Not many commentaries will get into depth with the following verse: Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor 11:10)
This confusing verse of the Scripture has given many a loss for words. I have an opinion on it and we will discuss the ramifications, especially as it pertains to the issue of head coverings, but to sum up this whole article it has to do with the relationship between prayer and prophecy.
Again, the reason why I keep writing of head coverings is simply because I find the issue relatively simple and misunderstood in the church at large these days. So, I am writing on it again. My previous takes on this topic are found here (a brief exposition of the whole passage) and here (discussing a consistent interpretation of 1 Cor 11-15).
First, Thomas Aquinas probably gives the best and most succinct exposition in his commentary on 1 Corinthians in chapter 613:
A woman ought to have a veil on her head because of the angels. This can be understood in two ways: in one way about the heavenly angels who are believed to visit congregations of the faithful, especially when the sacred mysteries are celebrated. And therefore at that time women as well as men ought to present themselves honorably and ordinately as reverence to them according to Ps 138 (v. 1): “Before the angels I sing thy praise.”
In another way it can be understood in the sense that priests are called angels, inasmuch as proclaim divine things to the people according to Mal (2:7): “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the angel of the Lord of hosts.” Therefore, the woman should always have a covering over her head because of the angels, i.e., the priests, for two reasons: first, as reverence toward them, to which it pertains that women should behave honorably before them. Hence it says in Sir (7:30): “With all your might love your maker and do not forsake his priests.” Secondly, for their safety, lest the sight of a woman not veiled excite their concupiscence. Hence it says in Sir (9:5): “Do not look intently at a virgin, lest you stumble and incur penalties for her.”
As Aquinas lays it out for us, there are two ways we can go. “Angels” can refer to “messengers” so they can be people or they refer to angelic beings. There is a very good reason to prefer the reading of “angelic being” over “messenger:” translators make a practice of assuming such a reading and we are going to cover why in just a bit.
In the Bible, context always makes clear when “aggelos,” the Greek for “angel,” means a non-divine messenger. For example James 2:25 relates the story of Rahab receiving the spies. The term used is “aggelos” which is translated into “messengers.” Because we know the Old Testament story and James’ own explanation, it rules out divine beings, so we can feel good about this translation.
The preponderance of usages, if you go down the list offered in the above link, are obviously in reference to divine beings. So much so, that when there is no immediate context given such as in verses such as 1 Tim 5:21 (“the elect angels”) the working presumption is that unless there is specific evidence that a man is being referenced, we presume a divine being is spoken of.
Let it be known, there are references that contextually make clear the difference between angels and men. For example, 1 Cor 13:1 speaks of “the tongues of men and angels,” so the dichotomy shows that the Greek term “messenger” correctly applies to a divine being in this context. Nonetheless, generally translators don’t need context as clear as 1 Cor 13:1 to understand by default that “aggelos” refers to a divine being. So, unless context makes is specifically clear that the term refers to men, translators go with the word “angel.”
For example, in Acts 7:53, it is said that the Law was given “through aggelos.” Now, they could presume the Law was given “through messengers” such as priests and prophets such as Moses. There would be nothing inaccurate or inconsistent about this interpretation either (though Galatians 3:19 creates a dichotomy between a mediator and “aggelos” which would imply a human mediator and a divine deliverer of the Law). However, the fact that translators don’t employ this explanation is because it would violate the common understanding that unless the term “aggelos” specifically refers to men, it is much more likely that it refers to divine beings.
Further, translators understand the history of the era and the “angelology” of the time. While my initial learning on this subject comes from my Harper Collins NRSV Study Bible and Googling over the years, much of what I will summarize here is derived from a Bible-Researcher.com article.
Deuterocanonical and intertestamental works, as well as the New Testament, convey the idea that angels are involved in presenting prayers to God. For example, Tobit 12:15 states, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.” Rev 8:3 states, “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne.”
It is worth noting that angels not only deliver prayers to God, but they also deliver revelation from God to man. This point appears exceedingly obvious (i.e. Mary being told by an angel about the birth of Jesus, Daniel being shown visions, etcetera,) but it must be said that angels are intertwined with the whole of Old Testament revelation. Acts 7:53 states, “You who received the law as ordained by angels, and did not keep it.” Paul speaks of the same idea in Galatians 3:20 saying, “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” This appeared to be assumed by the Pharisees in Acts 23:6, 9:
But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!”… And there occurred a great uproar; and some of the scribes of the Pharisaic party stood up and began to argue heatedly, saying, “We find nothing wrong with this man; suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”
In this context, the whole issue of head coverings starts to make more sense. Men cannot wear head coverings during praying or prophesying, and women MUST wear head coverings when praying and prophesying. What is the connection between prayer and prophecy? Simply, prayers are offered to God, apparently through angels in some circumstances at least. Further, prophecy is communication from God given to man, also apparently through angels in at least some circumstances.
I would also like to point out that there is good reason to believe that these angels are not of a demonic nature. In the New Testament, the word “aggelos” rarely refers to a demon. In 2 Cor 12:7 when Paul speaks of a “messenger of Satan” tormenting him like a thorn in his flesh, the term is used. Further, in Rev 12:7 the dragon has angels as well. There is also Romans 8:38, 1 Peter 3:22, Jude 1:6 and 2 Peter 2:4.
However, if we went with this understanding, the whole commonality between prayer and prophecy would not be relevant, making Paul’s command senseless. Further, we also know from Revelation that each church has an angel (i.e. Rev 2:1). So, if churches have angels, angels present prayers, and angels dispense prophecy, Paul asking the Corinthians to be obedient to the traditions as he has handed down to them “because of the angels” is almost certainly not of a demonic nature, but rather they are the angels we all know and love.
