 397).


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 200-201.

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