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 Corinthians 9: Argumentative texture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

The analysis of repetitive and progressive texture revealed that the discourse was argumentative, and analysis of opening-middle-closing texture uncovered a basic beginning, middle and ending to the discourse. This analysis suggests that 1 Cor. 9 represents some kind of basic unit of discourse. The analysis of narrational texture began to reveal special rhetorical features in the text, including shifts from one field of reasoning to another. Analysis of argumentative texture, using insights from Greco-Roman rhetoric as well as literary rhetoric and the New Rhetoric, reveals that the chapter unfolds in the manner of a rhetorical elaboration (Mack 1990; Robbins 1993a). A display of this elaboration, using insights from the work of Russell Sisson (1994), reveals the rhetorical function of each section as it unfolds in the chapter:

  1. Thesis (9.1a)
    Am I not free?
  2. Rationale (9.1b)
    Am I not an apostle?
  3. Confirmation of the Rationale (9.1c-2)
    1. 1cHave I not seen Jesus our Lord?
    2. Are not you my workmanship in the Lord?
    3. 2If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
  4. Restatement of the Thesis (9.3-6) 3This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4Do we not have the right to our food and drink? 5Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brother of the Lord and Cephas? 6Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?
  5. Argument from Analogy (9.7) 7Who 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?
  6. Argument from Written Testimony (Previous Judgment) (9.8-12a)
    1. Introduction: 8Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same?
    2. Rationale: 9For it is written in the law of Moses: 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out grain'.
    3. Embellishment: Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop.
    4. Conclusion: 11If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? 12aIf others share this rightful claim upon you, do not we still more?
  7. Argument from the Contrary, with Digression and Reasons (9.12b-18)
    1. Introduction: 12bNevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.
    2. Repositioning of the argument from Analogy and Previous Judgment: 13Do 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? 14In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
    3. Restatement: 15aBut I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any such provision.
    4. Rationale: 15bFor I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my ground for boasting.
    5. Confirmation of the Rationale: 16For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will I am entrusted with a commission.
    6. Conclusion: 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.
  8. Argument from Example (9.19-23)
    1. Introduction: 19For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more.
    2. Embellishment: 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law--though not being myself under the law--that I might win those under the law. Those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law--not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ--that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.
    3. Conclusion: 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
  9. Conclusion (9.24-27)
    1. Introduction: 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize?
    2. Exhortation: So run that you may obtain it.
    3. Embellishment: 25Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
    4. Conclusion: 26Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

The key to the argumentative nature of the opening of the chapter is the rhetorical force of interrogatio, asking a question as an emphatic way of making an assertion. In Greek, the form of the negative in the first four verses calls for an affirmative answer: 'I am free, am I not'?, etc. The rhetorical force of these questions, then, produces the following assertions:

I am free.
I am an apostle.
I have seen the risen Christ.
You are my workmanship in the Lord.

Russell Sisson's analysis of this sequence (1994) suggests that the second sentence provides the rationale for the first, and the last two sentences confirm the rationale:

Thesis: I am free,
Rationale: because I am an apostle,
Confirmation of the rationale: (I am an apostle),
because I have seen the risen Lord,
and you are my workmanship in the Lord.

If Sisson's analysis is correct, and I suggest that it is, 1 Cor. 9 begins with a rhetorical syllogism. This is important for three reasons. First, Aristotle said that the most powerful way to begin a speech is with a syllogism; an alternative way is with an anecdote or story. Second, if a speech starts with a syllogism, it would be natural for it to continue with a series of argumentative devices that, in the end, present what rhetoricians in late antiquity called 'a complete argument'. Third, if 1 Cor. 9 presents a complete argument, then it would be natural for Pauline discourse to contain complete arguments in other contexts that interpreters do not currently expect.

When people use syllogistic argumentation in public contexts, they do two things that are important for analysis of 1 Cor. 9. First, customarily they present their conclusion first and their rationale for the conclusion second. This is important, for it helps us to see that the first question, and not the second or third, introduces the thesis for the chapter. Second, a person regularly states only one of two logical premises that support the conclusion (Mack and Robbins 1989: 69-84). This means that the statements in the discourse presuppose a second, unstated premise, and often it is very informative for an interpreter to reconstruct that premise. According to Sisson's analysis, the complete syllogism at the beginning is:

Unstated major premise: All apostles are free.
Minor premise: I am an apostle.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am free.

