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 1:26-31: Oral-scribal intertexture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

Socio-rhetorical criticism includes analysis and interpretation of oral-scribal intertexture. I begin with analysis of an essay by Gail O'Day that carries the subtitle 'A Study in Intertextuality' (O'Day 1990). This essay vividly introduces both the arrival of the concept of intertextuality on the scene of New Testament studies and the limitations of intertextual studies that locate themselves in traditional theological and canonical criticism. O'Day's approach is inspired and informed by Michael Fishbane's 'inner biblical exegesis' (O'Day 1990; Fishbane 1980, 1985, 1986). In the first paragraph of her essay, O'Day defines intertextuality as 'the ways a new text is created from the metaphors, images, and symbolic world of an earlier text or tradition' (p. 259). She gets this definition from T. S. Eliot's essay on 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (Eliot 1920), and the focus of the definition is on the 'metaphors, images, and symbolic world' an author has used from an antecedent text to 'create' a new text. This is a definition that focuses on the author's 'production of the text'. O'Day is interested in Paul's creation of 1 Corinthians 1.26 out of words, structures and aspects she calls 'substantive theological parallels' that exist in Jeremiah 9.22-23.

In the second paragraph of her essay, O'Day establishes firm poetic boundaries for her analysis. She does not investigate Hellenistic-Roman literature where the Greek words in Pauline discourse for 'wise', 'powerful', and 'well-born' occur (Wuellner 1973: 671). Rather, she excludes resources characteristic of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule by adopting canonical criticism as practiced by Brevard Childs and James Sanders. The circular nature of her statements in this paragraph reveal how a disciplinary approach encodes its own authority internally. She uses canonical criticism for her intertextual analysis, because 'canonical criticism ... presupposes the conceptual framework of intertextuality'. Then she adds: 'Shared texts and traditions, used and reused throughout the history of a particular faith community, provide the interpretive pieces in this method' (O'Day 1990: 259). Her disciplinary boundaries, then, are secured by 'a particular faith community'. In other words, a theological code invests the disciplinary practice with religious authority, and this disciplinary practice establishes boundaries that exclude Greco-Roman literature from her investigation.

The final paragraph in her introduction announces the rigor of the approach. Her analysis will use the method of inner biblical exegesis developed by Michael Fishbane, and this method, she announces, is '[t]he single most important contribution to the study of intertextuality in scripture...'. (O'Day 1990: 259). This method 'is not simply "literary or theological playfulness", but "arises out of a particular crisis of some sort"'. Moreover, it is grounded in 'the most characteristic feature of Jewish imagination', its 'textual-exegetical dimension', and 'Paul, the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, shared in this textual-exegetical imagination'. This method is not interested, therefore in 'theoretical constructs', she informs us, but instead 'works with remarkable methodological clarity, precision, and thoroughness to uncover the richness of inner biblical exegesis...'. (O'Day 1990: 260). This statement, one notices, pits 'theory' against 'clarity, precision, and thoroughness', but let us notice its implications. Its unstated premise is that theoretical constructs are unclear, imprecise and partial, in contrast to her approach, which is obvious, exact and complete. With O'Day's intertextual approach we see, then, an interpreter who evokes firm boundaries that canonical and theological criticism have established in biblical study. Her analysis and interpretation will remain strictly within Hebrew Bible and Jewish literature. O'Day expresses no desire to go around, over, under or through these boundaries. Boundaries, in other words, offer the possibility for this intertextual interpretation to attain assured, complete results (notice 'precision' and 'thoroughness' above).

As O'Day begins, analysis of 'inner texture' stands in the forefront. But the essay does not start with 1 Corinthians. It begins with analysis of the antecedent text, Jeremiah 9.22-23, then moves to 1 Corinthians 1.26-31. The antecedent text takes precedence over 1 Corinthians, because it provides the material that Paul remolded. In contrast with a socio-rhetorical approach, then, the priority does not lie with the inner nature of the argument in 1 Corinthians but in authoritative biblical tradition that Paul has refashioned in a setting of crisis.

As the inner exegesis of Jeremiah 9.22-23 and 1 Corinthians 1.26-31 proceeds, the essay is interested, as mentioned above, in 'substantive theological parallels' rather than 'verbal and structural parallels' (O'Day 1990: 267). Substantive theological parallels, the essay asserts, give us 'intertextuality at its fullest'. Paul makes 'explicit reference to the received text and interweaves it thoroughly into the fabric of his new text' (O'Day 1990: 267). We are to understand that the analysis and interpretation 'helps to correct a misreading of vv. 27-29' that was also 'theologically dubious' (O'Day 1990: 265). Further, we are to understand the approach as scientific, grounded thoroughly in itself and in strategies that derive from the data itself. The essay has not added or subtracted anything from the text. The conclusions are there in the data, and the essay simply has called them to our attention.

I start with analysis of this intertextual interpretation, because it illustrates more clearly than some studies how intertextual interpretations, including my own, function within definite boundaries. I disagree with limiting the boundaries for intertextual interpretation of New Testament literature to Hebrew Bible and Jewish literature, since the Hellenistic-Roman world was the context of its intertexture. Nevertheless, other interpreters challenge my limiting of intertexture to Mediterranean literature. Theoretically, the intertexture of any piece of literature may be with 'every culture in the human world'. It is impossible, however, to study everything at the same time. For this reason, we establish boundaries. The manner in which we establish the boundaries and refer to those boundaries after we establish them, however, is an important issue.

