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 11:17-34: Social intertexture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

In the context of intertextual analysis, an interpreter may become interested in social intertexture. Gerd Theissen exhibited this interest especially in his study of 1 Corinthians 11, where he investigated concepts and wording in texts that described practices and conventions in settings of eating in Mediterranean society (Theissen 1982).

First, Theissen focuses on wording in 1 Cor. 11.20-21a:

When you meet together, it is not the Lord's supper (kyriakon deipnon) that you eat. For in eating, each one (hekastos) goes ahead with his own meal (to idion deipnon)...

Theissen finds two Greek inscriptions containing language especially pertinent to this verse. One uses the words kyriakon, 'lord's', and idios, 'one's own', to distinguish between the imperial and private treasuries and another uses the phrase ek tôn idiôn, 'from their own', to refer to an object that was paid for by a donor. The evidence, in Theissen's view, suggests that 'his own meal' would refer to food that individuals brought with them and that the words of institution, 'This is my body, etc.', would have the effect of 'converting a private contribution into community property' (pp. 148-9). In other words, the inscription referring to an object that was donated suggests to Theissen that the wealthier Christians were bringing 'their own food', and at the point where food was distributed for 'the Lord's supper' the food became a 'donation' to the community. The problem, in Theissen's view, was that no one shared food until the words of institution. Here Theissen has worked from reference and echoes in the text toward a particular social practice. The analysis does not remain at a cultural level, like the analysis of Malherbe and Mack. Rather, it moves into social meanings of terms that support conventional practices in certain kinds of social settings.

Second, Theissen focuses on wording in 1 Cor. 11.21b-22:

...and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?

For this part of the passage, Theissen cites a fragment of Eratosthenes that criticizes a public feast where 'each one drinks from his own flask which he has brought along', and he examines a lengthy quotation from Plutarch which discusses how companionship (to koinon) fails where each guest has his own private portion (p. 149). Again, Theissen works on the basis of intertextual references and echoes to ascertain the meaning effects of certain social practices.

Then Theissen continues with a series of social issues related to the first two analyses. He thinks 1 Cor. 11 suggests that the wealthy Christians began to eat before the congregational meal began, and the 'individual eating' may have extended into the Lord's supper itself (pp. 151-3). He cites evidence for an established practice in associations or clubs in antiquity of having different portions of food and drink for people who donated different amounts to certain causes (p. 154). In addition, different qualities and foods were served to people of different social status at private meals. Thus, if wealthy patrons invited guests of their own social status, it would have been 'necessary' for them to give guests preferential treatment (pp. 155-9).

Theissen concludes that some wealthier Christians in the Corinthian community who donated bread and wine for all at the meals were treating the common meal as a 'private' meal. In turn, regular members of the community would be expecting to have some 'special' food at the gathering, which they would not get. These members of lower social status were experiencing disappointment as the wealthier members ate and drank with their associates during the common meal and did not share any of their food with members outside their group. Paul speaks strongly to the wealthier members of the community, exhorting them with both social and theological arguments to create images and motivations for community and sacramental activity together (pp. 160-8).

From a socio-rhetorical perspective, Theissen worked in an environment of intertextual reference and echo to investigate an aspect of the 'social intertexture' of Pauline discourse in 1 Corinthians. The analysis is intertextual, because it works so closely with the wording both of 1 Corinthians and of Greco-Roman inscriptions and literature. The analysis concerns 'social' phenomena, since it focuses on customs and practices that are widespread throughout Mediterranean society, potentially affecting almost every person at some time during their life. The phenomena are not simply 'cultural', for two reasons. First, it is not only people 'on the inside' who understand what is happening, but this is widespread social practice. People of many ranks and stations would know about these customs, even if they were never allowed to participate in them. Second, Theissen has identified a social practice, not simply a cultural belief, conviction or concept. This phenomenon, in other words, has a social manifestation--the text points toward a particular social activity that occured regularly among the Corinthian Christians. From the perspective of socio-rhetorical criticism, this is not 'historical' intertexture, since this term is reserved for specific events during specific periods of time. Theissen did not attempt to pinpoint the year this practice began, the years during which it occurred and the year in which the Corinthians changed the practice, if indeed they did. If the text yields this kind of information, it contains historical intertexture. Theissen only pursues data concerning a social practice. Thus, Theissen analyzed social intertexture in 1 Cor. 11.17-34, and this is an important mode of socio-rhetorical analysis.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 115-118.

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