The Ordered Body: Richard A. Horsley

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

Today we turn to Richard A. Horsley’s perspective as found in I Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries). Upon examining Horsley’s contextual concerns, his interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the conceptions of the human body within that passage, we will note that the human body within this passage should be understood as highly ordered.

Richard HorsleyHorsley argues that First Corinthians must be read and interpreted as a communal letter in which Paul rhetorically pits groups within the divided Corinthian church against one another to contrast their positions.[1] Along with the diverse urban background that made up the urban area[2] Horsley notes the patron-client system of Roman governance (which was not militarily enforced) in Corinth.[3] This combination of the urban setting and patronage system gave rise to the centrality of the emperor cult in Corinthian worship.[4] Horsley also notes the plurality of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian forms of worship within Corinth, relying upon archeological evidence attesting to Corinthian worship of Athena, Apollos, Demeter, Kore, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Poseidon, and Isis in addition to the cult of the emperor.[5] Within this plurality of worship settings, Horsley argues that Corinthians who became Christians were apparently taken by Paul’s working of spiritual acts.[6] Horsley also indicates the deep socioeconomic inequality present in Corinth and the deeply ingrained Greco-Roman hierarchical system which placed masters over slaves, husbands over wives, and the upper strata of society over the lower and led to the development of an aristocratic “spiritual” status within the Corinthian church.[7] Further, Horsley finds it extremely likely that a large number of Corinthian Christians were women.[8] A final important piece of Horsley’s contextual puzzle is his understanding of the major division in the Corinthian church to have been between followers of Apollos and followers of Paul,[9] who disagreed fundamentally not only on which preacher to follow, but also in their understandings of reality and the new social order coming because of God’s work in Christ.[10] This division appears to influence Paul’s rhetoric concerning divisions of belief and practice as he addresses not only his own followers, but seeks to transform the entire Corinthian congregation.[11]

Moving to Horsley’s commentary on First Corinthians 11.2-16, it is worth noting that he allows, while not specifically advocating for, the possibility of this section of First Corinthians to have been a later interpolation into Paul’s letter, as he discusses at some length the sections rather uneasy literary placement in the letter, as well as its duetero-Pauline language and contextual setting.[12] Horsley prefers to translate κεφαλη as “source,” advocating a less metaphorical and more common Greek meaning.[13] Within the literary context, he understands verse eight to confirm this reading, as Paul refers to the Genesis narrative where man is the source of the woman.[14] Additionally he writes that understanding “God as the source of Christ” (v.3) as intelligible within this reading.[15] For Horsley, “source” does not necessarily connote “authority over,” and although he admits that some relationship of subordination implicitly finds its way into the statement of verse three, he argues that the meaning of κεφαλη does not indicate a hierarchy inherent to the nature of the cosmos.[16]

Ancient Roman CoinsOn the issue of head coverings, Horsley argues from the context of the passage and the vagueness of Paul’s Greek that verse four should be understood as a reference to hairstyles, not head coverings per se, noting that verbs commonly translated “having one’s hair cut off” and “letting one’s hair grown long” appear later in verses 6-7 and 14-15.[17] Thus what many translations render as “veiling” and “unveiling” or “covering” and “uncovering,” Horsley understands to represent the binding and loosing of hair.[18] Horsley writes that based on coins and statues it is safe to argue that in Greco-Roman society men typically wore short hair and women generally wore their long hair braided or otherwise up around their heads.[19] Women would have been expected to only let their hair down for mourning or specific religious rites, and it would have been standard social custom for both women and men to have their heads uncovered by a hood or veil of any sort.[20] Horsley argues that it would be highly unlikely for Paul to have been lining up with the Greek practice of men praying with their heads uncovered and opposed to both Roman and Jewish practices of men having their heads covered.[21] However, if the topic Paul was addressing was hair length and arrangement, his advice would have fit the standard of Greek, Roman, and Jewish practice for women.[22] Horsley understands the letter’s references to men found in verses 3, 4, 7, and 14 to set up and legitimate what was written about women’s situations and behaviors in verses 5-6, 8-10, and 15.[23] Horsley writes that the problem in Corinth was apparently some women who were letting their hair loose in a situation of inspiration such as prayer or ecstatic prophecy, and that such behavior was unordered and reminiscent of that activities of the devotees of Dionysius and Cybele.[24] Ultimately, the issue at hand was that some women may be shaming themselves and the congregation by prophesying with loose hair, as they would have been encroaching on the realm of non-ordered and non-Christian methods.[25]

