|Bible Research > Interpretation > Headcoverings > 1 Corinthians 11:2-16|
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonors his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In any case, woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman, in the Lord; 12 for as woman is [created] from man, so man is now [born] through woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
2 Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς ὅτι πάντα μου μέμνησθε καὶ, καθὼς παρέδωκα ὑμῖν, τὰς παραδόσεις κατέχετε. 3 Θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός. 4 πᾶς ἀνὴρ προσευχόμενος ἢ προφητεύων κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. 5 πᾶσα δὲ γυνὴ προσευχομένη ἢ προφητεύουσα ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῆς· ἓν γάρ ἐστιν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ τῇ ἐξυρημένῃ. 6 εἰ γὰρ οὐ κατακαλύπτεται γυνή, καὶ κειράσθω· εἰ δὲ αἰσχρὸν γυναικὶ τὸ κείρασθαι ἢ ξυρᾶσθαι, κατακαλυπτέσθω. 7 Ἀνὴρ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ὀφείλει κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλήν, εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπάρχων· ἡ γυνὴ δὲ δόξα ἀνδρός ἐστιν. 8 οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀνὴρ ἐκ γυναικός ἀλλὰ γυνὴ ἐξ ἀνδρός· 9 καὶ γὰρ οὐκ ἐκτίσθη ἀνὴρ διὰ τὴν γυναῖκα ἀλλὰ γυνὴ διὰ τὸν ἄνδρα. 10 διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους. 11 πλὴν οὔτε γυνὴ χωρὶς ἀνδρὸς οὔτε ἀνὴρ χωρὶς γυναικὸς ἐν κυρίῳ· 12 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἡ γυνὴ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρός, οὕτως καὶ ὁ ἀνὴρ διὰ τῆς γυναικός· τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ. 13 Ἐν ὑμῖν αὐτοῖς κρίνατε· πρέπον ἐστὶν γυναῖκα ἀκατακάλυπτον τῷ θεῷ προσεύχεσθαι; 14 οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς ὅτι ἀνὴρ μὲν ἐὰν κομᾷ ἀτιμία αὐτῷ ἐστιν, 15 γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται [αὐτῇ]. 16 Εἰ δέ τις δοκεῖ φιλόνεικος εἶναι, ἡμεῖς τοιαύτην συνήθειαν οὐκ ἔχομεν οὐδὲ αἱ ἐκκλησίαι τοῦ θεοῦ.
In verse 2 the Latin versions and the later Greek manuscripts read αδελφοι “brethren” after Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς “I commend you.” But the word is absent from the early Greek manuscripts (Papyrus 46, A, B, C, א) and the Coptic versions, and so it is omitted by all modern editors. The word was probably added by scribes because they perceived that this was the beginning of a new section, and it seemed natural to have the word here, as in 10:1 and 12:1. It may be that Paul omitted “brethren” deliberately because the headcovering tradtion has more to do with the sisters.
In verse 11 the Vulgate, the Peshitta, and a few of the later Greek manuscripts (followed by the Textus Receptus editions) transpose the two clauses to read “the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man.” But all the earlier Greek manuscripts have “the woman” first. Probably the original order of the clauses was accidentally reversed by scribes who were used to Paul’s usual pattern of mentioning the man first in statements that contrast men and women (see verses 7, 8, and 9).
In verse 15 there is some reason to think that the pronoun αὐτῇ “to her” at the end of the verse is not original. It is omitted by Papyrus 46, D, F, G, and also by the majority of later Greek manuscripts. In C the pronoun comes before δέδοται rather than after it. The word may have been added by scribes to complete the sense, or simply by repetition of the αὐτῇ in the preceding clause. But it has good support in A, B, א, and the Latin and Syriac versions.
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.
The Apostle here indicates that the following instructions pertain to the παραδόσεις, “traditions” (lit. “things delivered or passed on”) which he has previously conveyed to the churches under his care. The verb translated “delivered” here is a form of παραδιδωμι, the verbal cognate of the noun παραδοσις. In religious contexts these words were used of anything handed down to disciples, whether in the form of doctrine, narratives, or regulations. The KJV translates the noun “ordinances” here, with an eye to the regulations discussed in the chapter, and the NIV has “teachings,” but neither of these give the true sense of the word. Paul could have used a word like δικαιωματα “ordinances” or διδασκαλια “teachings” if he had wanted to refer specifically to either ordinances or teachings. Instead, he uses παραδόσεις, along with its cognate verb, because he is emphasizing the fact that he is now speaking of things handed down as traditions.
Paul’s conception of the purpose of “tradition” may be seen from other uses of these words in his epistles. In this same chapter, verse 23, he uses the verb again at the beginning of his discussion of the Lord’s Supper: “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you.” In 15:3, he uses it at the beginning of his discussion of the Resurrection: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 the noun is used in Paul’s exortation, “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours.” From these examples, we see that Paul invokes “tradition” as something that will keep his disciples on the right track in the midst of spiritually dangerous developments. The chaotic situation in Corinth, in particular, where meetings had come to be dominated by persons claiming extraordinary spiritual gifts, called for this emphasis. But Paul opens the subject in a conciliatory manner, commending them for their general willingness to adhere to the traditions he has given them. (1)
The subject of the following verses may seem trivial to modern readers. On the surface, Paul is addressing a problem arising from some irregularities or objections connected with women’s headcoverings. This may have seemed unimportant to some ancient readers as well. But Paul uses the occasion to make some important statements about men and women that go well beyond the issue at hand.
3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.
Here he states the general thesis which governs the entire discussion that follows. He indicates that there is a divinely ordained hierarchy, in which men are directly under Christ as their “head” while women are under the headship of man. Christ is directly under the head of God the Father in this grand scheme of things. A similar hierarchical conception was expressed by Paul earlier in the epistle, in 3:21-23, where the arrangement is of teachers under the church, which is under Christ, who is under God. There the relationship is expressed in terms of ownership. The point concerning Christ being under God is also repeated in 15:28, where it is expressed in terms of subjection. Paul mentions it here, in the context of his discussion of the relationship between men and women, so as to impress upon the Corinthians how important the “chain of being” principle of hierarchy is in spiritual matters, and in the very constitution of the universe. And perhaps he mentions the subordination of Christ in particular to suggest the teaching we have in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.
The subordination of the woman to man is no more done away with in Christ than is the subordination of men to Christ. Christ himself is functionally subordinate to God the Father, and did not “seek equality” with God. Though he is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3) he also willingly fills his place in the divine economy. We will have reason to come back to this thought when Paul begins to speak of the “image and glory” of God in in verses 7 and 8 below.
It may be that Paul had information that certain women in Corinth were falling into extravagant notions of Christian liberty (the usual problem at Corinth — “all things are lawful to me”), and had cast off their headcoverings in some kind of demonstration of sexual equality. 14:34-35 gives us some reason to think that egalitarian tendencies had created problems at Corinth. If this was the case, then Paul’s words here go straight to the root of the problem. (2)
Some recent commentators have suggested that the Greek words for “man” and “woman” used here (ἀνήρ and γυνή) may be understood in the limited sense of “husband and wife,” but for several reasons it is better to understand the whole discussion as pertaining to the relationship between the sexes in general. Ordinarily a pronoun is used with the Greek words when they have the sense “husband” and “wife” (i.e. her man means her husband, and his woman means his wife), but there is no pronoun here. It is very unlikely that Paul is referring only to married men when he says “Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonors his head” in verse 4, and if ἀνήρ does not mean “husband” there, we would not expect γυνή to mean “wife” in the following verse. We would expect the terms to be correlated in sense when they occur together — either “man and woman” or “husband and wife,” but not “man and wife” or “husband and woman.” Paul proceeds to make arguments based not upon the special circumstances of marriage but upon creation and the very nature of woman. The analogy he draws between the headcovering and the long hair of women (verses 6 and 15) would apply to all women. It does not make sense to limit the meaning of γυνή to “wife” in the phrase, “since it is disgraceful for a γυνή to be shorn or shaven” (verse 6), and so the conclusion, “let her be covered” cannot be restricted to married women either. In verse 12 the phrase ὁ ἀνὴρ διὰ τῆς γυναικός cannot mean “the husband is born through the wife.” It should also be kept in mind that in ancient Greek society, unmarried women were not independent, but remained under the authority of their fathers. Unmarried women did not live alone. In classical Athens the only independent women were the hetaerae — prostitutes of the upper class. (3) Even if it is felt that Paul must have in mind the marriage relationship here, it should be understood that this relationship is paradigmatic of the relationship of men to women generally (4)
4 Every man praying or prophesying with anything down over his head dishonors his head, 5 but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven.
The interpretation of this verse, and of the remainder of the passage, has varied widely among commentators because of their different ideas about Greek and Jewish customs of the time. I give an illustrated survey of the customs of Jews, Greeks, and Romans in the excursus on headcovering customs in the ancient world. To summarize the matter briefly here, I will only say that there is not enough evidence in ancient sources to conclude that Paul is advising conformity to Corinthian customs in this passage. On the contrary, ancient sources indicate that Greek women commonly participated in religious ceremonies without headcoverings. Nor does it seem that he is advising conformity to Jewish customs, in which women hid their faces in public. The use of headcoverings by women in daily life was common enough throughout the ancient world that we would expect Paul to make his meaning clear if he were requiring not only this but also the face-veiling. We would expect him to use a word or expression for the face-covering or veil (καλυμμα), at least, but that is not the case here. Instead, Paul uses only a very general word for “covered,” κατακαλυπτω, and he does not mention the “face” (τὸ πρόσωπον), only the “head.” (5) He is certainly not advising conformity to Roman customs of his day, in which male priests normally covered their heads for ceremonies. But clearly he is urging the Corinthians to observe an established custom of the Church. This custom was established by Paul in his Gentile congregations, probably after the example of the Jewish custom, but it was somewhat more liberal in its requirements than the stricter Jewish custom. Christian women were expected to cover their heads—but not their faces—in religious exercises, and especially in meetings. It is very doubtful that in this matter Paul would have cared much about what pagan women happened to be wearing on the streets of Corinth at the time.
It is necessary to emphasize here that in ancient cultures the symbolic value of clothing was taken very seriously. This was true not only of pagan cultures and cults, but of Judaism and Christianity as well. Jesus and the apostles could take it for granted that their disciples appreciated the significance of clothing. In Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding feast, there is a dramatic confrontation about proper attire when the King asks a certain man: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” (Matthew 22:12) A modern reader is likely to find it strange that such importance is placed upon clothing, but the original hearers of this parable would not be inclined to sympathize with the underdressed man. They would think, rather, that the man who would not dress properly showed contempt for the King and his son, and obviously did not belong there. Indeed the man in the parable could offer no excuse for his own behavior, for “he was speechless.”
