Veilless in Corinth: An Interpretative Read of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16
by Winn Griffin
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In the traditional reading of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16, Paul is seen as interacting with a problem within the worship service in the Corinthian church, should women wear or not wear veils when they pray or prophesy. Most commentaries follow this reading working with the text as it stands within the customs of the day. Most readers seem to come away from the traditional reading thinking that Paul is a woman-hater because this text presents his prejudice on the subject. If this is true of Paul, then he has varied from the story that underlies his telling in his writings. Remember, that Paul’s assumption may be that when the church gathers for worship, creation is being restored or at a minimum that in gathered worship, we are anticipating creation’s eventual restoration. What you will discover in this alternative reading of this passage is a different way to see what Paul is saying, which keeps in line with the overall storyline he proposes.
Thinking Theologically is a series of theological reflections on various aspects of the Christian faith. The articles are not intended to cover the topic exhaustively, but rather to focus on one or more aspects of the topic. Traditional theological understanding is included, but attention, too, will be given to more speculative theological constructs. These theological “extensions” are presented to stimulate the reader’s thinking on the topic. Each eBook concludes with a series of questions for the reader to ponder to stimulate their theological thinking on the topic. The inclusion of the questions makes eBooks in this series also appropriate as material for group discussion. Each member of the group should read the eBook before gathering with others. A moderator should be selected to facilitate the group’s discussion and dialogue. The use of these eBooks in discussion groups will help the participants deepen their faith and understanding.
Thinking Theologically About…1 Corinthians 11.2-16
There are many difficult texts in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 is one of them. Why all the fuss about women in the Corinthian church? Who gets to decide how they dress and what that dress means? Are women subject to men? Is there equality in the church? Winn Griffin selects to take the reader through an alternative reading of this difficult passage, which clears up some of the difficulty in the traditional reading and encourages a full kingdom story reading of the text.
Once in a church Q&A session after a teaching series on “Women in Ministry,” a congregant asked the question, “Why do we need Winn to tell us what the Bible says; why can’t we just read it and understand it for ourselves?”
Think about it this way. Do you have a computer? Do you have a word processor, say Microsoft Word or Apple Pages? If so, do you know how to build a footnote and a bibliography using those programs? If you don’t, why not? You have the program that you can boot up!
Computer programmers understand the concept of offering the user a “help” file to help the user along in his/her understanding of using the program. Well, for this congregant, I was the “help” file. It could have been anyone who took the time to explain the text within its context, sharing about what kind of literature it was presented in, and some possible conclusions that the first readers/hearers might have understood by it. You might think about this eBook as your “help” button for 1 Corinthians 11.2-16.
Why is Story Important
It is a thesis of narrative theology as championed by Tom Wright and others that there is an arch in the Story of Scripture. Genesis 1-2 tells the story of the first creation, which found humankind in harmony with each other, with nature, and with God. Genesis 3 disrupted the harmony of Genesis 1-2 when humankind decided to become independent from the Creator instead of interdependent as they were created to be. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of Israel who was called to be the reconciling nation through which God would bring about a “new heaven and earth,” fully restoring the first creation. As the story moves along, Jesus came into the world to bring into existence what Israel failed to accomplish. The future “new heaven and earth” invaded the present evil and fallen age in Jesus. What was future, was now present, only not fully so. The story in the text of Scripture finds the church living in the tension between what is “now” and what is “not yet.” The conclusion of the story shows that at the consummation, the “new heavens and earth” will be fully established and the full arch of the story will be realized.
