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Perhaps it will be best to begin with a bit of personal background. I was raised by

my grandparents from the age of seven. My lifelong ecclesiastical affiliation, nurtured

throughout that time, and before, has been with non-institutional Churches of Christ.

Every Sunday, without fail, my grandmother has worn a head covering (usually a hat)

during worship, and has steadfastly refused to cut her hair out of a conviction that her

long hair is her “glory.” Other women that I knew as a child adhered to one or the other

– or both – of these practices out of similar convictions. Those convictions are based

upon a particular reading of 1 Corinthians 11, a reading that asks, and seeks an answer to,

the question: are women commanded by this passage to wear a head covering or not? For

my own part, I grew up seeing the practice of wearing a head covering as normal, even

normative (certainly not odd or antiquated), but as a male I never felt compelled to study

through the issue for myself.

The understanding described above, however, has never been unique to non-

institutional Churches of Christ. Among certain Protestant groups, most notably

Amish/Mennonite communities and Pentecostals, the question has been asked and

answered in the affirmative. Indeed, for much of Christian history, the wearing of a head

covering was assumed for women much more broadly: Roman Catholics, for example,

only declared the head covering optional in the years after Vatican II. The issue is still

raised anew on occasion. Consider a recent World Magazine article, in which Andrée

Seu writes,
“I’m having a revival. It’s been going on about three years, though it took
a while to notice, just as you don’t realize a radiator has warmed your
room till it’s been happening a while. My personal great awakening
involves ‘a more determined quest for Him who is the sole object of it all.’
This means trying ‘to discern what is pleasing to the Lord’ (Ephesians
5:10), even when it’s baffling. It means launching out and putting a
symbol of ‘glory’ on my head at church because I think 1 Corinthians 11
tells me to, even if I may turn out in the end to be wrong.”1

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Seu frames the question of whether or not to wear a head

covering for her Protestant Evangelical readers in terms of discipleship and of a desire to

follow the commands of God absolutely. In so doing, she attempts to break through the

motif of ‘confusion’ that dominates Evangelical writing on this passage, i.e. that the

passage is unclear, confusing or “troublesome.”2 Questions of clarity aside, Seu is a lone

voice asking what some would now see as the wrong question regarding 1 Corinthians

11. The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a marked shift in the

interpretation of this passage, as opportunities for women in Western society have rapidly

expanded both inside and outside of the Church. Interpreters now ask: what does this

passage say about the position of women in the Church? In light of this, there tends to be

a focus on the implications of women praying and prophesying (1 Corinthians 11.5) and

the apparently egalitarian impulse behind 11.11-12.3 Any discussion of the propriety of

wearing a head covering is mostly set aside as irrelevant or as tending toward the

enforcement of “rigid dress codes.”4

Andrée Seu, “A symbol of glory,” World Magazine, June 2, 2007, (accessed July 26, 2007).
For examples, see Linda Mercadante, From Hierarchy to Equality: A Comparison of Past and Present
Interpretations of 1 Cor 11:2-16 in Relation to the Changing Status of Women in Society, (Vancouver, BC:
G-M-H Books, 1978), 11-13; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International
Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 492.
“Troublesome”: Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters
of Paul, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 20.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptural references are to 1 Corinthians.
Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, 46.

This paper will present an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16, in which certain

problems of dress and personal appearance in the worship assemblies of the Corinthian

church are addressed. While paying attention to the more modern question of women’s

roles – a good and necessary question – it will also be attentive to the older question of

the head covering. Through close attention to the Corinthian context of the passage, and

to the still-raging philological and theological debates surrounding it, I hope to present a

coherent interpretation of this passage that will address both of those questions.5

II. Exegesis

Critical interpretations of this passage are as numerous as the number of scholars

who have chosen to write on it. Given the sheer number of possible interpretations for

each verse and the lack of agreement on even a handful of consensus interpretations, it

seems best to proceed verse by verse, pointing out the major arguments in each and

presenting my own conclusions at the end.

v.2 – The beginning and ending points of this pericope are clear: it begins with a

transitional verse (11.2) and ends at 11.16 as Paul shifts to another topic. In the context

of the letter as a whole, the passage opens a new section: chapters 8-10 have dealt with

the controversy over consumption of meat sacrificed to idols, now Paul turns to a variety

of questions related to worship.6 The shift can seem a bit abrupt: there is no indication, as

with other sections, of the source of Paul’s information. Factors such as this led a group

of scholars in the 1970s to argue that the entire passage was an example of post-Pauline

