Because of the Angels

Because of the Angels October 11, 2014

Fred Clark posted about the obscure first half of 1 Corinthians 11, and offered a Whovian suggestion about what “because of the angels” might mean. And so I decided it was worth turning into a picture:

Because of the Angels

That passage continues to puzzle me, and my suspicion is that in the first half, Paul is at times quoting the Corinthians, much as he does elsewhere in the letter, perhaps also quoting them quoting his own words, as well as quoting what they said. And as in other such passages, Paul offers some initial agreement, only to then challenge their application of his words or other shared principles.

By the end of the passage, Paul says that women should have authority over their heads. This was so unacceptable to some translators that they essentially inverted the meaning, rendering it as “a sign of her submission to authority on her head.” But that isn’t the meaning of the Greek idiom.

In some parts of the world, the issue of women covering their heads is still a live one, believe it or not. What are your thoughts on this passage? Have you managed to make sense of it, in a way that reflects what the Greek text actually says?

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  • Sean Garrigan

    That verse has always perplexed me, too. Jason BeDuhn offered a detailed discussion of this verse entitled “Because of the angels: Unveiling Paul’s Anthropology in 1 Corinthians 11” (JBL 118:2: 295-320), which can be obtained here:

    It’s been so long since I read it that I couldn’t really say what his conclusion was anymore. I suspect that any answer we find would ultimately have to be held tentatively.

  • Dustin Smith

    Bruce Winter has written a convincing reading of this passage in his “After Paul Left Corinth,” wherein ‘angellos’ should be translated as “messengers” who would be suspicious of groups meeting with women adorned with such hairstyles and lengths which, in Corinth, let the men know that they were sexually available. Paul does not want this impression to come upon the church, so he advises these women to cover their heads in attempts to censor this cultural stereotype and to avoid unwanted attention by imperial messengers.

  • Chris Sissons

    Kenneth E Bailey in “Paul through Mediterranean Eyes” covers this passage in pp 295f. “Because of the angels” Bailey suggests is down to Paul’s rabbinical training with Gamaliel. On the seventh day of creation (early Genesis is referenced several times in this passage) the angels celebrated the creation with God. The church is the new creation and when a woman preaches the angels celebrate as this is the sign of something entirely new at the time. Bailey suggests this passage is a celebration of women’s ministry.

    • Sean Garrigan

      Interesting proposal, but how does Bailey harmonize the requirement that a woman cover her head with this view? I’m having trouble making the connection.

      • Chris Sissons

        I’m not sure that he does. The question of head coverings (and Paul is equally emphatic that male preachers should get their hair cut) is specific to Corinth, a Greek port, and there’s no reason why we should copy their customs. The point is the preacher should not distract the worshippers from God. The only conclusion I make from this passage (in terms of what we should wear) is that male local preachers should wear a tie.

        • Sean Garrigan

          Sorry, I must have misunderstood you. In light of the subject of the blog entry I thought that you were offering Bailey’s view as a potentially valid answer to the perplexing question: Why “because of the angels”?

          In light of the surrounding text, it seems as though one could simply omit those words altogether with no obvious change in meaning. Yet they are there, so this is the interesting puzzle, for me. I’m not really concerned with fundamentalist or liberal interpretations of the account right now, or whether and how it might be applied today, but with possible solutions to the puzzle in it’s historical context.

  • One study that I thought was particularly creative and insightful in its approach is Alan Padgett’s “Contradictions of Coiffure in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” JSNT 20 (1984): 69–86.

    • Sean Garrigan

      Can you give a brief description of his handling of this puzzle? I went to purchase the article but they want $30.00 for it, and my finances are a little too tight right now for that sort of extravagant spending.

      • I’ve posted a copy of the Padgett article here:

        • Sean Garrigan

          Thank you, Beau, I really appreciate it! This is a very kind gesture.

          • You’re welcome, Sean. It’s a very small part of the whole article, but Padgett makes the point that the greek term translated “angels” could also be translated “messengers”. I think he is suggesting that Paul might be saying that women who serve as messengers between the churches should cover their heads to avoid causing offense where they travel.

          • Thanks for sharing this, and doing so before I managed to get to respond no less!

          • No problem. I was interested myself.

