By David McClister
The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and its proper application, has become a matter of contention between some brethren. However, those who are interested in the serious exegetical examination of the passage are generally agreed that the correct solution to the contention lies in the proper understanding of the terms used therein. If we can understand the meaning and significance of Paul’s words, we can then understand his thought. What follows is not an attempt to settle once and for all the contention over “the covering question,” nor is it an attempt to give a complete analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; it is simply an examination of the phrase “praying or prophesying” and its relation to the correct understanding of the passage in question.
In the first place, consider the word and usage of “praying.” In the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 11:4f(1) the word is the present middle participle, nominative singular, of proseuchomai. This word appears in the tragic Agamemnon by Aeschylus (6/5 B.C.), where it means to offer prayers or vows to gods (theois).(2) The philosopher Plato, in his Symposium, used the word of prayer to the sun, or to Helios, the sungod (toi helioi).(3) Throughout the history of proseuchomai it has always been used in a religious context, as evidenced by these and other examples. The idea of praying to a divine being, whether the true God or not, has always been the primary meaning of the word, even through the Koine period. It is, therefore, no surprise that we find this term in the New Testament to be used only of prayer to God, and never of address to a human being. The fact that proseuchomai describes the action of prayer generally, without reference to content or purpose, accounts for its frequent use in Scripture.
Prayer, of course, is the great medium of communication between the Father and His children. The real capacity for prayer does not lie in need, but in a simple outreach on man’s part. The children of God seek Him and tell their Father all things just as any child would wish to talk to his father, whether the reason be supplication for a need, or some other reason. Prayer, therefore, is a very natural part of Christian living. This can be seen even more clearly in Romans 8:26. Whatever interpretation is placed upon this verse, it cannot be denied that the Spirit has some connection with our prayers to God.
Secondly, consider the word, and usage of, “prophesying.” In the Greek text of I Corinthians 11:4f we find the present active participle, nominative singular of propheteuo.
This word is found in a fragment of the writings of the ancient lyricist Pindar (5 B.C.), where it means to be a proclaimer, or speaker, or interpreter, of the gods.(4) The tragedian Euripides (5 B.C.) used the word with the sense of “intermediary.”(5) These facts are in perfect harmony with the known facts about the ancient pagan worship which incorporated oracles and prophets. The oracle would communicate to the prophets, and the prophets would then speak for, proclaim, or interpret the message of the oracle. In the article in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (hereafter TDNT) edited by G. Kittel and G. Friedrich on the word group prophets (of which propheteuo is a member) it is said concerning the use of that word group in relation to the Greek oracle:
It denotes appointed men and women and their work, which is to declare something whose content is not derived from themselves but from the god who reveals his will at the particular site. This revelation is through direct inspiration or through signs which stand in need of human interpretation.(6)
Please notice that even the pagans connected the ideas of prophecy and inspiration. The two were seen as inseparable concepts.
Not only were the oracles personnel referred to as prophets, but also the poets. I quote again from TDNT:
The Homeric poet-singer feels that in his work he is dependent upon the divine . . . . The gift sought from the Muse is not only a song but also the content of the past which is to be depicted . . . . Continuing this view, but breaking free from the epic of chivalry, Hes.(iod) with a new claim to truth finds the relation of the poet to the Muses in his personal experience of calling by the Muses, who breathe into him the divine voice. On the soil of this tradition Pind.(ar) is the first Gk. poet to use the group prophetes to describe the link with the Muses. He calls himself Pieridon prophatas, ‘the spokesman of the Muses.’ . . . Pind.(ar) takes his description of the poet as prophetes from the Delphic oracle and in Fr. (agment), 150 he defines his relation to the Muse more closely: . . . ‘prophesy, Muse, and I will be thy speaker.’ Here the Muse has the place of the promantis and the poet that of the oracle prophet.(7)
Again, the poets were referred to as prophets because of the link of inspiration from the Muse.
Propheteuo, like many words found in the Greek New Testament, had different significances to different peoples. To the pagan Greeks the word conjured up the image of an oracle prophet who received communications directly from a god. To a Christian reader the word signified one who spoke for God through inspiration. Both concepts are religious in tone, and both involve a divine being communicating to a human being. The important thing to notice is that the word, no matter what age or writer is spoken of, is always used to describe the proclaiming of something received directly from a deity. The Old Testament prophets spoke as mouthpieces for God. Paul preached to this effect in Acts 28:25. The pagan oracle prophets proclaimed that which was “revealed” directly unto them by the oracle. The pagan poets were called prophets because they relied upon the Muses as sources of inspiration for their literature.
The next article will deal with the concept of inspiration as it relates to the work of a prophet.
1. Erwin Nestle, and Kurt Aland, eds., Novum Testamentium Graece, 26th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1979), p. 458. It is this Greek text that is implied whenever a reference to the original text of the New Testament is made.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 10, pp. 294-295
May 17, 1984