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


Sometime between the first and third centuries A.D., an unknown writer whom scholars have come to call "Longinus" wrote a treatise on Greek style entitled On the Sublime (Fyfe 1932, xvii-xviii). In chapters 23 to 29 of that work, "Longinus" discusses techniques which lend variety and liveliness to a composition through grammatical changes. Among those changes which he discusses are the expansion of the singular into the plural to convey the idea of multitude (On the Sublime 23.2-3), the contraction of the plural into the singular to give an effect of sublimity (24), the use of the present tense in narrating past time in order to increase vividness (25), the change of the person addressed from the whole audience to a single individual also to give a vivid effect (26), the use of the first person for one of the characters to show an outbreak of emotion (27), and the use of periphrasis or circumlocution to give the work a far richer note (28-29). His conclusion is that these techniques "all serve to lend emotion and excitement to the style" (On the Sublime 29.2)

Recently, linguistic study in discourse has found that techniques such as these are used, not only by the Greeks, but by storytellers around the world in many, if not all, of the world's languages. In the last two decades, Longacre (1981, 1983b, 1985a, 1990b) has studied this phenomenon of grammatical change to increase emotional effects and labeled it peak. An extended discussion of the theory of peak has been given in chapter I of this study and will not be repeated here. The discussion in this chapter will center on the techniques for discovering the zone or zones of peak grammatical turbulence in I Corinthians and the significance of such zones for hortatory texttype.

There are a couple of features, which elsewhere seem to mark peak (cf. Terry 1992, 121-122 for the book of James), which do not seem productive in I Corinthians. One is the use of vocatives at other places than the beginning of paragraphs. Seven vocatives fall in this category. They are found in 1:11, 7:16 (bis), 7:24, 15:31, and 15:55 (bis). Of these, the one in 1:11 seems to be marking the beginning of the first discourse, the three in chapter 7 are found in the final colons of their paragraphs, and the two in 15:55 occur in a quotation. The one instance of a vocative in 15:31 without another explanation can hardly be said to be determinative of peak. The same can be said of the interjection idou 'behold'. It occurs only once in I Corinthians, in 15:51. Even though these two items occur in the same chapter, two cases do not provide much evidence.

Actually, there are two aspects of peak which jump out at the reader who is on the lookout for a zone of grammatical turbulence in I Corinthians. First, the fact that chapter 15 is primarily persuasive rather that hortatory in nature is a rather obvious difference from the rest of the book. This is indicated primarily by a noticeable lack of imperatives, which serve as the mainline of hortatory text. Second, the reader may well note the large number of verbless clauses that begin to appear in the text beginning with chapter 12. These factors give an initial impression that the text from chapters 12 to 15 may contain peak material, but that impression must be checked out in a methodical manner to confirm it.

Table 19 lists three variables for each chapter in the book of I Corinthians. First, the number of clauses for each of four types of texttype is given for each chapter. Those places where more than fifty occurrences of one texttype are found in a chapter are indicated by bold print. Of special note is the strong hortatory nature of chapters 7 and 14 and the strong persuasive nature of chapter 15.




| | Clause | Number of | Texttype | Order | Verbless Clauses Chapter| Hor. | Per. | Exp. | Nar. | VO%|OV%| implied | equative | spread 1 | 4 | 28 | 47 | 1 | 68%|32%| 1 | 12 | 2 | 1 | 32 | 8 | | 41%|59%| | 1 | 3 | 17 | 33 | 18 | | 40%|60%| | 7 | 1 4 | 72 | | | | 39%|61%| 1 | 7 | 1 5 | 26 | | 8 | | 58%|42%| | 2 | 1 6 | 61 | | | | 40%|60%| | 4 | 7 | 132 | 18 | | | 44%|56%| | 3 | 1 8 | 8 | 31 | 4 | | 58%|42%| | 6 | 9 | 18 | 71 | 13 | | 39%|61%| 1 | 1 | 6 10 | 69 | 21 | 4 | 8 | 38%|62%| | 4 | 1 11 | 84 | | 15 | 12 | 42%|58%| | 11 | 3 12 | 1 | 54 | 33 | | 53%|47%| | 19 | 9 13 | | 53 | | | 57%|43%| | 4 | 1 14 | 131 | 1 | | | 38%|62%| | 7 | 15 | 10 | 139 | 11 | 14 | 63%|37%| 1 | 35 | 7 16 | 38 | | 15 | 14 | 60%|40%| | 4 |

The second variable studied is the clause ordering of verbs and objects across the chapters. Considering all kinds of clauses, objects are slightly more likely to precede verbs in I Corinthians than vice versa (by a count of 370 to 331). However, in seven chapters (1, 5, 8, 12, 13, 15, and 16) there are more clauses with objects following the verbs than vice versa. These have been indicated in bold in the clause order column of Table 19. An application of the chi-square test to this data shows that this distribution is statistically significant, that is, there is less than a 5% probability that it would occur due to random distribution of objects and verbs. Some of this turbulence may be analogous to that found around an inciting incident in narrative, for chapters 1, 5, 8, and 12 all begin multi-chapter discourses; the heavy distribution of VO clauses toward the end of the book, however, would seem to point to a peak area.