The argument at the beginning of 1 Cor. 9 presupposes that all apostles have freedom. Immediately, as stated above, the question arises: What is the nature of this freedom? This is a question that receives answers as the text continues. The answer lies in the thick texture of 1 Corinthians, not only with historical phenomena but with social, cultural and ideological codes of understanding that were current in Mediterranean society during the first century. An exploration of the inner texture of the text reveals a presupposition that all apostles are free. As further analysis proceeds, the nature of this freedom will unfold.

After the first two questions present a syllogistic opening for the chapter, the next two questions confirm the rationale (minor premise). In other words, the statement about an apostle applies to Paul, because there is evidence that Paul has seen the risen Lord and performed the work of an apostle among the Corinthians. The Rhetorica ad Herennium 2.18.28-19.30 presents the confirmation of a rationale as a natural step at the beginning of an argument that begins with a thesis and a rationale. 1 Cor. 9 opens, then, in a conventional manner with a thesis, a rationale and a confirmation of the rationale.

After the confirmation of Paul's apostleship (the rational for the thesis about freedom), the discourse presents a summary statement that concludes the opening:

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.

This summary repeats the rationale and the confirmation, emphasizing the role of the Corinthians as the 'seal' of Paul's apostleship and allowing the phrase 'in the Lord' to strengthen the assertion that Paul had seen the Lord. As a reiteration of the previous argument, it also is a rhetorical syllogism:

Unstated major premise: The workmanship of an apostle in the Lord is the seal of his apostleship.
Minor premise: You (my workmanship) are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
Conclusion: Therefore, I am an apostle to you.

It is important to notice that this summary has advanced the argument in a particular way beyond its beginning point. While the initial argument was about the freedom of apostles and was grounded in the relationship of an apostle to the 'Lord Jesus', the evolving argument includes a community of people who are 'the work' of an apostle.

This opening for the chapter reveals a number of important things about the nature of the discourse in it. First, a section of argumentation in this discourse regularly will conclude with a summary statement. Second, a concluding statement will contain argumentative features that reformulate earlier syllogistic argumentation. Third, a summary will refocus the argument. Fourth, there will be movement back and forth between authority figures (e.g., the 'Lord Jesus') and 'Paul's work' among the people.

After the opening, the discourse contains an indicative statement, 'This is my defense to those who would examine me', followed by eight questions. The same observation applies to these questions that applied to the first four: their interrogative form is an emphatic way of making an assertion. Sisson's analysis indicates that the indicative statement and the first three questions restate the thesis about 'freedom' in terms of 'rights' (9.3-6). This unit, then, has the function of repositioning the thesis even further than the statement after the first three questions (9.2). The particular 'freedom' this discourse will address is 'the right to food and drink', the right to request and receive 'a living' from the people in the community where an apostle works. The strategy of the discourse at this point, then, is to 'delimit' freedom to a particular issue for which it is possible to formulate a strong argument.

After the repositioning of the thesis, the discourse presents an argument from analogy (9.7). The argument is amplified with three examples: soldier, vineyard planter, shepherd. Amplification is characteristic of this discourse; only one example would have been necessary but it provides three. The special function of an argument from analogy is to ground the reasoning in common social and cultural phenomena. The argument gains a 'public' appeal with its employment of 'everyday' commonplaces. The discourse claims not to be 'esoteric' or puzzling, but 'open' to all and persuasive to all who are 'reasonable'.

