Are Paul's writings regarding women helpful for people today who look to Scripture for guidance on issues involving human liberation? Efforts, both traditional and non-traditional, to interpret some key Pauline texts can be well served by the present author's proposal for the proper reading of 1 Cor.11:2-16 on the veiling of women. Supported by the passage's structural emphasis on verse 10 (which he translates 'the woman ought to have liberty [exousia] over her head' (based on the identification of a chiastic arrangement in verses 2-16, Shoemaker sees Paul's famous discussion of veiling as including a quote derived from those who would have women submit to veiling and accordingly to a hierarchical structure. To this Paul responds that liberty ought not thus to be taken back from women whose equality properly follows from their discipleship to Christ Jesus.

It is not so true today as it has been in the past, but there are still segments of Christianity that find Paul's words concerning the practices and status of women to be determinative for our own day. In conservative Protestant circles, passages such as 1 Corinthians 7; 11:2-16; and 14:33b-36; 1 Timothy 2:9-15; and Ephesians--5:22-24 create an impression which seeks to maintain a hierarchical ordering of the sexes. Few denominations still require women to be veiled yet the section on veiling in 1 Corinthians 11 continues to exert an influence in two significant ways. On the one hand, for those who accept a hierarchical understanding of sexuality the passage is a favorite substantiating text, especially verse 3. On the other hand, for those who reject such a hierarchy, Paul as a theologian becomes a distasteful part of the biblical traditions. Often these persons have such a disdain for Paul's view of women' that they reject his letters as a body. Here, we ask the question, 'Is there another option?'


Linda Mercadante assembled a helpful book a few years back that attempted to summarize the history of the interpretation of this particular passage, from the publication of John Calvin's commentary on 1 Corinthians in the 16th century to the present. Ms. Mercadante set forth two categories of interpretation: the traditional school and the non-traditional school. Within the latter she further distinguished between those who hold a conviction that "the problem is Paul" and those who hold that "the problem is us" -that is, that it is our understanding of Paul that is inadequate.

The traditional school (Calvin, Hurley, Barret, et al.; Mercadante) has adopted the belief that not only is this passage to be read as Paul's assertion of the placement of women in a hierarchical position beneath that of men, but also that this passage is and should be normative for the Church today. Given this interpretation, Galatians 3:28ff . is to be understood as a spiritual or eschatological statement of equality; or in Calvin's statement, the kingdom of God "has nothing to do with the body, nothing to do with men's physical relationships with each other ... but it is concerned wholly with the spirit" (229-230). Common to all traditional interpretations are (1) a conviction that there is no inherent conflict between this passage and I Corinthians 14:34-40 where Paul appears to forbid the practice of women praying in church, (2) the translation of exousia in verse 10 as an object that is worn symbolizing acceptance of a hierarchical sexuality, an interpretation that is at best problematic, and (3) a reading that, like the majority of non-traditional interpreters, assumes the words of verses 4-9 to be the instruction of Paul to the Corinthian Church.

While in agreement with the traditional school at this last point, the non-traditional school (Stendahl, Jewett, Glen, et al.; Mercadante) has emphasized the problems inherent in the context of this passage within the Pauline corpus as a whole. The "problem is Paul" wing of this school generally begins with those passages that emphasize the quality that comes as a result of the Christ event (such as Galatians 3:28 and the Pauline statement of Ephesians 2:14-16). In light of this interpretive starting point, those in this wing are moved to state that the passage, read entirely as an authentic statement of Paul, is a failure on Paul's part to carry through in a consistent manner with the insights he expressed elsewhere. This group thus attempts to dispense with the traditional school's distinction between 'spiritual' and 'physical" realities. Thus Calvin upholds a distinction between the created order and the kingdom reality.

Interestingly, this appears to be where Jane Dempsey Douglass would classify Calvin's convictions. She argues from his Institutes that Calvin actually chose to disagree with Paul's position on head coverings at several points, but allowed that human custom and context might allow such practice as "decorum." Nonetheless, she reads Calvin as maintaining a sexual hierarchy in creation's order that gives substantial basis for Paul's sanction of head coverings (34). Such a distinction, Glen argues, is in danger of diminishing Paul's insistence on the equality of Jew and Gentile (137). This wing does little to appropriate the text for our own experience, other than to point to the negative: Here Paul shows us by his example what we are not to be. It is an unfortunate case of Paul the rabbi proving victorious over Paul the apostle, and as such, Paul and this text are to be rejected.

