A Discourse Analysis of First CorinthiansRalph Bruce Terry
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A Unifying Theme for I Corinthians

H. Richard Niebuhr has rightly noted, "Not only pagans who have rejected Christ but believers who have accepted him find it difficult to combine his claims upon them with those of their societies" (1951, 10). This is especially seen in this letter which Paul wrote to the Corinthians. They, like many others after them, found it difficult to be completely Christian in those areas in which their former lifestyle conflicted with Christianity.

Since I Corinthians deals with several areas in which the Corinthian Christians had problems, students of the New Testament have had difficulty in finding a single theme that unites the whole letter. Suggestions have included opponents of Paul who were Judaizers, Palestinian Christians claiming superiority over Paul, and Jewish Christian Gnostics (Guthrie 1970, 422-423; and Conzelmann 1975, 14-15). In 1956 Walter Schmithals advocated the latter idea forcefully enough that those who have written on the subject have had to agree or disagree with him (Ziesler 1986, 264). Most have disagreed, although some have accepted some of his argument with a degree of modification. After demonstrating that an hypothesis of Gnostic opponents is not necessary to an understanding of the book, Conzelmann says that there are traces of the beginnings of what later was called "Gnosticism." He thus describes the Corinthians as "proto-Gnostics" (1975, 15). In the same way, F. F. Bruce says that the doctrine of some of the Christians at Corinth might legitimately be called "incipient Gnosticism" (1971, 21). And in a somewhat extended passage, A. D. Nock writes:

Would you have found a church or conventicle of some type or other of Gnostics in Corinth at the time of Paul's correspondence with his converts there? . . . . Evidence for something of the sort might conceivably appear. In the meantime, since originality is not necessarily confined to movements or authors that have disappeared, I must continue to hold that in the environment of early Christianity there were materials which could be built into Gnostic systems—but no Gnostic system; that there was an appropriate mythopoeic faculty—but no specific myth; that there was a 'Gnostic' state of mind—but no crystallized formulation of that state of mind and no community or communities clinging to the formulation. (1964, xiv)

In searching for a unifying theme, several scholars have sought to identify the different false doctrines that Paul opposes with one or more of the "parties" referred to in the first chapter: the Paul-party, the Apollos-party, the Cephas-party, and the Christ-party (Barrett 1964, 283-285; and Craig 1953, 7-8). But as Conzelmann has stated, "Since Paul does not enter into any special opinions on the part of the groups, it is impossible for specific positions which Paul combats to be assigned to any specific group" (1975, 14). This is best illustrated by the fact that different scholars have assigned various doctrines to the different groups.

Rather than seeing all the false doctrines as being the product of one particular group or dividing the false teachings among the groups, it seems better to attribute the problems that Paul discusses to various individuals.

It is the conflict with culture and customs that gives the book of I Corinthians its lasting appeal. Although the customs in different societies may vary, the conflict of Christ with culture is ever present. I Corinthians has been one of the premier books of the New Testament scriptures, not because it provides arguments against a particular heresy, but because it addresses principles and problems that are common to all ages.

Culture as a Unifying Theme

The question may be asked as to whether the discourse macrostructures given above can be further combined into one overall macrostructure. Some of them seem to have little in common with others. Yet there are two themes which run throughout the whole book. First, every problem which Paul discusses has its roots in Greek culture. And second, almost every argument appeals to Christ in some way.

If a unifying theme is sought, it is found first in the conflict of Christianity with the cultural background of Corinth. As Conzelmann has noted, "We have here to do with people who have only recently become Christians; what were the ideas they brought with them into the community?" (1975, 15). Most, if not all, of the problems which Paul discusses in I Corinthians can be attributed to the influence of the Corinthian cultural setting on the Christians there. It is generally accepted that the glorification of wisdom, the eating of meat offered to idols, and the denial of a bodily resurrection were aspects of Greek culture. In addition, ecstatic utterances may have been found in some Pythian and Dionysiac religions (Bruce 1971, 21), although the "speaking in tongues" in I Corinthians should not be viewed as a part of pagan religion. But Greek religion may have been an influence on the Corinthians' high estimate of this gift. Some of the problems that Paul deals with are moral problems, such as fornication, drunkenness, the desires of greed and for revenge that accompany lawsuits. But even these problems are culturally based, for Greek society did not place a strong condemnation on them.

