A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. iv:1 Cor 11:2-16)

Literary Context

The passage under examination follows Paul’s discourse on idolatry (8:1-11:1) and precedes his discussion about propriety and impropriety in the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) (Hjort 60).  Brigitte Hjort recommends seeing the framing of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 as part of a cohesive discussion about idol worship and/or religious abuse specifically related to food and drink (8:1-11:34) (61, 63).  However, in chapter 12, Paul begins with his examination of the proper use of Spiritual gifts within the worship service concluding in chapter 14 (vv.26-40) with a discussion on “orderly worship” and the function of the different parts of the body (12:1-14:40).  It appears that the content of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is more closely linked with what follows rather than what precedes, thus, this passage appears to be the introduction to Paul’s lengthy address on proper versus improper conduct during worship (Hays 181).

Head Coverings (11:2-16).

v.2.  Paul begins the pericope by praising the Corinthians for remembering him and for keeping the traditions that he gave to them (v.2).  The Greek word (Ἐπαινῶ) has a stronger connotation than the typical translation “I commend”.  epaino is often associated in Biblical Greek with praising God or honoring a person (Thiselton 809).  Thiselton writes, “In the context of an honor/shame culture some forceful attribution of honor (praise) is required…” (809).  Paul is using purposeful rhetoric to grab his audience’s attention.

Why is Paul praising the Corinthians?  Because they have kept the traditions (παραδόσεις) that he has handed down to them (παρέδωκα).  Thiselton explains that the active sense of parado,seij (from the verb paradi,dwmi) is “betrayal” and the passive sense is “tradition”, “that which is handed on, including teachings, creeds, narratives, catchesis” (810).  F.F. Bruce comments, “The traditions [paradoseis]…were the instructions, relating to matters of doctrine and practice alike, which [Paul] delivered to his churches on the authority of Christ” (102).  Likewise Thiselton, referring to Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen comments, “In early Christian literature the words soon come to denote an authoritative tradition of Christian teaching” (810).  But Bruce warns his reader that though “apostolic tradition” may find its roots “‘from the Lord’” paradoseis and kurios are not to be mistaken as synonymous (103); thus, “…the…‘tradition’ of which [Paul] goes on to emphasize [vv.3-16]…probably does not go back beyond his own teaching” (Bruce 103).  However, what follows is not to be discarded for Paul was one to have the mind of Christ (Bruce 103).

v.3.  After grabbing the Corinthians’ attention, Paul begins his discourse on head-coverings by giving three examples of the headship relationship (the “kephale-structure” (Bjort, 64)): Christ and man, husband and wife, and Christ and God.  Thiselton refers to the translation of this verse as one that “…has caused more personal agony and difficulty than any other in the epistle…” due to the ambiguousness of the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλὴ, (811)[2], and to the vagueness of Paul’s motives for starting his discussion about head coverings with the “kephale-structure”.  To better understand this verse, we will examine the Greek word translated as “head” (kephale) and the “kephale-structure”.

Some scholars argue for translation of kephale, as “source”; Leon Morris, Gordon Fee, and F.F. Bruce (et al) defend this position (see Thiselton 814).  Morris argues for “source” based off the assumption that “…the functions of the central nervous system were not known to the ancients, who held that we think with the midriff, the phrēn (JTS, n.s., v, 1954, pp. 211-215).  The head was not the controlling factor” (149; and Bruce 103).  Though “source” seems to mend the inherent difficulties within the passage under consideration, Thiselton points out that “…the paucity of lexicographical evidence remains a major obstacle to this translation” (820).  And, considering Paul’s argument in the rest of the passage is based on the theme of “glory” and “honor/shame”, “source” as a translation of kephale, does not contextually flow with Paul’s skillfully devised rhetoric and appears disconnected from Paul’s point.

