The cultural background behind Paul’s advice on women wearing head coverings is incomplete and contradictory. Here’s what we know and (what I think is) the best way to put it together.
1Corinthians 11 is one of the more difficult passages of Scripture. Even though everything I say in this podcast is debated, I will not begin every sentence with “I think” — that is implied. While I have reached a level of certainty in my thinking, I acknowledge there is a greater than average chance that I am wrong because this is a very difficult passage.
I argued in the previous podcast that in Corinthian culture married women kept their heads covered in public as a sign of respect for their husbands while husbands removed their head coverings when they stood up to pray or prophesy as a sign of respect for God.
Women did not participate in the Jewish worship service, but in the Christian church, women begin to participate alongside the men, creating a conflict of symbols. What’s a married woman to do when she stands up to pray or teach?
If she removes her head covering that is respectful to God but disrespectful to her husband. If she keeps her head covering on, that is respectful to her husband but disrespectful to God. We have a clash of cultural practices. I understand Paul to be saying wives should keep their head coverings on because that symbol speaks the loudest in their culture.
11:2Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. – 1Corinthians 11:2-16
Is this issue timeless or cultural?
- The fact that Paul appeals to timeless principles (Scripture and creation) does not negate the cultural component of his argument.
- Suppose a group of married men begin removing their wedding rings when in the company of single women, and Paul wrote them a letter instructing them to keep their wedding rings on. In the course of his argument, he might appeal to Genesis, the permanent commitment of marriage and the 10 commandments which call us to avoid adultery, lying and coveting.
- Now suppose a colony on Mars 2000 years in the future has given up the practice of wearing jewelry of any kind including wedding rings. Are you disobedient to Paul’s commands? No.
- The timeless principles of Scripture have not changed, but the cultural situation in which they are being applied has changed.
Corinth was a mix of 3 cultures
- Corinth, a city in Greece, was heavily populated by Romans.
- The church in Corinth was a mix of Gentile God-fearers and Jewish converts.
- At least three cultures were influenced the culture of Corinth: Jewish, Greek and Roman.
The cultural situation for men
- Roman men covered their heads when they prayed, prophesied or offered a sacrifice in the temple.
- When they met a superior on the street, Roman men uncovered their heads as a sign of respect.
- Greek men kept their heads uncovered in the pagan temples.
- Jewish men begin covering their heads in the temple but we don’t know whether that practice started before or after Paul’s time.
- Some argue that Jewish men begin covering their heads to distinguish themselves from the Christian men who kept their heads uncovered.
- All men who wanted to dress and act like men kept their hair short.
The cultural situation for women
- We have mixed evidence concerning both Roman and Greek women. Some of them did cover their hair in public and some didn’t.
- Some not only uncovered their hair in the pagan temples, they let their hair down.
- We have evidence that the Jewish women of Tarsus wore veils. But evidence suggests that most Jewish women kept their hair covered in public.
- Women who wanted to dress and act like women were expected to have long hair that they typically kept up in public.
- In some situations, an adulterous woman had her head shaved or her hair cut as part of her punishment.
For further reading:
Many commentaries have a thorough summary of the cultural background and existing evidence. See also:
- Marlowe: Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World
- 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia: Bareheadedness
- 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia: Hair
- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: Dress (scroll down to head covering section)
For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.