What did Paul mean by “a woman should have authority over her head”?

It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.

(1 Corinthians 11:10 NIV)

Here again, the reluctance to accept the plainest reading has spawned a number of different interpretations, but they basically boil down to three options.

Option 1: A woman ought to have authority over her man.

Option 2: A woman ought to have authority over her own head (reflected in the NIV).

Option 3: A woman should cover her head with authority (i.e. a covering).

Option 1: A woman should have authority over her man.

Obviously, the idea that a woman’s head is man is taken from 1 Corinthians 11:3, and we do have “mutual authority” in 1 Corinthians 7:4, but it’s out of place in 1 Corinthians 11:10. There is nothing in the whole passage that supports this idea. Even if Paul has done an amazing turn around in the middle of his explanation about women covering their heads, nothing before or after this verse makes any use of it. It would be an idea that came from nowhere and goes nowhere. As long as we accept that Paul was careful and capable of writing sense, this option is not going to work.

Option 2: A woman ought to have authority over her own head.

This is not an impossible reading and you’ll find a pretty good explanation of why people read it this way in a recent post over at the blog, Jesus Creed. The Jesus Creed post ends with a non-head covering conclusion, but there are people who draw the conclusion that this reading supports head covering today.

So, why do they think verse 10 talks about a woman’s authority over her own head? It basically comes down to looking at many of the other instances of the Greek phrase, “have authority over” in the Bible. In those instances, it always refers to the person “has authority over” something, rather than a person “being under authority”.

The non-head covering conclusion is this: “a woman has authority over her what she does with her own head”. In the Jesus Creed post, this means they should take responsibility for wearing her hair appropriately, or, as other feminists argue, it means a woman has to take responsibility to choose whether she wears a head covering or not.

The problem with these ideas is that they don’t fit with the rest of the passage. Like “Option 1”, it inserts an idea that does not at all connect with the preceding verses, and contradicts v5 and v13 in the process. If anything, it suggests that Paul presents a reasoned argument for a woman covering her head, only to conclude she doesn’t have to!

(The hair argument…I’m lost for words. How can anyone seriously entertain it???!!!)

The head covering conclusion is this: “a woman has a sign of her own authority over her head”. This means that a head covering signifies a woman, even though she is the glory of man and made from and for man, has the authority to pray and prophesy.

The problem with this conclusion is that nowhere in the Old Testament is a woman told to wear a head covering in order to signify her authority to pray and prophesy, and yet they do. The conditions are the same, so why not?

It also makes mincemeat of the flow of the passage, especially the A B B’ A’ structure of vv7-10 which begins with:

A: “a man ought not to cover his head”

Then goes on to give a reason:

B: “he is the image and glory of God”

Then contrasts this with woman:

B’: “woman is the glory of man (because she was taken from and for man)”

And should finish with:

A’: “a woman ought to cover her head”.

Option 3: A woman should cover her head with authority (i.e. a covering).

There are still howls of protest about this particular reading, but it is truly the best option available for many reasons:

  • It fits the context of the whole passage. As we’ve seen above, the whole passage is about women wearing a covering on their heads, so to introduce a different and even opposite teaching without any warning would be jarring.
  • It fits the context of the verses before it (vv7-9). Assuming that verse 10 is the conclusion to verses 7-9, the verses flow together seamlessly moving from a statement about man not wearing a head covering and the reasons why (v7), to the reasons why (v7-9) woman should wear a head covering.
  • Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Chrysostom, Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine and Bede are all Christians who lived over 1000 years closer to the time of Paul than we do, some within 100 years of Paul’s time. Some of these men had a far more natural grasp of the Greek language of the time than we do, and all of these men (and more) understood this phrase to mean “a woman should cover her head”. How do we know? Because sometimes, in their writings, they replaced “authority” with “veil”. (Look it up. The Greek word is kalumma.)
  • To my mind, the above three points are strong enough to decide on Option 3 as the correct reading, however, there is also evidence that, contrary to the arguments about the Greek phrase “have authority over” in Option 2, there are examples (outside of the Bible) of the exact wording used by Paul in verse 10 being used by others to refer to wearing something on your head.

Here is 1 Corinthians 11:10 in Greek:

διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς τοὺς ἀγγέλους.

The phrase “have over her head” (ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς) is found in Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Books I.62.4. The English translation is below:

4 For it was a practice among the rulers of Egypt to wear upon their heads the forepart of a lion, or bull, or snake as symbols of their rule; at times also trees or fire, and in some cases they even carried on their heads (ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς)large bunches of fragrant herbs for incense, these last serving to enhance their comeliness and at the same time to fill all other men with fear and religious awe.

The words in bold are translated from the exact Greek phrase found in 1 Corinthians 11:10.

(Note, the first reference to “heads” in the passage uses a different Greek phrase).

The exact same phrase is also found in Pausaunias, Description of Greece 7.5.9 (Achaia), the English translation of which is below:

[9] There is also in Erythrae a temple of Athena Polias and a huge wooden image of her sitting on a throne; she holds a distaff in either hand and wears a firmament on her head (ἔχει καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς).

The exact same phrase is also found in Pausaunias, Description of Greece 8.32.1 (Arcadia). The English translation of the relevant sentence is below:

By the house is an image of Ammon, like the square images of Hermes, with a ram’s horns on his head. (ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἔχον).

In The Roman Questions 266c, Plutarch uses the participle rendering of the phrase (ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἔχοντες) to refer to covering heads with a cloak/piece of clothing. The English translation is:

Question 10. Wherefore do men in divine service cover their heads; but if they meet any honorable personages [p. 210] when they have their cloaks on their heads (ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἔχοντες),  they are uncovered?

“But,” cry the naysayers, “1 Corinthians 11:10 says she ought to have “authority” over her head, not “herbs”, “firmament”, “horns” or a “cloak”. Surely people are right to translate that phrase more literally.”

Translation is as much about context as about the literal meaning of words. The context, the pattern, the explicit references to covering before and after and the reasoning of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 make it very clear that “authority” in verse 10 is meant to convey that a woman ought to wear a covering representing authority on her head.

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