Why we need to talk about ἐξουσία.

All day at work I have been thinking about writing this blog post in my head. There are many places to start, numerous things to bring up and countless aspects to the subject of angels and the sons of god. Then I remembered ἐξουσία. A word that stood out to me from the minute I read it the first time. See, reading the translations of the sources on this material is great, but unless you are making sure to read all the commentaries on the translations you are missing the nuances of the original languages. Something I didn’t know I didn’t know before I read the texts for myself in the original languages. Being presented with this information I’m sure it’s overwhelming, as it was to me the second I realized I couldn’t always trust translations. And I don’t just mean nuances here, I mean there are translations out there written with agendas or political or theological motives or even personal convictions. Applying the same lenses to my own work you can be sure that who I am will shine through what I see in the scriptures, but you can count on the fact, dear reader, that I will present you with all the options before telling you which one I settled for. Not like the translations I grew up with, where I was unaware of all the other versions out there and I was comfortably kept in the dark about it. I have so many examples of translations from manuscripts in Latin, Greek and Hebrew into modern languages that shook me to the core when I compared them to the originals – something I will definitely get more into. Knowledge is power – knowing languages is power, and I am passionate about sharing that power and helping others take part in that power. Very few people consider the amount of power in the hands of the translators, but that power is great and you need to be critical and choose your translations wisely if you can’t read the originals.

But back to ἐξουσία. How does that word relate to angels and the sons of god? And what does it mean? Two straightforward questions that are not that straightforward to answer. But they are fun questions. So let’s dig in. Let me roll up my sleeves, turn up this dreamy music and shake loose the words that will to be channeled through my fingertips. 

In many different religious societies around the world you see women being encouraged to cover their heads for different reasons. This is a gross oversimplification, but for the most part women are encouraged to do so because of the “male gaze”. I will stick to this simplification, because the nuances are too complex to be unveiled here (pun intended) and they are not important to what I’m about to unfold – but bearing this in mind is an important counterbalance to what’s to come. What I mean by this is, that in Christianity there is also a passage that has been used as an argument for women covering their heads. 1. Corinthians 11,1-16 is that particular passage and verse 10 is where my main focus will be. Why is this important? Well, contrary to all the religions and societies encouraging women to cover their heads, Christianity is the only one that does so BECAUSE OF THE ANGELS. That’s right. It’s about to get weird.

1 Corinthians 11,10 in the KJV reads as follows: “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels”

1 Corinthians 11,10 in NLT reads as follows: “For this reason, and because the angels are watching, a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.”

Already I’m sure, dear reader, you can tell something is going on with the translation. I encourage you to look up other translations. This verse differs a lot. So what does the original say?

My translations of that is: “Therefore ought the woman to have ἐξουσία on the head because of the angels”. I intentionally did not translate ἐξουσία yet, because I wanted to go into a more detailed exegesis of that in the following. What is also important to know is that there is another version of this verse found in three different manuscripts: vgmss, bopt and ptolir. In those manuscripts the word ἐξουσία is replaced with καλυμμα. ἐξουσία means: power, authority, license, means etc. καλυμμα means: covering, headdress etc. The alternative readings are rather late. These manuscripts are from the 4th century AD to the high middle ages. They give us a good indication of how the verse was interpreted during that time, since καλυμμα would substitute ἐξουσία, but ἐξουσία is the word used in the original passage.

So what does it mean to have ἐξουσία on the head and why should women have that because of the angels? In asking that question it’s apparent that this verse does not get any less cryptic the more we know about it. Isn’t it wonderful! Let me try to untangle this a little to the best of my ability.

The verse is part of a point Paul is trying to make about relationships in his first known letter to the Corinthians. Since he in 1. Corinthians is referring to a letter he previously sent to the Corinthians we are to assume there is another letter before this although it has not survived the passing of time. It could be speculated that parts of this letter we do have are cryptic because we don’t have the letter before this one, where he could have been more detailed in his explanations. But until and unless we find that letter we will never know. What we do know is that the few references to angels in 1. Corinthians open vast worlds of countless questions, and he just casually refers to these as you would in a conversation where you had already fully stated your opinion. I’m not saying that the letter before this one might have a big section on angels. I’m also not not saying that, and if we ever recover that letter I would be very interested in seeing the contents of it. You can be absolutely sure that I will dive deep into every single one of the references in 1.Corinthians over the course of this blog’s existence because they are so jam packed with weirdness, but let’s stay on track and start with 1. Corinthians 11,10.