Some recent commentators have made much of the word “prophesying” in verse 5 (which Paul simply repeats from the expression in verse 4), and have argued that the inclusion of this word here proves that Paul allowed women to prophesy or speak independently in the worship service. These scholars must then dispose of 14:34-35 (“let the women be silent ...”) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (“a woman should learn in silence”) in various improbable ways. But there is nothing in this passage which suggests that Paul is here giving instructions only for those who are speaking in the worship service. “Praying or prophesying” is simply Paul’s way of referring to the corporate spiritual exercises of the church when it is gathered, in which every member participates to some extent. He is not limiting the headcovering rule to individuals when they are actually speaking, so that a man who wanted to veil himself like a Roman priest for the meeting could do so if he never ventured to pray or prophesy independently, or that a woman who wanted to be bareheaded like a Greek priestess would only have to put on her headcovering if and when she ventured to pray or prophesy in the worship service. That is not the idea here at all. The idea is that the women should wear headcoverings when the church is gathered for worship, instruction or prayer. We may assume that the Corinthians gathered for prayer at various times, in addition to gathering for worship on the Lord’s day, and that some meetings were less formal than others. The passage before us does not focus on the question of whether or not women should be speaking independently in the worship service conducted on Sunday. For a full discussion of this question see the excursus on 1 Corinthians 11:5.
The word προφητεία “prophecy” in the New Testament refers to any utterance prompted by the Spirit of God or any utterance which is presented as such. It may be genuine or otherwise (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).
6 For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
Although in ancient times the customs of female dress varied, women of all cultures allowed their hair to grow long. Nowhere was short hair the custom for women. Short hair on a woman was a sign of grief or disgrace. Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, adulteresses sometimes had their hair cropped as an extremely humiliating punishment for their crime. Among the Jews this was done as someone recited the words, “because thou hast departed from the manner of the daughters of Israel, who go with their head covered … therefore that has befallen thee which thou hast chosen.” (6) Sometimes a Greek woman would cut her hair short as a sign of mourning, after the death of a family member. (7) A famous example of this is in the tragic story of Electra, who, after her father was murdered, cropped her hair short in token of her grief. Ancient depictions of Electra show her with her hair cut almost as short as a man’s. In the legend, Electra kept her hair short for years because she was determined to remain in mourning until her brother had avenged her father’s death, but this goes beyond the common custom. Also, there was a religious custom among the Greeks in which people (both male and female) would on certain occasions cut off a lock of hair and offer it to a deity. But there is no reason to think that in the case of women this votive offering involved any general shortening of the hair. (8)
Paul uses two different words here for the removal of the hair. It may be κείρασθαι “shorn” with scissors or ξυρᾶσθαι “shaven” with a razor. Paul uses the words together pleonastically, for emphasis, as in the Septuagint version of Micah 1:16. The word for “disgraceful” here is αἰσχρὸν, which may also be rendered “shameful.” Here Paul seems to anticipate the idea presented more fully in verse 14. The fact that such hair-cropping is universally seen as shameful shows that we naturally expect a woman’s head to be covered. So let her be covered! This is the same word used in 14:35 when Paul says, “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.” Obviously in 14:34-35 γυνή does not mean “wives” only, as if unmarried women were permitted to speak while the married women were to be silent. In ancient times the social status of a married woman was much higher than that of an unmarried woman. Likewise, there is no indication here that Paul thinks only married women should cover their heads.
7 For indeed a man ought not to cover his head, being the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
Here Paul begins a new argument in which the headcovering is explained as a symbol. He begins by explaining that man and woman are themselves like symbols, pointing to the purposes for which they were created. When he says that man is the “image” (εἰκὼν) of God he is referring to Genesis 1:26-7, where it says, “Let us make man (Heb. adam) in our image, after our likeness.” When he adds “and glory” (δόξα) he is probably using it in the sense “honor, majesty,” in contrast with the “dishonor” mentioned in verse 4. The majesty of God belongs to men according to the mandate, “Let them have dominion,” and for a man this is part of what it means to be the image of God. The phrase εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα “image and glory” here is probably best understood as a hendiadys, meaning “image of the majesty” (or perhaps “majestic image”). Man was created to symbolize God’s dominion in the earth. (9) But the woman was not created for that iconic purpose, she was created for man. It should be noticed here that Paul does not say that woman is the εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα “image-glory” of man, but only the δόξα “glory” of man. The omission of the qualifying word εἰκὼν is not accidental — the implication is that her “glory” is not iconic or imitative. She is not merely a lesser man, an inferior second-hand copy of the image of God. She symbolizes something altogether different, and this will have consequences for the way in which she ought to worship God.
We should notice at this point that Paul rejects the idea that God has ordained a “unisex” spirituality for Christians. God, who created us male and female, has ordained a masculine spirituality and a feminine spirituality. The influence of the Holy Spirit does not lead us to androgyny, but to a sanctified masculinity for men and a sanctified femininity for women. This is contrary to certain pagan ideas which were becoming popular in places like Corinth in ancient times. Under the gnostic ideologies that arose from Middle Platonism in the first century, the human soul was essentially a spark of the cosmic Reason or mind of God, and the ideal and glorified human soul, liberated from the accidents of the flesh, was androgynous or sexless. Women in their spiritual exercises were supposed to become more like men, and men more like women. This idea is plainly expressed in various pseudo-Christian writings of the gnostic sects in the first three centuries of the Church, and there is good reason to suppose that it was present already in the first generation of the Corinthian congregation. (10) The first-century gnostics, like the “inner light” Quakers and the Transcedentalists of the nineteenth century, maintained that there is “no sex in the soul.” But Paul does not share that opinion.
For Paul, the outstanding fact of woman’s existence is her subordinate position, or rather her subordinate nature, as revealed in the story of creation. It is not merely a matter of position, determined by custom, or an accident of the flesh. A woman is womanly by nature, and by God’s design. She is ontologicaly subordinate to man because she was fashioned for man. In another epistle he says that in this subordination she symbolizes the Church under submission to the authority of God. A well-ordered marriage is a holy mystery that “refers to Christ and to the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). This is the inherent symbolism of man and woman, intended by God from the beginning. Sexual differentiation and identity is not a tragic result of the Fall, to be reversed or transcended by the soul’s escape from the body of flesh (as the gnostics taught), but a consequence of the Creator’s good design.
So in what sense is woman the δόξα of man? It is not an iconic or representational δόξα. If that were the case, we would expect Paul to say that the woman must imitate the man, as some second-rate image of God’s authority. But that is obviously not his intention here. Paul is using the word now in a different sense, in line with a Hellenistic Jewish idiom, in which a woman is said to be the δόξα “honor” of her husband if her womanly virtues and loyal submission redounds to his honor. (11) The best commentary on this phrase is the saying in Proverbs 12:4, “A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband,” as expounded by Matthew Henry:
He that is blessed with a good wife is as happy as if he were upon the throne, for she is no less than a crown to him. A virtuous woman, that is pious and prudent, ingenious and industrious, that is active for the good of her family and looks well to the ways of her household, that makes conscience of her duty in every relation, a woman of spirit, that can bear crosses without disturbance, such a one owns her husband for her head, and therefore she is a crown to him, not only a credit and honour to him, as a crown is an ornament, but supports and keeps up his authority in his family, as a crown is an ensign of power. She is submissive and faithful to him and by her example teaches his children and servants to be so too.
Now, according to the same symbolical manner of thinking, Paul interprets the woman’s headcovering. It is understood to be an emblem of the woman’s submission. It follows, then, that a man should not wear such a headcovering. As the image of God’s authority he should not dress like a woman, because this would involve a symbolical violation of his headship. (12)
10 For this reason the woman should have authority on her head ...
“For this reason” refers to the immediately preceding statements in verses 7-9. The woman should wear the headcovering as a sign of her station, a personal acknowledgement of the fact that she is under the man’s authority (ἐξουσία). And so most English translations add the words “symbol of” before “authority.” The headcovering is a symbol of the man’s authority, not her own, because it would not make sense to draw the conclusion that authority belongs to the woman as an inference from what was said in verses 7-9. (13)
It may be asked, why does Paul use such an ambiguous expression as “authority on her head” instead of saying more plainly “a sign of the man’s authority on her head”? Probably because he is using the phrase ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν “a woman should have the ἐξουσία” with some irony here, in response to the libertine Corinthians who maintained that, in the Lord, women should have the ἐξουσία “authority,” “right,” or “permission” to behave as men, without restriction in matters of dress or behavior. The word ἐξουσία is a catchword of the gnostic-libertine party, and so Paul picks it up and turns it against them, as if to say, “women should have an ἐξουσία, yes, the ἐξουσία that God has set over them. Let them wear the headcovering as a sign of the headship of the man, rather than claim an ἐξουσία of their own.” (14)
... because of the angels.
The “angels” are here mentioned as an additional reason for the headcovering. As watchers and agents for God, their attention is especially drawn to spiritual exercises. We might also notice that in Isaiah chapter 6 the seraphs who cried “holy, holy, holy” covered their faces and their feet with their wings in the awful presence of God. It so happens that the Septuagint version has here the word κατακαλυπτων, which Paul has been using. So perhaps Paul’s reference to the angels is meant to recall how the seraphs covered themselves, in which case the idea would be that if the angels themselves do this, how much more should a woman. For further discussion of this phrase see the excursus on the angels.
11 In any case, woman is not independent of man, nor man of woman, in the Lord; 12 for as woman is [made] from man, so man is now [born] through woman. And all things are from God.
Here we translate the word πλὴν “in any case” instead of “nevertheless” because the meaning here is not so much adversative as supplementary. (15) Verses 11-12 reinforce what has already been said by stating the general principle underlying it, that in God’s scheme of things there is really no such thing as an independent woman, or an independent man for that matter. Nothing is truly independent in this world. Therefore let a woman stand before God with a sign of her womanhood, not as a generic and sexless individual. There is nothing to be gained by either sex in pretending that the one can be independent of the other. Notice here that again spiritual androgyny is implicitly rejected. Androgyny would make the man and the woman into independent individuals, twins of the same nature and role, having no need for one another, no complementary relationship or bond. And it is especially to be noted that the gnostic concept of androgynous regeneration is shattered by the words ἐν κυρίῳ here: in the Lord. Paul is speaking of the new life of man and woman in Christ.
