Saturday, 8 June 2013

Female Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Part 1 of 5): Context and Translation

     Nearly every student of the Bible is aware of the discussion in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 concerning women praying or prophesying with covered heads. But when it comes to understanding the meaning and application of this passage, most will have to admit that they haven’t really studied it in detail, at least not beyond examining one or two English translations and perhaps a few commentaries.
     This fifteen-verse paragraph has been the subject of considerable debate over the centuries, and a sizeable mountain of literature has been written about it, much of which has hardly contributed to clarifying its complexities. In fact, the difficulties have been accentuated by multiple and varying translations, interpretations, and applications that are often at variance with the inspired writer’s original purpose.
Literary Context:
     The passage in question is just a small section of a larger literary unit. It forms part of a letter that was occasioned by special circumstances and must therefore be viewed, not in isolation, but in relation to the entire document. From 7:1 to 16:12 Paul is responding to correspondence he had received from the Corinth church, addressing issues such as (a) marriage and related matters (7:1-40); (b) limits of exousia (“liberty”): food sacrificed to idols and ministerial support (8:1–11:1); (c) woman’s exousia and covering the head (11:2-16); (d) abuse of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34); (e) spiritual gifts (12:1–14:40); etc.
     In trying to understand any biblical passage, the interpreter must be alert to what is said (content), how it is said (form), and in what situation it is said (life setting). In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul seems to be employing a common literary device known as chiasmus, i.e. an inverted parallelism in which the center line receives the emphasis. The following arrangement shows the chiastic structure of the text:
A (2-3) Introduction
B     (4-7) woman, praying, uncovered head, man, glory
C          (8a) man is not out of woman
D               (8b) woman is out of man
E                    (9a) man was not created for woman
F                         (9b) woman was created for man
X                              (10) woman ought to have exousia over her head
F’                         (11a) woman is not without man
E’                    (11b) man is not without woman
D’               (12a) woman is out of the man
C’          (12b) man is through the woman
B’     (13-15) woman, praying, uncovered, man, glory
A’ (16) Conclusion
     Failure to recognize this structure and its implications can contribute to overlooking the main point and drawing faulty conclusions. While v. 10 is admittedly the most problematic verse in the paragraph, it appears to be the central point. What it means and how it relates to the other lines of argumentation is fundamental to understanding the whole passage.
Historical/Cultural Context:
     First Corinthians was written early in 56 from Ephesus by the apostle Paul to the church of God at Corinth (1:2; 4:19; 16:8). At the time Corinth was a Roman colony, the seat of the Roman proconsul, and the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. The church was predominantly Gentile, the majority of whom were of lower social status, along with Jewish and upper class minorities (1:26; 6:9-11; 7:18-24; 12:13; cf. Acts 18:1-18).1
     Evidently it was the customary practice among nearly all cultures at the time for respectable ladies to wear long hair and to regularly have their heads covered in public; reputable men, on the other hand, ordinarily kept their hair short and did not routinely cover their heads (see, e.g., Plutarch, Roman Questions 14; Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 12.15; 33.51-52; 35.2; 72.2). Since the chief concern of this study is what was regarded as morally decent in mid-first-century Corinthian society, the wide-ranging depictions of ancient pagan rituals, goddesses, prostitutes, and other immoral persons and acts are of little consequence.
     For a woman to have short hair or to appear in public without the customary headdress was considered inappropriate, for various reasons, typically causing derision. Some pagan religious practices may have deviated from the normal standards of decency, but this does not represent the general state of affairs in everyday life. Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 were not innovative, as some have alleged, but appear to be consistent with the social conventions of the time in that part of the world.2
English Translation:
     The aim of the following translation is not ease of reading but an attempt to render the text as literally as the translation process will allow so that it essentially corresponds to what the apostle originally wrote. Added words and a single textual variant are in [square brackets].3
     (2) Now I am commending you because you remember all things of me and are retaining the precepts just as I delivered [them] to you. (3) But I am desiring you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is head of woman, and God is head of Christ. (4) Every man praying or prophesying having [something] down upon his head disgraces his head. (5) But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered is disgracing her head; for she is one and the same [thing] as the one having been shaved. (6) For if a woman is not being covered, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is dishonorable to a woman to have her hair cut or to be shaved, let her continue to have her [head] covered. (7) For indeed a man is not obliged to be covered continually, being the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. (8) For man is not out of woman but woman is out of man; (9) for also man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man. (10) On account of this the woman ought to have authority over her head: on account of the angels. (11) Nevertheless woman is not without man and man is not without woman in the Lord; (12) for just as the woman is out of the man, thus also the man is through the woman; but all things are from God. (13) You judge among yourselves; is it proper for a woman to be praying to God uncovered? (14) Is not even the nature itself teaching you that, on the one hand, if a man has long hair it is a shame to him, (15) but on the other hand, if a woman has long hair it is a glory to her? For the hair corresponds to a covering having been given [to her]. (16) But if anyone seems to be contentious, we do not have such a custom nor [do] the churches of God.
