Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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1 Corinthians 15: Thematic elaboration

Paul: 1 Corinthians

A prime example of an argumentative (thematic) elaboration about death and resurrection in early Christian discourse is found in the epistolary discourse of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 (cf. Mack 1990; Watson 1993); it contains a thesis, rationale, confirmation of the rationale, and arguments from the contrary, from ancient testimony, from analogy, and from example. The following is a paraphrase of the argument in 1 Corinthians 15 from the point of view of its presentation of a complete argument:

Theme (15:12): believers will be raised from the dead.

Rationale (15:12): because the Messiah has been raised from the dead.

Confirmation of the Rationale (15:1-11): it was handed down to me that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, the Twelve, more than five hundred brethren, James, and all the apostles. And he appeared to me also.

Argument from the Contrary (15:13-19): if there is no resurrection of the dead, then the Messiah has not been raised; if the Messiah has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith in in vain, etc.

Argument from Ancient Testimony (15:20-28): statements in Genesis about Adam and statements in Psalm 8:6 about the Messiah having all things subject to him (including death) support the thesis that the Messiah was not held in death but has been raised from the dead.

Argument from Example (15:29-34): there are believers who receive baptism for people who have died without baptism so they will be raised from the dead, and Paul himself bases his actions on the conviction that believers in the Messiah will be raised from the dead.

Argument from Analogy (15:35-41): as seeds die and a new body grows up, and as there are earthly and heavenly bodies, so a person whose earthly body dies rises up as a heavenly body.

Synthesis of the Argument (15:42-49): analogy that distinguishes an earthly body from a heavenly body (15:42-44) and written testimony about Adam (15:45) show the effect for believers of the raising of the Messiah from the dead (15:49).

Conclusion (15:50-58): rephrases the first verse of the chapter, "Now I would remind you, brethren...." (15:1) into "I tell you this, brethren..."; establishes a relationship between the perishable and the imperishable (15:42) and those who inherit the kingdom of God (4:20; 6:9-10); uses imagery and written testimony to strengthen the convictions of the hearers that, even though resurrection of the dead appears to be a fully unbelievable thing, nevertheless this is what God has done with the Messiah and this is what he will do with believers; and ends by repeating the direct address of "brethren," reiterating praise of them as "always abounding in the work of the Lord," and "knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (15:1-2, 10-11).

Pauline discourse presents a confirmation of the rationale (15:1-11) before it presents the theme and the rationale (15:12). Then it presents the argument from the contrary, ancient testimony, example, and analogy (15:13-41). A synthesis of the argument, called in Latin a conplexio, precedes a conclusion to the entire chapter. As Mack (1990) and Watson (1993) have observed, the result is an amazing example of an intricately developed complete argument in early Christian discourse.

In the context of our analysis of Mark 15, there are a number of interesting things to observe in this argument. The confirmation of the rationale in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 presents a variant tradition to the chreiai in Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34. Instead of reference to the Son of man, 1 Corinthians refers to the Messiah (Christ). 1 Corinthians refers to Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and appearance. Reference to Christ's appearance is a noticeable addition to the Markan chreiai. Also, in 1 Corinthians Jesus is a passive recipient throughout the resurrection (raised [by God]) as well as the death and burial. In 1 Corinthians, Christ overcomes passivity by appearing to many people at different times. In Mark, in contrast, Jesus rises up as the Son of man and goes before them to Galilee. If they wish to see him, they must go where he goes, for soon he will return as the Son of man. This variation means that different Christians were reasoning and arguing in various ways about issues like the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Elaboration, then, is a mode of argumentation central to early Christian discourse. Without this kind of intertextual argument, it is doubtful that Christianity would have become a powerful alternative to other Jewish groups at the time. Mark 15:1-16:8 does not contain this mode of elaboration. Rather, it presents narrative amplification. Storytelling has its own rhetorical power. Working side by side, thematic elaboration and narrative amplification are effective means to communicate the worldview of a religious movement.

Oral-scribal intertexture, then, concerns, recitation, recontextualization, reconfiguration, narrative amplification, and elaboration. All of these are ways of reworking specific traditions that are handed on by word of mouth or written text. Reworking more general traditions takes us to cultural intertexture, which is the topic of the next section.


From V. K. Robbins, Exploring the Texture of Texts, (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), pp. 56-8.

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