Letter to Women

1 Corinthians 11, 2-16

Scriptural Meaning!

The literal sense Rationalizations! Intended Scope Literary Forms Meaning of a text

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- O’CONNOR, ‘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 5,18).
And, with an apparent reference to oriental cults where devotees are shaven bald, Paul says: ‘If you imitate them, why don’t you shave off all your hair?’

“For a man should not cover his head for he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory. But a wife reflects her husband’s glory. (verse 7)
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 woman’s 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 Christ.
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 has flaws.

“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 woman’s hair has been given as an ornament to her. ” (verses 13-15)

Paul now appeals to people’s 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 16)

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 Sin’.


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