The third variable presented in Table 19 is the number of verbless clauses. There are three kinds of verbless clauses in I Corinthians: implied, equative, and spread. In four cases (in 1:1, 4:6, 9:10, and 15:8) a verb is omitted from a clause, but it can be supplied from the context by implication. The most common situation is that forms of the equative verbs (eimi 'be' and ginomai 'be', 'become', often called copulas) may be omitted from equative clauses. This is a well documented fact of Greek grammar (Blass, Debrunner, and Funk 1961, 70-71 [§127-128]; Robertson 395-396; and Turner 1963, 294-298). The remarkable thing about this omission is that chapters 12 and 15 show 19 and 35 instances of this feature, respectively. In fact, chapter 15 has three major spans of text with no verbs (verses 38b-41, 45b-48, and 55-56). No other chapter shows more than 12 instances. The third kind of omission of the verb occurs in clauses where the verb would have been the same as the verb of the previous clause. The verb of the previous clause "spreads" across the following clause or clauses. Again, chapters 12 and 15 stand out with 9 and 7 instances of verb spreading, respectively.

All of these factors seem to point toward chapters 12, 13, and 15 as showing a marked difference from the rest of the text. From a wave perspective, chapters 12 and 13 may be the peak for the discourses in response to the Corinthians' letter, while chapter 15 may be the peak for the discourses in response to the oral reports. But from a particle perspective, it seems advisable to hypothesize that the region also includes chapter 14 and thus take the zone of grammatical turbulence as covering chapters 12 through 15. This would be confirmed by the high degree of embedded chiasmus found in chapters 12-14 while studying the field perspective above. With this in mind, the database of clauses in I Corinthians was set to compare grammatical structures in chapters 12 through 15 against the rest of the book. When this was done, the following variables listed in Table 18 showed a highly significant difference between the peak area and the rest of the book: 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. This means that for these variables there are such grammatical differences between the peak zone of chapter 12 through 15 and the rest of the book that there is less than .5% probability that such differences could be due to random distribution factors of these grammatical features. From this list, the twenty-one most significant factors in causing these differences have been gathered in Table 20.




Variable                        |        Peak         |          Non-Peak     |
Persuasive Texttype                     55.3% (n=247)             23.2% (n=216) 
Hortatory Texttype                      31.8% (n=142)             56.9% (n=530) 
Preceding Clauses                       18.1% (n=81)              11.0% (n=102) 
Following Clauses                        8.7% (n=39)              20.0% (n=186) 
Independent Clauses                     58.2% (n=260)             51.7% (n=481) 
Dependent Clauses                       41.8% (n=187)             48.3% (n=450) 
Verbless Clauses                        18.6% (n=83)               8.4% (n=79) 
Conditional Clauses                     12.5% (n=56)               7.2% (n=67) 
VO Clause Order                         52.5% (n=96)              45.4% (n=235) 
OV Clause Order                         47.5% (n=87)              54.6% (n=283) 
OS Clause Order*                        56.3% (n=18)              23.1% (n=9) 
(for verbless clauses)   
Statements                              76.5% (n=342)             63.1% (n=587) 
Questions                               11.9% (n=53)              15.8% (n=147) 
Commands                                11.6% (n=52)              21.2% (n=197) 
Aorist Tense Verbs                     20.6% (n=75)              26.6% (n=227) 
Passive Voice Verbs                    19.8% (n=72)              14.2% (n=121) 
Noun Subjects                          61.4% (n=154)             44.5% (n=203) 
Pronoun Subjects                       23.1% (n=58)              38.2% (n=174) 
First Person Subjects                   19.9% (n=89)              24.2% (n=225) 
Second Person Subjects                   9.8% (n=44)              18.5% (n=172) 
Third Person Subjects                   69.8% (n=312)             56.3% (n=524) 
All unmarked percentages are based on 447 clauses in peak text and 931 clauses in non-
peak text.
*These percentages are based on 83 verbless clauses in peak text and 79 verbless
clauses in non-peak text.
These percentages are based on 364 verbs in peak
 text and 852 verbs in non-peak text.
These percentages are based on 251 overt subjects
 in peak text and 456 overt subjects in non-peak text.

