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Note of the Day – November 16 (1 Cor 11:10)

1 Corinthians 1:10

Today’s note is a supplement to the discussion of 1 Cor 11:2-16 in the current series on Women in the Church (Part 1). This verse has been one of the most difficult to interpret of the entire letter, largely due to the way Paul brings together several key words and phrases in such a short and concise statement. The last phrase has been especially problematic. Here is the verse in the original Greek, along with a literal (glossed) translation:

dia\ tou=to o)fei/lei h( gunh\ e)cousi/an e&xein e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$ dia\ tou=$ a&ggelou/$
“Through [i.e. because of] this the woman ought to hold (the) authority upon her head, through [i.e. because of] the (heavenly) Messengers”

Each element of the verse will be examined:

dia\ tou=to (“through this”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) expresses the reason or purpose, i.e. “because of this, for this reason”. It refers back to Paul’s line of argument in vv. 7-9.

o)fei/lei h( gunh/ (“the woman ought”)—the verb o)fei/lw refers to an obligation or debt, i.e. something one owes, but is often used in the general sense “ought (to do something)”. As I discussed in Part 1, gunh/ (“woman”) can mean specifically “wife”, just as a)nh/r (“man”) can mean “husband”. Probably Paul assumes the marriage relationship throughout the passage, though he does not limit the man-woman relationship strictly to this. Here the definite article (“the woman”) should be understood as referring to the woman who is acting in the role of speaker/prophet in the worship meeting, not necessarily to women in general.

e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold [the] authority”)—the noun e)cousi/a is rather difficult to translate literally into English; it has the basic meaning of ability, i.e. the ability coming from a person to do something, though occasionally in the sense of a right or permission granted by a higher power. The verb e&xw can mean “to have”, generally, but more concretely “to hold“. The expression in context is, “to hold authority upon the head [e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$]”—i.e., by way of the symbolic head-covering. There has been considerable debate regarding the precise meaning and force of e)cousi/a here; the word has been interpreted a number of different ways, each of which affects the understanding of the overall context of Paul’s statement:

  • To be under the authority of the man (i.e. sign of submission/subordination), according to the hierarchical chain of relation in vv. 3, 7 (cf. also Eph 4:22-24); possibly meaning specifically “under the authority of her husband”.
  • To have (protective) power against the Angels (cf. below), where the head-covering has a kind of ritual/magic purpose.
  • To have the power/protection (of the Angels)
  • To have the authority to speak in the worship meeting; or, perhaps, more precisely
  • To have the authority to speak as a prophet, etc.
  • To be under the control/authority of God’s created order
  • To have authority/control of her own head (or person), i.e. personal autonomy

In several versions (Bohairic Coptic, etc) and writings of the Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc), much of the interpretive difficulty has been eliminated by reading “covering, veil” (ka/lumma) instead of e)cousi/a. Several scholars have suggested that this gloss indicates that e)cousi/a may reflect the underlying Aramaic hynwflv (for a veil or headcovering) since the root flv can also mean “have power (over)” (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 37 ff [citing G. Kittel]).

dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$ (“through the Messengers”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) is parallel to its use in the first phrase (cf. above). The “Messengers” certainly refer to heavenly Messengers or “Angels”; however, the reference appears so abruptly, apparently unrelated to the overall context of vv. 2-16, that it has caused commentators considerable difficulty over the years. The most commonly accepted interpretations are:

  • It is a reference to the Jewish tradition (Gen 6:1-4, etc) of the Angels who lusted after human women—the covering hides the woman from the sight of lustful Angels (and/or men)
  • It refers to ‘guardian’ Angels who protect the women, the head-covering being a (magical) symbol of this protection against evil (including the lust of men)
  • Just as the Angels (in heaven) are pure and holy, so should the women (who participate in the worship service) be pure, as symbolized by wearing the head-covering
  • It indicates that Angels observe (cf. 1 Cor 4:9) and/or participate in the worship meeting, so everything ought to be done decently and in order
  • The Angels are guardians of the created order, which is reflected by the gender-distinction and use of the head-covering

In my view, based on the context of the passage (esp. vv. 7-12), only the last interpretation is likely to be correct. This can be demonstrated, I think, rather clearly, when one observes the chiastic structure of vv. 7-12 as a whole. First, consider the precise parallelism of verse 10:

  • “through this” (dia\ tou=to)—i.e. through (or because of) the order of creation established by God (vv. 7-9)
    —”the woman ought to hold (the) authority upon the head”
  • “through the Messengers” (dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$), i.e. the Angels as guardians of the created order (implied)

Now note the structure of vv. 7-12 (with the statement of v. 10 at the center):

I leave open the possibility that the Angels may represent the new created order (in Christ), which is parallel to (but not identical with) the original order of Creation. In several places in his letters, Paul refers to believers in Christ as a “new creation”—2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; also Rom 8:19-23; Col 3:10 (Eph 4:24), and cf. Eph 2:15. Moreover, a “new age” has come in Christ, with the old having passed away (2 Cor 3:6ff; 5:17, etc). One is reminded of Jesus’ teaching regarding life for the righteous (believers) in heaven, where the sexual distinctions no longer have the same meaning—they will be like the Angels (Mark 12:25 par; Lk 20:36). It is possible that Paul understood believers to have something of this ‘Angelic’ status, in Christ and through the Spirit, even in this life (cf. 1 Cor 6:3; 13:1). In Galatians 3:28 (to be discussed in Part 3 of this series), Paul seems to declare that sexual differences no longer have any fundamental meaning for believers in Christ. Yet clearly, he did not teach that gender distinctions should be abolished in practice, either in the organized Community or in society at large, just as he did not call for the abolition of slavery (as a social institution). However, I do think it likely that he viewed the corporate worship of believers (the body of Christ) as reflecting a new order of creation—that is, the (old) created order transformed and perfected through union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.

A proper understanding of the statement in verse 10 demands that we devote a little more attention to the specific expression e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”), as it is central (cf. above) to an interpretation of the passage as a whole. This will be done in the next daily note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, “A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of 1 Cor. 11:10” as reprinted in Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. J. Murphy O’Connor and James H. Charlesworth (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1968, 1990), pp. 31-47. Originally presented in the journal New Testament Studies 4 (1957-58), pp. 48-58.

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