A Discourse Analysis of First CorinthiansRalph Bruce Terry
Previous SectionNext SectionHome | Chapters: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6



Summary and Conclusions

Within the past few years, the study of discourse has received more attention within linguistics. There has been a shift on the part of certain linguists from a concern with the sentence and below to features of discourse that appear above sentence level. This dissertation applies this concern to the New Testament book of I Corinthians in an effort to combine the rich tradition of Biblical studies with the latest types of research into discourse in the discipline of linguistics. Chapter I states the research problem and defines the goals for this study. It also surveys the foundational work of both disciplines that provide the basis for this study and provides a review of the literature on which it is based.

Chapter II begins with an exploration of the rhetorical situation in which I Corinthians was produced and read. While on his second missionary journey, the apostle Paul established a church in the Greek city of Corinth. Later on his third missionary journey, he engaged with that church in an exchange of correspondence. There is evidence that he wrote the church four letters and the church wrote him at least one. That letter inquired about such topics as marriage, virginity, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, the contribution for the saints, and also expressed a desire for Apollos to visit the church again. In addition, Paul learned from various oral reports that the church had problems relating to congregational unity, fornication, lawsuits, head coverings, the Lord's Supper, and the final resurrection of the dead. In response to that letter and the oral reports, Paul wrote his second letter in the correspondence which has come to be called I Corinthians.

Chapter II also lays a foundation of cultural background for the various topics that are discussed in I Corinthians. The research in this dissertation establishes that all of the problems addressed grew out of the culture of the Greek world at that time. First, there was a tradition of Greek philosophy that wisdom made good political leaders. Second, prostitution was an established and respected function in Corinth, although this laxity in sexual ethics did not extend to condoning incest. Third, divorce was fairly common in the Greek world. Fourth, several pagan gods, notably Asclepius, Isis, and Sarapis, were often worshiped at a sacrificial banquet held either in the temple of the god or at the home of the devotee. Fifth, Greek women frequently wore some type of covering on their head, but except for married women in Sparta and eastern women (Jewish women and women from Tarsus), they were not under any obligation to do so; in fact, there is some evidence that both men and women uncovered their heads for prayer in Greek society. Sixth, drunkenness was sometimes considered a part of a religious rite, especially in the worship of Dionysus. Seventh, ecstasy was another mark of Greek religion, especially in the worship of Dionysus, but also in the worship of Apollos when the Delphic prophetess would speak in "tongues." Eighth, women often served as priestesses and prophetesses in Greek religion. Ninth, Greek thought generally denied a resurrection of the body from the dead. And finally, Corinth was a favorite stop for orators who gave speeches and collected fees. At some point, all of these cultural traditions came into conflict with Christian teaching. For these items, Paul took an attitude that Niebuhr (1951) has characterized as "Christ against culture," referring not to culture in general, but to those aspects of culture which were in conflict with Christianity.

Chapter III begins with a study of the major divisions of I Corinthians. The body of this letter is composed of ten discourses, five of which are in response to the Corinthians' letter and five of which are in response to oral reports which Paul had received. The former are all introduced by Περὶ δέ 'now concerning'; the latter are introduced by δέ 'now'. They are arranged in a three-cycle alternating pattern between responses to oral reports and responses to the Corinthians' letter. The pattern is clearly indicated by Table 4 on page 0. The topics of the ten discourses are 1) church division (1:10-4:17), 2) fornication (4:18-6:20), 3) marriage and virginity (7:1-40), 4) food offered to idols (8:1-11:1), 5) head coverings (11:2-16), 6) the Lord's Supper (11:17-34), 7) spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40), 8) the resurrection from the dead (15:1-58), 9) the contribution for the saints (16:1-11), and 10) Apollos' plans (16:12). The first four discourses, as well as the seventh and eighth, show a major chiastic pattern. The study gives evidence to show that the fourth discourse (8:1-11:1) is in fact a single unit, although scholars have often questioned its unity. There are also good reasons to assign the transitional paragraph of 4:18-21 to the second discourse rather than the first, as is traditionally done.

Once the major divisions of the book have been established, chapter III deals with the macrostructures or key ideas of each discourse. These are summarized in (17) through (27) on pages 0 and 0 of this study. An attempt was made to discover a unifying theme for I Corinthians that would tie these divergent macrostructures together. A theme of "Obey Christ rather than your culture" (where the two are in conflict) was discovered. A one-sentence abstract of the book was produced by combining this theme with the ten discourse macrostructures, but it seems unlikely that this abstract itself serves as a macrostructure for the entire book. Rather, it seems more likely that the theme, in connection with the Corinthians' world view, serves as a kind of meta-structure that recurs repeatedly throughout the book, tying it together. I Corinthians is not the product of a single mental construct; rather, it resulted from a combination of ideas reflected in both the discourse macrostructures and the thematic meta-structure.