Linda Mercadante (Hierarchy, 13) notes: “…scholarly study and exegesis do not always guarantee
uniformity of answers, for even this work is influenced by and in part predicated upon one’s
presuppositions and one’s hermeneutical determinations, and unfortunately oftentimes falls short of an
open-hearted waiting upon God.”
In light of its placement in the letter, I believe that the proper context of Paul’s comments is in the public
gathered worship of the Corinthian church, not in private prayer meetings or the like. For a helpful
discussion of the setting, cf. Carroll D. Osburn, “1 Cor. 11:2-16 – Public or Private?” In Essays on Women
in Earliest Christianity, Vol. 2, ed. Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 307-317.

interpolation, but very few serious scholars still maintain this claim.7 I accept this

passage as Pauline and as original to the text of 1 Corinthians. As in other instances, Paul

begins with a captatio benevolentiae, a brief word of praise before he moves into more

critical statements.8 Rhetorically, this helps the following criticism to be better received:

“For blame which is mingled with praise and contains nothing insulting
but merely frankness of speech, and arouses not anger but a pricking of the
conscience and repentance, appears both kindly and healing.”9

What is most arresting at the outset, however, is Paul’s reference to the guarding of “the

traditions” (paradovsei~). Paul uses here (and elsewhere, cf. 11.23; 15.3) the

technical terminology of tradition borrowed from the rabbis – and current among the

philosophical schools – from his “handing on” (parevdwka) of the traditions to the

“guarding” or “maintaining” (katevcete) of them.10 Given that in other places in 1

Corinthians Paul uses this terminology to speak of things like the Eucharist and the

accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it might seem a bit startling that Paul sees what

he is about to discuss (inclusive of 11.2 – 14.40) as a part of the apostolic tradition. But

Paul’s concept of tradition is broad enough to include a number of things, both the central

The most prominent arguments for interpolation came from William O. Walker, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16
and Paul’s Views Regarding Women,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94 (1975): 94-110, and G.W. Trompf,
“On Attitudes Toward Women in Paul and Paulinist Literature: 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and Its Context,”
Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 196-215. Walker asserts that 11.2-16 is a post-Pauline interpolation
of three originally distinct pericopes that have been combined by an editor into a single passage. One of his
primary arguments, speaking to the question of the limits of the passage, is that if vv.3-16 are removed,
then vv. 2 and 17 fit together naturally. His arguments are subjected to an exacting (and devastating)
critique by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “The Non-Pauline Character of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16?” Journal of
Biblical Literature 95 (1976): 615-621. Cf. Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 78ff.
Cf. 1.4-9. C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament
Commentaries, ed. Henry Chadwick (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 247. Cf. Hans Conzelmann, 1
Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. James W. Leitch, Hermeneia
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 182 and n.15, and Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of
Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Tübingen:
Mohr-Siebeck, 1991), 260.
Plutarch, Moralia 810C, cited by Mitchell, Reconciliation, 260n. 410.
John P. Meier, “On the Veiling of Hermeneutics (1 Corinthians 11:2-16),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40
(1978): 215. Cf. Conzelmann, 182 and n.18.

teachings of the faith as well as “a variety of theological and ethical traditions including

creedal statements, witness lists, and ethical enjoinders.”11 This appeal to tradition looks

forward to v. 16 where Paul reiterates it with an appeal to the custom (sunhvqeian) of

the “churches of God.”

v. 3 – The third verse of chapter 11 lies at the center of contemporary debate over

this passage for the jarring – on a superficial reading, at any rate – claim that it makes as

well as the precise meaning of three key words that appear in this verse and through out

the rest of the passage: kefalhv, ajnhvr, and gunhv. I will begin by examining these

key words and then the meaning of the verse as a whole.

The word kefalhv is used nine times in 11.2-16. In its most generic meaning, it

refers to the head of a human or an animal.12 But it is clear that Paul is not always using

kefalhv literally in 11.2-16. Kefalhv can also carry certain metaphorical meanings.

Most prominent among these are “head” in the sense of “ruler or authority over” and

“head” in the sense of “source or origin.” Prior to the middle of the twentieth century,

commentators universally understood Paul to be speaking of “head” in the first sense.

