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THE PROBLEM OF THE UNVEILED WOMEN IN I CORINTHIANS 11:2-16
IN LIGHT OF THE LITERARY STRUCTURE OF I CORINTHIANS 8-11
Russ Dudrey, Champlin, Minnesota
First, an overall perspective: I will examine a difficult text, I Cor 11:2-16, which touches on gender roles within God's purpose in creation. Biblicists must begin with this kind of text when we
grapple with contemporary problems regarding gender. So our study is not merely an exercise in Biblical literary and social history; it is an effort to hear and believe the word of God in order to live in the modern world faithfully by its instruction. I do not know how else to gain the mind of Christ on contemporary problems--I do not get revelations or see visions, and this is the only Bible I have. Not all will agree with my social-historical analysis, but I hope all will agree that we are called to
feed our souls with the word of God, walk in his light, and bear his image faithfully.
Second, on the text-critical issue: A few scholars argue that 11:2-16 is an interpolation. Probably motivated by a social agenda and certainly conjectural and unsupported by any scrap of MS evidence, this view has been treated adequately by others. 11:2-16 is Paul's own text; rather than a
non-Pauline interpolation, may we call it a genuine Pauline non-interpolation?
Third, a specific matter of interpretation: I must compare and contrast my view of 11:2-16 with those of Rick Oster on the one hand and Antoinette Clark Wire on the other. Dr. Oster's seminal article, "When Men Wore Veils to Worship" has brought NT scholars up short. He demonstrates that the problem Paul addresses in 11:4-7a is the practice of some of the men of the Corinthian congregation of veiling themselves in worship--going "capite velato"--a pattern well-attested in the Roman world. His view is definitive: he has the archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic, and literary evidence to prove his case, and he has solved the puzzle of 11:4-7a.
I partially disagree in my historical reconstruction of the situation. I do not believe the sacral veiling of the Corinthian men is the only problem of 11:2-16: I have to think the Corinthian women had a problem too, the attempt to assert their liberty by casting aside their head-coverings in the Christian assembly. Dr. Oster knows the text addresses the unveiling of the Christian women, but he does not grant that they had attempted a rebellion. With Wire I think they had, and that they failed. This I would argue on two bases.
A) The latter half of the passage, 11:7b-16, moves to the topic of women's coverings and drops the veiling of the men entirely--so that one must feel that the concern about the women is not merely theoretical.
B) The contrast between 11:2-16 and 11:17-22, where abuses at the Lord's table continue, shows that in 11:2-16 one problem has been solved, but the problem of the ritual veiling of the men remains unsolved.
So I differ from Dr. Oster by viewing the historical focus of 11:2-16 as a matter, not of either the veiling of the men or the unveiling of the women, but of both the veiling of the men and the unveiling of the women. I will argue that Paul's real concern resolves down not simply to what the practices are, but to what dynamics have driven these problems.
With Dr. Oster and against Wire I do not see a prototypical feminist rebellion at Corinth. Wire's is among the best books I have read on I Cor, but I must differ from her historical reconstruction on two major points:
A) In I Cor I do not see the battle-lines drawn between the genders; rather, I see evidence of libertinism in both sexes which, when the women assert theirs, their husbands put down.
B) I do not view Paul as the Christian theologian of misogyny, the one who silenced the women; I believe the subordination of women was universal in the world of the NT, and that Paul upheld the existing norms. In upholding those norms Paul also encouraged such a transformation of personality among Christians, both male and female, that the issue of subordination fades in importance. It was not Paul who silenced the Corinthian women, it was their husbands; Paul only agrees with their insistence on wifely subordination and uses it to argue that the men as well as the women should not misuse their Christian liberty.
Fourth, the nature of the women's problem: the difficulty of the discussion of women's and men's hair as a "covering" (11:14f; cf. 11:5f) allows some commentators to argue that the women's practice is not removing their veils, but unbinding their hair as in the ecstatic worship of Dionysus or
in ritual mourning visible often in Attic vase paintings and discussed in a number of Greek and Latin texts. However, both the context and the semantics of 11:2-16 make clear that the old view is right. The men are going veiled, (textual "with head covered," 11:4), in sacral settings, as Dr. Oster demonstrates. The verb for this (11:7); the same verb and its cognates describe the women's practice (11:5); (11:6); (11:13). The vocabulary is the same for each gender. Thus Dr. Oster's work establishes what both the men and the women are doing.