Wright argues in New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope, that “biblical theology as a whole actually falls on the renewal of heaven and Earth.”[ref] N. T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope (Cambridge, UK: Grove Books Limited, 1999), 12. [/ref]He cites Romans 8.18-28 as the most obvious passage to make this claim. He believes that this passage is “one of the most central statements in the New Testament about what God intends to do with the whole cosmos.” [ref]Wright, 12.[/ref] He goes on to suggest that “Paul’s whole argument is that the renewal of God’s covenant results in the renewal of God’s creation.” [ref]Wright, 12.[/ref]
It is important to keep in mind the storyline of the entire story as we drop into the text that we are going to examine. There are many interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. A careful reading of this passage should suggest that there are many problems whether you read the traditional rendering or the structured alternative reading that I will be offering. [ref] Thomas Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil (Nürnberg, Germany: VTR Publications, 2007), 34-35. See Footnotes 60-70. [/ref] Thomas Schirrmacher suggests that “1 Co 11.1-16 is possibly the most difficult passage in the New Testament, one which has not only inspired a flood of interpretations but which contains in almost every verse some controversial problem.” [ref] Schirrmacher, 34.[/ref] Gordon Fee also suggests that this passage has several problems and lists three categories. [ref] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 492. Fee lists 3 categories: “(1) the ‘logic’ of the argument as a whole… (2) uncertainty about the meaning of some absolutely critical terms and (3) our uncertainty about prevailing customs…” He also lists eight terms in footnote 4. These include: “head,” “having down the head,” “uncovered,” “glory,” “authority over her head,” “because of the angels,” “in the place of a shawl,” and “such a custom.” [/ref] Schirrmacher says that one German scholar says: “Paul’s arguments against the Corinthians’ pneumatic enthusiasm are not very convincing.” [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 35. [/ref] He goes on to suggest that some “interpretations seem obvious only when using translations, which have already decided on the meaning of the text…” while the “Greek text is not so unambiguous.” [ref] Schirrmacher, 35.[/ref] This information should alert us as readers as to “the implausibility of any attempt to interpret the text merely by simply reading the English translation with the attitude ’That’s what it says.’” [ref] Schirrmacher, 37.[/ref]
There are several reasons why interpreting is important. [ref] I have written about the following two interpretation concepts elsewhere.[/ref]One reason is that it is useful for reading with some understanding. We will examine briefly the following interpretative concepts for basic information about reading 1 Corinthians 11.2-16:
- Worlds Apart
- God is Polyvocal
- Three Deadly Scripture Reading Diseases
- Pneumatic Interpretation and
- Plain Meaning
We read the text in a different context (geographically, historically, and culturally) from the one(s) in which it was set. We are worlds apart.
First, we must understand that we are reading an ancient book written to ancient people. In addition, we are reading “ad hoc corrective material.” In Corinthians, Paul was not writing a treatise about everything the reader/listener should know about the subjects he is writing about.
Background of Corinthians
To comprehend this present text, a brief background of Corinth and Corinthians is helpful. The content of any passage should be understood from the context in which it appears. The Corinthian correspondence is a part of a genre of literature in the New Testament called Letters. [ref] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 55-88. [/ref]To understand any genre, four things are important. First, who the author is; second, who the recipients are; third, when was it written; and finally, what is the purpose of the book? [ref] Most New Testament specialists believe that Paul corresponded several times with the Corinthian church. We have two books in our New Testament titled First and Second Corinthians. However, we should note that while we have received these titled books within the tradition of the church, First Corinthians was not the first book Paul wrote to this church. The church at Corinth was the recipient. Corinth was a Grecian city, which set on an isthmus that joined the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece. Geographically it was (and the ruins still are) about forty-eight miles west of Athens. The ancient city was destroyed by the Romans in 145 BC. The city, which Paul lived in and wrote to, was rebuilt about a century later and populated by a colony of freedmen from Rome. Corinth was the seat of government for Rome for Southern Greece or as it was called Achaia (Acts 18.12-16). Noted for its wealth, luxurious, and immoral behavior, it had a coined word, which described the citizens of Corinth, i.e., Corinthianized. It was populated by Romans, Greeks, and Jews. Paul’s first visit to the city was about AD 51-52 when Gallio, the brother of Seneca, was proconsul. Paul lived there for eighteen months (Acts 18.1-18). During that time, he became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, and after his departure, Apollos came to Corinth from Ephesus.