Horsley interprets the contents of verses seven through twelve to be primarily concerned with issues of honor and shame.[26] Women, given a measure of authority within the church, are expected to act honorably and to maintain her glory-reflection position by keeping her hair appropriately arranged.[27] Horsley notes the corrective function of verses eleven and twelve, as they remind men that they are interdependent with women in the Lord and should reinforce the claim that women are to remain in their traditional subordinate position that reflect the honor of men.[28] Horsley understands the reference to the angels as a throwaway phrase, arguing that the passage likely alludes to a claim by certain women that because of their prophetic utterances they have authority like the angels.[29] Horsley has trouble excepting the appeal to nature and the situation in other churches as Pauline, noting that if Paul wrote this passage in First Corinthians, he appears to have been concerned with “the behavior of women caught up in ecstatic prophesying, somewhat as he was about the madness of speaking in tongues in 14:23.”[30] Horsley concludes his commentary on First Corinthians 11.2-16 by arguing that this section of First Corinthians appears to have been aimed at reinforcing ordered customs that maintained the tradition social order in Corinth and well as motivated by anxiety concerning the appropriate heads of churches in the Corinthian context.[31]

Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

Having examined Horsley’s interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, we now turn to the conceptions of the human body found in this passage. On the macro level, Paul’s responses to the division that plagued the Corinthian community demonstrated his desire for order in the church. The assumption that ordered communities make for more successful communities runs throughout Horsley’s interpretation of Paul’s writing in First Corinthians. Along these lines, Paul seemingly desired to contrast the well-ordered bodies of the Corinthian Christians with the apparently wild and sensual bodies worshipping Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities. Key for recognizing the conception of human bodies within Horsley’s interpretation remains the importance of recognizing the culturally ingrained systems of hierarchy and order at work in this letter. While Horsley advocates for the interpretation of κεφαλη as “source” and not necessarily an indication of bodies that were inherently subordinated to hierarchical claims, his reading continually comes back to the Greco-Roman understanding of hierarchically arranged bodies. Clearly the proper binding and loosing of hair for the Corinthians demonstrates a desire for the church to fit into the ordered structures of Greco-Roman worship practices while remaining distinct from the disorderly conduct of non-Christian methods of worship. Horsley also interprets this section to be concerned with issues of honor and shame, as disorderly use of the human body would have resulted in the shaming of not only the individual, but also the shaming of the hierarchy and the congregation as a whole. Ultimately Horsley concludes that this section remains concerned with reinforcing existing ordered customs with the Greco-Roman world and conforming the human body, both male and female, to those customs.


[1] Richard A. Horsley. I Corinthians. General Editor Victor Paul Furnish. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1998.21-2. [2] Ibid., 23-4. [3] Ibid., 25-6. [4] Ibid., 27. [5] Ibid., 28. [6] Ibid., 29. [7] Ibid., 30-2. [8] Ibid., 32. [9] Ibid., 35. [10] Ibid., 36. [11] Ibid., 34, 38. [12]Ibid., 152-3. [13] Ibid., 153. [14] Ibid., 153. [15] Ibid., 153. [16] Ibid., 153. Horsley here references the general uniqueness of Paul’s statement in verse three within his clearly attested writings, including the rest of this letter to Corinth, referencing 3.18, 8.6, 15.20-28, 49. [17] Ibid., 153. [18] Ibid., 153-4. [19] Ibid., 154. [20] Ibid., 154. [21]Ibid., 154. [22] Ibid., 154. [23] Ibid., 154. [24] Ibid., 154. [25] Ibid., 155. [26] Ibid., 155. [27] Ibid., 155. [28] Ibid., 155. [29] Ibid., 155. [30] Ibid., 156. [31]Ibid., 156-7. 


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