Traditionally, the translation of kephale, has been “authority, supremacy, leadership,” a view supported by scholars such as Wayne Grudem, J. Fitzmeyer, and others (Thiselton 812-3).  Richard Hays writes, “…in view of the whole shape of the argument, the patriarchal implications of v.3 are undeniable” thus, the concept of “authority” is to be retained (184) and David Ewert writes, “…‘head’ is…used in the sense of ‘leader’, and…[that sense] is not absent here.  As Christ in his incarnation submitted to God, and man is subject to Christ…so the married woman is subject to her husband” (115).  Culturally, the Corinthians would have understood kefalh, to have the connotation of “authority” due to the Empire’s rhetoric of the paterfamilias.  Daniel Arichea writes, “The idea of ‘authority’ would reflect the structure of the household in Roman society, where there is an emphasis on the paterfamilias” (461).  Craig Keener agrees, “…ancient literature…applies [kephale,] often to ‘authority’ or to the ‘most honored [or prominent] part.’  Both ‘authority’ and ‘honored part’ fit Paul’s Christology (11:3) as well as the normal structure of the household in Paul’s’ environment” (1-2 Corinthians 92).  Is Paul touting the party line of the Roman Empire and its hierarchical structure of state and family or is he subverting the empire, subjecting it all to Christ?  If kephale, only means “authority” (or the like) in this pericope, then we may be left with a Christ that has restored everything but the relationship between man and woman.  Another issue I have with translating kephale as “authority” within this verse is that one would be prone to see the Trinity in terms of subordinationism.  If Paul is talking about hierarchy and authority within the “kephale-structure” of this verse, then God is “authority” over (i.e. greater than, super-ordinated over) the incarnated Christ thus the implication is that Christ is somehow inferior (subordinated) to God.  If Christ, in His incarnation, is not fully God (and fully man) then we are left in our sins and are without hope.  Referring to Chrysostom, Thiselton writes,

Chrysostom is aware that a parallel between men/women and God/Christ should not give ‘the heretics’ grounds for subordinationist Christology.  In certain respects head denotes a kind of primacy, but both God and Christ on one side and men and women on the other are the same mode of being. ‘For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection…he would not have brought forward the instance of a woman (or wife), but rather of a slave and a master….It is a wife (or woman) as free, as equal in honour; and the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God; it was God’….Chrysostom…reflects Paul’s notion that in the context of love between God and Christ, or between man and woman, obedience or response is chosen, not imposed… (819).

One must not confuse “submission” with “subjection”.  The Father did not force Christ to the cross, rather, Christ submitted Himself to the Father to death on a Cross (Phil. 2:8).  This submission was an oblation, was an offering of Himself to God in order to glorify God by atoning for the sins of humanity, thus restoring humanity to God.  As well, a wife’s submission to her husband is her oblation, her offering, a laying down of herself for the glory of her husband and not because he is her authority but because she glorifies him.

Thus, there is a third (and better) way to look at the word kephale.  It is possible that kephale translated as “head” contains the notion “that which is glorified”.  When looking at the relationships Paul uses in this verse (every man and Christ, woman and man, and Christ and God), one may notice that one part of the coupling is the person/being that is glorified and that the other is the agent by which the glorification occurs (i.e. woman glorifies man, man is glorified by woman).  However, the glorification is not a selfish desire by the one in detriment to the other.  It is just the opposite; there is mutual reciprocity with in the “kephale-structure” (Thiselton 804).  As one is glorified so is the other part (Thiselton 804).  Thiselton offers,

The Greek Fathers’ use of the term perichoresis well suggests the dialectic of distinctiveness, reciprocity, and oneness which Paul beings to unfold.…The God-Christ relation has nothing to do with self-glory or with affirmation of the self at the expense of the other…This shared love controls the use of freedom, and thereby each brings ‘glory to the other by assuming distinctive roles for a common purpose.  This is the context that gives currently to the widespread comment that ‘the relationship between man and woman is thus in some sense paralleled by that between God and Christ (804, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Keener writes, “Although some argue plausibly that ‘head’ figuratively functions as ‘source’ or ‘first part’…ancient literature also applies it…to the ‘most honored [or prominent] part….‘honored part’ fit[s] Paul’s Christology (11:3) as well as the normal structure of the household in Paul’s’ environment” (92).  Thisleton offers, “preeminent, foremost, and synecdoche for a representative whole” as the translation of kephale that

