Sunday, April 30, 2006

Difficult verses; 1 Corinthians 11

I have asked Ruud Vermeij of EquaMusic, to blog here in English. Ruud lives in the Netherlands with his wife and two children and worked for the Salvation Army. He is musician and advocate of equal rights for women. Thanks, Ruud for joining me.

When people talk about difficult verses, usually they mean that it is a difficult topic. Take for example the verse "love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you." The meaning of this verse is crystal clear, but the application of it in our daily life is quite a challenge...

But there are also verses in the Bible that are kind of obscure. We just don't understand their meaning or we are not familiar with the situation at hand. Sometimes we just know half of the story. That can happen in the Epistles. These are often an answer to a question or a problem in a certain congregation. We read the answer, but we do not know the question or the problem...

1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is such a passage. Here is verse 10 in 3 versions.

For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels. KJV

That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. ESV

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

It is full of exegetical questions and problems. Even Bible translators come to different, sometimes even opposite, translations of verses from this passage.
  • What were the women in Corinth doing? What was Paul responding to?
  • What is the relation between the prohibition of long hair for men and the prohibition (in the Old Testament) of cutting one's hair for Nazarites (Numbers 6:5?)
  • When is the term head used literally and when figuratively here?
  • What is the relation between the speaking and praying of women here (verse 5) and the alleged ban on public speaking for women in meetings (1 Cor. 14:34)
  • What is the relation between the headship of Christ and God in verse 3 and the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • What do angels have to do with all of this (verse 10?)
  • To what extend are we dealing here with cultural defined regulations? (If a woman with a bald head is not a shame, is there then no need to cover it? See verse 6.)
  • Are the questions in verse 13 and 14 rhetorical (are they obviously answered with yes,) or is there no reason at all to translate these verses as interrogatives (I hope to write more on this later.)
These uncertainties alone are a big red flag! Using this passage as a foundation for a doctrine of male leadership is a very hazardous venture!

Read related posts in Dutch at Equamusic.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Ruud,

I like the way you use a series of questions to introduce this topic. It is a challenge to remain open to dialogue.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I want to ask why it says 'een macht' in Dutch, instead of just 'macht'? Does that mean the same thing as 'power' in English? Or does it mean 'a power' which of course is impossible in English, but sounds like a thing, 'a symbol of power'

Ruud Vermeij said...


I have to make a correction to your introduction. I do not work for the Salvation Army, I worked for the SA (though I am still involved in some volunteer work there...)

In answer to your question, 'macht' in Dutch is the same as 'power' in English. 'Een macht' is just as impossible as 'a power' in English (and sounds just as strange). However, we have the word 'krijgsmacht', which refers to the militairy, but it does not exist without the 'krijgs-' part. And I don't think a women should have the military on her head :-)

I never understood this verse in the 1951 NBG translation. More about this in my next post.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Sorry Ruud,

You must introduce yourself.

Thanks for expaining about 'een macht' that has puzzled me in the Luther Bible, where it says 'ein macht'. It would certainly sound very strange to say in English 'a power'.

bobbie said...

I have never understood why it was so important for jewish men to have their heads covered if all of this is true. could you please explain?? I'd really appreciate it.

Sam said...

Is anyone (Suzanne?) able to comment on the validity of Bushnell's take on the Greek in verse 14? See par. #230 here:

Ruud Vermeij said...

Tne post How long is your hair? goes into this. The link to the William Welty document is no longer valid. It can now be found over here.

Sam said...

Ah, excellent, thanks Ruud!