This changed in the 1950s with the publication of several articles that argued for “head”

as “source” or “origin,” based upon the work of Bedale and Schlier.13 A number of

Witherington, Women, 84, citing Oscar Cullman, “Paradosis et kyrios, le problème de la tradition dans le
paulinisme,” Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses 30 (1950): 12-30. Cf. Meier, 215-216.
Mitchell, Reconciliation, 260n. 408, points out that paradovsei~ refers to the entire discussion of
worship practices in chapters 11-14.
BDAG, 3rd ed., 541 (s.v. kefalhv), and LSJ, 9th ed. rev., 945 (s.v. kefalhv). Clearly, a literal meaning
is intended in vv. 4, 5, 7, 10, although ambiguity remains concerning 4b and 5b. Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer,
“Another Look at KEFALH in 1 Corinthians 11.3,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989): 503.
Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of kefalhv in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 5
(1954): 211-215 suggests that the Hebrew vaOr lies behind the LXX use of kefalhv. Moreover, vaOr has
two meanings: the anatomical “head” and the metaphorical “first” or “beginning.” Bedale (213) asserts: “It
seems a fair inference that St. Paul, when using kefalhv in any but its literal sense, would have in mind
the enlarged and metaphorical uses of the term ‘head’ familiar to him from the Old Testament…
Consequently, in St. Paul’s usage, kefalhv may very well approximate in meaning to ajrchv.”
According to Bedale, kefalhv as “ruler” or “chief” is rare and thus not tenable in Pauline usage. Cf H.
Schlier, “kefalhv, ajnakefalaiovomai” TDNT 3:679-680.

commentators picked up on their work as a way to rescue Paul from charges of male

chauvinism and to argue for a feminist reading of 11.3 that allowed for greater

participation of women in the life of the Church.14 There were those, also, who saw this

as an anachronistic reading of Paul, who simply could not be made to be a supporter of

twentieth century efforts at women’s liberation.15 The heat of the debate has lessened in

the 1980s and 1990s as corrections in interpreting the evidence have been made.

Fitzmyer has decisively shown that kefalhv can in fact imply “leadership” or

“authority,” even as it also can, on occasion, carry the meaning “source” or “origin.”16

Moreover, 11.7-9 do not make sense if kefalhv does not carry with it some notion of

priority.17 Ben Witherington, reflecting on this evidence, notes,

“The real issue here is whether or not the meaning “source,” which is also
attested for kephalē, is likely here in 1 Cor. 11:2-16. V. 8 may suggest
such a translation, but then the question becomes: Is Paul really also
arguing that Christ’s source is God? This is possible, but since the context
has to do with authority, authorization, and order in worship it would seem
more probable that kephalē has the metaphorical sense demonstrated by

Cf. Barrett, 248-249; Robin Scroggs, “Paul and the Eschatological Woman,” Journal of the American
Academy of Religion 42 (1974): 298n. 41; Morna D. Hooker, “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of
1 Cor. XI. 10,” New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 410-411; Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic in
1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42 (1980): 491-493. Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and
Logic,” 491, goes so far as to say that kefalhv can never be taken to imply “supremacy” or “authority.”
From a more liberal perspective, cf. Elaine Pagels, “Paul and Women: A Response to Recent
Discussion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 42 (1974): 538-549, and D.R. MacDonald,
There is no Male and Female: The Fate of a Dominical Saying in Paul and Gnosticism, Harvard
Dissertations in Religion 20 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 72ff. From a more conservative
perspective, that frankly argues for gender hierarchy, cf. Bruce K. Waltke, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16: An
Interpretation,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): 46-57.
Fitzmyer, “Another Look,” 510-511. Cf. Mark C. Black, “1 Cor. 11:2-16 – A Re-investigation,” in
Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Vol. 1, ed. Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993),
Joël Delobel, “1 Cor 11,2-16: Towards a Coherent Interpretation,” in L’Apôtre Paul: Personnalité, style
et conception du ministère, ed. A. VanHoye (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1986), 378: “As far as the
relationship between man and woman is concerned, it is our impression – as we will argue below – that vv.
7-9 confirm this idea of woman’s proper second place, which does not necessarily involve her inferiority.”
Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2
Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 237-238.

For me, this consideration is decisive. As I further develop my understanding of this

passage, I will assume that kefalhv is intended here to mean “head” or “authority.”

Also contested in this passage is the correct meaning of the words ajnhvr and

gunhv. Should they be translated simply as “man” and “woman,” respectively, or as

“husband” and “wife?” As Black points out, the problem is most easily seen when one

attempts to read through the entire passage using either the husband/wife pair or the

man/woman pair.19 In light of the sense problems that arise when one attempts to use the

husband/wife pair, it seems best to translate the words as “man” and “woman.”20

Paul’s first argument regarding the head attire of men and women is based upon

the order of creation. He states a proposition in v. 3 that he will again pick up and

elaborates upon in vv.7-12, diverted only by his statement of the problem and his

commanded correction in vv.4-6: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is

Christ, the head of woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” A few important

points should be noted before moving on. First, Paul is not establishing a strict hierarchy

here; the order given in v. 3 (Christ-man, man-woman, God-Christ) does not allow for

that.21 Thus, the passage cannot be taken to enforce abject subordination, either of

woman to man (as vv. 11-12 will show) or Christologically. Second, what is taught, it

seems, is priority. In each of these pairs, there is a kefalhv and there is one who second

to the kefalhv.22 As Delobel points out,

“At the same time, it is made clear from v. 3a and 3c that it is not a shame
to have a kefalhv: that Christ is every man’s kefalhv and that God is
Black, “Re-investigation,” 199-200.
E.g. v. 3 would indicate that Christ is only the head of every husband; v. 12 would assert that the
husband is born from the wife. Confusingly, some contemporary translations – most notably the NRSV –
use husband/wife in v. 3 and man/woman in the rest of the passage.
Contra Conzelmann, 183-184, and Waltke, 48-49.
This portion of my discussion is indebted to Delobel, 378-380. Delobel rightly observes that other
explanations, like that of Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic,” 493-494, are too clever by half.

Christ’s kefalhv cannot possibly have a negative meaning whatsoever.
On the contrary, there is nothing negative then in woman’s having man as
her kefalhv.”23
vv.4-6 – In vv. 4-6, Paul gives the first clues as to what the situation is at Corinth

that he is combating:

“Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered (kata;

kefalh`~ e[cwn, lit. “having downwards from the head”) disgraces his
head. And every woman praying or prophesying with an uncovered head
disgraces her head. For it is one and the same thing for her to be shaven.
If a woman does not cover herself, let her also be shorn. But if it is a
shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her cover herself.”

Several questions arise when considering this text: what is the background for Paul’s

instructions (i.e. what situation at Corinth has given rise to them), what is meant by

covered and uncovered, and is Paul even talking about a head covering at all (or, could he

be referring to one’s hair as a covering, cf. v. 15)? I will take them in reverse order.

First, it has been suggested that 11.2-16 is not talking about head coverings at all,

but rather is referring to either the style or length of one’s hair.24 Several arguments are

adduced to support this: a) the word kavlumma (“veil, head covering”) never appears

in this passage25, b) the phrase kata; kefalh`~ e[cwn is an awkward way of speaking

of a head covering and, at any rate, katav construed with the genitive almost always

indicates motion against something,26 c) vv. 14-15 make no sense if vv. 4-6 are speaking

of a veil or head covering.27 Admittedly, kavlumma never appears in this text, but to
Ibid., 379.
Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic,” 483-491; Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul:
Selected Issues, 2d ed., rev. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 95; Alan Padgett, “Paul on Women in the
Church: The Contradictions of Coiffure in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16,” Journal for the Study of the New
Testament 20 (1984): 70; Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for
Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 185; David E. Blattenberger III, Rethinking 1
Corinthians 11:2-16 Through Archaeological and Moral-Rhetorical Analysis, Studies in the Bible and
Early Christianity 36 (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), passim.
Padgett, 70, although it should be noted that kavlumma is given as a gloss for ejxousivan at 11.10
by a number of patristic witnesses. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New
Testament, 2d ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 495.
Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic,” 484.

insist upon this as decisive is to ignore a number of related words that do appear, that

serve to explicate less than clear phrases such as the one in v. 4.28 Moreover, a number of

examples from the writings of Plutarch demonstrate a wide variety of ways to refer to

covered and uncovered heads, all without ever using kavlumma.29 Finally, if v. 14,

which speaks of long hair is to be taken as the source for a proper translation of v. 4 (i.e.

as also speaking of long hair, not of a covering), then v. 5 must necessarily be seen as

referring to short hair, a rendering that makes no sense.30

The question of the cultural context has been alternately debated and ignored

during the past forty years of scholarship on this passage. Is Paul’s (and that of the