  • I vaguely remember looking at this passage in a Paul class in conjunction with a discussion of The Corinthian Body by Dale Martin that looked at various views of the body among the rich and poor in Corinth at the time.

    I remember part of the discussion about how the poor at the time were afraid of invasion from the outside (vs imbalance of the rich/educated) and there was a fear of attack by spiritual beings (daemons, minor gods, etc).

    And so Paul was addressing those fears…. or perhaps not.

    I also remember coming across a paper that looked at the manuscript “slipperiness” around the edges of the odd bit about the angels. The article claimed that the bit did not fit with Paul and showed indication of heavier editorial changes around certain parts. The article claimed that it could have been an early insertion by the receiving / copying community.

    At least that’s what I remember from a class several years ago.

  • Would it be to obvious to suggest that Paul is appealing to the superstition of angels as guests or guardians in order to get women to conform to social expectations?

    • The question then is why Paul said that women should have authority over their heads because of the angels. I sometimes suspect that perhaps it is a reference to the teaching of Jesus, that in the age to come humans (both male and female) will be like angels, and so, although Christians should not ignore the realities of gender difference in the present age, neither should they ignore the authority that women and men will equally share in the age to come.

      • I think that your interpretation is certainly nicer, and promotes equality between men and women. But if that is Paul’s intent, why does he spend so many words in the previous verses emphasizing that the husband is the head of the wife and that women are a reflection of men, made from men, created for the sake of men.

        I prefer your intent! I just don’t think it looks like Paul’s intent.

        • Here is my take on it, from my own blog:

          “It is not completely certain what the reference to angels means here, but earlier in the same letter (1 Cor. 6:3) Paul does say, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” He is speaking of all believers, male and female, being given the right to judge the world one day. A female believer, just as much as a male, will one day be given judging authority even over angels. In light of this, should a woman not have authority over her own head? The word “exousia” — “authority”– included personal power and the right to do as one pleased. Women, as Paul set the situation up, were in a sort of dilemma. If they covered their heads, they could have been seen as indicating the necessity of a barrier because of sin, between themselves and God, thus dishonoring Christ. But if they didn’t cover their heads, they could be seen as dishonoring their husbands or fathers. In light of this, Paul says, a woman “ought to” be able to choose for herself.

          Paul then turns to the whole congregation in verse 13. “Judge for yourselves,” he says. “Is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” After speaking of what would seem “natural” in the culture in the area of long vs. short hair for men and women, he concludes, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul may be saying that the apostles, and the other churches, have no specific, universal custom regarding head coverings, so there is no point in being “contentious“ about it. Or he may be saying that the apostles and the other churches have no custom of women going uncovered, so since the Corinthian congregation is likely to view it as unseemly for a woman to pray uncovered, it would be best for her to cover– but with the understanding that ideally, she “ought” to have the power to decide for herself.

          In any event, this passage is not about male authority over females, but about how, in an honor-shame culture, head-coverings were a way to convey either honor or dishonor to those viewed as one’s origins. And Paul makes it clear that the most important origin is God, Who is the Source of men and women alike.”

          For more on this passage, including what I think all this talk of “head” and “glory” is about, here are the links to my posts, FWIW (the discussion on 1 Cor. 11 is towards the bottom of both posts:

          • I think you are assuming far more than the text actually says about judging angels. Paul is not insisting that women and men both will judge angels; he’s making a reference to the judging of angels to complain that the Corinthians can’t even seem to find one capable judge amongst themselves for their own matters (he wants them to stop taking each other to court).

            It seems to me that, while Paul may offer more inclusion for women than most religious figures before him, he is still clear on the headship of men, both in this passage and in others. Paul is the natural product of a male-dominated society.

            Having said this, I don’t really mind that Christians today “interpret” him with a far more liberal and progressive attitude towards women. I see women as my equals in every way. I’m just not convinced that Paul did, or that we should be straining modern morality out of 2000 year old patriarchal text.

          • But we are not talking about what Paul was saying about angels in 1 Cor. 6:3; we are wondering what Paul was saying about angels in 1 Cor 11. We don’t really know what Paul is saying about angels in 1 Cor 11, so it seems to me legitimate to ask if what he said about angels earlier in the same letter has any bearing on the question.

