Gender Trouble in Corinth: Que(e)rying Constructs of Gender in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Gillian Townsley


Queer theory closely scrutinises gender behaviour labelled as ‘normal’ (or ‘natural’), often utilising the work of Judith Butler. Her theory of ‘performativity’ demonstrates that it is when the ‘normal’ is unsettled through practices of ‘collective disidentification’ that we can see most clearly how indeterminate gender actually is, as the categories of body, sex, gender and sexuality are disrupted and shown to be problematic. This paper proposes that a connection can be made between this notion of performativity and 1 Cor 11:2-16, one of the most difficult passages to decipher in the New Testament. Previous studies of this passage have focused primarily either on the surface matters of correct attire for worship that occasions Paul’s arguments (hairstyles or head coverings?) or on the exegetical issues concerning Paul’s vocabulary (what does he mean by kephale?). The result has been the spawning of countless articles, with scholars divided on every issue. This paper proposes that an approach is needed which examines more closely the gender issues fundamental to this text. The Corinthians, having been made ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28), are possibly seeking to blur any gender distinctions in their public worship, a site of authoritative ‘repetitive performance’. In response, Paul labels this behaviour ‘shameful’ and by referring to what is ‘proper’, and to what ‘nature’ teaches concerning what is ‘dishonouring’, seeks to prescribe heterosexually organised gender difference. Judith Butler’s notion of ‘performativity’ might therefore enable a new que(e)rying of this passage.


1 Corinthians 11:2-16; performativity; queer; Judith Butler

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391