Luke’s book of Acts helps us understand Paul’s movements, which led to the writing of the Corinthian correspondence. After his eighteen-month stay, he departed in the fall of AD 51 to return to Antioch traveling through Ephesus where he left Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18.26). After spending some time in Antioch, he returned to Ephesus visiting Galatia and Phrygia on his journey. He arrived in Ephesus at the end of AD 52 where he spent about two years (Acts 19. 1-10; 21-22). From Ephesus, Paul wrote his second correspondence to the Corinthian church sometime during AD 54 to answer questions about how the church in Corinth should deal with specific church problems. He had written his first correspondence (not 1 Corinthians) sometime between his departure from Corinth and his coming to Ephesus and he refers to that first correspondence in 1 Corinthians 5.9. In that passage, Paul is correcting a misunderstanding of what he had said in earlier correspondence. A small band of congregants from Corinth called “Chloe’s household” (1 Co 1.11) brought Paul some questions on a business trip to Ephesus while another group, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Co 16.17), presented Paul with a letter with more church problems to deal with.[/ref]
The Structure of 1 Corinthians
First Corinthians is structured around three segments: First, a delegation from Chole’s household arrived at Ephesus with news about divisions in the church. (1.11-12.) There seemed to be differences within the house churches that made up the Corinthian congregation about who their leader should be. Some groups had chosen Peter, others Apollos, still others Paul, and some had chosen Christ. Paul writes the congregation in Corinth to help them solve this problem. His solution is the text designated chapters 1-4, which suggests that the real problem was not the divisions they had reported but their immaturity in not understanding that they had separated around different leaders.
Second, a separate section comes from another group: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Co 16.17), who presented Paul with a letter with more Corinthian church problems to deal with. The material beginning in chapter 7 verse 1 addresses the concerns of the letter these three men brought to Paul. Each difficulty is easily identifiable by the phrase that the NIV translates: “Now about….”
Finally, chapters five and six form another section of 1 Corinthians. More problems for Paul to deal with are revealed there. There was a specific case of immorality (5.1-13); lawsuits against each other (6.1-11); and general immorality within the church (6.12-20). It is commonly believed that these additional problems must have surfaced after the letter was written, which was delivered by the three men from Corinth, and before the three UPS (stands for United Parcel Service) guys delivered the written letter to Paul. They gave them to him orally.
The text that we are dealing with falls into the third section, i.e., the section responding to the problems brought via letter. This segment includes answers to questions about marriage (7.1-40); and food (8.1-11.1). Finally, some problems centered around public worship, which included the veiling of women (11.2-16 ); the Lord’s supper (11.17-34); spiritual gifts (12.1-14.40); the resurrection (15.1-58); collections (16.14); and, finally, Apollos (16.12).
Our passage is the first of three parts where “public worship” is the context.
God Is Polyvocal
We often read the text as if we were reading a blog or Facebook post or an article in the local newspaper, which are all genres of current literature. The Bible, however, is a cornucopia of various literature types, each needing attention as we read. It is fair to say that God was and is polyvocal, not monotone.
As I have previously written, [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 35. [/ref] there are several major types of literature and many common literary devices that are used in the Bible, which is surely true of First Corinthians. Without being aware of these devices, we often misread the text making it say something that it is not saying.
Below, we will suggest that there is an alternative way to read our passage (1 Co 11.2-16) based on the concept of “citations” from another source that is being listed and then corrected.
As an illustration of structure: In 1 Corinthians 7.1, Paul writes, “Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Note that the second part of the sentence is in quotes in the New International Version (NIV). In earlier versions like the King James Version (KJV), it read, “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The quote marks provided here for the KJV are not part of the translation. Why is that important? Because readers thought that the saying: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” was a “Paul saying about celibacy being a high calling” and he was giving direction to the Corinthian church about that subject, when in fact that saying is Paul quoting a “Corinthian saying” from the letter, which was written to him as indicated by the beginning phrase “Now for the matters you wrote about.” Noting this subtlety will help the reader be more attentive and not make Paul say something that the Corinthians were saying. Beginning in verse 2, Paul provides an answer to their saying.
This has a direct bearing on how we read the passage under discussion below.
Three Deadly Scripture Reading Diseases
There are three deadly Scripture reading diseases that we have been infected with: versitis, topicalitis, and systematitis.