Corinthian Christians) reference point a Jewish, Greek or Roman practice? Some have

suggested that Paul is attempting to import a Jewish practice into a Greek setting.31 This

is unlikely, however, given Paul’s attitude toward the imposition of other Jewish

practices in predominantly Gentile congregations. Others have said that a cultural

context for the passage is impossible to reconstruct and is irrelevant in any case.32 Recent

scholarship, beginning with Richard Oster’s landmark 1988 article, has refused to accept

this conclusion, seeking out a specifically Roman (and urban) context for the practice.33
Delobel, 372, points out that the usage of katav in v. 4 is clearly exceptional and that the interpretive
options cannot be limited to one possible meaning. He goes on to point out that v. 7 (oujk ojfeivlei
katakaluvptesqai th;n kefalhvn) provides in-context clarification of what is being suggested by
kata; kefalh`~ e[cwn.
Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” New
Testament Studies 34 (1988): 486 and n.1. At one point, Plutarch uses the exact same phrase (kata;
kefalh`~) as 1 Corinthians 11.4 to speak of a head covering (Plut., Mor. 200F).
Delobel, 372.
Conzelmann, 184-185; Annie Jaubert, “Le Voile des Femmes (I Cor. XI. 2-16),” New Testament Studies
18 (1971-72): 424-427.
Cf. Fee, 507-508.
Beginning with Oster, this area of investigation has been pushed forward by articles from D.W.J. Gill,
“The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41
(1990): 245-260; Cynthia L. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman
Corinth,” Biblical Archaeologist 51 (1988): 99-115. Also important are two book-length studies from
Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids,
MI: Eerdmans, 2001), esp. ch. 6, and Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and
the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

The examination of Roman customs of dress and gender relations has brought clarity to a

number of disputed points in this passage. First, it has been made absolutely clear that

Paul is not only addressing women, but also has instructions for men. The idea that

Paul’s statements about men are merely a foil for what he has to say to women can no

longer be maintained.34 Second, it has uncovered what kind of head covering is being

discussed: Paul is referring to the Roman practice of capite velato, whereby the toga or

stole of the person is pulled up over the back of the head in hood-like fashion, not to a

face-covering veil that covered the entire head, as in Palestine.35 Third, Oster and others,

observing the longstanding and tenacious Roman tendency to connect dress with self-

identity, have clarified why many Corinthian Christian men found it difficult to

relinquish the practice of covering their heads in a liturgical setting.36 Finally, Graeco-

Roman evidence can be adduced to explain Paul’s statements about shaven and shorn

hair (vv. 5b-6). Most often, shaven and shorn hair were seen as marks of mourning,

humiliation or as the mark of an adulteress.37

vv. 7-9 – Following specific instructions to both men and women regarding the

covering of their heads, Paul pursues the argument that he began in v. 3, based upon the

order of creation. His goal here is to give reasons for the judgments that he has just

handed down (i.e. that women are to be covered, men uncovered, in worship). He begins

with man, referring to him as the eijkw;n kai; dovxa qeou`, “the image and glory of

God,” and continues with woman, who is the dovxa ajndrov~, “the glory of man.”

This is a clear reference to the creation narratives of Genesis 1-3, although it mixes, to a

Conzelmann, 184n. 35, suggests that “it is only the woman’s conduct that is at issue here.” Cf. Oster,
Oster, 496.
Ibid., 493-494.
Gill, 256, citing Plut. Quaest. Rom. 267B and Demonassa of Cyprus, Disc. 64.2-3.

certain degree, the ideas of Gen 1.26-27 and Gen 2.21-23. Man is said to be the

eijkwvn of God; woman, however, is not described as the eijkwvn of God, but it is

important to observe that the emphasis in this statement is upon dovxa, not eijkwvn.38

Given the statements of Gen 1.26-27, to which Paul is alluding, it is unlikely that Paul

would assert that woman was not created as an eijkwvn of God; again, his emphasis is

upon glory. Woman is man’s glory because she came from man (ejx ajndrov~) in a

process that Paul clearly understands to be the work of God. In 11.9, Paul turns to the

reason for woman’s creation: she was created “for the sake of man” (NRSV), to be his

helper and partner (Gen 2.18).39

v.10 – All of this leads up to v.10, perhaps the most debated verse in this passage.

The meaning of certain key words (specifically, ejxousivan and ajggevlou~) in this

verse is disputed. As I have done previously, I will attempt to clarify the meaning of

those words and will then present an interpretation of the verse that links back to the

immediately preceding verses.

