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Paul and Sexual Identity: 1 Corinthians 11.2-16

Paul and Sexual Identity: 1 Corinthians 11.2-16

Timothy Radcliffe OP
First published as Ch. 4, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990
published on our website with the necessary permissions.

Theologians trying to make sense of St Paul's views on women have been compared to the example that Freud gives of a man defending himself against the accusation of having made a hole in a saucepan that he had borrowed.(1) He argued that he had returned the saucepan intact, and that, anyway, it had had a hole in it when he borrowed it, and indeed he had never borrowed it at all. Similarly theologians will argue that Paul has an admirable theology of women, free of sexism, and anyway he is far less anti-feminist than his contemporaries, and indeed he never wrote the offending texts. I shall look at the most embarrassing Pauline text on women, 1 Corinthians 11.2-16, the passage apparently about the importance of women wearing veils in church, and argue that not only did Paul write it, but that he is tackling a topic of central importance to theology, the relationship between nature and grace. Most of 1 Corinthians is a meditation upon what it means for us to be bodily. In chapter six he looks at the relationship between our bodiliness and sexuality. He explores a theology of our bodiliness that grounds his assertion that it is wrong to sleep with prostitutes.(2)The rest of chapter eleven is devoted to the sharing of the body of Christ; in chapter twelve he will consider what it means for the church to be the Body of Christ, and Finally he will look at the importance of belief in the resurrection of the body. The reason why so much of 1 Corinthians focuses on sex and food is that eating and drinking together and sleeping with each other are fundamental expressions of our bodiliness. These two concerns coincide in his discussion of the Eucharist, a meal which is the gift of a body. That is why that passage on the Eucharist is the centre of the letter. In this passage, 11.2-16, Paul is focusing upon one particular aspect of our bodiliness, our sexual identity. What is the relationship between my life as a male, the identity given to me by my nature, and my identity through grace as a member of Christ's Body?

Paul never discusses theological questions out of a purely academic interest. If he explores the relationship between nature and grace with reference to sexual identity, then this must have been a live issue in Corinth. It is very possible that some of the Corinthians had read his letter to the Galatians with enthusiasm: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ' (3.28). This could have been taken as a declaration that one should celebrate the gospel by ignoring gender differences. In grace this natural difference is transcended. And we have evidence that many people at Corinth would have been sympathetic to such an interpretation of the gospel. At this time the status of women in Graeco-Roman society was, generally, improving, but they lacked a proper religious expression of their position. Civic religion was dominated by men. This partly accounts for the growing popularity of the mystery religions, for example the cults of Dionysus, Isis and Cybele. For those who were on the margins of civil life, especially women and slaves, these cults offered religious recognition. An interesting article by Richard and Catherine Kroeger has argued convincingly that it was especially the cult of Dionysus that was popular in Corinth at that time and that this explains some of the problems that Paul faces with this turbulent congregation.(3) Paul complains of drunkenness at the Eucharist, and drinking sessions were an important part of the Dionysiac cult. We gather from Paul's letter that Christians went on attending pagan feasts, and presumably Dionysiac revels. Pausanias tells that there were two statues of Dionysus in the Agora, and so he must have been a popular figure.(4) One of the characteristics of a good Dionysiac session was the wild screaming and yelling of the women, the ololugmos or ololugma. If the Corinthian women had come to think that this was all part of a proper religious celebration then it would explain why eucharists at Corinth were quite so chaotic, with everyone yelling in tongues. The Kroegers argue that when Paul tells the women that they must keep quiet in church he is not consigning them to silence since he has already accepted that they can pray and prophesy. They suggest, though this is arguable, that lalein here does not have its ordinary meaning, 'to speak', but 'to make a row':

During the classical age lalein often applied to the making of noise which had no significant meaning. Indeed, it is essentially an onomatopoeic word embodying 'la-la', often a ritual cry of the clamor. The Bacchic 'Eleleu' also involved the reduplicated 'l' sound, a phenomenon still employed by ululating women of Turkey, Iran, Sephardic Jewry, Tanzania and the American charismatic movement.(5)

One of the characteristics of the cult of Dionysus was a fascination with the reversal of sexual identities; men dressed up as women and women as men. Increasingly the god was portrayed as being effeminate; he was called 'the sham man', 'male-female', 'double-natured'.(6) He was the god who upset the ordinary distinctions of this world in his mad freedom, the god of akatastasias, of 'upside-downing', the liberator of women whom he had 'driven from the shuttle and the loom.'(7) But Paul warns his congregation that 'God is not a God of confusion [akatastasias], but of peace' (14.33). This suggests a plausible context in which Paul would have had to ask some hard-headed questions about the relationship between sexual identity and Christian identity, between nature and grace. Is the rejection of gender identity a sign of one's freedom in Christ or of contempt for God's creation?