I write about these three diseases at more length in my book God” EPIC Adventure. [ref] Winn Griffin, God’s EPIC Adventure (Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007), 12-13.[/ref]
Every verse in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 presents some problem, which has attracted an explanation much more than almost any other set of verses in the New Testament. [ref] See “Interpretations Galore!” See above. [/ref] Verse 3 seems to be the focal point of many pages of discussion in the commentaries. This passage must be read in the flow of what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.[ref] Refer to the “Worlds Apart” section above.[/ref]
Some may feel that the use of any material outside the Bible pages has no value in determining the meaning of the text. One only needs the Holy Spirit.
For example, the word “authority” in the 1 Timothy 2.12 passage: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” The word authority in this passage only appears one time in the New Testament, so to have any concept of what the word means, interpreters must go to other material that was current in Paul’s day to get a sense of what the word meant. The word translated “authority” isauthentein (au THEN tee N) is found in the Wisdom of Solomon(12.6) where it is translated “murder.” It is outside the scope of this eBook to deal with that passage, but it is fair to say that “authority” as we have come to define it, is not a good translation. Rather, it could be translated something like this: “I do not permit a woman to murderously teach…,” perhaps a reference to the women teaching a cultic view brought in from the Temple of Artemis, which suggested that women were superior over men. Paul was dealing with local social conventions. We surely do need the Holy Spirit to help us as we read Scripture and he does, but not as a direct pipeline from “his mouth to our ears.” We also need outside sources.
We often believe that there is a “plain meaning” and that should be good enough to understand what we are reading.
Lots of folks will opt out for the “plain meaning” argument, believing that you can just read this passage, and all others, and take it literally without working with the text from a literary standpoint or with the “words” from a lexical standpoint. [ref] See footnote 9 above. [/ref]
The content of the passage under consideration (1 Co 11.2-16) needs to be seen within its geographical, historical, and cultural context, which we have presented above in footnote 9. We must allow for the exegesis of its literature. We must deal with the passage as a whole, not just grabbing some verse and making it dominate the whole passage. We must allow for “outside the Bible sources” to get a sense of the meaning of the words, especially the word “head.” Finally, we must not settle for a “plain meaning” reading of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16.
The Literary Structure
The Geneva Bible (1560), an early publication in English, was printed with chapters and verses. [ref] N. L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible(Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996), 341-342. [/ref] Chapters and verses were a late arrival and addition to the text of the Bible. These additions forced the reader to see little segments of the text as individual units, leaving no trace of any literary devices that might have been used by the author to convey his message to his first listeners/readers. Later, translations began to see the value in at least separating prose from poetry while still keeping the chapter and verse designation. The late Eugene Peterson’s The Message may have been the first printed Bible, which left out the verses but retained the chapter designation. Recently, the translation called Today’s New International Version was printed in a version entitled The Books of the BibleTM without any chapters or verses. For your reading pleasure, I have removed the verses from 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 and you can read it in Appendix 1. There are at least two ways of reading the whole of this text under consideration. We will now look at both.
The Traditional Rendering
Content is understood within the context where it appears. Our text falls into the “answers to the questions from the Corinthian letter” section (1 Co 7.1ff). In the close context (8-9), Paul addresses the problem of Christian freedom under the rubric of eating food offered to idols. Christian freedom is looking out for your brother and sister and not intentionally doing anything that could cause them to fall. Here’s what that might look like:
Dr. Russ Spittler[ref]Now retired, Dr. Spittler taught New Testament at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA, and also served as Fuller’s Provost. He was one of my earliest New Testament professors when I attended Southern California now Vanguard University.[/ref] once told a story in a class of his that I attended about his graduation from Harvard with his Ph.D. After the celebration, several of the students who had just graduated asked him to join them for a celebration. Dr. Spittler agreed. A few minutes after arriving at one of the student’s apartments, they broke out Champaign for a toast to their graduation. Dr. Spittler said that while he knew in his head that drinking a sip of Champaign was surely no sin, his emotions caused by a fundamentalist background could not be overcome at that moment. He declined. When he explained, all of those who had poured Champaign did not toast with it. Instead, they got another glass and filled it with 7Up and the group then toasted together. Why you may ask? Those to whom drinking a toast of Champaign was not an offense to their Christianity realized the “cultural” difficulty one of their friends was having and rather than having their way, they simply joined him so as not to offend his Christian freedom. One surely wonders what that would look like if followers of Jesus lived into that storyline today.
