For centuries, women of the three great monotheistic faiths of the Middle East have been covering their heads – sometimes only within worship and sometimes everywhere in public. Judaism and Islam have unmistakable cultural and religious strictures about female head coverings; Christianity not so. However, based on a Scriptural text (First Corinthians 11:3-16), many Christians perpetuate a theology of women’s submission to men that is symbolized by head coverings.
Here, as another example of how translation affects theology, we examine the text to see whether Christianity truly proposes head coverings at all, and whether any sexist implications should be drawn from the text. While it may be culturally convenient for some Christians to advocate for the submission of women to men – and this is true across the board in Christian communities – an examination of the text may well lead to another conclusion altogether. First, the verses….
First Corinthians - Chapter 11
11:3) Now, I do want you to know that the head of every husband is Christ, and the head of a wife is the husband, and the head of Christ is God. 11:4) Every husband who prays or prophesies with something over his head dishonors his head. 11:5) Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered, dishonors her own head. Indeed, it is the same thing as having a shaved head! 11:6) For, if a woman is not going to cover her hair, she might as well cut it off! But if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, then she should cover it herself. 11:7) For his part, a husband certainly ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but the wife is the glory of her husband. 11:8) Truly, the husband is not from the wife, but the wife from the husband. 11:9) And truly, the husband was not created on account of the wife; rather, the wife was created on account of the husband. 11:10) That is why it is appropriate for a wife to have authority over her head, on account of the Angels. 11:11) Nevertheless, in the Lord, neither is the wife without her husband nor is the husband without his wife. 11:12) For, just as the wife is from the husband, so also is the husband through the wife, but all things are from God. 11:13) You decide for yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God uncovered? 11:14) Does not nature itself teach you that, in the case of a man, it is a dishonor for him to grow his hair long? 11:15) But, if a woman grows her hair long, it is a glory to her, because her mane of hair is given to her in place of a covering. 11:16) But if anyone has an opinion contrary to this, they will not find their custom among us, nor among the Churches of God.
These verses have caused a good deal of consternation for generations of interpreters and translators – even scribes (see below). As ever, we should presume that the original Greek text was comprehensible to its intended audience, even if modern translators and interpreters often struggle with the meaning.
The first point is to remember that for all of Paul’s Hellenic education and heritage, he was still eminently Jewish. His Scripture was the Old Testament and even though he does not confine the new faith in Jesus to the Jewish People, he is still, as he says in his own words, of the stock of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:5). He is a person of a particular time and culture, and this should never be discounted. His dependency upon the Genesis creation narrative is obvious (11:8,9; 11:12), and there is even a trace of anthropomorphism in his social directives (he is the image and glory of God – 11:7).
As for the text itself, probably the most remarkable aspect of standard translations like the KJV, the RSV, and the NASB, is that that the words aner (man/husband) and gune (woman/wife) are translated as “man” and “woman,” even though in most other other passages in the writing of Paul (e.g., First Corinthians chapter 7, Ephesians chapter 5), the words aner and gune are translated as “husband” and “wife.” That they should be translated in this chapter as “husband” and “wife” is obvious when you look at the entirety of the letter. Without such an understanding, a prejudicial position is established from the very start for a reader.
Also, the word “head” (kephale) has a dual meaning throughout, referring to both physical and spiritual realities. When Paul states (11:3) that the head of Christ is God, he is also giving the reader a clue that he will not be speaking in spatial, vertical terms that smack of subordination (either of Christ to God, or women to men). Moreover, when Paul writes in 11:4, every husband who prays or prophesies with something over his head dishonors his head, the second “head” clearly refers to Christ. Jewish men prayed with a covered head and it was also a distinctive mark of pagan religious ceremonies. Paul may be reflecting a differentiation of Christian worship from both Jewish and pagan custom. Even in the modern Orthodox Christian Church, even though there are distinctive clerical head coverings (ecclesiastical mitres, hats and veils), when the clergy pray in the anaphora (the consecration), the head is always bare.
In respect to women, in 11:5, Paul stresses the Jewish custom that married women should cover their head. As pointed out by M.D. Hooker, “According to Jewish custom, a bride went bareheaded until her marriage, as a symbol of her freedom; when married, she wore a veil as a sign that she was under the authority of her husband” (Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor. XI. 10, New Testament Studies, 10, 1964, pg. 413). It is interesting to note that in these two verses – 4 and 5, Paul is both liberating and adhering to Jewish custom – loosing for the men and binding for the women. As he progresses in his argument in verses 8 and 9, he relies on the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman (Genesis 2:18-25) to create his logic. Thus, by the time we get to verse 10, we have a curious conclusion to his reasoning:
That is why it is appropriate for a wife to have authority over her head, on account of the Angels.
Διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους.
And this is where things get very interesting. Most translations take the word exousia (ἐξουσία) – whose basic meaning is “authority,” to mean a symbol of authority, i.e. a veil. A few manuscript traditions actually replace the word exousia with the word “veil” (Greek, kalumma). This probably means that the poor scribe who was copying the text was confused himself as to the meaning of exousia and made the well intentioned substitution in order to clear things up!