Paul starts by referring to the tradition he passed on to the Corinthians:

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you (11.2).

He begins, then, by reminding the Corinthians that they belong within the wider family of the Church. When he closes the debate

in 11.16 he returns to the same point: 'If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.' The reason that Paul appeals to the received tradition, at this and other moments of his argument, is not that he is a hidebound traditionalist. Traditions were what joined you to your origins, in this case the Jerusalem Church, and for a first-century Jew to ask what something was, was to ask about its origins. Just as in the Old Testament one explored what it meant to be a human being by telling the story of Adam and Eve, so one asked what it meant to be a Christian by understanding the origins. There was no abstract Hebrew conception of 'nature'; one told the story of the beginnings and discovered how one related to them. The problem that faced these Corinthians was that as redeemed women and men they could locate their identity by reference to two stories, the story of creation, and the story of Christ, but what was the relationship between the two? Does the story of Christ supersede, make redundant, the story of creation? How do the narratives relate? That is the way in which the question of the relationship between nature and grace is first posed. Paul continues:

But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. (11.3)

Jerome Murphy O'Connor has argued that the word translated by 'head here (kephale) cannot have the meaning of 'authority'.(8) In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is almost never used in this sense. It can have either its literal sense of that which is on top of one's shoulders, or else it can mean the source or origin of something, as when a spring is said to be the kephale of a river. The Hebrew word Rash can mean either a head, in the literal sense of the word, or someone who bears authority, like the head of a tribe, but when it has the latter meaning it is virtually never translated by kephale. There is simply no basis for the assumption that a Hellenised Jew would instinctively give kephale the meaning 'one having authority over someone.'(9) The RSV translation also sends us off in the wrong direction by giving us: 'the head of a woman is her husband'. If one's assumption is that the text is about the subordination of women to men then that is a perfectly natural interpretation. To what other man would a woman be subject? But what the text actually says is something quite different: the source of a woman is man. It has nothing to do with authority; Paul is taking us back to the story of Genesis and reminding us that in the beginning woman was made from the man's rib. Faced with these Corinthians who believe that they have transcended gender distinctions, who glorify in their freedom in Christ by dressing up in each other's clothes, Paul points us back to the story of Creation to establish what it means to have a male or female nature. His argument is that there was from the beginning, prior to sin, a distinction between the sexes. Being male or female is not a symptom of being fallen.

It is less clear what Paul means by saying that 'the head of every man is Christ'. I believe that in this context this must also refer to the story of Creation.(10) It is generally accepted that Paul believed in the pre-existence of Christ, In 8.6 he had written: 'For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.' So this statement that 'the head of every man is Christ' probably points us back to Christ who is the source both of our natural existence and of our redemption. There can be no contradiction between nature and grace. Both ultimately derive from God, who is the source of all that is.

The argument continues to unfold in the next couple of verses:

Any man who prays or prophesies with head covered dishonours his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head - it is the same as if her head were shaven (11.4-5).

These verses may appear too much for even the most valiant Pauline apologist, but Murphy O'Connor has shown us a way forward. He has demonstrated that there is, in fact, no reference to either hats or veils in this passage.' They have only been introduced into translation to explain a complex Greek text. Take the text, 'Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head'. The Greek (Kata kephales echon) means 'having something hanging from his head'. Paul cannot have believed that it was dishonourable for a man to have his head covered in church. As a Jew he grew up in a culture in which priests had turbans on their heads and it is possible that the custom of men covering their heads with prayer shawls was already established. It is far more probable that he is referring to men having long hair. Jews and Greeks wore their hair short in the first century and long hair would have been considered a sign of effeminacy. This interpretation is confirmed by verse 14: 'Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him?' For a man to wear long hair, and especially hair bound up in coils and buns, was for him to deny his maleness, flouting the marks of gender differentiation. It was a common topic at the time. Pseudo-Phocylides gets quite carried away on the subject. 'If a child is a boy, do not let locks grow on his head. Braid not his crown nor make crossknots on his head. Long hair is not fit for men, but for voluptuous women. Guard the youthful beauty of a comely boy, because many rage for intercourse with a man.'(12)

Part of the interest of this passage by Paul is that here we can see two ways of talking about nature meeting and becoming entangled with each other. On the one hand there is the Jewish tradition of exploring something's nature by telling stories of its origins, which is why Paul takes us back to Genesis. But we can also detect echoes of a Stoic understanding of nature, as in verse 14, 'Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him?' Here Paul is much closer to Epictetus, who could be quite lyrical on the educational value of beards:

