Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Methodoloigcal Reflections on the Recent 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 Study

In his recent study of the lawsuits among believers at Corinth, Richard Horsley (2000: 74, 91, 100) argues that Paul is engaged in rhetorical subversion against the Roman Empire, which, in Paul’s mind was fleeting and soon to be replaced by God’s new order. Therefore, the Corinthians should not take their brothers or sisters to these courts but these disputes should be adjudicated between the members of the community of believers at Corinth. Horsley’s reading of the text, with its focus on the nature of the Roman court system and the civic context at Corinth, is to be situated with others who have sought to understand Paul’s admonition within its political or public context (Witherington 1995: 162; Thiselton 2000: 419–21). This approach is congruent with the program of historical criticism and its desire to understand the cultural and social background of a text in order to ascertain what an author intended to communicate. Whether one focuses on the rhetoric of Paul (Mitchell 1991: 116–8), understanding the court system during the Roman period, or seeks to situate the passage in the social setting of Paul and those living in Roman Corinth in the mid-first century CE, these approaches have in common a commitment to understanding 1 Corinthians 6:1–11 from a historical perspective.

This just completed study, while being concerned with historical reconstruction, was primarily interested in broadening this research to include an identity-critical analysis. In some ways, this approach is similar to what a feminist hermeneutic seeks to accomplish (cf. Schüssler Fiorenza 1999: 89; Ehrensperger 2004: 197; Barton 1997: 286). As one attempts an historical reconstruction, which may serve as an acceptable heuristic device, it becomes clear that this reconstruction will remain tenuous and as a result, at least somewhat, an academic endeavor. This may also be said for Paul’s theological agenda; however, the trajectory of this study was on the issue of identity formation and how it impacted Paul’s rhetorical choices in attempting to negotiate boundaries within this nascent community of believers in Jesus Christ.

This study sought to understand the function of this text in meditating group boundaries and understanding how texts, similar to 1 Corinthian 6:1–11, form identity within these communities. This approach has much in common with the work of Judith Lieu (2004) and Denise Kimball Buell (2005). The reason one studies Paul’s argument is because this is the closest one can come to understanding the pattern of power that is leveled against the readers. These patterns are inherent in these texts and serve as a shaper and molder of behaviors, or at least, attempt to do this. When attempting to understand the identity forming power of a text one shifts this analysis from the meaning of the text to the function of the text within the community. That does not mean that the more traditional lines of research are ignored (i.e., syntactical, historical, or theological analysis), it means the rhetorical and functional aspects of meaning making become the object of focus to produce a clearer understanding of what Paul was attempting to affect in his auditors of his Corinthian correspondence.

Barton, Stephen C., “Social-Scientific Criticism”, in Stanley E. Porter, (ed.), Handbook to Exegesis of the New Testament. (Leiden, Brill, 1997), 277–289.
Buell, Denise K., “Why this New Race:” Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity. (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005).
Ehrensperger, Kathy, That We May Be Mutually Encouraged: Feminism and the New Perspective in Pauline Studies. (New York, London: T & T Clark International, 2004).
Horsley, Richard, “Rhetoric and Empire – And 1 Corinthians,” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000).
Lieu, Judith M., Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Mitchell, Margaret M., Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation. An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians, (Westminster, John Knox Press, 1991).
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elizabeth, Rhetoric and Ethic. The Politics of Biblical Studies, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999).
Thiselton, Anthony C., The First Epistle to the Corinthians. A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000).
Witherington III, Ben, Conflict and Community in Corinth. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995).

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