This Pauline text has become a classic source of muddled theological
thinking. Paul was writing to the Christian community at Corinth.
He had heard from some Christians who visited him in Ephesus, that there were
uncontrolled scenes of trance and speaking in tongues during their prayer
meetings. An impression of what took place can be gained from 1 Corinthians
14,1-33. It would seem that, as an expression of ecstatic frenzy, some
women would be tempted to take off their veils and loosen their hair.
Perhaps, they prayed with their arms raised high and their heads thrown back as
was the custom in certain oriental cults.
Read about this: R.E.WITT, Isis in the Greco-Roman
World, Ithaca 1971; see also J.Z.SMITH, Native Cults in the
Hellenistic Period, History of Religions 11 (1971/72) pp. 236-249;
R. and K.KROEGER, An Inquiry into Evidence of Maenadism in the Corinthian
Congregation, SBL Seminar Papers 14 (1978) vol. 2, pp. 331-346.
This must have upset other members of the community. Paul worried about
it because it threatened to destroy order and peace. He decided that the
practice should be stopped. A factor that may have complicated matters is that
Christian men had given up the Jewish practice of praying with a prayer mantle
over their head. They prayed with uncovered face to reflect the
glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 3,18).
Some women may have asked why they could not do the same
thing? Paul tried to explain why they should not.
About 1 Corinthians 11,2-16 read: J.B.HURLEY, Did
Paul require Veils of the Silence of Women?, Westminster Theological
Journal 35 (1972/73) pp. 190-220; J.MURPHY- OCONNOR, Sex
and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11,2-16, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42
(1980) pp. 482-500; St.Paul: Promoter of the Ministry of Women,
Priests People 6 (1992) pp. 307-311; E.SCHÜSSLER FIORENZA, In
Memory of Her, London 1983, pp. 227-230.
What I want you to understand is that the head of every man is Christ,
the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who
prays or who speaks prophecies with his head covered dishonours his head. But
any woman who prays or speaks prophecies with no veil on her head dishonours
her head - it is the same as if her head is shaven. For if a woman does not
want to wear a veil, then she should cut off her hair. But if a woman is
ashamed to be shaven bald, she should wear a veil. (verses 3-6)
The case for men and women is different,
Paul argues. For a woman who wears her hair loose is a disgrace to her husband:
loose hair was the sign of a woman suspected of adultery (Numbers
And, with an apparent reference to oriental cults where devotees are shaven
bald, Paul says: If you imitate them, why dont you shave off all
For a man should not cover his head for he is the image of God and
reflects Gods glory. But a wife reflects her husbands glory. (verse
For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man
created for woman, but woman for man. (verses 8-9)
To press his point further, Paul adduces a popular
Jewish argument based on the second creation story (Genesis 2,5-25). Though the
story intends to teach the equality of man and woman, Jewish commentators
interpreted it as a proof of womans dependence: she is from man and for
man. Paul rationalizes here.
That is why a woman should keep authority over her head, because of the
angels. (verse 10).
The sense is obscure. Scholars often
translate authority with a sign of being under
authority (=a veil). It is also possible that Paul states a woman should
keep control over her head, with her hair pinned up and covered (see pin on
right). This was a sign of respect and propriety.
Protecting her head
(and indirectly her husband) in that way is all the more required when she
speaks in the tongues of angels.
Read about this: J.A.FITZMYER, A Feature of
Qumran Angelology and the Angels of 1 Cor 11:10, New Testament
Studies 4 (1957/58) pp. 48-58; M.D.HOOKER, Authority on her Head: an
Examination of I Cor xi.10, New Testament Studies 10
(1964/65) pp. 410-416; A.FEUILLET, Le signe de puissance sur la
tête de la femme (I Cor ix.10), Nouvelle Revue
Théologique, 55 (1973) pp. 945-954.
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not different
from man, nor man from woman. Woman may come from man, but man is born from
woman. And all come from God. (verses 11-12)
Note: Different from is a better
translation of the Greek chôris than independent from;
see J.KÜRZINGER, Frau und Mann nach 1 Kor 11.11f, Biblische
Zeitschrift 22 (1978) pp. 270-275.
Fearing, with good reason, that his argument may be
misunderstood, he reaffirms the basic equality of women. All are the same in
Moreover, the argument that woman came from man can be turned on its head:
every man is born from a woman! Paul acknowledges that his previous reasoning
Ask yourself: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with no cover on
her head? Does nature itself not teach you that wearing long hair does not suit
men but looks beautiful on women? For a womans hair has been given as an
ornament to her. (verses 13-15)
Paul now appeals to peoples common sense. Long
and well groomed hair makes a woman dignified and attractive. Should she not
pray to God like that? But Paul realises this argument too is weak,
conditioned as it is by custom and culture.
And if anyone still wants to argue: we recognise
no other practice, nor do the other Christian communities. (verse
Paul concedes that his reasoning is open to further
discussion. He ends up by simply putting his foot down. The practice will not
be tolerated because it creates disorder. God is not a God of disorder
but of peace (1 Corinthians 14,33).
If we analyse this passage, we find that Paul is really pleading for order and
peace in the community. For that reason he does not want women to pray with
their long hair hanging loose. But it is wrong to conclude from the text that
Paul promulgated a law by which women of all times and in all cultures were
required to wear a veil in Church.
Neither is it correct to think that in his reasoning Paul promulgated inspired
doctrine about the submission of women to men. He was simply arguing his point,
as any worried pastor would, pleading and thinking aloud, aware of
the inherent weaknesses in what he was saying. Imputing doctrinal weight to
such rationalizations is erroneous and unfair.
We tend to forget that Paul was a human being like anyone of us. When
we try to persuade people to follow some course of action, we adduce all kinds
of reasons and motives, some better, some worse. We are aware of the fact that
such reasonings only serve to support a point we want to make. They may not be
lifted out and made into solemn pronouncements that stand on their own.
See also the interpretation of the Genesis accounts and of the
use of its texts and accompanying rabbinical traditions in the New Testament,
by Cora E. Cypser, The Perennial Problem of
Mutuality and Interdependence of Man and
Woman: An Exegetical Study of 1 Cor 11, 11-1 by K.J. Mercy, Bible Bhashya,
000, vol.XXVI, no.3, pp.196-204.
It is not Good
that the Mensch Should be Alone; I Will Make Him/Her a Helper Fit
for Him/Her (Gen 2: 18) by Walter Vogels in Êglise et
Théologie, 9 (1978). (n.b. English text. The article refers to 1Cor
The Construction of Women's
Difference in the Christian Theological Tradition, by Elisabeth