I’ve been thinking hard about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 lately. I’ve been especially thinking about verse 10 which is particularly difficult to understand. This is demonstrated by the various ways it has been translated into English.
There is little conviction and no consensus among scholars about who or what the “angels” or “messengers” (Greek: aggeloi) are in this verse, and there is some dispute about who has “authority” (Greek: exousia) here. In this article, I focus on the meaning of the Greek noun exousia which is usually translated as “authority” or “power.”
Whose authority is it?
Four Translations of 1 Corinthians 11:10
Here are four versions of 1 Corinthians 11:10. Note, however, that Paul used no word that means “symbol” or “sign” and no word that means “covering” or “veil” in the Greek. These words have been added by translators to convey their interpretation of Paul’s words.
1 Corinthians 11:10 in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) represents how most English translations render the verse:
“This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
The New Living Translation (NLT) expresses how many people have interpreted 1 Corinthians 11:10:
“For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.”
According to these translations, Paul used the word exousia (“authority”) here as a metonym for a covering such as a palla, a shawl-like garment that a woman can pull over her head. The NLT echoes many past commentators who understood that praying and prophesying women were required to have their heads covered and that this covering symbolised they were under a man’s authority.
Compare the CSB and NLT with the literal translation in the King James Bible (KJV) which does not contain added words.
“For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”
And here’s how the New International Version (NIV 2011) renders the verse:
“It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”
Does the exousia that Paul mentions refer to a power or authority to which the woman is subject? Does it refer to a head covering she wears on her head? Or is the exousia the woman’s own power and control of her head? I will argue that the exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is her own power to exercise control of the appearance of her head, whether that refers to hairstyles or head coverings. But first, let’s look at what exousia means.
What Does Exousia Mean?
The Greek noun exousia is a common word. It occurs 103 times in the New Testament, 10 times in First Corinthians where it is usually translated as “right.” It can also have the senses of “freedom,” “liberty,” or “permission.” I liken the meaning of exousia to having a driver’s license. When you have a valid driver’s license you have the authority, right, permission, and freedom to drive a vehicle on public roads.
In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon D. Fee claims that there is no known evidence that exousia is ever used in a passive sense or that there is an idiom “to have authority over” which refers to an external authority that is different from the subject of the sentence. In a footnote he adds that not once in the New Testament, or in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), or in the works Philo or Josephus (ancient Jewish authors writing in Greek) is exousia used with a passive sense.
Put more plainly, the use of exousia in ancient Greek texts indicates that the person who is the subject of the sentence has, and exercises, their own authority, power, right, or freedom (in an active sense). The word is not typically used in the sense of a person being under, or being affected by, someone else’s exousia (in a passive sense).
Shore and Ramsay on Exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10
Thomas Teignmouth Shore wrote a commentary on 1 Corinthians that was first published in 1879. He took the broader passage, 11:2-16, to be about the subordination of women but understood that exousia in verse 10 has an active sense and is about the woman’s own power. Shore wrote,
It has been maintained that the word exousia here means the sign of power, i.e., a veil, which is the symbol of the husband’s power over the wife. The fatal objection to this view, however, is that exousia expresses our own power, and not the power exercised by another over us. It is a word frequently used by St. Paul in this sense. (See 1 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Corinthians 9:4-5; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Corinthians 9:18.) Whatever interpretation, therefore, we put upon this passage, it must be consistent with this word being interpreted as meaning some “power” which the woman herself has, and not some power exercised over her by her husband.
William Mitchell Ramsay was a renowned archaeologist and New Testament scholar. Here’s what he said back in 1907 about exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10.
He [Paul] says that “the women ought to have authority (exousia) upon her head.” This seems so strange to the Western mind that the words have been generally reckoned among the most obscure in the whole of the Pauline writings. A vast amount has been written by commentators about them, almost entirely erroneous and misleading, and sometimes false to Greek language and its possibilities. Most of the ancient and modern commentators say that “authority” which the woman wears on her head is the authority to which she is subject—a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the New Testament, where (as they seem to think) Greek words may mean anything that commentators choose. Authority or power that belongs to the wearer, such power as the magistrate possesses in virtue of his office, was meant by the Greek word exousia.
I have chosen to quote from Shore and Ramsay to show that it is not a new idea that exousia doesn’t imply subordination in 1 Corinthians 11:10. Furthermore, because they were writing more than a hundred years ago, these men cannot be accused of being influenced by modern feminism, an accusation that is sometimes levelled at dedicated scholars and students of the Bible simply because they do not hold to traditional interpretations of certain Bible verses. But were Shore and Ramsay correct?
Three Interpretations of Exousia in 1 Cor. 11:10
Anthony Thistleton has pointed out that “most patristic commentators saw no problem in understanding exousia in an active sense as metonymy for a sign of power over.” He mentions Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Irenaeus as examples of those who took it that Paul was speaking about a head covering for women that signified subordination.
