Godly and good-hearted experts in Greek look at 1 Corinthians 11:10 and say, "This means women should have authority over their own head." In fact, the NIV2011 translates this verse exactly that way.
It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head...
What it means for a woman to have authority over her own head is another debate on top of this. In short, most people who read verse 10 the NIV2011 way think it means women have authority to pray or prophesy.
Where does this reading come from?
It basically comes from to looking at the other biblical instances of the Greek phrase, “have authority over”. In those instances, it apparently always refers to a person “having authority over” something (active), rather than a person “being under authority” (passive).
Therefore, people conclude, Paul cannot have been saying women are under authority of man, but rather that she has authority over her own head.
Those who argue for this view don't appeal only to the Bible, but also to the works of Jewish writers who wrote in Greek around the time of the New Testament (Philo or Josephus). In fact, Gordon Fee, a Bible scholar, confidently says:
There is no known evidence that exousia [authority] is ever taken in this passive sense.
Even more scathingly, an earlier Bible scholar and archeologist, William Mitchell Ramsay, wrote in 1907:
Most of the ancient and modern commentators say that "authority" which the woman wears on her head is the authority to which she is subject - a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the New Testament, where (as they seem to think) Greek words may mean anything that commentators choose.
Unmuddling the muddle.
It seems a pretty persuasive argument, but the result is to make a muddle of the passage. In the verses leading up to verse 10, Paul provides reasons that a woman should wear a head covering, i.e. because man is her head and she is the glory of man. Why would he then say she should have authority over her own head?
There are a number of reasons why we should reject Fee's and Ramsay's reading and avoid this muddle.
1. The context does not support it.
In verses 7-10, the structure of Paul's argument is this:
- Man should not wear a covering (v7)
- because man is the image and glory of man. (v7)
- Because woman is the glory of man (v7-9)
- woman should wear a covering. (v10)
To introduce a woman's authority in verse 10 goes against the flow of the passage and makes nonsense of Paul's reaoning. Why on earth would being the glory of man, made from him and for him (vv8-9) end in a statement that women should have authority over their own head? If nothing else, it ruins the literary effect!
2. If you understand "authority" as a metonym, Fee's argument (and Ramsay's and many others') falls apart.
Iver Larsen, a senior translation consultant for Bible translators, SIL, wrote a paper in 1997 (updated 2022) called, Have Authority on the Head 1 Corinthians 11.10 Revisited.
In this paper, Larsen, himself not a proponent of head covering, illustrates how when a person uses metonyms, they are not referring to the literal word, but the word underneath it.
So, in 1 Corinthians 11:10 "authority" is a metonym for "covering" or "veil", and the grammar and examples should not be focused on the use of the word "authority", but on the idea of covering the head with something like a cloth or a veil.
Larsen gives examples in English. Here is one:
If I say "the kettle is boiling", the word "kettle" is used as a metonym for the contents of the kettle. Although the surface subject of this sentence is "kettle" the underlying subject is "water". It is the underlying subject which conceptually and semantically is related to the rest of the sentence. The meaning is that the water in the kettle is boiling, and it would be irrelevant to argue whether a kettle can actually boil or not.
Fee and Ramsay and others are trying to argue that a kettle cannot boil.
3. There are examples of the exact wording in 1 Corinthians 11:10 being used to talk about putting something on a person's head in Greek.
Here is 1 Corinthians 11:10 in Greek:
διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς τοὺς ἀγγέλους.
4 For it was a practice among the rulers of Egypt to wear upon their heads the forepart of a lion, or bull, or snake as symbols of their rule; at times also trees or fire, and in some cases they even carried on their heads (ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς) large bunches of fragrant herbs for incense, these last serving to enhance their comeliness and at the same time to fill all other men with fear and religious awe.
The exact same phrase is also found in Pausaunias, Description of Greece 8.32.1 (Arcadia). The English translation of the relevant sentence is below:
While these are not examples of "authority" being on someone's head, when we understand that "authority" is a metonym, we see how these examples support the traditional reading of a cloth or veil on a woman's head.
The argument that 1 Corinthians 11:10 is talking about a woman's own authority, as translated in the NIV2011, seems quiet strong at first blush. However, the context of the verse in the passage, examples of the same phrase in other Greek works and the understanding of metonyms all refute the argument, and show that we should read the verse as it has been traditionally and historically read; women should wear a sign of authority (a covering) on her head.