Thursday, August 7, 2008

Some History On Head Coverings

"The veil was a sign of guilt and shame worn by the Jew in worship to signify condemnation before the law. But what has the Christian to do with such a sign when professing that, 'Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law,' and 'There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit,' (Romans 8:1). For such believers to wear a sign of condemnation is to nullify the worth of the atonement, and so dishonor Christ who released them from the condemnation of the law."--Katharine Bushnell

Before we can delve into the actual text of 1 Corinthians 11: 3-16, we must set the stage to get a feel for the context and unique situation Paul was dealing with when he composed his instructions to the Corinthian Church.

Corinth was a Greek City situated on the peninsula of Southern Greece and was part of the Roman Empire during the time Corinthians was written. Before 146 B.C., Corinth was known for its military might, commercial capabilities, and for its excessive worship of the love goddess, Aphrodite. The city erected a temple dedicated to her, staffed with up to a thousand temple-slaves and courtesans. Prostitution became so ubiquitous in Corinth that the phrase "to corinthianize" became slang for "practicing fornication." This went on until the Romans destroyed the city in 146 B.C. and its citizens were dragged off into slavery. In 44 B.C., the city was refounded by Julius Caesar and became a Roman colony. It regained prominence by 27 B.C., becoming the capital of of the Roman province, Achaia. This resurrection set the stage for Corinth to become a cultural melting-pot, where Roman, Greek, and Jewish cultures found themselves coexisting, conflicting, overlapping and sometimes, colliding.


Corinth became the wealthiest city in Greece during the first century A.D., with a possible population of 600,000. The city returned to its roots and reestablished the temple of Aphrodite during this time. The gods of Apollo, Asclepius, Poseidon, Hermes, Artermis, Zues, Dionysus Heracles and even Egyptian deities also found their way into Corinthian culture during this period.

In light of the myriad of religions and gods present in Corinth, it is not surprising to find a myriad of customs and practices that varied from time to time, place to place, and sect to sect. Not only were the customs themselves varied, but separate groups with shared customs still possessed different reasons for engaging in those customs. For instance, Jewish men covered their heads during worship to symbolize their guilt under the law, while certain Greek men covered their heads in accordance with the mystery cults that taught followers to cover their heads while engaging in religious sexual rites and ceremonies to preserve their anonymity. So certain Jews and certain Greeks both covered their heads, but for very different reasons.

We must remember that neither Greek nor Roman culture were monolithic cultures. Sub-cultures and diverse sects formed within each culture and had both over-lapping and conflicting customs. Most people think the Greek and Roman cultures were nearly interchangeable because the scripture lumps its people together as "gentiles", but each culture was VERY different and clashed over a number of religious, philosophical and legal matters.

Although Jewish culture is considered to be a monolithic culture for the most part, we must remember that there were still different offshoots and interpretations of Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.), who also argued over all sorts of customs.

We know that within specific Greek cults, women DID NOT always cover their heads during religious ceremonies. But whether these cults' uncovered women characterizes Greek culture as a whole cannot be determined. There is some evidence that only Greek married women wore head coverings (as an external symbol of marriage, sort of like our modern-day wedding ring) and single women went about with uncovered heads so they could more easily find a husband. Roman culture was much more consistent, with the vast majority of its people wearing head coverings (both men and women) during religious ceremonies, but not always in everyday public life. The type of head coverings were also diverse: colorful scarves, helmets, headbands, heavy woolen cloths, coverings that went down to the ground, partial ones that only hid the back of the head and hair, and so forth. But there is no doubt that head coverings were associated with piety in Roman culture.

Jewish men wore (and still do) head coverings, called talliths, as a symbol of guilt and shame before God. It was their way of showing that they were guilty under the law and their sin separated them from God. To this very day, the practice still stands in Jewish worship. Jewish women consistently covered their heads during this time, but throughout Jewish history there is evidence of women freely appearing without head coverings. But during this time, it would seem the majority of Jewish women absolutely kept their heads covered in worship services, in public, and even in their own homes, lest they face dire consequences (more on that later...)

Since Paul attempted to unify these THREE distinct cultures under the counter-cultural Christian faith, the cultural component to this passage cannot be underestimated when we study Paul's teaching on head coverings.