The other wing of the non-traditional school is a varied lot, but is in agreement that the issue is one of interpretation, not of the material being interpreted. Of this group, Robin Scroggs takes the largest steps toward an interpretation of this text that places Paul firmly in the feminist camp. Scroggs maintains that Paul recognized distinctions between male and female without placing a valuation on either. Scroggs's translation of exousia is quite compatible with the position we are taking, but there are nonetheless several points on which we will maintain against Scroggs, and many of the other 'problem is us' interpreters. First, Scroggs states that 'the logic is obscure at best and contradictory at worst,' and 'the word choice is peculiar, the tone is peevish' (297). Second, Scroggs concedes that verses 4 and 5 are indeed an argument for head coverings, based, however, on natural distinctions rather than hierarchy. And third, because of their inconsistency, Scroggs attributes the other difficult male/female texts in Paul's writing to 'deutero-Pauline' sources (including Ephesians 5:22ff., Colossians 3:18, and passages in the pastoral epistles, but also I Corinthians 14:33b-36).


Such concessions may not be necessary. There are three indications that the text could function as a 'feminist," or better, as a 'Christian egalitarian' statement, without the difficulties and contradictions encountered in the non-traditional approaches.

The first of these is the translation of certain key terms. 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 I 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.' In light of the other factors listed below, I would opt for the latter.

Those who would read this passage as Paul's assertion of a hierarchical sexuality generally understand the dia touto ('This is why") at the beginning of verse 10 as referring backward to the arguments of verses 3-9. In light of this, the dia tous angelous ('because of the angels') at the end of verse 10 is a grammatical affront, having only a tack-on relationship to the rest of the verse. However, Paul uses the phrase dia touto fourteen times in his Second Testament epistles, of which 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 3:5; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Corinthians 4:1; Philemon 15; and Romans 4:16 should be understood as pointing to reasons following. To look ahead for the reason leads us to the otherwise difficult dia tous angelous as that reason.

Joseph Fitzmyer has argued strongly that this phrase is an argument based on the holiness of the angels, because in the worship gathering bodily defect and afflictions are unworthy. Fitzmyer maintains that this is Paul's reason for having women wear veils-to pray without a covering "is an unnatural condition.' This, however, does not give full consideration to verse 14, where Paul appeals to the natural order as providing an uncovered woman with an inherent glory--her long hair. To cover that glory is the unnatural condition that would be unworthy of the holy angels. Nevertheless, Fitzmyer has helped to clear up the role of the final clause in verse 10 by showing it to be an argument of some force for the Jewish community in Paul's day, albeit an argument against veiling, not for it.

Another term that should be noted is plen (v. 11). Although generally translated 'only' or 'nevertheless,' I believe this particle takes on a special rhetorical function for Paul. Although used only four times in his letters (Philippians 1: 18; 3:16; 4:14; and here), it appears to serve as a pointer in each case to an important statement. It is a term that introduces Paul's central theme in each context. Thus, here I have chosen to render it 'The point is.'

A further term calling for attention is anti (11:15). The RSV's "her hair is given to her for a 'covering' does not evoke the strong sense in the word of replacement. Here I suggest the use of 'in place of' or 'instead of' as a translation, so as to emphasize the basic thrust of anti as indicating 'that one person or thing is, or is to be, replaced by another' (Bauer: 73).

A final subtle shift in translation occurs at verse 16, where toioutos is translated 'other.' The use of 'other' is quite unusual; as an adjective toioutos is best translated 'such' or 'sort of' (Bauer: 821)--hence, 'We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God' (see KJV). The use of 'other' creates an affirmation of the practice in question, whereas the use of "such' makes clear that the custom in question was inconsistent with the practice of the churches with which Paul was familiar.

With these considerations in mind, I have translated the passage thus:

I commend you that you remember me always and you hold fast to the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
'And I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying while having something on the head shames his head, and every woman praying or prophesying with an uncovered head shames her head. For it is one and the same as being shaved. If, therefore, a woman does not cover, let her be shorn. But if it is disgraceful to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man ought not to covey- the head, being the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man.'