            As far as Paul is concerned, I really think he was trying to work out the implications of what it meant in terms of practice, to be “in Christ” (where there is not male or female, slave or free) in a world where both male headship and slavery were established norms that were not going to be changeable by an infant religious movement. I found that once I looked at Paul in this light, passages which appeared to be self-contradictory (such as apparently forbidding women to speak in church while also commissioning a woman to carry his letter and read/explain it to the church) suddenly became much clearer. I don’t think Paul was saying either slavery or patriarchy were God-ordained, or endorsing them as systems, so much as working within them as realities and proposing a servant-oriented mindset for all parties concerned.

          • I am glad that you and other Christians today pursue gender equality. But I don’t see how you can take 1 Corinthians 11:3, 7-9, Ephesians 5:22-24, and Colossians 3:18, and conclude that Paul sees male headship as simply an established world norm. In fact Paul puts male headship in terms of Christ, comparing the headship of men over women to the headship of Christ over men.

            I have purposely left out the call for women’s silence found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 which most scholars regard as an interpolation by later writers rather than Paul. I have also left out the demand for women’s silence in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, since most scholars consider 1 Timothy a pseudepigraphal text, not written by Paul.

            But even without the interpolated and pseudepigraphal texts, Paul is pretty clear about male headship over women, and he makes these statements evoking Christ, not in spite of Christ.

            Again, I completely support gender equality. And I’m not a Christian, so I don’t feel the need to rationalize Paul’s thoughts on the matter. I can simply dispense with them.

          • Well, part of the issue does end up being, what does Paul mean by the word “head”? The word “headship” is a very English word, and one that would have made no more sense to Paul than the word “bodyship” means to us. “Head” was simply not the sort of word that you could combine with a word that means “state of being” in Paul’s Greek, to come up with a concept of “headship.” I don’t want to get into a long discussion about this because it’s getting off the topic of what “because of the angels” means, but after careful study, I’ve concluded that in 1 Cor 11:3, 7 and 9, Paul was using the word “head” to mean something more like “source” or “origin,” (that’s certainly the context of the rest of Chapter 11!) while in Ephesians 5:22-24, it probably combined the meaning of “the prominent one” from Ephesians 1 and “the source of nourishment and life” from Ephesians 4. Anyway, I know it sounds to you like rationalization, but to me it springs from an understanding of how the koine Greek differs from English, as well as how certain shared assumptions between Paul and his original audience that we are not privy to without research into their world, affected their understanding of his meaning.

          • Are you saying that when Paul says that the husband is the head of his wife, he’s actually saying that the husband is the “source” or “origin” of his wife? Would that be because Adam was the source of rib from which Eve was made? So, by extension, all husbands … ?

          • Well, here’s the thing, the way I understand it. The word “head” in koine Greek had several different metaphorical meanings, including “source”– and “ruler” really wasn’t one of the commonly used meanings.

            1 Cor. 11 isn’t talking about husbands and wives, but about man and woman. I believe it’s saying God is the source of Christ (God sent the Christ into the world) and Christ is the source of man (everything is by Him and for Him – Col. 1:16) and man is the source of woman (because she was taken from the man’s side). But then Paul goes on to say that woman is now the origin of man, through childbirth, and God is the origin of all. I think this definitely implies equality between man and woman.

            Ephesians 5, which is talking about husbands and wives, is different. There are two metaphorical uses of “head” in Ephesians prior to Chapter 5. In chapter 1 it talks about how Christ is the “head” above all principalities and powers. When read in its context, the metaphor there is not one of rule, but of position– Christ is the prominent one, the one on top. Notice that the passage also states that the one thing which is not under His feet is the church, who is by His side. Then in Eph. 4 Paul uses “head” in the sense that people of his day understood the physical function of the head to be — the source of life, growth and nourishment for the body (they believed the heart, not the head, held the mind and will). So in Eph. 5 I think we need to hark back to those two earlier metaphorical uses– the husband was, factually, the prominent one positionally in the culture, and also the source of provision for the wife.

            A husband in first-century Ephesus who was trying to follow the teaching in this letter, then, should have been trying to imitate Christ in laying himself down in order to raise his wife up to be by his side not under his feet, and to take care of her as he would his own body. The husband was truthfully the only person who had any power or agency to turn the marriage from a ruler-ruled relationship to a relationship of mutual love and service. That is why these things were addressed to him and not to her.

