Part 1: An Eschatological Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16

I believe that the Bible presents a rich theology of gender that points to God’s plans to unite heaven and earth to the joy of his people in union and communion with himself. We can never escape the story, because we embody it, by what we are in light of what we are not. By looking at myself, I realize that I am a woman, and not a man. But now I go further and ask, “What does that mean ultimately?” I believe that God is revealing a story to us through our differences. He is bringing us to understand ultimate realities through the temporal and passing institutions of marriage and life in the local church, both patterned according to the heavenly and enduring life and worship of Zion. Paul tells us that there is a glorious symmetry, reciprocity, and dynamism inherent in the two ways of being human, man and woman.  If this is true, you would expect to find it heralded and celebrated in Scripture, and I believe that you do. It is there from the beginning in Genesis 2, when God forms Adam from the earth and builds Eve from Adam’s sacred side and brings them together to know and be known. 

I suggest that our gender has eschatological meaning, pointing forward to the climactic expression of God’s love for us, yet I find at certain points the ESV translation masks that picture. The first instance is their novel translation of Genesis 3:16. Though at no time in almost two millennia has there been such a rendering, they have now published this translation: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” There are two problems with that. The first is the nuance given to woman’s desire by translating the Hebrew preposition el as “against.”  Neither the Septuagint, nor the Vulgate, nor any English translation up until the 21st century has ever translated the woman’s desire with the nuance of against the man. It is always for the man, leaning into and toward. The second mistranslation in Genesis 3:16 is just as misleading.  They make the conjunction between the two phrases contrasting instead of adding an additional thought — “but he shall rule over you.” That contrast is missing in the Greek Septuagint (καὶ), Vulgate (et), and the King James (and). There is a vast difference between the way Genesis 3:16 is translated historically and how it is translated today.  A dynamic equivalent of the most recent ESV version could easily be: “You are ethically cursed with a desire to rule over your husband, but he must rule over you to assure you stay in your God-ordained subordinated position.” This is very close to how the New Living Translation renders this verse,  “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” I find that light years away from what the verse actually is expressing.

In 1 Corinthians 11:3, I again find two problems with the ESV translation which dramatically alter what is communicated. These problems, far from elucidating the text’s meaning, actually obscure the glorious truths found there about our differences as male and female. The first problem is that the ESV translated the Greek word for man (aner) and the Greek word for woman (gyne) in two different ways, creating confusion and asymmetry throughout the passage. They might insist that context demands it, or they might point to similarities in wording with Ephesians 5.  I suggest, however, that they wrongly insert the context of Ephesians 5 into 1 Corinthians 11, making the 1 Corinthian’s passage about the husband and wife. Though marriage is the obvious context of Ephesians 5, which is one of two prominent Pauline passages dealing with Haustafel, the New Testament household codes, it does not appear to be the context of 1 Corinthians 11. In contrast, 1 Corinthians 11 is about propriety in worship based on creation, not marriage, which is why the NIV and NASB translations choose to use “man” and “woman” consistently  throughout the passage. 1 Corinthians 11 is about women who are praying and prophesying in public worship, and yet when they do this, Paul insists that imitation, tradition, nature, and the supernatural sphere of angels demand acknowledging the difference between the man and the woman and what they represent.

As I have suggested elsewhere, I believe that men and women are firstly representative of God’s unity and diversity.  God is one in substance, and yet three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit have personal properties unique to them that distinguish them as they exist as the one divine essence. The Father is unbegotten, the ever-begetting source, from whom are all things. The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, through whom are all things. He is the eternal Logos, the expression of the Father. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and by his agency the world is created. He hovers over the darkness and void in Genesis 1:2, and summons order, beauty, and glory from chaos. Our infinite and incomprehensible God has determined to reveal himself to his finite creatures through his works in creation and providence. I believe that man and woman represent not only the unity and diversity of God, but this unfolding. The man is the source of the woman who is supernaturally begotten from him. The woman is the one through whom human life will continue. I believe that all of this is on display in 1 Corinthians 11, to the glory of the triune God, especially as our differences relate to the consummation of this age in the age to come.

Not only do the man and woman represent the Trinity, his unity, diversity, and personal unfolding, but they also represent the Genesis 1:1 heavens and earth. They symbolize the advancing plan of God in the trajectory he set for the heavens and earth. When God entered his heavenly rest on the seventh day after his works of creation, he beckoned Adam and Eve to consummate union and communion with himself in that Sabbath realm by obedience (Gen. 2:2; Hebrews 4:11) . Heaven was destined to ultimately descend, uniting with earth and consummately transforming and conforming the earth to God’s royal temple dwelling. In other words, God in his heavenly dwelling, enthroned amidst the angels, decreed the consummation of his relationship with his image bearing creatures, so that they might glorify and enjoy him forever.

These are the truths that come to light in 1 Corinthians 11 but are obsured by the ESV rendering. The ESV blurs the symbolism of the man and woman by inconsistently translating gyne. Gyne indeed can be translated as “woman” or “wife,”  yet it is perplexing that the ESV translators would flip-flop 5 times back and forth between “wife” and “woman” in this single passage. This contrasts with their one and only rendering of aner as “husband” in 11:3. After that, aner is “man” throughout the rest of the passage. To be emphatic, 1 Corinthians 11:3 is the first and only instance of aner as “husband,” contrasted with 5 interchanges between gyne as “wife” and gyne as “woman,” creating assymetry in the passage. In total, the ESV translators use “wife” 6 times, and “woman” 9 times for the one Greek word gyne.

The second problem with the ESV translation is that it adds “her” to verse 11:3, so that it reads, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” That “her” is not there in the Greek. Even though Paul does not shy away from using adjectives to individualize nouns, Paul does not do that in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Paul withholds the possessive adjective ἰδίοις (Eph. 5:22), which is perhaps one reason why the KJV, NASB, and NIV render the phrase something very close to “the man is the head of the woman,” not the ESV’s “his wife.”

These two seemingly slight alterations by the ESV have implications for our understanding of ourselves as male and female. Male headship is evoked on all sides of the gender discussion. We all agree that 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is teaching us something about our differences and the implications of those differences. We must consider, however, that if we translate gyne as “woman,” the passage speaks of a symmetery between man and woman as they come from the hands of God. Paul could be saying that all men and all women point beyond themselves to something heavenly that demands representation in the liturgical order now. On the other hand, if we translate gyne as “wife,” we have a different discussion. It is about the temporal and horizontal marriage relationship. Consider two paraphrases that seem to develop the ESV rendering of 1 Corinthians 11:3:

The Good New Translation: But I want you to understand that Christ is supreme over every man, the husband is supreme over his wife, and God is supreme over Christ.

The Message Bible: In a marriage relationship, there is authority from Christ to husband, and from husband to wife. The authority of Christ is the authority of God.

The ESV considers that Paul, so intentional in talking about marriage in 1 Cor. 7, is now back to that discussion. However, if gyne is translated as “woman,” then we have insight into gender as a whole, one that comprehends all men and all women as from God’s hand, living symbols of what is to come. So, in brief summary, I suggest that 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 highlights liturgical practice as it points to the consummation of his plans for his people, making it about so much more than supposed supremacy and authority in marriage here and now.

In the next part, I would like to delve into the glorious reality of man as the image of the Son, the unveiled Christ, and the woman as the presently veiled realm of angels. The woman of 1 Corinthians 11 is veiled not because she is less, but because she is last, reflecting the glories of the heavenly sphere and the age to come.

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