Why is the phrase “a symbol of” (1 Cor 11:10) not in the Greek?
Before we tackle this question let’s take a look at 1 Cor 11:10. It reads:
Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
In many Bibles you will find the phrase “a symbol of” appears in italics whereas the rest of the sentence does not. The reason it appears this way is to let you know that the words in italics have been added by the translators to improve clarity. It’s not that they’re adding words to Scripture, but rather they’re making sure what the author meant doesn’t get lost in translation. This is a necessary process when going from one language to another that should not cause concern.
Here’s how the NASB translation explains the use of italics:
ITALICS are used in the text to indicate words which are not found in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek but implied by it.
And the NKJV puts it this way:
Words or phrases in italics indicate expressions in the original language which require clarification by additional English words, as also done throughout the history of the King James Bible.
So let’s strip away the additional words for a second and take a look at how it would read without them:
Therefore the woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor 11:10)
The woman is told she has to have “authority” (or power 1) The KJV uses the word power. ) on her physical head. It sounds a little confusing doesn’t it? The reason it makes you scratch your head is because authority is immaterial and immaterial things can’t be put on a persons head. So how do the translators know it’s a symbol? First we know this isn’t a new thought since he uses the word “therefore”. “Therefore” connects this sentence to what was previously stated. So that means we can look at the context and see what he meant by a woman having authority/power on her head. When we do this we see that he’s been talking about an artificial covering that is to be worn (or not worn for men) when engaged in certain worship acts (1 Cor 11:4-7). We also see that if this practice is transgressed it’s “dishonorable”. That tells us that there’s meaning behind a covered head since having/not having something on one’s head isn’t dishonorable in-and-of itself. Only if a covering represented something would that charge make sense. So the covered head has meaning in this context, but what meaning? Well, Paul goes on to explain how a man cannot have his head covered because he’s the glory of God (1 Cor 11:7), was created first (1 Cor 11:8) and is to lead (1 Cor 11:9). He’s describing the creation order and authority structure as it relates to men and women having a covered head. It is then that he says, because of all this (“therefore”) women must have authority on their heads. Since “authority” can’t go on your head, the covered head must represent that authority. So the covering is a symbol and that’s why translators use those words to help clarify what it is that Paul meant when he says “authority” must be on her head.