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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access July 14, 2021

Creation, Angels, and Gender in Paul, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls

  • Janelle Peters EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Theology


This article reads the veiling instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 through Paul’s appeal to creation. The letter positions both genders in God, and it follows contemporary Jewish literature in assigning angels to creation and gender interdependence. Ascetic, unmarried, and married persons found inclusion in this vision of the body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul uses creational order as a proof as to why his instructions about veiling should be followed. With his interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, the self-described apostle distances the Corinthian house-churches from Roman religion during the early imperial period.[1] Paul fashions a theology that addresses an issue that has arisen in Corinth in particular, explaining how ritualistic veiling does not reinscribe sexual difference but acknowledges the interdependence of the sexes and the participation of both in the divine. His appeals to the Corinthians’ own self-judgment concerning female veiling and social convention of other house-churches concerning both male and female veiling suggest that the Corinthians have not been taught to associate creation with veiling in this way by any Corinthian baptizers, all of whom appear to be male. It is the baptizer and apostle Paul who needs to explain the custom. I argue that Paul turns to a gendered association of angelic relationships that might also be found in 4QInstruction. Yet, this creational vision is also distinct in that it furthers Paul’s theology of ethnic, gender, and status equality in the body of Christ. In the same letter, Paul states that the whole community – both men and women – will judge angels (1 Cor 6:3).

Such angelic language could then cohere with Paul’s repeated reference to the bodies of those baptized into Christ as temples. In 2 Corinthians 6:16, Paul writes the Corinthians that there can be no agreement between temple of the living God and dead idols, suggesting that marriage to someone who is an unbeliever would be detrimental to both men and women (6:16). This connects to his language of the body as a temple in 1 Corinthians, where Paul insists that Christians should not visit prostitutes or live pagan lifestyles as their bodies are temples. Paul’s image of the temple is sufficiently underdeveloped that it allows pagans familiar with temples to envision a temple with their newly adopted “living God” and Jews to envision perhaps the Jerusalem Temple. Although much of Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians appears to be oriented toward the community’s adoption of pagan or secular practices such as prostitution, the community nonetheless seems to have had a positive orientation toward Jerusalem and a birthplace of the Jesus movement in that Paul must invite himself on the community’s trip there. It would therefore be logical that not only Paul but also several members of the community would have encountered creational and angelic trends in second Temple Judaism in and around Jerusalem.

1 Scholarship on angels and women at Corinth

Many scholars have held that Paul changes his mind on the primal androgyne and its realization in the present in the interval between writing Galatians and 1 Corinthians.[2] At the heart of the discussion is the extent to which Paul, like Philo, holds that men are lofty intellectuals while women are ranked beneath them in terms of sense-perception. Paul recommends that all follow him in celibacy, and yet his concession to the married life seems to be aimed less directly at male lust than the Gospel of Matthew’s instruction to be eunuchs for the kingdom. Rather, according to this scholarly interpretive activity, Paul has concern for women prostitutes becoming one flesh with men and then allows both marriage and female veiling for modesty. It seems as though men do not have the same anxiety over their gender as women, who might only escape their gender by means of chastity and even then only partially.

Hooker interpreted Paul’s veiling instructions as woman hiding her own glory in order to embody man’s.[3] Paul wants the Corinthians to maintain gender, even in the face of canonical and historical Jesus sayings he might have known and believed that claimed heaven would change men and women into celibate beings like the angels (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35).[4] 1 Cor 11:7 insists man (ἀνὴρ) should keep his head uncovered as the image (εἰκὼν) and glory (δόξα) of God (θεοῦ), but woman is the glory of man (δόξα ἀνδρός).

Sterling finds congruence between Paul’s use of intertexts from Genesis and Philo’s interpretation of the creation narratives in Genesis, perhaps intimating that this shared interpretation was held by diaspora Jews accustomed to having occasional interference from Roman-approved authorities.[5] Sterling’s conclusion is that the Corinthian belief in the disembodied resurrection resembles that in Philo, and it could have been brought to Corinth by other ministers such as Apollos. In this view, Paul is thus not correcting a faction of women prophets but the effects of his own coworkers.[6] Were the Philonic influence to be totalized, though, it would not be impossible for either Apollos or the Corinthians to have some exposure to inclusion of women at worship, despite Philo’s occasional belief that rationality belongs to men and sense-perception to women. Philo, Cher. 49, calls God “the husband of Sophia,” drawing on Lady Wisdom’s creational activity in Proverbs 8:22. He also has an example of a real-life monastic group, the Therapeutae, that recreates the primal androgyne at their worship. As an obscure group, they must be seen as part of Philonic thought, as Taylor has argued.[7]

