by Bruce Terry
In a day and time when women’s liberation is a popular movement and when even Catholic women are no longer required to wear a head covering in church, it is not popular to study the scripture passage in question unless it is with a view toward explaining it away. But this passage is inspired scripture too and should be approached with that respect which makes a man tremble (See Isaiah 66:2).
Someone will say that the question of whether or not women should wear a head covering in church is of such low priority that it should not be discussed at all or that it really doesn’t matter. True, it is not one of the central doctrines of Christianity, and to neglect weightier matters of scripture while arguing on this question can only bring on us the woe which Jesus pronounces against the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23. But Jesus concludes that saying with the phrase: “without neglecting the others.” No point of scripture, however trivial in our eyes, ought to be neglected. It should also be noted that the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thinks the question important enough to devote fifteen verses to this subject. In addition, this particular question introduces issues of importance in the areas of tradition, culture, and scripture interpretation, on whose value everyone will agree.
The Apostolic Traditions
“Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” (I Corinthians 11:2— NASV)
With this statement Paul begins a new subject in his letter to the Corinthians: that of their following the apostolic traditions. Chapter eleven seems to be in response to a sentence in the Corinthians’ letter (see I Corinthians 7:1) to Paul which read something like: “We remember you in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as you delivered them to us.” Paul praises them for this attitude, but he goes on to mention two areas in which they were falling short in keeping the traditions. The more serious question—their abuse of the Lord’s Supper—he saves until last; instead, he approaches first the less extensive problem. It would seem from Paul’s praise in verse 2 and his use of the singular “anyone” (Greek tis—also translatable “a certain one”) that it was only one (or at most a few) who were trying to change the apostolic tradition regarding head coverings. Since the phrase “now concerning” is missing here (compare I Corinthians 7:1,25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1), it would also seem that Paul is not answering a direct question in the Corinthians’ letter but rather is responding to a report which he has heard, just as he heard about the abuse of the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:18).
The word “tradition” has a bad connotation today, and this is not entirely unjust. There are many who would like to bind their own opinions and traditions (“We’ve always done it this way.”) on the churches. This problem was around even in Jesus’ day. He had to rebuke the Pharisees and scribes because they were invalidating God’s word for the sake of their tradition (Matthew 15:1-9; Mark 7:1- 13). Paul warns the Colossians against those who would have them follow the tradition of men rather than Christ (Colossians 2:8). But tradition itself is neutral, neither good nor bad. A tradition is simply a teaching which is “handed down” or “delivered.” In fact, the word translated “delivered” (Greek paradidomi) in this verse is the verb form of the word translated “tradition” (Greek paradosis). An apostolic tradition is not bad like a tradition of men. Here Paul praises the Corinthians for holding firmly to the traditions. He writes to Thessalonica and commands the Christians to hold to the traditions which they were taught and to withdraw from every brother who did not walk according to the tradition which they received from the apostles (II Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). The “tradition terminology” is used to describe such teachings as head coverings, the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:23), and the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (I Corinthians 15:3). The doctrine of head coverings may be a minor tradition in our eyes, but it is an apostolic tradition and cannot be ignored. To keep most of the traditions may bring praise, but it must also bring the corrective “but” that begins verse 3.
The Christological Argument
“But 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. Every man who has [something] on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every women who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. For 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.” (I Corinthians 11:3-6—NASV)
If it is a fact that we become new men in Christ, then our behavior ought to always be related to Christ. Paul very strongly feels this, and consequently usually relates Christ to his arguments as to why something should or should not be done. This subject is no exception. Paul begins this argument with Christ. He first discusses the natural order of headship: God, Christ, man, woman; however, the fact that God is the head of Christ is not central to the question of head coverings, and so he mentions this relationship last. The reader will also want to consult Philippians 2:5-7 and I Corinthians 15:28 regarding this relationship.
The first relationship that he mentions is that Christ is the head of every man. Some have contended that “head” here has the meaning of “origin,”1 but it would seem more natural to take it in the sense of authority, as in Ephesians 5:23. From this Paul concludes that a man should not have anything on his physical head when he prays or prophesies. If he should be wearing something on his head, he is disgracing his head. Here head is used in a double sense. It is a disgrace to the man himself to pray or prophesy with his head covered, but more than that, it is a disgrace to Christ, who is his figurative head.
Note that Paul says “every man.” This is important since Paul is writing to a Greek church. Greek men normally did not wear anything on their heads while worshiping, but Romans and Jews usually did. Thus it is that Plutarch at the end of the first century discusses the following questions:
10. Why is it that when they worship the gods, they cover their heads, but when they meet any of their fellow-men worthy of honour, if they happen to have the toga over the head, they uncover?2
M. R. Vincent, who applies this passage to the Jews, thinks Paul is “referring to the tallith, a four-cornered shawl having fringes consisting of eight threads, each knotted five times, and worn over the head in prayer. It was placed upon the worshipper’s head at his entrance into the synagogue.”5 (There is, however, some question as to whether Jewish men wore the tallith before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.) Vincent goes on to say:
Thus Paul in applying his teaching to every man, is not simply condoning the Greek customs of his day, but is handing down a universal rule.
Also, although Paul only specifically mentions praying and prophesying, it could be argued that the rule would apply to such speaking functions as teaching and preaching because of their similarity to prophesying. However, it could be argued that the rule applies to communication with God (praying is speaking to God, while prophesying is speaking from God), and that teaching and preaching are communication with men. Even so, there is definitely a sense in which scriptural teaching and preaching are communications from God.
