Pauline Voices and Presence As Strategic Communication

by Richard F. Ward

At the time this was written, Richard F. Ward, Ph. D., was Clement-Muehl Associate Professor of Communication Arts, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT 06511.

This article first appeared in Reformed Liturgy and Music 30:2 (1996)


Whether one is considering a birthday celebration, civil ceremony, or ecclesiastical liturgy, our capacity for both imagining and assessing ritual processes and performances is weak. If we make performance do as much work for us as it is capable of doing, we not only reach a fuller understanding of our roles as rhetors and rhetoricians but we may also discover a stronger sense of agency.

As a historian of performance, I am interested in how bodily presence and speech became issues in Paul's conflict with the Corinthian superapostles in the 50's CE. From the information presented in 2 Cor 10:10 and 11:6, it appears that Paul was deemed ineffective in some form of public speech and that his inability to perform in this way jeopardized his claim to apostolic authority at Corinth. Of course, we will never finally know what mode of oral presentation is referred to here. But there are some things we can consider. First, we have a letter and we know from our knowledge of performance history that such letters were written to be read aloud.

A man read even a private letter aloud in a low voice. This practice obviously had great influence on epistolary convention and style. It also helped to make the letter addressed to an individual or group an easy and natural vehicle for philosophical or religious discussion or exposition (McGuire, 150).

Second, the discipline of performance studies lends us an experiential understanding of what happens within the matrix of text, reciter, and audience when a written text, such as a letter, is orally performed. Part of my method of studying this letter has been to perform it in a variety of contexts. Oral performance is a means of transforming silent texts into sounds and movement through the mediums of speech and gesture. It is a way in which the author-in-the-work becomes an audible presence by means of the speech and movement of the presenter. This is why the performance of Paul's letters contributes some important insights into the sociopolitical dynamics that govern his relationships with those he addresses. For example, I believe that the recitation of Paul's four-chapter letter (2 Cor 10-13) was a counter-performance through which Paul shrewdly and creatively re-established a powerful parousia in the Corinthian church. This event helped to form a basis for reconciliation between Paul and the Corinthians by refurbishing Paul's credibility as a Christian apostle.

The group of itinerate missionaries who came to Corinth in the 50's CE attacked Paul's credentials on many fronts; perhaps the most devastating charge was a personal attack on his ability to communicate the Gospel. Paul actually quotes his opponents in 2 Cor 10:10: They say, 'His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account' (RSV). In the opinion of these rivals, Paul's parousia, that is, his very way of being in that church communicated weakness; his logos, that is, his speech, was empty or of no account. Apparently these categories of oral performance were being established as criteria for evaluating Paul's effectiveness as a Christian leader.


The identity of these opponents remains the subject of considerable debate. I will not review all of the attempts to link this group of missionaries with other figures in the early Christian missionary movement. Dieter Georgi's hypothesis, as presented in The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians, is best for highlighting the importance of oral performance in the struggle for apostolic authority at Corinth. Georgi points out that since the missionary activity of the diaspora did not have a central organization, the service of worship in the synagogue was the magnet that drew potential converts. The central feature of this public event was the oral performance and exegesis of scripture. Performance of sacred stories and subsequent oral interpretations made the faith of Judaism accessible to outsiders and helped to assimilate pagans into the communities of worship. A loose network of "oral exegetes" was established to travel about and offer oral performances and interpretations of texts in the communities (91). Georgi identifies the superapostles as part of this network.

One remarkable feature in the careers of these wandering preachers is that they were expected also to perform outside the synagogue. Synagogue officials saw the value in having a talented oral performer soliciting financial support just outside the synagogue. Such performances attracted the attention of potential converts. For the preacher, the attention brought financial reward, prestige, and reputation (Georgi, 101-2). The wandering preacher would not only attract attention to his or her gifts as a performer, but also to the diety that she or he represented.

The centerpiece of these performers' repertoire was the oral intepretation of sacred scripture. These exegetes were: capable of setting free the spirit bottled up in the composition of holy scripture . . . Insofar as they themselves did not create the text which is to be interpreted, the source of the spirit, they are subordinated to it. But insofar as the spirit speaks through their exegesis, they were quite equal to the prophets of old (Georgi, 111).

Public worship revolved therefore around this release of the spirit through the exegetes' performances. The synagogue ceremony, then, was the occasion for highly theatrical activity. Numerous people were included in the ceremony, even if they only accompanied the action with applause. The synagogue became a spiritual theater.