13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
Notice that Paul does not say “pray or prophesy” in this verse, as in verses 4 and 5. This indicates that prayer, not prophesying, is the thing foremost in the Apostle’s mind with respect to the women.
14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
In the appeal to “nature” (φύσις) here Paul makes contact with another philosophy of ancient times, known as Stoicism. The Stoics believed that intelligent men could discern what is best in life by examining the laws of nature, without relying on the changeable customs and divers laws made by human rulers. If we consult Nature, we find that it constantly puts visible differences between the male and the female of every species, and it also gives us certain natural inclinations when judging what is proper to each sex. (16) So Paul uses an analogy, comparing the woman’s headcovering to her long hair, which is thought to be more natural for a woman. Though long hair on men is possible, and in some cultures it has been customary for men to have long hair, it is justly regarded as effeminate. It requires much grooming, it interferes with vigorous physical work, and a man with long hair is likely to be seized by it in a fight. It is therefore unmanly by nature. But a woman’s long hair is her glory. Here again is the word δόξα, used opposite ἀτιμία “disgrace,” in the sense of “something bringing honor.” Long and well-kept hair brings praise to a woman because it contributes to her feminine beauty. The headcovering, which covers the head like a woman’s hair, may be seen in the same way. Our natural sense of propriety regarding the hair may therefore be carried over to the headcovering.
Recently some authors have maintained that when Paul says “her hair is given to her for a covering” he is saying that the hair suffices as a covering, and this interpretation has enjoyed some popular currency, but it cannot be the Apostle’s meaning. There was certainly no need for Paul to convince the Corinthian women that they should not crop their hair. That is not an issue at all here. It is simply taken for granted in verses 5 and 6 that such cropped hair would be disgraceful, and so everyone agrees that a woman’s head should be covered. And if there is something especially suitable about a woman’s head being covered, then she should be glad to wear a headcovering in addition to the long hair. But if she does not like a headcovering, well then, let her shear off her hair also! The argument here involves a rhetorical reductio ad absurdum in which there is an analogy made between headcoverings and hair. These verses make no sense otherwise. If by “uncovered” Paul means only a shorn head in the first place, as some would have it, (17) then his argument in verses 5 and 6 amounts to the nonsensical “if a woman will not refrain from cutting off her hair, then let her cut off her hair also.” For this reason Hurley, who does not want to think that Paul is requiring headcoverings here, has resorted to the idea that Paul is saying that a woman’s head is uncovered when her hair is not properly coiffed. (18) But this is very strange, and unlikely in the historical context, where cloth headcoverings and veils were so commonly used. Who can suppose that Paul is making no reference to these when he speaks of headcoverings?
16 But if anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
He thus brings the matter to a conclusion. In addition to the theological and moral reasons for the headcovering, there is also the fact that if the Corinthians were to allow their women to remove the headcovering, this new practice or custom (συνήθειαν) would go against the established custom of Paul and his fellow-workers, the custom which was observed in all the other churches, and which he has delivered to them as one of the παραδόσεις “traditional practices” of the faith (verse 2). A similar appeal to the church-wide παραδόσεις may be seen in 14:33, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent,” and the argument there is also ended with a brusque, “if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” (14:38). Those who continue to challenge the παραδόσεις regarding women after these explanations have been made are to be regarded as obstinate trouble-makers, who deserve no further answer.
Some have strangely interpreted this verse to mean, “But if anyone strongly disagrees with what I have said, rather than make a habit of argument over such unimportant matters let us just say it is a matter of indifference,” etc. But this interpretation fails to take the whole passage seriously as the Word of God. And besides that (which should be enough), it makes no sense either rhetorically or semantically. Paul has devoted some time to this subject because it is important to him, not a matter of indifference; and it makes little sense to speak of a custom of being contentious (φιλόνεικος, lit. “loving strife”), because contentiousness is an attitude or temper, not a custom. There is a good parallel to Paul’s usage of the word φιλόνεικος in Josephus’ work Against Apion. Josephus concludes a series of arguments with the sentence, “I suppose that what I have already said may be sufficient to such as are not very contentious (φιλόνεικος),” (19) and then he continues with even stronger arguments for those who are very contentious. In the same way, Paul reserves the clinching argument for the end. It is an argument from authority. The headcovering practice is a matter of apostolic authority and tradition, and not open to debate. His concluding rebuke of the contentious people in Corinth is meant to cut off debate and settle the issue, not to leave it open. It is quite wrong to say of this last argument of Paul’s that “in the end he admits” that he was merely “rationalizing the customs in which he believes,” (20) as if Paul himself put little store by custom. Rather, Paul considers this to be his strongest point. At the end he harks back to the words with which he opened the subject (“maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” in verse 2), and the whole section is thus framed between explicit invocations of tradition.
There can be little doubt about what application Paul intended the Corinthians to make of this passage. All their women were to cover their heads for prayer at least, both in the assembly and in less formal settings. In view of the customs of the time—in which many women would go about with their heads covered anyway—we might even say that this whole passage has to do not so much with putting on special coverings for prayer as it does with keeping the head covered for prayer. Probably Paul would prefer that a Christian woman would cover her head whenever in public, or whenever she was in the presence of men outside her own family. This would resemble the practice among Jews and others in Asia Minor at the time, where Paul established most of his churches and spent most of his time. The headcovering which Paul has in mind is probably the shawl normally worn over the head by many women at the time. Presumably Paul would not object to local variations of the tradition, as long as something were worn on the head.
The seriousness with which this rule was observed by some Christians in Syria in ancient times may be seen from the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas” (third century), in which there is a very remarkable statement about the fate of bareheaded women in Hell.
And he took me unto another pit, and I stooped and looked and saw mire and worms welling up, and souls wallowing there, and a great gnashing of teeth was heard thence from them. And that man said unto me: These are the souls of women which forsook their husbands and committed adultery with others, and are brought into this torment. Another pit he showed me whereinto I stooped and looked and saw souls hanging, some by the tongue, some by the hair, some by the hands, and some head downward by the feet, and tormented (smoked) with smoke and brimstone; concerning whom that man that was with me answered me: The souls which are hanged by the tongue are slanderers, that uttered lying and shameful words, and were not ashamed, and they that are hanged by the hair are unblushing ones which had no modesty and went about in the world bareheaded (γυμνοκεφαλοι). (21)
For an indication of the application made by Christians in second-century Egypt we have the following passage from Clement of Alexandria.
Woman and man are to go to church decently attired, with natural step, embracing silence, possessing unfeigned love, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God. Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happen to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled. (22)
In the West it seems that Christian women ordinarily wore headcoverings also, though without covering any part of the face. At the end of the second century Tertullian (in Carthage) paid much attention to the subject. He wrote one treatise entirely devoted to the question of headcoverings, called On the Veiling of Virgins. We can see from this treatise that in the African province the custom was for adult females to cover their heads with scarves, though Tertullian would like the younger girls to be covered also. Tertullian complains that the headcoverings of some women were too small:
For some, with their turbans and woollen bands, do not veil their head, but bind it up; protected, indeed, in front, but, where the head properly lies, bare. Others are to a certain extent covered over the region of the brain with linen coifs of small dimensions—I suppose for fear of pressing the head—and not reaching quite to the ears. If they are so weak in their hearing as not to be able to hear through a covering, I pity them. Let them know that the whole head constitutes “the woman.” Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound; in order that the necks too may be encircled. For it is they which must be subjected, for the sake of which “power” ought to be “had on the head:” the veil is their yoke. Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also ... (23)
Of particular interest is the testimony of Tertullian concerning the practice of Corinthian women in his day. He unequivocally asserts that the Corinthians understood Paul to be requiring a headcovering, and that all women (both married and unmarried) of the Corinthian congregation covered their heads:
So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins (virgines suas Corinthii velant). What the apostles taught, their disciples approve. (24)
From these sources we may see that anciently the Church in all places did observe the headcovering rule literally enough, with some variations of custom, and with varying degrees of seriousness. The great seriousness of the Syrian church in the matter reflects the strict customs and attitudes about women’s dress which prevailed in all sorts of religious traditions in the East. In Alexandria, where Eastern customs also largely prevailed, it seems that Clement has interpreted Paul as if he were speaking of face-veiling. In both of these, the sources seem to indicate that this practice was understood not really according to Paul’s argument—as a symbolical expression of female subordination—but according to the Eastern cultural standards of decent feminine modesty. The γυμνοκεφαλοι are immodest women, unblushing, inviting sexual attention, etc. But in the West, where women in secular society often went bareheaded, and where face-veiling was not generally practiced, the situation was different. Tertullian, writing to Christians in the African province, complains of the minimal compliance with the rule among Christians, and, although his treatise says a good deal about modesty, he follows Paul by indicating that the headcovering symbolizes submission. This is no coincidence, because Tertullian like Paul was adjuring the women to cover their heads in a context where Eastern customs and ideas did not so prevail as to make theological explanations unnecessary.
We should point out that the wearing of the headcovering in Tertullian’s time was not regarded as a custom peculiar to Christians. In another work he responds to detractors of Christianity by emphasizing the extent to which Christians followed the ordinary customs of secular society:
But we are called upon to answer another charge: we are said to be useless for the ordinary business of life. How can such an accusation be maintained against men who live among yourselves, using the same food and raiment and habits of living, and the same necessaries of life? [Quo pacto homines vobiscum degentes, eiusdem victus, habitus, instructus, eiusdem ad vitam necessitatis?] We are not like the Brahmins, or the Gymnosophists of the Indians, dwellers in the woods, and exiles from ordinary life. (Apology. chap. 42.)
This same point is made in the Epistle to Diognetus (an anonymous fragment, probably from the first half of the third century), whose author shows a particular interest in distinguishing his enlightened philosophical version of Christianity from the more tradition-bound forms of Judaism. He states that Christians “do not practice their religion in the same way as the Jews” (chap. 3), and, “holding aloof from the common silliness and error of the Jews” (chap. 4), they “follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life.” (τοῖς ἐγχωρίοις ἔθεσιν ἀκολουθοῦντες ἔν τε ἐσθῆτι καὶ διαίτῃ καὶ τῷ λοιπῳ βίῳ, chap. 5.) But as Tertullian’s treatise on the headcovering reveals, statements like this were not designed to commend mere conformity to whatever fashions happened to prevail in any given time and place. We get the impression that Christians generally acknowledged that true piety involved adherence to certain standards of dress which were traditional for the Church, and a readiness to obey the specific commands of Scripture.