Can anything be more useless than the hairs on a chin? Well, what then? Has not nature used even these in the most suitable way possible? Has she not by these means distinguished between the male and the female? Does not the nature of each one among us cry aloud forthwith from afar, 'I am a man; on this understanding approach me, on this understanding talk with me; ask for nothing further; behold the signs'? Again, in the case of women, just as nature has mingled in their voice a certain softer note, so likewise she has taken hair from their chins. [Not, you notice, added it to male chins.] Not so, you say: on the contrary the human animal ought to have been left without distinguishing features, and each of us ought to proclaim by word of mouth, 'I am a man'. Nay, but how fair and becoming and dignified the sign is! How much fairer than the cock's comb. How much more magnificent than the lion's mane. Wherefore we ought to preserve the signs that God has given; we ought not to throw them away; we ought not, so far as in us lies, to confuse the sexes which have been distinguished in this fashion.(13)

Part of the complexity of teasing out the relationship between nature and grace is that Paul's text is marked by a tension between two conceptions of nature, of a 'nature itself that teaches, and of nature as disclosed and explored in the dynamics of a narrative.

Paul is no more concerned to put hats on women than he is to remove them from men. The word which is translated by the RSV as 'unveiled' in verse 5 - 'any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head' - need not necessarily mean that at all. Akatakaluptos certainly can mean 'uncovered' but, according to Murphy O'Connor, it can have the meaning of 'disordered' or 'unbound'. And this is clearly how Paul wishes the word to be taken here. It would be very odd if in verse 5 he were to be insisting on women wearing veils and then in verse 15 telling the Corinthians that it is precisely the women's hair that is given to her for a covering. That would appear to make veils rather redundant! So it seems that these Corinthian women were disregarding convention and letting their hair hang loose, unbound. And why this might have been an appealing thing to do is explained, once again, by the practices of the mystery cults. Wild, unbound hair was a sign of protest against oppression, of freedom from the loom and the household. The Kroegers write, 'Dishevelled hair and head thrown back were almost trademarks of the maenads in Greek vase painting and in literary sources. The wild tossing head was also a distinctive of Cybele worshippers, and often the locks which had been so frantically whipped about were shorn off as a sacrifice to the goddess.'(14) If the more frenetic cult devotees were inclined to cut off their locks, then this would explain Paul's apparent non sequitur in verse 5, that if women are going around with unbound hair then they might as well shave their heads. If you want to be like one of these followers of the cult, then why not go the whole way? But the Corinthians saw it as a celebration of their freedom in Christ. They had passed beyond the fallen world of gender differentiation. This was all of a piece with their tolerance of the man whom Paul condemns for committing incest with his stepmother (5.1). Murphy O'Connor wrote:

If there was no longer any male or female, the Corinthians felt free to blur the distinctions between the sexes. Unmasculine and unfeminine hairdos flew in the face of accepted conventions in precisely the same way as their approval of incest. Scandal was the symbol of their new spiritual freedom; the more people they shocked, the more right they felt themselves to be.(15)

Paul says that men and women who behave in this way 'dishonour their heads'. I suspect that there may be a subtle pun here. They not only dishonour their heads in the literal sense of the word, but also in the sense of their source, the one from whom they come. They are denying their origins and thus their proper natures. And this is the same line of thought which lies behind the next two verses:

For a man ought not to adopt a feminine hairstyle, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (11.7-8).

Once again Paul is referring us back to Genesis. I take it that the word 'glory' (doxa) here means something like 'radiance' or 'reflection'. Man is the glory of God in the sense that he points us back to the one from whom he comes, his creator, just as the light points us back to the light bulb. Similarly, to say that woman is the glory of man is not to say that Mrs Jones is Mr Jones's proudest possession, but rather that the existence of women points us back to the stories of the beginning, when God made man from the earth and then made woman from man. Our stories tell us of a difference that precedes the Fall. The trouble is that Paul then seems to deduce from that a subordination, 'neither was man created for woman, but woman for man'. Now it is perfectly true that this is what Genesis 2 says. The question, to which we shall return, is whether in the light of Christ we do not have to retell the story of our origins. Does grace transform our perception of nature? The stories of Genesis now find themselves in a new context, a canon that includes the Christ in whom there is neither male nor female. And Paul now takes us into this larger context in the next verses. The RSV translation reads:

That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, or man of woman, for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman, and all things are from God (11.10-12).