The second relationship that Paul mentions is that man is the head of a woman (see also Ephesians 5:22,23; Genesis 1:27; 3:16). Note that Paul does not say “every woman.” A man is not the head of someone else’s wife. But note also that Paul does not say “the woman” as if restricting the subject to the wife, i.e., only married women. His use of every woman in verse 5 shows that he is referring to unmarried women as well.7 In this case, a woman’s head may well be a father, brother, or son, as is often the case in eastern countries. From this relationship, Paul concludes that a woman should have her physical head covered when she prays or prophesies. If she is not covering her head, she is disgracing her head. Here again “head” is used in a double sense. It is a disgrace to the woman herself to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered, but more than that, it is also a disgrace to the man who is her figurative head, whether he should be her husband, father, or whatever.
Paul goes on to point out how much of a disgrace: to pray or prophesy uncovered is just as disgraceful as having had her head shaved. Shaving the head was primarily a symbol of grief or mourning (compare Deuteronomy 21:12-13; Isaiah 7:20; 15:2; 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6; Micah 1:16; and Josephus Antiquities iv.8.23 [§257]). Plutarch, in the context of discussing mourning at funerals, says, “So in Greece, whenever any misfortune comes, the women cut off their hair and the men let it grow . . . .”8 But there is also a possibility that the misfortune could be being caught in adultery. Vincent says regarding this:
Whether this practice was found among first century Greeks is unknown, but there is the possibility that they knew of its significance. Paul goes further to affirm that the woman who does not cover her head while praying or prophesying should have her hair cut off so that her disgrace might be apparent to everybody. But his purpose in writing this is not so that a woman who offends in this matter would cut off her hair, but that realizing its disgrace, she would wear a covering while praying or prophesying. Thus he says, “let her cover her head,” or as it may also be translated to bring out the significance of the present tense of the verb: “let her keep covering herself.” In Greek this verb as well as the previous “let her shear herself” are in the third person imperative mood. These are commands which are conditional based on the if statements that precede them. But they are interlocked in such a way that Paul is saying “either do one or the other.”
Now notice that Paul does not argue that it is disgraceful in itself for a woman to have her head uncovered. Rather he has to appeal to the disgracefulness of having the head shorn or shaved. (There is little difference in these words. Both are used with reference to ending a vow in Acts 18:18 and 21:24. The former was used to describe shearing sheep in I Samuel 25:2, Isaiah 53:7, and Acts 8:32, showing that it refers to a very close cropping, much like the modern burr haircut.) Even today if a woman has her head shaved for surgery, she is likely to wear a wig until her hair grows out again. There is no evidence that the lack of a head covering in Greece indicated that a woman was a prostitute or had loose morals. It is often asserted without proof that the real reason Paul wanted the women to wear a head covering was so that people would not think they were immoral. It is significant that Paul does not make such a truly cultural argument, because such is not universally true: it is not true today; in fact, in the Old Testament, the very opposite was true (see Genesis 38:15 where Tamar posing as a prostitute covered her face).
Note too that Paul says “every woman.” This is also important, for it shows the universality of this tradition. It is especially significant since the evidence indicates that pagan Greek women did not worship with a covering on their head. In discussing the customs regarding women’s headdress in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Albrecht Oepke says:
He goes on to say that this mistaken idea is often gotten from two passages in Plutarch. In The Roman Questions, Plutarch says:
As Oepke points out, this passage refers to the Roman custom,12 not to the Greek. In addition, Plutarch goes on to say, “But formerly women were not allowed to cover the head at all.. . . the second [man to divorce his wife—bt] was Sulpicius Gallus, because he saw his wife pull her cloak over her head . . . .”13 The second passage Oepke quotes from Plutarch is in Sayings of Spartans where he records regarding Charillus, an early king of Sparta, “When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, ‘Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!’”14 Although Sparta was a region in Greece, Corinth was not in Sparta and thus it is difficult to know to what extent (if at all) this custom was practiced in Corinth. Oepke goes on to give some of the evidence that pagan Greek women did not wear a covering on their head while worshiping. He says:
In addition, the drawings on Grecian pottery show an absence of headcoverings from a very early period.16 In the same way, the prohibition of women braiding their hair with gold ornaments found in I Timothy 2:9 also shows that at least some women did not wear head coverings; otherwise, there would be no need for such a prohibition.