Now, 1. Corinthians 11,1-16 is Paul’s attempt to present the hierarchy of the universe. The is a structure in place where God is above Christ, Christ is above man and man is above woman – according to Paul. In the middle of Paul elaborating on how man and woman belong together he uses the words in Greek for “therefore” indicating that he is concluding something in his statement and following that with “ought the woman have ἐξουσία on her head because of the angels.” This indicates to us readers that the angels pose a threat to the union of man and woman – husband and wife. This also indicates to us readers that Paul’s “angels” aren’t ordinary “angels”. When Paul writes “angels” he might not be referring to what you think. If you take a close look at Paul’s angelology his “angels” correspond to the sons of God. When Paul later in 1. Corinthians writes that humans will “judge angels” that does not support a worldview where these creatures are benevolent. And for those of you unfamiliar, the stories of Satan’s fall from heaven are much, much later than Paul. So let’s not muddy the timeline saying that he is referring to “fallen angels”, because those texts weren’t written at that time. The sons of God are different. We know them from old testament texts. They have been interpreted in a number of different ways over time and I will get into that later. Again, I’m just trying to unfold one word and can you, dear reader, feel how this whole thing is bursting at the seams with details? Oh the rabbit hole is deep. I peered into the abyss and I could tell it could see me watching.

So why must women follow these instructions? Well, it seems Paul is concerned with how it will affect the hierarchical structure of the universe. The sons of God appear in Genesis 6,1-4, a story told in more depth in the Book of the Watchers in the Book of Enoch. They saw that the women of man were beautiful, had sex with them and these women bore Nephilim – God saw that it was evil and that led to God sending the flood that Enoch’s great grandson Noah and his family were destined to survive. So imagine being Paul. To him this threat of these beings coming down to earth again to have children with women were still a threat. It was still a problem. People were still worried about this. What would happen if those boundaries were crossed again? God promised never to send another flood, so what would he do instead? Whatever it was it couldn’t be good. It had to be avoided at all cost. Don’t tempt the sons of God.

”What sort of angelic consequences result from women praying and prophesying while uncovered? The two possibilities, either sexual advances from wayward angels or grave offense against the divine presence, need not be mutually exclusive.” (Lewis 2014, 89). 

So why didn’t Paul just call them the sons of God? That’s a good question. Part of that may lie in a translation error in the Septuagint. When the old testament was translated into Greek in some of the versions “the sons of god” were translated verbatim and in others they translated “sons of God” into ἀγγέλους. A term and the reception history of which I will fully explain when the time is right, because the nuances are absolutely fantastic and it deserves to be served as a main course and not as a side dish. However, the point I am trying to make is that Paul was familiar with the Greek and Hebrew version. He knew what the Septuagint meant when it used “ἀγγέλους” in Genesis 6,1-4 and writing in Greek himself saw no issue with using the same phrase. That context has been lost for some due to the passing of time and the ever changing interpretations, but going back to the sources and looking closely at Paul’s angelology it is obvious that he is referring to angels that pose a threat to the union of man and woman. Paul’s angels lust after women making it inevitable that he is referring to the sons of God.

So what is Paul’s solution? The solution is for women to have ἐξουσία on their heads. Power and authority. What is also important to note is that women are encourage to have ἐξουσία on their heads when praying and prophesying – which means when they are in a sacred space. Most other traditions want women to cover up in public spaces or even private spaces, but in this passage it is the sacred space that is the battleground. Women are apparently more vulnerable in liminal spaces – which is what sacred space is – it’s a liminal space.

“As in 1 Corinthians, the language is spatial, and the place of women is not finally settled: ‘We have seen how, in terms of the categorization of Athenian society, of the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion, women are “boundary-crossers”, anomalous beings who belong and do not belong, are “within” and “without”’ (Gould 1980:50).” (Økland 2004, 222-3).

And because women are these boundary-crossers it makes them vulnerable to pollution as they pass through different spaces.

“The practice of veiling served several functions: it made visible the ideological notion that the female was a possible locus of dangerous invasion; the veil itself provided protection against invasion and penetration, both for the woman and by extension for the social body; the veil therefore protected the woman’s body from dangers posed by external forces and protected the social body from dangers posed by the female body itself […] The pollution of the body is thus the underlying issue of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, both the pollution of the female body and the pollution of the communal body through that of the angels.” (Martin 1995, 248). 

And as Dale Martin elaborates there is a threat posed by “the angels” to both the female and communal body. The women needed to “know their place” in the hierarchy, the sacred space and the community and Paul used the most potent and compelling argument he could think of to remind women of the importance of this. 

”They [the women] will be ”put in their place” by means of a super-male symbol of power: the angelic phallus.” (Martin 1995, 245). 

