First Corinthians 11 is one of those Bible passages that no reader can forget about in a hurry. It is the kind of passage you read and wonder about afterward. The chapter is significant not just for the challenging issues it raises for scholars but also for the impact it continues to have in churches. After all, the passage is full of apostolic pronouncements for the global church. First Corinthians 11 is the famous chapter about hair covering and the claim that “neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” —a passage that the church has subsequently used to treat churchgoing women as “others.” Of course, the othering of women, based on this passage and other similar ones, would not be problematic if, indeed, that is the kind of thing Paul had in mind.
As it turns out, however, the passage is difficult to exegete. Indeed, as Lucy Peppiatt reminds us, “First Corinthians 11:2-16 is notorious for being one of the most problematic texts in the New Testament” (21). This is no exaggeration. Scholars disagree on what virtually all the critical terms in the passage mean: “head,” “having down the head,” “uncovered,” “glory,” “authority over her head,” “because of the angels” (what angels?), “in the place of a shawl,” and “such a custom” (Peppiatt, 22). We do not even know how to understand “man” and “woman” in the passage partly because of Paul’s word choices. Paul could have used Greek terms that explicitly meant “man” or “woman.” Instead, he used terms that could mean “man” or “husband” and “woman” or “wife.” To further compound the problem, there are lines in the chapter where Paul seems to intend one meaning over the other and lines where a double meaning is intended.
Third and Fourth Corinthians?
Overarching the problems in this chapter is a more fundamental issue. The book of Acts tells how Paul took the Gospel to Corinth. Acts 18:8 reports, “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.” Paul stayed in Corinth for one year and a half, teaching the people the word of God (Acts 18:11). Unfortunately, the passage does not explicitly mention specifics about what Paul taught in that diverse context of Jews and Greeks. But we know that shortly afterward, problems arose in the church requiring Paul’s intervention.
In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul speaks about having written to the Corinthians previously. Hence, the First Epistle to the Corinthians—that is, 1 Corinthians—is not the first letter written to the church. It is simply the earliest of the letters that we have. Paul might have written this now-lost first letter in response to a yet earlier letter from the church to Paul. Similarly, what we now call the Second Epistle to the Corinthians is not the second letter Paul wrote to the church. It is, at least, the fourth letter to the church—2 Corinthians 2:4, 9 speaks of another epistle following Paul’s visit to Corinth. These missing letters, especially those the church wrote to Paul, would provide much-needed details to understand what transpired.
Here is a seemingly trivial but valuable point: the Corinthian documents we have are letters, and letters of this kind are written between authors and recipients who share common knowledge about events. These letters of Paul do not attempt to tell us the details of what was happening because Paul did not have to tell the original audience those details. He and the audience had shared knowledge of what happened.
What’s Our Starting Assumption?
The problems with this chapter are many. If we affirm that the chapter essentially contains Paul’s teaching, there is no escaping some bizarre outcomes. Let us begin with verses 3-5:
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.
As already pointed out, the word rendered “woman” in verse 3 may also mean “wife,” depending on the context. Indeed, many English translations go with “wife.” But if we translate the word as “wife,” then the wife’s head will be a husband, not “man.”
What’s Going on with the Head?
Furthermore, scholars have no consensus on what “head” means. The usual candidates are “source,” “ruler,” and “authority.” It may help to begin by inquiring into what the text might mean by saying, “the head of Christ is God.” Is it saying that God is the source of Christ? While this is a tempting candidate, it is not without its problems. If by “source,” we mean that Christ proceeds or derives from God, Christ cannot be eternal. Hence, he cannot be God. Even if we set this aside for a moment, “source” still does not adequately explain the verse. True, the head of the woman can be the man in the sense that the woman originated from the man. But once we make that move, “the head of every man is Christ” loses coherence. Why? Well, because the man from whom the woman derived was Adam, and Adam did not derive from Christ. He derived from dust. (Actually, the adam from whom Eve was fashioned was, strictly speaking, not even male. That being was a composite creature of some sort, being both male and female. The residual being after the woman was taken from the adam is the Adam (or man) relevant to 1 Corinthians 11. In other words, it is not quite correct to say that the woman derived from the man.) Moreover, the text explicitly undermines such a reading in verses 11 and 12:
“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.”
So, according to the same chapter, man and woman are interdependent. This message is consistent with what Paul writes to the Galatians: “there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
So, we see that “source” cannot satisfactorily explain the verses. What about “ruler” and “authority”? Could Paul mean to say God is the ruler or authority over Christ? These are more plausible candidates. But first, we should note that God does not rule over Christ. Paul would later develop a sense of rulership and authority in chapter 15 that amounts to submission or subjection. Christ submits, or subjects himself, to God’s plans of salvation. This reading might also make sense of Christ being the head—ruler or/and authority—over man. But that analogy breaks down with man and woman. As we already saw, Paul affirms that man and woman are interdependent. Man does not rule over woman. In the end, nobody knows what Paul meant by “head.” As Peppiatt notes, whatever “head” may mean, “it does not mean that as God rules over Christ, Christ rules over man, and man rules over woman, because we cannot claim that God rules over Christ in the first place” (91). Again, Christ willingly and freely submits to God.
