After my first article on this topic, there was much discussion and many questions. This second article seeks to answer those.
As we enter this discussion, it is paramount to keep in mind that the Corinthian women are not being told they ought to start covering themselves; they are already doing so, per 11:2. Paul praises them that they are keeping the traditions he has passed down. They do not seem to understand the meaning, however, which is what he wants them to understand. He says, “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” (1 Corinthians 11:3) He is not teaching about covering; he is teaching about authority, about headship. When this passage is studied and taught on, the focus is almost always on the woman, but this is a passage about men, women, and their relationship to Christ and God. Whatever decision one may reach about a woman being covered, the opposite must be applied to the man (cf. 11:4, 5). If a woman must always wear a covering, the man must not ever have anything on his head— not a baseball cap or a winter hat, or anything else.
What about “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10)?
Paul makes a reference to angels, and gives no explanatory details. Within the context of the passage, we have no help. 1 Corinthians 4:9 has been proposed as an aid in understanding Paul’s meaning. Here Paul says that he and the other apostles have become a spectacle both to the world and to the angels. The interpretation, then, is that Paul is saying the woman ought to have a symbol of authority* on her head because the angels are watching. It is surely true that the angels are watching, but we are still left wondering why the angels’ watching demands a headcovering. It is helpful to understand more of the cultural context. (*Note: “a symbol of” is not in the original language. This is a translators’ addition for sake of clarity; in short, it is their interpretation.)
Headcovering was not a new tradition at all. The Jews, as well as other cultures, had practiced headcovering for some time. Intertestamental writings explain much about this practice, including its purpose. To them, it was linked with modesty, and also with angels.
Genesis 6:1-4 speaks of the “sons of God” seeing beautiful women, and taking wives. God says He will not strive with man forever, that the wickedness is great, and in 6:13, He announces the end of all flesh. Scholars debate what is meant by “sons of God,” but everywhere else in the Old Testament (OT), this phrase refers to angels (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). The simplest explanation, then, is that Moses is saying angels— who often appear in the form of men in the OT— saw the beauty of women, and took them as wives. 2 Peter 2:4 references angels who sinned, and were cast into Hell. Jude 6 speaks of “angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode” and incurred judgment. In addition, intertestamental writings speak of angels lusting after women (see Enoch 6-11, The Testament of Reuben 5). Belief in angels’ temptation to lust after women continued with the Early Church Fathers. Tertullian, in his writing “On the Veiling of Virgins,” asserts that virgins ought to be veiled so that they do not entice angels to sin (7). According to these writings, the purpose of the veil was indeed modesty, but it was not necessarily related to submission to authority, as was the tradition which Paul passed down.
Some maintain that Paul’s inclusion of “because of the angels” teaches us to see headcovering or veil-wearing as a universal practice—that is, for every person of every culture, time, and place— with a universal meaning and purpose: modesty, and expression of submission to authority. However, we see the practice in scripture in several places, and the purpose is not universal.
- In Genesis 24:65, Rebekah covers herself before meeting her future husband. Are we to understand that she did not desire to be modest on her journey until this point?
- In Genesis 38:14-15 Tamar’s purpose in veiling was to disguise herself as a prostitute. The meaning and purpose of her veiling was anything but modesty or submission.
- Exodus 34:29-35 describes Moses wearing a veil after communing with God. The purpose was not modesty or submission, but to hide his face because the people were afraid to speak with him. Paul speaks of Moses’ veiling and gives us a second reason in 2 Corinthians 3:13, “… that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away.”
- In Isaiah 3:23, the veil is one of the things the wanton women of Zion were using to beautify themselves, and God says He will take it away.
These examples show us variation in meaning and purpose of the headcovering or veil. It cannot, therefore, be a universal practice for all people of all time.
But what does the phrase “because of the angels” mean? There is too little information given here to make a definitive statement. We can speculate, but we cannot bind an interpretation. One possibility is that Paul is referring to the same incident Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4 refer to— sons of men in Genesis 6 who left their proper domain, and suffered God’s wrath for it. The reference here, then, would serve to warn any woman who would abandon her proper place of submission that such a choice will result in condemnation.
