1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – Praying with Heads Covered

Nero as Priest

William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5).  Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs.

The application of this rather obscure command is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly.  If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture.  No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach!

I seriously doubt that modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11.  There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings.  There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings.  There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world!

Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill has argued that it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. It was the leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues that the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Cor 11 seems to cover the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets who are speaking in the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying (in 14:29 only two or three ought prophesy).

The problem in Corinth is that the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world.  They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.

If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible.  How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible.  The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.

There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it.  It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth.  The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to a practice (sexual mores, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, etc.)

The veiling of women / men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”) but that misses the whole point.  If these people were indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?

Bibliography:

D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.

16 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – Praying with Heads Covered

  1. I think what the Corinthians struggled with then, is all too similar to what the modern church is dealing with – but in a different way. This is so because when you said that the Christians in Corinth were “continuing to take their cues for worship from the pagan world”, it is very similar to what the modern church is doing today. If you look at a Christian concert, for example, if you were just observing the people and the actions of the people and the performers, you would probably not see much of a difference from any other concert. Also, things like sarcasm and being funny are highly valued in today’s culture, and that does not seem to change when you gather with the church. People are still held higher, in a sense, or are more liked because of how funny they are or how sarcastic they are, rather than who they are in Christ or how they are doing spiritually. With this in mind, I think this is why Christians are having a hard time evangelizing. The ‘outsiders’ have a hard time seeing how we are any different from them, so they don’t see the point. They see that we are not true to our word and beliefs, in other words a hypocrite, and they just laugh at us when we try to call them to do the same. Maybe Paul wanted the men/women to be unveiled/veiled because it would remind them to live the life they were called to, and the fact that they were distinguishable made it easier to evangelize because the ‘outsiders’ saw something different about them, something good.

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  2. Regarding “There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world!”

    Could you clarify what you mean here? Are you saying that it is unlikely that Paul is addressing a cultural convention? My understanding what the head coverings for married women was a cultural convention at the time:

    “The marriage ceremony involved what was called in Greek the veiling of the bride [ten numphen katakalupsantes] … it was the social indicator by which the martial status of a woman was made clear to everyone.”

    Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, page 172

    “Over the tunic was worn the bridal veil, the flammeum (flame-colored veil) … So important was the veil of the bride that nubere (to veil oneself) is the word regularly used for the marriage of a woman.”

    Harold Whetstone Johnston, “The Private Life of the Romans”, http://www.forumromanum.org/life/johnston_3.html

    “The Romans apparently thought of the bride as one who was ‘clouded over with a veil.’ [Sextus Pompeius] Festus explicitly links the Latin verb nubere, ‘to be married,’ ‘to take a husband,’ with the Latin word for ‘cloud,’ nubes: ‘Nuptials are so called because the head of the bride is wrapped around with the bridal veil, which the ancients called “to cloud over” or “veil”‘ (174.20 L)”

    Judith Lynn Sebesta, Larissa Bonfante, “The World of Roman costume”, page 55

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    • My point was that there is no “standard practice” in general society, so a woman might wear a head covering, or not. I refer above to krater images showing women with or without head coverings, both normal women and prostitutes. My point was to distance myself from the usual dodge of making this text mean “dress modestly.”

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  3. I think that this is a very good point to be made. If the Corinthians are not set apart in their worship from others, such as the pagans, then how are they going to tell people that they are set apart in their beliefs. I know for myself when I look at the different religions, I think of their worship services. Such as catholic having mass, the Jehovah witnesses go around to your house, and so on. If the Corinthian people were not seeing a difference in their worship, then what was going to make the other people think that the gospel/way of living that Paul was preaching about was any different from what the pagans taught. I believe that in our society in churches today, we have a similar issue. I feel as though you don’t see many “different” things that we try to set ourselves apart from the other religions or even ways of living. We are too afraid to be different and being “called out” on our religious practices that we don’t want to go away from what we know and the ways we do things that don’t set us apart from others.

