In the first Letter to the Corinthians, Paul introduces the topic of how men and women are to pray and prophesy in liturgical assemblies (1Co 11:2). The words with which he begins hint that, despite an initial praise, something must be corrected (1Co 11:3,16). However, the statement that follows is enigmatic: "I praise you because in everything you remember me, and you keep the traditions as I passed them on to you. I want you to know that the head of 'every man' [= human being] is Christ, the head of the woman is the man. [= male]and the head of Christ is God". (1Co 11:2-3).
What does Paul understand by "head," and why does he bring up this topic? Throughout vv. 4-16, the Apostle will approach this question from different points of view, and this will allow some parts of the argument to illuminate others.
General notes on 1 Cor 11:2-16
a) The text contains expressions that are difficult to interpret due to their polysemy (head; man; image; glory; authority).
b) The theme refers to something of substance, but which is manifested in something external: the way the hair is worn. Paul points to the former.
c) The Apostle speaks of men and women, but the development of the argument makes it clear that he wants to focus on "some women".
Honor and dishonor in the Corinthian assemblies (vv. 4-6)
"Every man [male] who prays or prophesies 'with his head covered'. [= long hair; cf. v. 14]. dishonor [kataischyno] its head [= to himself; to his person].,and any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered [= short hair] [= short hair dishonor [kataischyno] its head [= to himself; to his person].The hair is the same as if it were shaved. Therefore, if you do not want to cover [= long hair] [= long hairwhich is rapped to zero [Pablo's irony].. If it is embarrassing for a woman to cut her hair or shave it short, let her cover it up. [= long hair] [= long hair".
Expressions to be discerned are: "head" (kephalé), which can have both a physical and a metaphorical sense (here, a sense of "origin/provenance" rather than "authority"), although the text gives clues, because at some points one of these two senses is not possible; aner (male), the meaning of which is sometimes interchanged with that of anthropos (human being); the references to the covered or uncovered head: it is talking about the hairstyle or haircut (cf. vv. 13-15).
Biblical and common sense proofs (vv. 7-15)
In these verses, Paul gives the reasons that support his indications. These are biblical arguments, from experience and reason.
"The man, in fact, should not cover his head, since it is the image of a man's head. [eikon] and glory [doxa] of God; the woman, on the other hand, is glory [doxa] from man; for man does not come from woman, but woman from man, nor was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. Therefore, the woman must have authority [exousia] over his head [= to wear his hair in such a way as to make his unwaivable identity visible]. by reason of angels [= those who watch over the divine order of creation]." (vv. 7-10).
Paul has in mind that, according to Gn 2:7,21-23, male and female came into existence through different creative acts (from the dust of the earth and from Adam's rib), which does not mean greater or lesser dignity, but a differentiated theological and anthropological status. Woman is glory of man insofar as man discovers in her someone who is like him, and not like the rest of created beings (cf. Gen 2:20): God is proud of the man; the male is proud of the woman. The woman must cover herself (= long hair) when prophesying or praying in order to manifest the modality of God's creative act, not out of lesser dignity or subjugation.
"For the rest, neither the woman without the man. [male]nor the man [male] without the woman, in the Lord. For if the woman proceeds from the man [male]so man is born of woman; and all things of God". (vv. 11-12).
The following arguments balance the possible impression that Paul considers woman inferior to man. Both are necessary for each other: the woman came from the rib of the man, but we are all born of a woman and, all of this, within God's plan: "in the Lord".
"Judge for yourselves: is it convenient for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? [= short hair] [= short hair? Is it the same nature [= sexual difference]? does not teach you that it is an affront [atimia] for the man to wear long hair, while the woman is honored to be [doxa] by letting it grow? Because the scalp has been given to her as a 'veil'. [peribolaion]" (vv. 13-15).
Finally, Paul refers to common sense, appealing to what everyone can see and judge, affirming that for a woman it is a matter of honor to let her hair grow long and that the Corinthians themselves judge it inconvenient for women to pray before God with their heads uncovered.
In conclusion. In Corinth there were women (perhaps "emancipated enthusiasts") who had misunderstood the consequences of Christ's redemptive act. Paul reaffirms the equal dignity of men and women, but says that for the baptized, sexual differences do not disappear (cf. Gal 3:28), because they belong to God's creative design. That a woman prays looking like a man (= imitating the way he wears his hair), is a manifestation of rejection of the creative plan. Paul, far from going against women, is speaking in their favor: their dignity also lies in their differentiation from men.
Professor of New Testament, University of Navarra.