“Because of the Angels”

I have been learning Ancient Greek by way of Professor Mueller’s Greek 101 on The Great Courses, so of course I am rummaging around in Greek texts of the Bible. I was also looking at an interesting 1994 article by Fr. Thompson about St. Hildegarde of Bingen’s ideas about sex and the priesthood.

He notes St. Hildegarde’s “misquote,” or rather, her deliberately partial quote, of 1 Corinthians 11:9. Rather than St. Paul’s “….the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man,” she quotes it as “The man was… created for the sake of the woman, and the woman for the sake of the man.” This is a pretty common thing for medieval authors to do. They know the quote, and they know that the reader knows the quote. But they like to show that an opposite version of the quote is also true!

So anyway, this led me to look at 1 Corinthians 11 with fresh eyes.

Okay, so the rule that St. Paul is teaching is that is that Christian men at Mass (unlike Jewish men at synagogues or the Temple, or so one is told — but see below) do not cover their heads at prayer, because Christ (Who is God) did not cover His head at prayer. But Christian women (like Jewish men and women) do cover their heads at prayer.

St. Paul was Jewish first. What did he learn about the creation of woman?

Woman was created to be the man’s ‘ezer, his helper and rescuer, much as the Lord is the helper of Israel.

Similarly, God has a glory around Him (shekinah in Hebrew, doxa in Greek). Sometimes the glory is displayed, but mostly it was concealed from the people, inside the Temple’s Holy of Holies. The glory concealed God, but also revealed His Presence.

So when Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:15 that a woman’s hair is her glory and given to her as a covering, he’s comparing women and hair to God and His glory cloud.

So yeah, not exactly a disrespectful attitude.

Finally, the whole situation with wearing a covering or not is referred to as being “because of the angels.” But earlier, in 1 Corinthians 6:3, St. Paul asked the Corinthians, if they didn’t already know that Christians were going to be judging angels? So obviously, it doesn’t have anything to do with angels being the boss of Christian women…

So what is really going on?

1 Corinthians is a letter with a lot of stuff about discipline and manners. But it is couched in a context of eternal dignity for all Christians. So the whole letter is addressed to the Corinthians in the Church. Paul says they have been sanctified (hegiasmenois) and called to be holy/saints (kletois hagiois). He says they have been enriched by all the Word and by all knowledge (en panti logou, kai en pase gnosei), and that in their community, they do not lack even one spiritual gift.

But all the same, stuff is going wrong? Why?

St. Paul blames a lack of love among the members of the Church. Then he goes through all the bad stuff they’ve been doing, from lawsuits among themselves and sexual sins, all the way down to a general lack of orderliness. He answers some questions, in case they just haven’t been putting the pieces together; then he wades back into the disorder problems.

And that’s where we find the hairy comments about heads and hair.

First off, Paul points out that all the spiritual gifts and knowledge only belong to the Corinthians in Christ Jesus —

“Who for us has become wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” (1 Cor. 1:30)

Now the interesting bit is that the same Greek word for “became” shows up in the Septuagint/Gospel version of one of the famous quotes about Jesus — the lyrical bit from Psalms, about how the stone which the builders rejected has become (egenesthe) the head (kephalen) of the corner. So St. Paul is thinking about Christ as our head, from the very beginning of the letter.

(There may also be a horrible continuing pun about Greek Kephas from Aramaic Kepha, Peter the rock, versus Greek kephalos, head.)

Obviously St. Paul has a thing about Christ and Temple theology, so it’s not surprising that it shows up again in 1 Cor. 3:9-17.

“For we are God’s coworkers. Y’all are God’s field –

“Y’all are God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation. And another is building upon it; but each one must be careful how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there — namely, Jesus Christ…

“Do y’all not know that y’all are the Temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all?

“If anyone destroys God’s Temple, God will destroy him. For the Temple of God, which y’all are, is holy.”

He goes on to point out even more about Christian dignity as baptized children and members of God Himself:

“So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to y’all: whether Paul or Apollo or Kephas, the world or life or death, or the present or the future. They all belong to y’all; and y’all belong to Christ, and Christ to God.

“So let a human being count us as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” (1 Cor. 3:22-23, 1 Cor. 4:1)

Paul goes on to point out that he’s trying to act like a trustworthy steward, and that God is the only real judge of his work; even Paul can’t judge himself on that point. Then he points out that if he and Apollos are nervous about God’s judgment, it’s a bit much for the Corinthians to be so confident that they’re heading for heaven. And it is at this point that the angels show up for the first time in the letter.

“For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death. For we have become a spectacle [theatron egenethemen] to the world [tou kosmou], both to angels and to humans [kai angelois kai anthropois].” (1 Cor. 4:9)

I really like the way this is put. Christ has become the head of the corner, and Christian apostles have become a gladiator theater show!

Paul then talks about all the trouble and disrespect that the apostles face in their mission. He describes them as being treated like gunk scraped off a plate (peripsema) and like throwaway scum (perikatharma). He compares himself and other apostles to the prosperous and popular Corinthian Christians, and urges the Corinthians to imitate his own hardy attitude and loving behavior.

