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: Narrational texture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Now let us explore narrational texture to see what additional insights it can add to the inner texture of this discourse. Among Chatman's choices between a 'narrative' voice, a 'narrating' voice, and a 'narrator's' voice, this discourse presents the last--a narrator's voice. The use of 'I' for the narrational voice calls attention to the emergence of the voice from the body of one individual person. In other words, narrational voice embodies the discourse in the speech, action, decisions, emotions and convictions of a person named Paul. In the end, therefore, the authority or force of the voice creates a particular image of a particular person during the early years of the Christian movement.

In the midst of the patterns observed in the previous section concerning opening-middle-closing texture, one of the most distinctive features of the narrator's voice is nineteen questions in the chapter. The questions exhibit the following sequence:

  1. Am I not free?
    Am I not an apostle?
    Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?
    Are you not my workmanship in the Lord?

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  1. Do we not have the right to our food and drink?
  2. Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
  3. Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?

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  1. Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?
    Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?
    Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

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  1. Do I say this on human authority?
    Does not the law say the same?
  2. Is it for oxen that God is concerned?
  3. Does not God speak entirely for our sake?
  4. If we have sown spiritual good among you,
    is it too much if we reap your spiritual benefits?
  5. If others share this rightful claim upon you,
    do not we still more?

***********

  1. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?
  2. What then is my reward?

***********

  1. Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?

Wuellner suggests that these questions function as part of 'Paul's pastoral guidance for a maturing, stabilizing church' (1986: 52). The implied author of the discourse speaks as a narrator to implied readers whom the discourse 'pastors'. The questions invite the implied hearer to participate in the discourse in an active way, producing answers as the discourse proceeds.

The interesting thing from a narrational perspective is that all of the questions provide the information the implied hearer needs to answer them. In other words, all of them are what we commonly call 'rhetorical' questions: implied hearers do not have to answer the questions; the speaker will answer them. There is an interesting sequence in the nature of the rhetorical questions, however.

The first four questions (9.1) invite the implied hearer to say 'Yes'. Yes, Paul is free and an apostle, he has seen Jesus our Lord, and we are his workmanship in the Lord. The sequence, however, may actually evoke somewhat different responses. The first three questions focus directly on Paul. To the first question, an implied hearer may be inclined to say, 'I hear you saying you are free, but in what way are you free'? To the second question, the response may be, 'Well, you call yourself an apostle'. To the third question, the response may be, 'Well, you say that you saw Jesus our Lord'. The first three questions concern attributes of Paul, and only the second and third questions finally have to be answered only yes or no: either Paul is or is not an apostle, and he either has or has not seen Jesus our Lord. But the first question actually calls for qualification: 'In what way are you free'? 'To what kind of freedom are you referring, Paul'?

After the first three questions focus on attributes of Paul, the fourth question focuses on an attribute of the implied hearers: 'Are you not my workmanship in the Lord'? No matter what the answer of the implied hearers might be, Paul immediately answers it for them: 'If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord'. The sequence of four questions, which ends with Paul's answer in 9.2, draws the implied hearers into the discourse, defining not only who Paul is but also who they are. In fact, the discourse asserts that Paul is who he is on the basis of who they are. Their identities are bound to one another, no matter what anyone says about their identities (including the hearers). The first three verses of the chapter, then, embed the identity of Paul and the identity of the hearers in each other. Whatever the hearers do, think or say concerns the speaker, and whatever the discourse says concerns the hearers.

The next three questions in 9.4-6 presuppose the result of the first three verses in the chapter, and they evoke something quite different from the opening questions. Initially, the sequence itself is noticeable. The first question moves abruptly to 'we', meaning Paul and at least one other person alongside him. The second question evokes 'other apostles', 'the brothers of the Lord' and 'Cephas'. The third question refers specifically to 'Barnabas and I'. This sequence defines Paul in relation to prestigious third person people ('others') then narrows the focus to Paul and Barnabas alongside him. In other words, while the first sequence of questions defined Paul by embedding his identity in the identity of the implied hearers themselves, the next sequence defines Paul on the basis of his relationship to 'other' people with authoritative standing. 'Other' apostles refers to disciples of Jesus while Jesus was on earth; 'brothers' of the Lord would include James; Cephas refers to the disciple Peter, whom Paul says elsewhere was the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15.5); and Barnabas probably was recognized as a person in good standing with the Jersualem church. After drawing the circle tight around Paul and the Corinthians, then, the discourse draws a circle around Paul and prestigious leaders in early Christian circles.