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  4. I find this fascinating, but am having a little difficulty understanding (pardon my slowness). If “it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation,” and Paul affirms the wearing of head coverings, then how can it be that “the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world”? I might have guessed that identifying such a Roman convention might cause interpreters to conclude, instead, that Paul wanted the Corinthians to imitate the Romans in order to avoid offense (although I do not find that argument convincing for other exegetical reasons).

    Are you suggesting that the church was wrong in veiling worshiping men (taking cues from the Romans) rather than ONLY veiling worshiping women?

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  5. I’d like to chime in with a few thoughts.

    1) Looking only at the practice of a Roman colony such as Corinth doesn’t take into consideration it was the practice of all churches, everywhere (1 Cor 11:16). How does this interpretation that Paul didn’t want them to imitate the custom of men sacrificing with their heads covered apply to churches in Jersusalem? Iconium? Antioch?

    2) The archaeological evidence also suggests that in Roman Corinth during Paul’s day it was perfectly acceptable for women to appear in public without a head covering. (Cynthia L. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” Biblical Archaeologist, June 1988) This interpretation doesn’t fit Paul’s command for women to be covered in worship.

    3) The interpretation that Paul was asking the men to not imitate Pagan worship doesn’t square with the reasons Paul himself gives. He says it’s apostolic practice (v.2), the practice of all churches (v.16) and appeals to nature, the creation order and angels. All which are transcultural.

    Just some food for thought.

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    • First of all, I was only vaguely aware that there was a Head Covering Movement in the modern. I had a student who began to wear a head covering after she got married. But other than that one experience, this whole thing is completely off my radar. You seem very professional and organized, since you managed to hit this post almost immediately after it was posted.

      You are obviously correct that the two statues I mention as illustrations of practice in Corinth cannot be taken as indications of empire wide practice. I simply point out that I am working on the context of the Corinthian letter, not the whole Empire, the social situation in Corinth is my subject here. There are a number of images from Greek kraters showing both veiled and unveiled women, but I have not done an exhaustive search of all Greco-Roman art.

      I would also point out that my intention here is not to comment on the practice of head covering in a contemporary church. To be honest, I do not really care if some woman chooses to follow this practice or not. My point in this short post was to point out that taking worship cues from the culture is fraught with danger. For your ministry, that means women should cover their heads. In my context, there are far more dangerous things worming their way into the church than uncovered heads. My post mentions worship, but sexual ethics are certainly a serious issue for contemporary young adults. I get far more questions about tattoos and peircings than head coverings for women from college students these days.

      I also think that you could argue that virtually every culture had some sort of head covering for women until relatively modern times, regardless of whether the motivation is biblical or not. Middle eastern cultures seem to have practiced veiling from antiquity without any sort of scriptural mandate.

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  6. I’d like to throw out another question here, in case anyone wishes to respond. It’s an honest question I’ve puzzled over for a while.

    I notice that in 1 Cor. 11:14 Paul appeals to “nature,” saying it instructs his readers that long hair is disgraceful for men but glorifying for women. I also notice that in Romans 1:26 Paul appeals to “nature,” arguing that same-sex relationships are shameful and immoral. I notice that the same Greek word is used in both verses: φύσις.

    Regarding the Romans passage, Moo argues that “Paul’s use of the word ‘nature’ in this verse probably owes much to Jewish authors, particularly Philo, who included sexual morality as part of ‘natural law’ and therefore as a divine mandate applicable to all people… The heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are ‘against nature’ are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to ‘nature’ in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order.” Moo then confirms that final clause from other contextual evidence. (NICNT, 114-15)

    Regarding the 1 Corinthians passage, Garland writes, “When Paul speaks of ‘nature’… he means what his society understands to be natural. Since male hair grows the same way as female hair does, he must be referring to hair that conforms to societal expectations concerning male and female hairdos. In general, it was dishonorable for men in this culture to have long hair.” Garland then summarizes historical evidence from Horace, Juvenal, Petronius, Epictetus, Philo, and surviving statues by saying, “Long hair is unnatural for Paul because in his cultural context it conveys sexual ambiguity and hints of moral perversion.” He then briefly demonstrates the cultural appreciation of women’s long hair. (BECNT, 530-31)