This is not to imply that all of these factors are uniformly distributed across the peak zone. The aorist tense is still used in the peak area, but notably less frequently than in non-peak areas. But toward the end of chapter 15, from verses 38 through 48, there is a small region of very little verb use at all. Only fifteen verbs are used at all in these eleven verses, and only two (13.3%) of them are aorist. The distribution of tense is not uniform.

There is also a greater use of passive voice verbs in the peak area than in the letter as a whole. But closer examination reveals that this greater use is limited to chapter 15, where 35.9% of the verbs are in the passive voice, while chapters 12 through 14 show a 10.7% use of passive voice verbs, which is less than the average percentage of passive verbs used in the rest of I Corinthians. The point is that peak constitutes a zone of turbulence, but different factors change at different rates.

The question remains as to the significance of peak in the book of I Corinthians. Peak can hardly be said to constitute a "hortatory climax" in a region of text where the primary texttype is persuasive rather than hortatory. Of course, there is a relationship between persuasive and hortatory texttype. Persuasive text tends to influence the reader toward a different belief, while hortatory text tries to get the reader to change a course of action. This distinction is similar to that noted by Stowers in ancient letters of advice: "When advice calls for a specific course of action it is deliberative; when it only seeks to increase adherence to a value or to cultivate a character trait it is epideitic" (1986, 107). Just as both texttypes convey advice, so both texttypes rely on motivation to achieve their ends. These similarities between these texttypes may indicate that peak does mark a kind of "advice climax" here. Since it is in a letter, it could also be called an "epistolary climax."

It is also worth noting that this peak area covers 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.

However that may be, it can be said that the peak area in I Corinthians does indicate topics about which Paul felt and showed a marked increase in emotion and wanted to convey that emotion to his intended audience. He was deeply concerned about the oneness of the body of Christians as it was endowed with different spiritual gifts. Likewise, he considered the topic of the resurrection to be a matter of first importance (cf. I Cor. 15:3).

This is further signified by the fact that these topics are the ones mentioned in the opening thanksgiving in 1:4-9. There Paul mentions that the Corinthians had "all speech" (both prophecy and speaking in tongues) and "all knowledge" and were "not lacking in any spiritual gift" (1:5-6). These themes are discussed in full in chapters 12 through 14. He goes on to say that the Corinthians were waiting "for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ" who would sustain them as "guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:7-8). That day is thoroughly treated in the discussion about the resurrection in chapter 15.

New Testament studies in the epistles have taken seriously Schubert's proposal that the opening thanksgiving often suggested the purpose of the letter and outlined its key topics (Doty 1973, 32-33; Stowers 1986, 21-22). There has been some attempt to make the opening thanksgiving of I Corinthians fit this pattern, but the efforts fall short. The macrostructures of the ten discourses cover much more material than the few items noted in the thanksgiving.

To be sure, Bailey has tried to make his five-fold analysis of I Corinthians fit the thanksgiving (1983, 157). But the weaknesses of his method have already been discussed in chapter III of this study. In addition, he tries to identify the discussion of wisdom in I Corinthians 1-4 with the "all speech" and "all knowledge" of 1:5 in the thanksgiving. The problem is that wisdom is not mentioned in the thanksgiving and knowledge is not mentioned again until chapter 8 ("all knowledge" not again until 13:2). Further, Bailey's (1983, 157) identification of "guiltless" in 1:8 with the discussion of sexual matters in chapters 5-7 falls far short since the Corinthians could hardly be said to be guiltless in sexual matters.

Stowers' (1986, 22) identification of "knowledge" in the thanksgiving with chapters 1-4 and 8 is open to the same kinds of criticism. It is very difficult to identify the Corinthians' "all knowledge" (1:5) with their reliance on man's wisdom which was causing them to boast about men (3:19-21). Similarly, it is difficult to identify it with the knowledge about idols in chapter 8 which all did not have (8:2, 7). Stowers' identification of "knowledge" with chapters 12-14 seems much better.

All of this is to suggest that the themes of the opening thanksgiving in I Corinthians point primarily to the items covered in the peak material of chapters 12-15, not to the whole letter. Perhaps in other New Testament books that have a unified macrostructure, a similar relationship between thanksgiving and peak material holds, but it is masked by the fact that the peak material brings to a climax the discussion of themes that are central to the whole letter. The matter is worthy of further research.

Back to top | Next: Chapter 5.2 Participant Reference.

Bruce Terry's Home Page
Bruce Terry Home Page
Last Updated October 18, 2002
Page developed by Ben Cheek and maintained by .

Copyright © 1993 Ralph Bruce Terry. All rights reserved.