He points out that he is not just sending Timothy to be a reminder of the teachings, but that he will be coming himself. Anybody who is a big talker will then have to prove that he has as much of God’s power as Paul can wield. Do they want a loving Paul, or a punishing smitey Paul?

This brings him to the next topic: a supposedly Christian man who is sleeping with his own stepmother. Ew! Even the pagans don’t do that! Maybe only God can judge someone’s stewardship… but in this case, Christians not only can judge, but must judge their own.

“The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. Although absent in body but present in spirit, I for my part have already pronounced judgment, as if present, on the one who has committed this deed… Is it not your business to judge insiders?… Purge the evil person from your midst.” (1 Cor. 5:2-3, 12)

After this comes all the talk about lawsuits. Disputes should be settled within the Church, if at all possible; and it should be possible.

“How can anyone among y’all, with a case against another, dare to bring it for judgment to the unjust, instead of to the saints?

“Do y’all not know that the saints [hoi hagioi] will judge the world [ton kosmon]? If the world is going to be judged by y’all, how are y’all unqualified for the most minor cases?

“Do y’all not know that we will judge angels? Then how much more, the things of this life?” (1 Cor. 6:1-3)

Angels as underlings again.

Anyway, St. Paul advises two things — that people put up with injustice rather than drag things outside the Church, but also that the Church get its act together and quit letting the members do bad things. People were supposed to change their ways after being baptized and becoming part of Christ. Just as people sleeping with prostitutes make themselves one with the prostitute, Christians shouldn’t be trying to drag Christ’s Body into their own sins. The body of a Christian is a Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul moves along to talk about marriage. Of course, for those who can handle it (like Paul) —

“It is a beautiful thing for a man not to touch a woman.” (1 Cor. 7:1)

[In Greek, “kalos” means good, beautiful, noble, clean, etc.]

But otherwise, marriage is a good thing.

And this is where it gets interesting!

“But on account of immoral sexual behavior,” [dia de tas porneias] “each man may have his own wife, and each woman may have her own husband. Let the husband do his duty to the wife, and the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority [exousiazei] over her own body [tou idiou somatos]; but rather, the husband does. Yet neither does the husband have authority over his body; but rather, the wife does.” (1 Cor. 7:2-4)

O ho ho! Shades of Yentl! And yup, the phrase is put exactly the same way for either husband or wife. (Everybody tells me that Paul is soooooo sexist.)

Paul goes on:

“Do not deprive one another — unless perhaps by mutual consent, so that y’all might be at leisure for prayer for a time. But then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.

“However, I say this as a concession, not as a command. For I wish all human beings could be as I am.

“But each person has his own gift from God — one this, another that.

“And so I say to the unmarried people and to the widows, that it is beautiful for them to remain like me. But if they don’t have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn.” (1 Cor. 7:5-9)

And now it gets interesting again.

“But to those who have married, I send this message [parangellou] — I, not the Lord.

“A wife is not to be separated from a husband.

“But if she has been separated from him, let her remain unmarried, or let her be reconciled with her husband.

“And let a husband not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor.

Paul then says that if a Christian has an unbelieving spouse who wants to stay married, they should stay married; the unbelieving spouse will be sanctified in his union with the believer, and their children will be holy/saints/members of the Church. If the unbeliever doesn’t want to be married, the believer can let them go. In general, everybody should live as they already do (barring sin).

“Concerning virgins, I have no command from the Lord. But I give my personal advice from experience, as one who is trustworthy from having received the Lord’s mercy.” (1 Cor. 7:25)

Again, his advice is to stay as you are; but if a person wants to marry, that’s fine too. This will cause some suffering in the present life.

But ideally, all Christians should live as if the world were about to end, because it is an ephemeral place and Christians are immortal. Christians should set aside anxiety and live for God.

This leads to a discussion of eating food offered to idols. Basically, it’s a bad idea because it gives the wrong idea, and thus leads people astray. Paul talks about how he doesn’t use all his rights as an apostle; other Christians should be thinking of helping others, too. He advises everyone to “run so as to win,” exercising and training themselves with discipline in every possible way. Do not be overconfident in Christ’s mercy. Avoid idolatry and think of the good of others around you.

Again he urges the Corinthians to imitate him, as he imitates Christ. In fact, he tells them to be “mimetai,” mime actors! (“Hypocritai” are the talking actors with masks or makeup.) In Greek society, the students of a philosopher or trademaster were expected to try to imitate him in every way; so were the students of a rabbi in Jewish society.

So finally we get to the stuff about headcovering.

As St. Paul says in a paraphrase of Genesis 2, the woman was literally created out of the man, not the man out of the woman. So man is literally the head of humanity and woman is literally the human rib; whereas the head man of all men is Christ, the new Adam; and Christ’s head is God. This much is clear reasoning.

The tricky bit is that, since Christian men are the image and glory of God, their heads should be exposed; but that since Christian women are Christian men’s doxa or shekinah, their heads should be hidden. Possibly this is talking about how humans are fallible and should be modest before God. In this idea, God’s glory should be exposed and revealed to the world, and should not be covered before God because it is of God. Probably I am missing something Jewish about this.