Our passage follows this teaching on Christian freedom and carries it forward.
The traditional rendering of this passage is the one that most readers of this text are familiar with. Open up any Bible and read 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 and it pretty much all reads the same. This traditional rendering sees Paul as making direct statements to correct the Corinthians about the problem of women’s need to cover their heads as they pray or prophesy in their gatherings for worship. Commentators have produced thousands of pages, following closely the traditional rendering as they interact with the text based on their understanding of the language and customs of Paul’s day. All of them have endeavored to present some clarity to Paul’s words, which at a first, and maybe even a hundred-and-first reading seems difficult to understand. Tom Wright tells a story of interacting with a group of college students in USAmerica that had been taught that “Paul was a woman-hater, and that this present passage was the most obvious example of his prejudice.” [ref] Tom Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPEC, 2004), 139. [/ref] The rhetoric around this passage sometimes produces more heat than light. Wright suggests, “One of the unspoken clues to this passage maybe Paul’s assumption that in worship the creation is being restored, or perhaps that in worship we are anticipating its eventual restoration.” [ref]Wright, 141.[/ref]
Foundation: 1 Corinthians 11.2-3
This passage begins with verse 2: “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.” One should surely ask, what traditions? While there are many possibilities, most likely, the tradition that Paul was referring to was the tradition that he had taught the Galatians, i.e., there is equality in Christ (Gal. 3.28).
In 1 Corinthians 11.2, the word traditions (paradoseis: teachings) is a technical term in Judaism for the oral transmissions of religious instruction. [ref] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 499. [/ref] Gordon Fee suggests the following: “In the new relationship with God and the new community brought about by Christ Jesus all of the old social, sexual, and radical distinctions are broken down (Gal 3.28); all are ‘born into God’s family and equally become sisters and brothers.’” [ref]Fee., 31 (see footnote 16).[/ref] Built on the premise that Galatians was the first book written by Paul and what he taught there was part of his theological baggage, it seems warranted to conclude that when Paul talks about traditions/teachings, the idea of equality would be the backdrop from which he was speaking. “Paul saw clearly, and taught that in Christ, there is neither male nor female (Gal 3.28), that is that the old distinctions between the sexes that tended to eliminate women from worship and significance had been broken down by the cross, resurrection, and gift of the Spirit.” [ref] 270 [/ref] In the context of 11.2ff., the argument is about women and their participation in Christian worship. It could be suggested that it would be unnatural for Paul to enter into this kind of conversation where his larger goal is reconciliation among believers in the Corinthian church, by avoiding his former teaching found in Galatians 3.28.
Wright suggests in his book Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians that “…did not Paul himself teach that there was ‘no male and female because you are all one in the ‘Messiah’…Perhaps, indeed, that was one of the ‘traditions’ that he had taught the Corinthian church, who needed to know that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, were all equally welcomed, equally valued, in the renewed people of God.” [ref]Wright, Paul for Everyone…, 140.[/ref] Affirming gender differences is not the same as denying participation in the church based on gender differences.
The restoration of the creation, which had been undone in the garden, was the storyline that Paul lived into and wanted his congregants to live into. It seems that a reasonable conclusion to draw is that the church that lives with inequality in gender is living contrary to the story (traditions) of God.
Some may object that the word “traditions” is plural, arguing that it should be thought to refer to the whole of Paul’s traditions passed on to the Corinthians? While the reference that we have pointed to as the referent to “traditions” is a sentence (i.e., noted as a verse), several traditions are being talked about therein: Jew/Greek, slave/free, and male/female. So, it is possible to think that the plural that he is using includes all of these mentioned tensions. Because it is in a verse, we tend to think that it should have said “tradition” vs. “traditions.” But, since Paul was not writing in verses, it is more probable that all of the categories that are mentioned were teachings that he espoused to the Galatians and seem to undergird his teaching in 1 Corinthians.
