Inside and Outside the Christian Community at Corinth
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a passage that has been described by New Testament scholars as one of the most difficult to interpret. One challenge in understanding this passage is that the second half sometimes appears to contradict the first half. However, I suggest the discrepancies are because Paul is addressing two different and distinct social situations.
In the first half (1 Cor. 11:2-10), Paul’s concern is for social respectability in the broader context of Roman Corinthian culture which was patriarchal and where the social dynamic of honour-shame was pervasive. Paul did not want news of socially suspect hairstyles/ head coverings of men and women praying and prophesying to be spread by messengers (the “angels” in 11:10). Such news could ruin reputations and cause problems for the fledgling church.
In the second half (1 Cor. 11:11-16), Paul’s concern is for mutuality in relationships among men and women who are “in the Lord.” Within the body of Christ, New Creation social dynamics, such as humility, mutuality, and unity, should be the norm. (See, for example, Gal. 3:26-28; Eph. 5:21; and 1 Cor 12). Sometimes concessions needed to be made for the sake of the broader patriarchal world, but Paul did not want the Corinthian Christians to take these concessions and compromises too far.
Paul’s Arguments from Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Despite the two different social contexts of (1) broader Corinth and (2) the Christian community, Paul appeals to the one creation story in Genesis 2 to support his various points.
I recently read Judith Gundry’s chapter on “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” which was published in 1997. I’ve come to several similar interpretations of this passage as Dr Gundry did more than twenty years ago. On page 152, Dr Gundry mentions Paul’s use of the Genesis 2 creation story in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and the two social contexts that Paul applies it to. I think she’s spot on.
… Paul has a complex view of creation with respect to gender, that he can read creation within a patriarchal framework as well as an egalitarian one. He appeals to creation to support instructions which presume a hierarchical relationship of man and woman as well as to undergird their new social equality in Christ without denying their difference. These contrasting readings or uses of creation come about through Paul’s theologizing from two contrasting social contexts. On the one hand, he has in view the Corinthians’ wider social context, a hierarchically-structured shame/honor society, and on the other hand, the cultic context of Corinthian worship that burst the patriarchal framework. The tension in Paul’s argument thus correlates with the tension in the Corinthians’ life setting. In dealing with this discrepant life setting he uses a theological method characterized by the interplay of culture, creation, and eschatological life in Christ as mutually interpretive loci of theological reflection. Creation is not univocal for Paul but can have different “meanings,” depending on the social location from which it is viewed and the interplay with other loci for theological reflection on gender. (p. 152)
Masculine and Feminine Hairstyles, not Veils
As well as discussing Paul’s use of creation, Judith Gundry makes a few clarifying comments about what Paul was addressing in 1 Cor. 11:2-16. She believes he was probably speaking about hair, not veils, as a covering.
In the light of Paul’s statements in 11:14-15 that the woman’s long hair is her glory and that it is given to her “for a covering” and that the man’s long hair is his shame, and in 11:4-5 that the Corinthian women and men “shame their head” by the practices here criticized, it is probably best to assume that covering the head here refers to hairstyles, since in a first-century Roman context there was no social shame associated with women’s not veiling or with men’s wearing a himation over the head. (fn. 1 p. 151)
After a brief explanation of the honour-shame dynamic in the Mediterranean world, Dr Gundry explains how the pneumatics (the men and women praying and prophesying) who had headdresses (or hairstyles) that disguised their gender would have caused shame. Ultimately this shame reflected badly on God as “head” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3) and also on the church.
