Head Coverings in Corinth

The next two weeks Pursuing Veritas is running a series on contemporary scholar’s perspectives on Head Coverings in Corinth. This series is based on a paper written for a graduate seminar at Wake Forest University that focused on topics surrounding the human body and sexuality in Early Christianity. The topic of head coverings is often discussed among Christians, especially younger Evangelicals, as a perplexing example of the complexity of Biblical Interpretation within contemporary American Christianity.

Head CoveringsThe writings of the Apostle Paul found in the New Testament are some of the most formative documents of Western Civilization. Pauline thought, through the long-standing prominence of the Western Christian Church, has long influenced interpretations of history, human application of ethics, the relationship between ‘church and state,’ and perspectives on the human body and sexuality. Portions of specific letters of Paul, such as Romans, Galatians, and First Corinthians, have long been used to explicate the appropriate norms for human existence through their use as authoritative scripture within the Christian tradition. Such powerful influence, however, has not been without its difficulties. As perspectives on Paul multiplied, the diversity of convictions and interpretations have exponentially increased, providing the modern reader of Paul with numerous and often strongly differing interpretive lenses through which to examine Pauline thought. Passages that were long interpreted in a certain fashion to promote a specific principle are now said to mean very different things. Understandably, certain passages lend themselves to different readings more easily, among these Paul’s statements in concerning the role of women in the Christian church and appropriate ‘head coverings.’

This series examines three scholars’ interpretations of Paul’s perspective[1] on appropriate head coverings in the church found in First Corinthians 11:2-16 and their understandings of Paul’s conception of the human body. The perspectives employed for this study include Richard B. Hays’ theological commentary for teaching and preaching, First Corinthians, Richard A. Horsley’s Abingdon commentary, I Corinthians, and Dale B. Martin’s work on body and sexuality, The Corinthian Body. These commentaries and interpretations, though coming from mid-1990’s, have been intentionally chosen because of their widespread used by scholars and their impact on later interpretations of First Corinthians. Throughout this series we are concerned with differing ways in which scholars make sense of passages such as First Corinthians 11.2-16, how such scholars understand Paul’s conception of the human body, and the common contextual and hermeneutical perspectives in modern scholarship seeking to understand Pauline conceptions of the human body. Through the use of these questions and the examination of these scholars’ perspectives we find that modern scholars, employing a contextualized historical critical method, read Paul’s construction of the human body in a number of ways, though common to each of these perspectives remains the unifying understanding that Paul conceived of Christian male and female bodies as necessarily different from other bodies within the Greco-Roman social context.

This study seeks to contribute to the ongoing discussion of Pauline bodily ethics and the general social-scientific interpretation of First Corinthians. When dealing with biblical literature it remains nearly impossible to remain detached from theological considerations—indeed one of the perspectives that we are examining has been written with pastors in mind. However the theological considerations are not our primary concern here except as they influence general contextual and interpretative issues within First Corinthians 11.2-16. Theological reflections aside, three facets of each scholar’s perspective will be examined here: their general interpretive framework for understanding Pauline literature within the wider Greco-Roman and Corinthian contexts, their interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and their respective understandings of Paul’s conception of the human body based on the materials found in First Corinthians 11.2-16. After examining each of these interpretations, we will place their conceptions of Pauline views on the body in conversation with one another, noting common features of their interpretations.


[1] It should be noted that for the purposes of this paper, no major distinction will be drawn between the perspective of “Paul” (the historical figure of the first century Jesus Movement) and the perspective of the text of “First Corinthians” (that letter understood to have been written by the historical Paul). My primary reason for precluding discussion on the source of meaning or interpretive value consists in the long history of identifying one with the other in the interpretation of First Corinthians, as well as the sources that are being used, only one of which appears to be interested in such hermeneutical questions and one of which argues for a theologically informed close relationship between the two.

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