I’ve tried to exegete 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 several times, beginning with my book Buried Talents, written before I began blogging, and then a couple of times here on the blog.
In Buried Talents, I took the view that “head” was the opposite of “portrait” — “image” in the Greek. Hence, God is the model of which Jesus is the image or portrait; men are the image of God; women are the glory of men. Paul uses “glory” with respect to women and men because women are, of course, also made in the image of God.
And that might actually be right. But when I first posted on this subject many long years ago, the readers persuaded me to go with another viewpoint. Hence, I rewrote and reposted the series in terms of “source” or “beginning.” And ate a little crow (an all-too-familiar flavor).
A couple of nights ago, I rewrote those posts in light of new material from Bruce Winter but following the same logic. When I finished, I said to myself, “I’m fully persuaded on the Ephesians material, but I’ve not convinced even myself on 1 Corinthians 11.”
So I thought I’d take another approach, more closely tied to the Ephesians use of “head.” Although the Corinthian church could not have interpreted “head” in light of Ephesians, since Ephesians was written many years later, it doesn’t seem likely that Paul would use “head” in a radically different sense in the two letters. I mean, in both cases he’s talking about husbands and wives, and in both cases, he declares the husband the “head” of the wife.
PS — I find many readers get very upset when I change my mind on something or confess that I’m not sure of my position. In fact, they should worry far more if I were to never change my mind or never be uncertain! Those teachers who know everything and are never wrong are dangerous people, who should be fled.
We are certain of our salvation, not because we have teachers who know all the answers, but because God is certain to keep his promises and because we are saved by his unwavering love and grace. Our certainty is built on the faithfulness of God and the price he paid, through Jesus, on the cross.
As we covered several weeks ago, Corinth was a Roman city built in Greece. When Rome began expanding eastward, toward Greece, the Grecian cities formed an alliance to resist Roman aggression. And so Rome conquered Corinth and burned it to the ground.
Many years later, Rome re-founded Corinth as a Roman colony populated by retired Roman soldiers. Their pensions included a land grant, and Rome liked to place retired soldiers throughout the Empire to help remind people who is in charge.
Because of Corinth’s location on a land bridge to the Peloponnesian Peninsula with harbors on both sides of Greece, it quickly became a wealthy city. Greeks, Jews, and many others moved there to build businesses and make a living.
Greek was the language of commerce and literature, but Latin was often heard on the streets. Some of the Jews likely spoke Aramaic at home, but their scriptures were the Septuagint — the Old Testament translated into Greek.
In a recent book, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, Bruce Winter explains that, contrary to countless books and commentaries, the veil was a sign of modesty among Romans, the founders of Corinth.
The veil was the most symbolic feature of the bride’s dress in Roman culture. Plutarch indicated that `veiling the bride’ was, in effect, the marriage ceremony. Other writers in the early Empire confirm that the bride’s veil was an essential part of her apparel.’
By deliberately removing her veil while playing a significant role of praying and prophesying in the activities of Christian worship, the Christian wife was knowingly flouting the Roman legal convention that epitomised marriage. It would have been self-evident to the Corinthians that in so doing she was sending a particular signal to those gathered (11:13).
It is also clear from the comments that, if she wished to appear as an adulterous married woman, she should bear the full consequences of the shame associated with that, i.e., have her hair cropped or shaved off (11:6). From the text it appears that she was not only indifferent to looking disreputable by first-century standards but, by deliberately removing the marriage veil, she was being contentious — as were the men in the Christian gathering (11:4, 16).
If, according to Roman law, she was what she wore, or in this case, what she removed from her head, then this gesture made a statement in support of the mores of some of her secular sisters, the new wives, who sought to ridicule the much-prized virtue of modesty which epitomised the married woman.
In short, the absence of a veil would have been seen as immodest for a married woman. However, single women did not cover their hair. But when a Roman woman married, the marriage ceremony included the veiling of her hair — a sign that only her husband would be permitted to enjoy the sight of her uncovered head from then on.
Jewish mores were similar, but it’s likely that Greek culture did not expect married women to wear a veil. And so, in a cosmopolitan city filled with a wide range of cultures, which culture gets to have its way? Well, what does love require?
Plainly, there is nothing here about wearing hats or a bit of lace. The purpose of the veil was to cover the married woman’s hair, as a matter of modesty. It wasn’t primarily submission so much as modesty — but for a married women, a refusal to be modest would, of course, be an insult to her husband.
As La Follette observed, wives ‘depicted on tombstones are most typically in the pose called pudicitia (modesty), in which they have the mantle (palla, i.e., the veil) up over their heads, holding part of it in front of their faces’.” Therefore, it can be confidently concluded that the veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.
(pp. 79-80). Plainly, modern hats and other Western head coverings have nothing to do with modesty or with submission to husbands.
Shaving the head
Dio Chrysostom … recorded that Medea’s own daughter became an adulteress and had her hair cut off according to the law. It is clear that part of the punishment for adultery was cutting off the offender’s hair.
(pp. 82-83). For a woman to have her head shaved was a shame — a mark of adultery as well as the removal of one of her most attractive features, to make her less tempting to men.
Husband or man? wife or woman?
And so we see that Paul is not announcing a law from God’s handbook of how to do church. Rather, he is insisting that Christian wives — not women generally — must adhere to societal norms so that they don’t bring shame to themselves, to their husbands, or to the church.
And this helps solve a translation difficulty. The Greek words anēr (husband or man) and gunē (wife or woman) are perfectly ambiguous, and so whether a spouse is in mind has to be taken from context. Now we know that we should prefer “husband” and “wife” in this passage.
And if Paul is referring to spouses, rather than men and women generally, we can expect him to use Genesis 2 as his standard of conduct, just as he did in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7. After all, except in Genesis 2, the Torah says very little about marriage, husbands, and wives.