OTOH, Paul then says that the woman ought to have “authority” (exousian) “on the head” (epi tes kephales). I am not clear why the obvious meaning (going by the earlier passage in 1 Corinthians) is not taken — that the wife does still have authority over the body of her husband, even though he is her head. Possibly this is because it’s a feminine “kephales.”

But in that case, wouldn’t it be saying that the woman has authority over her own head, even if she should be wearing a headcovering and isn’t? Wouldn’t that fit Paul’s argument style better? (And indeed, this is one interpretation — they have more authority than non-Christian women, and need to exercise it so they’ll be ready for judging the world.)

The stumbling block seems to be Paul’s interjection, “because of the angels/messengers” [dia tous angelous]

Traditionally the saying is associated with the idea that bad angels liked the looks of the daughters of men, including their hair. But that doesn’t seem to have been a factor in the Adam and Eve story, in early Jewish tradition. If anything, Eve was a figure of authority in Eden, and Satan resented the fact that such a newbie, made out of meat instead of spirit, was being given such power by God.

All the angels (or messengers) mentioned in 1 Corinthians, up to this point, are good angels. So what is the deal? Is “authority on the head” a symbol of Christian humans being able to judge angels? A sign of dignity, scholarship, and power, or a sign of awe before the Lord?

(long aside follows)

Before the Diaspora, it was not required that Jewish men ever cover their heads, although it was considered pious to do so during prayer, at synagogues, or in the Temple. Temple Judaism did tend to regard covering the head or face as an expression of awe before God or of penance. OTOH, grief or reckless behavior could require one to bare the head and expose the hair. Headcoverings for male scholars were a sign of dignity and learning. Covering the heads of boys was thought to make them more serious. But it may in fact have become customary for Jewish men to cover their heads always, and particularly at prayer, as a contradiction of Christian custom.

As with most of the ancient world, Temple Judaism only wanted married women to cover their heads outside the home, basically as a sign that they were taken. It was only gradually that unmarried Jewish women began to cover their hair; it would not have been the custom in the time of Jesus or Paul. Pagan Greek and Roman married women covered their hair.

After the loss of the Temple, custom got meaner; it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife if her hair was ever seen outside, and showing female hair was said to be the same as showing female genitalia. Similarly, the idea that married Jewish women should shave their heads and keep their hair covered forever, even from their husbands inside their bedrooms, was a late medieval or early modern idea, apparently born of an excessive sense of “keeping a fence around the Law.”

Obviously none of this, er, devotional creativity (ahem) has anything to do with Christian women or the strictures of St. Paul. Similarly, Christian women should dismiss the moral reasoning behind Muslim headcoverings. We should not be anywhere on the same page with the heretical Quran. (And yes, I shouldn’t have to say something as obvious as that.)

(long aside ends)

Amusingly, there is at least one Christian group today that believes that only women wearing headcoverings have the authority to exorcise demons. Others associate it with angels covering their faces before God. (Actually, I only know about angels throwing themselves down before God, and seraphim covering up God from human sight.)

Anyway, Paul quickly moves on from the headcovering issue, unlike the rest of us!

“However, in the Lord, woman is not separate from man, nor is man separate from woman. For just as the the woman came out of the man, so the man exists because of the woman. But everything comes from God.

“Judge for yourselves whether it is proper for a woman to pray to God while unveiled.” (1 Cor. 11:11-13)

Then the next knotty problem: long-haired men in the congregation.

“But on the other hand, doesn’t Nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor [atimia] to him?” (1 Cor. 11:14)

Men or boys having long hair was a sign of effeminate sexiness among the pagan men who liked catamites. Some Jewish men grew their hair long, which was… um… misunderstood.

In ancient ancient Athens, atimia was a legal term for losing the powers of citizenship. You weren’t exiled, but you couldn’t vote or act as a juror, and you couldn’t defend yourself by suing anyone else. So having atimia growing on your head is pretty much the opposite of having exousian over your head.

This is the point of the argument where Paul says that long hair is the shekinah glory (“doxa“) of women.

“However, if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for long hair was given to her instead of a warm cloak.” (1 Cor. 11:15)

Presumably “was given” is a reference to Eve in Eden. A peribolaion was often a man’s traveling cloak. Some suggest that it is referring here to chest hair, heh… Probably not, but it’s a fun idea.

Paul ends his comments with:

“So if anyone is inclined to be argumentative — we have no other practice, and neither do any of God’s churches.” (1 Cor. 11:16)

This got a lot longer than I planned on! Let me know if you actually read this wall of text!

1 Comment

Filed under Church, Greek Bible Stuff

One response to ““Because of the Angels”

  1. Thank you. Interesting and well-reasoned discussion of a particularly thorny verse. It makes sense to me.

    Also I am shocked, shocked that St. Paul might be engaging in an extended pun surrounding the name of St. Peter. Shocked, I say. [Whoever said that saints couldn’t have a sense of humor?]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.