…has the merit of most clearly drawing interactively on the metaphorical conjunction between physiological head (which is far and away the most frequent, ‘normal’ meaning) and the notion of prominence, i.e., the most conspicuous or topmost manifestation of that for which the term also functions as synecdoche for the whole.  The public face is linked with responsibility and representation in the public domain, since head is both the part of a person which is most conspicuous and that by which they are most readily distinguished or recognized.  These aspects feature more frequently and prominently in first-century Greek texts than either the notions of ruler or source… (821, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Each of the secondary (not inferior) parts of the “kephale-structure[s]” reflect and glorify the primary parts as that which is conspicuous, the preeminent part, the part “by which they [the secondary aspects] are most readily distinguished or recognized.”  It is through God that one recognizes Jesus, it is through man that one recognizes woman, and it is through Jesus that one recognizes redeemed man.  Through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God is glorified because Jesus was the perfect propitiation for our sins and creation is restored to God, through Jesus we know God.  Through the creation of woman (Gen 2:18-23) man is glorified and is man because of her creation and is able to commune with God; through woman we know man.  Through redeemed man Jesus is glorified—for it was the first man, Adam, brought to life by the intimate breath of God (Gen. 2:7), that was the prototype to the last Adam, Jesus, who would exhale that same breath on the cross, finally restoring the creature to the Creator (John 30:19); through redeemed man we see Jesus.  If kephale is translated in this way, one is made aware of the reciprocity and mutuality between the two parts of the relationships—God and Christ, man and woman, and Jesus and man—described by Paul in v.3.  And, in light of the honor/shame (and glory v. 7) argument that follows, this translation of kephale. fits well and adheres to Paul’s rhetoric.

vv.4-6.[3]  Paul continues his argument started in the previous verse (v.3) with a discussion on the propriety of men and women covering their heads while praying or prophesying.  It is important to notice here that Paul is using kephale in two different ways.  One way is in the literal sense “head” as in “The head of a man or beast” (Brown 157; Bruce 104); and, the second is in the way described in v.3 (see above) “head” as in the part that is glorified.

The primary difficulty of these verses (vv. 4-6) is the translation of the phrase κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων.  Ralph Yeager explains, “exwn is intransitive.  There is no object expressed.  Kata literally means ‘down’ and kephale is a genitive which serves to accent the person or thing affected—thus, ‘having (something) down upon his head’” (6).  Is Paul referring to long hair or veils?  Alan Johnson writes,

…Paul, rather than referring to some external cloth covering on the head, is actually referring to the way their hair was worn or coiffured, differentiating in this manner males from females in worship leadership. The case for this view relies heavily on an abundance of archaeological evidence from the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day… (189).

Johnson refers to the culture of the Corinthians to defend his argument.  Hairstyles were socially used to differentiate gender identity; thus, men having long hair and women having short, blurred the “social boundaries between the sexes and act[ed] against nature (that is, culture)” (Johnson186-7).  “This [blurred social boundary] brought ‘shame’ on individuals and their corresponding ‘head.’  The problem Paul is addressing is the incurring of social shame through boundary-transgressing hairstyles…(Johnson 186-7).

Arguing from Greaco-Roman social history, Horsley adds to the argument for longhair,

…men normally had short hair and women long hair braided or otherwise wound up around their heads (thus portrayed on coins and statues)….It was also standard social custom for women as well as men to have their head uncovered, as can be seen in portraits of women, including Roman women in Corinth….Thus ‘down the head’ in verse 4 is best taken as a reference to long hair, which would have been considered disgraceful for a man, particularly when praying or prophesying (154; Hays 185).