            I don’t think it matters that much whether Paul wrote these things or they are simply attributed to Paul. They are still part of the canon, and thus considered inspired and authoritative by Christians. But if we understand them according to the dynamics of that day rather than this, I think the push towards mutuality between men and women becomes much more apparent.

          • Thanks for clarifying your thoughts on the matter.

            In my experience what Christians actually mean by the authority or inspiration of the canon varies incredibly widely, and I’ve met a few Christians who don’t believe in canon inspiration at all. The tradition of having a canon, a group of authoritative texts, seems to be a necessity in most religious groups. The need for a canon in Christianity seems to have come about because of the problem of competing texts.

            The inspiration of pseudepigrapha strikes me as a particularly weird issue. Why would someone be “inspired” to pretend he is someone else?

          • When pseudepigrapha occurs, I think it is because it was a literary convention of the time, and thus it wasn’t really pretending to be someone else, because the audience understood that using a prominent or authoritative name was simply something that was done– they were “in the know,” just as we know about the literary conventions of our own day. I agree that Christians today vary widely about what they mean by the inspiration of the canon and what they believe about its authorship.

            A very interesting conversation. Thank you!

          • I think Bart Ehrman makes a pretty obvious case that such a literary convention did not exist. There is no evidence for such a convention, but there is plenty of evidence that Christians considered false attributions wrong and even sinful (when they were discovered as such). And the Pauline pseudepigrapha include just the sort of details one would expect of someone trying to “fool” their readers, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”

            I agree! Very interesting conversation – thank you too!

          • Well, the question still remains as to whether they are truly pseudepigrapha anyway. The case has been made by some scholars that sometimes Paul “dictated” his letters to others to write for him, but left them latitude as to word choice, which would explain the difference in literary styles.

          • With the Pastoral epistles, there is much more than a difference in literary style pointing to the false attribution. As James McGrath has pointed out in other posts, “the consensus on the Pastoral Epistles is that they are not authentically Pauline”.

            “If someone were to write a scholarly book or present a conference paper, and assumed the Pastoral Epistles are not Pauline, they would not even need to mention the point explicitly. If they wanted to claim that they are authentically Pauline, they would have to argue the case strenuously.”


          • All right. I will continue looking into this issue. 🙂

          • So will I. 🙂

          • There is substantial agreement that Ephesians is not authentic, too, and something close to an even split about Colossians, I think.

          • So if 1 Cor 11 is the only Pauline reference to male headship that’s legitimate, and you and Padgett are right that he is stating the inequality only in order to contradict it in the next few verses, then maybe the real Paul was a true gender equality advocate after all.

          • And that remains a possibility, but the uncertainty about Colossians, and the uncertainty about what he meant in 1 Corinthians 11, makes me leave it as a possibility rather than something I feel confident about. There are, however, a number of references to women involved in roles of leadership and in activities like Paul’s own which would fit with Paul being more egalitarian.

            Have you ever read the Acts of Thecla? They are interesting because they themselves had a somewhat ambiguous view of Paul, but also because they sound like they are advocating – in the name of Paul – the very views that the Pastorals oppose – also in the name of Paul.

          • No, I haven’t. I’ve never read any of the apocrypha; sounds interesting.

        • I think that in the first part he is probably quoting the Corinthians, perhaps quoting the Corinthians quoting him. The way the passage ends suggests that the starting point is, at best, a teaching of Paul’s which Paul feels that the Corinthians have misunderstood or have not applied in a balanced manner that he approves of – like so much else in the letter.

          That said, I am still unsatisfied with all proposals and interpretations to at least some degree.

          • I would only point out that Paul teaches the headship of man over woman in other places as well, such as Ephesians 5. It might be argued that he sometimes grants women more participatory power and place than other cults of the time, as in Galations 3:28; and that the worst Pauline excesses against women come from pseudepigraphs and interpolations. But I think Paul is still fairly clear that he believes men have headship over women.

            It’s not a surprising attitude for a man of his era.

  • Crossposting from Slacktivist, I think it’s either something Paul wrote in the wee hours of the morning without enough slip, something one of his messengers slipped into the letter on a lark, or it’s something intended for Corinth that they well understood and we just simply can’t, the same way that me saying, “Brace yourself, I have a 19 Strength” to my gaming group will make them laugh, but not for the reasons you think it does.