These notes started off as a footnote in my article that critiques Troy W. Martin’s understanding of hair in 1 Corinthians 11:15. Dr Martin refers to Tertullian’s treatise, especially Tertullian’s mention of the “daughters of men” (Gen. 6). My footnote grew too long, however, so I’ve posted (and expanded) my observations about what Tertullian says about veils and hair on this page.
On the Veiling of Virgins can be read here.
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« All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 are here.
« Two articles that address the topic of head coverings are here.
Virgins and Veils
In Tertullian’s community in Carthage, North Africa, it seems married women covered their heads in public spaces including church meetings. In Veiling Virgins, Tertullian says in several different ways that girls should be veiled when they reach puberty, not just when they get married. His real aim, however, was to get virgins to veil.
Virgins were women who had vowed to live celibate lives for the sake of piety and ministry. These women belonged to a recognised church order and they weren’t necessarily young. Virginity and celibacy were highly esteemed virtues in the early church. (I have a few articles that look at this phenomenon here.)
Tertullian wrote Veiling Virgins in the first or second decade of the third century. However, the earliest mention of virgins as a church order is found in the letter of Ignatius to the church at Smyrna which was written a hundred years earlier, around AD 110. As he closed his letter, Ignatius greeted “the virgins who are called widows” (IgnSmyrn. 13). 1 Timothy 5:9–10 may refer to the beginnings of a similar order for women in Ephesus which is not far from Smyrna. Tertullian was simply talking about unmarried women.
Veils and Puberty
In the first section of his treatise, Tertullian says virgins should be veiled “from the time that they have passed the turning-point of their age.” In section 11 he expands on what he means by the turning-point of age:
“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 6:1–4, he says,
“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, he is more explicit.
“Let her whose lower parts [pubic area] are not bare [because they are covered with hair] have her upper likewise covered.”
Surely this statement in section 12 is simply another way of speaking about puberty, but Troy Martin suggests Tertullian is alluding to the idea that hair are genitals. In Tertullian’s day, however, the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates about hair being a conduit of semen were out of favour and disproven.
What Tertullian Says about Hair
Hair is mentioned several times in “Veiling Virgins.” Tertullian plainly mentions women’s hair in section 7 where he quotes the apostle Paul as saying that “it is shameful for a woman to be shaven or shorn” (1 Cor. 11:6).
Tertullian goes on and speaks about the usual hairstyle for respectable women.
“a 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).
He 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). And he mentions hair once in section 17.
Women’s Necks and Foreheads
In section 17, where he criticises inadequate head coverings on married women, Tertullian 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 he was concerned about exposed necks as well as exposed heads.
Necks come up 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 cryptic 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” (Latin: flos) of beautiful young women (not their hair, as such) that caused the “sons of God” (or, “angels”) in Genesis 6:1–4 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).
According to Tertullian, what was at peril was the status and prominence of men.
In an essay on Veiling Virgins, 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.”
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.”
With the pervasive cultural dynamic of honour-shame in mind, Tertullian wrote that “nothing in the way of public honour is permitted to a virgin” (Veiling Virgins, 9). This is his primary concern. Tertullian 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 of Veiling Virgins, 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.
He tediously argues that the women Paul was writing about in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 (women who were praying and prophesying in churches in Corinth) included virgins. This may be the case. However, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is the only New Testament passage that seems to mention head coverings for women, so Tertullian exploited the passage and applied it in ways that go beyond what the apostle Paul intended.
We need to be aware of Tertullian’s aim and rhetoric when reading Veiling Virgins. And I can’t see that it supports Troy Martin’s idea about hair.
 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)
 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)
 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.
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“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.
My articles tagged with “head coverings” are here.
Some other articles that mention Tertullian are here.
A Roman relief of a banqueting scene with women who are thought to be Vestal Virgins. This relief was found in 1936 in the Via del Corso, Rome. Now housed in the Museum of the Ara Pacis, Rome. Cropped. (Source: Wikimedia) Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International