Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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Emory Department of Religion

Emory Graduate Division of Religion



1 Thessalonians 2: Echo

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Echo represents yet another aspect of cultural intertexture. Echo occurs when a word or phrase evokes, or potentially evokes, a cultural tradition. The nature of echo is that scholars regularly will debate the presence or absence of an echo of a verse in the text under consideration. To explore this phenomenon in its broader context characteristic of socio-rhetorical criticism, let us turn to the work of Abraham Malherbe.

Abraham J. Malherbe's investigations of Cynic and Stoic discourse in Pauline letters have contributed decisively to analysis and interpretation of the broader world of cultural intertexture in New Testament literature. He has worked primarily off of reference and echo in Pauline discourse to set the stage for analysis of the recontextualization and reconfiguration of Cynic and Stoic cultural discourse in Pauline discourse. For many, Malherbe introduced this kind of analysis of cultural intertexture in his article '"Gentle as a Nurse": The Cynic Background to I Thess ii' (1970). Malherbe set the context for his analysis of 1 Thess. 2 with statements in the text 'that could be understood as denials of accusations':

our visit . . . was not in vain (kene) . . . but in the face of great opposition (agoni) (vss. 1-2), not from error (planes) or uncleanness (akatharsias), nor with guile (doloi); but . . . (vss. 3-4), not to please men, but to please God . . . (vs. 4), neither . . . with words of flattery (kolakeias) . . . nor a cloak for greed . . . nor seeking glory (doxan) from men, nor . . . making heavy demands . . . but we were gentle (epioi) among you (vss. 5-7).

The language Malherbe exhibits in this manner may appear to be strictly 'Pauline' discourse. Malherbe exhibits it entirely in Greek in his article, then he systematically exhibits how this language is either used by or associated with moral philosophers in Greco-Roman literature. In other words, Malherbe analyzes reference to, and echo and recontextualization of, moral philosophical discourse 1 Thess. 2.

Malherbe proposes that the statements in the discourse of 1 Thess. 2 are related to different types of philosophers. First, there are resident philosophers who do not appear in public at all; they are useless (anopheleis), refusing to enter the contest (agon) of life (pp. 205-6). Here Malherbe is working with intertextual echo in 1 Thess. 2.2. Paul's statement which is usually translated 'in the face of great opposition (agon)' is really a reference to 'the great contest (agon)' which is the arena in which he preaches the gospel. This is simply the beginning point for Malherbe's exhibition of Mediterranean cultural discourse embedded in Pauline discourse. Second, there are Cynics who are hucksters; they deceive (planan, apatan) people with flattery (kolakeuein, thopeuein) instead of 'speaking with the boldness and frankness of the true philosopher'. They go around for their own glory (doxa), personal pleasure (hedone), and money (chremata) (pp. 205-6). Here Malherbe is interpreting the cultural echoes in 1 Thess. 2.3, 5-6. Third, there is a type of Cynic who 'was difficult to distinguish from rhetoricians'. They make speeches that lack substance, and the people themselves are vain or empty (kenos). They are 'like a physician who, instead of curing his patients, entertains them' (p. 207). This analysis concerns especially the echoes in 1 Thess. 2.1, 7. Fourth, there are serious Cynics who speak with the boldness (parresia) of 'the philosopher who has found true personal freedom'. He speaks in this manner out of a desire to benefit people, his philanthropia. He adapts his speaking to the people's needs to lead them to virtue and sobriety, 'partly by persuading and exhorting (peithon kai parakalon), partly by abusing and reproaching (loidoroumenos kai oneidizon), . . . also admonishing (noutheton) them in groups every time he finds opportunity, with gentle words at times, at others harsh' (pp. 208-9). Malherbe fills his own English discourse with Greek words that occur both in the discourse of Paul and the discourse by and about moral philosophers in Mediterranean culture. His analysis shows the close intertextual relation of Paul's discourse to the discourse in the Greco-Roman literature he is citing. He is analyzing 'cultural' intertexture, since Cynics represent a particular sector of Greek philosophy, which is particular to Greek culture. When he presents a typology of Cynics, his approach acquires the nature of a 'sociology of culture', an analysis of culture with a typology common to sociological analysis.

As Malherbe brings his discussion of the four types of Cynics to a conclusion, he includes statements by pseudo-Diogenes, Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch about the combination of gentleness with bold admonishment, rebuke or even a whipping by a father or a nurse (pp. 212-14). At this point, he is exhibiting cultural echo in 1 Thess. 2.7:

But we were gentle (epioi) among you, like a nurse (trophos) taking care (thalpei) of her children (tekna).

Then he moves to a discussion of katharos, which may mean either 'speaking plainly and clearly' or 'speaking with purity' rather than deceit or guile (pp. 214-16). This speaks to the issue of 'uncleanness' in 1 Thess. 2.3. The discussion then leads to the conclusion that Paul's description of his ministry to the Thessalonians 'is strikingly similar to the picture sketched by Dio, both in what is said and in the way in which it is formulated' (p. 216). There is, however, a further task:

the Cynics differed among themselves as to what they meant by the same language. The further step must be taken of coming to a clearer perception of the self-understanding(s) of the Cynics before investigating Paul's thinking on his ministry against the background. (p. 217)

Malherbe's analysis, then, is 'cultural'--it concerns particular self-understandings within particular contexts. He is not investigating Cynic philosophy as a general social phenomenon--the kind of knowledge that most people in Mediterranean society would know well. Rather, he is investigating particular cultural understanding--the kind of knowledge that only people 'on the inside' of this particular sphere of culture will know well. Malherbe's analysis is also 'intertextual'. His analysis stays close to the precise wording of texts at every point. He is interested in the culture of the Cynics as it is 'textualized'; and he is interested in the manner in which Pauline discourse has 'textualized' language attributed to or associated with Cynics. At the end of the article, he is raising the issue of the 'particular configuration' of 'self-understanding' in the discourse of different Cynics and in the discourse of Paul. From a socio-rhetorical perspective, this is analysis and interpretation of 'cultural intertexture', and it is analysis of an exemplary kind.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 110-113.

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