Now to my argument. My thesis is that the literary structure of I Cor 8-11 clarifies Paul's perspective on the difficulties he addresses in 11:2-16 surrounding the behavior of the women. My argument will move in four narrowing circles, then broaden out to discuss the implications.
- First I will show that I Cor 8-11 is a structural unit;
- then I will argue that it is a double ring composition in the pattern ABABA;
- then I will make a case that the position of 11:2-16 within the ring composition demonstrates that Paul presumes his audience agrees with his perspective--which, once granted, forces us to reevaluate what instruction we are to take from the passage;
- then I will discuss the meaning of the passage.
- Finally I will apply the results to contemporary concerns.
I) First, the structural unity of I Cor 8-11. Despite much confusion among the commentators, who show an almost universal tendency to separate chapter 11 (or 11:2-34) from chapters 8-10, the case for the literary unity of chapters 8-11 is clear.
A) Paul's use of the discourse marker "Now concerning" (7:1,25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1), delineates the natural divisions of the second half of the letter.
B) The topic of sacred foods in two different pagan settings (chapters 8 and 10) shades into the Christian sacred meal, the Lord's Supper (10:17-22 and 11:17-34); this bridges together all the topics discussed in I Cor 8-11.
C) Paul's pattern of ring composition is evident here as elsewhere in I Cor: he broaches one subject, moves to an apparently unrelated second subject, then returns to the original subject--and one realizes that Paul has interspersed the apparently unrelated material to apply it fruitfully to the original topic.
II) Second, I Cor 8-11 is itself a double ring composition in the pattern ABABA, with Christian liberty and the eating of sacred foods as the unifying concerns throughout.
The three A sections are all organized around various problems in the eating of sacred foods.
- A1, chapter 8, addresses the problem of Christians eating foods consecrated and slaughtered to pagan idols; the rationale is that Christian knowledge allows them this liberty (8:1-4,7,9ff).
- A2, chapter 10, addresses the problem of Christians eating sacred meals in pagan temples, which were cultural centers of (male) social and commercial activity; the rationale is "All things are lawful" (10:23; cf. 10:29f).
- A3, 11:17-34, addresses the problem of Christians eating the sacred meal of Jesus--supposedly in fellowship with Jesus, but not in fellowship with all his people.
The two B sections interspersed within the structure both deal with freedom, liberty, and rights:
- B1, chapter 9, describes Paul's apostolic authority, his liberty, his powers and rights--all of which he gives up in service to the church;
- B2, 11:2-16, confronts the problem of Christian women who in the name of Christian liberty are seen as attempting to overthrow the cultural and social restraints upon them.
Thus the structure is ABABA: problems regarding the eating of sacred foods counterpointed by two examples of Christians who either give up their rights, as did Paul, or assert them, as the women had done. The outline of 8-11 thus looks like this:
- A1 The problem of Christians eating sacred foods consecrated to pagan idols (Chapter 8). The rationale: knowledge, liberty, authority, and rights (vv. 1-3, 9ff).
- B1 Paul's apostolic rights, authority, and liberty, of which he does not make use (Chapter 9).
- A2 The problem of eating sacred meals in pagan temples (Chapter 10). The rationale: "All things are lawful" (v. 23).
- B2 The problem of Christian women exercising their liberty to overthrow cultural and social restraints upon them (11:2-16).
- A3 The problem of eating the sacred meal of Jesus unworthily, not in fellowship with the Christian body as a whole (11:17-34). I think the first two points, the literary unity and the ring composition of I Cor 8-11, are undeniable.
III) The third point, my explanation why Paul chooses to discuss the case of the women where he does in his argument, is more debatable. I believe Paul chooses women's veils as the centerpiece of a ring structure for the same reason he chooses other examples for centerpieces of his ring structures: because for the majority of his readers what he makes of the example will be self-evidently true. Consider how others of Paul's ring compositions work.