Wire thinks Paul meets Corinthian women prophets who are simply too liberated for a Paul from a conservative educated background – the Corinthians believe that their women prophets can mediate between God and humans with angelic tongues, but Paul disagrees with a Christ-following practice that has been happening at Corinth. Wire argues that Paul’s language of shame is aimed at protecting the weak, among whom the women remain. She points to the frequency of shame references in other letters (Rom 1:26; 6:21; 2 Cor 4:2; Phil 3:19), and the apostle’s own habit of boasting. For Wire, Paul has the same moral agenda in passage about clothing the shameful parts of the body, not exhibiting the poverty of some by forcing everyone to eat more substantially at home, and covering the head of women. This shame reverses the meaning of the words “have authority,” suggesting to Wire that Paul is reinterpreting these women’s claim to have the right to prophesy uncovered as they honor the angels by speaking in angelic tongues (11:10, 13:1).[8] Wire’s insistence that women are among the permanently shamed seems odd if Paul considered women such as Junia and Prisca equal ministers – and we know that Prisca was mentioned in tandem with Aquila.

Wire’s idea that Paul at Corinth faces women prophets “less ready than the men to return to the marriage commitments that Paul now widely advocates in the wake of sexual offenses in the church” finds analogue in the Boyarin’s ideas on Paul.[9] Boyarin positions Paul “as a middle way between the insistence on literality and corporeality, perhaps even the monism of the Jerusalem Church, on the one hand, and the radical dualism of gnostics (and gnostic-like tendencies in the early Church), on the other.”[10] Marriage, though honorable, reduces women’s status in the church in the present world order that precedes the new creation. All women would have to be participating in celibacy, as in Philo’s Therapeutrides. Married women’s participation in sexuality, unlike Aseneth, fashions their gender. Pointing to the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thekla, Boyarin claims: “Much of the immediate post-Pauline tradition seems to have adopted a version of the first option – namely, that celibate women could attain a permanent state of the erasure of gender, a development that has had profound effects on the later discourse of gender in European culture.”[11]

Meanwhile, BeDuhn sees Paul’s instructions on veiling as the early part of a broader movement that eventually resulted in gnostic teachings on the body. Unlike Wire, BeDuhn doubts that Paul opposes a faction at Corinth. He asserts that “1 Cor 11:2–16, from the so-called captatio benevolentiae of its beginning to its irenic end, appears to be a response to a sincere question the Corinthians have concerning gender distinctions in ritual decorum.”[12] Already in Joseph and Aseneth, angelic association seems to have desexed Aseneth’s head in that Aseneth need not veil in the presence of an angel (15.1).[13] BeDuhn concludes that this text and also 1 Corinthians participate in a cluster of religious texts that envision a reversal of creational sexual difference. Further examples for BeDuhn include Gal 3:19, where angels are responsible for the delivery of Mosaic Law; 1 Cor 6:2–3, where believers judge angels; Col 2:8–3:15, where the current world’s angels contrast with Christ’s new creation; Logion 114 of the Gospel of Thomas, where women must become men to gain admittance to heaven; and the Gospel of Philip (NHC 2,3). Though not all of these texts include both gender/sex and angels, the overall picture that emerges from them is a temporary world order in which angels have power and sexual difference exists. For BeDuhn, the reversal of sexual difference is part of conversion and salvation for these texts. BeDuhn thinks he can detect a Philonic logic in Paul: “Perhaps precisely for the reason Philo does the same: to insulate God from human failing and to exonerate God of the imperfection of gendered existence.”[14]

Following Wire, Marchal has pointed out that, while we are never going to recover the oral tradition that preceded Paul’s letters, it is safe to say that Paul’s audience would have also had agency and we must remember in a way that the history of preservation has left us with documents that are male-authored for communities that were more diverse in their own lived experience. At the same time, however, Marchal thinks that Paul valorizes masculine women, given the gendered stigma of a shaved head in antiquity.[15]