Another aspect of the second set of questions is their forceful use of negatives. Instead of proceeding in the straightforward manner of the first questions, these questions intensify their emphasis by using two negatives that reinforce each other (m�...ou). The meaning effect is something like 'None of you think we don't have the right, do you'? Thus, this set of questions communicates a tone of defensiveness or, perhaps, aggressiveness.

Yet another aspect of the second set of questions is that they address the very first question of the chapter which is the only one that called for qualification. The questions achieve two things in relation to that initial question. First, they change the concept of freedom to the concept of 'right' or 'authority' (exousia). Second, they limit the concept of right or authority to apostles' being supported by the people among whom they work. Thus, the second set of questions uses aggressive, negative interrogations as it sets Paul firmly in the midst of prestigious leaders in early Christianity and narrows the focus of 'freedom' to the rights all of them have to live off of food and drink provided by the people among whom they work.

The aggressive tone of the second set of questions continues through a third set which presents three examples of people who receive pay or produce for their work: soldiers, vineyard planters and shepherds (9.7). Each question, which asks who does a certain kind of work without receiving pay or produce for it, is meant to evoke a resounding 'No one'! As the questions unfold, they set the rights of Paul and Barnabas solidly in the context of conventional social practice. In other words, after embedding Paul's identity in the identity of his hearers and gathering prestigious leaders in early Christianity alongside Paul, the discourse undergirds the rights of Paul and Barnabas with common practice throughout all of society.

At this point the strategy in the questions changes. In 9.8-10 the questions introduce polarities with a rhythm of no...yes: 'No, I do not say this on human authority; yes, the law says the same' (9.8); 'No, God is not concerned for oxen in the passage; yes, he speaks entirely for our sake' (9.9b-10). These questions, in other words, differentiate things from one another rather than bring them together (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca:411-59). God is not preoccupied with oxen but humans; Paul is not on the side of human authority but God's law.

This strategy of polarization continues in the questions in 9.11-12. But now the strategy evokes 'us' against 'them'. The distinction between 'spiritual' benefits and 'material' benefits defines the work of Paul and Barnabas as spiritual. Then the question 'if them, not us still more' (9.12) implies that 'others' do not offer as many spiritual benefits as Paul and Barnabas. In this set of questions, then, polarities associate the work of Paul and Barnabas with God's law (9.9), with God's concern for people (9.10), and with spiritual benefits. The other side of the implication is that 'others' are a bit more on the side of human authority, eating like oxen and material benefits. Not entirely, of course, but partially.

Next, a single question moves the conventional practice of supporting people into a 'spiritual' space: temples (9.13). While the answer to the question is 'Of course, we know this', the next verse supplements the implied hearers' answer with a command of the Lord Jesus which associates this space with 'doing the work of the gospel' (9.14). At this point, then, the strategy moves away from 'differentiation' to 'association'. Paul and Barnabas, as they do spiritual work associated with God's law and concerns, are doing something more like 'temple' work than work on a battlefield, in a vineyard, or at a place where animals graze.

After the questions have placed Paul and Barnabas alongside one another to differentiate them from 'others' and put them on the side of God, the Lord Jesus, and the gospel; the next question leaves Barnabas aside to focus entirely on Paul: 'What then is my reward'? The section below will discuss the intricate argumentation involved at this point in the discourse. The purpose here is to observe the narrational shift from 'we' to 'I'. The question in 9.18 about Paul's reward is the result of a shift to first person singular in 9.15. After the shift, Barnabas is no longer a matter of concern for the discourse. Beginning with 9.15, Paul's work, identity, goals and reward stand at the center.

One more question appears in the chapter, and this feature in the narrational texture of the discourse seems to solve the issue concerning where the conclusion of this chapter begins. The question in 9.24 starts the conclusion: 'Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize'? At this point, we observe that a question shifts the social analogy to a runner after a previous question had shifted it to workers in a temple. This is a remarkable shift indeed. One might have thought that once the discourse had shifted to spiritual work in a spiritual space it would have maintained this field of analogy to the end. Some reasons for this shift will emerge as the analysis moves to other textures of the discourse.

In summary, one of the most obvious narrational aspects of 1 Cor. 9 is the presence of nineteen questions that extend from the opening verse to the opening statement of the conclusion. The initial questions focus on Paul then broaden out to the implied hearers, to 'other' apostles which include Barnabas and to social convention. After this, the questions appeal to the Torah, Moses, God and the Lord Jesus. A little more than half way through the chapter the questions turn to Paul himself--his work and his reward. This focus on Paul remains to the conclusion, where athletic imagery provides the language for describing the challenge for endurance and the prize that Paul, and perhaps others, may receive.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 72-77.

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