How are we to apply this rule to ourselves as Christians in the twenty-first century? The whole passage has been treated with some uneasiness in recent times. Since about 1960, not only have hats and scarves gone out of fashion for women in Western nations, but it has become “politically incorrect” to even suggest that women ought to submit to male authority. The very idea that women should be required to wear headcoverings as a sign of their subordination is almost intolerable in the modern context. The interpretation of the passage which gets rid of headcoverings by saying that Paul is only requiring long hair for the women is no solution, because this merely makes the long hair into the symbol of submission, which is no more acceptable to the unisex and egalitarian spirit of the age than the headcoverings were. Long hair on women can no longer be taken for granted, either. We might ask if any of the preachers who explain away the passage with this interpretation have the nerve to tell the women not to cut their hair short, as the Council of Gangra did rather severely in a.d. 370 — “If any woman … cut off her hair, which God has given her as a memorial of subjection, let her be anathema, as one that annuls the decree of subjection.” (25) It appears that in most churches now there is no attempt to preach or honor this passage in any way. The only honest method of dealing with the passage under these circumstances has been to dismiss it as culturally conditioned. In the “old days” women dressed in particular ways that may have been significant at the time, it is said, but the times and fashions have changed, so that headcoverings or bare heads no longer signify anything today. Thus the passage is said to be irrelevent. But this dismissal of the passage will not do, for at least four reasons.
1. The headcovering will always signify what Paul has said it signifies. Although it is true that many Christians even in the evangelical churches are not Bible-readers, and have no knowledge of this passage, still its very existence in the Bible ensures that the headcovering will continue to signify submission in churches where the Bible is read. And the Bible ought to be read. Fashions of women’s dress have changed and will continue to change, but Paul in this passage has explained very carefully that the headcovering symbolizes something which does not change. He appeals to custom in the final verse, but here it is not the custom of the surrounding culture to which he refers—but the custom of the churches. And furthermore, in this passage he does not even avail himself of the common Eastern notion that the headcovering is simply a requirement of feminine modesty. Instead, he explains that the headcovering practiced in the churches is emblematic of womanly submission; and he also indicates that this is a symbol which even the angels (who are not subject to changing fashions) take a real interest in. So the practice cannot be dismissed as being merely cultural. And when we consider that the bare-headed fashion of our times came into vogue at the same time that the “women’s liberation” movement began, along with the wearing of pants and the cutting of hair, we ought to pause before we say that these things are really so devoid of symbolism in the culture at large.
2. There was no uniformity in ancient customs, and so it may very well be that the attitudes and arguments of those who today are opposed to this practice, or of those who think it is unimportant, are the very same attitudes and arguments which gave rise to opposition to the practice in first century Corinth. The headcovering was perhaps seen as either “sexist” or of no particular significance, old-fashioned or prudish, savoring of Judaism or some other thing, etc. Paul nevertheless insists upon it. I do not think it is safe to assume that, despite his arguments, Paul’s real intention is merely to affirm and interpret the fashions of his day (especially in Corinth) or that he would affirm in like manner the fashions of modern women if he were writing the letter today. Rather, it seems that Paul wants Christian women to observe a churchly tradition, irrespective of what happens to be in vogue outside the church. (26) Are we really honoring Scripture if we say that, despite its conspicuous absence in the passage, the counsel of cultural conformity is the real and unspoken motive for the ordinance?
On this subject I would like to quote from a little book about the interpretation of the Bible written by R.C. Sproul. In Knowing Scripture, Sproul gives a chapter on “Culture and the Bible,” in which he discusses the treatment of the headcovering passage to illustrate various principles of interpretation and application. He writes:
It is one thing to seek a more lucid understanding of the biblical content by investigating the cultural situation of the first century; it is quite another to interpret the New Testament as if it were merely an echo of the first-century culture. To do so would be to fail to account for the serious conflict the church experienced as it confronted the first-century world. Christians were not thrown to the lions for their penchant for conformity.
Some very subtle means of relativizing the text occur when we read into the text cultural considerations that ought not to be there. For example, with respect to the hair-covering issue in Corinth, numerous commentators on the Epistle point out that the local sign of the prostitute in Corinth was the uncovered head. Therefore, the argument runs, the reason why Paul wanted women to cover their heads was to avoid a scandalous appearance of Christian women in the external guise of prostitutes.
What is wrong with this kind of speculation? The basic problem here is that our reconstructed knowledge of first-century Corinth has led us to supply Paul with a rationale that is foreign to the one he gives himself. In a word, we are not only putting words into the apostle’s mouth, but we are ignoring words that are there. If Paul merely told women in Corinth to cover their heads and gave no rationale for such instruction, we would be strongly inclined to supply it via our cultural knowledge. In this case, however, Paul provides a rationale which is based on an appeal to creation, not to the custom of Corinthian harlots. We must be careful not to let our zeal for knowledge of the culture obscure what is actually said. To subordinate Paul’s stated reason to our speculatively conceived reason is to slander the apostle and turn exegesis into eisogesis.
The creation ordinances are indicators of the transcultural principle. If any biblical principles transcend local customary limits, they are the appeals drawn from creation. (27)
After a few paragraphs Sproul goes on to say, “What if, after careful consideration of a biblical mandate, we remain uncertain as to its character as principle or custom? If we must decide to treat it one way or the other but have no conclusive means to make the decision, what can we do? Here the biblical principle of humility can be helpful. The issue is simple. Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being overscrupulous in our design to obey God? Or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of being unscrupulous in demoting a transcendent requirement of God to the level of a mere human convention? I hope the answer is obvious.” (28) Unfortunately it seems that Sproul’s hope is out of place in the easy-going churches of our day. We are quite willing to be guilty of being unscrupulous. We would rather dismiss the apostle’s reproof as “cultually conditioned” and emulate the easy-going Corinthians, who represent the Christian liberty which is so precious to the modern church. But this only shows that we are creatures of a like culture. As Sproul points out in the same work:
It often becomes difficult for me to hear and understand what the Bible is saying because I bring to it a host of extra-biblical assumptions. This is probably the biggest problem of “cultural conditioning” we face. No one of us ever totally escapes being a child of our age ... I am convinced that the problem of the influence of the twentieth-century secular mindset is a far more formidable obstacle to accurate biblical interpretation than is the problem of the conditioning of ancient culture. (29)
3. It is not safe to set aside any portion of Scripture, especially of the New Testament, without compelling reasons. If we can dismiss this portion of Scripture so lightly, we can dismiss anything in Scripture which disagrees with the fashions (both sartorial and moral) of our times. A passage which on its face offers what may even be called moral reasons for this garment is being dismissed as culturally relative and now obsolete. This is a very dangerous hermeneutical precedent, and I cannot believe that the avoidance of unstylish headcoverings for the ladies is worth the trouble we will get from compromised principles of interpretation.
4. We should not be asking how much we are allowed to ignore the literal instructions of this passage or any other passage of Scripture so long as we claim to be observing the “spirit.” We should be asking how we may best obey it both in spirit and in the letter.
For these reasons and others I think it would be best if Christian women were to cover their heads, just as Paul directed. Symbols have a powerful effect on our lives, and it is not safe to treat them with contempt, especially when the symbol in question has been appointed in Scripture itself.
The old claim that fashion in clothing is morally neutral and essentially devoid of symbolism has now been destroyed by recent downgrade trends in women’s fashion, and Christian parents are keenly aware of the significance of clothing in the case of their teenage daughters. Moreover, the feminist movement (which knows very well what clothing may say about a woman) has created a social environment which is so inimical to Christian values that many Christian women now finally recognize that they cannot allow themselves to be creatures of fashion. And so the church is ripe for a reconsideration of this whole question. In any case, church leaders and evangelical authors who have been discouraging the use of headcoverings should reconsider their opposition to it.
“If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a commandment of the Lord.” (I Corinthians 14:37)
Although the emphasis is on women and their attire in this passage, the passage does contain some statements which men should take to heart and apply to themselves.
First there are the implications of the uncovered head. Paul states that the reason for this bareheadedness is that the Christian man must exhibit the “image-glory of God,” which we have understood in the sense that he must identify with and imitate God, as ruler of the creation. This is no small responsibility for men. We are all familiar with the biblical teaching that men must obey and serve God. The Bible in many places calls God’s people His servants, and the word usually translated “servants” really means slaves. But even so, where Christian men are concerned, the biblical concept of our relationship to God is more perfectly expressed as one of sonship. And a son is not a slave; he both obeys and imitates his Father. The incongruity of this metaphor in relation to women is obvious enough. A woman should not be asked to think of herself as a son who must imitate the Father. But this is what Christian men are called to do. A manly soul is not content to obey, he goes beyond that and makes his royal Father’s interests his own. He inherits the dominion. There is therefore a certain emulation of God proper for men which is not characteristic of female piety. This stance, symbolized by the uncovered head, is going to have consequences for the way in which a man worships God and lives out his faith.
Athanasius. Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei: Athanasius on the Incarnation, Translated with an Introduction, Analysis, Synopsis and Notes, by T. Herbert Bindley, M.A. (Christian Classics Series III). London: Religious Tract Society, n.d. [ca. 1885].
Barrett. Charles K. Barrett, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968).
Bauer. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, second edition revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, from Walter Bauer’s fifth edition, 1958 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
Blundell. Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).
Cheetham. Samuel Cheetham, “Dress,” in Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, edited by William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1875), pp. 580-83.
Clark. Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1980).
Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus [The Instructor], in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, vol. 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).
Conzelmann. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, in the Hermeneia commentary series (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), translated from the German Der erste Brief an die Korinther, 1st edition (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969).
Edersheim. Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (London: Religious Tract Society, 1876).
Erdman. Charles R. Erdman, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1928).
Fee. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
Foerster. Werner Foerster, “ἐξουσία,” in volume 2 of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), pp. 560-75.
Craig. Clarence T. Craig and John Short, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: Introduction and Exegesis by Clarence T. Craig, Exposition by John Short, in volume 10 of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953).
Daly. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon, 1973).
Grudem, 2001. Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of κεφαλη (‘Head’): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44/1 (March 2001), pp. 25-65.
Grudem, 2002. Wayne Grudem, ed., Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002).
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Grudem and Piper, Questions. Wayne Grudem and John Piper, Fifty Crucial Questions. An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990).