A) I Cor 7 is a ring structure addressing problems regarding celibacy for spiritual purposes,
which include the desire of some married Christians to keep their marriages sexless or to renounce marriage altogether (7:1-16), and the attempt of the rigoristic advocates of celibacy to forbid any and all second marriage and prevent fathers from contracting first marriage for their maiden daughters (7:25-35, 7:36-38). Into the midst of these questions Paul intersperses the apparent non sequitur of 7:17-24 advising slaves to "abide" in whatever condition they were when called to Christ. This does fit: the advice to "abide" extends to married Christians and unmarried Christians. Paul uses what in the ancient world was the self-evident truth that slaves should be submissive, obedient, and orderly to carry his point that Christians should abide content within their existing social conditions.
B) The ring structure of I Cor 12-14 works the same way. I Cor 12 raises the problems caused by the pve?µat??o?, the "spiritual people." Paul only raises the problems in chapter 12; then he moves to chapter 13, his paean on Christian love--again an apparent non sequitur. Then in chapter 14 he
returns to the spiritual people's chaotic use and abuse of their spiritual gifts, to which he now responds with cautions and controls. The real control is self-evidently visible in the centerpiece of the ring composition: Christian love, which must drive Christians to work only to upbuild God's people. In each case, I Cor 7 and I Cor 12-14, we can say that Paul places the self-evident truth in the center of the ring composition not for its own sake but to apply it to the issues at hand.
C) I believe that the same is true in the ring composition of I Cor 8-11, and that this must affect our
evaluation how to apply the teaching on the role of women that we hear in 11:2-16. Paul's autobiographical example in chapter 9 of having apostolic rights and liberties which he chooses for the sake of others to renounce rather than assert is self-evident: all his Corinthian readers should agree that Paul is doing a good thing.
That, I argue, is the perspective needed to understand how Paul addresses the insubordinate women of 11:2-16 (who are among those he advises to "Be imitators of me" in 11:1): for Paul's readers, whom he addresses 22 times as "brothers", i.e. the male leaders of the Corinthian
congregation--for Paul's readers the insubordination of the women is self-evidently wrong, and Paul's point that they should be subordinate is self-evidently right. Any male in the ancient world would have agreed, as would most if not all females--the household unit was the social world, not
only of Christians, but of non-Christians. But Paul's point here is not simply to reaffirm the structures of society--if that is all he does, then he merely demonstrates a firm grasp upon the obvious. Rather his point is that the same Christian men who agree that their women should not be
insubordinate in the name of their Christian rights, Christian freedom, Christian knowledge--these same Christian men have created the conditions of rebellion by their own insubordination and rebellion. They have misused their Christian knowledge, freedom, and rights by eating meats con-secrated to idols, by participating in meals at the pagan temples, and by rationalizing sexual immorality. If their women's rebellion is self-evidently wrong to them, they must see in that a mirror of their own rebellion.
IV. What 11:2-16 actually says is not all that hard, despite the confusions over whether the women are going unveiled or with their hair unbound, how the sacral veiling of the men fits in, how the man is the image and glory of God but the wife is the glory of her husband, what the angels have to do with the need for women to go covered, etc.
The primary thrust of the passage is clear: the public behavior of wives in the Christian assembly should demonstrate their submissiveness to their husbands and their respect for them; otherwise, they shame them publicly.
Now to examine the passage in more detail.
1) Paul begins by praising the Corinthian men for holding fast to the traditions handed down to them
(11:2). In the next breath (11:4-7a) he will correct them regarding their practice of veiling themselves in worship. Clearly they hold to the tradition correctly in some other regard--namely in the topic raised in 11:3, the subordination of women. They have it straight that husbands stand
as heads over their wives, just as Christ stands head over them. The contrast between (11:2) and (11:17) and (11:22) argues that the Corinthians have fought and won the battle over the unveiling of the women, whereas the veiling of the men remains a problem. Reconstructing the historical situation one may suggest that certain "Corinthian women prophets" did indeed attempt to assert their liberation in Christ, but that (pace Wire) the men of the congregation successfully curbed their
rebellion. Paul congratulates the men on doing the right thing; he then builds his response to the men's own problem of self-assertion in the name of Christian liberty on that premise.
