Archive for the ‘Texts’ Category

“Because of the Angels”

May 15, 2011

One of Paul’s most puzzling comments comes in 1 Corinthians 11:10, where he writes that “Because of this a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels” (CEB). Contemporary Bible versions tend to portray this as a plea for women to cover their heads as a symbol, as in the NASB: “Therefore a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Some interpreters then go on to argue that a woman’s covered head is intended to be a symbol of the authority that men wield over them.

Interpreters go on to wrestle with the strange phrase at the end of that verse: “because of the angels.” Whatever Paul is trying to say in verse 10, he grounds in a larger argument – an argument involving angels – that’s only obliquely referred to in this text. One ancient explanation of this argument can be found in the early third-century writing of Tertullian, who is well-known for arguing against the role of women in ministry:

It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say (in any) sacerdotal office (Virg. Veland. 9).

Earlier in the same work, Tertullian spells out his explanation for why angels should have anything to do with women covering their heads. Referring to the legendary tale of angels marrying humans in Genesis 6:1-4, he wrote:

For if (it is) on account of the angels – those, to wit, whom we read of as having fallen from God and heaven on account of concupiscence after females – who can presume that it was bodies already defiled, and relics of human lust, which such angels yearned after, so as not rather to have been inflamed for virgins, whose bloom pleads an excuse for human lust likewise? … So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven: that, when standing in the presence of God, at whose bar it stands accused of the driving of the angels from their (native) confines, it may blush before the other angels as well; and may repress that former evil liberty of its head, — (a liberty) now to be exhibited not even before human eyes (Virg. Veland. 7).

According to Tertullian, then, Paul instructed women to cover their heads so as not to tempt heavenly angels to lust.

This is just another form of the pernicious but persistent suggestion that women are somehow responsible for the sexual harassment and abuse they receive at the hands of men who can’t seem to control themselves – another form of blaming the victim. Needless to say, Paul nowhere demonstrates any such prurient interest in Genesis 6:1-4.

What, then, does “because of the angels” mean in 1 Corinthians 11:10? A more popular suggestion is that women covering their heads (as a symbol of authority) is an expression of reverence appropriate to the context of worship in the assembly, where angels are present. Though less pernicious than Tertullian’s suggestion, this idea also has no basis in the text of 1 Corinthians.

Though we can never know for sure exactly what Paul meant (provided 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 isn’t a later non-Pauline interpolation), there is another, more compelling argument that at least has a basis in the context of 1 Corinthians. Before describing that argument, however, it would be appropriate to consider other ways of understanding the idea of “authority” (exousia) in the first half of the verse. In his 1987 article “Unveiling of Equality: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” in Biblical Theology Bulletin (17:60-63), Thomas P. Shoemaker makes this compelling argument:

Perhaps the most unusual circumstance surrounding the traditional understanding of this passage is the insistence on interpreting exousia as “veil” (RSV), “symbol of authority” (NKJV), and “covering” (TEV). Of the 102 times this word occurs in the Second Testament, this is the only occasion in which these versions translate in such a manner. Paul uses the word at sixteen other points in his letter, and half of those are in 1 Corinthians. The various translations of these other occurrences are “power” (consistently in KJV), “liberty” (8:9), “right” (9:4, 5, 6, 12), and “authority” (9:18; 15:24) (all RSV). In every Pauline usage apart from 1 Corinthians 11:10 the usage is an abstract reality, or one who has that abstract reality. Thus, if one is to follow that tendency in Paul’s usage, there are two possibilities: ( 1 ) “A woman ought to have an authority (that is, someone or something which has vested in it the abstract reality of authority) upon (or over) her head” or (2) “A woman ought to have liberty (or “right” or “authority”), that is, her own control, over her head.” … I would opt for the latter (61).

So if exousia is understood as “authority” in terms of “liberty,” Paul can be understood as saying that women have the authority (or liberty) to determine what to do with their own heads. That possibility sets the stage for another consideration of what “because of the angels” means.

Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the problem of Jesus-followers taking each other to court to resolve disputes. In the context of that passage, Paul invokes an argument about judging angels. He writes:

… are you incompetent to judge trivial cases? Don’t you know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary things? (1 Cor. 6:2b,3, CEB).

His argument seems to run like this: In the coming age, Jesus-followers will exercise their authority by sitting in judgment, even judgment over angels. If they are destined to judge angels in the age to come, aren’t they able to judge trivial issues among themselves in the current age?

Having mentioned that argument in 1 Corinthians 6:3, a shorthand reference to the same argument in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is at least plausible. Paul’s point would then be, if women are destined to judge angels in the age to come, aren’t they able to judge for themselves what to do with their own heads?

Granted, we can never argue with 100% certainty that this is Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:10 (assuming that he wrote this text). But claiming certainty about the meaning of such ambiguous and difficult texts would be frankly irresponsible. This fact alone should mitigate against basing weighty ecclesiastical policies for all churches at all places at all times on one or two verses from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. But the suggestion that Paul was invoking an argument about the authority to judge angels is at least as plausible as any other argument, and does have the merit of some basis in the context of 1 Corinthians.

For a more detailed study of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, see “Because of the Angels”: Head Coverings and Women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34,35, available as a trade paperback and as a Kindle e-book.