Richard Hays comments, “For women to have loose hair in public, however, was conventionally seen as shameful, a sign associated either with prostitutes or…with women caught up in the ecstatic worship practices of the cults associated with Dionysis, Cybele, and Isis” (185-6).

Bruce, Morris, and Thiselton argue (or defend) that Paul is referring not to long hair but to a “veil”.  Bruce writes, “…what Paul has in mind is a veil which covers the whole head and in particular conceals all the hair…” (104).  Morris argues that though “long hair” would fit the scope of the later part of Paul’s argument, it ultimately runs into problems in relation to the terms “covered and uncovered” (150).  And, after a detailed survey of the argument (823-6), Thiselton writes, “We are forced to conclude that although [the] case is strong [for long hair], we cannot regard it as conclusive, while lexicography and the Roman background…suggests that with his head covered remains in the end more probably” (825).  Finally, Troy Martin uses v.15b as the key to understanding the passage and the translation of περιβολαίου (“testicle”) to explain that the Graeco-Roman period saw the hair on the woman’s head as a part of her genitalia and as an equivalent part to the male testicle, thus women should keep it covered up (83-4).

Considering Greco-Roman custom (discussed here and above), the context of the verse and Paul’s argument, I believe that Paul is Paul is referring to the way men and women keep their hair rather than to “veils” in these verses.

The point of vv4-6 is honor and shame, about propriety and impropriety within the worship context.  As Thiselton points out, a better title for the pericope would be, “‘Mutuality and Reciprocity: Self Respect, Respect for the Other, and Gender Identity in Public Worship” (825).  Johnson comments about the honor/shame code for women within the Greco-Roman culture,

…the ancient Mediterranean world had in place an elaborate honor-shame code governing the public and private behavior of men and women….A woman’s honor…was her shame, in the sense that her honor was her good reputation and chastity, which required her to have a sensitive consciousness of her sexual vulnerability.  She was to excel in the practice of sexual modesty, being discreet, shy, restrained, timid and subordinate to male authority (186-7).

Thiselton further elaborates on the honor/shame code within the Roman imperial period,

…it was men, rather than women, on whom a woman’s clothing most reflected.  Regulation was required when ‘men participated in status-seeking by means of the clothing of their women….The usual purpose of honouring women was to exalt the men to whom they were mothers, wives, or sisters.’  In this context language about glory, source, and reciprocity becomes important (802).

Honor/shame, glory, source and reciprocity are embedded, according to the above two scholars, within the community of Corinth.  It appears, from vv.4-6, that Paul is placating the current social honor/shame codes and keeping women in a situation that is inferior to men.  However, Thisleton provides insight into what Paul may be doing in these verses, “…Paul intends…to enact a rhetorical shock: do you really want to shame yourself, your family, and your God in such a way?  Or alternatively: are you really serious about no longer wanting to be honored as a women, or do you genuinely want to use ‘gospel freedom’ to eradicate all that relates to gender distinctiveness?…” (832, emphasis Thiselton’s).

vv.7-10.[4]  Paul furthers his argument about honor and shame with in the genders based off of a brief explanation of Gen 2:18-23 and concludes (in v.10) that a wife, because of the angels, should have a symbol of authority on her head.  V. 7 initiates Paul’s discussion about covered/uncovered heads by referring to man as the image and glory of God therefore he should not cover his head.  Paul continues in v.7b that woman is the glory of man and explains in vv. 8-9 why she is the glory of man.  There is a significantly troubling aspect to these verses (7-9): is Paul touting the hierarchical/patriarchical line by saying that since the woman does not reflect the image of God as man does, and was created from and for him she is inferior?  Bruce highlights the unparallel structure between the two parts of the v.7, “Paul does not deny that woman also bears the image of God; indeed, he implies that she does by carefully avoiding complete parallelism” (105). Thiselton adds, “If we give due care to the nuances and force of image and glory in the biblical writings…it becomes clear that the emphasis falls less on hierarchy…than on relationality” (833, emphasis Thiselton’s).