2) Meantime Paul takes issue with the men's practice of the Roman custom of sacral veiling (11:4-7a). His argument:
A) The practice dishonors their head, Christ, in the converse of the way that their wives going unveiled dishonors their heads, their husbands. Wives who go unveiled, the Corinthian men will all agree, might as well go shaven bald--the shame is the same (11:4ff).
B) Men are the image and glory of God; therefore they ought not to efface that image with a veil (11:7a).
3) Paul argues the converse in the case of the wives (11:7b-15). The underlying assumption is that married women wear veils as the symbol that they are under the authority of a husband. Here again Paul's entire male audience cannot but agree with his views.
A) Wives are the glory of their husbands, which means that their conduct in public assembly reflects
directly upon their husbands' honor. Therefore they should go veiled in the assembly to demonstrate the culturally-accepted symbol of their modesty and chastity, their pudicitia (11:7b).
B) God built this principle of hierarchy into the created order: woman is from man, not man from woman; Adam was created first, and Eve was taken from him (11:8f). This means wives are
subordinate, and their subordination requires them to wear the veil as its symbol "because of the angels" present in the Christian assembly (11:10).
C) However, Paul qualifies his hierarchism with the note that after creation the order is the interdependence of man and woman, and both must be subordinate to God (11:11f).
D) The underlying principle is one the Corinthians can judge for themselves--for Paul knows they will all agree: the woman who prays or prophesies in the assembly must of course wear the
symbol of her pudicitia (11:13). This, he knows, they will see as only "fitting". Here Paul argues from moral decorum, from the public sense of honor and shame. Recall the Roman practice of sacral veiling: so strong was this cultural ethos that the Corinthian men were going capite
velato in the Christian assembly. Paul wants the men not to do so, but he knows all will agree that the women should, at least when they take the public role of praying or prophesying.
The practice of ritual veiling strengthens Paul's argument that the women should stay decently veiled at all times in the Christian assembly.
E) As a last illustration, take the culturally-accepted view of long hair: everyone will agree that women should wear long hair and men should not (11:14f). This Paul premises on "nature". All arguments from pro-gay scholarship aside, for Paul to argue from "nature" means he views this as a truth that is self-evident because it is inherent in God's created order. Natural order shows again
that women should wear a covering in public assembly, while men should not.
F) Pulling it all together, Paul appeals to both his own stance and to accepted usage among all the churches (11:16). He asserts--no doubt truthfully--that all the churches of God will agree with these cultural practices and the values they represent, though he recognizes that some may want to dispute the matter.
In summary, I believe the passage presumes that the women of the congregation have attempted a rebellion. In the setting of the church's assemblies, in the name of their Christian liberty they have thrown off their veils, the symbols that they are under the authority of their husbands and are not available to any other man.
The men of the congregation have put down that rebellion. For this Paul congratulates them, but in his masterful opportunistic technique he demonstrates that it is the men's own assertion of their rights and liberties--as they have asserted, "All things are lawful" (6:12, 10:23)--that gave rise to the
women's rebellion. The men can see clearly enough that their women should not act as if they were not under the authority of their husbands: but the men must apply a similar standard to themselves, for they too are under authority, the lordship of Christ.
In fairness to them we should ask what motivated the women to put aside their veils. Archaeology has put to rest the old view that in casting off their veils the women were identifying themselves with the thousand of priestess-prostitutes of Aphrodite known from Strabo. Strabo's report is fanciful and describes Old Corinth before its destruction under Lucius Mummius in 146 B.C. There is no evidence that the cult of Aphrodite re-covered sufficiently to be a dominant presence in
Roman Corinth. Perhaps the most cogent explanation is that in removing their veils the women were attempting to remove, not the sign of their subordination, but the sign of their gender. In this case their intention was not to be insubordinate so much as it was to reconstitute the church as an asexual society--as indeed was visibly attempted in later Christianity.
On this view the driving force is neither licentiousness nor prototypical Christian feminism, but ascetic idealism and moral earnestness--the same phenomena visible in I Cor 7.
