Broad New Testament Context
Scholars debate many issues in the book of 1 Corinthians, including Paul’s motivation for writing. In this longest of Paul’s Epistles, however, written to the largest city in Greece at that time, the apostle is almost certainly dealing with the difficulties of authority and leadership. Because Paul stayed longer in Corinth, he was better able to warn, admonish, and speak the truth forcefully to the opposing parties.
Openly immoral members of the Corinthian church were apparently demanding the prerogative to exercise their individual rights, in accordance with the then-current practices of prostitution and asceticism. The disunity of the church thus weighed heavily on Paul’s heart as he wrote 1 Corinthians. However, discussion about factions and other problems in the church also give a clearer glimpse of the struggles Paul faced in understanding how Christian freedom relates to societal tradition.
Within this bigger picture, some scholars consider the abrupt switch to apostolic authority in chapter 9 to be out of place within the discussion, or even part of a separate letter. Several recent works, however, have shown that chapter 9 is actually key to understanding some of the main reasons Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
A second group views this supposed digression as the crucial part of a legitimate Greek ceremonial argumentation, serving to strengthen what is already believed. Although the argument for profitability in regard to food and sexuality is not yet complete, chapter 9 helps to prepare the Corinthians to judge wisely regarding idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14–22).
A third group finds that the issue is not Paul’s authority or whether or not he was allowed to accept financial support as an apostle, but that he refused to exercise his rights in order to set an example of giving up one’s rights for the sake of another. Personal sacrifice and commitment to the unity of the church are part of imitating the “model character of the apostle and his ways in Christ.”4 The freedom of the liberal Corinthians parallels the apostle’s freedom to accept support for his labors, but love often means giving up entitlements for the sake of others. Although Paul accepts the arguments of those who wished to eat food offered to idols, he asks them not to use their rights for the sake of those weak in faith. Paul recommends his apostleship as a positive example of self-renunciation.
In the Book of the Covenant, laws concerning social privileges are bookends around laws concerning the legal system and courtroom laws. Interestingly, Carmichael lists Exodus 23:10–12, which also highlights a concern for animals, in the second section of social privilege laws. This pattern is paralleled, but with more complexity, in Deuteronomy 12–26, where Deuteronomy 25:4 is considered a law about privileges (interpolated among laws of the courtroom). Christenson’s analysis also places Deuteronomy 25:4 within the laws of humanitarian concerns and social ethics (25:1-16), paralleling Deuteronomy 24:6-16 and separated by the summary law protecting the disadvantaged (24:17-22).
Others have tried to find structure in Deuteronomy 12–26 based on the Decalogue as an organizing principle, with “the individual laws thus appear[ing] as concretizations of the Decalogue.”7 Braulik sees Deuteronomy 25:4 as part of the commentary on the eighth commandment, dealing generally with matters of jurisprudence, especially regarding right actions in the face of judgment. McConnville argues that the commandment prohibiting a false witness entails fairness to all, even the dignity of animals.8 As Deuteronomy presents itself as Moses’ sermons or commentary on the Decalogue, this latter option seems more probable.
However, although Deuteronomy 25:4 is addressed to humans, not oxen, the law engenders compassion for animals in the owner. The only other place this word for “muzzle” occurs is Ezekiel 39:11, where it is a participle, best translated “to block” or “to obstruct.” This broader meaning could be paralleled in the rabbinic prohibitions regarding threshing oxen, which cover a wide variety of distractions or pain for the ox. Indeed, some rabbinic sources consider this passage to refer only to animals and their care. The Talmud suggests that Deuteronomy refers to all animals when compassion is commanded, and even if an animal eats food that is for the priests, muzzling would be inappropriate and cruel.9
The ox is working hard to thresh the grain, but if it is muzzled, it cannot eat on a regular basis, as cattle need to do. If the muzzle is removed, the ox may not work faster, and the owner will lose a bit of grain, but the animal will be much more satisfied. In addition, the act of threshing is part of a temporal clause, implying that the muzzle was never to be used during any part of the threshing process.
Immediate New Testament Context
Exegetical and Rhetorical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 9
Paul presents four introductory questions: “Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1). Then, in verse 2, he expands on the last question in to remind the Corinthians that even if he is not an apostle to others, he is an apostle to them. Therefore, he has a defense for his examiners. He first mentions some specific apostolic rights through more questions: “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? . . . Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?” (vss. 4-6).
Paul has already used many figures in his argument, but only the ox has previous scriptural support. Indeed, examples and analogies are “only valid if they are understood literally in the first place.”12 Paul could have used a less controversial example, like that of the priests, but perhaps he wanted to help the Corinthians understand that they had been trying to “muzzle” Paul by calling into question his authority and trying to obligate him to them and their opinions.
Paul then asks the question: “Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this?” (vs. 9, NLT). Figures of speech are used to give force, life, or intensity to an argument. The rhetorical force of “only” often entails a question that is solely to elicit a resounding “No!” But here, in light of the dependence of Paul’s argument on the care for animals inherent in the Deuteronomic context, the phraseology could suggest a question that is more hesitant, rather than inviting an emphatically negative answer. When considering the context of Deuteronomy 25:4 in this way, G. M. Lee interprets it as a “cautious or deprecatory assertion”: “I expect God cares for oxen. Suppose, now, he says it in any case for us, too?”14
Along the same lines, the Greek word for “only” in verse 10 can be translated many different ways, but is usually rendered here as “altogether” (KJV, NKJV, NASB) or “entirely” (CEV). This seems to be another one of the main reasons that Paul is accused of taking Deuteronomy 25:4 out of context. If God does not care about oxen, but entirely about humans, then the literal meaning of the law becomes void. Some recent studies, however, have shown that in this context, “only” is better translated “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” or “assuredly.” In this way, Paul’s focus on humanity is maintained, in that humans are given the law, but humans are required by the law to care for oxen.
