Veils and heads, men and women

Bible studyThe first verses of 1 Corinthians 11 are not easily understood. I’m guessing that the original readers had an easier time of it, but I’m not altogether sure. Paul uses the same words in a literal sense and a figurative sense (as he does in other parts of 1 Corinthians), which can create some confusion.

Here’s the passage in question:

“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” (1 Corinthians 11:2–16)

There. It says what it means, and it means what it says. Let’s move on.

OK, I won’t chicken out like that. One problem with this passage is that there are several words that aren’t easily translated. Not that they are uncommon words, they’re just used in somewhat uncommon ways. Here are a few examples:

  • head — Paul begins by talking about a figurative head: Christ as the head of man, the husband as head of his wife, God as the head of Christ. But then he moves to a discussion of the literal head, which leaves us scratching our heads (all puns intended) about just what he means by the figurative use.
  • glory — Man is the image and glory of God; woman is the glory of man. Later he says that long hair is a woman’s glory (in contrast with disgrace).
  • authority — The KJV says that a woman should have “power on her head.” Several versions talk about a sign or symbol of authority, but those words (sign, symbol) have been added as an interpretation.

As different meanings of those words are used, so the interpretations shift. Like I said, it’s a difficult passage.

But here are some takeaways that I find, even as I wrestle with understanding specific details:

  • Women prayed and prophesied in public. One commentator suggested that this was merely a hypothetical that would then be ruled out by Paul’s teachings in chapter 14. I don’t buy that. Women prayed and prophesied in public. Probably in the assembled church, hence the reference to the presence of angels.
  • There are differences between men and women. Were there not, there would be no reason for this passage to exist. Paul’s appeals are theological in nature, not cultural. (see the previous chapters of 1 Corinthians for a good example of a culture-based argument) Galatians 3:28 did not erase gender nor gender differences in the church.
  • There is a sense of “hierarchy” to the relationship between men and women. We can talk around that all we want, yet it’s hard to get away from that understanding of verse 3 and it’s discussion of headship. It’s not accurate to say that the Greeks didn’t use the word “head” to refer to the leader or prominent one. They frequently used the word in that way. Philo did, a Hellenistic Jew of the time. Pre-Christian and post-Christian gnostic writers did as well. Many Jewish writings do the same, often basing themselves on the usage in Deuteronomy 28 (verse 11 and verses 43-44).
    Even if the word should be translated “source” or “origin,” the idea of hierarchy remains, based on the references to Christ and God. (Christ as “head” of man and God as “head” of Christ)
  • Women were to dress in a way that reflected their relationship to man and to God. They were not to try to be men, but women. Even as they practiced a new freedom in Christ, they were to do so in a way that showed respect toward their husbands.

Lots of other details can be discussed and debated. Feel free to do so in the comments.

9 thoughts on “Veils and heads, men and women

  1. Wendy Cayless

    Perhaps the use of head (with the meaning of source or origin ) is linked to the idea that the ancients had that the man’s sperm was the source of all life. They had no idea that the women supplied an ovum for each conception. They believed that the woman was just an incubator.
    Just an idea that sprang to mind when reading that “head” can be translated as source. It also fits the analogy that the Father is the head of Christ (Jesus originated from the Father)

  2. laymond

    2Pe 3:16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood ———–.
    I am pretty sure Peter spoke face to face with Paul and if he couldn’t understand what he was saying, how are we supposed to?
    I don’t read what Paul said as meaning “source” with any common sense in use at all, we can deduce that Jesus can not be both the source of man while being the product of God. To me Paul mean the very same thing he had said before, woman is subservient to man, man is subservient to Jesus, and Jesus is subservient to God Almighty.

  3. Wendy Cayless

    Laymond, the whole point of God is that God is beyond common sense. If we can figure out God and reduce the triune God (yes, I know you don’t believe in the trinity) to logic and what our measly minds than comprehend, then God is not very awesome, no?

  4. laymond

    Wendy, I don’t for a second think you mean to say, Man created woman, but as you say stranger things have happened. But I myself see the bible written as so my measly mind can comprehend it, if not, then it was written for no reason. Anyway, I thought we were talking about something Paul had said, and I don’t recall even you adding Paul to the list of gods.
    God is not only “awesome” in his power, but in his logical reasoning as well.

  5. Kristen Dugas

    Personally, I believe that Paul makes a very coherent and ingenious argument as to why women should not be veiled in 1 Corinthians 11: 3-16. This is because I believe that this passage consists of three parts. They are as follows:
    Verse 3 – Paul’s model where the figurative meaning of head is “source”.
    Verses 4-6 – Paul quotes a faction of men who wrote him. (Note: The men made a literal head argument which is why Paul gives his model with the figurative meaning of head.)
    Verses 7-16 – Paul’s rebuttal where he refers back to his model.
    Furthermore, I would like to say that there are two reasons how I know that verses 4-6 are quoted. The first reason is that the rebuttal portion completely contradicts the quoted portion. (Unfortunately most people do not understand that verses 7-16 contradict verses 4-6 because the translators have added words in the rebuttal portion, that are not in the original Greek, in an attempt to harmonize it with the quoted portion.) And the second reason how I know that verses 4-6 are quoted is because Jesus Christ (not man) is the image and glory of God. (See 2 Cor. 4: 3-4, Col. 1: 15, Hebrews 1: 3, Rev. 21: 23.) Paul, in verse 7, is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. So Paul very ingeniously places the men’s words in between his model and rebuttal to explain exactly why women are not to be veiled. Anyway, this is just what I believe. If you would like to see more on this you can visit my website. Take care and God bless.

  6. Tim Archer Post author

    Thanks, Kristen. That’s very interesting. I have heard it argued that Paul is saying that a woman’s hair can serve as the head covering.

    If your reasoning is true, that would be the longest such quote that Paul makes, right? I can’t think of another that is more than a few words. That doesn’t make your theory impossible, but does it make it suspect.

    Still, it’s an explanation that merits being heard. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. laymond

    1Cr 11:16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
    Look at V-16 and Paul explains everything he has just said. All Paul had to say all boils down to this. This is the Jewish custom/practice , and we don’t have one custom in our daily lives, and another custom in the church. And this covered any questions that might arise, from anyone who wanted to argue the point he made.

  8. Kristen Dugas

    Tim – Thank you for considering what I have to say. Yes, many people do say that a woman’s hair can serve as the head covering. This is because Paul has stated in verse 15 that the long hair has been given instead of a covering. This is in total contrast to verse 6 which states that if a woman is not covered, she is also to have her (long) hair cut off (as all women in Paul’s day had long hair) and is just one of the clues that verse 6 is not original to Paul and that he is refuting their words. So yes, verses 4-6 would be Paul’s longest quote. Many scholars do believe that 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35 is a quote (myself included) which is not quite as long but is longer than his other quotes such as 1 Corinthians 6: 12. But again, the greatest evidence that we have that verses 4-6 are quoted is that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God. Paul is refering to a man’s figurative head (vs. 3) in verse 7 and is using Jesus Christ as a correlation, as an example, as to why women should not be veiled. But again, I thank you for considering what I have to say. God bless.

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