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Winter, 2003. Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
1. Paul begins this new section of the letter on a conciliatory note because he is employing one of the conventions of classical rhetoric, in which the exordium (preamble) contains a captatio benevolentiae — a “capturing of the good will” of the audience. The same rhetorical feature may be seen in several of his letters, and in his speeches in Acts (cf. the opening of his famous speech on Mars’ Hill, recorded in Acts 17:22, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious”). There is no need to ask what traditions in particular he may be referring to here, because he is appealing in a very general way to the willingness of the Corinthians to maintain the Apostolic traditions (note the plural). Anthony Thiselton is on the wrong track when he speculates that “part of the observed traditions (παραδόσεις, 11:2) probably included the Christian practice of women leading a congregation in the Godward ministry of prayer, and leading in preaching a pastorally applied message or discourse from God” (p. 828). The idea that Paul could be referring to any such tradition stemming from himself in 11:2 is ruled out by 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (the latter of which has several things in common with the present passage), and so it can only be maintained by attributing these to another author, or to a change in Paul’s attitude. If any particular tradition is meant, it is of course the headcovering custom. John C. Hurd, in his book The Origin of I Corinthians (London: S.P.C.K., 1965), wrongly speculates that in 11:2 Paul is referring to a Corinthian claim that Paul himself established a tradition of allowing the women to go without headcoverings. Hurd believes that Paul changed his position on this, while the Corinthians were holding to his original practice. But this speculation seems to be ruled out by verse 16, which returns to the subject of customary practice with an emphatic “we have no such practice” (of removing the headcovering).
2. Egalitarian scholars such as Gordon Fee have not been able to make sense of this passage, and in particular they are incapable of giving an adequate explanation for the sentence in verse 3, which is the keystone verse of the passage. Fee tries to dismiss it by calling it a “theologoumenon” (theological statement) that has no real importance in the passage. He surmises that the statement about headship in verse 3 is only a convenient rhetorical way of approaching the headcovering issue broached in verses 4-5, after which it simply drops from view. But how can he say that verses 7-9 do not resume the thought expressed in verse 3? He lamely states that after verses 4-5 “there is no further direct reference” to the “theologoumenon” in verse 3, by which he apparently means that the saying is not actually repeated; but even so, he is forced to concede (in a footnote) that in verse 8 there is at least an “oblique reference” to verse 3 (p. 501). Actually, he depends upon this connection in his discussion of the meaning of the word κεφαλη (lit. “head”). Like other egalitarians before him, he rejects the whole concept of headship and he argues that in verse 3 the word means “source” rather than “authority.” Although we have good attestation for the use of this word as a hierarchical metaphor meaning “authority” in ancient literature, Fee asserts that this usage is “an exceptional usage and not part of the ordinary range of meanings for the Greek word” (p. 503). He further asserts that the sense “source,” especially “source of life,” is “almost certainly the only one the Corinthians would have grasped.” But this assertion has virtually no basis in the available evidence. It has so little basis that Bauer’s Lexicon does not even mention “source” as a figurative meaning of the word. How can Fee make such an assertion, then? In his handling of this matter, he is apparently indebted to Barrett’s commentary, where we find a more nuanced and cautious treatment. Barrett writes:
In this verse (which is to be contrasted with 4, 7, 10 below) the word head (κεφαλη) is evidently used in a transferred sense. In the Old Testament head (rosh, sometimes but by no means always translated into Greek as κεφαλη) may refer to the ruler of a community (e.g. Judges x. 18); this use, however, though it was adopted in Greek-speaking Judaism, was not a native meaning of the Greek word (for details see H. Schlier, in T.W.N.T. iii. 674 f.). In Greek usage the word, when metaphorical, may apply to the outstanding and determining part of a whole, but also to origin (e.g. in the plural, to the source of a river, as in Herodotus iv. 91). In this sense it is used theologically, as in an Orphic fragment (21a): Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things are completed (Ζευς κεφαλη, Ζευς μεσσα, Διος δ᾽ εκ παντα τελειται ; that some MSS. have αρχη instead of κεφαλη adds to its significance; see also S. Bedale in J.T.S. v (new series), 211-15). That this is the sense of the word here is strongly suggested by verse 8 f. Paul does not say that man is the lord (κυριος) of the woman; he says that he is the origin of her being. (p. 248)
This is more cautious than what we read in Fee, but still very misleading, because Barrett is relying upon only two occurrences where the word may be understood as “origin” from a mass of lexicographical evidence that does not otherwise support such a meaning. The one from Herodotus is plural, and it seems to be an idiom. He interprets the Orphic fragment very superficially, neglecting the evident fact that here κεφαλη is being used as a technical term in the context of some extravagant pagan cosmogony, in which it seems to mean “beginning” (there is no good reason to interpret this further as “source”) and “the outstanding and determining part of a whole,” and much more besides. In any case, even if it could be established that “source” is the meaning here, it is inappropriate for Fee to cite this text as a basis for his statement about “the ordinary range of meanings for the Greek word,” because this is no ordinary text. Schlier’s interesting discussion of this Orphic fragment in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament article explains that the cosmological headship spoken of here belongs to the sphere of a Persian-inspired “aeon myth” in which a heavenly aeon produces subordinate beings through emanations, over which the aeon has a kind of ontological supremacy. Further on in the article he brings this “aeon conception” into relation with Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 11 because he supposes that Paul is making use of it in an attenuated way. He suggests that when Paul says that “the head of the woman is the man” he refers not only to the woman’s subjection but also to the fact that “the origin and raison d’etre of woman are to be found in man,” because here “κεφαλη implies one who stands over another in the sense of being the ground of his being. Paul could have used αρχη if there had not been a closer personal relationship in κεφαλη” (p. 679). He also points out that “the basis of the relation of the body to the Head is always the obedience of subjection” (p. 680). He is not the least bit interested in putting some egalitarian meaning on the word in 1 Corinthians 11. If Fee wants to make so much of the usage of κεφαλη in this Orphic fragment in his egalitarian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3, he really ought to interact with Schlier’s treatment of it, which is much more nuanced and satisfactory. But there really is no warrant for fetching Paul’s meaning from this Orphic text. There is no good reason to doubt that when he says, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God,” he is using the word κεφαλη in the well-attested metaphorical sense of “ruler.” (For Hellenistic Jewish examples of this usage, which may be regarded as a Hebraism, see the Septuagint’s rendering κεφαλη in Judges 10:18; 11:8, 9, 11, where the Hebrew text has ראש rosh, with the meaning “ruler,” and also Paul’s use of the word to denote the authority of Christ in Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:19.) The verses which follow show plainly enough that questions of authority are his main concern, and this becomes especially clear in verse 10, where it is explained that the headcovering represents ἐξουσίαν “authority.” In verse 3, he uses the word κεφαλη in this metaphorical way instead of κυριος (lord) or αρχων (ruler) for two reasons: he has in view the symbolical explanation of the head covering which he is going to offer in the passage, and so he uses the word for “head” here as a metaphor that lends itself to that purpose; and he wants to suggest that the authority of which he speaks is not an authority arbitrarily imposed upon someone, but the kind of authority which naturally belongs to a “head” that is in organic unity with its “body.”
Ultimately the egalitarian interpreters fail to make sense of the passage even if κεφαλη is understood as “source,” because this only raises the question of why Paul is talking about “sources.” What importance does he see in the fact that the man is the “source” of the woman? The egalitarians cannot tell us why it matters. Fee can only say very obscurely that it has something to do with “relationships that are predicated on one’s being the source of the other’s existence” (p. 503). This kind of transparently evasive comment is typical of the “evangelical” egalitarians. More honesty is found among openly liberal egalitarians who do not pretend to accept the authority of the Bible, and who freely admit that Paul’s teaching is “sexist”—Richard B. Hays, for instance, who writes, “Any honest appraisal of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 will require both teacher and students to confront the patriarchal implications of verses 3 and 7-9. Such implications cannot be explained away by some technical move, such as translating kephale as ‘source,’ rather than ‘head,’ because the patriarchal assumptions are imbedded in the structure of Paul’s argument.” (p. 192.) Hays supposes that sexual egalitarianism was the main source of the headcovering problem in Corinth. He explains that for the Corinthian women a headcovering “symbolized their femininity and simultaneously their inferior status as women,” and “to throw off this covering was to throw off a symbol of confinement and to enter the realm of freedom and autonomy traditionally accorded only to men.” (p. 184.)
For a very thorough discussion of the word κεφαλη in the New Testament and in Greek literature generally see Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of κεφαλη (‘Head’): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44/1 (March 2001), pp. 25-65 ; reprinted in Wayne Grudem, ed., Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002), pp. 145-202. An earlier and less technical article is Grudem’s The Meaning of Kephale (Head): A Response to Recent Studies,” in Wayne Grudem and John Piper, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1991). Grudem interacts very patiently with all the recent writers who have tried to get rid of the man’s “headship” in this passage by interpreting the word κεφαλη as “source.”
3. Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 148. “the hetaerae ... represented the only significant group of economically independent women in classical Athens.”
4. A comprehensive study of this interpretive issue is available in a conference paper by Michael R. Riley, “The Proper Translation of Aner and Gune in the New Testament,” presented to The Manitowoc Pastoral Conference, St. John’s, Newtonburg, April 19, 1993. Riley discusses the present passage very thoroughly. Also, Stephen B. Clark in Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Servant Books, 1980) gives an interesting discussion of the matter. After examining various views he concludes, “The husband-wife relationship in marriage is the paradigm for the man-woman relationship. Hence the central focus of the passage is husbands and wives. Yet other women and other men follow the same patterns because their identity as women and men is more fundamental than their unmarried state. A man is the image and glory of God and has Christ as his head even if he is unmarried. Since God created him as a male, he must assume a role that expresses this fact. This role finds its fullest expression in marriage, but is also expressed if he is unmarried through his responsibility in the community. The same is true of a woman. She assumes a role as a woman that finds its fullest expression in marriage, but it is also expressed if she is unmarried through her relationships and responsibilities in the community.” Another view is that “the references to ‘the man’ refer to whichever man was responsible for the woman. This answer is based upon the social structure of the time, in which there seem to have been no unattached women. All women were under a man’s authority: their husbands’, or their fathers’, or that of the next responsible male family member. Celibate women and widows were either still part of their families (and hence under their fathers or the next responsible male family members) or possibly under the bishop or other representative of the community. The early church, according to patristic evidence, had an order of widows and an order of virgins but no corresponding order of widowers or of male celibates. This unique approach to female celibates occurred in part because the family’s authority over the woman had to be replaced by a formal transfer to the community’s authority. In addition, unmarried women and widows wore veils among the Jews, even though the veil had some marital significance.” Hans Conzelmann, in his commentary Der erste Brief an die Korinther (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969), rightly observes that although “interpreters often allude to the marriage relationship” in their discussions of this passage, “it is not questions of marriage that are being discussed here, but questions of the community. It is a case of the nature of man and woman as such. Paul marshalls a number of arguments; the argument concerning the status of the two in marriage is not mentioned.” (English edition, p. 184.) The assertion made by Bruce W. Winter in After Paul Left Corinth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) that “any reference connecting a woman and a veil would immediately alert a first-century reader to the fact that she was a married woman” (p. 127) is not adequately supported by ancient sources.