These scholarly options perhaps essentialize gender in a way foreign to Paul. On the one hand, Paul’s baptismal formula excludes gender, and Paul himself is reinscribing gender difference in his veiling instructions. On the other hand, the category of “woman” does not seem to affect the standing of any of the female ministers and apostles Paul describes, regardless of their marital status. While I have elsewhere agreed with those who find there is a lack of evidence supporting the silencing of women at the Corinthian meal as authentically Pauline, the idea that preaching prophecy at the Corinthian meal is the highest form of leadership is objectively anachronistic.[16] Paul himself is communicating by letter, and he does not differentiate men and women ministers in the house-churches, despite the evidence for baptizers at Corinth identifying solely as male.[17] Paul never points out that Priscilla and Junia are women church leaders in a way that we would today in the form of magazine articles and “first woman” lists – he just accepts they are leaders within a church and bestows apostolic description to their labor, despite claiming in 1 Corinthians interaction with the risen Christ is necessary for such a title. Peppiatt has recently listed the many ways in which women were involved in Pauline house-churches:

In Romans the names Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis are mentioned (Rom 16:6, 12). He was happy with women as leaders of house churches (Lydia in Acts 16:14–15 and Phoebe in Rom 16:1). We know of Priscilla and Aquila, who were both leaders and who both discipled Apollos in the faith (Acts 18:26), and Phoebe, who led a church at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1). Paul refers to his friend and coworker Junia as an apostle (Rom 16:7). Furthermore, he is clearly happy with women prophesying and praying in public in Corinth, and obviously approving of Philip’s four daughters, who were known as prophets (Acts 21:9). Given the way in which he describes the gift of prophecy as being that which edifies the whole church, and given that he elevates the gift of prophecy above the gift of teaching (1 Cor 12:28 is expressed in terms of priority and precedence: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers), it would seem strange for him to implement a contradictory practice that women should stay silent.[18]

In what follows, I will therefore consider possible Jewish creational interpretive analogues for 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 beyond Philo. I maintain that it is possible that we have overdetermined the sexism in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and Paul’s letters. While angels do not outrank God, they never appear as women in the texts in which they play important roles as full manifestations of divine activity: in Daniel 12, the man in linen counsels patience in political turmoil; in the resurrection narratives of the gospels, angels appear transfigured like Jesus, who is considered to be God. While it would be perhaps more progressive for Paul to equate women with God/God in 1 Corinthians and men with Christ/angels, Paul equates himself with an “angel of God” in a category of potential conveyers of the divine message. Christ is God, even for Paul, and true theology can come from angels, Paul, and Christ. Rather than pushing all of these texts towards a gnostic finale, we should perhaps see Paul, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other such creational sources as participating in their own cultural moment in which angelic activity is used as a stand-in for God.

2 Creation in 1 Corinthians 11

The creation narratives of Genesis 1–2 appear in 11:3 and 11:7–12.[19] Paul notes that man was not created for woman but woman for man. In so doing, the apostle connects his argument about men and women veiling at worship to the second creation account, where God gets to know his creation personally and so belatedly adds a woman to his original plans for the world because he only visits Adam occasionally. He then avails himself to the Jewish interpretative tradition of the cohortative in the first creation account as God speaking to his angelic cohort.[20] Paul says that women must cover their heads “because of the angels” (v. 10). It is unclear where these angels are those present at the beginning of the world or those with the languages spoken by the women during prophesy.[21] Verse 11 amplifies the interdependence of men and women in creation generally, while verse 12 harmonizes creation further by concluding Paul’s thoughts on creation with the notation that “all is from God” (πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ).

Given the gender dualism and creational language Paul uses, Philo’s description of the Therapeutae seems an appropriate comparison. A monastic community, these celibate men and women worship together at a banquet with singing and dancing, coming together to blend male and female to create a prophetic body. They also have a prophetic silence (Contempl. 75), which Taylor has highlighted in her study on how the Therapeutae must be reckoned not only as a historical group but also as a hallmark of Philonic thought.[22] Paul has a similar commitment to monastic celibacy in 1 Cor 7:25–38, where there is a “virginal woman” who, as MacDonald has noted, appears to be different than an “unmarried woman.” MacDonald further expands Philo’s comparison of the Therapeutrides with “some Greek priestesses” – the distinction is that these “aged virgins” keep their vows “not under compulsion” but “of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom” (Vita cont. 68).[23] This last stipulation of a “yearning for wisdom” does sound like Paul in his allowances that women too wish to attain spiritual fulfillment by means of prayer and ascetic practice, though he does recommend that those who are married should not deprive each other perpetually of sexual intimacy. As there does seem to be some weight attached to the different categories of unmarried women in 1 Cor 7, I think Paul’s claim in 1 Cor 11 that there are only men and women – not virgin, unmarried, and married men and women – implicitly promotes greater unity in identifying with other members of one’s own gender.[24]