Traditionally, Paul’s use of ejxousiva has been interpreted to mean the

authority of the man over the woman, with the woman’s concomitant submission,

recognizing the veil as the symbol of that submission to the man’s authority.40 In the

twentieth century, a number of other interpretations have been advanced. There is the

suggestion that the word for veil and the word for authority share a similar root in

Aramaic (flv). Others have suggested that ejxousiva really signifies the honor and

dignity that a covering bestows. Still others have given the meaning of “control” to

Black, 207-208.
It is perhaps important to remind ourselves at this point that Paul is not advocating abject subordination
of women to men, but is establishing priority in support of his argument for the head covering.
Mercadante, 31, citing John Calvin’s 1546 commentary on 1 Corinthians. Also, see above n.25.

ejxousiva, suggesting that the woman exercises control over her rebellious head by

means of a head covering.41 By the middle of the last century, it was noticed that all of

these suggestions either stretch the natural meaning of the word or ignore the way that

Paul uses the term elsewhere in 1 Corinthians and in his other writings. Simply put,

ejxousiva stands for the right, the power, that one has to do something himself or

herself.42 It is the one word that the Corinthian Christians use repeatedly to refer to their

rights and privileges (cf. 6.12, 8.9). It carries an active sense and must be interpreted in a

way that reflects that.

The phrase “because of the angels” (dia; tou;~ ajggevlou~) has also been a

source of contention among interpreters of this verse. What sort of ajggevlo~ is Paul

referring to? A spiritual being or a simple human messenger? The latter option has been

argued for, off and on, since the middle of the nineteenth century.43 Perhaps the strongest

argument against such an understanding is that Paul never uses the term in that way.44

Most interpreters, however, have seen these ajggevloi as spiritual beings. But, why

then should women cover their heads because of the angels? Two main theories

dominate scholarly literature from the twentieth century: a) the angels are evil and will

lust after the women unless they cover their heads;45 b) the angels are good and are

concerned for the created order. Paul believed that angels were concerned for and

involved with human affairs: they watched what happened on the earth (4.9), they were
All of these theories are discussed and refuted by Hooker, “Authority,” 413-414.
BDAG, 3rd ed., 352-353 (s.v. ejxousiva).
Cf. Padgett, 81-82, who unconvincingly argues for female messengers, such as Priscilla or Phoebe.
Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, 89, and After Paul, 136-137, makes a much stronger case, if one accepts his
entire reconstruction of events at Corinth, which I am hesitant to do at this point.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of I Cor. XI. 10,” New Testament
Studies 4 (1957-58): 53.
This suggestion is actually as old as the late second century, having been first suggested by Tertullian
(De virginibus velandis 7), and is based on Gen 6.1-4. Hooker, “Authority,” 412, points out that nowhere
in the NT are angels thought of as evil and, furthermore, what are evil angels doing participating in the
worship of God?

involved in mediating the Torah to Israel (Galatians 3.19), and they were present at

public worship of God.46 Uncovered women show disrespect to the angels by disrupting

the created order that they work to maintain.47

To sum up, Paul now comes to the conclusion of his argument from creation: “On

account of this, a woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels.”

The authority spoken of in 11.10 is the woman’s authority to pray and to prophesy, given

to her by God, as long as her head is covered to reflect the order of creation.48 Yet, while

Paul believes that the order of creation is to be maintained, he does not believe that this

entails the silence or disenfranchisement of women in the gathered worship assembly.

VV. 11-12 clarify exactly this point: while there is an order in creation – each entity has

its own kefalhv – men and women should remember that they are absolutely equal in

the sight of God.49

v. 13 – Leaving behind the argument from the order of creation, Paul now turns to

a consideration of decorum: “Is it fitting (prevpon) for an uncovered woman to pray to

God?” The expected answer to this rhetorical question is “No” and that is the answer that

Paul expects the Corinthian Christians to give.50 But why does Paul use this argument

here? Many exegetes have faulted Paul for using such a variety of arguments (i.e. from

the created order, from decorum, from nature, from custom). 11.13-16 has received less

attention from interpreters because, it appears, they conceive of Paul as flailing about

Cf. 1 Tim 5.21, Rev 1.20. Black, 210; Fitzmyer, “Qumran,” 55.
Fitzmyer’s suggestion (“Qumran,” 55), drawing on evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that physical
defects in worshippers upset the angels seems to contradict the spirit of Paul.
This is the position of Hooker, 415-416; Barrett, 254-255; Scroggs, “Eschatological Woman,” 301-302;
Witherington, 88.
BDF 449.2 treats plhvn as an adversative conjunction, translating it as “only, in any case:” “…in Paul,
used to conclude a discussion and emphasize what is essential.”
Contra Padgett, 82, vv. 13 and 14 are rhetorical questions, not merely statements.

