Do women need to cover their heads with a hat, or scarf, or veil when they go to church? In previous centuries, the answer to this question would have been “yes.” This answer was at least partly based on an interpretation of one passage of scripture, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
Below are a few notes on the topic of women and head-coverings in light of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. But first, let me point out that Paul’s main concern in this passage was the appearance of heads of both men and women who were involved in the vocal ministries of praying and prophesying in church meetings. Strictly speaking, Paul’s words don’t apply to men or women who were not praying (speaking to God) or prophesying (speaking for God).
Fayum mummy portrait of a circa first-century Roman-Egyptian woman.
Social Customs of Head Coverings
Several scholars believe Paul was speaking about respectable, gender-appropriate hairstyles in this passage (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14–15). Others think Paul wanted women to cover their heads with a veil or palla, and he wanted men not to cover their heads. Either way, the key concern was respectability or reputation (Greek: doxa) according to the social norms of the day. (I’ve written about reputation and doxa in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 here.)
Hats or head-coverings on either men or women, as well as short or long hair on either men or women, have no real significance in modern societies today, but it was different in ancient Corinth. For example, some respectable Roman matrons (i.e. wives of free-born citizen husbands) covered their heads when they went out of doors in public to signify that they were unavailable and sexually chaste. Philo refers to a woman’s head-covering (toupikranon) as “the symbol of modesty” (to tēs aidous symbolon) (Philo, The Special Laws 3.56).
But these same women did not usually wear veils when they were with family and close friends in a domestic setting, a setting not unlike most first-century house church meetings. Lower-class women, on the other hand, were not permitted by law to wear veils.
The veil, especially the palla, was a status symbol in ancient Rome and in Roman colonies such as Corinth, and there were laws governing who could and could not wear it. (It’s unclear how closely these laws were followed.) Furthermore, it offered respectable matrons legal protection. Western-style societies have no such custom of veiling in public and no such delineation of class, and all men and women are potentially protected by law from sexual harassment and assault.
Head coverings today, such as hats or scarves, have none of the symbolism that head coverings had in ancient Corinth, and so there is no valid reason for modern western women to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy aloud in church gatherings. A few churches, however, want women to cover their head and they also prohibit them from speaking in gatherings. This was not Paul’s intent in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
A Symbol or Sign?
One factor to consider when interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is that there is no Greek word that means “sign” or “symbol” in 1 Corinthians 11:10. There is also no word that means “veil.” Several English translations, however, add these words. For example, the ESV has, “This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” The RSV has, “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels.” The King James translates verse 10 more accurately as “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” (Italics added)
The Greek word exousia, which is translated as “authority” in the ESV and “power” in the KJV, can also mean “right” or “freedom.” 1 Corinthians 11:10 may mean that a woman has the right or the freedom over her own head; that is, she has the right to decide how to present her head while keeping in mind Paul’s concerns about reputation and the enigmatic angels. These “angels” may not have been divine messengers but human messengers who were reporting to others about the behaviour of the Corinthian Christians. (In this article, I argue that exousia in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is a woman’s own power, or right, to exercise control over the appearance of her own head.)
What were the Corinthians up to?
We know that some men and women in Corinth were renouncing sex and marriage. This is the background for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3). This was not just an issue in first-century Corinth. There are several surviving documents that were written in the second century, and later, that reveal some Christians were renouncing sex and a few were even disguising visible distinctions of sex. For example, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla (c. 150), the heroine Thecla wants to cut her hair short. It’s not clear if she does cut her hair, but she does wear men’s clothing. In a later work, the Acts of Philip 44, a young unmarried woman named Charitine wears men’s clothing and follows Philip the apostle. It could be that some Christians in Corinth were wearing their hair in ways that disguised their sex: long hair on men, short hair on women. And Paul was not happy about it (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14–15).
Fresco of first-century Roman Woman from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae (near Pompeii). (Wikimedia)
Veils in the New Testament and in Ancient Christian Art
The only time the word “veil” (kalymma) appears in the Greek New Testament is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: in 2 Corinthians 3:12–18. Paul ends this passage by saying, “And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18a). So veils, either real or metaphorical, do not seem to have been a theological or spiritual necessity for women or men.
Nowhere in the New Testament does it plainly state that veils or head coverings are necessary for Christian women or men. Furthermore, cultural historian Dr Ally Kateusz has observed that in Christian art which dates before the time of Constantine, women are often depicted without head coverings. It’s only after Constantine (i.e. from around the mid-fourth century onwards) that head coverings for women become nearly universal.
Importantly, there are ancient statues, busts, reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics and coins which depict circa first-century respectable Roman women (who weren’t Christians) and many of these women do not wear a veil. And the statues where Roman women and men do wear veils depict these people as goddesses and gods (see here for an example) or as pagan priestesses and priests (see here).
