Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

A Note on Tertullian’s “On the Veiling of Virgins”

Introduction

These notes started off as a footnote from an article that critiques Troy W. Martin’s understanding of hair in 1 Corinthians 11:15. But it grew too long.

Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins can be read here.

« Return to “Covering” or “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15? (Part 2)

Veils and Puberty

Tertullian says in several different ways that girls should be veiled when they reach puberty.

In the first section, he says virgins should be veiled “from the time that they have passed the turning-point of their age.”

In section 11: “from the time when she begins to be self-conscious, and to awake to the sense of her own nature, and to emerge from the virgin’s (sense), and to experience that novel (sensation) which belongs to the succeeding age.

Also in section 11 (and referring to Genesis 6): “doubtless the age from which the law of the veil will come into operation will be that from which the daughters of men were able to invite concupiscence of their persons, and to experience marriage.”

In section 12: “Let her whose lower parts [pubic area] are not bare have her upper likewise covered.” Surely this statement is simply another way of speaking about puberty, but Troy Martin suggests Tertullian is alluding to the idea that hair are genitals.[1] In Tertullian’s day, however, the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates about hair being the conduit of semen were out of favour and disproven.

What Tertullian Says about Hair

Tertullian plainly mentions hair in section 7 where he quotes Paul as saying “it is shameful for a woman to be shaven or shorn.” He further states, “that redundancy of locks [lots of hair] is an honour to a woman, because hair serves for a covering, of course it is most of all to a virgin that this is a distinction; for their very adornment properly consists in this, that, by being massed together upon the crown, it wholly covers the very citadel of the head with an encirclement of hair” (Veiling Virgins 7).

Tertullian also speaks about women dyeing their hair, fastening it with a pin, and parting their hair at the front to signify that they are married” (Veiling Virgins 12).

Women’s Necks and Foreheads

In section 17, where he criticises inadequate head coverings on married women, he says, “The region of the veil is to be co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound; in order that the necks too may be encircled.” It seems Tertullian’s concern here is exposed necks.

Necks come again in this anecdote: “For a certain sister of ours was thus addressed by an angel, beating her neck, as if in applause: Elegant neck, and deservedly bare! It is well for you to unveil yourself from the head right down to the loins, lest withal this freedom of your neck profit you not!” (Veiling Virgins 17).

At the end of section 15 is a sentence which may suggest Tertullian also wanted women’s foreheads to be covered with a veil: “Thus the forehead hardens; thus the sense of shame wears away; thus it relaxes; thus is learned the desire of pleasing in another way!”

According to Tertullian, it is the “bloom” (flos) of beautiful young women (not their hair, as such) that caused the “sons of God” (angels) in Genesis 6 to lust after the women, just as it causes human men to lust after women. (Veiling Virgins 7).

It’s All About Status

Towards the end of his argument, Tertullian tells all women to veil their dangerous heads: “if a mother, for your sons’ sakes; if a sister, for your brethren’s sakes; if a daughter for your fathers’ sakes. All ages [of men] are perilled in your person” (Veiling Virgins 16).

What is at peril is the status of men.

In an essay on Tertullian’s treatise, Lynn H. Cohick writes, “Tertullian is concerned with controlling women’s status as it secures men’s superior social status. His real disquiet is with the male leaders who are emasculated by their unveiled virgins.”[2]

Lynn Cohick observes, “Asceticism was a wild card in the game of social rank and standing because it gave moral authority to those whose social rank would not otherwise allow for such prestige.”[3]

With the pervasive cultural dynamic of honour-shame in mind, Tertullian writes that “nothing in the way of public honour is permitted to a virgin” (Veiling Virgins, 9). This is Tertullian’s primary concern. He recognised that virgins, women who chose to live ascetic lives, had a higher status and had more moral authority than other women and even some men, and he didn’t like this. His whole argument was designed to keep virgins down.

“No such custom”

Near the beginning, Tertullian acknowledged that there were no hard and fast rules about virgins veiling in the church, but that a custom of veiling was gradually developing. He says that until recently, “The matter had been left to choice, for each virgin to veil herself or expose herself …” (Veiling Virgins, 3). Tertullian was trying to make head coverings on virgin women into a custom.

Furthermore, he spends much of his ink arguing that the women Paul was writing about in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 include virgins. However, the women Paul was concerned with were women who were praying and prophesying, not virgins as such.


Footnotes

[1] Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13–15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123.1 (2004): 75-84. (PDF)

[2] Cohick, “Virginity Unveiled: Tertullian’s Veiling of Virgins and Historical Women in the First Three Centuries A.D.,” Andrew’s University Seminary Studies, 45.1 (2007):19-34, 25. (PDF)

[3] Cohick, Ibid, 26.

In her book, Early Christian Dress: Gender, Virtue and Authority (New York: Routledge, 2011), Kristi Upson-Saia discusses passages from works written by Ambrose, Siricius, Jerome, and Basil of Ancyra who describe veiling
ceremonies for virgins that imitate wedding rituals. More on her book here.

Explore more

“Covering” or “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15?
“Covering” or “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15? (Part 2)
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Some other articles that mention Tertullian are here.

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