Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

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1 Corinthians 9: Cultural intertexture

Paul: 1 Corinthians

The imagery of athletic competition--running, wrestling and boxing--has its natural home in Greek culture, not Jewish culture. Thus, Philo's incorporation of it is a matter of synthesis of Jewish and Greek culture in a context of first century Mediterranean society. Greco-Roman moralists also incorporated this imagery. Russell Sisson has gathered intertexts together, using the research of Malherbe, Horsley (1978) and Martin (Sisson 1994: 97-9). The discourse of Epictetus describes the Cynic as one who is 'sent (apestaltai) by Zeus to men' (Epictetus, Discourses 3.22.23-25). Further on, the discourse adds that the Cynic also is 'a herald (k�ruka) of the gods' (3.22.69).

This Cynic must be 'free to go about among men, not tied down by the private duties of men' if he is to be true to his calling (3.22.69). Moreover, he thinks of his service (diakonos) to God as something he willingly does, even though he was called by Zeus to do it:

I am free (eleutheros) and a friend of God that I might of my own free will (hek�n) obey him. (Epictetus, Discourses 4.3.9)

For the Cynic, the goal is to attain freedom from all things (Epictetus, Discourses 3.13.11). The Cynic has been sent by God to teach people this freedom:

And how is it possible for a man who has nothing, who is naked, without home or hearth, in squalor, without a slave, without a city, to live serenely? Behold, God has sent to you the man who will show in practice that it is possible. 'Look at me', he says..'.Am I not free from pain and fear, am I not free'? (3.22.46-48)

The Cynic does not show concern for just a few people, but he cares for all humans:

The Cynic has made all humans his children; the men among them he has as sons, the women as daughters; in that spirit he approaches them all and cares for them all.... It is as a father he does it, as a brother, and as a servant (hypêretês) of Zeus, who is father of us all. (3.22.81)

Epictetus describes the task of the Cynic sage called by God in terms of athletic competition that produces hardship and requires discipline (Epictetus, Discourses 1.24.1-2). For Epictetus, the struggle is a discipline that trains the Cynic (Epictetus, Discourses 3.20.9). Epictetus speaks directly about the end result of athletic training as self control.

Instead of shameless, you will be self-respecting; instead of faithless, faithful; instead of dissolute, self-controlled. (Epictetus, Discourses 4.9.17)

In the end, Epictetus says, the Cynic receives the crown as his reward (Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.51-52; cf. 2.18.28). The discourse emphasizes that this is not just any contest, but the greatest--Olympia itself (Epictetus, Discourses 3.22.51-53). Usually the discourse speaks of this activity as service (diakonos) and refers to the one who has been called as a servant (hyp�ret�s):

[Diogenes] became a servant (diakon�n) of Zeus, caring for men indeed, but at the same time subject (hypotetagmenos) to God. (3.24.65)

But there is an extended discussion, as well, of the freedom of the Cynic in relation to slavery:

Is the paltry body which you have, then, free or is it a slave? ... [T]here is something within you which is naturally free. (3.22.40-42)

The goal of the Cynic is to become free in all things, because this is the truly natural state of humans (3.24.71). The point is that a person should allow no humans and no internal human desires to make them their slave. But then the discourse turns to God, using some of the same imagery of the Pauline discourse:

A good soldier does not lack someone to give him pay (ho mistodot�n), or a workman, or a cobbler; and shall a good man? Does God so neglect His own creatures, his servants (diakon�n), his witnesses, whom alone he sees as examples to the uninstructed ...? ... I obey, I follow... For I came into the world when it so pleased Him, and I leave it again at His pleasure, and while I live this was my function--to sing hymns of praise unto God, to myself and to others, be it to one or to many. God does not give me much, no abundance, He does not want me to live luxuriously.... (3.26.27-31)

The issue, finally, is fear of death (3.26.38-39). Then the discourse turns directly to slavery:

And what, says someone, has this to do with being a slave?--Doesn't it strike you as 'have to do with being a slave' for a man to do something against his will (akonta), under compulsion (anagkazomenon)? (4.1.11)

One of the ways, and one of the reasons, people enslave themselves is for food:

If [the freed slave] gets a manger at which to eat he has fallen into a slavery much more severe than the first (4.1.35-36)

Finally, the discourse distinguishes between 'microslavery' and 'megaslavery':

Call ... those who do these things for certain small ends microslaves, and the others, as they deserve, megaslaves. (4.1.55)

For the Cynic, it is the knowledge about freedom and slavery which allows him to live a free life:

What, then, is it which makes a man free from hindrance and his own master?... In living, it is the knowledge (epistêmê) of how to live. (4.1.63)

But there is another issue, namely, God. How can the Cynic, called by Zeus, be entirely free? The answer lies in making his own free will the same as the will of God:

But I have never been hindered in the exercise of my will, nor have I ever been subjected to compulsion against my will. And how is this possible? I have submitted my freedom of choice unto God. He wills that I shall have fever; it is my will too. He wills that I should choose something; it is my will too. He wills that I should desire something; it is my will too. He wills that I should get something; it is my wish too. He does not will it; I do not wish it. Therefore, it is my will to die; therefore, it is my will to be tortured on the rack. Who can hinder me any longer against my own views, or put compulsion upon me? It is no more possible to do this with me than it is possible for anyone to do this with Zeus. (4.1.89)

In the end, then, the true philosopher submits his own will to the will of God so that he wills what God wills for him. This is an amazing similarity with Paul, compelled to preached the gospel but free, because he freely chooses to endure hardship to offer it free of charge.

What, then, is distinctive about Pauline discourse in the setting of Greco-Roman discourse? First, Pauline discourse orients itself toward the God of Israel, not Zeus. The God of Israel has made promises to special people whom he has selected to receive his benefits, if they live according to his will. Second, Pauline discourse concerns itself directly with the law the God of Israel gave to his people. The discourse of the moral philosophers grounds its discussion more in the 'moral laws of the universe' than in laws given by Zeus. Third, Pauline discourse focusses on a recent act of God in the death and resurrection of a crucified Messiah, who is a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to the nations (1 Cor. 1.23). Fourth, Pauline discourse robustly embraces the term 'slavery' to describe the commitment to all people for the sake of the gospel; the discourse of Epictetus maintains a restraint with slave language by emphasizing that the Cynic's work is 'service' (diakonos) and the Cynic himself is messenger, scout, servant (hypêretês) and friend of God who cares for all people.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 133-137.

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