Chapter IV is a study of the smaller structures of I Corinthians from the triple perspective of tagmemic theory. That theory says that any text can be viewed three ways by examining its hierarchy of units (particle), transitions (wave), and patterned relationships (field).

Beginning with the particle approach, four types of structural paragraphs are found in I Corinthians: question-answer paragraphs, question-command paragraphs, chiastically structured paragraphs, and paragraphs with parallel structures. Orthographic paragraphs are of limited value in analyzing a text, but chapter IV illustrates a methodology of comparing the orthographic paragraphs in two editions of the Greek text and seven English translations in order to produce a rough approximation of the embedding level of each paragraph. This has the value of providing a control for the discourse analyst who approaches a text seeking to study the recursively embedded levels of paragraphs. The analysis shows that several devices are used to mark the beginnings of new paragraphs, including vocatives, exclamations, first and second person verbs, and various conjunctions. Longacre's method of constituent structure analysis (1970; 1980; 1983a; 1989a) was applied to five passages to discover various role relationships between smaller embedded paragraphs. The results are given in Tables 11-15 on pages 0-0 in English and in Appendix B in Greek. From this work, two methodologies were applied. First, the data were analyzed to discover the relationships between role and level of embedding. Reason, amplification, and motivation paragraphs were discovered at all levels of embedding, while clarification and evidence paragraphs were limited to lower levels. Second, a salience ranking chart was prepared and is presented in Table 17 on page 0. That chart embodies the claim that present imperatives are on the mainline of hortatory texttype. Present subjunctives when used in appeals are also considered to be on the mainline. Farther down in salience level, present indicative verbs mark several roles, including condition, explanation, introduction, and reason. Rhetorical questions are introduced to provide motivation. Still farther down in level, aorist verbs are used to show purpose and result. Finally, quotations are used to provide evidence.

The wave perspective is also used in chapter IV to examine transitions in I Corinthians. Conceptual transitions are shown to be of several types: they can involve a change of topic within one clause, a change of topic while retaining a metaphor, and a change of topic with the corresponding grammatical signals indicating no change at all. The transitional unit can vary in size from an object and its apposition to a complete paragraph that has ties to both the preceding topic and the following one. Such a transition belongs to both topics, although a particle approach by its very nature assigns it to one or the other.

The field approach focuses on different patterns in I Corinthians, including parallel, cyclic, and chiastic. There are a good many examples of the latter in I Corinthians. Not only do six of the discourses show major patterns of chiasmus as chapter III indicated, but each of the first eight discourses show chiasmus on a smaller paragraph level as well. It is only the shorter discourses in chapter 16 that lack this pattern. There are three types of chiasmus that exist in I Corinthians: lexical, in which words are repeated in a chiastic pattern; grammatical, in which grammatical structures are repeated in a chiastic manner; and conceptual, in which concepts are repeated chiastically. Some patterns have only a single one of these types, but others show a combination of them.

Each of these three approaches to a text provides a different perspective on that text. Sometimes the same type of structure is under view, but the multiple perspectives give a more complete picture than any one approach. A chiasm can be studied as either a structured paragraph (particle view) or as a pattern of concepts (field view). A transitional paragraph can be assigned to a particular discourse or section of a discourse (particle view) or be seen as belonging to both (wave view). But not only does a multiple perspective approach provide additional linguistic frameworks for analyzing a text, it also sheds additional light on meaning. Of course, not every linguistic insight is useful in determining what an author is trying to say. The misuse of an analytical tool can obscure the author's intention. But a multiple perspective provides a built-in corrective that no technique using a single perspective can have.

One of the techniques used to study the discourse structure of I Corinthians was the creation and analysis of a database containing twenty-eight variables on every clause in the letter. Chapter V presents the results of using this database to explore five areas of discourse: peak areas of grammatical turbulence, participant reference in subject slots, the dominant word order in a clause, quotations and quotation formulas that introduce them, and the effect of the rhetorical situation on Paul's style.

Peak is defined as a zone of turbulence within the grammatical structure of a text that corresponds to the conceptual climax of the work. Longacre and those who have followed his techniques have demonstrated that such zones of turbulence are found in narrative texts in hundreds of languages. This study adds additional support to the hypothesis that such peaks occur in non-narrative texts as well. Chapters 12-15 are significantly different (using a statistical test) from the rest of the book in its distribution of variables in the following grammatical categories: sentence location, clause relationship, independent relationship, clause order type, verb mode, verb tense, verb voice, verb semantic type, subject type, subject person, texttype, and statement or question form. In addition, this peak area shows an increase in object fronting and verb omission as compared with the rest of the letter. It is notable that it encompasses two of the discourses, one in response to the Corinthians letter (chapters 12-14) and one in response to the oral reports (chapter 15). Perhaps there is a peak for each of these response types. Further, these are the two discourses that are foreshadowed in the thanksgiving in 1:4-9. These two peak discourses seem to serve as some sort of "epistolary climax" to the book.