The taste for theatrical activity encouraged architects to design appropriate structures. Epiphanus compares the architecture of one particular synagogue to a theater:

There is a proseuche in Sichem, which is now called Neopolis, outside the city on the plain, at about a distance of two milestones, built by the Samaritans, who imitate the Jews in all things, like a theatre in the open air and a spot which lies free under the sky (Haereses 80.1; quoted in Georgi, 113).

Even a closed synagogue's structure encouraged theatricality. "There was . . . an open area extending from the front into the center, a kind of stage where the participants in the liturgy could act" (Georgi, 113). It is clear from these sources that worshipers in these synagogues encouraged and even expected highly developed, oral presentations of Yahweh's Word. Oral performance provided immediate access to the spirit of God; true worship depended on the release of Yahweh's spirit, which was achieved by the oral interpretation of sacred texts. Performers who possessed particular skill in this art were prophets who represented God.


Georgi's profile of the superapostles helps to place them within the performance world of the first-century Christian church. Christian worship in the Pauline era was characterized by various modes of oral performance. One of the most common was the telling of gospel traditions in early Christian worship. Eusebius records that the oral performances of gospels were central events in early Christian worship:

A great light of religion shone on the minds of the hearers of Peter, so that they were not satisfied with a single hearing or with the unwritten teaching of the divine proclamation, but with every kind of exhortation besought Mark, whose Gospel is extant, seeing that he was Peter's follower, to leave them a written statement of the teaching given them verbally, nor did they cease until they had persuaded him, and so became the cause of the Scripture called the Gospel According to Mark (49).

Though this account of Markan authorship is contested, the description is an authoritative report of how the gospel would have been orally rendered. Amos Wilder adds a piece to our understanding of what these performances might have been like: When we picture to ourselves the early Christian narrators we should make full allowance for animated and expressive narration . . . oral speech also was less inhibited than today . . . when we think of the early church meetings and testimonies and narrations we are probably well guided if we think of the way in which Vachael Lindsay read or of the appropriate readings of James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones (56).

Recitation of oral traditions in early Christian worship was emotionally expressive. It reflected the involvement of the performers with the stories themselves and prompted a wide range of emotional responses from the audiences. If the teller was successful in involving the audience with the story, he or she might expect them to become involved in the performance of the story, singing along, humming or even accompanying the tellings with musical instruments (Boomershine, 11). During Christian worship, one performer might be charged with the telling, even though the entire community would come to know the stories well enough to tell them. The effect of these tellings was the constitution of a community. Christian worship became occasions where disparate cultural groups bonded together around the recitation of oral traditions. Jews, Greeks, and other Gentiles learned to identify with the traditions, interpreting them in light of the issues they faced (Boomershine, 35-36).

Christian storytellers resembled the oral singers studied by Albert Lord in The Singer of Tales. To see how the early Homeric rhapsodes might have developed their art, Milman Parry and Lord studied epic singers in Yugoslavia to understand how epics were composed and transmitted in pre-literate cultures:

Oral epic song is narrative poetry, composed in a manner evolved over many generations by singers of tales who did not know how to write. It consists of the building of metrical lines and half-lines by means of formulas and formulaic expressions and of the building of songs by the use of themes (Lord, 4).

A formula is a group of words that is regularly employed under the same metrical idea (30). The earliest rhapsodes (of which Homer was a prototype) were agents of composition, poets for whom singing, performing, and composing were parts of the same creative act. The oral singer accumulates through the years a vocabulary of these formulas and, in the act of utterance, he or she is actually creating the epic. The singer's performance is conditioned by the context of the utterance. The oral singer varies the length and emphases according to the needs of the occasion. Walter Ong states that "All epics are structured around certain themes; the summoning of the council, the arming of the hero, the description of the hero's mount" (24). Ong goes on to explain that each epic singer has his own massive store of these themes, which he weaves together with ease. The oft-repeated formulas, 'rosy-fingered dawn' or 'wine-dark sea,' are metrically manageable (25). To the modern ear, these performances might sound like singing. However, singing carried a different connotation in that culture than it does today. Donald Hargis, a historian of performance, suggests that the best analogue in our culture to these performances is the talk-song from musical comedy (389).

Gospels, like oral epics, were composed anew at each performance; tellers improvised along story lines and using oral formulas just as the earliest Greek rhapsodes had done with Homeric epics. The Christian storyteller would be expected to acquire a repertoire of story lines and formulas to use in recomposing gospels at each telling. Christian performers of sacred stories must have drawn upon the standards of excellence in performance behavior that were dominant in Greco-Roman culture.