Head Covering or Coiffure?
Another vexing issue in the chapter concerns the matter of head “covering.” Once again, there are diverging scholarly opinions on what the Greek term means. Some scholars believe the term refers to a head covering like scarves or shawls; others think it is about hairstyles or hair length. One scholar argues that the term refers to a “testicle”—yes, you read that right. In what follows, I shall mostly assume that the term refers to a head covering, as most scholars believe.
1 Corinthians 11:4 claims that every man who prays or prophecies with his head covered dishonors his head—that is, Christ. But why is this the case? No precedence in the Hebrew Bible could help us understand this. Men the world over regularly pray with their heads uncovered. How does this dishonor Christ? The answer Paul cites is bewildering: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God” (11:7). Ostensibly, the idea here is that the glory of God—that is, man—ought to be allowed to shine. Dimming that glory with a covering somehow results in dishonoring Jesus. The mechanism of dishonoring Christ is unclear, but we can understand the text. We should briefly note that the alternative reading that a man ought not to pray with long hair also does not fair better. This one is fascinating because Paul, while at Corinth, allowed his hair to grow for over one year and a half because of a vow he took (Acts 18:18). We cannot be sure just how long his hair became, but we can assume that his hair was not short and that he prayed during this time. So, why is it not dishonoring for him to pray with long hair – if the issue is about hair length?
Setting aside this otherworldly logic for a moment, we should ask how the logic applies to the woman. On that subject, we read the following (11:5-6):
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.
So, a praying woman with no head covering somehow dishonors her head—a man, not Christ. What “head” or man exactly does she shame? If she is married, a husband is an obvious candidate. What if she is not married (and her father is deceased)? That is a bit tough to tell.
Scholars have observed that the accompanying language about how a woman’s uncovered head is just as bad as having her head shaved, and this being a disgrace strongly suggests a cultural practice to which Paul alludes. After all, we have no Old Testament precedence for it, and we have ample evidence that the Romans cared about how they appeared in public. The Greco-Roman women customarily wore head coverings in public. However, whatever roles culture might have played in this development, Paul does not cite societal norms as the authority. Instead, he frames his pronouncements as a theological necessity (11:7-10):
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.
This citation alludes to Adam and Eve’s story. The problem is that it inaccurately represents it. First, the original language is not about “image and glory” but “image and likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Second, and more importantly, Adam and Eve were in the image and likeness of God, not just man (Genesis 1:27). But even if we grant the distorted reference here, we come away with a weak sense that a woman should have a covering on her head. However, a few more problems remain. It is unclear whose “authority” the passage describes—the man’s or the woman’s? And what’s up with “the angels”? Why do they only care when the woman dishonors her head but not when the man does the same – even though the man’s offense would be more significant? And what angels—fallen angels like those in Genesis 6 or the church’s guarding angels like those in Revelation? The passage cannot help us clarify these questions.
In the next verses, Paul upends the apparent conclusion one might have made thus far in the text. He asks, “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” As Peppiatt observes (104), Paul here expects an answer in the affirmative. It is proper for a woman to pray with an uncovered head. Strangely, Paul even alters a previous language by referring to a woman’s long hair as her glory, not a man (11:15). Finally, he says long hair is all the covering a woman needs. No shawls or scarves are necessary. How are we to read these verses considering the previous ones?
These are only a few of the issues in the passage. There are more problems in the text. Returning to where we started, once again, if we assume that every assertion in 1 Corinthians 11 is Paul’s, even as there is missing background information, the image of Paul that emerges is quite ugly. We see a misogynist who is strangely not comfortable with his misogyny. We stare at an inconsistent and contradictory thinker. Perhaps even more embarrassing, we see a Pharisee incapable of correctly citing a phrase from the first page of his Bible. Of course, Paul may very well be all of these things. But on the evidence of his other letters like Romans, it is tough to believe that Paul would be so grossly inconsistent within a few verses of the same letter section!
Furthermore, since Paul expected the Corinthians to act on his message, how could he hope to be taken seriously with such vacillating argumentation? For these reasons, I am convinced that 1 Corinthians 11 is better treated as a blend of Paul’s and the Corinthians’ ideas (probably expressed in now-lost letters). As we shall do next, tracing out which ideas are Paul’s will help us make better sense of the chapter.
Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians, 1st ed., The Lutterworth Press, 2015. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvz0hc8w.10. Accessed 19 Dec. 2022.