There is, of course, not a hint of a hat in the Greek text. The reference to veils was introduced, presumably, to explain an otherwise obscure text. The Greek reads, 'That is why a woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels.' A popular explanation has been that a veil would have been necessary to prevent the angels from seeing her beauty and lusting after her. In Genesis 6 the sons of God had gazed on the daughters of men and slept with them, thus overthrowing the proper order of creation and bringing about the Flood. But I do not think that this is what Paul has in mind here. In first-century Judaism the angels were seen as the guardians of creation, celestial bureaucrats who made sure that chaos did not overwhelm the world. They were entrusted with making sure that everything functioned according to God's plan. Women pretending to be men would have been deeply offensive to these tidy-minded spirits. So Paul is probably asserting that women have authority in the Church not by transcending their sexuality, but in virtue of it, as women. Their hair is a sign of who they are, their nature, and therefore that in virtue of which they exercise authority in the Church. And it is certain that in Paul's Church many women did exercise considerable influence. 'In the Lord' the subordination implied by the Genesis story is transcended by the mutuality of the life of grace, for in Christ 'woman is not independent of man, or man of woman'. And this graced mutuality is confirmed by the fact of nature that now man is born of woman just as woman came from man.

One could conclude by saying that the fundamental principle that Paul is asserting here is clearly important. Whatever grace does it does not destroy nature. We find Paul at the beginning of a long theological tradition that leads to Aquinas' dictum that 'gratia nan tollat naturam sed perficiat [grace does not scrap nature but brings it to perfection].(16) The Corinthian rejection of sexual differentiation leads, in the end, to a denial of the goodness of God's creation, dualism, Marcionism, Gnosticism and all manner of horrible things. That the story of Christ embraces and brings to its proper conclusion the story of our creation is surely right and proper. But there are still problems in how one should relate nature and grace which Paul has not solved. The stories of the origins, the founding myths of Genesis, imply a subordination of woman to man that we would not wish to accept as natural, of the order of nature. But given the theological and narratival tradition within which Paul grew up, how else could he have talked about our created natures? Perhaps one could argue that if grace perfects nature and discloses its deepest potentialities, then it is only in Christ that we discover what our nature is. The mutuality of life 'in the Lord', in whom there is neither male nor female, must suggest that it is mutuality for which we are made. It is not finally the case that grace replaces a natural subordination with an equality. What is at issue is how one relates the stories of Genesis to the story of Christ, and already in Paul, with his theology of the pre-existent Christ who shared in the Father's work of creation, we have an important hint that the story of Christ in some sense embraces and transforms the story of the origins. It is the incarnate Son of God who finally discloses who we are and for what we are made. It is only our life in Christ that finally reveals what it means for us to be male or female.

We may imagine naively that sexual identity is just a matter of biology, a merely physical fact about us. But if we place this in the wider context of 1 Corinthians and Paul's extended meditation on what it means to be bodily, then it is seen to be more. For Paul to be bodily is to be able to be present to someone; it is to be able to give oneself away. This is what lies behind his sexual ethics, his understanding of the Eucharist as the meal in which Christ gives us himself, his theology of the Church as the body of Christ, and his doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The human body is not just a bag of flesh and bones but the possibility of self-gift and mutual presence.(17) So what is at issue in one's sexual identity is not just a matter of anatomy, but the possibility of presence to another person. So one might suggest it is only grace, life in Christ, that can ultimately disclose what it means to be female or male. It is only the slow process of healing one's nature from the effects of sin and egoism and injustice that will enable us to discover what it means to be a man or a woman.


1. Dominique Stein, 'Le statut des femmes dans les lettres de Paul', Lumière qet Vie, Vol. 139, Septembre-Octobre 1978, pp. 63-86.

2. Cf. Timothy Radcliffe OP, '"Glorify God in your bodies": A Pauline basis for sexual ethics', New Blackfriars, July/August 1986, pp. 306-14

3. Richard and Catherine Kroeger, 'An Inquiry into the evidence of Maenadism in the Corinthian Congregation', Society of Biblical Literature 1978 Seminar Papers, Vol.2 ed. P.J. Achtemeier, pp. 331-8.

4. Description of Greece, 2.6.

5. Kroeger, op. cit., p. 335.

6. Ibid., p. 333.

7. Euripides, The Bacchae, 119.

8. 'Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11.2-36', The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 42, October 1980, pp. 482-500.

9. Ibid., p. 492.

10. Murphy O'Connor gives an alternative but, I believe, less plausible interpretation of this verse.

11. Op. cit., pp. 483ff.

12. P.W. van de Horst, The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides with Introduction and Commentary (SVTP 4; Leiden, Brill, 1978), pp. 81-3, vv. 210-14.

13. Dis. 1.16.9-14.

14. Op. cit., p. 332.

15. Op. cit., p. 490.

16. Summa Theologica, 1 .q.l .a.2.ad.2.

17. Cf. Radcliffe, op. cit., p. 308.

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