Perhaps the most misunderstood cultural influence in modern days is the Greek attitude toward women wearing head coverings. Regarding this, Guthrie writes, "Paul urges Christian women to respect the social customs of their time, in spite of their new-found freedom" (1970, 445). But in fact, as shown in chapter II of this study, Greek women were under no necessity to wear a covering on their head in Greek society, especially when they were at worship. Rather than Paul pleading for respect of social customs, in I Corinthians 11 he is arguing for the maintenance of the Christian tradition (11:2). Some women were being influenced more by what society allowed than by what Christianity taught.

The Centrality of Christ

Although the cultural influences behind the problems at Corinth stand out, the word "culture" is not found in the text. Rather the key concept in I Corinthians is the Lord Jesus Christ. A list of the nouns and verbs that show theological significance and are used more than ten times (found in Table 5) clearly shows that the book of I Corinthians is primarily Theocentric and Christo-centric. The term "Christ" is found 64 times in I Corinthians. This is second in frequency of usage only to Romans (which has the word 66 times) among the New Testament books. The term "Lord" is found 66 times, and Jesus 26 times (Aland, Bachmann, and Slaby 1978, 2-304).

The arguments that Paul advances in trying to solve the various problems are rooted in Christ. Paul's argument about divisions in chapter 1 begins with an appeal in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:10). He implies that they were baptized in the name of Christ (1:13-15). For Paul, Christ is the crucified One, the Power of God, and the Wisdom of God (2:23-24); He is the foundation of the church (3:11). In discussing fornication, Paul notes that Christ is our Passover lamb (5:7); therefore, we should cleanse out the old leaven of sin from our lives. He argues that for a Christian to commit fornication is to join Christ to a prostitute (6:15). He refers to the command of the Lord in the instructions about marriage (7:10-11). In discussing food offered to idols, Paul states that Christians have one Lord, Jesus Christ. When we eat the Lord's Supper, we share in the body and blood of Christ (10:16). Paul exhorts the Christians to imitate him, as he imitates Christ (11:1). In discussing head coverings, he argues that Christ is the head of every man (11:3). In the discussion on the Lord's Supper, he recounts the words of Jesus on the night that He was betrayed (11:23-25). In the discourse on spiritual gifts, he calls Christians the body of Christ (12:27). And he grounds his discussion of the resurrection in the resurrection of Christ (15:3-23).

A Unified Macrostructure

With these two concepts in mind, the following tentative macrostructure could be suggested. Whether this was in fact the motivating idea which was in Paul's mind when he produced I Corinthians is highly questionable, but it can be said to fairly represent a summary of the text which he produced. It reads as follows:

(28) Obey Christ rather than following social customs, such as boasting about men, committing fornication and suing one another, getting a divorce, eating meat offered to an idol, having women pray bareheaded, getting drunk, valuing ecstatic utterances, doubting the resurrection, and spending all your money on yourself.