Indeed, most translations add the phrase “symbol of” to the word “authority” in verse 10, turning exousia into a physical object. Biblical authorities then go to great pains to justify adding a word to the text which is clearly not in the original. Even the implication of the word, “symbol,” is farfetched. However, an authority as esteemed as A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature theorizes that such veils were necessary to guard the women from “the amorous glances of certain angels,” (citation for exousia, pg. 278, par. 5). Such an interpretation seems disturbing at best and ridiculous at worst. Another strange explanation is that women must cover their heads “out of respect for the angels who are guardians of the order of creation (to which Paul alludes in vv. 8-9),” a theory mentioned in J.A. Fitzmeyer, A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of I Cor. XI. 10, New Testament Studies, 4, 1957, pg. 55.
These and other such speculations resort to invention and assumptions about Paul’s thinking that are simply not borne out by the original Greek. Given his appeal to the logical priority of men over women (the Genesis account) that Paul sets down in the verses 8 and 9, verse 10 should be seen as a counter-weight to male domination in marriage. It should be remembered that even though there is direct appeal to Jewish tradition (vss. 5,6), the audience is Gentile, and the context is the New Covenant, not the Old.
Now to read the text exactly as it was handed down! As noted above the basic meaning of exousia is “authority.” In this same Epistle (7:3,4), Paul discusses sexual expression within marriage in terms of “authority,” with the same word in its verbal form, exousiazo:
7:3) A husband must yield to his wife the loving affection that is proper and due, and likewise a wife to her husband. 7:4) A wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband. And in the same way, a husband does not have authority over his own body; rather it is his wife who rules.
A woman having authority over her head (11:10), her head being her husband, is an affirmation of the unity and equality of spouses in the marriage state. The word “over” (Greek epi) can have a relational as well as spatial meaning (see Smyth, Greek Grammar, Harvard University Press, 1984, par. 1689c. pg. 378, and Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Clarendon Press, 1996, A.III.1, page 621). Within the state of matrimony, such equilibrium is necessary if the couple is to achieve the salvific meaning of their union in Christ.
As for the Angels, this reference may not be as oblique as has been thought. Paul mines Psalm 8 for much theological material (as in 15:27-28 of this Epistle and in Hebrews 2:6-10). In this Psalm, the verses 5,6b: What is man that you remember him, or the son of man that you visit him? You have lowered him a little more than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor. You have set him over the works of your hands, are interpreted as a reference to Christ. In the Orthodox Church, this expression, “crowned with glory and honor,” has come to be associated with the actual moment of marriage, the moment the wedding crowns are placed on the bride and groom. Through marriage, men and women participate, commune in the saving ministry of Christ. Hence, there is a necessity for a woman to be in balance, in right relationship with her husband, and for the husband not to lord over his wife. (Paul knows only one Lord in the Church!) This view of marriage negates the antagonistic relationship described as a consequence of the Adamic Sin (the “Fall”) as described regarding woman in Genesis 3:16: your means shall be with (you shall be dependent upon) your husband and he shall lord (kurieusei) over you. The inequality which was a result of the “Fall” is overcome in Christ.
So why the angels? The restoration of the balance of men and women in marriage is part and parcel of the exalted position of humankind, which is now placed above the angels through Christ. “On account of the angels” is not so much a reason for the wife to have “authority over (spatially) her head,” (a physical head and thus the theory of a “symbol” or “veil”), but a consequence of the new reality of humankind in Christ. Her exercise of “authority over (relationally) her head” (her husband) – in particular through the exercise of sexuality – is a manifestation of the “crown of glory and honor” that humanity experiences in Christ, and the superiority of humanity over the angels, in and by Christ. In Christ, God became a human being, not an angel. The Corinthians must not forget their exalted position. As Paul reminds them elsewhere in this Epistle (6:3), they will even judge the angels.
The passage continues with an explicit affirmation of the equality and the equilibrium essential to marital life. (verse 11). In verse 12, the first reference is again to the creation story in Genesis 2:21-24, and the second is to the natural process of birth. It is truly wonderful to follow Paul’s argument. He is clearly trying to push these Gentile Christians in a direction constrained by the moral arguments of the Jewish Torah. Verses 13 and 14 are rhetorical questions that even suggest that gender identity may have been an issue in the early Church.
Finally, Paul does not insist on veils (11:15), as long as women appear like women, i.e., wear their hair long.
But, if a woman grows her hair long, it is a glory to her, because her mane of hair is given to her in place of a covering.
Γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ, δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται αὐτῇ.
Many translations render ἀντί (anti), in verse 15 as “for” or “as,” in order to make the meaning of verse 15 to be a confirmation that wives must veil their heads. I would describe such a translation as lazy and self-fulfilling, based on a false understanding of exousia in verse 10. A correct translation of anti would be “in place of,” “instead of,” or “as an equivalent to.”
A correct translation of this whole passage within the context of the entire Letter reveals that Paul does not ultimately insist that women wear veils, nor does he preach the submission of women to men. This is a cultural overlay that unfortunately continues to the present day. Therefore, it should not be remarkable that these are the very verses that form the basis for the custom of Christian women veiling their heads. In fact, there is no such insistence on any such particularly Jewish custom for this Gentile community in Corinth, or anywhere else. The final verse (16) provides a window into these cultural conflicts that the early Christian communities were facing. The confrontation of the new Jewish faith in Christ with pagan culture was difficult for sure, and morality was a chief concern. But we must look at these issues through their eyes, and not perpetuate notions of static custom and practice that were in fact dynamic and evolving.