On the other hand, Jewish women, as well as most women in Tarsus and to the east of there, did wear a head covering in distinction to the Greek custom. it would seem that most oriental women covered their heads in public. Oepke describes the rather stringent use of the head covering by the Jews. Philo, a first century Alexandrian Jew, describes the head-covering (Greek epikranon) as a token of modesty which the guiltless use. And it is related that a certain woman named Qimchith, who was the high priest’s mother, was always veiled, even in the house.17 John Lightfoot quotes several sources showing that Jewish women were veiled in the streets, but then says, “when they resorted unto holy service they took off their veils, and exposed their naked faces; and that not out of lightness, but out of religion.”18 “Evidence of the veil in Tarsus is provided by Dio Chrys[ostom] Or[ationes], 33, 46 and coins bearing the image of Tyche of Tarsus.”19 Regarding the veiling of women in Tarsus, William M. Ramsay relates that Dio Chrysostom praises only one Tarsian characteristic unreservedly, and that he praises, though it was, as he says, utterly different from the Hellenic custom [i.e., Greek custom—emphasis mine—bt]. He was much pleased with the extremely modest dress of the Tarsian women, who were always deeply veiled when they went abroad. As Tarsian ladies walked in the street, you could not see any part either of their face or of their whole person, nor could they themselves see anything out of their path.20
Oepke further notes that etiquette as regards the veil becomes stricter the more one moves east. This rule is brought out clearly by the provisions of an old Assyrian code. Married women and widows must be veiled when in public places. On the other hand, the head of the harlot, here equated with the slave, must remain unveiled under threat of severe penalties. When a man wishes to make one of these his legitimate wife, a special act of veiling is demanded.21
All this applies to the city dwellers, since the desert nomads seem not to have veiled their women.22
The significance of this difference of customs regarding women’s headdress in the first century is it shows that there was no uniform practice, especially in Greece where women appear without a head covering in religious rites. Thus Paul, in applying his teaching to every woman, is definitely not condoning the Greek customs of his day for the church, but rather is once again handing down a universal rule, based on the natural order of things: God, Christ, man, and woman.
By way of summary, it may be noted that in the first century among the Romans, both men and women worshiped with the head covered; among the Greeks, both men and women worshiped with the head uncovered; and among the Jews, men covered their heads and women uncovered theirs when they worshiped. Thus Paul is introducing a new Christian tradition, which he grounds, not in the social customs of his day, but in theological arguments. With this background, it is not difficult to see why someone would want to discard the head covering for women in Corinth. “After all,” he would say, “women don’t have to wear head coverings in pagan or Jewish worship; why should they have to in Christian worship?” Once again, non- Christian culture was clashing with Christian tradition.
Various Objections Considered
At this point it is necessary to pause and look at various viewpoints from which this scripture is explained away as far as its modern application is concerned. There are three basic arguments given by those who deny that women should wear a head covering while praying. The first argument states that even in Paul’s time the women did not wear head coverings; rather, Paul was talking about long hair as a covering (I Corinthians 11:15). The second argument asserts that Paul was talking about women wearing head coverings, but that he was referring only to when they led in public prayers. The third argument asserts that Paul was talking about women wearing head coverings during any kind of prayer, but that head coverings were a cultural item of that time and thus are not required of Christian women today. Other objections to head coverings today are raised, but these three should be examined here since they relate to verses 3 through 6.
The first argument is based largely on I Corinthians 11: 15b: “For her hair is given to her for a covering.” Those who argue this say that Paul said in verse 5 that it was a shame for a woman to pray or prophesy with her head uncovered so God gave her hair (or “long hair”) to her for a covering. There are five reasons why this view cannot be accepted.
First, in verse 4, the expression translated “having his head covered” in the King James Version is literally “having down on a head.” The New American Standard Version translates it “who has something on his head.” This expression would hardly refer to a man wearing long hair. In fact, Plutarch uses a very similar expression (“having the cloak down on the head”) to refer to a man pulling his cloak up over his head.23 And in Esther 6:12 most manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament read that Haman went to his house “mourning down on a head”—a way of saying he put something over his head to show his mourning.24
Second, the word group which includes the words translated “cover” and “uncover” in verses 5, 6, 7, and 13 is not used elsewhere to refer to the hair, but is used to refer to some other type of covering. “Cover” (“veil”—ASV, RSV of verse 6) in verses 6 and 7 translates katakalupto which means “cover, veil” and in the middle voice “cover oneself.”25 The word occurs only here in the New Testament, but it is found several times in the Greek Old Testament. It is used in Genesis 38:15 of Tamar where it is said that she had “covered” her face. It can easily be seen from the preceding verse that she did not cover her face with her hair but with a veil. Similarly the word is used in three manuscripts in Esther 6:12 where it says that Haman hurried to his house in mourning with his head “covered.” Here again it is obvious that Haman had not grown his hair long to show his shame, but had thrown something over his head. “Uncovered” (“unveiled”—ASV, RSV of verse 5) in verses 5 and 13 translates akatakaluptos which simply means “uncovered.”26 This word also is found nowhere else in the New Testament and only once in the Greek Old Testament. One manuscript contains the word in Leviticus 13:45 where it is said that one with a leperous baldness should “uncover” his head. (For this see the King James Version; the Hebrew literally says, “let the hair of his head hang loose.”) Here again it can be seen that “uncover” is not cutting off the hair. The noun forms of this word group (katakalupsis and katakalumma, both meaning “covering”) are not found in the New Testament. Katakalupsis does occur in the second century Christian writing, The Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 4, 2, 1: “. . . a virgin arrayed as if she were going forth from a bride-chamber, all in white and with white sandals, veiled up to her forehead, and her head-covering [katakalupsis] consisted of a turban, and her hair was white.”27 Here once again it is obvious that the covering is not hair, but a turban. Of the seventeen times that katakalumma occurs in the Greek Old Testament, only once does it refer to a head covering. See Isaiah 47:2. (The King James Version and the New English Bible take the Hebrew word behind katakalumma to mean “locks” or “tresses,” but the other modern translations and Hebrew lexicons28 define the word as “veil.”)