The second area of study with the database is that of participant reference in subject slots. When a subject is continued from a previous subject slot or even immediately resumed after being changed, a verb ending is most often sufficient to keep track of the subject. But where a new or different subject is introduced, a noun or noun phrase is most often used to introduce that subject. Different subjects are most likely to be introduced in a preceding dependent clause or in an independent clause (usually the first clause in a colon), while following dependent clauses are most likely to retain the same subject. Narrative text is most likely to retain the same subject, while expository text is most likely to introduce many different subjects. The use of the first person is associated with retaining the same subject, while the use of third person allows for a frequent change in subject. Four chains of same subject reference that continue through at least fifteen clauses are found in the book. Three of them utilize the first person; the long third person chain is used in the discussion of love in chapter 13. The introduction of a totally new subject more often occurred in clauses with the verb in front of the subject than vice versa.

Word order in Koiné Greek clauses is extremely complex. Subjects regularly precede objects. Several factors, including object topicalization, object emphasis, summation, and contrast, can cause the object to be fronted before the subject. The more difficult question is verb position. In recent years, Friberg (1982) studying Luke, Radney (1982; 1988) studying Hebrews, and Levinsohn (1987) studying Acts have all maintained that Koiné Greek was a verb initial language. An examination of the data in I Corinthians, a non-narrative text, does not bear out such a claim. While it is possible that narrative text may in fact be VSO, the presence of verb initial clauses in Luke and Acts may also be due either to a high percentage of motion and speech verbs (which often show verb fronting) in narrative texttype or to an imitation of the "Biblical Greek" style of the Old Testament which followed the Hebrew VSO word order.

The non-narrative text of I Corinthians shows that clauses are mostly likely to be either SVO or SOV in order. The few VSO clauses in I Corinthians are all marked by secondary grammatical features. Object position seems to be determined largely by the "weight" of the object. Heavy objects, such as clauses embedded in the object slot, and articular accusative objects (when used with noun subjects) are usually found at the end of a clause (i.e., in SVO order). Light objects, such as pronouns and anarthrous accusative objects, usually occur before the verb (i.e., in SOV order). Clauses with pronoun subjects and noun objects seem to prefer SOV order also. Clauses with predicate adjectives and predicate nominatives are most usually found in SOV order. Emphasis is achieved by moving an element out of its dominant position.

Excluding quotations and allusions from the Corinthians' letter, there are thirty-seven quotations in the book of I Corinthians. Of the eighteen quotations from the Old Testament, eight are introduced using the word γέγραπται 'it has been written'. Three times the word γάρ 'for' is used to introduce Old Testament quotations, and three times an Old Testament scripture is quoted without any introduction. The second largest class of quotations are those that represent hypothetical speech. Seven of these nine cases are introduced using a form of the verb λέγω 'I say'. The next class of quotations is reported speech, either that of the Corinthians or that of Jesus in instituting the Lord's Supper. These cases are all introduced using a form of the verb λέγω 'I say'. The other two quotations are from familiar sayings and are introduced only with the article or with no introductory words at all.

The Old Testament quotations in I Corinthians are taken mainly from the Septuagint; however, the quotations in 2:16 and 3:19 agree closely with the Masoretic Hebrew text. The recounting of Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples is not strictly speaking a quotation; however, two-thirds of the words in this account are shared with the gospel of Luke.

When the book of I Corinthians is divided into two types of material based on whether it is a response to oral reports (1:10-6:20; 11:2-34; and 15:1-58) or a response to the Corinthians' letter (7:1-11:1; 12:1-14:40; and 16:1-12), there are significant differences in distribution of the following grammatical variables between the two types of material: clause relationship, verb mode, verb voice, semantic type, subject semantics, texttype, words per clause, statement or question, same subject as previous, sentence location (i.e., preceding dependent, independent, or following dependent), clause type, verb tense, subject type, prepositional phrases, and clause order type. Many of these variables are associated with what is often called in biblical studies a writer's style.

Those parts of I Corinthians which are in response to the Corinthians' questions in their letter are generally more hortatory in nature, as evidenced by more command clauses and more imperative and subjunctive verbs. The discourses in these parts are also more direct and argumentative, as evidenced by a larger percentage of conditional clauses and more active voice and present tense verbs. The discourses in response to the oral reports that Paul had received are more tentative and less direct, as evidenced by more statements, longer clauses, and more use of the passive voice. These discourses contain more persuasive material, as Paul tries to modify the Corinthians' belief and value systems underlying their behavior rather than just command their obedience. These differences can be accounted for by the rhetorical situation, which is different in the two cases: in one case Paul has been asked for advice, even for a ruling; in the other case Paul is talking about matters which they may well just as soon he never knew about. Thus, rhetorical situation can determine style and can account for significant differences between passages.

Back to top | Next: Chapter 6.2 Areas for Additional Research

Bruce Terry's Home Page
Bruce Terry Home Page
Last Updated October 26, 2002
Page developed by Ben Cheek and maintained by .

Copyright © 1993 Ralph Bruce Terry. All rights reserved.