Man stands as the image and glory of God because he was the first of all creation (Gen 2:7), and it was with this created man that God formed His covenant, for God intimately breathed into him, bringing him to life like no other creature (Barth CD III/1 236).  Thiselton writes, “…man as male first comes onto the cosmic scene as the image which is to manifest God in his life and deeds, since authentic personhood entails living ‘for’ and ‘in relation to’ an Other, not as one centered upon the self” (834).  Karl Barth writes it beautifully,

…it is in the…free love that He has resolved in Himself from all eternity on His fellowship with man in the person of His own Son.  As this free love is revealed, i.e., made visible outside His own being, His hidden glory is revealed.  And this is creation to the extent that it makes the creature the exponent, sign and witness of the divine meaning and necessity (CD III/1 230).

It is Adam that God first creates and makes his covenant with (woman is not exempted from this covenant, for she is created from the one who the covenant was first formed).  However, Adam’s state of loneliness (Gen. 2:18), which is not good, prevents him from being in a relationship with and living for the “Other” who created him; thus woman is created to save Adam from loneliness and become man’s glory (Gen.21-22).  However, woman is only the glory but not the image of man, for if she were the image, it would have exacerbated Adam’s condition of loneliness for that other would not have been woman, but another man—it would have been himself.  Consequently, the intended relationship between God and His image, man, would have remained disrupted.  Woman had to be a different yet similar being to draw Adam out of his loneliness and into a relationship with God.  It is through the creation of woman that man becomes more man and through the relationship with man that woman becomes more woman.  The two beings are interdependent rather than hierarchical/patriarchical (as vv.11-12 will draw out).  According to Paul’s argument in vv.7-10, man who reflects the Glory and Image of God should not cover that Image or Glory; however, in worship, where God is the focus and not man, woman should cloak her glory, which is the glory of man, as to not draw attention away from the focus: Christ (1:18) (Morris 151; Keener 1-2 Corinthians 93).  Paul, through terms of glory and reflection, is speaking about honor and shame (Horsley 155).

The conclusion of Paul’s argument in vv.7-10 culminates in an awkward statement: “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (v.10).  Primarily, it is Paul’s use of ἐξουσίαν (“authority”) in this verse that is troubling.  The secondary issue is the qualifier, “because of the angels.”  Yeager explains, “A variant reading has kalumma instead of exousian…[the prior indicates] that the passage means that the woman should wear upon her head a veil to symbolize her subjection to the superior authority of her husband, and to the Lord who ordained in creation that it should be so” (14).  However, Paul specifically used ἐξουσίαν to express a specific point.  Ewert illuminates that Paul is subverting the common understanding of women and authority; in light of the culture we should “…expect Paul to say the opposite, namely that she should be in submission to authority and wear the head covering as a symbol of her submission” rather than the covering (her hair) as a sign of her authority (117).  Hays writes, “The expression ‘to have authority’ in Greek always means, just as it does in English, to exercise authority, not to submit to it (187).  Morris agrees, “Far from being a symbol of woman’s subjection to man…her head-covering is what Paul calls it—authority: in prayer and prophecy she, like the man, is under the authority of God’” (M.D. Hooker qtd in Morris 152).  Jason BeDuhn comments that the combination of ἐξουσίαν and ὀφείλει is significant for Paul, “… ‘this does not imply external compulsion but obligation.’  Paul always employs opheilei with the sense of performing one’s duty and acting upon one’s own responsibility and commitment” (303).  Bruce writes,

Here, as elsewhere in this letter, ‘authority’ is probably to be understood in an active sense: the [covering] is not a sign of the woman’s submission to her husband’s authority…. it is a sign of her authority.  In the synagogue service a woman could play no significant part: her presence would not even suffice to make up the requisite quorum of ten (all ten must be males).  In Christ she received equality of status with man: she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church and her [covering] was a sign of this new authority…” (106).

The woman is to take charge of her physical head.  Paul is transforming “…the symbolic connotations of the head covering: the bound hair becomes a fitting symbol of the self-control and orderliness that Paul desires for the community as a whole” (188).

διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους in v.10 has been cause for great speculation for translators and exegetes “since the era of Tertullian (c. AD 200)” (Thiselton 837).  Many explanations have been offered for Paul’s terminology; however, the most cogent explanation is made by Thiselton and Hays.  Thiselton writes, “Among the Jewish traditions which find their way into the NT, those in which angles are perceived as ‘guardians of order’ as well as ‘participants in the church’s praise to God’ prove the best clue to Paul’s meaning…this element is noted in the Qumran writings…[and] in Gal 3:19 Paul observes that the law was put into operation ‘through angels by a mediator,’…” (841, emphasis Thiselton’s; Hays 188; Ewert 118).

vv.11-12.  Though woman can have authority, Paul emphasizes that woman is not independent of man nor man independent of woman.  In light of the above discussion on vv. 3-10, there is no reason for Paul to change the subject in order to back track and explain the equality between the sexes.  However, one cannot dismiss that Paul’s use of the strong adverb πλὴν signifies that Paul is going to go in a different direction (Johnson 197).  It is true that Paul is changing the subject but for a different reason; Paul is drawing his audience back to the main point: you are not independent in yourselves for everything is from God.  Paul is restating his thesis of the letter: this is about Christ and the cross not about you.  In light of the placement of the pericope, in the beginning of the discussion of propriety and impropriety during worship, the Corinthians’ conduct is a reflection of God, of Christ to the community.  Thiselton writes,

…Paul insists that true human relationality entails otherness and indeed respect for the otherness of the other as a necessary basis for true reciprocity, mutuality, and relationality that constitutes what it is to be human.  Yet he adds that this in turn depends on how these roles are fulfilled in relation to God’s will as creator who ordered the world…and to God’s saving action through Christ as Lord of the church…” (843).

vv.13-15.  In case Paul’s scriptural arguments from v.3-12 have proved fruitless in proving his point, he calls the Corinthians to use their cultural experience to judge for themselves what is proper.  Paul’s rhetorical question (v.13) expects a “no, its not proper” answer (Yeager 17).  “Paul…appeals to the mores and values of the Greek world…a number of Greek sources inform us that Greek men did not grow their hair long.  For a man to wear his hair long would be to dishonor (atimia) his position as a male in society.  In the Hellenized world that cherished order, men were supposed to look like men” and women like women (Burton 278).

A translation of φύσις (v.14) may provide lexical help in understanding Paul’s point in vv. 13-15 for to argue from nature seems convoluted because both a man’s and a woman’s hair grows in nature.  Thiselton offers helpful insight to the word hay phusis, “…Paul may use φύσις  sometimes to denote the very ‘grain’ of the created order as a whole, or at other times (as here) to denote ‘how things are’ in more situation or society terms” (845; Johnson 199).  Thus, the better translation should be “the very nature of things” rather than “nature” (Johnson 199).  Paul is not appealing to nature but to the culture of the Corinthians, “Does not your own culture show you that this (vv. 14-15) is inappropriate?”  Paul’s concern in vv.14-15, then, is, as Thiselton states, “…simply to press the issue of gender differentiation and its expression through some semiotic code such as hair or dress.  Semiotic code depends on shared conventions, and social norms generally encourage gender differentiation” (846).

v.16.  To conclude his discussion, Paul arbitrarily closes with a warning that contention over this matter will not be tolerated, for there are no other practices not even in all of the churches of God.  The Corinthians had a natural tendency “to be a law to [themselves], without reference to Christian procedure elsewhere” (1 Cor. 14:36) (Bruce 108).  Hays writes, “…Even if they do not accept his other arguments, the Corinthians should conform their head-covering practice to those of the other churches, because they are called to be one with ‘all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:2)” (190).  The Corinthians are not only to be a unified body in Christ within their own congregation, but they are to be unified with the other churches of God.  Once again, Paul concludes his argument by bringing his audience back to the point of his letter: Christ and the Cross.

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