Gender, Translators & 1 Corinthians 11. On the Mistranslation of a Text

What do you do when you’re translating a bible passage into English and the text says the opposite of what you’re expecting it to say? It turns out there are a very small number of occasions where some translators give us what they think the text should say, even when the grammar says the opposite. 1 Corinthians 11:10 is a prime example. It’s a key verse in a widely discussed text on gender. Here’s the translation provided by the 1984 edition of the New International Version:

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.


A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.


11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.


13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

A Traditional Reading

The logic of the passage, according to many interpreters, runs something like this:

Just as God the Father has authority over Christ and Christ has authority over every husband, so every husband has authority over his wife. These relationships should be honoured at all times. So when women pray and prophesy they should make sure they cover their head, for a head covering, (in the first century Greco-Roman world) is a symbol that the wife is under the authority of her husband. If a wife is uncovered she brings shame upon her husband and herself.


This pattern, of husbands having authority over their wives, was established by God at the creation of the world: woman was created from the man and for the man. She was created in relation to the man, to be his support. But husbands don’t take this as license to do as you please, for just as woman came from man at creation, so now men are born of women. You are dependent on each other.


Nonetheless, wives should be covered. Not only does the bible teach this but so does custom and the universal practise of the churches.

The fly in the ointment is verse 10. Traditionally it is translated like this:

1984 NIV:
For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.


New Living Translation:
For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority


New American Standard:
Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

The problem is this is the exact opposite of what the Greek text says. Notice the sections I underlined? Those words are not in the Greek text but are inserted by the translator.  And by inserting them the meaning of the sentence is reversed. Leave those words out and the sentence is talking about the authority of the woman. Add them in and we’re talking about the authority of men.

The latest edition of the NIV translates what the Greek text actually says

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

Why then do so many translators add in words that reverse the meaning? It seems that confronted with a choice between what they think the text should say and what it does say they opt for what they think it should say.

Thank goodness this is very rare! But unfortunately in this case it significantly impacts the reading of the text.

An Egalitarian Reading

So what is Paul saying in this passage? Encouraged by the reference to woman’s freedom in verse 10 new readings have emerged. One that is common goes like this:

Just as Christ came from God and men came from Christ, so woman came from man. You women who think being ‘in Christ’ allows you to claim independence from your husbands have forgotten that husbands and wives are meant to be interdependent. When you assert your independence by praying and prophesying without covering your head you bring shame upon your husband, which shames you too. You need to remember that woman was created from man and for man. Your origins are to be in relationship with man.


Yes, you are right that in Christ you are free to cover your head as you please. But it is also true that men and women are dependent on each other. So why do you bring shame on your husbands? Even nature tells you this is not right as does the practise of all the churches.

On this reading the passage has nothing to do with male leadership and authority.  It’s a response to a misguided understanding of what it means to say there is no male or female in Christ. It builds on hints throughout 1 Corinthians that the Corinthians believed they were already living the life of the world to come, where Jesus taught there will be no marriage and we will be like the angels.  If we’re already like the angels then there is no need to maintain that we are sexually different, nor any need to stay married. As a result at least some of the congregation were abandoning their marriages or starting to live in “spiritual marriages” in which there was no physical intimacy and were symbolising their angel-like status by refusing to embrace the cultural symbols of sexual differentiation.

This interpretation allows verse 10 to mean what it says, to speak of women’s freedom. But its achilles heel is the suggestion that “head” in verse 3 means “source”, ie, that man is the source from which the first woman was made. It is true that in the New Testament era the word “head” carried a range of meanings when used as a metaphor. It could mean “leader” as in “the head of the company” or “source, point of origin” as in “the head of the river”. But to suggest it means “source” when used of male-female relationships is very implausible. This was an era when husbands had enormous authority over their wives. The notion that someone could speak of the husband as head of his wife and not be understood to mean “leader” is near to impossible.

A Better Way?

So is there an interpretation that allows “head” to reference authority and verse 10 to speak of a woman’s authority? An answer is difficult to provide, given the many things we don’t know:

  1. Is the issue hair styles or some kind of covering such as a veil? Both are equally possible;
  2. What was the cultural significance of the head covering?
  3. What significance did the Corinthians see in women not wearing head coverings during prayer and prophesy?
  4. What did Paul mean when he pointed to the order of creation?
No-one has a definitive answer to any of these questions. Presumably Paul knew and the Corinthians knew, but that knowledge has been lost with the passage of time.

Those caveats notwithstanding, my educated guess would run something like this:

(We live in a culture where husbands have authority over their wives.) Remembering that God has authority over Christ and Christ has authority over every husband gives us a helpful model for thinking about this. Just as Christ wouldn’t want to behave in a way that dishonours God and a husband wouldn’t want to behave in a way that dishonours Christ, so wives shouldn’t behave in ways that dishonour their husbands. (In our culture) a wife dishonours her husband when she prays or prophesies without covering her head.


Wives you are absolutely correct that in Christ you are free to assert your independence. But it’s also true that we were created to be interdependent. Think of the creation story – the first woman was made out of the man to meet his need for a partner. And just as the first woman was dependent on the first man for her existence, so now men are dependent on women for their existence. You should exercise your freedom in a way that honours this interdependence.


And this reasoning is backed up by what seems natural and by the custom of the worldwide church.

My starting point is that Paul writes pastorally.  His goal is not to write abstract theology but to help his communities live out the calling of Jesus in their time and place. He begins with the concrete realities of his day and then looks for relevant theological models to speak to that. The reality of his time was that men were granted enormous authority in the home, both by law and custom. So he looks for models to speak to that, that show how hierarchical relationships can work. He is not saying that patriarchal marriage structures are God’s will for all people at all times. Indeed, just as the gospel of equality undermined slavery, so it undermines patriarchal marriage structures.

The reality of our time is a culture of equality within relationships. I think the relevance of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is that it serves as a case study in applying the good news to life. Rather than seeking to apply Paul’s content (theological models that spoke to a patriarchal age) we should follow Paul’s method of looking for theological models that speak to marriage relationships in our age. Then perhaps we won’t need to mistranslate verses or fudge meanings in order to make the text say what we want it to.


In previous posts I have overviewed an approach to biblical teaching on gender roles. This is the second of four or five  posts where I will look at some key texts.

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3 years ago

It seems the whole chapter flows better without verses 3-16. Could they have been inserted?

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