Lucy Peppiatt notes a different interpretation. She mentions Joseph Fitzmyer (First Corinthians 2008:417) and Thistleton (2000:802) as two examples of scholars who believe a head covering such as a palla is in view; however, this covering does not indicate subordination but somehow facilitates a woman to minister.
Fitzmyer believes that Paul is referring to the fact that the woman exercises control over her own head. The head covering is a sign “of the power received from the Lord (v. 11) and of the dignity she has to worship and praise God in the presence of the angels, as the Greek prepositional phrase that follows in this verse suggests.” Thiselton asserts that the veil constitutes a “badge of honour” signifying sexual reserve, “and hence of mastery of the self.”
Writing in the first half of the first century CE, Philo of Alexandria refers to a woman’s head-covering as “the symbol of modesty” (to tēs aidous symbolon) (Philo, The Special Laws 3.56). It was a mark of modesty and of respectability, not necessarily subordination.
Scholars such as Jerome Murphy O’Connor and Philip Payne believe appropriate hairstyles, not head coverings, was the issue in 1 Corinthians 11 (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14-15), and that women were to exercise control over their appearance when praying and prophesying.
So we have three possible ways of understanding exousia 1 Corinthians 11:10. It refers to:
(1) an actual head covering that symbolises subordination,
(2) a woman’s own authority and control over the appearance of her head, expressed by wearing an actual head covering which was “a means of exercising power” in ministry [see footnote 3].
(3) a woman’s own authority and control over the appearance of her head that is not necessarily symbolised by a head covering such as a palla.
In regards to the first interpretation, I suggest many past commentators have been too quick to read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 through a patriarchal lens and have presumed that the subordination of women is Paul’s message. Craig Keener, on the other hand, believes “nothing in this passage suggests wives’ subordination.” (His use of italics.) Keener adds, “As many scholars have been pointing out in the past few years, if we want this passage to teach subordination, we have to read subordination into the passage.”
“Have Authority Over” in the New Testament
Let’s look further at how exousia is used in the New Testament. Craig Blomberg has taken a close look at the Greek phrase where exousia occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:10: “exousian echein epi …” (This phrase contains the noun exousia, the verb echō which means “have,” and the preposition epi which can mean “upon” or “over.”)
Blomberg has observed that “every other use of this three-word construction in the New Testament means ‘to have authority (or control) over’” and he cites the following texts.
Matthew 9:6 “… the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …” (cf. Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24).
Revelation 11:6: “… these ones have authority over the waters …”
Revelation 14:18: “… the one who has authority over fire …”
Revelation 16:9: “… the one having power over these plagues …”
Revelation 20:6: “… the second death does not have power over these things …”
Blomberg notes that in Luke 19:17 there is a similar construction with epanō (epi + anō) instead of epi: “has authority over ten towns” (CSB); “take charge of ten cities” (NIV).
And in 1 Corinthians 7:37, peri is used instead of epi: “has power over his own will” (KJV); “has control over his own will” (CSB). Note that this verse is in the same letter as 1 Corinthians 11:10.
Considering this evidence, Blomberg suggests that 1 Corinthians 11:10 should be translated “along the lines of ‘For this reason … a wife should exercise control over her head [i.e., keep the appropriate covering on it]’” whether that is a fabric covering or long hair. (His use of ellipsis and square brackets.)
The meaning of the word exousia is “authority” or “power,” not “subordination” or “subjection.” And there is no evidence that the word is used elsewhere in the New Testament or in other (surviving) ancient Greek texts as a metonym for a head covering.
Paul’s meaning seems to be that a Corinthian woman who was prophesying or praying was to use her own authority about what she will do with her own head—how she will cover it with her own long hair done up in a respectable hairstyle, or perhaps cover it with a palla. As Shore said, “[it is] ‘power’ which the woman herself has, and not some power exercised over her by her husband.” It is a “power which decides” and has control.
I believe Paul wanted the ministering women in Corinth to use their power wisely and maintain control of the appearance of their heads because of the aggeloi (“messengers, angels”). This is the way I read 1 Corinthians 11:10:
“For this reason, a woman should maintain control of her head, because of the messengers.”
 Gordon D. Fee says of this verse,
By all counts this is one of the truly difficult texts in this letter [1 Corinthians]. It needs to be noted at the outset that our difficulties are directly related to the ad hoc character of the passage. The solution probably lies with what the Corinthians themselves have communicated to Paul; indeed, the key words “authority” and “angels” are very likely from them in some way. Our problem is that we are on the outside looking in.
Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 518.
 The following is every verse in 1 Corinthians where exousia appears, except for 11:10. (I have italicised the English translation of exousia.)
A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does (1 Cor. 7:4).
But he who stands firm in his heart (who is under no compulsion, but has control over his own will) and has decided in his heart to keep her as his fiancée, will do well. (1 Cor. 7:37).
But be careful that by no means does this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Cor. 8:9 NASB 1995).
Don’t we have the right to eat and drink? (1 Cor. 9:4).
Don’t we have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife like the other apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas? (1 Cor. 9:5).
Or do only Barnabas and I have no right to refrain from working? (1 Cor. 9:6).
If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:12).
