Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Lucy Peppiatt, Wipf and Stock, 2018

her recent book, Unveiling Paul’s Women, Lucy Peppiatt writes with reference to 1 Corinthians 7-10, that ‘The only real application of these verses, if we think that Paul wrote them, and we think that he is an authoritative voice for the church, is that women should wear head coverings in church when they pray and prophesy’ (p. 55). She had just pointed out that ‘there are no cultural reasons given in these verses for the shame that an uncovered woman and a covered man causes … the disapproval comes from God and the angels’ (p. 54). To deal with this Peppiatt proposes a bold re-reading of the passage. By an act of interpretive judo, she flips everything around and finds that Paul is actually arguing against the practice of women’s head covering. She writes, ‘Paul was faced with a group of domineering, gifted, prophetic men who had implemented oppressive practices for women in Paul’s absence. They constructed a theology to support their practices that was a blend of Paul’s original thought and their own distorted view of the world’ (p. 86). Paul is presenting their thinking (not his own) in vv4-5 and 7-10, which Paul then opposes with his own corrective in vv11-16. Verse 13 expects the answer ‘yes’, and the uniform custom of the churches is to allow women to pray and prophesy without a head covering.


Now, this neatly solves many problems. It takes all that modern sensibilities find difficult out of Paul’s mouth and puts it in the mouths of his opponents. Paul is the friend of women, in an even more thorough way than he has been understood to be hitherto. In the spirit of contemporary feminism, he stands up to controlling men and asserts the freedom and radical equality of women. However, whether this reading is convincing, and will carry us over a watershed in the exegesis of this passage remains to be seen. I’m a bit uneasy with such a novel and radical take on such a long passage, so let me, in my cautious and critical way, set out a few hurdles I face to embracing Peppiatt’s approach.

First, where Paul is understood to be quoting a Corinthian slogan earlier in the letter, the quotes are short, and Paul does not really reject their claims as utterly misguided, only needing to be set in a larger context or qualified by other considerations: ‘“I have the right to do anything” —but not everything is beneficial’. Even if Paul is quoting a Corinthian view, why should we not see him as not so much utterly opposing it, but setting it an a wider context, and qualifying it with other considerations? It is worth reflecting here on the conjunction (plen) that Paul uses in verse 11, at the point Peppiatt sees him pivoting to repudiate the Corinthian position. Peppiatt glosses this here as, ‘What I am saying to you, though, is’ and takes it as a strong adversative, introducing an entirely new and contrary take on the question. But this seems questionable. Plen is used mainly to introduce a thought that accepts what has come before it, but draws an important inference out of it, or describes a restriction or qualification of or exception to the generality what precedes. It is usually glossed ‘however’ or ‘nevertheless’, or ‘in spite of that’ or ‘except that’, and where it is glossed ‘but’ it often carries the sense of ‘sure, but’; accepting rather than overturning what precedes. On a usual understanding of plen, even if what vv7-10 say is the view of his opponents, we should most likely understand Paul as accepting the position in some sense, but wishing to remind his readers of some other truths which qualify and balance what vv7-10 says. Peppiatt’s take on the meaning of plen here is a weak point in her reading.

Further, where Paul really opposes a view he presents in his letters, he makes his rejection of the view represented clear—think of Romans 3:3-4 or even 1 Cor 1:12-17. And when he wants to correct the Corinthians he makes plain statements of the behaviour that he wants: ‘flee from idolatry … you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too … eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience … if anyone invites you to a meal … eat whatever is put in from of you without raising questions of conscience, but if someone says (etc) …’ (1 Cor 10:14, 21, 25, 27-8). Or: ‘So then my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together’ (1 Cor 11:33) Or: ‘if anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one a at a time, and someone must interpret’ (1 Cor 14:27). It seems strange that Paul would want to correct the Corinthians’ head covering thought and practice, but never come right out and state plainly what he wants. But the fact is we do not read any unambiguous direction of Paul along such the lines as, ‘so, drop your insistence on female head coverings’ or ‘I want women to be free to cover their heads or not, as they please’ or ‘since everything comes from God, and in the Lord there is neither male and female, head covering is theologically unimportant—just don’t behave in a way that would scandalise others, for decorum is important.’ Some may argue that that is exactly the import of v10 ‘a woman ought to have authority over her own head’ and v 15 ‘long hair is given to her as a covering’, but these verses have generally not been taken as instructions against female head coverings in the past, and so they are hardly as plain as Paul could have been, and usually was. The absence of such a plain instruction makes Peppiatt’s reading less plausible.

As of today, I find Peppiatt’s reading somewhat forced and too convenient and congenial to our age. It is powerfully grounded in the conviction that Paul could not have believed or taught what vv4-5 and 7-10 say, because that would make him inconsistently egalitarian, rather than radically and thoroughly egalitarian. But I wonder about the premise that Paul must be an egalitarian of some kind. And I wonder that Paul’s true point here been so entirely misunderstood for so long? Could he so completely fail to convey his intention in writing this passage to all the generations until now, such that readers have taken away precisely the opposite conclusion to the one Paul meant to communicate? If it were a couple of cryptic verses, perhaps (and ‘because of the angels’ surely does fall into the category of ‘we don’t know what Paul had in mind here’). But three paragraphs? Read Peppiatt for yourself, and see if you think she has cut the knot. Or, perhaps better, read her larger and more technical work Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians. Maybe that should be my next stop. Ben Underwood, WA