What does 'because of the angels' mean in 1 Corinthians 11:10?

In 1 Corinthians 11:10 Paul writes, διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους. "For this reason the woman should have [a sign of the man's] authority on her head, because of the angels."

Here I will address the question of what the enigmatic phrase "because of the angels" may mean. Several explanations have been offered by scholars, but one explanation stands out as being by far the most commonly accepted. Briefly it is this: In Jewish tradition, and also in the early Church, angels are said to be present at sacred gatherings and sacred times, to watch over and to join with the saints in their spiritual exercises. Any serious offense against propriety during these sacred moments will stir up the disapproval of these angelic helpers of the saints, perhaps causing them to depart; and any good deed they witness will bring all the more aid from them.

The role of the angels as mediators between God and men at prayer is suggested in several writings of the intertestamental period, as for example in Tobit 12:12-15, where the angel Raphael reveals his mission to Tobit:

And so, when you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One; and when you buried the dead, I was likewise present with you. When you did not hesitate to rise and leave your dinner in order to go and lay out the dead, your good deed was not hidden from me, and I was with you. So now God sent me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One. (RSV)

The same function of angels, in bringing the prayers of the saints before God, is indicated in Revelation 8:2-4:

Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. (ESV)

These passages about angels and prayer did not go unnoticed in the early Church. Tertullian (about AD 200) wrote a treatise De Oratione "On Prayer," in which he urged Christians to remain standing after prayer, because angelo adhuc orationis adstante "the angel of prayer is still standing by."

If, on the one hand, it is irreverent to sit under the eye, and over against the eye, of him whom you most of all revere and venerate; how much more, on the other hand, is that deed most irreligious under the eye of the living God, while the angel of prayer is still standing by. (1)

The angels are also portrayed in the canonical books of the Old Testament as having a mediatory role in the communication of prophecy from God to man, as in Ezekiel 40:3, Daniel 8:16, 9:21-22, 10:5-6, Zechariah 1:8-9, 2:1-3, etc. The same is true in the New Testament, where revelation is given to men through angels in Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:11, 2:9-10, Acts 7:53, Acts 10:3-4, Galatians 3:19, Hebrews 2:2, Revelation 1:1, etc.

In view of all this, it is not surprising to find a reference to the angels in the context of 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul addresses the subject of "praying and prophesying" among the saints. The angels serve as mediators in both of these spiritual activities.

Regarding the possibility of alienating the angels through transgressions of the Law, some commentators point to an expression found in documents associated with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes. (2) Among the Dead Sea Scrolls there is a document (designated 1QSa, usually called "the Rule of the Congregation") that gives rules to be observed in the days of the Messiah. Most scholars connect this document with the Essene community at Qumran. It contains the following sentences:

These are the men appointed to the society of the Yahad: all the wise of the congregation, the understanding and knowledgeable—who are blameless in their behavior and men of ability—together with the tribal officials, all judges, magistrates, captains of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and the Levites, each a full member of his division of service. These are the men of reputation, who hold commissions in the society of the Yahad in Israel that sits before the Sons of Zadok, the priests. No man who suffers from a single one of the uncleannesses that affect humanity shall enter their assembly; neither is any man so afflicted to receive an assignment from the congregation. No man with a physical handicap—crippled in both legs or hands, lame, blind, deaf, dumb, or possessed of a visible blemish in his flesh or a doddering old man unable to do his share in the congregation—may enter to take a place in the congregation of the men of reputation. For the holy angels are a part of their congregation. If one of these people has something to say to the holy congregation, let an oral deposition be taken, but the man must not enter the congregation, for he has been smitten. (3)

Another sectarian charter known as the "Damascus Document," also associated with the Essenes, has a similar rule:

But no one who is a fool or insane may enter; and no simpleton or ignorant man, or one with with eyes too weak to see or lame or crippled or deaf or minor child, none of these shall enter the congregation, for the holy angels are in your midst. (4)

Whoever wrote these documents clearly believed that the "angels of holiness" were present in the gatherings of the governing body of their sect, and that it was the presence of these holy angels which made it inappropriate for levitically 'defective' people to be present in the gathering. Evidently the sectarians conceived of the gathering as a priestly society, because most of the defects listed here are mentioned as disqualifications for the priesthood in Leviticus 21:17-23. Probably they felt that the angels would decline to give aid or perhaps depart from the gathering altogether if such disqualified persons were present in a group that was performing priestly functions, in violation of the Law of Moses. It is important to bear in mind that this has to do with the governing council, not the congregation at large.

Now, of course this exclusion of the lame, the blind, etc., from the priesthood is not in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament ministry, and we would not expect anyone in the early Church to take these levitical regulations concerning priests and use them as criteria for the elders of the Christian congregations. But the point is, these passages suggest that among Jews of the first century, Paul's expression "because of the Angels" may have been a conventional way of referring to the requirements of a sacred gathering. It would be quite natural to extend the concept, in a less stringent way, to all gatherings in which prayer is offered. And so we might speculate that, by using this phrase, Paul means to say that if some unruly Corinthian women scorn the Church's "dress code" in the prayer meetings, this tends to violate the sacred spirit of the gathering—especially if they are overly bold to take a leading part in the meetings, offering prayers on behalf of the men, and so forth. Surely the angels will frown on it! Under this interpretation we would have to assume that among the Corinthians the expression "because of the angels" would have been understood in this way, through Paul's prior use of the phrase in his ministry among them.

As I indicated above, this is the interpretation accepted by most New Testament scholars. Although it is uncertain, there does not seem to be a better explanation of Paul's phrase.

For further reading on the place of the angels in Judaism and early Christianity I recommend this page by Dr. Barry D. Smith of Atlantic Baptist University in Canada.

Michael Marlowe
June 2005

1. De Oratione 16.6, English translation by S. Thelwall in vol. 3 of the American edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers series edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Publishing Company , 1885).

2. The first scholar to notice the Qumran parallels was Joseph A. Fitzmyer in his article, "A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of I Cor. xi. 10," New Testament Studies 4 (1957), pp. 48-58, reprinted in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (London: Chapman, 1971), pp. 187-204, and in The Semitic Background of the New Testament: A Combined Edition of 'Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament' and 'A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays' (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

3. English translation from The Dead Sea Scrolls. A New Translation, ed. Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg , and Edward M. Cook (San Francisco: Harper, 1996), pp. 146-7.

4. ibid, pp. 65-66.