5. It is for this reason that I avoid the English translation “veiled,” found in some versions of the Bible, which means only the face veil to some readers, and even to some popular commentators. When Charles R. Erdman wrote in 1928, “No one would insist that women today must wear actual veils when attending Christian worship,” he apparently assumes that Paul is referring to face-veils, because in 1928 women were expected to wear some kind of headcovering in most churches. At that time, the headcovering was prescribed by canon law in the Roman Catholic Church. The Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 stipulates: Viri in ecclesia vel extra ecclesiam, dum sacris ritibus assistunt, nudo capite sint, nisi aliud ferant probati populorum mores aut peculiaria rerum adiuncta; mulieres autem, capite cooperto et modeste vestitae, maxime cum ad mensam Dominicam accedunt. “Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.” (Canon 1262, § 2.)
6. Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (London: Religious Tract Society, 1876), p. 154.
7. The cutting of hair to express mourning was widespread in the ancient world. References to it as an Israelite custom appear in the Old Testament: Jeremiah 16:6; 47:5: 48:37; Job 1:20; Isaiah 3:24; 15:2; 22:12; Ezekiel 7:18; Micah 1:16.
8. For a full discussion of the hair-offerings among the Greeks see W.H.D. Rouse, Greek Votive Offerings (Cambridge, 1902). William J. Martin in his article “1 Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretation” wrongly supposes that according to this hair-offering custom there would have been among the Greeks a class of “shorn women” who kept their hair cropped short for religious reasons, and that Paul “would have disapproved of the practice because of its association with heathen superstition” (p. 234). He even declares that it “would be unthinkable that among Paul’s many converts there were not women of the ‘shorn woman’ class” (p. 238). But there is no evidence for the existence of any such class of Greek women in the first century. There is some evidence that female slaves were sometimes shorn as a humiliating mark of their inferior status, and there may have been some who were compelled to keep their hair short, but Paul’s instructions here cannot have in view such involuntary cases. The truth is, he mentions the hair-cropping only because he is drawing an analogy between an uncovered head and a shorn head, and he takes it for granted that none of the women want to have cropped hair. I take up this subject again in the discussion of verses 14 and 15 below.
9. Hendiadys is a rhetorical term referring to the use of a pair of words joined by and, in which one of the words serves as an emphatic modifier of the other (e.g. “nice and warm” means “very pleasantly warm”). It is more common in Hebrew and Greek literature than in English, and the Scripture authors often use it. Barrett fails to perceive the semantic reason for the hendiadys here, and dismisses the first term by saying “Paul values the term image only as leading to the term glory” (p. 252).
I follow the majority of commentators by explaining the word δόξα in the sense it usually carries in biblical Greek, “splendor,” “honor,” “majesty,” etc. Some other scholars have maintained that the word means “reflection” here, so that Paul is only using a pleonastic expression, “image and reflection” (Kittel, p. 237; Bauer, p. 204; and the translators of the New Revised Standard Version). This proposed sense of “reflection” would be a natural and likely extension of the well-attested sense “splendor, brightness,” but the lexicographical evidence for it is rather weak. On the other hand, Fee is confused when he says “there is very little linguistic evidence” for the interpretation “man reflects God’s glory; that is, being in God’s image, man is somehow a reflection of God himself” (p. 516), because here he is confusing the meaning of a word with the meaning of the clause in which it occurs. The word δόξα itself need not have the meaning “reflection” in order for the clause to mean “man reflects God’s glory.” We are dealing now with the meaning of the clause, not the meaning of δόξα alone, and it is evident that Paul must be saying that the man reflects or represents the δόξα of God. And it is likely that Paul means to combine the “image” and the “glory” according to Meyer’s interpretation: “A man as such is the image of God, inasmuch as he, being Adam’s representative, has dominion over the earth ... He is also the glory of God, inasmuch as, being the image of God, he, in his appearance as man, practically represents on earth in a human way the majesty of God as a ruler” (p. 250). So also Thayer in his lexicon, who lists 1 Corinthians 11:7 under the sense “majesty” because the man’s “function of government reflects the majesty of the divine ruler,” but the woman reflects man’s glory “because in her the preeminence and authority of her husband are conspicuous” (p. 156). Moffatt renders the verse, “Man ... represents the likeness and supremacy of God; but woman represents the supremacy of man.” The rendering in the New English Bible is another example: “man is the image of God, and the mirror of his glory, whereas woman reflects the glory of man.” This interpretation does not require, and in fact it precludes, the idea that δόξα in itself means “reflection.” The “reflection” aspect of the interpretation does not depend upon a definition of δόξα, it is a contextual interpretation of the words ὑπάρχων “being” and ἐστιν “is,” an interpretation necessary in this context if the phrase is not understood as an hendiadys. We need to understand how a man can “be” the glory of God when we know that God has his glory quite apart from men. When Paul talks about about man “being” the glory of God he must mean that man represents God’s glory. The aptness of the word “reflection” as a way of expressing this representational function is then suggested by the fact that God’s “glory” is the thing being represented.
10. For an overview of this theme in various pagan traditions see Peter Jones, “Androgyny: The Pagan Sexual Ideal,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43/3 (September 2000), pp. 443-69. Some pretty clear examples are to be found in the 2nd-century gnostic “gospels” of Thomas and Philip. In Thomas we read “when you make the male and the female into a single one so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female, then you will enter the kingdom.” (The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. Robinson [Brill, 1984]). Isenberg in his Introduction to the Gospel of Philip writes, “According to this tractate, the existential malady of humanity results from the differentiation of the sexes. When Eve separated from Adam, the original androgynous unity was broken. The purpose of Christ’s coming is to reunite ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’” (p. 131).
11. See Van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, p. 143. Speaking of an inscription found in the Jewish Catacombs of Vigna Randanini (just outside Rome) he says, “We further note that Paul’s conviction that ‘woman is the glory (doxa) of man’ (1 Cor. 11:7) is also expressed by the Roman Jew Sophronius who inscribes his wife’s tombstone with the words η δοξα Σοφρονιου Λυοκιλλα ευλογημενη ‘the glory of Sophronius (was) the blessed Lucilla’ (135).” David Noy in his Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe guesses that this one is from the 3rd or 4th century, but its date cannot be determined, because the stone bearing the inscription has been lost (p. 274). Conzelmann, followed by the BAGD lexicon, interprets this epitaph very unnaturally as “the reflection of Sophronius, blessed Lucilla” (Conzelmann p. 187, BAGD p. 204), trying to maintain the “reflection” interpretation for both occurrences of δόξα. Fee also falters at the δόξα ἀνδρός “glory of the man” here. He complains that to define δόξα is “like trying to pick up mercury between one’s fingers” (p. 515), but he prefers the meaning “honor,” and, having rejected the usual explanation of the phrase (described above), he suggests that woman brings honor to man because she is “the one without whom he is not complete” (p. 504), who “exists ... as the one who having come from man is the one companion suitable to him, so that he might be complete” (p. 517). It seems rather arbitrary to introduce the idea of “completeness” here as an explanation for “glory.” This is remote from any sense of the word δόξα, and there is nothing in the context to suggest it. But Fee is on the right track when he looks for a way in which the woman brings glory to the man. In general, commentators fail to understand the meaning of verse 7 when they assume that δόξα must have the same meaning both times. They overlook the fact that in the first occurrence the word is qualified by the hendiadys with εἰκὼν, giving it an iconic sense there only.
12. There has been some difference among theologians as to what the “image of God” consists of, but in Hellenistic Judaism and the early Church it was ordinarily associated with the gift of Reason (including ethical reasoning). For example, Athanasius in his treatise On the Incarnation writes as follows: οὐχ ἁπλῶς, ὥσπερ πάντα τὰ ἐπὶ γῆς ἄλογα ζῷα, ἔκτισε τοὺς ἀνθρώπους, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὴν ἑαυτοῦ εἰκόνα ἐποίησεν αὐτούς, µεταδοὺς αὐτοῖς καὶ τῆς τοῦ ἰδίου Λόγου δυνάµεως, ἵνα ὥσπερ σκιάς τινας ἔχοντες τοῦ Λόγου καὶ γενόµενοι λογικοὶ διαµένειν ἐν µακαριότητι δυνηθῶσι, ζῶντες τὸν ἀληθινὸν καὶ ὄντως τῶν ἁγίων ἐν παραδείσῳ βίον. — “He did not merely create men as he did the irrational living creatures on the earth, but made them after his own image, imparting to them a share even of the power of his own Word; in order that, possessing as it were certain reflections of the Word [Λόγου], and being made rational [λογικοὶ], they might be able to continue in blessedness, living the true and only real life of the saints in paradise.” (Bindley translation, p. 52.) Most Protestant writers have mentioned this quality also, along with other human qualities that seem to distinguish us from the lower animals. Another quality often mentioned is the general competence to exercise a dominion over the creation as God’s vice-regents. The fact that in Genesis 1:26 the words “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” are immediately followed by “and let them have dominion” strongly suggests that the competence to rule as God’s representative is one aspect of the “image” there. 1 Corinthians 11:7 clearly also refers to a dominion-aspect of the image. Charles Hodge writes, “The only sense in which the man, in distinction from the woman, is the image of God, is that he represents the authority of God. He is invested with dominion. When, in Genesis 1:26, 27, it is said God created man in his own image, the reference is as much to woman as to man; for it is immediately added, ‘male and female created he them.’ So far, therefore, as the image of God consists in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, Eve as truly, and as much as Adam, bore the likeness of her Maker. But in the dominion with which man was invested over the earth, Adam was the representative of God. He is the glory of God, because in him the divine majesty is specially manifested.” Conzelmann gives a more philosophical explanation, based upon the use of the eikon concept in cosmological speculations of the era. In Hellenistic Judaism of the first century the “image of God” in man was sometimes understood in line with Platonic ideas about heavenly archtypes, their primary derivatives, secondary derivatives, and so on. In this scheme of things woman is conceived as a secondary and weaker image of God, through man. This explanation is less satisfactory than Hodge’s, because it demands an explanation of how Paul’s use of the “image of God” concept here can be reconciled with other passages in which the “image of God” or “image of Christ” concept is used to describe salvation and holiness (e.g. Romans 8:29). We want to avoid the implication that women are less capable of approximating the “image of God” in righteousness and holiness. Many recent authors seem to be primarily interested in asserting that men and women are equally the image of God in all respects, but at the same time there is an increasing confusion and uncertainty about what this “image” consists of. Bruce A. Ware’s article “Male and Female Complementarity and the Image of God” is an good example of this trend. He insists that women are “fully and equally the image of God,” repeating it eleven times in his article. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11:7-8 Paul is quite obviously saying that men, and not women, are designed to reflect the sovereignty of God, and he is making a statement about the created nature of men and women, not merely their assigned roles. With respect to headship, and the qualities associated with it, men are more completely or directly the “image of God,” and that is Paul’s point here.