desperately looking for convincing arguments – and failing to come up with any.51 But

this approach ignores two important considerations. First, as will be further discussed

below, there appear to be – as with every other issue that Paul addresses in this letter –

factions in the Corinthian church regarding the head covering.52 While the teachings of

each faction cannot be precisely reproduced from the text, it seems reasonable to suppose

that Paul deploys a variety of arguments in order to respond to whatever claims were

being made by the Corinthians themselves. Second, some exegetes will fatuously point

out that the arguments in 11.13-16 simply are not all that convincing to them.53 This

overlooks the point that 1 Corinthians was not written to these interpreters. Doubtless,

Paul would have used different arguments to convince a group of twentieth century

academics than he does to convince his Corinthian audience! It should be assumed that,

however much trouble moderns have in ferreting out the details of this text, Paul thought

that his immediate audience would understand what he had written and would feel the

force of his arguments.

vv. 14-15 – Paul now deploys an argument from “nature” (fuvsi~). How would

Paul have understood this concept? Barrett suggests that nature is a

“…correspondence with things as they are found truly to be, without

artificial change…The idea is not an abstruse theological one; Paul is
thinking of the natural world as God made it, rather than (in the Stoic
manner) of Nature as a quasi-divine hypostasis.”54

Of first importance for the modern reader is the fact that Paul’s Hellenistic conception of

nature is not a modern, post-Enlightenment one. Therefore, objections based upon

Note, for example, Meier, “Veiling,” 222-223.
Mitchell, Reconciliation, 262.
Keener, 31.
Barrett, 256. While there is some overlap between Paul’s concept of nature and Stoic and Epicurean
concepts (for texts, v. Keener, 42-43 and the references cited there), they are not simply the same thing.
Paul, as a Diaspora Jew with rabbinical training, could hardly be expected to adhere to all of the nuances of
the concept of fuvsi~ as it was discussed in the philosophical schools (contra Keener, 42).

scientific observation about hair length are quite beside the point. Given the definition

above, however, it is easy to see that Paul is concerned with the length of hair because it

is a reflection of the way that God created men and women – with differences that should

be maintained. Thus, the Corinthian men should reject long hair and the women should

value long hair as their “glory.” Glory (dovxa) is the result, the reward, for being what

God meant for her to be.55

Paul goes on to argue for a causal connection between “her hair [having] been

given to her as a mantle (ajnti; peribolaivou)” and the reception of glory. This

statement has troubled many interpreters, mostly over how understand the phrase ajnti;

peribolaivou. A peribovlaion is “an article of clothing that covers most of the

body.”56 It does not refer to a “wrapping” of the hair around the head.57 Likewise, the

verse cannot refer to the woman’s long hair as a substitute for a head covering; this would

be to make nonsense of the previous thirteen verses. Instead, Paul is making the

argument that, because the woman has (or should have) long hair, it is natural that a

comparable long garment should serve as the head covering.58

v. 16 – Paul closes the argument by appealing, as at the beginning, to custom and

tradition. There has been some discussion about what the “custom” (sunhvqeian)

refers to: is it a custom of contentiousness or a custom of women praying and

prophesying with uncovered heads? It would hardly be necessary to say that the Apostles

have no custom of contentiousness, therefore the reference must be to the second

Ibid., 257.
BDAG, 3rd ed., 800 (s.v. peribovlaion) and LSJ, 9th ed., rev., 1369 (s.v. peribolavdion). Cf.
Moulton and Milligan, 505.
Contra Thompson, “Hairstyles,” 112, who, at any rate, provides no literary evidence for the assertion.
As seen above (pg. 10), the Roman practice of worshipping capite velato was enabled by long garments
that could be pulled up over the back of the head to the ears, leaving the face unobstructed.

option.59 As Mitchell points out, Paul is concerned with factionalism in the Corinthian

church and with healing the rift that has developed over this issue, as well as the other

issues that Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians. His use of the word “contentious”

(filovneiko~), a standard term in deliberative rhetoric to describe factionalism, helps

the modern reader to grasp this point.60 Because he is concerned with the harmony and

unity of the Corinthian church, a group of people who are notorious for believing that

they have achieved spiritual maturity and have “all knowledge” (13.1), Paul closes with

the observation that his teaching on the head covering is adhered to by all of “the

churches of God.” Most scholars have failed to notice, it seems to me, that an appeal to

the practice of the Church Universal is not that unusual for Paul. In this letter alone,

11.16 is the third time (cf. 1.2, 4.17) that he has done it. Perhaps the stumbling-block lies

with what he chooses to include under the heading of apostolic tradition and the custom

of all the churches of God. His appeals, in each case, are meant to puncture the pride of

the Corinthians and to remind all sides in the dispute that they are no better than anyone