Now, if Paul says women should have a sign of authority on their heads because of angels, how is that relevant to us today? Well, for one, Paul is saying that the angels care about what is on women’s heads. Second, being that angels don’t die, they don’t stop caring one day. Lastly, being that we don’t have any indication angels care about social norms and that what they approve of changes when society changes, we have even less reason to think Paul’s teaching applies only to the social context of the time. It also doesn’t help the “anti-headcoverers” that their argument from culture is based upon presumptions that don’t correspond with what we actually know about history (no, not everyone in secular society wore head coverings back then), that Paul offers a rationale for the teaching rooted in creation and not society, and lastly it would require inconsistent hermeneutics to make head coverings based upon social context but not the other traditions Paul speaks about such as the Lord’s Supper.
In conclusion, if we have the right conclusion about head coverings (that God expects men not to cover and women to cover when praying or prophesying in church), then 1 Corinthians 11:10 really is not as confusing as it could otherwise be. If the tradition could just be dumped or morphed, then what exactly are the angels looking for? It says they are looking at women’s heads. Does the general direction of where they look change? Are they no longer angels, but rather human messengers? Does God just put the verse to deliberately confuse us?
Perish the thought! We should be obedient in all things to God, because the angels are watching and He is watching. Let’s not disappoint our heavenly Father who gave His most precious Son to pay the penalty for our sins. May the Spirit bless us with understanding and the will to live in accordance with the precepts He has given us in His Scripture.
Overtime: Here are some other commentaries offered throughout the centuries.
John Chrysostrom in his 26th homily on 1 Corinthians writes:
But if to be shaven is always dishonorable, it is plain too that being uncovered is always a reproach. And not even with this only was he content, but added again, saying, He signifies that not at the time of prayer only but also continually, she ought to be covered…
For this cause: what cause, tell me?
For all these which have been mentioned, says he; or rather not for these only, but also
because of the angels.
For although thou despise your husband, says he,
yet reverence the angels.
It follows that being covered is a mark of subjection and authority. For it induces her to look down and be ashamed and preserve entire her proper virtue. For the virtue and honor of the governed is to abide in his obedience.
John Calvin makes the following comments in his commentary on 1 Corinthians:
Because of the angels This passage is explained in various ways. As the Prophet Malachi 2:7 calls priests angels of God, some are of opinion that Paul speaks of them; but the ministers of the word have nowhere that term applied to them by itself — that is, without something being added; and the meaning would be too forced. I understand it, therefore, in its proper signification. But it is asked, why it is that he would have women have their heads covered because of the angels — for what has this to do with them? Some answer: “Because they are present on occasion of the prayers of believers, and on this account are spectators of unseemliness, should there be any on such occasions.” But what need is there for philosophizing with such refinement? We know that angels are in attendance, also, upon Christ as their head, and minister to him. When, therefore, women venture upon such liberties, as to usurp for themselves the token of authority, they make their baseness manifest to the angels. This, therefore, was said by way of amplifying, as if he had said, “If women uncover their heads, not only Christ, but all the angels too, will be witnesses of the outrage.” And this interpretation suits well with the Apostle’s design. He is treating here of different ranks. Now he says that, when women assume a higher place than becomes them, they gain this by it — that they discover their impudence in the view of the angels of heaven.
Matthew Henry’s commentary, though this section was not completed by him, makes the following observations:
She ought to have power on her head, because of the angels. Power, that is, a veil, the token, not of her having the power or superiority, but being under the power of her husband, subjected to him, and inferior to the other sex. Rebekah, when she met Isaac, and was delivering herself into his possession, put on her veil, in token of her subjection, Gen. 24:65. Thus would the apostle have the women appear In Christian assemblies, even though they spoke there by inspiration, because of the angels, that is, say some, because of the evil angels. The woman was first in the transgression, being deceived by the devil (1 Tim. 2:14), which increased her subjection to man, Gen. 3:16. Now, believe evil angels will be sure to mix in all Christian assemblies, therefore should women wear the token of their shamefacedness and subjection, which in that age and country, was a veil. Others say because of the good angels. Jews and Christians have had an opinion that these ministering spirits are many of them present in their assemblies. Their presence should restrain Christians from all indecencies in the worship of God. Note, We should learn from all to behave in the public assemblies of divine worship so as to express a reverence for God, and a content and satisfaction with that rank in which he has placed us…Custom is in a great measure the rule of decency. And the common practice of the churches is what would have them govern themselves by. He does not silence the contentious by mere authority, but lets them know that they would appear to the world as very odd and singular in their humour if they would quarrel for a custom to which all the churches of Christ were at that time utter strangers, or against a custom in which they all concurred, and that upon the ground of natural decency. It was the common usage of the churches for women to appear in public assemblies, and join in public worship, veiled; and it was manifestly decent that they should do so. Those must be very contentious indeed who would quarrel with this, or lay it aside.
Matthew Poole’s commentary says the following:
By angels here some understand God himself, who by the ministry of angels created man and woman in this order, and put this law upon the woman. Others understand those messengers which the man sent sometimes, by whom the woman was betrothed (but this was a custom only in use amongst the Jews). Others here by angels understand the ministers and officers of the church, who are sometimes in holy writ called angels. Others understand the evil angels, who watch to take advantage to tempt men from objects appearing beautiful to unchaste thoughts, &c. But the most and best interpreters understand here by angels, the good angels; for the apostle would hardly have spoken of devils under the notion of angels, especially speaking to deter persons from actions; and so it teaches us, that the good angels, who are ministering spirits for the good of God’s elect, at all times have a special minstration, or at least are more particularly present, in the assemblies of people for religious worship, observing the persons, carriage, and demeanour; the sense of which ought to awe all persons attending those services, from any indecent and unworthy behaviour.