A major reason for the difference between the boundaries O'Day establishes and the boundaries I establish are ideological. Therefore, let us anticipate the discussion of ideology in chapter five by observing some basic aspects of the ideology that drives the interpretation in O'Day's essay. A major dimension in the ideology underlying her intertextual interpretation, from my perspective, is 'oppositional' rather than 'dialogical' reasoning. The interpretation focuses on positives and negatives rather than dialogical aspects of the discourse. A manifestation of this emerges in the pitting of theory against precision and clarity. Another emerges in the perception that Paul's discussion is a fight rather than a strategy of arbitration. Paul's statements, in her view, are not oriented toward negotiation but toward setting the Corinthians right. In addition, in my opinion, oppositional ideology has guided the establishment of the outer framework of the unit the essay analyzes, and it accompanies the analysis and interpretation throughout the article. Thus the essay emphasizes that Paul presents first a negative view of boasting then a positive view (O'Day 1990: 261). It asserts that the content of 1 Corinthians 1.26 -- whether people are wise, mighty, and rich -- is not an issue of sociological content and import, but an issue of whether the social location of the Corinthians precludes a full hearing of the theology of the verse. Paul, it tells us, was disabusing the Corinthians of categories 'on which they had falsely based their individual and communal identities'. Thus, he is making a critique of 'false sources of security' and offering a 'christocentric presentation' based on 'the authoritative voice of Jeremiah'.

Despite my interests in the intertextual strategies O'Day uses in the essay, I respond negatively to the many places I perceive an oppositional ideology to be at work. For me, the discourse of 1 Corinthians aims at negotiation and reconciliation (cf. the title of Mitchell 1992). The informative thing, so far as socio-rhetorical criticism is concerned, is the manner in which this ideology accompanies every arena of texture either she or I address. Also it guides what we include or exclude in our analyses. First, I would like the essay to tell the reader that the wording Paul asserts to be 'as it is written' never occurs in this exact form in Jeremiah 9.22-23 or anywhere else in scripture. Paul has condensed and inverted language from scripture to create a succinct statement that sounds like an authoritative maxim. Second, I would like the essay to analyze both the Jeremiah and 1 Corinthians passages rhetorically. The essay refers to the last part of the Jeremiah passage as 'a secondary addition to the text', rather than describing its rhetorical function in the extant unit. This fracturing of the Jeremiah text influences the analysis of the text in 1 Corinthians, where the essay does not observe that Paul's reference to 'as it is written' is the well-known rhetorical figure of 'an authoritative judgment from ancient testimony' (see Mack and Robbins 1989: 28-9, 38, 41, 52, 54-7, 60-1, 100-101, etc.). From my perspective, the inner biblical exegesis in the essay fractures the rhetorical argumentation in both the antecedent unit and in 1 Corinthians. Third, I would like to see a full exploration of the Greek Septuagint text in addition to the Hebrew MT. While the essay asserts that 'Paul's use of Jeremiah is mediated by the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew text' (O'Day 1990: 260), it uses the Hebrew MT throughout and mentions only in passing that the same wording in which the essay is interested stands in the Septuagint text of 1 Samuel 2.10 (the song of Hannah) as well as in Jeremiah 9.22-23 (O'Day 1990: 261). This causes the essay to miss nuances of agreement and difference between the Greek of 1 Corinthians and the Greek of Jeremiah 9, and in one instance this strategy creates a strange sentence as follows: 'The adversative alla [Greek] in 1 Corinthians 1.27 has a similar function to the ki 'im [Hebrew] of Jer 9.23 and receives comparable rhetorical stress'. The essay should have said that the adversative alla [Greek] has a similar function to the alla � [Greek] of Jer 9.23. Fourth, the lack of use of the Septuagint leads to a lack of use of the 1 Samuel 2 Septuagint passage. This is damaging to the argument on p. 267 that 'Paul introduces a term into the text, Christ Jesus, that is clearly foreign to the Jeremiah text'. The problem is that the Septuagint passage in 1 Samuel 2.10 ends with kai keras christou autou, 'and will exalt the horn of his christ, his anointed one'. Different ideologies, then, establish different boundaries for intertextual analysis and these different boundaries encourage significantly different strategies of interpretation.

Again, the purpose for starting this chapter with such a full critique of O'Day's essay has three purposes. First, the goal is to show that O'Day and others have been bringing intertextual analysis and interpretation explicitly into the field of New Testament study. Second, the goal is to introduce the awareness that every intertextual analysis occurs within either implicit or explicit boundaries. Third, the goal is progressively to introduce ideologies, including my own, that attend interpretations throughout the chapters in this book. Fourth, the goal is to call attention to the symbiotic relation among all the arenas of texture in a text and among all the arenas of an interpreter's analysis. Strategies an interpreter uses for analysis of intertexture regularly have a close relationship to the strategies an interpreter uses for analysis of inner, social, cultural, ideological and theological texture.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 97-101.

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