Does Paul Use Allegory in 1 Cor 9:9-10?

Written by Michael Vlach on .

One of the most challenging examples of how the New Testament uses the Old Testament is 1 Cor 9:9-10. Not a few notable scholars have deemed this text as a case of non-contextual use of the OT, some even saying that Paul is allegorizing the OT here. The text from 1 Cor 9:8-11 reads:


I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?


The preceding context of this passage indicates that Paul is asserting his rights and those of others to be paid for their efforts in the cause of the Gospel. Just as soldiers have a right to be supported and vineyard planters have a right to eat from vineyards (see 1 Cor 9:7), so too, those who “sowed spiritual things” have a right to “reap material things” (9:11).


Is Paul Using Allegory?


What has puzzled some interpreters, though, is how Paul supports his point from the OT. He makes a clear appeal to the OT by saying, “For it is written in the Law of Moses.” He then appeals to Deut 25:4, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” What makes some conclude that Paul is speaking allegorically is his statement “God is not concerned about oxen, is He? [implied answer, “No”] Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written” (1 Cor 9:9b-10a).


The puzzling issue is that Deut 25:4 speaks about literal oxen, but Paul appears to be saying that God is not concerned about oxen and is only (“altogether” or “entirely”) speaking about human workers. Is Paul using allegory? Richard Longenecker asserts that Paul “seems to leave the primary meaning of the injunction in Deut 25:4” and “interprets the Old Testament allegorically.” Others like J. Moffatt and C. K. Barrett also believe Paul is allegorizing and spiritualizing the OT here.


So here is the big question—Is Paul interpreting Deut 25:4 non-contextually or even allegorically?


To answer this, several areas need to be looked at: NT context, OT context, textual issues, and grammatical issues. This will lead to a proposed solution in which a contextual use of the OT is affirmed.


New Testament Context


The first area involves the context of Paul’s statement. Paul is establishing the rights of apostles and Gospel workers to be supported for their efforts. In 9:4 he said, “Do we not have the right to eat and drink?” He then says, “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife?” (9:5). Then in 9:11 he established that those who sowed spiritual things have a right to reap material things including financial support (9:11). Then with 9:9 Paul says that what is true of oxen in Deut 25:4 should be true of him and those who proclaim the Gospel.


Old Testament Context


Deuteronomy 25 is a chapter about justice and laws that govern relationships between human beings. There are laws about: crime and punishment (25:1-3); men who die without offspring (5-10); appropriate behavior (11-12); and weights (13-16). Thus, justice between people is emphasized. The previous chapter (Deut 24) addressed the necessity of humane treatment for the poor and marginalized, including their need to eat. Thus, compassion for the needy and the marginalized is also present.


The command to not muzzle an ox while threshing is important since oxen naturally like to eat part of the grain they are threshing. It keeps them content and it seems right that a threshing animal would be able to consume some of the product before him. Just like a chef sampling some of the food he is cooking, so too it is right for oxen to partake of the fruits of their labor. The placement of a muzzle would stop the ox from eating with negative results. If muzzled for long periods of time the ox could become hungry or even weakened or harmed.


Although somewhat speculative, there is also the issue of whether the command regarding no muzzling is directed at the owner of the ox or someone renting the ox. It seems that the command is given to the owner of the ox, but others say such a command would not be needed for the owner. Since oxen were so valuable, there would be no need for an owner to be told about something that he already knew was in his best interest—maintaining the well being of his valuable animal. Some, therefore, say the command is most likely given to one borrowing an ox. If a borrower is in mind, then the command to take care of someone else’s property is needed. For this person the ox would be a means to an end and concern for the animal would not be as great as that for the owner. Those who rent property such as cars or construction equipment know that non-owners are naturally less concerned about the well-being of the property than the owners. Thus, there is a need for rules and regulations to ensure proper care of the equipment.


This owner vs. borrower issue may carry some relevance. If the command is directed towards the owner, then the main issue is compassion. In this case compassion for a beast that is working. On the other hand, if the command is directed at a renter, then the main issue is justice since a renter is under obligation to take proper care of someone else’s property. Contextually, both issues of compassion for the needy and justice toward others are found in Deuteronomy 24 and 25.


Textual Issues


There does not appear to be any significant textual issues at stake in this discussion. As Ciampa and Rosner have noted, “The MT [Masoretic Text] and LXX [Septuagint] are in close agreement.”


Grammatical Issues


Are there any grammatical issues that are significant in this discussion? Yes. The Greek term pantos in 1 Cor 9:10 is sometimes translated “altogether” or “entirely.” If this translation is correct then the proper understanding would be that Deut 25:4 is only about human beings and not about oxen. In this case, Paul would not be using Deut 25:4 contextually.


But other satisfactory understandings of pantos exist. Kaiser says a better rendering of the term would be “mainly” or “especially.” Beale says pantos could be admirably understood in this context as “surely,” “above all,” or “doubtless.” If these understandings of pantos are accurate, Paul is not denying that Deut 25:4 is about animals, but he is claiming that what God says has implications beyond animals. The language could point to what is called a ‘lesser to the greater’ argument: what is true of the lesser (oxen) is also true of the greater (human Gospel workers).


The Solution


If Kaiser and Beale are correct, which I think they are, Paul is not allegorizing Deut 25:4. Nor is he is denying that Deut 25:4 refers to oxen. Instead, his point is that what was true of oxen also applies to people, in this case workers for the Gospel. Thus, there is an application of a moral principle here. Just as it is compassionate and just to take care of an ox that is threshing, so too it is compassionate and just for Paul and other ministers of the Gospel to benefit materially for their efforts. Paul worked hard to establish the church at Corinth so he had a right to benefit from his efforts. Whether he chose to accept these benefits was another matter, but his right to such compensation existed. Deut 25:4 expressed this principle. John Calvin points out this connection between oxen and men in regard to this passage:


We must not make the mistake of thinking that Paul means to explain that commandment allegorically; for some empty-headed creatures make this excuse. . . . But what Paul actually means is quite simple: though the Lord commands consideration for the oxen, He does so, not for the sake of the oxen, but rather out of regard for men, for whose benefit even the oxen were created. Therefore that humane treatment of oxen ought to be an incentive, moving us to treat each other with consideration and fairness.


Beale, too, is correct when he states, “If such a latter rendering [of pantos as discussed above] is viable, then Paul is saying that while this text of Deuteronomy has meaning for animals, how much more so does it have application to human laborers.”


So to answer the question posed earlier about whether Paul is using Deut 25:4 non-contextually, our answer is, No. Paul is not using Deut 25:4 non-contextually or allegorically. He is applying a transcendent principle that can apply to both animals and humans based on a contextual understanding of the OT passage. Thus, 1 Cor 9:9-10 cannot be used to support non-contextual use of the OT. It is a case of contextual use of the OT by a NT writer.


(Sources for this work include Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Single Meaning, Unified Referents,” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. Jonathan Lunde and Kenneth Berding (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 81-88; G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), 67-68; Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, “I Corinthians,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 718-22; John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. J. W. Fraser (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 187-88.)