While I commend Bailey for his observation that 1 Corinthians “has a carefully designed inner coherence that exhibits precision in composition and admirable grandeur in overall theological concept” (p. 25), the structure he finds in 1 Corinthians owes more to modern interests in ring compositions and chiasms that the largely Gentile audience in Corinth would be unlikely to recognize, especially when one considers this was a document meant to be delivered orally to an audience, many of whom, perhaps most of whom could not read. It is a stretch to argue that ring compositions that stretch over several chapters in 1 Corinthians would be grasped and comprehended considering the form in which this information would be delivered to the church in Corinth. Greco-Roman rhetorical structures, patterns and progressions they would know well, Hebrew parallelisms and ring compositions, not so much.
Listen to the warning of Duane Watson:
“The chiasm has rightly been seen as structuring individual verses and blocks of texts. However I doubt that chiasm structures entire Pauline epistles (as has been argued for Philippians) especially if it is concluded that Greco-Roman conventions have played a significant role in their construction. Greco-Roman rhetoric did not discuss chiasm and certainly not as an organizing principle of larger works. Besides, the conventions in play for invention and arrangement make chiasm a very difficult form of arrangement to maintain, Greco-Roman rhetoric, as it is incorporated into a speech or a document, is based on a linear unfolding of a series of topics and propositions guided by the exigencies of a rhetorical situation. This approach makes a chiastic arrangement for an entire epistle extremely difficult and unlikely.”
Bailey (p.26) goes on to argue that Paul essentially offers up five essays in this document: 1) The Cross and Christian Unity (1.5-4.16); 2) Men and Women in the Human Family (4.17-7.40); 3) Food offered to Idols (8.1-11.1); 4) Men and Women in Worship (11.2-14.40); and 5) The Resurrection (Chapter 15). These he boils down to three major themes: 1) the cross and resurrection (1 and 5 above); 2 men and women in the family and in worship ( 2 and 4 above), and Christians living among pagans: to identify with them or not (3 above). He then goes on to take 1 Cor. 11.34 as a clue that everything in this letter is for everyone, but things that deal with Corinth more uniquely will be addressed orally when Paul gets there again. But this will not do as an exegesis of 1 Cor. 11.34—the use of the phrase ‘other things’ surely has to refer to things he has not addressed to the Corinthians in particular in this letter but will do so when he arrives.
In other words—there were too many problems in Corinth to be addressed in one coherent discourse. While of course it is likely true that some of the problems that Corinth had also cropped up in various of Paul’s other churches, in fact if one compares the content of 1 Corinthians to Paul’s other letters, we come to the conclusion that some of the problems in Corinth must have been pretty unique, for Paul does not bring up, for example ‘food offered to idols’ again in his other letters, nor does he address the issue of the Lord’s Supper being defiled in other letters either. Bailey then assumes, without evidence, that Paul sent a copy of this letter to all the other (his other?) churches as well, on the basis of the further assumption that the problems in Corinth ‘must’ have been cropping up elsewhere. Really? Why then do 1 Thessalonians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians (and we could go on) look so little like 1 Corinthians when it comes to content?
As for the structures of each of the essays, Bailey sees the following pattern: 1) a citing or alluding to a tradition already conveyed to the Corinthians by Paul; 2) a stating of the problem (usually ethical); 3) an appeal to the theological foundation or framework in which the problem should be viewed; 4) an appeal to look at the problem that way; and 5) an appeal to imitate Paul, or a stressing on Paul’s authority he has from the Spirit. Then he imagines that Paul is arguing in 2 Corinthians 1.13-14— “I engaged a brother with good handwriting to make sure a copy I sent you was easy to read, and I was careful not to use words you do not know” (p. 29). The problem of course is that many in the audience likely could not read anyway, and furthermore the document we are talking about is an oral text, not meant to be scrutinized like a book, but heard like a sermon. What is especially surprising about this sort of argument is that Bailey knows quite well that whether we are talking about ancient Mediterranean society or modern peasant Middle Eastern society, they were largely oral and aural societies. 1 Corinthians is addressed to all the saints in that place not just those who could read, and it takes the form of an oral discourse in doing so, not the form of a series of densely packed essays that in structure and content would require a close reading!