It is pertinent to mention here that in Scripture, God is represented as masculine. This is designed to teach us something about the nature of God. In his dealings with mankind God speaks and behaves more like a man than a woman. Scripture presents an “image” of God that is masculine. In view of this, it is only natural and logical for Paul to say that a man is more completely the image of God’s majesty. Feminists in the liberal churches know what is at stake when they push for the elimination of these masculine images of God in worship. Mary Daly complains that “If God is male, the male is god” (Beyond God the Father, p. 19), and she is partly right, in the sense that if God is presented as being more like a man than a woman, then men will naturally be seen as being more like God in some respects. This is unavoidable, and in 1 Corinthians 11:7 Paul makes it explicit.
13. This is the interpretation of all the ancient commentators. Some manuscripts of the ancient Coptic and Latin versions even have “headcovering” here instead of “authority,” and the verse is quoted “ought to have a covering on her head” by several patristic writers (Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine). Likewise, nearly all modern commentators. For example, A.T. Robertson: “He means semeion exousias (symbol of authority) by exousian, but it is the sign of authority of the man over the woman. The veil on the woman’s head is the symbol of the authority that the man with the uncovered head has over her. It is, as we see it, more a sign of subjection (hypotages, 1 Tim 2:10) than of authority (exousias)” —Word Pictures in the New Testament (1933), ad loc. Recently some egalitarian authors have tried to combat the “sexist” implications by arguing that ἐξουσίαν here refers to the woman’s own authority to prophesy (see W. Gerald Kendrick, “Authority, Women, and Angels: Translating 1 Corinthians 11:10,” The Bible Translator 46 [July 1995], p. 337). Taken by itself, in isolation from the context, Paul’s phrase “a woman should have authority on her head” would naturally be understood as referring to the woman’s own authority, permission, or liberty. So in a sense William Ramsay is right when he says, “[the idea] that the ‘authority’ which the woman wears on her head is the authority to which she is subject [is] a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the New Testament, where (as they seem to think) Greek words may mean anything that commentators choose.” (The Cities of St. Paul: Their Influences on his Life and Thought [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907], p. 203.) The form of expression here probably derives from the libertine Corinthians who were asserting the “authority” of women. But everything that Paul has said up to this point strongly suggests that he is reacting against such claims.
14. This kind of riposte, in which an opponent’s words are appropriated and turned against him, is a rhetorical device often used by Paul in his epistles. Regarding the use of ἐξουσία among the libertines, Werner Foerster writes: “More particularly ἐξουσία means the freedom given to the community. This is the subject of Paul’s quarrel with the Corinthians; cf. 1 C. 6:12 : Πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει. πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ἐγὼ ἐξουσιασθήσομαι ὑπό τινος. 1 C. 8:9 : βλέπετε δὲ μή πως ἡ ἐξουσία ὑμῶν αὕτη πρόσκομμα γένηται τοῖς ἀσθενέσιν. 1 C. 10:23 : Πάντα ἔξεστιν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει. πάντα ἔξεστιν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐ πάντα οἰκοδομεῖ. The ἐξουσία which was a Corinthian slogan may be interpreted either Gnostically as power or as freedom in respect of law. Either way the basis is Paul’s own teaching on freedom from the Law ... the declaration of freedom from the Law perhaps led others to vivid and startling demonstrations of this freedom.... While radically upholding the ἐξουσία of Christians, the Πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν, Paul opposes to these tendencies two principles, the principle of what is fitting ... and the principle of what is edifying.” (“ἐξουσία,” in volume 2 of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, p. 570.) Of course this interpretation is rejected by several recent commentators who resist the whole idea that Paul is placing the woman in a subordinate position, and who have exercised their ingenuity in some very remarkable ways on this passage. For example, Thiselton in his massive commentary on First Corinthians insists that any interpretation of ἐξουσία in its usual senses of “authority” or “right” is seriously “misconceived and misleading.” He suggests that ἐξουσία here refers to the “self-control” which “exemplifies respectability in Roman society,” and so the phrase ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς means “keep control of (how people perceive) their heads” (p. 839). This is one of those places where Thiselton is constrained to an “immensely complex” exegesis (p. 1146) because he sees “multilayered metaphorical and cultural nuances which exclude any understanding of language in these verses in terms of lexicography alone” (p. 801) whenever the text does not seem to agree with his modern egalitarian views. But Fee is even worse than Thiselton at this point. He favors the idea that ἐξουσία means “freedom” here, and so verse 10 means, “For this reason the woman ought to have the freedom over her head to do as she wishes” (p. 520). He acknowledges that this is problematic, because it “sounds so contradictory to the point of the argument to this point,” but he is content to make Paul incomprehensible. “Paul seems to be affirming the freedom of women over their own heads; but what that means in this context remains a mystery” (p. 521). In other words, Fee prefers to think that Paul is “affirming the freedom of women” whether or not that makes any sense.
15. Though I have not seen πλὴν translated this way in this verse by any English version, Bauer’s Lexicon does list this verse under the sense “only, in any case,” and explains that in this usage the word is “breaking off a discussion and emphasizing what is important.” Other examples for this sense listed there are Eph. 5:33, Phil. 3:16 and 4:14, and Rev. 2:25. Thayer also gives the sense “moreover, besides,” and explains that at the beginning of a sentence πλὴν may serve “either to restrict or to unfold and expand what has preceded.” It seems clear to me that Bauer has correctly grasped the meaning of the word here. Even if πλὴν is understood to be an adversative and verses 11-12 are understood to be a qualification of the foregoing statements concerning authority, Fee’s assertion that verses 11-12 “explicitly qualify verses 8-9 so that they will not be understood” to support “structures of authority” (p. 502) is quite unjustified, because as a matter of fact no one up to the present generation of commentators has thought that headship and the usual understanding of verses 8-9 are excluded by the remarks in 11-12. Paul is here emphasizing the interdependence of man and woman in the same way that he emphasizes the interdependence of the members of the body of Christ in chapter 12, and neither here nor in chapter 12 is it sensible to think that this interdependence implies that a marriage or an ecclesiastical body must have no head.
16. We might also consider the possibility that when Paul says “her hair is given to her for a covering” he is referring to the more abundant supply of hair which nature has given to woman. Her hairline does not recede like a man’s does, and she does not go bald on top as a man often does (a consequence of testosterone). Piper and Grudem are far out on a limb when they suggest that “When Paul says that a woman’s hair is given to her for a covering (v. 15), he means that nature has given woman the hair and the inclination to follow prevailing customs of displaying her femininity, which in this case included letting her hair grow long and drawing it up into a covering for her head.” (John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Fifty Crucial Questions. An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood [Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990].) Ancient writers used the word φύσις in contradistinction to mere custom, not as an equivalent term. The idea that Paul would use it as shorthand for “the inclination to follow prevailing customs” is quite odd, and it seems to be an arbitary injection of the idea of “prevailing customs” into the verse. As we have noted above, there is little reason to think that Paul would recommend mere conformity to “prevailing customs” of Corinth, and we have no sure knowledge of what these prevailing customs were. If even the word φύσις may be bent to this cultural accomodation theory of Paul’s intention, one may ask whether consistency demands that a similar equation of φύσις with “custom” in Romans 1:26-27 is also admissible: “they exchanged the customary for the uncustomary ... abandoned customary relations with women,” etc.
Charles K. Barrett in his Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper and Row, 1968) gives some very good comments on this verse: “Paul uses the word nature (φύσις) at Rom. i.26; ii.14,27; xi.21,24; Gal. ii.15; iv.8 (cf. Eph. ii.3). These passages do not all express identically the same idea, but the notion common to them all is that of correspondence with things as they are found truly to be, without artificial change. The best parallel to the present passage is Rom. i.26 (cf. the use of φύσικος in Rom. i.26 f.). The idea is not an abstruse theological one; Paul is thinking of the natural world as God made it, rather than (in the Stoic manner) of Nature as a quasi-divine hypostasis. Nature (i.e., God) has made men and women different from each other, and has provided a visible indication of the difference between them in the quantity of hair he has assigned to each; that is, in point of fact men have short, women have long hair, and though art can reverse this difference, the reversed distinction is, and is felt to be, artificial. Whether or not this corresponds with scientific observation, it would certainly correspond with Paul’s observation, as study of Hellenistic portraiture will confirm. There is a good parallel to the thought in Epictetus I.xvi.9-14. ‘Let us leave the main works of nature and behold her minor works. Is there anything less useful than the hair on the chin? What then? Has not nature used this also in the most fitting way possible? Has she not by means of it distinguished the male and the female? Has not the nature of each one of us immediately cried out from afar, I am a man; on this understanding approach me, speak to me, seek nothing else; here are the signs? Again, in regard to women, as she has mingled something gentler in the voice so she has taken away the hair (of the chin) ... For this reason we ought to keep the signs that God has given, we ought not to throw them away, not to confound, so far as we can, the distinctions of the sexes.’ ... If this dialogue is a pointer to the context of thought implied (and it does seem probable that horror of homosexualism is behind a good deal of Paul’s argument in this paragraph) it is certainly not fitting for a woman to cut off her hair. Her long hair is a glory to her. Glory is here used in a sense different from but related to that of verse 7. Human beings must give glory to God by being (e.g. in their unconcealed and unperverted sexual differentiation) what God intended them to be; at the same time, obediently to be what God intended them to be is the highest glory that human beings can achieve. To wear her hair long, in a womanly fashion, is an outward sign that a woman is fulfilling her role in creation.” (pp. 256-7.)
