Head Coverings in Corinth: Comparing Interpretations

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

Ancient Corinth

Having examined the respective perspectives of Hays, Horsley, and Martin, we now place their understandings of Pauline conceptions of the body in conversation with each other. First, we note the importance of the reconstructed socio-historical context for each of the scholar’s respective views on Paul’s conception of the human body. For Hays, the need to distinguish between Christian bodies and other Corinthian bodies led Paul to argue for the importance of symbolic distinctions between male and female bodies. For Horsley, the need for ordered Corinthian Christians as living distinctly different lives from the chaos of other forms of Corinthian worship led Paul to enforce the ordered hierarchy of the congregation within the paradigm of an honor and shame context. Martin, while paying less attention to the general socio-historical context of Greco-Roman Corinth, nonetheless uses his reconstruction of the rhetorical and medical conventions of the first century to argue for Paul’s understanding of the female body as especially susceptible to corrupting pollution.

Second, each of these scholars conceives of a human body that, for Paul and this letter’s recipients, stands firmly within the communal body of the Corinthian congregation. Individual bodies, especially female bodies in this passage, are continually conceived of in relation to other human bodies. In Hays we see this primarily in terms of gender differentiation—female and male bodies need to be at least symbolically differentiated from one another. To not differentiate is to cause confusion and potential shame amongst the greater Corinthian community. In Horsley, bodies are conceived of in relationship to the ordered system of male and female bodies, as well as the order manner in which those bodies were supposed to interact with each other. The Greco-Roman theme of desiring honorable bodies while seeking to prevent the dishonoring of bodies also comes across in Horsley’s conception of Pauline thinking. For Martin the communal nature of human bodies is such that pollution brought into the community of Christians by one body (most specifically a female body) can cause pollution and corruption within the entire body. Whereas Hays and Horsley appear to conceive of human agents well within the social-scientific reading of communal actions in the honor and shame paradigm, Martin appears to allow for a more individually-based reading of at least portions of the pollution process, as an individual can apparently pollute the entire community.

Apostle PaulThird, it is worth noting that each of the scholars we have looked at conceive of Paul’s assumption of Greco-Roman hierarchy between the sexes in different ways. Hays allows that Paul conceived of male and female bodies as at least functionally equal, if not equal in some ontological sense, even though he called for symbolic hierarchy. Horsley too rejects the notion that Paul conceived of male and female bodies as necessarily hierarchical, though he argues that Paul advocated such ordering for the sake of order. On the other hand, Martin advocates a view of female bodies, namely their highly porous natures, that necessarily subordinates them to stronger male bodies. At this point it seems beneficial to introduce an additional position on the topic of hierarchy between male and female bodies, namely that of Carolyn Osiek and Jennifer Pouya found in “Constructions of Gender in the Roman Imperial World.” Working from a social-scientific standpoint that emphasizes the centrality of honor and shame relationships in the ancient Mediterranean context, Osiek and Pouya argue that constructions of gender in the ancient world were along the lines of cosmic hierarchy and the need to control the desires of the body.[1] Because the functionality of gender was spectral and non-stable in an honor and shame culture, males had to constantly prove their masculinity through self-mastery of themselves and those under them in the societal hierarchy.[2] When Osiek and Pouya examine Paul’s writing in First Corinthians 11.2-16, they understand him to be advocating a divinely ordered, hierarchical, and patriarchical order of created bodies, with God as the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, and man the head of women.[3] The proper hierarchy between male and female bodies thus reflects the cosmic hierarchy between God, Christ, and humanity in an attempt to make certain that the Corinthian community observes the proper created order.[4]

A final consideration of bodily conceptions from this passage is that each scholar understands Paul to emphasize bodily differentiation. Put simply, Hays, Horsley, and Martin each understand Paul to conceive of Christian male and female bodies as different than other bodies within the Corinthian context. The scope, depth, and gender of such differences vary for each author, thought the concept of bodily difference remains present. Hays conceives of Pauline views on male and female bodies as different from other Corinthian bodies in that they are similar if not equal in ontological value and function, unlike the rest of the hierarchical Corinthian context that androcentrically emphasized the male body. Though symbolically similar in function—that is Paul wants Corinthian Christian bodies to appear like other Corinthian bodies—Christian bodies case are ontologically different than other human bodies. One can only speculate concerning the anthropology behind this thinking, though considering Galatians 3.28 and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s claim concerning that verse as a baptismal formula may clarify the issue. If there are no longer male or female bodies in Christ, even though male and female bodies exist in the hierarchical and gendered world, Christian bodies are ontologically different than those bodies by nature of their functional androgyny within the church. For Horsley the primary differentiation between bodies is the difference between the ordered nature of Christian bodies and the disorderly chaos of other Corinthian bodies, especially within the context of ancient worship. Christian bodies, both male and female, were for Paul to exist in Corinth as models of well structured Greco-Roman order, providing a stark contrast with other socio-culture cults that emphasized wildness in worship otherwise unbecoming of Greco-Roman societal honor. Here again the key differentiation the Paul seeks to commit to the Corinthian church involves the distinctiveness of Christian bodies in contrast to other bodies in the Corinthian context.

Head CoveringsMartin, too, argues that Paul conceived of different Christian male and female bodies in Corinth, though in his interpretation the distinctiveness cut two ways. First, in general male and female bodies were vastly different, if not ontologically then at least in some inherent and important ways, as female bodies were far more prone to allow polluting agents into the Christian community than were male bodies. While male and female bodies could be considered androgynous in Christ, that androgyny did not imply the equality that commentators such as Hays and Horsley seem to allude to. Instead, Martin understands Paul’s conception of different bodies to encapsulate the male and female bodies of Corinthian Christians. The second form of bodily distinctiveness that Martin understands Paul to advocate is that between Christian and non-Christian Corinthians bodies. Female bodies may be more likely to bring polluting agents into the Christian community, but those polluting agents involve those outside of the community to begin with. Thus bodily purity from pollution necessitates an understood difference between the bodies of those within the Christian community and those without. Therefore by examining the perspectives of Hays, Horsley, and Martin on Paul’s conception of bodily differences, though we noting that the scope, depth, and gender issues of such distinctiveness vary with each perspective, the overall concept of bodily differentiation remains present in each scholar’s interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16. It is this common feature that appears to be the central defining trait of these scholars’ understandings of Paul’s conception of the human body found in First Corinthians 11.2-16. Undoubtedly there are numerous potential insights to draw from this survey and study of First Corinthians 11.2-16 and the interpretations of Hays, Horsley, and Martin. In seeking to determine a central locus to orient all of these perspectives around, however, the clearly defining feature appears to be these scholars understanding of Paul’s calls for bodily differentiation in this passage.


[1] Carolyn Osiek and Jennifer Pouya. “Constructions of Gender in the Roman Imperial World.” Edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris. Understanding the Social World of the New Testament. Routledge: New York, 2010. 45. [2] Ibid., 45-6. [3] Ibid., 48-9. [4] Carolyn Osiek and Jennifer Pouya. “Constructions of Gender in the Roman Imperial World.” Edited by Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris. Understanding the Social World of the New Testament. Routledge: New York, 2010. 50.


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