1 Godθεός106 27 memberμέλος16
2 Lordκύριος6628 spiritualπνευματικός15
3 ChristΧριστός6429 to giveδίδωμι15
4 to haveἔχω4930 powerδύναμις15
5 bodyσω̑μα4631 to be ableδύναμαι15
6 woman/wifeγυνή41 32 love ἀγάπη14
7 spiritπνευ̑μα4033 to doποιέω14
8 brotherἀδελφός3934 to drinkπίνω14
9 to speakλαλέω3435 deadνεκρός13
10 man/husbandἀνήρ3236 gloryδόξα12
11 man/humanἄνθρωπος3137 holy‘άγιος12
12 to sayλέγω3038 to callκαλέω12
13 to eatἐσθίω2739 wiseσοφός11
14 Jesus’Ιεσου̑ς2640 fleshσάρξ1
15 to knowοἰ̑δα2541 to prophesyπροφητεύω11
16 churchἐκκλησία2242 weakἀσθενής11
17 worldκόσμος2143 faithlessἄπιστος11
18 tongueγλω̑σσα2144 to receiveλαμβάνω11
19 to raiseἐγείρω2045 knowledgeγνω̑σις10
20 to writeγράφω1846 graceχάρις10
21 to comeἔρχομαι1847 to baptizeβαπτίζω10
22 wisdomσοφία1748 apostleἀπόστολος10
23 wordλόγος1749 to judgeἀνακρίνω10
24 to wishθέλω1750 headκεφαλή10
25 to judgeκρίνω1751 authorityἐξουσία10
26 to knowγινώσκω16

Table 5 was compiled using Aland, Bachmann, and Slaby 1978, 2-304 passim.


Themes as Meta-structures

Now the question remains: is this in fact a mental concept which Paul had in mind before beginning I Corinthians or not?While it does represent a good generalization that fairly summarizes the whole book, it is open to some of the same criticisms that were previously made of Hoopert and Youngman's work in macrostructures. For one thing, this suggested macrostructure is so general that it could generate any number of given texts. For another, it introduces the terms "Christ" and "social customs" from the theme, but such terms do not appear in most of the sectional macrostructures. The term "Christ" does appear in the discourses as they are worked out by Paul, and various social customs are dealt with in I Corinthians. But these seem to be a part of a recurrent theme rather than a part of a macrostructure. Finally, this suggested macrostructure would make the macrostructures of the component discourses of less importance than the theme, although an over-all macrostructure ought to be discoverable out of the macrostructures of the constituent discourses.

Now a recurrent theme in a discourse is not necessarily a part of its macrostructure. This is not to say that it is not a controlling mental concept, just that it is not necessarily a part of the central idea. Such a theme does play a part in structuring the discourse. But it is woven into the fabric of the text, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. As such, the mental structure that embodies the theme may be referred to as a "meta-structure" because it occurs throughout the text.

Actually the proposed "meta-structure" for I Corinthians may be more than a simple theme or recurrent motif. The appeal to Christ in the various arguments which Paul presents throughout I Corinthians may very well be labeled a recurrent motif. But Christ's relation to culture is more likely to be a part of his underlying world view than a theme that he decided to emphasize. In this world view, Christ was Lord of the universe, and pagan religion, Greek or otherwise, was wicked. Thus in Paul's mind, each aspect of pagan religion that made its way into the Christian community must give way before the authority of Christ. The "meta-structure" which manifests itself in I Corinthians is deeply rooted in its author's world view.

Now in postulating that a mental structure which can be labelled a "meta-structure" exists in the conceptual realm, the suggestion is being made that many discourses are more complex than the idea of one simple macrostructure would allow for. A discourse may actually contain more than one macrostructure in addition to several themes or "meta-structures". It is the integration of the macrostructures, "meta-structures," and rhetorical organization principles that determines the final over-all structure of a given discourse.

I Corinthians is one of these complex discourses that requires more than a simple statement of a single macrostructure to account for its final form. Ten macrostructures of component discourses have been isolated together with a "meta-structure" that takes the form "Obey Christ rather than following social customs." These conceptual structures are mapped onto a mixture of rhetorical patterns that include a cyclical (ABA'B'A''B'') treatment of response to oral information and response to the Corinthians letter. Several of the component discourses take the form of a simple chiastic structure (ABA'). The discourse is laid out with balance in mind as regards the number of discourses per cyclical unit, forming a pattern (2-2-2-1-1-2). Balance is seen in the location of the transitional paragraphs about Paul's travel plans: between the first two discourses and also between the last two. All of these elements are needed to explain the high level organization of the complex book of I Corinthians.

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