However, the idea that all are subsumed in God goes beyond the idea of being in the body of Christ, which has complementary parts in a cohesive whole. Here, Paul goes beyond gender and culture. Though there is no explicit engagement with the idea of ethnicity, distinguishing these instructions from those to the Romans and Galatians, being in “God” as opposed to a “body of Christ” that uses language from Stoic and political imagery for the body suggests that the baptismal promise is being realized in some form that is unique and instructive.[25] As Barclay has demonstrated, there is often overlap, though it is sometimes imperfect, in Pauline baptismal imagery, shifting from the baptismal promise in Galatians to the adopted son in Romans.[26] It seems unlikely that Paul means to import the gendered inequalities of Roman law in the image of adoption, and we should be careful how tightly we map Pauline conceptions of identity in Christ onto the Roman metaphors to which they occasionally resort.

3 Gender/sex interdependence at Corinth and in the Dead Sea scrolls

In 1 Corinthians 11:8–10, Paul turns to the second Genesis creation account in order to elaborate upon the reason for creational gender diversity, reminding his audience that woman was created from man because man needed her (11:8–9). It is for this reason, Paul claims, that women have signs of authority on their heads – it is on account of the “angels” (11:10). The apostle builds on the interdependence of men and women in 1 Corinthians 6, whose intertextuality with the second Genesis creation account subverts the latter’s conclusion that a man leaves his mother to marry his wife. Here, as Peppiatt cautions, the conclusion of Paul’s argument of interdependence in verses 11–16 present a “truer reading of Genesis” than the opening verses, which possibly emphasize a marital relation known neither in Genesis nor in Corinth.[27] Nonetheless, simply because there are angels does not mean that these angels have to be related to fallen angels such as the Enochic angels. Angels appear elsewhere connected to interdependence and creation in Second Temple Jewish literature. They are connected with prophecy in many canonical and noncanonical books such as Daniel and the Testament of Job.

4QInstruction interprets the command to honor one’s father and mother of the Decalogue with Gen. 1:26 in the simile “as the Father is to a man so is his father and as the lords are to a man his mother.” Here, the cohortative injunction to create mankind in the divine image is interpreted as God and the angels creating men and women. God creates man, and angels create women. All participate in the divine image, though there is still a gendered binary.[28] 4QInstruction places both man and woman in the biblical narrative, endowing each of them with a role in creation and authority over a male offspring. Like 1 Corinthians 11 associates the veil with authority and angels, 4QInstruction has a theology that includes women as spiritual partners and authoritative spiritual leaders.

Moreover, like Paul, 4QInstruction has angels that map onto elect men as well as women. Unlike Philo, the text sees the male addressee as separated from a “fleshly spirit” (4Q418 81 1–2) and contrasts inheritances of “glory” and “inquity” (4Q416 2 iii 9–10). Such terms have comparable formulations in Paul who claims that one should not live according to the flesh but seek the glory of salvation, regardless of gender. Reading Paul’s “glory of man” with the glory of 4QInstruction would suggest that women are neither symbols of iniquity nor of fleshiness.[29] Like Paul, the author of 4QInstruction applies this language of glorious inheritance to those who might come from lower socioeconomic statuses. Could not Paul also be picking up contemporaneous Jewish discourse connecting inheritance with the “lot of the angels” in 4Q418 81 (ll. 4–5)? Why would not 4QInstruction be as likely a comparandum (and possibly a source) for Paul than centuries later gnostic material from Egypt? There are some elements that do not carry through to Paul – such as the raz nihyeh and the belief in prophetic power of horoscopes.[30] Nonetheless, there is significant conceptual overlap between Paul and 4QInstruction in terms of creational angels.

