But I want you to understand that the origin of mankind is Messiah, and the origin of woman is man, and the origin of Messiah is G-d.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
These are some of the most abused lines of Scripture you will ever hear spoken. There are many reasons for that; the male desire for supremacy—the desperate cry of Patriarchal lineage—an inability to understand Jewish and contextual social concepts, the Greek language, the agenda of its interpreters and, as is so often the case with Scripture interpretation, just plain old laziness.
I have witnessed firsthand the manipulative folly of the male superiority espoused by certain church leaders, often based on this text. In addition and due to the resurgence of Messianic Judaism, a number of Christian leaders criticize the wearing of Kippot—plural of the Hebrew for a male Jewish head covering—due to their misunderstanding of the Greek text and the Hebrew parallelism utilized by Shaul—Paul—a self-confessed Pharisee (Philippians 3:5)—and tallit(prayer shawl) wearer. (I say this because there is a great deal of evidence supporting the first century Jewish practice of head covering in both public and private worship.)
This said, I will state my conclusion and then proceed to give a concise interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
I believe this passage is best summed up by the scholar Kenneth E. Bailey when He writes, “It is clear that the issue is gender distinctions, not gender subordination.” This of course only solves one of the two misunderstandings I’ve mentioned, The issue regarding “head covering,” is best explained as a misinterpretation of the Greek word katakaluptō, which is from the root kata literally meaning, “having down,” and in the context of this Scripture passage, refers to hair—as shown by v14 of 1 Corinthians 11. It does not refer to hats or other types of head coverings. This of course makes sense, given that Shaul—a tallit donning Jew of the first century A.D.—was not known for blatant hypocrisy. Add to this the fact that G-d required the priests of Israel to cover their heads with a turban (Shemot/Exodus 28:4, 39; 39:28; Vayikra/Leviticus 16:4) and we have substantial proof against a contrary interpretation.
Now that I have given you the finished jigsaw puzzle, let’s look at the pieces…
A CONCISE INTERPRETATION
1 Corinthians 11
When Shaul says that the Corinthian church has held on to, “the traditions just as I passed them on to you,” he is reminiscent of the Mosaic passing on of covenant and the Mishnaic/Talmudic rabbinical tradition of passing on halakha—the way we walk—a relevant cultural interpretation of biblical text with a practical theological result. The importance of this as a foundation to what follows cannot be overstated. Shaul is about to present a Halakhic precedent, one that his disciples in Corinth—be they Jew or Gentile—are expected to honor and pass on, that is, practice.
The Greek kephalē translated as “head” in this verse, can also be translated as “Origin, beginning, source,” much like the Hebrew Rosh, as in Roshhashanah--the beginning or origin of the year. In addition, the Greek words pas—every—and anēr—man—can together be translated as “mankind” or “humanity” as in the Hebrew adam. In light of this I prefer the following translation:
“But I want you to understand that the origin of mankind is Messiah, and the origin of woman is man, and the origin of Messiah is G-d.”
In the creation sense this means that mankind originates from G-d through Messiah and woman originates from man in the order of the creative process. This does not denote subjugation, it is simply ordinal. The last created is not least. In fact Shaul goes on to say in verse 7, that woman is the glory of humanity. If the superiority of the first things created was in question then the Paul would say, “The animals are the head of man and man is the head of woman.” This is clearly not what he intended. He is simply showing that there is order to creation and that unlike the animals with whom we are not intrinsically related, men and women are not only ordered one after the other but also together after G-d. This is the building block for what he is about to say concerning public worship.
As I stated in the introduction, the Greek word katakaluptō, which is from the root kata literally meaning “having down,” in the context of this Scripture passage, refers to hair—as shown by v14 of 1 Corinthians 11. It does not refer to hats or other types of head coverings. The Septuagint uses this Greek term in the negative sense to show the absence of hair, translating the Hebrew paru’a. Shaul also uses Hebraic parallelism throughout this teaching. This is a rabbinical style of teaching that in some aspects mirrors Hebrew poetry with the repetition of ideas using different or similar terms to provide a sort of juxtaposition. This is done to emphasis a singular idea or concept. One of the examples of this can be seen by comparing verses 4 and 14. In light of these facts I prefer the following translation of verse 4.
“Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair hanging down from his head, dishonors his head.”
This was true both as a physical practice (within the culture of the time—outside of the Nazarite vow for Jews—it is believed that long hair was an indication of homosexual practice associated with various forms of pagan prostitution) and in a metaphorical sense. We might read:
“Every man who dishonors his gender publically while praying or prophesying, also dishonors Messiah.”
This text does not, as some have said, rebuke Jewish men for wearing Kippot or Tallit in worship. As stated previously, if that had been his meaning it would have been a gross hypocrisy on Shaul’s part.
This verse is the juxtaposition to the previous one. The Greek akatakaluptos is the counter point to the Greek katakaluptō. If the first means “having down” then the second in counter point should be rendered “having up,” in this case causing the woman to look more man-like and fail to show her glory—that is her long hair (v15), a sign of her femaleness, giving honor to her gender. Again, we observe this retrospectively using the cultural context of the time. Obviously, neither long hair on men or short hair on women are considered to be inappropriate in our current western cultural style and context. The point here is to distinguish between the two sexes in the corporate worship environment, not to denigrate either, but rather with a view to honoring both, and in turn giving glory to G-d.
This verse affirms and compounds the message of verse 5. A shaved head was a sign of shame in both the Jewish and Greek social contexts of the time. Some scholars also cite the possibility that certain female temple prostitutes were recognized by their shaved heads. In addition it gives a woman the appearance of maleness in that cultural setting.
Again, “no long hair when you're prophesying guys, it makes you look like a girl and causes people to think you're sexually dodgy, which takes everybody’s eyes off G-d, thus defiling your worship gathering. Which is sad, because you’re supposed to represent the glory of G-d’s creation giving glory back to Him. On the other hand—clearly a Jewish mechanism—you women should show that you’re the glory of humanity—which is what I was getting at with my earlier reference to the creative order of the Genesis account—by letting your hair hang down, as a sign of your femaleness.”
“For man didn’t originate from woman, but woman originated from man (because man was lonely and needed some help--nezer, Hebrew, meaning a powerful helper.)”
The Greek dia, translated “for” here, can also be rendered as “because of.” This changes the reading of verse 9 somewhat, as follows:
“Neither was man created because of woman, but woman because of man (because he was lonely).”
“For this reason a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels.”
What is that authority? It is the sign of her glory in the created order as previously eluded to by Shaul (v7). The sign of that authority hangs over her head, it is her hair. Angels? I believe this is again a reference to creation—which after all, is Shaul’s founding premise for this halakhic teaching. The Angels, thought to have been created prior to men and inferred in the Bereshit/Genesis text by the compound plurality of the Hebrew Elohim, are said—by the rabbis—to have witnessed the creation of the world. Thus the angels witnessed humanity’s crowning glory and the clear distinction between genders. Humanity’s worship was witnessed by angels in the beginning and continues to be witnessed by angels, l’olam va’ed—perpetually forever.
“We need each other.”
“We rely on each other to act in the gender roles we’ve been given and all this brings Glory to God and reminds us that He is the Creator and Originator of all things.”
This verse draws together all the previous strands, giving definition to the covering terms of the former verses. Here Shaul sums up by saying:
“We all know that it’s degrading to a woman to have her head shaved and in our culture it’s taken for granted that a man with long hair is defiling his own maleness. A woman’s long hair reminds us that she is the glory of humanity because God gave it to her to accentuate her gender when He created her—due to man’s loneliness.”
“If you’re going to argue with this it will fall on deaf ears, because as a Church—ecclesia—we just won’t accept the misrepresentation of the genders in corporate worship.”
Hope that helps? And if it doesn’t, then I hope it at least challenges you to think more laterally.
© Alastair Brown 2013