The fact that it was customary for both men and women to cover their heads when praying and performing religious rites in paganism, and also Judaism, adds weight to the idea that Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is hairstyles, not head coverings.
Reading 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 as a Chiasm
Another factor to keep in mind when interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and the issue of head coverings is that the passage is written as a chiasm. By using this literary device, Paul addresses many of the same ideas twice: in the first half and then again in the second half of the passage. So it’s vital to keep reading to the end and not stop halfway at verse 10. (More about 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 as a chiasm here.)
Furthermore, there seem to be two contexts in this passage. In the first half, Paul’s concern is social respectability according to the standards of the day, which was geared towards male honour. But in the second half, Paul’s concern is relationships among those who are “in the Lord” and where mutuality, rather than a hierarchy of honour, is the ideal. (More about the two contexts here.)
The only time the Greek noun for “covering” is stated in this passage is in verse 15, near the end of the second half. Here Paul writes, “Because her [long] hair is given to her in place of a covering.” It seems that, after all, women do not need any other covering other than their own hair, worn in a socially respectable style, when they are praying or prophesying in church. And today, in western culture, just about any hairstyle is socially acceptable.
This post just scratches the surface of what is a fascinating but tricky passage. There’s more about hairstyles and head-coverings in ancient Corinth here.
© Margaret Mowczko 2019
All Rights Reserved
Top “banner” picture is of a marble bust of Venus of Martres, first or second century, housed at the musée Saint-Raymond of Toulouse, inventory number Ra 52. (Source)
Postscript 1: A Personal Note
Head-coverings is something I personally agonised over for years as a teenager and young adult. I have always taken the Bible literally, that’s to say, I took the RSV literally, and the RSV contains this verse: “For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil” (1 Cor. 11:6 RSV). And this, “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10 RSV). [There is no Greek word that means “veil” in these verses. But I didn’t know that then.]
It seemed pretty clear to me that Paul, and therefore God, wanted me to cover my head in church, but no one else was doing this and I couldn’t understand why. I even asked the Archbishop of Sydney (during a question time) why he thought women don’t need to cover their heads anymore, when they used to. He gave me a simplistic answer . . . something about culture. But I wasn’t satisfied.
Now I’m pretty much saying the same thing, “culture,” but I’m taking a bit more trouble to explain why “culture” (and reputations) was the reason for Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:2–16 in the first century and why hairstyles (or head coverings) don’t matter now.
I still take the Bible literally. That’s to say, I take the Bible literally in its original languages and with some understanding of the backstory (context) and genre of various passages.
Postscript 2: Priestly Prostitutes in Corinth
The geographer Strabo is the source of the idea that prostitutes were associated with the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. However, he was writing about a time that was a couple of centuries before Paul wrote First Corinthians. In the meantime, Greek Corinth had been razed by the Romans (in 146 BCE) and rebuilt a hundred years later (in 44 BCE) as a Roman colony. I’ve written more about the ancient evidence for prostitutes associated with Aphrodite’s temple in Corinth here. And I have a note about bald prostitutes here.
Postscript 3: Linus’s Decree about Veils
In the Book of Popes (Liber Pontificus), is a short biography of Linus who some believe was a bishop of Rome in the first century. In the biography is this statement about Linus, “He, by direction of the blessed Peter, decreed that a woman must veil her head to come into the church.” For a couple of reasons, I do not believe Linus made this decree or that Peter gave such a direction.
First, head coverings on Christian women became a universal practice sometime after the third or fourth centuries. Before then, there were no hard and fast rules about women covering their heads. And nowhere in the New Testament are women plainly told they must cover their heads. Peter says nothing of veils in any recorded dialogue in Acts or in the two letters that bear his name in the New Testament.
However, the biggest clue that this decree on women and veils did not originate with Linus, Peter, or any other first-century Christian, is the phrase, “come into a church.” This phrase doesn’t make sense in the context of first-century church life. At this time, most congregations used a home as a base for all kinds of meetings and activities. There were no church buildings at that time. Christians didn’t enter or come “into a church”―they were the church.
Unfortunately, people have made up all kinds of stories about Bible characters and I am certain the line about Linus was made up sometime after the third century. I’m by no means the only one who thinks this; the line is commonly regarded as apocryphal. For example, in his entry on Linus in the Catholic Encyclopedia, J.P. Kirsch remarks that “without doubt this decree is apocryphal …”
Linus’s decree simply doesn’t match with what we know about first or early-second-century Christianity. In short, the line about Linus relating a decree from Peter about head coverings is a fabrication. It’s not genuine. (I’ve written more about Linus’s decree for my Patreons.)
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 are here.
My personal favourite is “Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7), here.
An explanation of the meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:4, and sexual renunciation, is here.
An article that looks at “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is here.
An article that looks at what the Bible says about hair lengths is here.