The best source we have for determining standards for oral performance of literature in this period is Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. Quintilian taught that when the good speaker took the stage, his neck was straight, not bent backward, so that his throat would be relaxed. His shoulders would be relaxed, not contracted or raised. The audience would get a clue to the speaker's attitude toward delivery by looking at the speaker's eyes. Quintilian stressed that the "eyes would reveal the temper of the mind, even without movement" (285). The speaker's weight would be evenly distributed over his feet. Quintilian warned against placing the right foot forward or against "straddling the feet . . . when standing still" (311). When the speaker moved out of the standing position, he would move diagonally, keeping his eyes fixed on the audience, and would avoid swaying to the right or the left. Since his garb would certainly be noticed, the speaker's attire must be "distinguished and manly." He would pay particular attention to the cut of his toga, the style of his shoes, and the arrangement of his hair. As he stood, the speaker would raise the thumbs of his hands and slightly curve his fingers, unless he was holding a manuscript. The reciter would bring a good deal of natural talent to the process of preparing for performance. His "natural gifts" would include a good voice, excellent lungs, and good health. Audiences would note the reciter's natural charm and would be aware of his good character. Such traits were essential for the good performer.

In Quintilian's teaching, the voice and body are shaped by the emotional values of the piece in performance. Sound and movement are keys to what the speaker is experiencing himself. An audience will be able to determine degrees of sincerity and insincerity by listening to the tone of the voice and by watching the speaker's movement. "For the voice is the index of the mind and is capable of expressing all varieties of feeling" (277). Gesture is adapted to suit the voice, though movements are also full of meaning (279). Quintilian insists on integration between voice and movement. "If gesture is out of harmony with the speech . . . words fail to carry conviction" (281). Certain emotional attitudes stimulate corresponding patterns of movement in performance. For example, an arm slightly extended, with shoulders thrown back, and fingers opening as the hand moves forward will highlight "continuous flowing passages" (289). Qualities of restraint and timidity are often conveyed by slightly hollowing the hand as if making a vow, moving it to and fro lightly, and swaying the shoulders in unison. For wonder, the head turns upward and fingers are brought into the palm, beginning with the little finger first (297).

In preparing to perform, then, the reciter must bring all his natural gifts to bear. He must be thoroughly acquainted with his piece and work to internalize its performative values. Each letter had a particular sound that suited it; the natural voice should not be over-laid with a fuller sound. Vocal production should be supported from the lungs, not the mouth, and the final syllables of words should not be clipped. He warns that sometimes the personality of the reciter overshadowed the value of the text. Finally, Quintilian emphasized that a reciter sparks interest in a text because he "stimulates us by the animation of his delivery, and kindles the imagination, not by presenting us with an elaborate picture, but by bringing us into actual touch with the things themselves" (11, 13).

Though the Christian movement preferred orality as its repository for sacred stories, its leaders freely employed the art of writing. Texts (such as written gospels or letters) recited or orally composed in Christian worship harkened back to the immediacy of oral discourse. Letters served orality and were thus returned to oral space by way of the public reader.

While Quintilian's Institutes were designed to train the orator of the first century CE, they do present principles that set the standard for a variety of modes of oral performance, including the public performance of an apostolic letter or an oral gospel. Quintilian saw the performer as an instrument for embodying the images presented by both oral and written materials. Through the skillful use of voice and gesture, the representation of felt emotional values, and the thorough knowledge of the style and content of a given text, the oral performer in Greco-Roman culture embodied potent voices present in both oral and written material.

It is probable the Corinthians in particular had a healthy appetite for excellence in oral performance since they lived near the site of the Isthmian games, one of the great festivals where oral poets, dramatists, musicians, and athletes had come every two years for centuries to compete for top awards and prestige. At the time of Paul's visit, the Isthmian games were under Corinthian sponsorship and were being held in a newly restored stadium and theater facility. It is possible that one member of Paul's Corinthian congregation was the civic official named Erastus who made a substantial contribution to the renovation of the theater. The Corinthian Christians may well have appreciated trained oral performance, such as the superapostles seem to have provided.

The text of 2 Cor 10-13 strongly suggests that the apostle Paul was in danger at this point in his career of losing his following at Corinth to these performers of the Word. Apparently, they had made his ineffective speech and presence cause for the Corinthians' concern. If Paul could not himself render the gospel, could he be deemed an authentic bearer of the good news? Paul's problem was how to establish a presence in the Corinthian community that recaptured their attention and loyalty. This is where the reciter of Paul's four-chapter letter plays a significant role in the politics of performance in the Corinthian church.