Dale Martin among other scholars point to the sexual theme as the reason why women should cover their heads or have authority on their heads. It most certainly is part of it. Martin adds in his analysis of this that part of the reason why women whether married or not should cover their heads is the correlation between the “upper head” and the “lower head”.  ”The womb is called a ”mouth”; the labia are, of course ”the lips”; the cervix is spoken of as the ”lower neck”. (Martin 1995, 237). So in showing that the “upper head” was covered was indicative of the “lower head” not accessible either.

There is even a comment from The Women’s Bible from 1895 on 1. Corinthians 11,10 saying that if the angels could get a hold of a woman’s hair they could take possession of the woman, and Paul merely repeats that warning. 

But I don’t think this is only a matter of lust and sex, although it is part of it. And I don’t think this is only a matter of understanding ἐξουσία as another word for “covering”. I believe this matter is a lot more complex. So complex that I know that no matter how much I write on this in this post I will still have something to say about it afterwards and I will without a doubt bring this up later.

As I have mentioned before, dear reader, and as you can probably sense – I have a lot to say on this and I am in no way covering this topic entirely in this one post. I will return to this and build on this foundation with more and more information. This is just an introduction to why this word is important.

Another reading of what ἐξουσία could mean in the context is “husband” – that the woman needs to be under the authority of her man in that sacred, liminal space. Others read it as under authority in a more vague sense – she needs to be under some sort of authority, she can’t be unguarded in that sacred space – she can’t just represent herself.

Yet another reading could be, that it refers to something we just don’t have the records of. By that I mean, there could have been a particular headdress with that name, but the traces thereof could have been lost to us. 

When you compare the use of ἐξουσία in 1. Corinthians 11,10 to any other places the word is used in the new testament – both in the letters, the gospels and the revelation – whenever the word shows up it indicates very mighty power or the highest authority. When Jesus says he gives his disciples the “power” against unclean spirits in  Mat 10,1 to cast them out ἐξουσία is used. When Jesus says that all “power” is given unto him in heaven and in earth in Mat 28,8 ἐξουσία is used. The word is used 103 times in the new testament and almost every time the most fitting translations are “power” or “authority”. To say that the word only represents a covering would be not only an understatement, but a gross misrepresentation of the sheer greatness that is implied in the word. To say that this authority could be the woman’s husband is a possibility from a Greek-Roman cultural frame of mind, and Paul could be alluding to this, but it doesn’t entirely add up either. If ἐξουσία only referred to a man’s authority over a woman it would have to be because of his likeness to God, because the power of the divine would be the only thing keeping the woman safe – not the human part of her husband. The fact that the exegesis of 1. Corinthians 11,10 and the word ἐξουσία has been condensed to be about hair covering or the hair being up is missing the bigger picture. This is not simply a matter of shielding women from the male gaze of “angels”, it has a lot more to do with women as boundary-crossers and their role in the liminal, sacred space and what happens to the fabric of reality, thus subsequently the structure of the universe if they do not “stay in their place”.

Another important aspect of this verse to remember is that women ought to have power/authority on their heads in sacred space when they pray or prophesy. I will get much more into the connection between “speaking in tongues” and “the language of angels” later, but prophecy and “angels”/sons of God are closely related too. Something I will also get more into in posts to come. 

 ”The physiology of prophecy could be analyzed by analogy with the physiology of sex, because prophecy was thought of as the penetration of the body of the priestess by a god or some other, perhaps inanimate, invading force.” (Martin 1995, 241)

In the book of Acts, which for those who don’t know is the second part of the gospel of Luke,  when the Holy Spirit comes down and enters the apostles. At first it appears as flaming tongues on the tops of their heads before entering them. Spirits penetrating the body through the head is a common understanding in a lot of different cultures – something I also will touch upon later on again. However, I am bringing this into this discussion because it proves that there was an understanding in the Judeo-Christian circles that spirits would penetrate through the head, and going back to the analogy Dale Martin had about the two heads of a woman makes this complex matter twice the headache – seeing as the two heads could be interpreted as the same or different according to different sources. The bottom line is though that prophesy and sex are related, the penetration and possession of spirits – particular angel spirits could be potentially dangerous both physically and communaly. Furthermore, from an emic perspective women are more vulnerable seeing as they are liminal and therefore need to come into the sacred space with power and authority in order to not be polluted when they pray and prophesy.

Well dear readers, that’s all I’m going to disclose about ἐξουσία for this time being. I will surely come around to it some more and I thank you if you made it this far into my post. I hope you will join me in my future explorations of this and related subject matters.

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