If we are honest about the cultural dynamics prevalent in Corinth at the time of Paul's letter, we must abandon the tendency of adhering to our own pet generalizations about the comprehensive "policy" of head coverings (who wears them and why) in the ancient world. It is simply futile. The Roman Empire fostered a pluralistic society with great variances in social and religious customs in any given city. Corinth was no exception. This complex, non-comprehensive reality makes understanding the head covering passage more difficult, but it should humble each"side," since NOBODY has an air-tight, irrefutable interpretation. We should come reason together, weigh all the evidence, seek the Spirit's guidance and be convinced in our own minds of this passage's intent. If we find that we differ in our understanding, we should show respect, while keeping each other intellectually honest.

In the next post, I will delve into some alternate interpretations of this passage. I'm curious as to which interpretations readers hold to as of now. I'm only aware of a few readers that actually enforce the head coverings passage at "face-value." What is every one's current personal understanding of this passage or what has it been in the past?

11 comments:

Meliss said...

I've studied this passage in the past, but have forgotten a lot of the details. When reading it in an English translation, it sounds convoluted, saying two different things: that a wife should wear a head covering over her hair OR that a woman's long hair is her covering. Also, the last verse is translated: "no other practice" in the NIV and "no such practice" in the ESV which seems to be making opposite points.

I am wondering if Paul was quoting an argument up until verse 11.

I do not wear a head-covering, though I am a married woman, because I believe that in the last verse, Paul was saying the churches did not practice head-coverings. But again, this passage seems to defy understanding.

Many years ago, my husband and I gave a high school girl a ride to church. I did a Bible study with her and she professed to be a Christian, though she was a very immature Christian. Her parents let her go to church but were hostile to Christianity.

A man in our congregation, whose wife wore a head-covering at all times, approached the high school girl and asked her if she would consider wearing a head-covering. I found it very telling that the head-covering issue was more important to him than her growth in Christ.

I wrote him a letter challenging him on it. He called, and though I answered the phone, he asked to talk to my husband. He tried to talk to my husband about the issue, but my husband told him that he really needed to discuss it with me. The man said that he wouldn't talk to an employee directly, but would rather talk to the employer if he had a problem with the employee. My husband pressed him to talk to me, though. When I did speak with him, his voice shook. He said that it was important to teach the whole counsel of God. I reiterated that it would be better to focus on the basics of faith in Christ with a baby-Christian rather than a disputable matter.

Interesting experience. Hope I haven't hogged up too much of your comment section!

Meliss said...

P.S. Thank you for studying this topic and reporting here. I love your thinking and writing on your blog. I have enjoyed and benefited from reading many of your posts. I detect a spirit of love and humility in your writing plus a passion for truth.

Catrina said...

I am very interested in this topic, however as you know I am a little busy at the moment. This topic has always left me with a ? I have read lots of interesting ideas and interpretations but have no strong convictions as of yet.

Tia Lynn said...

Yes, it's one those passages that kind of makes your head hurt. The first half paul seems to COMMANDING that women wear headcoverings and second half he seems to be saying it doesn't really matter. I've become convinced this is because the english translastions botched this passage so severely that it has completely diluted Paul's original, very easy to follow, argument. But we shall see... :)

Greg Anderson said...

Again, reliable scholarship is in general agreement that Paul's ministry was dogged by a vociferous band of Judaizers who tried to take over the Corinthian congregation once he [Paul] had completed its planting and watering; and had moved on.

We do know that Paul was in possession of a letter from the Corinthians asking for his mediation with regards to various strifes and divisions that had cropped up in the congregation. (Bullinger 1695).

The scriptures that support this observation are as follows: 1 Cor 1:11 ~ 5:1 ~ 11:18 ~ & 15:12.

What we don't know is whether Paul is refuting a tradition about head coverings or is indeed legislating "new law" under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It would have to be "new law" because in the OT there is no such statute mandating head coverings for women.

Personally, I choose the former option (hypothesis) and I test it with scripture (Acts 15:28-29). My conclusion is that women have the freedom to choose a head covering or not to choose one as their individual consciences see fit.

Source Cited:
"The Companion Bible", E.W. Bullinger, Grand Rapids: 1999
(first printing: 1922)

Gareth said...

Why is this such a mystery to all of you. Paul dedicated 16 verses to head coverings. The outcome? Women cover your heads, men do not. Why is this so difficult? You make if difficult because you don't like what the Holy Spirit directed Paul to legislate. Head coverings signify a woman's submission to male-leadership and man goes uncovered to signify his freedom to lead in carrying out God's will for the church on earth. How much clearer could it be?

Andrea said...