In verse 3, which is one of the most debated verses in the text, Paul writes: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, [ref] NIV footnote here reads: “Or of the wife is her husband.” This is an occasion where the translators are interpreting the text for the reader. See Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 501, Footnote 38. [/ref] and the head of Christ is God.” The “but” at the beginning of verse 3 indicates that while there is equality, there is no uniformity or “sameness between the genders.” [ref] Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 171. [/ref] The key is to understand the word translated “head” (kephalē: kef-al-ay). Some commentators have concluded that Paul is saying that man is the head of the woman thus suggesting that Paul is teaching a hierarchical structure in which men have authority over women. [ref] Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 118, Footnote 8. [/ref] This reasoning is supported by reference to the Genesis story of “the fall.” It goes something like this: Sin entered into the world and destroyed what God had created and brought confusion to the creation. God saw the necessity for the good of both the male and female to have the male lead the female. This unfortunate interpretation is not found in the Genesis story. Gordon Fee suggests that for those who wish to defend “the need for the woman to maintain her place of subordination to her “head,” namely her husband … often [see this] as the point of the whole passage. [ref] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 499. [/ref] One surely must ask the question: What does Paul mean by this word?” There are several explanations offered: The word “head” can be defined as “authority over,” or, it may be defined as the “source of.”
Paul had ample Greek words to say authority if he wanted to. Since he did not, then “head” is seen as a metaphor, which “transfers the notion of “head” in physiology not as the location of the brain, but as “topmost” or (by synecdoche) what represents the whole, as in “head” of cattle.” [ref] Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, 171. [/ref]
On the other hand, “source,” as Fee [ref] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 501. [/ref] and a host of other scholars [ref] Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 117. [/ref] suggests, means “source of life.” [ref] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 503. [/ref] So man’s source of life is Christ, [ref] There is no reason the translation should exclude women. See Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 70. [/ref] i.e., think being “in Christ,” or being a “new creation.” Man is the source of life for “woman,” which is a reference to the creation story. God is the source of Jesus in his incarnation. [ref] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 505. [/ref]
Veil or Hair?
As with all other ideas in this passage, there is a variety of thoughts presented. Two are noteworthy. First, note that there is only one place (v. 16) where “veil” appears in this passage. The issue here is hair, not a veil or a burqa, which most Westerners might think when they read this text. What about hair is critical in the solution of this problem? Most likely, we read the text without understanding the social dress conventions of the world in which Paul lived. Certain things were appropriate, other things were not appropriate in the culture of Paul’s time. Think about it this way today: a man would most likely not attend a formal wedding ceremony wearing a speedo. A woman would most likely not attend a beach party wearing a Jovani dress. If the traditional view is followed, one must determine what is meant by “his head covered” and “her head uncovered.” The difficulty being addressed is “not following the traditions,” i.e., equality of male and female is often not taken into consideration by current readers. It seems that gender distinction was being obliterated because the genders were trying to resemble each other in their hair and dress styles. Sound familiar?
Equality and clear distinctiveness is the norm for the new creation. What Paul could be suggesting is that in Christian worship, the creation is being restored; the “not yet” is invading the “present evil age.” Paul didn’t want anyone to come to the gathering of the community and think that there was no real difference between the “new creation community” and the community thought to be normal that they lived in. Wright suggests that the Corinthians had simply “drawn the wrong conclusions from the ‘tradition’ that Paul had taught them.” [ref] Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, 143. [/ref] However, there is another way of reading this text.