However, the old view that it was libertinism is not entirely off the mark: the women's defense
of their practice will have depended upon their "liberty" to do so, and--however wrongly--it will have opened them to the public perception of being immoral.
Paul responds from the order of creation, from natural order, from social usage and from the accepted practice of the churches that they cannot remove themselves from the sphere of their gender. They must wear the symbol, not only of their pudicitia, but of their gender.
V. Last, a word how biblicists should apply the instruction of the passage when seen in this light. As in any of our disputes, so in our dispute over women's issues: one touchstone has to be honesty; another, intellectual tolerance. We must be tolerant enough of ideas and policies with which we disagree that we can take them on without having to distort or misrepresent them, and take them on in their strongest forms by their worthiest representatives. I have to respect Schüssler Fiorenza, who has done us the favor of crystallizing the feminist case with great clarity and force:
"A feminist theological hermeneutics having as its canon the liberation of women from oppressive patriarchal texts, structures, institutions, and values maintains that--if the Bible is not to continue as a tool for the patriarchal oppression of women--only those traditions and texts that critically break through patriarchal culture and 'plausibility structures' have the theological authority of revelation."
These words do the invaluable service of forcing this issue and clarifying what is at stake. In Schüssler Fiorenza's view the entire Bible is patriarchal and androcentric, and as such has been Western culture's most powerful tool in the oppression of women. The Christian religion is so
powerful that it cannot be abandoned; therefore it must be coopted. This must be done by reconstituting it. The Bible must be viewed not as a mythic archetype, but as a prototype; that is, it cannot be taken as normative but must be reappropriated and adapted for the new liberationist situation, always reshaped by the normative criterion of the liberation of women. Here
is where I can never agree with her unless and until I am willing to shift to an entirely different paradigm. I am a biblicist; I begin by seeking truth from God's revelation of his mind and heart in the Bible. She is a feminist: she begins with feminist analysis of the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and critiques the patriarchal scriptures through that filter. Her canon, her standard, is feminist ideology.
Perhaps no emphasis is needed how prominently Paul's attitudes toward gender issues figure into contemporary discussions, or how central 11:2-16 is in the evaluation of Paul's patriarchalism, androcentrism, and misogyny. In fact, feminist interpreters universally view 11:2-16 as a pivotal text in the development of the Christian patriarchy. In Schüssler Fiorenza's reconstruction of Christian origins (followed by Wire, D.R. MacDonald, M.Y. MacDonald, and many others), the original message of Jesus was egalitarian; earliest Christianity was characterized by the
discipleship of equals and the rejection of patriarchy. Early in his own ministry Paul held the same egalitarianism, crystallized in Gal. 3:28, "There is neither . . . male nor female." In this he echoed the words of Jesus on making the male and the female one (the famous Logion 22 of the Gospel of Thomas is taken to represent a pre-Pauline tradition, perhaps a genuine word of the historical Jesus). However, when he saw the problems arising in his churches when women asserted their status as co-equals, Paul reacted by reformulating his position to control their self-assertion: and
11:2-16 (with 14:33ff) is precisely the text where this is seen.
In other words, here we are looking at the key text for the beginnings of the institutionalization of Christian patriarchy. Schüssler Fiorenza, Wire and others see "the Corinthian women prophets"--i.e. prototypical Christian feminists--in 11:2-16; they see an idealized picture in earliest Christianity when women were equally gifted and equally expressive in Christian worship.
Similarly Scroggs, Fee, and many others see "eschatological women" in Paul's Corinth: women whose Christian faith liberates them from the old social order to live the life of the age to come in their present existence. They read the situation underlying the passage as a charter for the social liberation of Christian women; ironically, they see Paul straining to repress the excesses of the
If my argument is right, then taking 11:2-16 as a magna charta for Christian feminism turns the text upside down, though neither should the text be taken as chartering an oppressive patriarchal rule: both readings retroject modern concerns onto a text whose thrust aims elsewhere.