Thus, the foundational premise of animal care in Deuteronomy remains the basis for Paul’s argument concerning pay for laborers. Paul is arguing from the minor to the major, in that “on every account a provision made for the beasts . . . must hold good, a fortiori, for God’s proper servants.”15 In other words, all Scripture has an eschatological goal or purpose, and Scripture ultimately was written for those at the end of time, but this does not make other provisional interpretations irrelevant or invalid.
Paul then continues in verse 10 with a parallel-structured statement: “this was written for our sakes also, in order that:
● “he who plows should plow in hope”; and
● “he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.”
Thus, the agricultural metaphors of sowing and plowing, and the close relationship between the worker and the product of the worker’s labor are key connections between these two passages. Brewer goes even farther and categorizes Paul’s statements on this passage as legal rulings, evidenced by his words, “as it is written in the law of Moses.” Extensive evidence illustrates that the ox could be substituted for any laborer in ancient custom, and Brewer even contends that Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4 is literal. Whether humans (in Paul’s day) or animal (in Deuteronomy), recompense for labor was the only morally acceptable course of action.
Indeed, in verses 11–16, Paul continues to emphasize his rights for recompense, but then proceeds to emphasize how he has not used them. A paraphrase and further analysis of the passage indicates parallels between rights (vss. 11, 12a, 13, 14) and renunciation (vss. 12b, 15, 16) in Paul’s application of these examples to his own situation:
|A—rights: we sow spiritual things and should be able to reap material ones; as others partake of this right, we should even more (vss. 11, 12a)|
|B—renunciation: however, we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ (vs. 12b)|
|A’—rights: 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; thus, those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel (vss. 13, 14)|
|B’—renunciation: but I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die! No one can make my boasting void, for if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of (vss. 15, 16)|
|A—the law allows remuneration (vss. 8–10)|
|B—but Paul avoids it for the sake of the gospel (vss. 11–18)|
|C—though he is free, he becomes a servant to all (vs. 19)|
|A’—Paul labors to reach all human beings, even those under the law (vss. 20, 21)|
|B’—and he becomes like them as much as possible for the sake of the gospel (vss. 22, 23)|
|C’—he even puts his body under subjection so he is not disqualified in preaching (vss. 24–27)|
However, Paul also uses the authority of the Old Testament as part of his argument, so it is more than a simple argument from analogy. The context for Deuteronomy 25:4 includes a concern for all laborers, so, when considering the scope of the law, Paul draws out its significance for the present situation, determining that the principle could be applied to Christian ministers with validity. Paul thus reasons from the lesser to the greater: because God is concerned for animals, He is therefore all the more concerned for humans.
In our eagerness to apply biblical laws to our current situations, we must not forget that the applications lose their power when the original law is no longer valid. Deuteronomy 25:4 can now be viewed as a call to support Christian ministers. The primary theological use of Deuteronomy 25:4 by Paul is ecclesiological, especially for the support of pastors. Christian leaders have a right to be assisted in their ministries. This is especially important because the church really is an “independent community” with different governments, social groups, rituals, and rules. Pastors rarely receive support from non-Christians, so church members may need to sacrifice to assure their leaders’ financial survival.
Deuteronomy 25:4 does not mean that humans may disregard the compassionate treatment of God’s creatures. God is not talking about animals just to show that He cares about humans. Both aspects must be kept in balance, as “the wholeness of the covenant community extends even to its livestock.”19 The true meaning of leadership is a Christlike stance toward others. Scripture and analogy come together to inspire us to greater service toward all God’s creatures, even when that may mean giving up what we deserve.
A. Rahel Schafer is a Ph.D. candidate and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Biblical Languages at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
3. G. Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), p. 2.
4. W. Wuellner, “Greek Rhetoric and Pauline Argumentation,” in Early Christian Literature and the Classical Intellectual Tradition (Festschrift for R.M. Grant; Théologie Historique 53; W. R. Schoedel, ed. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), p. 187.
5. D. L. Christenson, Deuteronomy 21:10–34:12 (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2002), p. 464.
6. C. Carmichael, The Laws of Deuteronomy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974).
7. G. Braulik, “The Sequence of Laws in Deuteronomy 12–26 and in the Decalogue,” in D. L. Christensen, ed., A Song of Power and the Power of Song: Essays on the Book of Deuteronomy (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1993), p. 334.
8. J. G. McConnville, Deuteronomy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), p. 367.
9. See, for example, b. B. Qam. 54.
10. C. K. Barrett, First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Continuum Press, 2004), p. 205. Stanley considers the possibility that Paul many have been quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 almost as R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), page 175.
11. J. F. M. Smit, “‘You Shall Not Muzzle a Threshing Ox’: Paul’s Use of the Law of Moses in 1 Cor. 9:8–12,” Estudios Bíblicos, vol. 2, p. 262.
12. A. T. Hanson, Studies in Paul’s Technique and Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 162.
14. G. M. Lee, “Studies in Texts: 1 Cor. 9:9-10,” Theology, vol. 71, p. 123.
15. G. G. Findlay, “St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians,” in W. R. Nicoll, ed., The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1961), vol. 2, p. 848.
16. J. F. M. Smit, “About the Idol Offerings:” Rhetoric, Social Context, and Theology of Paul’s Discourse in First Corinthians 8:1–11:1, in Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), pp. 99–120.
17. D. Newton, Deity and Diet: The Dilemma of Sacrificial Food at Corinth (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), p. 322.
18. A. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 685.
19. McConnville, Deuteronomy, op cit., p. 369.