Robert Funk has observed that in the early Christian church, the apostle's means of exercising power and influence was dependent upon his establishing apostolic parousia in that community. Parousia or presence in a church during a time of crisis gave that apostle social visibility and political authority. Since early Christian missionaries were itinerates, it was not always possible for them to be physically present when difficult situations arose, so the early missionaries employed other means of establishing their presence.

Sending an emissary to read a letter aloud was one of the most effective ways of establishing parousia in the early churches. When the apostle could not visit the church himself, he would commission an emissary to represent him to the members of the congregation. This chosen envoy often carried a letter from the apostle that recommended the emissary as an authoritative substitute for the apostle. Paul, like other ancient epistolers, was dependent upon trusted carriers to deliver their letters to recipients. Martin McGuire writes: "The personal representative or messenger, the visitor or traveller, were almost the sole means of communication between nations and individuals" (185). Before sending the letter, the author would "brief the carrier on the contents of the letters entrusted to them and also make supplementary reports on matters that were not set down in writing" (185). Receiving a letter meant hearing both a message conveyed on behalf of the sender and a written document. Letters, therefore, bore a kinship with oral messages; like oral messages, the sender's name was placed in the beginning. The written document authenticated the messages. The carrier could also provide information about the author of the letter. The letter, then, as written and conveyed, was a major way Paul overcame his separation from his churches. "We also gain a sense of the importance of his emissaries or letter carriers: they receive authority to convey the letters to expand upon them, and to continue Paul's work" (Doty, 37).

Paul likely intended that his emissary to Corinth would not only recite but interpret the contents of 2 Cor 10-13 to the Corinthians. Doty suggests that because of political intrigue and the vulnerability of the postal system, the letter writer was careful to entrust the real message of the letter to the carrier, not merely to the text of the letter itself (45-46). Paul, who made such a point of indicating his trust in those carriers (co-workers), did not think of his written letters as exhausting what he wished to communicate. He thought of his associates, especially those commissioned to carry his letters, as able to extend his own teachings (45-46).

Doty wonders further:

if the Pauline letters may not be seen as the essential part of the messages Paul had to convey, pressed into brief compass as a basis for elaboration by the carriers. The subsequent reading of the letters in the primitive Christian communities were occasions for full exposition and expansion of the sketch of the material in the letters (46-47).

In other words, the oral rendering and interpretation of the letters completes the apostle's logos for the church.

The church receiving the letter would expect the emissary to read it aloud to the congregation. Doty and other epistolary theorists agree that the letters were written by an author who was conscious of his responsibility as an apostle in the congregation and thus fully intended such letters to be read aloud to the gathered community. At Corinth, the oral performance of the letter has particular significance to the Pauline apostolate; since Paul's bodily presence had been deemed weak, Paul establishes a new presence, that of Paul-in-the-letter, which, when embodied by the reciter, gave Paul restored visibility in the community.


Alla Bozarth-Campbell's incarnational metaphor for performance helps explain how composers of texts become present when those texts are performed. Like all texts prepared for public reading, the letter achieves its entelechy in oral performance. When it is rendered orally, the form of the letter is transformed into a presence that is embodied by the reciter. Bozarth-Campbell explains what happens when texts are transferred from surface structures to oral space: Through dialogue the phenomenon of interpretation may come to reveal what was hidden in itself, to show its own processes of rendering what was invisible and inaudible in literature both visible and audible in a dynamic presence (3).

For Bozarth-Campbell, the oral performance of any text is a process that creates a "new being by bringing two separate beings together in an incarnation" and "this process leads to an event which constitutes a transformation of all who participate in it" (13). In other words, the body of the performer meets with the body of the text through the mediums of speech and movement in order to create the new body of the text-in-performance. This process has several phases: the creation of the literary work (which Bozarth-Campbell calls the poem), the matching between the poem and the reader (whom she calls the interpreter), and the communion between the audience and the new being, the incarnate body that is created by the interaction of poem and performer.

