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, 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” (kalumma) 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.
Furthermore, there are ancient statues, busts, reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics and coins which depict circa first-century Roman women (who weren’t Christians) and many of these women do not wear a veil. Some statues where circa first-century Roman women and men do wear veils are when they are depicted 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 to stop halfway at verse 10. (More about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a chiasm here.)
Furthermore, there seems 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.
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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: 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.
In Paul’s day, every major town had temples and shrines that were often attended by priestesses. But there is scant evidence for ritual or cultic prostitution by these priestesses, and Strabo may not have been referring to such prostitution. (Most priestesses came from respectable, elite families and many were married or would go on to be married.)
The Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Corinth was so rich that it had possessed more than a thousand temple slaves (hierodoulai), courtesans (hetairai), whom both men and women used to dedicate to the goddess
(Strabo, Geography, 8.6.20). (Note the use of the past tense.)
Strabo does not refer to these women as priestesses he calls them temple slaves and courtesans. And in a passage about similar temple slaves in the city of Comana in Armenia, he says that they “worked from their bodies” (ergazomenōn apo tou sōmatos). Also, one of the Corinthian hetairai is reported to have said that “she did not like to work or touch wool.” (Spinning and weaving wool was the pastime of respectable Roman matrons.)
There is no mention that the female temple slaves, or courtesans, were involved in priestly rituals. They are mentioned in a paragraph all about the wealth of Corinth, and the purpose of the prostitutes seems to have been to earn more money with sex for the temple. Note that these women could not just leave their work. They were slaves, given as gifts to the temple.
Strabo also mentions female temple slaves associated with a temple of Aphrodite in Sicily. Again, note that he is speaking about a past time.
It has a temple of Aphrodite that is held in exceptional honour, and in early times was full of female temple slaves, who had been dedicated in fulfilment of vows not only by the people of Sicily but also by many people from abroad; but at the present time, just as the settlement itself, so the temple is in want of men, and the multitude of temple slaves has disappeared.
Italy (Strabo, Geography 6.2.6).
Here is the paragraph where Strabo compares the city of Comana to Corinth.
[In Comana] there is a multitude of women who work from their bodies, most of whom are dedicated/ sacred (hierai), for in a way the city is a mini-Corinth, for there too, on account of the multitude of courtesans (hetairai) who were dedicated/sacred (hierai) to Aphrodite, outsiders resorted in great numbers and kept holiday (Strabo, Geography, 12.3.36).
The adjective “sacred, dedicated, devoted” (hierai) is used twice in 12.3.36, as the women had been dedicated to service on behalf of the temple.
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.