Citation Interpretation: A Structured Alternative Rendering
This alternative view is not something new: it has been around since the time of John Lightfoot (1602-1675). It simply suggests that the literary structure of Corinthians be given its full weight, i.e., allow “how” Paul wrote to the Corinthians to drive the reading of this text. Schirrmacher suggests that the citation interpretation of 1 Corinthians is “a typical characteristic of [1 Corinthians].” It was “Paul’s way of dealing with his opponents’ arguments by first quoting their position and by then using their words in his own argumentation.” There are many proponents of this way of reading this passage. [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 114, Footnote 350. See Footnote 8 above for a brief explanation of this pattern of being misunderstood and then having to write again to clarify what was meant. [/ref] Paul does follow this procedure in 1 Corinthians more than any other letter he wrote. In fact, he does so, on a large scale when he refers to his a previous writing at 1 Corinthians 5.9 where he responds to a misunderstanding the Corinthians had about what he had taught when he was with them. [ref] Schirrmacher, 90.[/ref] In addition to this method in 1 Corinthians, Paul uses irony on several occasions (1 Co 6.12-13; 7-10; 14.34-35). It is fair to conclude that a “straight non-literary reading” of 1 Corinthians would not be the best pursuit for our reading of the text.
The citation reading is presented in the structured view of this passage below. [ref]The verses have been removed for easier reading. Remember, verses were not there when Paul wrote to them and, of course, the indentation that I have added was also not there.[/ref] Paul begins with a “praise” and a “statement,” which had been misunderstood by the Corinthians (v. 2-3). Next, he takes the teachings of the Corinthians that are miscues of his teaching and cites them (v. 4-10). Finally, he presents the correction to their misguided understanding. (v. 11-16). The following breakdown follows Thomas Schirrmacher’s proposed structure of our text. [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 15-16. [/ref]
What Paul Had Taught (11.2-3)
I praise you
for remembering me in everything and
for holding to the traditions
just as I passed them on to you.
But I want you to realize that
the head of every man is Christ,
and the head of the woman is man,
and the head of Christ is God.
What the Corinthians Were Teaching (11.4-10)
who prays or prophesies with his head covered
dishonors his head.
But every woman
who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered
dishonors her head—
it is the same as having her head shaved.
For if a woman does not cover her head,
she might as well have her hair cut off;
but if it is a disgrace for a woman
to have her hair cut off
or her head shaved,
then she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head,
since he is the image and glory of God;
but woman is the glory of man.
For man did not come from woman,
but woman from man;
neither was man created for woman,
but woman for man.
It is for this reason that
a woman ought to have authority over her own head,
because of the angels.
Paul’s Correction to the Corinthians’ Misunderstanding (11.11-16)
Nevertheless, in the Lord
woman is not independent of man,
nor is man independent of woman.
For as woman came from man,
so also man is born of woman.
But everything comes from God.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper
for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
Does not the very nature of things teach you
that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,
but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?
For long hair is given to her as a covering.
If anyone wants to be contentious about this,
we have no other practice—
nor do the churches of God.
In his book, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, Thomas Schirrmacher recites a list of propositions [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 17-21, 45-89. He first sets out the propositions and then expands on each of them.
[/ref] for why the “citation” interpretation is valid as an alternative to the traditional reading of the text. The result of this view is that Paul is contradicting the command to use the veil at prayer. Here is a summary of his argument:
- Paul maintains that men and women have different responsibilities, but that the Corinthians had drawn the wrong conclusion from the statement of verse 3.
- The custom of head covering is not defined here or elsewhere in this passage. Only verse 15 mentions a veil, but even then it is not clear what custom is being referred to, but it seems clear that Paul opposes veiling. Verse 16 supports that in the churches Paul had planted, the veil was not worn. [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 58.[/ref]
- An investigation of the actual customs and clothing of the ancients during this time frame is imperative. [ref] Schirrmacher, 18, 58.[/ref]
- Since there are no question marks in Greek, what has been translated in verse 14-15 as questions could be translated as statements. [ref]Schirrmacher. 59.[/ref]
- The woman is just as much the “image of God as the man.” [ref]Schirrmacher, 19.[/ref]
- The women in question have authority over their own head (v. 10). [ref] Schirrmacher, 72.[/ref]
- Because Christians, male and female, will judge angels, women are capable of judging what to do with their hair in worship. [ref] Schirrmacher, 82-83.[/ref]
- This passage is valid for our day without confusing an unknown custom in Corinth.