Third, the words “cover” in verse 6 and “covering” in verse 15 translate two entirely different Greek words. The noun translated covering in verse 15 is not katakalupsis or katakalumma, but peribolaion, which means covering, wrap, cloak” and is described as being “an article of clothing something like a cloak or mantle.”29 In Hebrews 1:12 (the only other place the word occurs in the New Testament), it is translated “mantle” or “vesture.” Now a peribolaion is a type of covering, but the fact that Paul uses an entirely different word shows that it is not the same type of covering as that discussed in the preceding verses. His point in verse 15 is that since nature gives woman one type of covering, she ought also to wear another type of covering while praying.
Fourth, if “uncovered” in verse 5 means “not having long hair” or “not having hair,” then verses 5 and 6 become senseless. On the one hand, the word translated “cut off” or “shear” (Greek keiro) is used by Plutarch to refer to men’s hair.30 Now if “uncovered” means “not having long hair,” then the first part of verse 6 reads in effect, “For if a woman does not wear her hair long like a woman, let her shear it off like a man.” But this makes no sense at all. For if she were not wearing her hair long like a woman, she would have already cut it short like a man. Why would Paul then command her to do what she had already done? On the other hand, if “uncovered” means “not having hair,” then that verse would mean, “If a woman does not have hair, then she should cut it off,” and verse 5 would say in effect, “But every woman who does not have hair on her head while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved.” The former statement is so ridiculous and the latter so obvious that it is difficult to imagine that Paul meant this. The “uncovered” is thus shown to mean “not having a head covering,” and Paul’s statement becomes the reasonable “But every woman who does not have on a head covering while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not have on a head covering, 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 have on a head covering. “This is much more understandable.
And fifth, it may be mentioned that the early Christians understood Paul to be talking about a head covering in addition to hair. Vincent says, “The testimonies of Tertullian and Chrysostom show that these injunctions of Paul prevailed in the churches. In the sculptures of the catacombs the women have a close-fitting head-dress, while the men have the hair short.”31 Thus the covering on the head in verse 6 is not the long hair of verse 15.
It is regrettable that this incorrect interpretation has found its way into the footnotes of the New International Version with this reading:
This is poor exegesis, and even worse translation Besides the addition “of hair” in verse 5, there are several renderings which involve changes of meaning in order to have the translation make sense. Even with these renderings, this translation still contains the rather ridiculous statement that every woman with no covering of hair on her head is just like one of the “shorn women.” Note that “shaven” was changed to “shorn” to soften the true meaninglessness of this statement. Also, “shorn women” is put in quotation marks, but in view of the preceding study (pp. 5-6), it is necessary to ask, “Just what are these ‘shorn women’? Surely not prostitutes?” Three other renderings must be questioned. The expression “having down over the head” in verse 4 is used by Plutarch33 to refer to a cloak or toga (Greek himation) over the head; the translation “with long hair” is hardly appropriate. The rendering of “let her shear herself” in verse 6 as “let her be for now with short hair” has little to commend it. It is a misunderstanding of the passive “be shorn” of the King James Version as the verb “be” plus the adjective “shorn.” The aorist Greek verb expresses an action, not a state of being. And lastly, the rendering of let her be covering herself” as “she should grow it again” is defensible only as a translation which is required to make sense in a distorted context. Katakalupto means “cover,” while komao (which Paul uses in verse 14) means “grow long hair.” If Paul had meant “let her grow long hair,” he could easily have said so. It would seem that this particular footnote was designed to give the opponents of long hair on men another scripture to go to.
The second argument against this scripture applying today asserts that while Paul was talking about women wearing head coverings, he was only referring to when they led in public prayers. The interpretation of “praying” as “leading in prayer” is highly questionable. To date, the only scripture of which this writer is aware that directly mentions leading prayers is Nehemiah 11:17, although such a practice might well be inferred from a passage such as I Corinthians 14:16. It may be argued that since prophesying is a public speaking function, that praying here is also a public speaking function. The problem with this is that in I Corinthians 14:34-35 Paul forbids women to speak in church. He would hardly be here giving instructions to regulate a practice which was forbidden. Someone may say that Philip’s four virgin daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9), but it may be noted that the text does not specify that it was in public. In addition, it may be noted that the early church (in fact, the Christian practice all the way down to the twentieth century) understood Paul to be referring to women wearing a head covering while the congregation is praying. This particular interpretation would seem to be a straw man designed to justify the new prevailing practice, for those who advance it do not insist that women should wear head coverings when they lead prayers at ladies’ Bible classes, meal tables, and gatherings of Christian friends for prayer.
The third argument admits that Paul was talking about women wearing head coverings, most probably during congregational prayers, but asserts that this was only a social custom of the day and thus is not binding on the church today. The assumption behind this teaching is that if an action, even if it is commanded to be done, is found to have been a cultural trait, it does not have to be performed today. Using this assumption, one may disregard many teachings of the New Testament which to follow would make one a social misfit. There is no Biblical authority for such an assumption to this writer’s knowledge. This is rather a case of “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7:7). It may be argued that “common sense” says that cultural commands are not binding today. But “common sense” is merely human wisdom and Paul says in I Corinthians 2:3, “which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, . . .” (Also compare I Corinthians 2:5-6). We are to speak as God has spoken in His word, not as common sense would tell us.
Furthermore, as has been seen above (pp. 7-9), Paul was not merely telling the Corinthians that they were to worship according to the prevailing social customs of the day; rather, he was introducing a new Christian tradition which ran counter to the practice of the pagan Greek religions. Paul’s teaching of prayer and prophecy with men bareheaded and women covered seems to have been an apostolic innovation. At this point, an objection is sometimes raised: “I just can’t see my wife wearing a heavy veil over her face.” But where in this passage, it may be asked, does scripture mention a face-veil? The word for face-veil (Greek kalumma), although found in the New Testament in II Corinthians 3:13-16, is not found here at all. The word “cover” (Greek katakalupto) is a general word. Out of the twenty-five times it is found in the Greek Old Testament, it refers once to a face covering (Genesis 38:15), once to a head covering (Esther 6:12), and once to a seraph covering his face and feet with his wings (Isaiah 6:2). In the Apocrypha (Susanna 32) it is used absolutely to refer to Susanna having her face (or possibly her head) veiled. But in the passage in question “head” rather than “face” is specified as being covered. The confusion arises from the fact that many modern translations of the New Testament render katakalupto as “veil,” but “veil” to most modern Americans suggests a face-veil, although it does not necessarily refer to such. It was not the general practice in the first century (except perhaps at Tarsus) to cover the face with the veil. The modern custom of heavily veiling the face in the Middle East and North Africa is due to a great extent to Islamic influence.34 Vincent says, “The head-dress of Greek women consisted of nets, hair-bags, or kerchiefs, sometimes covering the whole head. A shawl which enveloped the body was often thrown over the head, especially at marriages or funerals.”35 There is no face-veil here.
Some have argued that a hat is not a veil and thus does not qualify today. But Paul did not use a word for a specific article of clothing. He does not even use the generic noun katakalupsis (“covering”). Rather he uses the even more general verb katakalupto (“cover”). “Cover” is a very general term and cannot be limited to a particular item of dress in the Greek culture. Thus a hat, netting, a scarf, a piece of cloth, or any such item (although wigs are doubtful) that covers the head is quite proper. Having discussed various objections that are usually raised at this point, the exposition of the text may proceed.
The Creation and Angelic Arguments
“For 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. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.” (I Corinthians 11:7-12—NASV)
Paul continues his argument on the natural order of things, no longer looking to the order of headship, but now to the order of creation. The creation shows us two things about the relationship between man and woman: woman was created both from and for man. This is why man is the image and glory of God, while woman is the glory of man. Note that woman is not said to be in man’s image—she too is in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-27), but being second in creation she is man’s glory, not God’s. This implies two things: (1) a man ought not to have his head covered (verse 7), and (2) the woman ought to have authority on her head (verse 10). Paul then goes on to add, presumably for the sake of those men who would read too much into this argument, that man and woman are not independent of each other because now man is born through woman and ultimately all things originate from God. Verses 11 and 12 give no comfort to those men who imagine that they are better than women because Adam was created before Eve.
The line of reasoning in these verses is easily understood except for two points in verse 10: (1) the meaning of the word “authority” and (2) the additional argument “because of the angels” thrown in at the last of this verse. Four different interpretations have been given of the meaning of the word “authority” here: (1) the man’s authority over the woman, (2) the woman’s authority to speak, (3) a magical authority against evil angels, and (4) the word “authority” as an Aramaic colloquialism for “veil.”
The most common explanation of the meaning of authority here is that Paul is referring to the authority that the man has over the woman. This is quite often expressed by the use of the words “subordination” or “subjection.” This explanation fits the context fairly well, although it should be noted that Paul does not explicitly refer to the subordination of woman to man in this passage. The closest he comes to this is in verse 3 where he says that the man is head of a woman. This is similar to Ephesians 5:22-23 where Paul says that wives should be subject (or subordinate) to their husbands because man is head of the woman. Several modern English translations, including Moffatt’s, Goodspeed’s, Phillips’ , C. B. Williams’, the Jerusalem, Amplified, Living, and New American Bibles, and the Today’s English Version, have worded verse 10 in such a way as to bring out this interpretation.
The problem with this interpretation is that literally Paul says the woman ought to “have authority.” Despite the rewording done by the translations listed above, in its usual sense the phrase “have authority” refers to the authority of the person who has it—in this case, the woman’s own authority. Because of this, W. M. Ramsay says that this interpretation “that the ‘authority’ which the woman wears on her head is the authority to which she is subject [is] a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the New Testament, where (as they seem to think) Greek words may mean anything that commentators choose.”36 And John Lightfoot notes that the expression “to have power” denotes “to have power in one’s own hand, not a power above one: as Matt. vii.29; John xix.10; I Cor. vii.37; ix.4; and elsewhere a thousand times.”37
A further problem is the lack of evidence that the head covering was a symbol of woman’s subjection to man in the first century. There are Rabbinic parallels which treat the veil as a sign of the married woman,38 but even this may signify modesty and chastity rather than subjection. Lightfoot states that among the Jewish rabbis the veil was a sign of shame, not subjection.39 Further, he asks why, if the veil is a sign of subjection, is the woman not required to wear it all the time? “It is clear enough the apostle speaks of veiling only when they were employed in religious worship; and that regard is had to something that belongs to the woman in respect of God, rather than in respect of her husband.”40
A second suggestion as to the meaning of “authority” here is that the word refers to a woman’s own authority or dignity. William Barclay’s translation adopts this interpretation when it refers to “the veil which gives her her own authority.” Regarding this, Ramsay says:
He goes on to illustrate this meaning by appealing to the nineteenth century customs of Syria and Palestine as described in W. M. Thomson’s The Land and the Book, page 31:
It must, however, be asked whether there is any relationship between nineteenth century Islamic customs and those of first century Greece. And although this interpretation gives the word “authority” a fair meaning, it fails to do justice to the context: Paul is not talking about the dignity of women, and thus this view cannot be accepted without modification.
Two other views must be briefly mentioned. A third interpretation is that the veil was thought of as some sort of magical authority to protect the woman from evil angels whenever she drew near to God. This does retain the meaning of “her own authority” and also ties in with the phrase “because of the angels,” but it is hard to see Paul advocating a magical viewpoint. In addition, this view restricts the interpretation of the angels to evil angels and there is a “lack of evidence showing that a woman’s veil was ever thought of as having such a function in antiquity.”43
The fourth interpretation is a conjecture that “authority” might have been an Aramaic colloquialism for “veil” and thus mean “veil” and nothing more. This is based on the fact that the root of the Aramaic word sltwnyh, which means a “veil” or “head-ornament,” is slt which is exactly the same as a common Aramaic verb which means “to have power, dominion over.”44 Thus in popular Aramaic speech, “authority” might have meant “veil.” But as simple as this view would make the passage to understand, it is still only a conjecture and there is no evidence that the word “authority” ever meant “veil.” Futher, it is questionable whether Paul would have used an Aramaic colloquialism in writing to a Greek church.
There are also several views regarding what the phrase “because of the angels” means. One view is that the woman should cover her head because of the example of the ministering angels (Hebrews 1:14) who cover themselves with their wings (Isaiah 6:2). But if this is true, why should the head-covering be restricted to only women? After all, man is a little lower than the angels (Psalms 8:5—KJV).
Another view is that the angels are evil angels such as those who left their proper dwelling and sinned (Jude 6; II Peter 2:4), possibly by seducing women (Genesis 6:4; also the apocryphal Book of Enoch, chapter 15). The woman should wear a head covering lest the angels should lust after her. Here the covering functions either as a magic charm to frighten the evil angels away or as a veil which hides the woman’s charms.45 But, in the scriptures the word “angel” unmodified refers to good angels; there are indeed evil angels, but it is possible to know this because of such expressions as “the devil and his angels” and “the angels that sinned.”
A third and more likely view is that the angels in question are good angels who are present when the Christians gather for public worship and whose presence demands a certain respect. This meaning is most clearly illustrated by parallels found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Scroll of the War Rule (1QM vii. 4-6) is found:
Again, in the “Rule of the Congregation” (1QSa ii. 3-11), also known as the “Rule Annexe” or the “Messianic Rule,” is found:
These two passages, especially the last, remind one of Leviticus 21:17-23.
The point is that the holy angels are present in assemblies for worship (I Corinthians 4:9; Psalm 138:1 LXX). Therefore those things which are shameful should not be allowed in the assemblies. Now under the New Covenant, being blind, lame, etc. is not disgraceful, but Paul has just said that every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head; it is just as shameful as if she had shaved her head. Thus a woman should not pray with her head uncovered in the presence of angels.
With this understanding, it is possible to see more clearly the meaning of “authority” in this verse. Ramsay is right in asserting that it is the woman’s own authority that Paul is referring to, but Paul is not here discussing the woman’s dignity—in fact, he is not discussing social customs at all. Rather, he is saying that since the woman is the glory of man rather than the glory of God, the head-covering is the symbol of her authority or right to communicate with God. For her to do so without this symbol of authority is shameful, for this is a sacred time when angels are present. The last of verse 9 and verse 10 may thus be paraphrased to read: “Woman was created for man’s sake. For this reason a woman should have a covering over her head as a symbol to the angels of her right to pray.”
The Sociological Argument
“Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God [with head] uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” (I Corinthians 11:13-15—NASV)
Up to this point Paul has given three theological arguments as to why a man should pray bareheaded and a woman covered. With verse 13 he introduces a sociological argument: an appeal to nature and propriety. A question to be resolved, however, is whether Paul is referring to the society of the whole Greek culture or to the Christian subculture within it.
Paul starts this argument by appealing to the Corinthians’ own ideas about what is proper. He tells them to judge for themselves and asks them if they think it is proper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered. Now at first glance, it appears that Paul is asking them to decide on the basis of their cultural sense of propriety—that is, according to the way that they were brought up. But when it is considered that pagan Greek women did pray bareheaded, this changes the picture. For if this is an appeal for the Corinthians to judge according to their upbringing, many would have to answer, “There is nothing improper about a woman praying uncovered.” But it is obvious that Paul is expecting them to judge it improper. This leads one to think that the appeal is not to what is proper in light of their upbringing, but rather to what is proper in light of their Christian teaching. This may be illustrated by considering the answer that a gospel preacher would get today if he should ask the congregation whether it is proper for a woman to preach publicly. The answer he would receive would hopefully be “no.” But this answer would not be based on the practice of American culture; rather, it would be based on the teachings of the Bible. This conclusion is strengthened when it is noticed that Paul says something similar in I Corinthians 10: 15 regarding food offered to idols: “I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say.” Here too his appeal for them to judge is not based on their upbringing, but on their Christian teaching.
Now there are some who would ignore the above and argue that because the great majority of American Christians today think that it is quite proper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, it is all right for her to do so. In effect, they are saying that the conclusions from the three theological arguments dealing with the headship, creation, and angels are not valid because the sociological argument is no longer valid. Apparently they feel the sociological argument is more important than the theological ones. But even if the sociological argument should be found to be no longer valid, that does not change the fact that Paul has just presented three theological arguments which are valid.
Also, those who would advocate this line of reasoning need to face up to the fact that it has far reaching consequences. For example, in I Corinthians 14:34-35 Paul supports the teaching that women are to keep silent in the public assemblies with two arguments. One is theological: that women are to be subject, even as the law says; the other is sociological: that it is a shame or disgrace for a woman to speak in church. Now it is no longer a shame for a woman to speak in church in American society; when Gerald Ford was President of the United States, he attended a church that had a woman preacher. Therefore, if it is true that the invalidity of a sociological argument overrides the validity of a theological argument, then women may speak in churches today. The questions of women not speaking in church and wearing a head-covering must rise and fall together. Many people in America today group the two questions together.48 They are supported by very similar arguments. If one practice is to be followed, so is the other; if one is to be disregarded, the other may be also. Those who advocate that invalid sociological arguments release the theological arguments must face up to the consequences of their teaching and apply it consistently.
In passing, it may be noted that here Paul no longer mentions both prophesying and praying, but only praying. This is in fact the crux of the question, for Paul’s day as well as our own. Not everyone prophesied (I Corinthians 12:29), even in the days of miraculous gifts, but everyone prayed. And although prophesying was forbidden to women in the assembly (I Corinthians 14:34), praying was not. This was, and is, the important question.
But to return to the question at hand, perhaps Paul is not so sure that the Corinthians will answer his question in verse 13 right. For he goes ahead to argue that their answer should be that it is improper for a woman to pray uncovered. He does not, as some would suppose, leave the answer up to the whims of culture; rather, he proceeds to ask a rhetorical question regarding the natural order of things. He asks if nature does not teach that men should be bareheaded and women covered by the type of natural covering they have? The implied answer is “yes, nature does teach this,” as is shown by the use of the Greek negative particle oude which expects an affirmative answer. By nature Paul refers to the natural order of things—the customs of society in general—and not to some physiological characteristic. Physiologically a man’s hair may grow as long as a woman’s, but in most societies—both then and now—men cut their hair shorter than women. Paul appeals to this to show that women naturally have more covering on their heads than men; therefore, they should also wear a head-covering. Note that this argument is still valid today; in general, women still wear their hair longer than men. Even in the subculture in which men wear their hair long, the women wear their hair even longer.
He concludes by saying that a woman’s long hair is given to her as a covering. The covering here is not the same as that mentioned earlier. Here he says that a woman’s hair serves as a mantle (Greek peribolaion), a wrap that hangs from her head over her shoulders, much like the modern shawl is sometimes worn. Some have supposed that long hair can substitute for a head-covering, and they appeal to the Greek preposition anti which is used here and which can mean “instead of.” Thus they translate “her long hair has been given to her instead of a covering.” But here anti does not refer to a replacement, but to an equivalent, and should be translated “for, as, in place of.”49 Paul’s argument here is not that the woman who has long hair may dispense with the head-covering, but rather that the fact that she already has one type of covering shows she is to wear a head-covering.
In passing, it may be noted that verses 14 and 15 have been distorted to prove all sorts of things that Paul never said. Verse 14 has been used to say that it is a sin for a man to have long hair. Paul does not say that it is a sin, but rather a dishonor (Greek atimia), if a man should be wearing (or growing) his hair long. Greek men normally wore their hair short and grew it long only in a time of mourning. Thus Plutarch says, “So in Greece, whenever any misfortune comes, the women cut off their hair and the men let it grow, for it is usual for men to have their hair cut and for women to let it grow.”50 Some have tried to tie in the Greek word atimia with homosexuality, referring to such passages as Romans 1:24, 26 (translated “vile” in the King James Version). Truly homosexuality is dishonorable, but so is death (I Corinthians 15:43); and Jesus (John 8:49), Paul (II Corinthians 11:21) and all the apostles (II Corinthians 6:8) are said to have been dishonored. There is no reference to homosexuality in these passages and neither is there such a reference in the passage in question. Besides, long hair was not the symbol of homosexuality among men in the first century; shaving off the body hair was.51
Verse 15 has been made to say that a woman should not cut her hair. The verse actually says nothing of the sort. It simply says that if a woman should be wearing her hair long, this is a glory to her. The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles reads: “for a woman long hair is attractive,” and J. B. Phillips translates that long hair is “of glorious beauty to a woman.” While the scriptures do here extol the virtues of long hair on a woman, nothing is said of short hair. It is not said that it is a sin, not even a shame, although from the passage one could hardly conclude that there is anything glorious about it.
The Ecclesiastical Argument
“But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” (I Corinthians 11:16—NASV)
Having presented three theological arguments and one sociological argument as to why men should pray bareheaded and women covered, Paul sums up by saying in effect, “And if you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.” In doing so, however, he throws in a fifth argument at the end of the discussion: this innovation that someone is teaching isn’t practiced in any of the other churches of God. By Paul’s appealing to the universal practice of the churches, we see that he is not saying that one should do what his culture does. Rather there was one practice for all the churches in spite of the fact that they were found in many different cultures of the first century. This was not just something that Paul had made up; it was and is apostolic tradition.