After the argument from analogy, the discourse presents an argument from written testimony (9.8-12). Wuellner's analysis (1986: 67-8) reveals the syllogistic nature of the argument. The unit opens with a self-deliberating question (9.8a) that polarizes 'human authority' with divine authority. Verse 8b appeals to Torah as 'written testimony' about social rights. Then verses 9-10, attributing the authority of the Torah first to Moses then to God, presents a syllogistic argument:

Major premise: Moses wrote that you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. (9.9a)
Minor premise: In what Moses wrote, God was speaking not about oxen but humans. (9.9b-10)
Conclusion: Therefore, if we have sown spiritual good among you, it is not too much for us to reap your material benefits. If others share this rightful claim upon you, we do still more. (9.11-12a)

Three unstated premises clearly underlie the argumentation in this syllogism:

  1. God spoke what Moses wrote.
  2. Spiritual good is equal to or greater than material good.
  3. We have sown more spiritual good among you than others.

The first premise accounts for the transition from Moses in the major premise to God in the minor premise. The second premise accounts for the juxtaposition of 'spiritual good' and 'material benefit' in the conclusion. The third premise accounts for the final statement about 'us' having more of a rightful claim than 'others'. A fourth unstated premise appears to be:

  1. Everything God spoke to Moses is for the sake of humans.

We will see in the section on oral-scribal intertexture below that this conclusion may have been influenced by the presence of statements about humans on both sides of the verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 12.1-25.3; 25.5-19). There are other considerations also, which the analysis will explain below.

There are three major points for us to notice in this context. First, the argument from written testimony brings a new 'authoritative' set of presuppositions into the discourse. These presuppositions broaden the authoritative base beyond 'apostleship in the Lord Jesus' to 'God himself through Moses'. In other words, the preceding argument from analogy established a 'general' premise to support the claims in the discourse; now the argument from written testimony transforms the premise into a 'specifically authoritative' claim within Jewish culture. This will be important in the exploration of 'cultural' intertexture in the chapter. Second, this unit brings 'authoritative' presuppositions into the argument by 'rerunning' the mode of the very beginning of the argument, namely, by means of a syllogistic argument. The discourse, then, adopts a 'logical' mode when it introduces personages, both divine and human, to 'authorize' its assertions. Third, the final statement in the unit reiterates the topic of 'rights' (9.12a), the delimited form of the topic of 'freedom' that the restatement reformulated (9.3-6). As the final statement reiterates the topic, it evokes a polarity between 'spiritual good' and 'material benefit', and between 'us' (Paul and Barnabas) and 'them' (others who worked among you). Again the argument moves from the authoritative sphere--in this instance God, Moses and the Torah--to Paul (and Barnabas), 'other' apostles and the Corinthian community.

After the argument from written testimony, the discourse formulates an argument from the contrary (9.12b-18). For a particular set of reasons, Paul does not use the 'rights' which the argument thus far have established for the apostles. In contrast to the kind of argument from the contrary that simply 'reaffirms' the opening argument, this argument from the contrary 'repositions' the argument in a manner similar to the preceding units. The reasoning to this point raises the possibility that an apostle who does not exercise the 'freedom' to use his 'rights' may disqualify himself from his identity as an apostle. This discourse risks a 'dangerous' argument from the contrary as a way of unambiguously establishing a contrary mode of reasoning. In other words, this is an argument from the contrary that 'turns' the argument rather than recycles the assertion at the beginning.

The first component in the argument defines the contrary mode of action as a means to advance 'the gospel of Christ' without putting any obstacle in its way (9.12b). Prior to this point in the chapter, the discourse does not refer either to the gospel or to 'Christ'. The opening statement of the contrary repositions the language of 'apostle', 'Jesus the Lord', and 'God' in terms the gospel of Christ.

The second component in the unit (9.13-14) repositions the previous arguments from analogy and from written testimony in terms of 'spiritual work', which the preceding unit juxtaposed with 'material benefit'. In the context of 'the gospel of Christ', the work of an apostle is directly analogous to the work of 'those employed in the temple', and the authoritative testimony for this resides in a 'command of the Lord (Jesus)' that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. The discourse could have contained this repositioning at the end of previous units. Its embedment in the argument from the contrary functions in a 'digressive' manner (a well-established technique in Pauline discourse: Wuellner 1979) that integrates previous argumentation into the new terminology of the argument.

The next component (9.15-17) introduces a third syllogistic argument into the chapter. Verse 15a presents the conclusion to the syllogism, namely that Paul does not make use of these rights, and verse 15b provides the minor premise, namely that use of the rights would deprive Paul of his boasting. Verses 16-17, then, present a complete syllogism that confirms the minor premise concerning Paul's boasting. Put in syllogistic order, the reasoning is:

Major Premise: Preaching the gospel of one's own free will brings a reward, but preaching the gospel not of one's own free will makes it (only) an entrustment with a commission.
Minor Premise: Preaching the gospel is laid upon Paul as a necessity, an entrustment of a commission.
Conclusion: Therefore, preaching the gospel as an entrustment gives Paul no ground for boasting, (but preaching it of his own free will brings a reward).

Preaching the gospel against one's own will make it an entrustment of a commission, which in turn gives no ground for boasting. Preaching the gospel out of one's own free will, however, brings a reward. What might that reward be? In the initial syllogism, Paul has indicated that his reward is to be able to boast. It is clear, then, that the unstated presupposition in the initial syllogism (9.15) correlates Paul's ground for boasting with preaching the gospel out of his own free will:

Unstated Major Premise: My ground for boasting is doing this of my own free will.
Minor Premise: I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my ground for boasting (i.e., doing this of my own free will).
Conclusion: Therefore, I have made no use of these rights, nor am I writing to secure any such provision (a decision of my own will).

Paul does not make use of these rights both because it would put an obstacle in the way of the gospel and because it would deprive him of his ground for boasting. Paul preaches of his own free will, rather than simply because it is laid upon him as a necessity. Then the discourse presents a summary:

What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel. (9.18)

This summary does three things. First, it gathers the concepts of 'reward', 'preaching the gospel', and 'not making use of one's right in the gospel' together in a statement that concludes the argument from the contrary. Second, it reformulates Paul's 'boast', which is a benefit for Paul alone, into 'making the gospel free of charge', which is a benefit for people in the community. Third, it has reformulated the issue from 'we' (9.12b) to 'I' (9.18). The discussion started with Paul and the Lord Jesus (9.1), brought in Barnabas as an ally (9.4-12) and introduced Moses, God and the Lord (Jesus) as guarantors (9.9, 14). Now the argument turns the discussion decisively away from 'others' to a decision of 'my' own will (9.17) which focuses on 'my' preaching in which 'I' make the gospel free of charge (9.18). At this point, then, the authority of the discourse moves into the body and voice of the narrator himself.

The next unit continues with an argument from example (9.19-23), building on the conclusion which the discourse reached in the argument from the contrary. The introduction to the unit (9.19) repositions the argument yet once more by integrating the concept of being 'free' (9.1) with 'making myself a slave to all, that I might win the more'. In other words, a restatement now removes the limitation of freedom to 'rights' (9.4-6) so that the issue of 'freedom' can be juxtaposed to 'slavery'. The next two verses establish the integrity of the 'one who made himself a slave' by his work not only with 'Jews under the law' (9.20) but also with 'those outside the law' (9.21) and 'the weak' (9.22). The goal of the work is to win people for God, to save them. The division of humanity into three groups rather than two builds in a special way on the appeal to the law earlier in the chapter (9.8-10). A polarity between those under the law and those outside it could result simply in differentiation and dissociation (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca 1969: 190-1, 324-5, 411-59). The inclusion of a group of people with the attribute of weakness moves beyond a polarity into associative discourse that integrates multiple attributes of humanity. The concluding statements (9.22b-23) summarize the meaning effect well:

22b I have become all things to all, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a full participant in it.

Humanity includes not only those under the law and outside the law, but also the weak. The discourse presents Paul as a person who has forgotten no one. He has become all things to all people. The final verse reiterates the topic of the 'gospel' which first appeared at the opening of the argument from the contrary (9.12b) where the discourse moved beyond authorizing 'the rights' of the apostle to an explanation of Paul's not making use of these rights. The discourse suggests that Paul's thought and action embody the inner nature of the gospel. The final clause introduces a new term in the chapter, translated here 'a full participant'. The term appears to have a double nuance. On the one hand, Paul has become a full partner, an intimate associate, of the gospel of Christ. On the other hand, Paul participates of his own will in the gospel, freely deciding to become a fellow associate of all people--those under the law, those outside the law, and those who are weak.