Barrett’s guess that the “horror of homosexualism is behind a good deal of Paul’s argument in this paragraph” is also supported by the remarks of Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish theologian who lived from about 20 BC to about AD 50) regarding men’s and women’s dress. In his treatise On the Virtues, Philo discusses the law laid down in Deuteronomy 22:5, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.” He explains it thus: “But such great anxiety and energy is displayed by the law in attaining the object of training and exercising the soul so as to fill it with courage, that it has even descended to particulars in the matter of raiment, enjoining what men ought to wear, and prohibiting with all its might a man from wearing the garments of a woman, in order that no trace of shadow of the female may be attached to the male part of mankind, to its discredit; for the law, being at all times in perfect consistency and accordance with nature, desires to establish laws which shall be akin to and in perfect harmony with one another from beginning to end, even in those minute points which, by reason of their insignificance, appear to be beneath the notice of ordinary legislators. For as it perceived that the figures of men and women, looking at them as if they had been sculptured or painted forms, were very dissimilar, and, moreover, that the same kind of life was not assigned to both the sexes (for to the woman is assigned a domestic life, while a political one is more suited to the man), so also in respect of other matters which were not actually the works of nature, but still were in strict accordance with nature, it judged it expedient to deliver injunctions which were the result of sound sense and wisdom. And these related to the mode of living, and to apparel, and to other things of that kind; for it thought it desirable that he who as truly a man should show himself a man in these particulars also, and especially in the matter of dress, since, as he wears that both day and night, he ought to take care that there is no indication in it of any want of manly courage. And, in the same manner, having also equipped the woman in the ornaments suited to her, the law prohibits her from assuming the dress of a man, keeping at a distance men-women just as much as it does women-men; for the lawgiver was well aware that when only one single thing in the proper economy of the house was removed, nothing else would remain in the same position as it ought and as it was in before.” (Yonge’s translation, chap. 4, and paragraphs 18-21 in the Loeb edition).
17. Most often one hears this from uneducated preachers who simply fail to notice the problem it creates for verses 5 and 6. I have found only one scholar who has tried to make an argument for the idea that in this passage Paul is requiring only long hair for the women. William J. Martin in a Festschrift published in 1970 presented an argument concerning the force of the Greek aorist in verse 6 in order to arrive at such an interpretation. He proposes the following as a translation of the verse: “For if a woman is not covered (has not long hair) then let her remain cropped (for the time being; κειράσθω, aorist imperative with cessative force, referring to a particular situation), but since it is a shame for a woman to be cropped or shorn let her become ‘covered’ — (i.e. let her hair grow again; κατακαλυπτέσθω, present imperative for a non-terminative, inchoative action)” (p. 239). This interpretation afterwards found a place in the margin of the NIV New Testament of 1973. The NIV margin reads as follows from verse 4: “Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair on her head dishonors her head - she is just like one of the ‘shorn women.’ If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair, but since it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again. A man ought not to have long hair ...” Doubtless this marginal note appears in the NIV because Martin was on the NIV committee of translators, and his colleagues were willing to humor him. But the interpretation was never taken seriously by other scholars, and the note was removed by the committee that did a revision of the NIV New Testament in 2002 (the TNIV).
Despite the problems with this view some have tried to make it seem plausible by making reference to the Greek underlying the translation “for a covering.” Here the preposition is αντι, which often carries the idea of a substitution, i.e., “instead of.” But the preposition is rightly translated “for” here because it also express equivalence or correspondence. Only the context will indicate which meaning is appropriate. See M. J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in vol. 3 of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 1179. In his discussion of the preposition αντι Harris particularly notices 1 Cor. 11:15, of which he says: “Paul’s point is not that a veil is superfluous for a woman since nature has given her hair in place of a covering, but rather, arguing analogically, he infers from the general fact that ‘hair has been given to serve as a covering’ (ἀντὶ περιβολαίου) that the more generous supply of hair that a woman has when compared to a man shows the appropriateness of her being covered when she prays or prophesies.” Martin simply ignores this rather obvious interpretation of the preposition when he says, “Paul states unequivocally that a woman’s long hair takes the place of an item of dress” (op. cit., p. 233). But this statement in verse 15 is, in Martin’s opinion, one of several indications that show “beyond reasonable doubt” (p. 234) that Paul is making reference only to long hair whenever he mentions a head-covering in the passage. We do wonder how Martin could have become so carried away with his peculiar and novel interpretation that he would think there can be no reasonable doubt as to its correctness.
18. See James B. Hurley, “Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36.” Westminster Theological Journal 35:2 (Winter 1973): pp. 190-220, and Hurley’s Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981). Hurley’s odd theory that the “covering” intended by Paul is the bun hairstyle commonly used by women in the ancient world is yet another cultural accomodation theory. But his theory depends upon a whole series of dubious assertions and speculations. At one point he asserts that Jewish men covered their heads for prayer in the first century, without mentioning the fact that most scholars today do not think this was the case, and it is mainly on this basis that he argues that Paul cannot be talking about a cloth headcovering in the passage, because it would have brought him into serious conflict with the Jewish brethren in the churches. He then goes on to argue for a previously unknown meaning of “loosened” for the Greek word ἀκατακάλυπτος (“uncovered”), a meaning which is unattested in Greek literature and unrecognized in any Greek lexicon. Upon that precarious basis the argument proceeds. He concludes with the idea that in in verse 14 Paul is saying that the bun hairstyle is given to women “instead of” a cloth headcovering, and so there Paul is assumed to be explicitly rejecting the contention of “reactionaries” in Corinth who felt that the sisters should be wearing a headcovering. The interpretation requires us to understand verse 4 as, “Any man praying or prophesying with his hair done up in a bun like a woman’s dishonors his head.” A more improbable interpretation can hardly be imagined. Hurley’s theory illustrates the eagerness of conservative interpreters to provide explanations of this passage which will allow people in ‘evangelical’ curches to evade the headcovering rule. The idea is to maintain the illusion that in these evangelical churches (as distinct from the ‘liberal’ churches) people are really prepared to obey the Scripture.
19. Book 1, at the end of section 21, in Whiston’s English edition. Cf. paragraph 160 in the standard Greek editions.
20. Clarence T. Craig in the Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), p. 129.
21. English translation from M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), para. 56. It is worth noting that this description of the torments of Hell seems to be derived from a similar passage in the Apocalypse of Peter (second century), where the women hanging by their hair are being punished in this manner because they “adorned themselves for adultery.” The redactor of the Acts of Thomas has made the crime more specific and more suitable to the punishment.
22. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus [The Instructor], Book III. Chapter XI. English translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers.
23. “On the Veiling of Virgins” chap. xvii, English translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers ed. Roberts and Donaldson, vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1885), p. 37. Paul Mattei in the introduction to the Sources Chretiennes critical edition of Tertullian’s works says that “the veil which he advocates corresponds to that which the portraits of Roman matrons reveal us: a fragment or a portion of clothing covers the head and falls down on the two sides on the ears and the nape of the neck down to the shoulders.” See Eva Schulz-Fluegel and Paul Mattei, Tertullien: Le voile des vierges. Sources Chretiennes 424. (Paris: Editions de Cerf, 1997), p. 89.
24. ibid., chapter viii, p. 33. It is indeed hard to understand how anyone could think that this testimony, from about A.D. 200, does not make further discussion of the matter almost useless. Are we to think that after a space of hardly more than a century the Corinthians themselves had forgotten the meaning of Paul’s instructions? Indeed, are we to think that the entire Church had promptly forgotten the true meaning, until our own generation of scholars discovered that Paul was not requiring a headcovering? This fantastic idea is the premise upon which the arguments of Hurley and others are based.
25. Canon xvii of the Council of Gangra, as quoted in Samuel Cheetham, “Dress,” in Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, edited by William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1875), p. 581. The original Latin of the Concilium Gangrense reads: “Quecumque mulier, religioni iudicans convenire, comam sibi amputaverit, quam Deus ad velamen eius et ad memoriam subiectionis illi dedit, tamquam resolvens ius subiectionis, anathema sit.”
26. Lenski, with his typical fullness of explanation, says on verse 4 in his commentary, “If Paul were writing to Jews or to Romans or to Germans, all of whom covered the head during worship because of reverence and shame in God’s presence, he would have to tell them that any man among them who violated this custom thereby showed lack of reverence and shame. But to write this to Greeks would be incomprehensible to them. They had an entirely different custom which had an entirely different significance. This significance is sound and good. Hence Paul explains it to the Corinthians at length and bids them to abide by their custom. For to abbrogate it and to fly in the face of it means in their case, not only to violate that significance but at the same time to disavow that significance” (p. 435). And on verse 10 he says, “[Paul] is not laying down an unalterable law that shall be in effect for the church of all ages and of all nations. While the facts of creation to which Paul goes back are in their very nature unalterable, they cannot be made an equally unalterable law regarding customs for the simple reason that customs vary endlessly for reasons that are not at all connected with these facts. Only under certain circumstances an obligation may arise in which these facts play a part as was the case here at Corinth and among the Greeks. Established customs that beautifully symbolize these facts ought not to be challenged arbitrarily but intelligently retained until, without prejudice to these facts, in due course, customs change of their own accord” (p. 444). Here Lenski is inviting the reader to think that all of Paul’s explanations in this passage are nothing but ad hoc rationalizations of a heathen custom, and that he would have completely contradicted himself and given rationalizations for opposite customs if he were to have addressed the subject in a non-Greek setting. But if a commentator argues thus, we should at least expect him to know what he is talking about when he makes confident assertions about the customs of the first century. Another scholar who thinks that Paul does not mention the real reason for the headcovering in this passage gives an explanation that contradicts Lenski’s, saying that “the real reason for his position” is that “he was Jewish.” (E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], p. 4.) I hope that I have made it clear enough in these notes and in my article on ancient customs that the scholars who put so much weight on speculative cultural explanations often disagree among themselves, neglect to make important distinctions, sometimes misrepresent the ancient evidence, and have been known to erect arguments on the basis of assertions for which there is no evidence whatsoever.
27. R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 110.
28. ibid., p. 111.
29. ibid., pp. 104-105.
“The Woman’s Headcovering,” copyright by Michael D. Marlowe, December 2002, revised October 2008.
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