This is why a woman ought to have liberty over her head: because of the angels. The point is there is neither woman apart from man, nor man apart from woman in the Lord. For just as the woman is from the man, so also the man is by the woman-and all are from God. Decide for yourselves, is it proper for a woman to be uncovered when she prays to God? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is to his dishonor, but if a woman has long hair it is to her glory. For long hair has been given to her instead of a covering. And if anyone thinks to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

This translation sets up a different feel to the section from 11:10 through 11:16. But this raises a question about the intended relationship between 11:2-9 and 11:10-16. If 11:10-16 is to be read as a statement of egalitarian practice in the body of Christ, how can this be reconciled with a section that so clearly marks out a hierarchical structure as 1 1:2-9? A look at the structural make-up of the entire passage may help. The passage has been written in chiastic form:

A   (2-3) Introduction
B       (4-7) 'woman,' 'uncovered,' 'to pray,' 'man,' 'glory'
C           (8a) not 'man from woman'
D               (8b) 'woman from man'
E                   (9a) not 'man on account of woman'
F                       (9b) 'woman on account of man'
x                           (10) For this reason, and because of the angels, the
                            woman ought to have liberty over her head.
F'                       (11a) 'Neither woman apart from man'
E'                   (11b) 'nor man apart from woman'
D'               (12a) "just as the woman is from the man'
C'           (12b) 'thus also the man is through the woman'
B'       (13-15) 'woman,' 'uncovered,' 'to pray,' 'man,' 'glory'
A'   (16) Conclusion

The center sections of the structure (8a-12b) have long been recognized (see Lund: 41), as have other uses of chiastic structure in Paul, especially in 1 Corinthians. Lund notes such structuring in 5:2-6 (146), 6:12-14 (145), 7:1-40 (151f.), 9:19-22 (147), and 11:34-14:40 (163f.). Here, the questions are raised concerning parallels B-B' and A-A'. B-B' is made evident by the repetitions in each of gyne, akatakalyptos, proseuchomai, aner, and doxa. That would leave only A-A', and I will readily admit the absence of repetitions here, and would simply argue that A is Paul's opening statement (cf. verse 17) whereas A' is the closing of the discussion.

In Nils Lund's work on chiasm, he offers seven 'laws' of chiastic structures. Two in particular concern us here. The first, he states, is 'The center is always the turning point.' And the second is that 'at the centre there is often a change in the trend of thought, and an antithetic idea is introduced' (40-41). A classic use of these laws is Isaiah 55:7-8 (Lund: 45), where the shift moves from the way and the thoughts of the wicked, to the thoughts and the ways of Yahweh. In 1 Corinthians 11, it is most likely that the structuring reveals a similar intention. Paul has offered in B through F an argument that clearly calls for feminine submissiveness on the issue of veiling, but in verse 10 the movement turns, and an antithetical idea is introduced. The second half of the structure, then, is Paul's statement that women should not submit to the demands of veiling (F' through B').

Still, the problem of reconciliation of the two sections confronts us. But it seems that Neal Flanagan has come up with an answer that allows the puzzle to take form. In a brief article on I Corinthians 14:33b-36, Neal Flanagan maintains that a Corinthian faction made statements to the effect that women had no right to speak within the worship assembly. To deal with the issue, Paul first quotes the Corinthian faction's position (vv. 34-35), then proceeds to refute their argument with the question "Did the Word of God originate with you?' ('you' being masculine plural). In a similar way, 1 Corinthians 6:12a is the quote, 12b ff. is Paul's response. 1 Corinthians 8:la is the quote, 8:1b ff. is Paul's response. To the faction that would have women submit to veiling, Paul says no--their liberty (in Christ Jesus) is not to be seized from them. His response is based on the interrelationship between man and woman, on man's dependence on woman for birth, on nature's gift of a veil of hair, and lastly on the fact that no one else, anywhere in the churches of God, demands such submission to a sexual hierarchy.

It may never be possible to solve all the questions that now confront the Church about this passage. But Paul should not be so quickly awarded a place of honor among those who would oppose an egalitarian practice both inside and outside church walls. There are too many plaguing problems surrounding the traditional interpretation of this passage for it to be so easily assumed. Paul the theologian of baptismal equality, Paul the pastor of reconciliation, and Paul the master rhetorician all seem to say the opposite.