The final unit presents an amplified conclusion (9.24-27) to the argument in the chapter. The opening question introduces the analogy of running a race, where only one runner receives a prize, and the next statement issues an exhortation to run in a manner that one may win the prize (9.24). The next component broadens the analogy to every athlete and introduces a polarity between the perishable crown they receive and the imperishable one 'we' receive (9.25). The final two sentences bring the chapter to a close with a focus entirely on Paul's embodiment of the gospel in the manner of the most seriously self-disciplined runner and boxer:

26 Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; 27 but I pommel my body and enslave it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Having started with the freedom of an apostle, the argument ends with the self-discipline of an athlete. After establishing the rights of an apostle (9.3-6) and supporting those rights by analogy (9.7) and written testimony in the Torah (9.8-12a), the change began in the argument from the contrary (9.12b-18), where Paul, an apostle, does not exercise the rights of the apostle but participates of his own will in the gospel. The argument from example immediately after it (9.19-23) reveals that this 'decision to offer the gospel free of charge' willfully takes the form of slavery to all people to 'gain' or 'win' Jews, those outside the law and the weak. In a context that establishes a polarity between a perishable and imperishable crown, the conclusion (9.24-27) employs the analogy of the self-disciplined athlete to exhibit Paul's embodiment of this slavery to the gospel and to exhort all to run the race so they may obtain the prize.

Argumentative texture, then, exhibits the internal reasoning in the discourse as it moves from the beginning to the end of the chapter. Between the beginning 'I' and the ending 'I' lies a skillful sequence of three complex syllogistic arguments in contexts of analogy, written and oral testimony, contrary and example. In 9.3, the discourse evokes the dynamics of a judicial defense. If the discourse in this chapter truly is judicial, the event in the past which called forth an accusation is the failure of Paul and Barnabas to accept support for their work among the Corinthians. The charge would be that the failure to accept support disqualifies them from the status of 'apostles'. A deliberative moment emerges in the chapter when the discourse exhorts the implied hearers to 'run' in such a manner that they may win the prize (9.24). But this appears to have emerged more as a natural part of a concluding statement than as a symbol of the rhetorical nature of the discourse in the chapter. The deliberative moment, however, may reveal that the discourse is epideictic rather than judicial.

Epideictic discourse, especially if it incorporates a significant negative tone, has significant affinities with judicial rhetoric. Instead of making a specific charge that someone has done something wrong in the past, epideictic rhetoric evaluates actions and intentions as good or bad for the purpose of confirming values that people already hold. The section of the chapter that functions as a 'refutation' of 'those who would examine Paul' (9.12b-18) moves far beyond a goal of acquittal to a goal of displaying the nature of the most genuine kind of preaching of the gospel. The discourse retains dynamics of a judicial defense, because it exonerates the life and work of the speaker himself in a context where people may misunderstand them. Nevertheless, the phrase 'life and work' is a signal that the discourse moves beyond judicial rhetoric toward the kind of goal envisioned by epideictic rhetoric. Judicial rhetoric would focus on a specific action in the past for the purpose of 'acquitting' the one who performed that action from guilt. Epideictic rhetoric, in contrast, moves naturally to the evaluation of a person's 'entire life and work' as a testimony to the values everyone prizes most. In 1 Cor. 9, defense of past action is a means to differentiate between people who engage in the work of the gospel in a manner that keeps the most treasured prize at the end in view, and those who do not. The purpose for evoking a differentiation between doing what one has the right to do and doing what saves the most people is to confirm that a focus on the gospel itself is the only means by which any real 'prize' is awarded to the runner. Anyone who focusses on material benefit is completely misguided. Only a person who keeps an 'imperishable crown' in focus will be running in a manner that has any possibility of achieving something worthwile. Thus, in the end the goal of the discourse is to censure anyone who would emphasize the importance of material benefits and to praise all who enslave themselves to Jews, people outside the law and the weak for the sake of the gospel.


From: Robbins, Vernon K. (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 77-89.

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