On my reading 11:2-16 is merely an illustration that wives should honor their husbands by their public behavior--a point both welcome and self-evidently true to Paul and his (male) readers, who live in a culture driven by concerns of honor and shame. 11:2-16 says that Christian wives who publicly and wilfully assert their liberation in Christ by casting aside the cultural symbol that they give themselves exclusively to their husbands bring shame upon both their husbands and their Lord.
What Paul illustrates, here negatively, is the larger question of chapters 8-11: that Christians who in selfish wilfulness assert their rights and liberties, careless what reflection they cast upon the church, hurt the body of Christ. The path of love is the path of upbuilding the church: willing self-sacrifice, which includes the sacrifice of one's rights. From Paul's perspective any discussion of the Christian's rights must entail discussion also of his or her responsibilities, her or his opportunities to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of others.
Perhaps I should label my analysis of Paul's views on gender roles as a minority report, or a report from the losing side. I am a non-feminist; I still believe that both Paul and Genesis are right to see the order of creation as hierarchical. Biblicism drives me to believe that God intends wives to be submissive to their husbands, to honor and respect them--though it drives me beyond that to believe that God intends for husbands to reciprocate in mutual self-sacrifice. The transforming work of Christ makes the relationship reciprocal. Both the male and the female sides of God's intention for gender roles reflect the imago dei: in these matters we bear the image of God.
I see only two alternatives: either the image of God is (as feminist interpreters insist) genderless, or it is gendered; either our bearing of the image of God should be unisex, or it should be male and female. Paul takes Genesis in the latter way. He argues from the order of creation that maleness is the image and glory of God, and femaleness the glory of man (11:7). I do not take this to mean that all females should be subordinate to all males, but I do take it to mean that Paul believes that within the structure of the family wives are to be subordinate to their husbands.
Yes, Paul builds reciprocity into marriage. Nonetheless Paul is a hierarchist--in Gerd Theissen's phrase, Paul holds to a "love patriarchalism"--and he believes that Genesis is hierarchist because he believes God is. He premises this on the order of creation, which means he does not view this as historically particular, situation-specific, "cultural," and therefore relative, as is often argued. He says that "The head of every man is Christ, the head of [every] woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God" (11:3); he believes that the church everywhere must reflect God's order of creation, not obliterate it, in its public worship.
I fear that not only in the broad stream of American culture, but also in the majority of American churches, the assumptions driving gender feminism and liberationism and individual rightsism may have won the day. Perhaps no reminder is needed that the conventional wisdom now agrees with radical feminism in making Paul the evil genius of Christian patriarchy: the misogynist Paul took the originally non-sexist, profoundly egalitarian vision of Jesus and perverted it for his sexist concerns--so, e.g., in the works of Mary Daly and in the popular press.
Where do you find people who still believe that our highest calling in life is to die to ourselves, to lay down our lives in willing self-sacrifice, to spend and be spent in loving and serving and self-giving?
Where do you find people who still believe that marriage and motherhood are entirely honorable, that the nurture of children is one of God's highest vocations, and that it is mothers who do this best?
Where do you find parents who still teach these things to their daughters, or their sons?
Where do you find marriages that mirror the holy love of Christ--wives who respect and honor their husbands, and yes, submit to them; husbands who lay down their lives in willing self-giving for their wives, loving them as Christ loved his church?
Where do you find children who grow up seeing clear models of godly womanhood and godly manhood and who learn from their parents to desire God?
If not among God's people, then where? But even in the church I worry that we are losing the pursuit of holiness in our gender roles; I worry that our children will see increasingly fewer men who reflect a masculine image of God and increasingly fewer women who reflect a feminine image of God. We are going to have to decide whether we believe Paul. Either Paul is wrong because he is sexist and culture-bound, so that his words can be relativized and historicized, or he is right that God created gender, and gender roles, as part of the goodness of creation.
This involves the questions not only whether God intends for wives to be submissive to their husbands, but further whether he intends for his people to bear his image in masculine or feminine ways.
If Paul is right, then our loss of manly and womanly gendered models of godliness represents not merely the passing away of old traditions or the restructuring of culture-bound social structures:
it represents the abandonment of our created purpose to know God and bear his image clearly and faithfully.