Other documents at Qumran evince similar overlap. Just as the ritual meal of the Corinthians involves angels not only at creation but also at the meal as a foretaste of the eschaton in remembering the salvific death of the risen Christ, the covenanters described by the documents at Qumran believe they have communion with the angels (who are called “holy ones” and “sons of heaven”). Like Paul in Romans, the documents picture an “everlasting plant” (cf. 1 QS VIII 5). Like Paul in 1 Corinthians, the documents envisage the community of believers as being coterminous with a Temple of God, imagery that might be seen as deriving from Ezek 40:2.[31]

Jubilees, too, assigns an active role to angels at the moment of creation. Rather than stating God’s pleasure at his newly created universe with the statement “and God saw that it was good,” the author refers to the angels’ delight in 2:3. VanderKam proposes that Job 38:7 may be what the author of Jubilees means to depict, as the angels seem to be in a position of divine authority as witnesses of the first works of creation.[32] With angels in attendance, women should be present as women with status.

4 Paul’s challenge of “judge for yourselves”

Paul concludes his section on the interdependence of man and woman by asking the Corinthians to judge for themselves whether it is appropriate for a woman to veil (11:13). The question itself demands for both men and women to weigh in on veiling practices, particularly if Paul is attempting to reason with disagreeing women prophets. In any event, Paul’s instruction to “judge” recalls his earlier warning against handling disputes in outside lawcourts, an admonition that has corresponding sayings by Jesus and the apostles. The request for internal discernment reinforces an ethic of a self-reliant community, though the Corinthians do not seem to have fully achieved the unity and understanding necessary to have broken away from pagan institutions.[33] That the Corinthians, some of whom are pagan, need to break away from pagan institutions suggests that the community at Corinth shares lower socioeconomic status with the community of 4QInstruction. [34] If the community is to judge angels, then the reference to angels in 1 Corinthians 11 with respect to the authority on women’s head seems to be one of reminding women of their authority at the worship meal. The parallels of angels in the community at Qumran and Philo’s Therapeutae seem the stronger intertexts.

It also suggests that Paul’s appeal to social custom is not as much of an insistence that the Corinthians not insist as has been thought.[35] To be sure, this call to respect the practice of other churches is still a social justification, which indicates that it wishes the Corinthians to compromise for the sake of community. It also concludes the argument, which gives it a certain emphasis. Nonetheless, given that Paul expects that the Corinthians can handle this rhetorical question, there is a presumption that female veiling might be the point on which they know the answer and mostly agree. Otherwise, Paul might be putting too much faith in the Corinthians to simply assent to a rhetorical question.

5 Conclusion

The creation allusions of 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 can be read as part of Paul’s theology of baptismal equality in light of contemporary Jewish ideas about angels and creation. Paul’s argument from creation in 1 Corinthians 11:1–16 invokes the two creation stories in Genesis in a novel way that goes beyond the situational need to justify a custom shared by all the house-churches. Rather than seeing man as exclusively the source and head of woman, Paul approves of the idea that man is dependent on woman. This reminder of interdependence is well-known from groups such as the Therapeutae described by so-called “Hellenistic Jewish” author Philo.

Yet, the Corinthian churches went on their own initiative to Jerusalem, and their members included many Jews from around the Mediterranean. Paul’s instructions do not simply interface with the contemporary prophetic shrine scene in Greece; the apostle also must be drawing imagery from contemporary Judaism, particularly in his insistence that the body of the believer should be equated with the idea of “Temple.” Language connecting angels, creation, and temples – all themes found in 1 Corinthians – occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, our largest body of contemporary Jewish texts that can be securely dated and located. While the Qumran community-maintained purity codes that set it apart from the Jerusalem Temple, it held the same set of symbols as other groups with Second Temple Judaism and generally kept similar observances, though with some additions of practices not attested in the descriptions of Judaism in the New Testament (e.g., prophetic knowledge based on birth time). Paul’s descriptions of angels at creation and/or the eucharistic meal could be considered in light of the Qumranic notion of angels in the community found in the Hodayot and the idea that angels indicate women’s elect status and the salvation of humanity in 4QInstruction. Although gendered or sexual difference continues to exist in the contemporary moment, a creational identity simultaneously exists at the ritual meal that represents the monotheism of the eschatological future, a democratized vision of the divine and mortal creation.


The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of her honors thesis advisor Professor David Goodblatt, z”l, to her understanding of Second Temple angelology. She also wishes to thank Zanne Domoney-Lyttle, Sarah Nicholson, Katarzyna Tempczyk, and the anonymous peer-reviewers.


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Received: 2021-03-21
Revised: 2021-05-19
Accepted: 2021-06-17
Published Online: 2021-07-14

© 2021 Janelle Peters, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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