… the Mediterranean world as a shame/honor society supplies the background for the shame/glory contrast in 1 Cor 11:2-16. The Corinthian pneumatics’ praying and prophesying with unfeminine or unmasculine headdress takes place in the worship assembly where outsiders might be present and which was thus a situation of potential gain or loss of social acceptability. In 14:23 Paul expresses concern about outsiders getting negative impressions of the community on such occasions. The pneumatics’ head-covering practices ignored the social boundaries between male and female and thus brought shame upon themselves and upon their “heads.” The women shamed the men, and the men shamed Christ. The community’s social acceptability was thus diminished and its missionary task hindered. (p. 154-155)
It is a feature of honour-shame societies that women’s poor behaviour directly affected the honour-shame of men. Gundry further notes,
Honor and shame were especially connected with actions done to the body, and in particular to the head or face as the preeminent part of the body which could represent the whole. (fn. 16 p. 154, citing Malina, New Testament World, 40.)
Paul’s Concern was Shame and Reputations
Dr Gundry dismisses certain ideas that some have attached to Paul’s words about head-covering and hair. I agree with her that Paul’s intention was not to restrict or subordinate women, and he was not thinking about men or supernatural beings driven to lust because of women’s exposed hair. Dr Gundry argues that Paul’s primary concern is honour-shame (or glory and disgrace) and how this would affect the Christians’ reputation in Roman Corinth.
We ought not to treat Paul’s argument that the Corinthians’ head-covering practices are causing shame as a mere rationale for some other agenda, which has been variously defined as, for example, restricting the women’s considerable social power in the community, stopping the man’s glory reflected in the woman’s uncovered head from being displayed during the glorifying of God, or preventing sexual provocation or cultic offense caused by the woman’s uncovered head. It is extremely difficult either to exclude or to substantiate any of these hypotheses. Since, however, Paul explicitly argues against causing shame, this purpose should guide our interpretation of the passage. (p. 155)
Judith Gundry’s chapter makes an important contribution to the discussion on 1 Cor. 11:2-16. It makes a lot of good sense. I recommend reading her chapter in full. Unfortunately, however, I’ve not been able to find it freely available online.
 There are four common interpretations of Paul’s reference to the aggeloi (“angels, messengers”).
(1) The aggeloi are messengers or scouts sent to spy out the goings-on in Corinthian churches on behalf of their curious or suspicious bosses. (My preferred interpretation.) More on this interpretation, and Paul’s concern for reputations, here: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell.
(2) The aggeloi are God’s angels who are invisibly present during worship, perhaps as mediators of some kind, and they expect reverence and decorum. (A possible interpretation.)
(3) The aggeloi are potentially lustful angelic “watchers” who are aroused by the sight of women’s hair (Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 7; cf. Gen. 6:1-4; 1 Enoch 6-7; Book of Giants). (My least favourite interpretation.) If exposed hair is a potential source of lust, why is Paul only concerned with the hair of women who pray and prophesy? Why isn’t he concerned with the hair of all the women in the Corinthian church? In other New Testament letters, Peter and Paul are concerned with women’s hairstyles and they don’t tell women to cover their heads (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3). Also, exposed women’s hair doesn’t seem to be a problem in two scenes where Jesus is anointed by women (Luke 7:38, 44; John 11:2; 12:3).
(4) Some connect the reference to aggeloi in 1 Corinthians 11:10 with a reference to aggeloi in 1 Corinthian 6:2-3. They then infer that because we are able to judge even the angels, women are well able to determine what they will do with their own heads. More in a postscript here: The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. (This interpretation seems strained to me.)
 Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: A Study in Paul’s Theological Method” in Evangelium, Schriftauslegung, Kirche: Festschrift für Peter Stuhlmacher zum 65. Geburtstag, Jostein Ädna, Scott J. Hafemann and Otfried Hofius (eds.) (Gӧttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), 151-171.
Judith Gundry is Research Scholar and Associate Professor (Adjunct) of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a passage that continues to fascinate me and I’ve written several articles that discuss various aspects of it.
I’ve written more about the honour-shame context of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and why Paul said “woman is the glory of man,” here: Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
An article on the meaning of “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is here: 4 Reasons “Head” does not Mean “Leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
A brief overview of the passage is here: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
More articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here: Category: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
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Excerpt of an ancient relief depicting Isis on her chariot, photographed by Xavier Caré (Wikimedia)