1 Corinthians 11:1-16

Nik Hookey examines what Paul was really saying about women in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

Nik Hookey
Nik Hookey

Why the title? Well, 'Hats', this passage is often thought to be about head coverings for the ladies. 'Hair' and maybe long hair for the men! Then 'Jalapenos', because this is a hot topic!

Pretty much everybody who looks at this passage says that it is complicated.

It has been used (by men, of course!) to put women in a subservient place.

Others write off Paul as a woman hater, and point to this passage.

However, things aren't as simple as that!

Verse 7 says, "Man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man", is a misrepresentation of the Creation account, where we read in Genesis that, "God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Men and women together reflect the glory of God.

How could Paul get this wrong?

In Galatians 3.28 and Colossians 3.11 we read Paul saying that Christ has destroyed differences of culture, class and gender. Why would he try to emphasise this here?

One answer might be that Paul is actually quoting people that he disagrees with to make a point.
"Woah!" you might say. There aren't any quotation marks here!

Well, actually, the manuscripts that the New Testament is translated from don't have any punctuation at all. In fact, the earliest manuscripts don't have any spaces at all! The people that translate the Bible have to make careful decisions as to where the spaces and the punctuation go. Sometimes it's easy to see when Paul is quoting someone, especially if it's an Old Testament verse that we know. Sometimes, it's harder.

How do we decide if it's a quotation? Well, we know that Paul is answering a letter that the church has already sent him. And just like when we reply to emails, we sometimes quote chunks of what our friend has said, so Paul does the same, in order to point out where they are wrong!

So if the text appears to be saying two different things, or if the logic of the argument doesn't seem to fit, or if the general theme of the letter that the lower place is to be preferred doesn't shine through, maybe Paul is quoting the Corinthian email back at them!

In 1 Corinthians we've already had:

  • "I have the right to do anything" 6.12, 10.23

  • Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both" 6.13

  • "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" 7.1

  • "We all possess knowledge" 8.1

  • "An idol is nothing at all in the world" 8.4

  • "There is no God but one" 8.4

If we see these verses as a dialogue, a very different pattern emerges: