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

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?


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.

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

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

    • 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.

  6. Phillip, you may be interested to include the study by Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” New Testament Studies 34.4 (1988): 481-505. His study was published around the same time as Cynthia Thompson’s article – with both of them not having knowledge of each other’s research. It is also a study put out before Gill published his article.

    • Thanks, Jeremy. I have that article in my larger set of notes on the issue (along with quite a few more). It has been a while since I read Oster’s article, so I just obtained a copy to re-read this afternoon.

  7. Longenecker proposes that the reason for this teaching on head coverings has to do with either (1) distinguishing female worshippers/prophetesses from the wild, loose-haired pagan prophetesses or (2) establishing/maintaining clear differences between male and females in the church. The first of these assertions would match Paul not wanting the Christian church to be taking worship cues from paganism. I had also read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that this passage was indeed an argument for modesty in dress as hair was often considered to be part of the female genitalia in ancient near-eastern cultures (I believe part of that reason was that long hair was associated with fertility, but again I cannot remember the exact arguments). However, it seems as though – since we do have paintings from the time with prostitutes wearing head-coverings while being fully nude – that the modesty argument indeed falls through. Longenecker’s second reason does make sense based on the context, as it seems to make the most sense that Paul would go from explaining the order of creation (the Father, Christ, man, and then woman) to making an argument for reinforcing clear distinguishing points between proper masculine and feminine dress, and it would not make as much sense for him to jump from the ordering of creation to the distinguishing of Christians from pagans. The argument from male and female distinguishing seems to give clearer meaning to the immediate context, both before and after the verse (since both speak of the natural order of creation). However, I think that it is wrong to say there is one clear meaning and all others are not implied by the passage/believed by Paul at all.

Leave a Reply