Saturday, 29 June 2013

Female Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Part 4 of 5): Brief Exegesis of Verses 11-16

     (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.1 With this qualifier, Paul prevents wrongful conclusions being drawn from what he has just written. Even though the woman ought to have authority over her own head (v. 10), she is still not independent of the man. And while the woman was created out of and for the sake of the man (vv. 8-9), man is not independent of her. In the Lord both sexes are mutually dependent. God made man out of dust, woman from man, and now both through woman.
     (13) You judge among yourselves; is it proper for a woman to be praying to God uncovered? The aorist imperative here is the only real command in the whole paragraph. Paul is appealing to the common-sense reasoning of his Corinthian audience (cf. 5:12; 6:2-5; 10:15). The call to personal judgment and propriety necessarily involves a social norm and the convention of a given time. “You . . . yourselves” is emphatic, stressing to the readers that the decision must be their own.
      (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]. Since a man’s hair can naturally grow long and there is no way for the natural world to define or quantify hair length, reference to “the nature itself” apparently applies to “the native sense of propriety,” i.e., “a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature” (Thayer 660). Paul is not talking about what nature teaches just anybody, but what it teaches “you” (plural), viz. his first-century Corinthian audience. In the cultural context of this Greco-Roman society, hair length not only distinguishes women from men, but also respectable ladies and gentlemen from immoral persons (see, e.g., Plutarch, Roman Questions 14; Dio Chrysostom, Discourses 12.15; 35.2; 72.2).2
     In this particular setting, a woman’s long hair serves as a natural covering and demonstrates the appropriateness of her being covered. The significance of dedotai (“having been given”) cannot be that God has provided to the woman and not to the man the ability to grow long hair. A man’s hair can in fact grow long, and “God” is not even mentioned here. In view of the allusion to their natural sense of propriety (v. 14) and the admonition to “judge among yourselves” (v. 13), the point seems to be that the woman’s long hair is recognized as peculiarly hers and characteristic of normalcy and dignity among Corinthians ladies. Her long hair in this society “corresponds to” a covering. The preposition anti may have signified “instead of” in classical Greek, but not in the Koine Greek of the NT (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics 480 n. 86).
     (16) But if anyone seems to be contentious, we do not have such a custom nor [do] the churches of God. Whether or not there was actually contentiousness over this matter is unknown, but Paul obviously wants to avoid disputes and to promote unity (cf. 1:10). The “we,” as distinct from “the churches of God,” probably has reference to Paul and his apostolic colleagues (cf. 4:9-13). The NASB, NIV, NLT, and RSV rendering of toiauten as “other” is an unfortunate mistranslation that communicates the opposite of what the apostle has actually stated. The word means “such” (cf. ASV, ESV, N/KJV). The term sunetheia is more than a mere “practice” (prassō); it means “custom,” “habit,” or “customary usage.”
     Contentiousness is not normally described with the word “custom,” and it seems unlikely that Paul would deem it necessary to affirm that he and the other apostles and churches have no specific habit as this. If “unveiled women” is the custom in view, as some have insisted, why would the translators of the NASB, NIV, and RSV feel compelled to render the expression, “we have no other practice”? Moreover, how could these readers have judged for themselves regarding the impropriety of unveiled women (v. 13) if the standard practice was that very thing? There is no real indication in this passage that it had become customary for the ladies in Corinth to routinely uncover their heads. A stronger rebuke from the apostle, of which he was capable, would be warrented if propriety was consistently being violated.
     Ample evidence shows that the convention of the time was for proper ladies to cover their heads, not to be uncovered. Based upon the immediate and the historical-cultural contexts of this passage, the female head-covering is the most evident custom in view. Why, then, would Paul presumably argue in favor of this convention (vv. 5-13), then conclude by saying, “we do not have such a custom” (v. 16)? This apparent discrepancy is similar to the one encountered in v. 10, namely that Paul is saying the opposite of what is expected. We can therefore do one of two things: (a) rework what the verse says to mean what we expect it to say, or (b) let it mean what it says and seek to harmonize that with the context.
     Since only one side of the conversation is available to us, the particular situation Paul is addressing can only be deduced from his response to it. Perhaps there were some among the Corinthian brethren who were questioning the necessity of head-coverings in special gatherings of women praying or prophesying in private homes. The reaction of others may have been to bind the headdress as religious law while denying the women freedom to choose in expedient matters. How should this sensitive and potentially disruptive issue be addressed?
     Paul appeals to common sense and to reason. His tone throughout this whole section is a far cry from stronger arguments used elsewhere in the letter (e.g. 4:18–5:5; 11:29-34). In an indirect and tactful manner, he tries to assist the Corinthians in making their own decision. He complements them and introduces the underlying principle of God’s hierarchical arrangement (vv. 2-3). He appeals to social disgrace (vv. 4-6) and to female subordination (vv. 7-9), while affirming the woman’s liberty (v. 10) and male-female mutuality (vv. 11-12). He then calls for their own judgment based on propriety (vv. 13-15). In the end, however, Paul cannot make a binding law, so he concedes that this is neither an apostolic nor a congregational custom and should therefore not generate disputes among brethren (v. 16).
     The head-covering custom did not originate with the apostles or the churches. It was not bound by the apostles on the churches. The conventional headdress or veil was no doubt worn by Christian ladies in many different regions at the time, but this was part of their cultural environment, not inherent in or distinctive to their Christian religion.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations in English are the author’s own translation.
     2 It was not always considered degrading for a man to have long hair. Nazarites were not allowed to cut their hair (Numbers 6:1-21). Solomon’s horsemen let their hair grow to considerable length (Josephus, Ant. 8.185). There was a time in history when Jewish men typically wore longer hair (2 Samuel 14:25-26; Song 5:2, 11; Ezekiel 8:3; cf. Judges 13:3-5; 16:13-22). In fact, the 9th-century BC Assyrian Black Obelisk of Shalmanezer III depicts Israelite men with shoulder-length hair.

Related postsFemale Head-coverings Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5

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