In this reading of the text, Paul continues to speak to the issue of the gathered worship time of the Corinthians. While he has just prohibited them from being involved in pagan worship, he now begins to address abusive issues in their gatherings. As in the traditional reading, he begins with a word or phrase about their following the traditions he had taught them and then setting the stage with verse 3 by reminding them in summary fashion about who was the source of who. This is where the comparison ends. Remember, in the traditional reading, the next verses are considered as Paul’s own words about the problem. In this rendering, they are the “words of the Corinthians” that are miscues or wrong conclusions of his teaching about male and female equality. In essence, he shares with them that they have drawn a wrong conclusion. The Corinthians were teaching:
- A man who prays or prophesies with his head uncovered dishonors his head, in this case, Jesus.
- A woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her source, in this case, most commentators think that this refers to her husband. She might as well shave her head, which in the culture could have been saying that her appearance in public would be viewed as if she were a prostitute. [ref] Wright, Paul For Everyone: 1 Corinthians, 140. [/ref]
- A man should not be uncovered because he is the glory of God, while the woman is only the glory of man.
- The order of creation is important to who has authority over who.
- The Corinthians concluded that the woman should cover her head, presumably when she prays or prophesies.
Remember, this is what the Corinthians were teaching, not what Paul was teaching.
Paul responds to their wrong interpretation of his teaching beginning at 11.11-16. He tells his audience that they have twisted his teaching:
- In reality, Corinthians, male and female, are interdependent.
- Contrary to a woman should have a headcover when she prays or prophesies, a woman has the freedom to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered because she is free in Christ.
- Corinthians, first, judge for yourself that it is proper. Second, it is proper for a woman to pray uncovered. Finally, nature does not teach you that it is dishonorable for a man to have (long) hair, but for a woman an honor to have (long) hair.” [ref] Schirrmacher, Paul in Conflict with the Veil, 59. [/ref]
- No need to be contentious because this is the way all the churches under my (Paul’s) care operate within this freedom.
Obviously, this way of reading doesn’t answer all questions about the strangeness of this passage, but it does seem to solve more difficulties than the traditional rendering does not solve. Since most readers have only been exposed to the traditional reading of this passage, I highly recommend that you read and study 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 using the “citation interpretation” as your guideline when communicating with others about this passage. You might get a few raised eyebrows, but that’s okay. It really is!
The literary (citation) reading of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 provides readers with the freedom to see what Paul was writing. It provides us with a reasonable way to read the text with less difficulty than the traditional reading. Since the Corinthians were having problems with what Paul had taught, who hasn’t had such a problem in some Pauline text, we can see how this view corrects our way of reading the text and demonstrates freedom for women in worship to interact on the same level with men. It seems that we have been guilty of making new traditions instead of holding to the ones that Paul gave.
Remember the traditions and allow equality to reign now as it will surely reign in the kingdom’s consummation.
What Do You Think?
- If reading Scripture for you is sometimes confusing, what confuses you?
- Why is it important to have some interpreting skills? Which of the skills listed do you find most valuable? Why?
- Have you ever been exposed to an alternative reading of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16? If not, why do you think that is the case?
- Have you ever thought of Paul’s writings as a dialog between him and a congregation in which he is responding to what the congregation is asking or teaching?
- How does the view in question #4 alter your way of thinking about the text of 1 Corinthians in general and 1 Corinthians 11.2-16 specifically?
- Have you ever taken something that your pastor or a teacher has taught incorrectly and then make your incorrect version the correct version that you share and thus live by?
- How does this alternative view help you think theologically about how you reflect on what others are saying and teaching?
Appendix 1: 1 Corinthians 11.2-16
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003.
Geisler, N. L., and W. E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996.
Griffin, Winn. God’s EPIC Adventure. Woodinville, WA: Harmon Press, 2007.
Payne, Philip B. Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Schirrmacher, Thomas. Paul in Conflict with the Veil. Nürnberg, Germany: VTR Publications, 2007.
Thiselton, Anthony C. First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.
Wright, Tom. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. London: SPEC, 2004.