I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out in March. I cover Gen 1, 2, 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 11 and 14, Eph 5, 1 Tim 2.
Here is the section on 1 Cor 11. Any comments welcomed.
This passage is often seen as a key one in the discussion about gender relations because of Paul’s use of the idea of ‘head’, and applying this to relations within the Godhead as well as human relations. We need to use this with some caution, since there is much that is unclear about it. C F D Moule said that its problems ‘still await a really convincing explanation’ (Moule, 1961, p 65); G B Caird commented that ‘It can hardly be said that the passage has yet surrendered its secret’ (1972 p 278) and Wayne Meeks called it ‘one of the most obscure passages in the Pauline letters’ (Meeks, 1972, p 38).
Some have argued that this passage is not genuinely Pauline, but in fact the language, style and concerns fit well with the rest of 1 Corinthians. The real challenge is that ‘language can only be understood from content and context. The former we have. The latter is irrevocably lost’ (Cotterell and Turner, 1989, p 317). Paul is clearly working with an understanding of the body quite different from ours today, so Troy Martin has argued that, since hair was commonly thought to store sperm in first century anatomy, there is a symmetry between men’s testicles and women’s hair, so the latter needs covering for modesty.
But the main debate centres on the word ‘head’ (kephale). Paul uses the word metaphorically in v 3, but literally in relation to that part of the body in the rest of the passage. The ‘traditional’ reading of this passage has understood ‘head’ here to mean ‘in a position of authority over’, whilst recent commentators have argued for the meaning ‘source’ or ‘origin’ as in the head of a river. There are some key issues to note.
- In English, ‘authority’ is the predominant figurative meaning of ‘head’, and it is hard for us to think past this. But it was not the case in ancient Greek, and in particular in the NT and Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, ‘LXX’) read by Paul and the first Christians. The Hebrew OT uses rosh (‘head’) figuratively as ‘leader’ 171 times, but the LXX only uses kephale to translate this 6 times. For the other 165 occurrences, LXX uses a non-figurative term, whilst it uses kephale 226 times to mean the part of the body (Payne, 2009, p 119). In other words, kephale is not the usual term for ‘head’ as in ‘authority over’.
- Wayne Grudem has tried to demonstrate that the contemporary meaning of kephale in wider Greek literature is ‘authority’ by considering 2,336 examples (!). But closer scrutiny shows that this is not the case, and that the use of kephale in a personal sense for leader first arises in the few instances in the LXX, and come from the Hebrew influence of rosh (Payne, 2009, p 120).
- Paul elsewhere clearly uses kephale in terms of ‘origin’ or ‘source’ in Eph 4.15–16 and in Col 2.19, where he is seen as the source of growth and maturity. In Col 1.18 being ‘head’ is put in parallel with being the beginning (of creation?) and the firstborn from the dead. In Eph 1.22 and Col 2.10 he is head ‘over all things’ in most English translations. But the Greek cannot mean this, despite its following on from placing all things under his feet; he is head huper all things, and huper cannot mean ‘over’ in the sense of authority or position (for which Greek has another word, epi (Luke 19.14, 21), but is usually translated ‘more than’ or ‘beyond’.
- When Paul wants to list things in order of authority or importance, he does this in a logical order, as for instance in 1 Cor 12.28. But, as Payne (2009, p 129) points out, the list in 1 Cor 11.3 does have an order when kephale is understood as ‘origin’. Man has his origin in Christ’s work of creation; the woman has her origin (in Gen 2) in the man; Christ had his origin in the incarnation from the Godhead. It is also interesting to note that, whereas Paul emphasizes the creation origin of woman with man in v 8 (to make a point against women’s independence?), he then specifically goes on to emphasize mutuality of origin in v 12.
Thiselton (2000, p 820) comments that deciding the meaning of this word on lexical grounds alone is not tenable, but concludes that, in the light of Paul’s use in this passage, kephale does not ‘denote a relation of subordination or authority over.’ This makes sense when we reflect on the purpose of this whole passage: it is to enable women freely to ‘pray and prophesy’ in the assembly (vv 5, 13) without bringing the community into disrepute. Paul saw the ministry of prophecy as foundational (1 Cor 12.28, ahead of teaching), and in the early church it clearly carried authority; when prophets spoke, the people acted (see the role of Agabus in Acts 11.28 and 21.11). In Roman law, women had freedom to hold political and religious office, though generally in Hellenism women were seen as their husband’s property and expected to conform to social conventions, whilst pious male Jews prayed ‘I thank you God that you did not make me a woman.’ In this context, Paul’s arguing for women’s full participation in the worshipping assembly was radically emancipatory.