Explanatory Notes on the Above Translation:
     V. 3: Of the three occurrences of the term kephalē (“head”) in this verse, the first is preceded by the article (“the head”), whereas the other two are not.
     V. 4: There is no object in the phrase kata kephalēs echōn (lit. “having down upon the head”), so it must be supplied by the context. While the word “something” is inserted here, the noun kalumma (“a covering”) would be a valid inference seeing that it corresponds to the verb katakaluptō used five times in verses 5-13.
     V. 5: The gender of to auto (“the same”) is neuter, pointing to a general quality rather than a person, thus the translation, “she is one and the same [thing].”
     Vv. 6-7: The translation reflects the continual or ongoing action of the present tense: “is not being covered . . . let her continue to have her head covered” (v. 6); “to be covered continually” (v. 7). Since there is no equivalent in English to the third person imperative, it is difficult to translate and must therefore be somewhat idiomatic, typically rendered “let her …” The context determines how much stress the imperative mood carries, though the present imperative is far less pressing than the aorist (cf. v. 13).
     V. 7: The significance of the term opheilō with a negative can be either “bound not to” or “not bound to.” The only other time opheilō occurs with a negative in Paul’s extant correspondence to Corinth is 2 Corinthians 12:14 (using almost identical wording), where there is no obligation to do a certain thing rather than an obligation not to do it.
     V. 10: The word exousia means (a) freedom of choice, right; (b) ability, capability; (c) authority; (d) power (BAGD 277-78). Whenever this term occurs elsewhere in scripture with the preposition epi, it always means “authority over.” The words “a veil” (RSV), “a sign of” (ASV), “a symbol of” (NKJV), or “subjection” (Moffatt) do not appear in the original text, and the insertion of any of these significantly alters the sense of what the inspired writer has stated.
     V. 13: The verb krinate (“judge”) is an aorist imperative and constitutes the only real command in this whole paragraph. “You . . . yourselves” is emphatic, stressing to the readers that the decision must be their own.
     V. 15: The dative pronoun autē (“to her”) is absent from a number of manuscripts and is variously positioned in others. The preposition anti, originally meaning “facing, over against,” does not always mean “instead of” but also carries the sense of “equivalence” and is thus rendered here, “corresponds to.”
     V. 16: The NASB, NIV, and RSV rendering of toiauten as “other” is an unfortunate mistranslation; it actually means “such” (cf. ASV, ESV, N/KJV). The word sunetheia denotes more than a mere “practice” (prassō); it means “custom," "habit," or "customary usage.”
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 For further background on 1 Corinthians, see the author’s A Critical Introduction to the New Testament 138-44.
     2 For further information from primary sources about ancient cultural practices relating to the head covering, hair length, and worship conventions, see the author’s We Have No Such Custom 9-26. Misinformation and confusion are almost guaranteed if one relies too heavily on secondary sources. For example, nearly all women wore veils in public (F. H. Wight, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands 98-99) vs. the veil was exceptional in ancient times (Peloubet’s Bible Dictionary 719); Jewish women were always veiled in public (C. K. Barrett, First Corinthians 251) vs. they were usually not veiled in public (Encyclopedia Biblia 4:5247); reputable Greek and Roman women wore veils in public (ISBE 4:3047) vs. Greek women were not compelled to wear veils in public (TDNT 3:562)???
     3 Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation. The underlying Greek text is the UBS The Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (1994).

Related PostsFemale Head-coverings Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

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  1. Hi Kevin, may I provide a little pushback?

    Paul doesn't appeal to custom, but to the creation order, nature, angels and the universal practice of the church. It's not proper hermeneutics to assign a reason for Paul saying something when he himself lets us know what his reasoning is ("that is why a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head..." (v.10).

    Some food for thought :) Thanks brother for an open ear. I'll be writing more extensively on this topic at shortly if that's of interest to you.

    1. Jeremy, Thank you for your "pushback." I have four more posts coming and address each of the points you've raised, so I won't respond to them now at length. You say that Paul doesn't appeal to custom, but he uses the word "custom" in v. 16. Creation order is linked to gender roles, not the head-covering. Nature and angels cannot mean what many commentators have alleged (to be discussed). You say that Paul appeals to "the universal practice of the church," yet Paul says "we do not have such a custom nor [do] the churches of God." He is alluding to what the churches do not have rather than what the churches practice. The English translation of v. 10 you have quoted has altered (and thereby misconstrued) what the text actually says. I am happy to consider your feedback, but I suggest you read all five posts (4 more to come) and we can discuss any disagreements you might have. In the meantime I will check out what you're planning to write elsewhere. God bless. KM

  2. Excellent post Kevin - thank you.