    I think I am right that the interpretations provided by Moo and Garland are widely accepted among evangelical scholars. If so, then why the differing understandings of the significance of Paul’s appeal to “nature” in these two passages? Paul seems to be using “nature” in a very similar way in both passages. In both cases he (a) indicates that nature teaches us something and (b) ties nature closely with God’s creative acts (note in 1 Cor. 11:15 the phrase “her hair is given to her”). It would seem that a consistent interpretation of these two passages would either (a) accept Paul’s argument against same-sex relations is based on changeable cultural norms, or (b) accept that Paul’s argument against men’s long hair is based on God’s created intent. (Given our cultural climate, perhaps it is helpful to clarify that I am not trying to argue for the first option.)

    In the explanations of Moo and Garland, the only reason I can see that may explain the differing interpretations is Garland’s comment, “since male hair grows the same way as female hair does.” By this comment, Garland seems to be excluding the possibility that Paul is indeed arguing from physical reality as an expression of God’s creative intent. However, I find this problematic for at least two reasons: (1) Men’s hair and women’s hair does indeed commonly grow differently; the term “male pattern baldness” is a reflection of this reality. In my experience, it is much less common to see a bald woman than to see a bald man. (2) Garland’s argument opens the door for the argument that same-sex desires are natural, since some individuals do indeed seem to be born with a greater tendency to these desires.

    As I see it, the argument from nature is similar in both cases. Paul seems to be saying that MOST people naturally experience opposite-sex attraction, and that MOST women naturally grow (or retain?) longer hair than most men. He then uses this general observation from what is “natural” as an indication of God’s original creative intent for human behavior.

    In summary, here again is my question: Why the differing understandings of the significance of Paul’s appeal to “nature” in these two passages?

    (I’m not trying to high-jack this post, just throwing out an honest question in the presence of better-trained minds.)

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  7. Wow, I’ve read this passage numerous times, but never thought of it in this context. It entirely makes sense that Paul would address this issue if it were a conflict of how the church was worshiping in regards to the pagan religions around them. I always took it as a sign of modesty, like stated above, much the same way that Polhill describes head coverings as helping to reserve the woman for her husband (245). It never occurred to me that men covering their heads and women remaining uncovered could be a result of an outside religion’s pressures. As I examine the church as a whole, especially Corinth, it would seem that this would be the best interpretation of this unclear text. The Corinthians were steeped in pagan religions and the world that it only seems fitting that they would have been falling short in this area as well. Also, look at how we as Christians do this same thing. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard people say (including myself), “oh well I listen to that music so I know what non-Christians are listening to.” Or “this movie will help me understand how unbelievers think.” When in all sincerity we really like the music and movies and are watching them for purely selfish reasons. The even more sad part is that for many churches, worship has started to meld into the ways of the world, to the point that church isn’t all that different from the world. For many of us, we’ve tried to become so much like the world to increase our openness to unbelievers, that we have become a part of the world. Yet isn’t it the different ones that really make the difference? Think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and most importantly Jesus. Paul is trying to warn the Corinthians that they are becoming too much like the world and that the men should take time to uncover and the woman to cover so as to appear different to the world. It’s by this that true evangelism will be able to start.

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  8. This passage is one that is easy to just explain away by saying it was only relevant then because of the historical and cultural context. Yet, it is important to understand the deeper meaning of this. The Gentiles were struggling to find their new identity- still being a part of the secular world, yet live a life that is acceptable and pleasing to God. This seems to be a problem for Christians through history, and even today. How are we to live in this world, yet be distinguishable from others as Christians. We are, after all, representing Christ. I liked the comment about modern churches following MTV rather than the NIV, and unfortunately there is a lot of truth in that. Polhill offers four primary arguments as to why Paul preaches that women should cover their heads during worship (Polhill, 245). He concludes that the real basis is that covering of the head was the common practice is most churches, and for a woman to not do that would be unconventional and distressing to the congregation (Pollhill, 245). It reminds me of how in some Churches today, men and women dress extremely casually, I have even see a couple of people wear sweat pants on occasion at my church. Because “blending in” with the rest of the world is common now, believers really need to be asking themselves how they stand out from the crowd as a Christian in order to evangelize and represent the gospel in an intentional way.