A question is often raised regarding exactly what custom Paul is referring to in this verse. Literally the verse reads, “But if anyone thinks to be contentious, we do not have such a custom, neither the churches of God.” Some have mistakenly taken the phrase “we do not have such a custom” to mean “we do not have any particular custom.” They say that Paul is saying that if a person wants to disagree, he may do as he pleases. This explanation certainly jars against the context, for it hardly seems likely that Paul would write for thirteen verses arguing for and even commanding a practice and then at the end say, “But if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to. As Neil Lightfoot says, “This cannot mean, ‘If anyone strives over this or causes trouble, then dismiss the whole subject.’ Paul would not give prolonged reasoning for the veiling of women and then drop the subject with one statement.”52 Paul is not saying, “we do not have any custom”; rather, he is saying, “we do not have a custom like this one I have been discussing.” “Such” does not mean “any”; it refers to something previously discussed.
Some have argued that Paul is saying, “we do not have such a custom as being contentious.” But contention would hardly be called a custom.
Nor is the custom that Paul mentions the practice that he has been arguing for. He is obviously not saying, “we do not have such a custom as men praying bareheaded and women covered.” That they did do this is shown by the fact that this has been the practice in Christianity down to the twentieth century. Some have overlooked the fact that the church did have such a practice and mistakenly referred the word “custom” or “practice” to women praying with a covered head. For this reason many modern translations have changed the word such” to “other” in order to make the meaning clear.
But this change in wording is really not necessary and often is quite confusing to the average reader. A much better and clearer translation is one such as is found in William Barclay’s translation of the New Testament: “let it suffice to say that we have no such custom as the participation of unveiled women in public worship, nor have the congregations of God.” A similar translation is given by F. F. Bruce in his The Letters of Paul: “we have no such custom as you are trying to introduce, and neither have the churches of God elsewhere.” That these translations are correct is shown by studying the following chart:
It is not the practice of the churches in the right hand column that Paul refers to in verse 16. He never refers to the churches’ practice without commanding it. On the other hand, when he refers to the non-Christian custom, it is always with disapproval (“disgraces his head”; “disgraces her head”; “let her also have her hair cut off”; “is it proper?”). And it is the disapproved of custom to which he refers first, last, and the majority of times. Thus when he says, “we do not have such a custom,” the custom to which he is referring is the one that he has discussed with disapproval—the custom which the one who wants to be contentious is trying to introduce. It is the custom of women praying bareheaded, just like they did in pagan Greek religions. But Paul says that this practice of women praying bareheaded53 is simply a Greek custom, and in the churches of God there is no such custom as this.
Some question exists about exactly whom Paul refers to by his use of the plural “we” in this verse. Occasionally Paul seems to use the plural “we” to simply refer to himself and to emphasize his authority. For this reason, several translators, including James Moffatt, Edgar J. Goodspeed, and Charles B. Williams, have rendered the pronoun as “I” rather than “we.” Another suggestion is that by “we” he means “you and me.” But the most likely solution is that by “we” he is referring to the apostles.53 He is saying that the custom that someone is trying to introduce is not an apostolic tradition.
By way of conclusion, it may be noted that to a great extent Paul’s arguments still apply. The fact that Christ is still head of every man and the man is head of woman has not changed. Neither has the fact of creation, that woman was created from and for man. And whatever the meaning of the phrase “because of the angels,” it is a safe bet that the angels have not changed. Women still wear their hair longer than men. Although it may be objected that modern man would not judge it improper for a woman to pray bareheaded, quite possibly Paul was appealing for them to judge in light of their Christian teaching, a fact which would well change the verdict. And although the general practice of the churches is no longer the same as it was in the first century, the fact that for nineteen hundred years the uniform practice of the churches was for men to pray bareheaded and women covered stands as an indictment of the modern practice.
Paul’s arguments are still valid! The scripture still says that a woman ought to have authority on her head! Paul’s command for a woman to either shear off her hair or else keep covering her head is still in the Bible! (There may be some women who will start wearing a head-covering because they read this, but there will be no women who will shear off their hair. It is still a shame.) The command should still be obeyed.
Paul uses theological arguments rather than cultural ones. It is noteworthy that he does not make the truly cultural argument that people would think that the women were prostitutes if they went without a headcovering, although it has often been asserted that this was the real reason that Paul gave this instruction. It would seem that it is not so much the culture of the first century which has produced the lack of head-coverings as it is the culture of the twentieth century. Three modern cultural factors seem to have produced the disregard for this teaching: (1) the fact that hats and/or veils are no longer considered stylish, (2) the move for greater women’s rights and equality with men, and (3) the tendency toward lack of respect for authority. It is modern culture that would cause men and women to be contentious with the apostle Paul’s teaching. As C. M. Pullias has said:
The purpose of this booklet is not to disfellowship anyone or to start a new sect; rather it is to bring the modern practice in line with the apostolic teaching. It is not good to claim to be restoring New Testament Christianity and then back down and say we don’t have to do what these verses say. This sort of teaching opens the door for all sorts of false doctrine. A good example of this is found in an article which was written by Gerald A. Larue, professor of biblical history and archaeology at the school of religion in the University of Southern California. In the article which appeared in the Los Angeles Times for June 10, 1975 he wrote:
The only way to effectively silence such false teaching is to live in obedience to God’s word, in order to put a stop to the accusation of inconsistency (Titus 2:7-8; I Peter 3:16).
Of late the only real use that these verses in I Corinthians 11 have seen is to assert that women should not pray in the assembly (appealing to verse 3) and that men should not have long hair (appealing to verse 14). If these verses still apply, they all do. It is time that this passage was restored to its original purpose, for “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).
Brue Terry is Professor of Bible and Humanities Chair, School of Biblical Studies at Ohio Valley University.
NO SUCH CUSTOM (Second Edition)
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