III. Meaning

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, is dealing with disagreements among the

Corinthian Christians over head coverings for men and women. It appears that there are

factions in the Corinthian church over this question, although the text gives little direct

insight into the nature of the argument within the congregation. Paul uses a fivefold

Barrett, 258.
Mitchell, Reconciliation, 262n. 418, notes that “the contentiousness of which Paul writes is not that of the
Corinthians against his teaching, but the Corinthians against one another. This then frees one to recognize
more than one Corinthian position on head wear in 11:2-16, and not a uniform ‘Corinthian position’ which
Paul combats.” It could also be possible that Paul’s use of pa`~ ajnhvr and pa`sa gunhv (vv.4-5) is
significant: Paul maybe exhorting “every” man and woman to follow his instructions because there are
some who are not.

argument to make his case for men worshipping uncovered and women worshipping

covered. First, there is the argument from tradition: Paul sees the instructions regarding

worship (11.2-14.40) that he is about to give as part of the apostolic tradition.61 Out of

respect for those apostles, they should be followed. Second, there follows an argument

from the order of creation. This is the lengthiest part of Paul’s discussion, relying on

citations from the Genesis creation narratives to establish the priority – but not the

dominance – of man over woman. An additional subsection of this argument is built

upon glory and upon the question of recipient of the glory of man and of the woman.

Taken together, the arguments based on the order of creation and glory lead Paul to the

conclusion that woman must “have authority on her head.” The plain meaning of

ejxousiva in Paul is the active authority that one possesses in order to do something.

That something, as the beginning of the text suggests, is the ability to pray and to

prophesy in the gathered worship of the church. Paul then asserts another reason for the

necessity of women worshipping with covered heads: the angels, who are concerned for

the created order and who participate and assist in public worship, are not to be offended.

This is followed by some moderation on the part of Paul (vv. 11-12) who is desirous that

the strongly worded arguments of vv.3, 7-9 not be construed in such a way that would

cause the Corinthian men to believe that they are superior to the women. Verses 13

through 16 follow with a new set of arguments – from decorum (“is it fitting?”), from

nature, and from the custom of “the churches of God.”

IV. Conclusion

To sum up, two important points should be made. First, it cannot be argued from

this passage that Paul intends the silence and non-participation of women in the gathered
Presumably the traditions of the Twelve, received from Jesus.

worship of the church. On the contrary, Paul assumes their participation and sets out to

regulate it and to bring it into conformity with God’s intention for the created order. This

reality is often ignored, however, by those who, in reading this passage, are stuck on a

particular reading of v. 3 and never move forward to vv. 4 and 5. This has assuredly been

the case in the fellowship of churches in which I was raised – among both those who

argue for the wearing of a head covering and those who do not.

Second, there remains Paul’s point that men should worship God with their heads

uncovered and women should worship with their heads covered. For Paul, particularly as

it regards a woman’s covered head, this seems to be a prerequisite for participation in

worship. While there are points in the intervening argument that can be confusing and

opaque to the modern reader, the force of vv. 2 and 16 are clear enough: Paul is handing

on to the Corinthian Christians a part of the tradition that is practiced everywhere in all of

the churches. In light of this, appeals to the cultural norms of first century Corinth, while

illuminating, are beside the point. A Christian man’s head should be uncovered in

worship; a Christian woman’s head should be covered. As I read and researched in

preparation to write this paper, the blasé attitude toward this very point among the vast

majority of the writers that I read, was puzzling to me. Granted, most of them were not

concerned with contemporary applications of this passage, simply with understanding its

meaning in a first-century context. Moreover, the covering has for so long been

associated with the subjection of women in the home and in the Church, that very few

writers may have had the stomach to argue for it as a continuing practice. Nevertheless,

Paul’s line of reasoning is clear on this point: the head covering is a universal practice

that cannot be set aside with changing hair fashions or changing ideas about the place of

women in the Church.

“If a gospel preacher preaches on the plan of salvation you will hear
church members saying sectarians will have to have help to misunderstand
that. If so they can always find that help in their preacher. So it is with
the above scripture. I do not believe that there is an honest woman on
earth today, who can read what Paul said about her head covering, in the
above scripture and misunderstand it, without help from gospel
preachers…I am not a pessimist, but it is distressing to me to see the
tendency in the church today to follow the fads, fancies, and customs of
the age, irrespective of what God says.”62

John T. Lewis, The Posture in Prayer and Covered and Uncovered Heads in Worship (Birmingham, AL:
By the Author, 1947), 14.