Well, gareth, it's raining pretty hard here, so I think I could go out into the garden right now and make a lovely mud pie that would be just marginally clearer than this passage! Naturally I COULD clarify the Scripture in my own mind by applying my own, worldly notions concerning gender roles and God's views of men and women, but as tempting as that might be for me, it would be shoddy scholarship and just plain dishonest interpretation on my part, so through God's grace I am working to forbear from doing such a thing.

Tia, there's this one article that sort of rocked my whole perspective on this matter, not so much altering convictions I held as it completely changed the way I viewed the passage itself. I don't know that I see this article as a definitive lens through which to read the Scripture, but Martin's citations and research appear sound and the conclusions he draws are actually attractively simple, in their own way- Paul, if we are to go by Martin's interpretation, was indeed arguing for veiling of women, but the reasons that sparked his argument would render the act of veiling no longer appropriate for our time. It's given me a lot to think about over the past month, anyway! You may be interested.

http://www.michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/1%20Cor11%20head%20covering%20testicle.pdf

(in case you couldn't tell from the link, this article deals with the contemporary views of sexuality at the time in very simple, unvarnished language, so I don't believe it's suitable for young children, and it's also unsuitable for people who have a difficult time reading about genitalia even when it's discussed in the most clinical terms; it's really just a lot of plain speaking ... which statement is probably very contradictory, given that plain speaking offends far more often than do pretty words, but if we could please everyone ..!)

Andrea said...

. . . well I see I edited out part of the sentence that would have made the last statement contradictory, so now it's just plain confusing. Sorry about that!

Tia Lynn said...

Gareth, even complementarians cannot agree among themselves exactly what this passage means, how it fits with other scriptures or how to apply it faithfully in our day and age. I am not saying that I have the one and true interpretation, but I would ask that you give it a fair listen and weigh the evidence before accusing me of ignoring this passage because "i don't like it."

Andrea, thank you for the article, I will most certainly read it. I've been brushing up all week on this topic and want to read this passage through every lens possible to make sure I haven't overlooked anything and to determine which words and statements have a number of interpretive options. Thanks!

Carlos said...

this post on head coverings and long hair bring memories when I was living in Chicago during the late 60's - I ought to post my picture with hippy long hair and when I had hair :-) - I was the only football player( soccer style kicker) that had hair sticking out of the helmet; they wouldn't tell me to cut it as they'd be w/o a kicker.

Those were turbulent times in Chicago - 68 Dem's convention, black panthers, etc. But long hair was a big issue, especially in the christian circles....

50 years from now, y'all be looking at the present issues on this blog and will be laughing at how silly these things are/were....

Tonya said...

As of right now, I am of the opinion that a woman should either have long hair or wear a head covering when praying and prophesying. I can't find anything to indicate otherwise.

If some ex-temple prostitutes with shaved heads had been recently saved, or if some christian ladies were shearing their heads in favor of "freedom" they shouldn't be claiming, the church needed to understand the importance of this principle/symbolism. The ladies would have needed a head covering while their hair grew out.

E-sword (an invaluable study tool- if you have never checked it out, you should - I love it) gives an easy rendering of 11:6 that reads:
"For if the woman be not covered, even be shorn,and if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven let her be veiled." And then we are told later that long hair is given to her as a covering.

So my take is that the ladies should have been veiled while their natural covering was growing out. This allowed them to pray and prophecy during the service without dishonoring God.

I don't think these verses can be written off as only for the congregation (or culture) to which they were written because of the reference to the created order and the angels.

It is difficult for us liberated/no works type people to accept this passage as it is written because it just doesn't sit right with some ideas of who God is or how things should be done. I have heard SO many interpretations of this verse from "it's the principle of submission Paul was after" to "women should wear head coverings all the time". I am looking forward to reading your interpretation as well.

At this point, I am just going to go with the simple straightforward reading. I've looked up the words in the original language,listened to numerous opinions on the meaning of this passage, and read a lot of interpretations based on "history" (funny how that always fits the interpretation of whomever is making the point) and I can't find any reason at all to change the meaning of the passage. As with every other "problem" passage I have ever studied, it can stand as it is without any additions, subtractions or help from historical evidence. It's just offensive and that makes it difficult to swallow.

BTW, I believe shorn means "cropped close" and shaved means "shaved":):):). I don't think we need to be walking around with a ruler making sure every woman's hair is at least 7 inches long or anything. I've heard all kind of opinions on this too. (Yikes.) If the conscience is clear, who are we to say "your hair is too long or too short". It's the individual who is responsible to obey.

Looking forward to your next post:)!