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  9. Looking at Paul’s instruction in this light certainly fits the context of the Corinthian church, and also lines up well with the message repeated throughout most of the Bible. Look at Leviticus for example. That particular book could be summed up fairly accurately as God instructing His people to “be holy”. Of course, understanding “holy” to mean “set apart”, you could translate God’s command into layman’s terms as “quit acting like the pagans around you”. Clearly God knew that living a life that is different from those around you is one of the most difficult aspects of being a follower of Him. The Jews struggled with it during most of their existence, and from the onset of Christianity we have been struggling with it also.
    It is uncomfortable to be different, but as followers of Jesus we should expect to be hated by the world, because the world hated Him (John 17:14). Our lives are to be a light to those around us. A light that that turns itself off in order to blend in doesn’t do much good. If we aren’t living differently how can we expect unbelievers to take Christianity seriously?

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  10. It seems that Paul keeps trying to turn the Christians in Corinth from looking to their pagan society as ways that are okay to behave or do in the church. Paul wants the believers to realize that they are set apart and therefore should not be acting or doing church in the same way one might act in the Roman culture. It seems that the Corinthians were struggling with the same things we still struggle with in the modern church: how much do we include culture in the church? The Corinthian believers were still involved in many of the same practices instead of taking their new faith into account and how that should affect the way one lives. In this way, the church was failing to realize the need to distinguish themselves from their culture. We struggle with this very thing today. Church today has been made so accessible with several different services, casual dress codes, etc. For example, I go to church on Saturday nights and therefore I can work on Sunday mornings. It’s an interesting experience for me when all the “church folk” come into Applebee’s and I am working. Sometimes I get these looks and I realize that people do not know that I’m a Christian. They just see the server girl who is working on a Sunday instead of being at church. I realize that outward marks are difficult to distinguish Christians by. (Outward in the sense of dress, church attendance on Sunday mornings. etc) Then I think, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).” This is the most distinguishable way for people to see Christ in you. If we love as Christ loved us, it seems only logical that our actions will be those that distinguish Christians from the rest of the world.

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  11. This was a very interesting read. I have always wondered what Paul was going for in this passage. It makes good sense. In Romans 12:1-2 Paul tells his reader to no longer conform to the pattern of the world. If people praying were following traditional cultural forms of prayer in worship, then it wouldn’t hold any real meaning other than some cultural ritual that was being followed. I have often wondered how for down this trail we have gone in our worship services. How much of what we do reflects the culture instead of setting us apart and make us different from the culture. I have often heard the argument that we are in competition with our culture (which I think to some degree is true), but then I’ve heard it advocated that we should adopt what our culture has to offer so that we can compete with it. This makes it seem like our culture and Christianity would blend together thus diminishing the command to not conform to the pattern of our world. This is tough, because at first glance it seems like a small issue, but we are supposed to look and be different from our culture.

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  12. Personally, I believe that Paul is quoting a faction of men who wrote him in verses 4-6. There are two reasons why I believe that verses 4-6 are quoted. First, the rebuttal portion (vss. 7-16) completely contradicts the quoted portion. (Note: The average person does not realize that verses 7-16 contradict verses 4-6 because the translators have added words in the rebuttal portion (that are not in the original Greek) in an attempt to harmonize it with the quoted portion.) And the second reason is that Jesus Christ (not man) is the image and glory of God. (See 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3, Rev. 21:23.) Paul, in verse 7, is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. So Paul has placed the quote of the men (vss. 4-6) in between his model (vs. 3) and his rebuttal (vss. 7-16) to explain exactly why women are not to be veiled. Anyway, this is just what I believe. Take care and God bless.

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