The Rabbi Argues for Apostolic Support

© Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

          Many passages of scripture seem difficult to understand because we are unaware of the literary structure the original author used to communicate effectively with his original readers. First, we usually read the Bible in translation, and translators are usually more concerned with establishing a close connection between the original words and the receptor language words rather than recognizing, understanding, and reproducing the literary structure of the original in the translation. The second is because most written communication in our contemporary culture is generally devoid of the many complexities and nuances of meaning achieved through a literary approach to writing; consequently, we don’t even think to look for literary features, much less understand their impact on the piece we are reading. Considering that the Bible is a collection of 66 different books written over a 1500 year period by 40 authors using different literary styles (poetry, prose, narrative, dialog, history, proverb, apocalyptic, etc.), we should pay more attention to the literary aspects of the Bible.

          1 Corinthians 9:1-14 contains a fascinating argument by the apostle Paul to convince the Corinthian church that they had a God-directed obligation to provide material support for the ministers God sent to them – whether they were apostles, missionaries, or pastors. When we analyze the passage from a literary perspective, we can see the richness of Paul’s argument. We can appreciate the strength of his reasoning. We can enjoy his comparisons and contrasts. We can learn the art of powerful persuasion. Here’s how the passage reads:

“Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:4-14).

          Paul’s argument is presented in 1 Corinthians 9:4-14 as a series of parallels and Hillel-type arguments that provide a complex, airtight argument the Corinthians cannot refute regarding their obligation to cheerfully support the apostles Paul and Barnabas. He also argues that they are sinning by thinking that his authority is nullified if he asks them for material support for his work.

          The types of parallelisms used are step or synthetic, synonymous, antithetical, and chiastic. Step or synthetic parallelisms make one statement followed by a second statement that takes the principle of the first statement and applies it in a new circumstance. Synonymous parallelism makes two (or more) statements using different words, examples, or analogies, but both statements mean essentially the same thing. Antithetical parallelism makes one statement and contrasts it to a second “contrary” statement. Chiastic parallelisms are defined by their shape, not by their content. (So, for example, you could have a chiastic step parallelism, a chiastic antithetical parallelism, etc.). A parallelism is chiastic if the order of the words or ideas in the first statement appear in the second statement, but in reverse order of presentation. This is symbolized as an a b/b a argument. It is called “chiastic” after the Greek letter Chi, which looks like our letter X. A simple chiastic argument is in the (Greek word order of the) second and third clauses of John 1:1 —

The Word was with God

 a b

And God was the Word

b a

          Of the seven major rules of interpretation and argumentation taught by the great Rabban Hillel (whose grandson, Gamaliel, taught Paul), his arguments from the lesser to the greater and that of the greater to the lesser are used in 1 Cor. 9:4-14. An example of arguing from the lesser would be, if you practice compassion on your enemy (toward whom you have little affection), then surely you would practice compassion on your brother (toward whom you have great affection). An example of arguing from the greater to the lesser would be, if a bridge is built that can hold the weight of one hundred men, then certainly it would be reasonable to argue that the bridge could hold the weight of one small child.

Synonymous          4        Do we have no right to eat and drink?

Parallel                  5        Do we have no right to bring our wives?



Step or                   4        Paul has the right to support

Synthetic               5        Because the other apostles have that right.



Synonymous          4        Do we have no right to eat and drink?

Parallel                  6        Do we have no right to refrain from working?


Synonymous          5        Other apostles have the right to take their wives

Parallels                 7a      Soldiers are paid for their work

                              7b      Vine workers eat the fruit they grow

                              7c      Shepherds drink the sheep’s milk

                              9        Ox eat from what they thresh

                              10      Those who plow eat from the harvest

                                         Those who thresh eat from the grain


Antithetical            8a      The declaration of a “mere” (uninspired) man vs.

Parallel                  8b      The declaration of God’s Word (the Law) by God’s Prophet (Moses)


Step or                   5-10   All of these receive a portion of the bounty they have

Synthetic                           sown.

Parallel                  11      Therefore, if we have sown spiritually among you, we

should be able to reap materially from you


Step or                   12a    If others partake from you

Synthetic               12b    Certainly we should (since we brought you to faith)



Step or                   12c    (Even though we have the right)

Synthetic               12c    Nevertheless we do not exercise the right



Synonymous          12c    Nevertheless we do not exercise the right

Parallel                  12c    We endure all things


Step                       12d    We avoid hindering the success of the gospel

or Synthetic           12c    By refraining from the right and enduring all things



Synonymous          13a    The priests and their families are provided for

Parallel                             through the tithes and gifts brought to the temple

                              13b    The priests who officiate at the sacrifices are provided for by the sacrifices

                              14      The Lord has likewise commanded that those who preach the gospel should be provided for by those who respond to the gospel.


Chiastic                 4 - 5   Paul has the right to support because the apostles have

Parallel*                           the right

                              14      Since the apostles have the right (Paul has the right)


Argument              12a    Other apostles (who didn’t bring you to faith) have the

from Lesser                      right to partake from you

to Greater              12b    Certainly we (who brought you to faith) have the right to partake from you


Argument              12c    Even if I did partake from you, you would not be

from Greater                    justified in your selfishness

to Lesser                12c    Since I did not partake from you, you have even less justification for your selfishness

(*Note that verses 4-5 begin the argument; verse 14 concludes the argument.)

          When we understand something of the literary forms used by the biblical writers, we can better understand, appreciate, and prove what they are trying to teach. During Jesus’s time, this was the way good teachers spoke in order to make their lessons memorable for their students. It is the way good students remembered their master’s teachings. It is the way writers persuaded their readers that they had thought carefully and logically about what they were proposing in their writings.

             For more information on the literary aspects of the Bible, we recommend Leland Ryken's Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker, 1993), Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart's How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993), David A. Dorsey's The Literary Structure of the Old Testament (Baker, 1999), and Marshall D. Johnson's Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding (Eerdmans, 2002). For information on Hillell, specifically his rabbinical arguments, most sources are long out of print, but some information is available in Walter Kaiser's (ed.) Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity, 1996), William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard's Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nelson, 1993), George Robinson's Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals (Atria, 2001), and Donald K. McKim's (ed.), Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters (IVP, 1998).

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The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26