Bailey then imagines that Paul may have composed some set pieces like 1 Corinthians 13 in advance, and had them ‘on file’ to be added to the document at an appropriate juncture. I do not think Paul had files. The gaps and aporia and asyndeton in 1 Corinthians make pretty clear this document was composed on the fly, and poor Sosthenes (probably the scribe mentioned at the outset of the document) sometimes could not keep up. The document is ad hoc, its composition was ad hoc, its audience was specific, and many of their problems unique.
It is unfortunate that Bailey says in passing in a footnote “a general investigation of Greek rhetoric as a background to the letter is beyond the scope of this study” (p. 30 n. 26). It is unfortunate because even if he had only read Margaret Mitchell’s seminal study on 1 Corinthians entitled The Rhetoric of Reconcilation he would have avoided some of the major missteps we find in this book in regard to audience, structure, nature of its rhetoric, and the meaning of the content itself.
In the next section of Bailey’s book, called Prelude, Bailey both assumes and states without argument, that Paul was “a trained rabbinic scholar [who] would have memorized at lest most of the Torah and the prophets” (p. 34). There are multiple problems with at least the first half of this assumption. Firstly, by his own admission Paul was not a scribe or a scholar, he was a Pharisee. Pharisees were lay people, who needed and used scribes who were the scholars of their realm. But secondly, as J. Neusner made clear long ago, prior to A.D. 70 there were no rabbis in the technical sense, nor were their ‘rabbinic’ scholars in the later sense of Talmudim. Paul does not really reflect the knowledge of a Mishnah or Talmud scholar unlike later rabbis. The term ‘rabbi’ in Jesus and Paul’s day referred to a master teacher, and this, everyone grants, Paul and Jesus both were. As for how much of the OT Paul had memorized, we have no way of knowing, but his use of the OT suggests he had considerable knowledge and understanding of the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms. He certainly shows less awareness or use of the historical books.
Does Paul sometimes use ‘Hebrew’ parallelism or Semitic ways of putting things? This is surely true, but poetic parallelism in various forms is not unique to Hebrew poetry or writing. It can readily be found in Greek works of prose and poetry and poetic prose (see e.g. Virgil’s Aeneid, or Homer’s Odyssey). The pattern of statement and then further similar statement with additional ideas (‘this and also that’) is well known in the world of Greek rhetoric as a device known as amplification.
Here again I need to stress that Paul is: 1) writing in Greek, and his writing is not a translation from Hebrew; 2) he is writing to an audience whose spoken language is mainly Greek, and who are probably mainly Gentiles of various sorts. That there were Jewish Christians in Corinth from the synagogue there was fortunate, because the Gentiles would have needed all the help they could get when Paul uses the OT and Semitic ideas. The apostle to the Gentiles knew perfectly well that if he wanted to communicate clearly, offering a word on target, to his majority audience, he would need to use Greek rhetoric and ways of discoursing, and for the most part, this is exactly what he does.
This does not mean that Paul may not on occasion echo OT parallelisms or very small scale chiasms across a few verses. This may well happen when he incorporates an OT phrase or verse into one of his arguments. The point is that when it comes to structure in 1 Corinthians if we call it, by analogy, a horse and rabbit stew and ask which one more flavors the stew, the horse or the rabbit, it’s the horse every time. In this little parable the horse that is carrying the structural load is Greco-Roman rhetorical structure, while the rabbit that hops into and out of the picture from time to time sporadically, is Hebrew poetic structure. The problem with Bailey’s analysis of the structure of 1 Corinthians is: 1) he puts the emphasis on the wrong syllable (on the more minor structural influence), and 2) he compounds the mistake by trying to use his ring composition heuristic to explain the whole structure of this discourse.