What then is my reward? To preach the gospel and offer it free of charge and not make full use of my rights in the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:18).
Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. (1 Cor. 15:24).
 In Bauer and Danker’s lexicon (BDAG) there are six definitions in their entry on exousia but they all have some sense of authority, power, or control. The first definition is “a state of control over something, freedom of choice, right.” This definition seems to fit the context of 1 Corinthians 11:10. BDAG also discuss 1 Corinthians 11:10. No firm conclusions are drawn, but they make the comment, “Many now understand it as a means of exercising power.”
And because someone asked, here’s a link to the entry on the Aramaic (Syriac) word “šulṭān, šulṭānā” in The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon. A form of this word is used in 1 Cor. 11:10 to translate exousia.
 Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 519.
 One exception, however, is in Matthew 8:9//Luke 7:8 where a centurion tells Jesus that he is a person “under authority” (hupo exousian). But it is the preposition hupo (“under”) that gives exousia its unusual passive sense here. Hupo has almost the opposite meaning of the preposition epi which is used in 1 Cor. 11:10. Epi can mean “on,” “upon” or “over.”
 Thomas Teignmouth Shore, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians” Volume 7 of A Bible Commentary for English Readers, edited by John Charles Ellicott (London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1879)
I agree with Shore’s statements above. I’m less sure, however, of his following thoughts where he connects the woman’s exousia (“power”) with her doxa (“glory”): “We may, I think, conclude that the ‘power’ here spoken of is [a woman’s] long hair which is called in 1 Corinthians 11:15 her ‘glory.’ It is remarkable that Callistratus twice uses this word exousia in connection with hair to express its abundance.”
[I could only find one instance where Callistratus used exousia to refer to abundant hair. See Callistratus Ekphraseis 5 (a description of a statue of Narcissus) (Greek or English LCL 256 p.427).]
And I disagree with some of Shore’s other ideas. You can read his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:10 on the Bible Hub website.
 William M. Ramsay, The Cities of St Paul: Their Influence on His Life and Thought: The Cities of Eastern Asia Minor (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907), 203. (Online Source)
Ramsay then gives the example of the mother of Ozymandias who wore three “royalties” on her head (Diodorus 1.47). But I don’t find this example helpful in understanding 1 Corinthians 11:10.
 This footnote has been removed.
 Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 65.
 Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992, 2009), 47.
 Thistleton notes that echein can sometimes mean “to keep, to hold, to retain.” And epi with the genitive (which is what we have in 1 Cor. 11:10: the genitive of “head”) doesn’t always mean “over” but can denote control of something. Thistleton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 839. So Paul may simply be wanting the ministering Corinthian women to maintain control of their heads; keep it looking respectable.
 Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan ), 180.
 While some scholars believe Paul is speaking about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, others, such Philip Payne and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe he is talking about hairstyles or hair lengths. Blomberg notes, “In verses 14–15 Paul is definitely talking about relative lengths of hair for men and women, so it is somewhat more natural to assume that he has been talking about hairstyles all along.” Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, 178.
 In a discussion on New Testament usage, Werner Foerster makes the comment that exousia “denotes the power which decides.” See “C. The NT Concept of ἐξουσία.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 2, ed. Kittel, trans. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 566.
Liddel, Scott and Jones’s (LSJ) give the primary definition of exousia as “power, authority to do a thing.” (Online source)
 “Because of the angels”: Here are four common interpretations of Paul’s reference to the “angels.”
(1) The aggeloi are messengers or scouts sent to spy out the goings-on in Corinthian churches on behalf of their curious or suspicious masters. (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. (Another possible interpretation.) Somewhat along these lines, there are warnings in the Hebrew Bible about indecent exposure at God’s altar (e.g., Exod. 20:26).
(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.) The women are described in the book of Enoch as “pretty and beautiful daughters” (thygateres hōraia kai kalai) (cf. Gen. 6:2), but it doesn’t say anything about their hair. (Hair is mentioned in the Book of Enoch only in chapter 106, in reference to Lamech’s son’s unnaturally white hair; hair is not mentioned at all in Genesis 6.)
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, Paul and Peter are concerned with women’s hairstyles and they don’t tell women to cover their heads (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3).
(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. (This interpretation seems strained to me.) More in a postscript here: The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
 “For this reason”: The way I see it, the reason Paul wanted the ministering women in Corinth to maintain control and decorum in regards to their heads, or hair, was that men and women were created differently. (He alludes to the Genesis 2 creation account a few times in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.) Paul wanted men and women to have different looks and hairstyles that signalled that difference. I suspect some Corinthian men were wearing their hair long, which wasn’t the done thing among respectable Romans, and some Corinthian women were cutting their hair short and renouncing their sexuality. This was potentially scandalous. It was especially important that the men and women who were speaking in meetings, and were therefore relatively prominent in meetings, looked and behaved respectably. I have more on this here: Head Coverings and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
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All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
4 reasons “Head” does not mean “Leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
The Significance of the Created Order, in a Nutshell
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
Gender Bias in the New Living Translation (NLT)