Bozarth-Campbell's framework provides a basis for discussing how the rendering of Paul's letter by a trusted emissary established a new, more powerful Pauline presence in the Corinthian church. She states that the primary task of the interpreter (hereafter referred to as the performer) of the work is to create a presence, and to create it so fully that it can contain and involve the audience (18; see also Bacon, 165). Performers must know the piece, not just its parts in isolation, but the feel of the whole. For example, when Paul's emissary stood before the Corinthians to speak the letter, he would have internalized the contents of the letter and would be prepared to interpret the whole of Paul's logos to the Corinthians. This reciter was probably Titus, given his relationship with the church of Corinth (2 Cor 8:16), or perhaps the brother who is mentioned famous among all the churches for proclaiming the good news (8:18). In any case, Paul must have carefully considered the ability of his reciter to render his text in accordance with the standards of excellence of the time. Titus or some other emissary, through the skillful rendering of Paul's letter, intended to guide the audience through an experience of the situation from Paul's perspective.

To render Paul's text effectively, the reciter would have to have, in Quintilian's words, "natural gifts," including a good voice, a measure of charm, and good character. The reciter would have to convey effectively the emotional values of the letter and allow those values to shape vocal production and physical movement. Only then would Paul's authorial presence be embodied in performance. As the letter's performer allowed the body and voice to represent the passions invested in the piece, a process of transformation could begin:

It is in this moment of existence that relationship between interpreter and text takes on the properties of vivid presence in the power of performance, when all things come together to effect a quality greater than the sum of them as separate (Bozarth-Campbell, 40).

If the first act in creating Paul-in-the-letter was composing it, the second act was the performer's enfleshing the presence. Paul's word was transformed from silent surface structures into the mode of being known as flesh by the emissary's performance of Paul's word. In making the word to become flesh the interpreter makes herself or himself into the word, takes the word as poem into her or his body, continues the creation process begun by the poet (Bozarth-Campbell, 52). The purpose of performing a text is to allow the poem to achieve fullness through the performer's body. Given the conventions of performing letters in antiquity, we can imagine the reciter giving Paul's letter fullness, not simply by rendering the written word but by adding oral commentary in the spirit and attitude of Paul himself. The emissary's performance of Paul's letter allowed it to become "a more truly present word, authenticated by a living voice" (Bozarth-Campbell, 75).

The challenge for Paul was exactly this: by means of an effective counter-performance, could Paul demonstrate his ability to be present in the same lively and authoritative way as his opponents? If the superapostles could bring the audience into sacred acoustical space by means of their recitation of texts, Paul could show a different, more powerful image of himself through the performance of his letter.

Bozarth-Campbell suggests that performers of texts become icons for the new body or presence created in performance. "The interpreter's presence--as the embodiment of the poem--constitute a kind of image-meaning, or a sacramental meaningfulness" (103). If Georgi's profile is correct, then Paul's opponents had become icons for the presence of such divine figures as Moses and Jesus. The performer of Paul's letter became an icon for the apostolic presence of Paul, a presence deemed powerful by both the Corinthians and Paul's opponents. The letter-in-performance demonstrated to the Corinthians that Paul's voice and presence could be very strong indeed and certainly quite different from the poor self-presentations Paul had given during his visits. Thus Paul's emissary, as the icon of Paul-in-the-letter, would be able to put the audience in the presence of the holy in a way Paul's opponents did in their performances and thereby place the Pauline apostolate on equal ground with its rivals. The embodiment of Paul-in-the-letter was an act that collapsed the distance between Paul, performer, and audience; this incarnation of the letter's persona transformed the Corinthian audience and established the basis for a renewed relationship between the church and Paul.

Performance as icon . . . alters the very perception of being. One cannot look deeply into the eyes of an icon and ever see the world in exactly the same way again. The icon changes one by bestowing the vision of another world . . . to enter the world of the icon is to take on that world by spontaneous and largely unconscious response to it (Bozarth-Campbell, 118).

The Corinthian audience changes by seeing the Apostle Paul in a new way. The performer shows the persona of the letter, a fool who is speaking with enormous power (2 Cor 11:1, 16, 17; 12:11). This embodied voice lampoons the social order that the Corinthians have set up under the leadership of the rival apostolate. By looking at the situation through Paul's eyes, the Corinthians' perception of Paul's legitimacy as a Christian apostle may have changed.


Alla Bozarth-Campbell's incarnational metaphor for the performance of literature grants us insight into a strategy by which the Pauline apostolate could re-establish an authoritative parousia in the Corinthian church. Paul created the word for the church; the oral interpreter of Paul's letter (a sympathetic emissary) gave that word its body in performance before the community. The creation of this new body can be viewed as a counter-performance to the effective recitations offered by Paul's rivals, which implicitly demeaned Paul's presentations. The affect of the performance was to re-establish Paul as a potent and powerful voice within the Corinthian community.