When is Paul commanding the headcovering to be worn?
Most (but not all) who teach and/or practice headcovering today believe that the cover should be worn during the assembly, or at other times when public prayer and teaching is happening. This belief is based on “while praying or prophesying” in 1 Corinthians 11:5. There is nothing in the words themselves to indicate where these acts are done, but the fact that they are coupled, and that shame or dishonor can be incurred leads to the conclusion that these are public acts. Since Paul is talking about authority, it must be an activity which assumes authority (no one assumes that being led in prayer requires authority). The verbs in the original language indicate that the woman is doing the actual leading, and teaching (as opposed to being led in prayer). In 11:4, the verbs are of masculine gender; in 11:5, he switches to feminine. This, as well as the tense of the verbs, indicates that the woman is leading the prayer, and/ or doing the teaching. Since a woman is not allowed to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34, 35), the context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-15 must be other than the assembly. This being the case, when would a woman be required to wear a covering? Any time she is leading in prayer or prophesying/ teaching.
What kind of covering is being spoken of? Could a woman be wearing this headcovering and have visible hair?
The answer to this question is crucial to our understanding. Paul uses the word KATAKALYPTO. This compound verb means literally “to have down on the head” (Louw-Nida 49.16). It speaks of covering oneself in an emphasized way. “It may be translated about as follows: the covering of the clothes on the head is of such a kind that the whole face seems to be covered as with a mask” (BDAG). This word occurs only here in the New Testament, but it is found in the Greek translation of the OT— called the Septuagint and abbreviated as LXX— which was used by first century Jews (when Jesus quotes from the OT, He uses the LXX). The following passages use this word:
- Genesis 38:15— Tamar covered herself, rendering her unrecognizable to her father-in-law.
- Exodus 26:34-35 and Numbers 4:5— refers to the veil separating the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, completely obscuring the ark from view.
- 2 Chronicles 18:29— Jehosophat disguises himself, making himself unrecognizable in battle.
- Jeremiah 51:42— Babylon is said to be engulfed with tumultuous waves of the sea (28:42 in the LXX).
- Habbakuk 2:14— compares the knowledge of the glory of the Lord filling the earth to the waters which cover the sea (a complete covering).
While this is not an exhaustive list of the occurrences of KATAKALYPTO in the LXX, it is enough of a sample to help us understand the type of covering Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 11. It clearly means a complete covering.
Some have contended that this type of covering covers all of one’s head, but does not necessarily cover all of the hair— that hair could be coming out from the bottom of the covering. While this might be true in the most legalistic sense, writings of the time tell us this was not the type of covering referred to by this word. Dio Chrysostom (A.D. 40-112) writes of customs in Tarsus, Paul’s hometown: “Among these is the convention regarding feminine attire, a convention which prescribes that women should be so arrayed and should so deport themselves when in the street that nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body, and that they themselves might not see anything off the road… they have their faces covered as they walk… they, like surveyors, can see more keenly with but one of their eyes” (Chrysostom and Loeb, 48-49). This is the type of covering described by the verb KATAKALYPTO— one which completely covers.
The terms used within the passage also support the idea that the hair must be covered. In 1 Corinthians 11:15, Paul describes the woman’s hair as a PERIBOLAION. This is a shawl, or something thrown about the shoulders. It is, by comparison to a covering required by the verb KATAKALYPTO, an incomplete covering. If the hair is incomplete by itself, it follows that to be completely covered, the hair would be hidden. In other words, that which is considered complete must, by definition, be larger than that which is incomplete.
Ancient art has been cited in support of the idea that a woman’s covering might not cover all of her hair. Of the Dura synagogue, one of the most notable, and oft cited examples of Jewish tradition as depicted in art, Michael Marlowe says that it is “precarious” to assume this accurately reflects the actual practices of the day because the works of art date to 200 years later, and were likely “heavily influenced by Greek and Roman artistic conventions.”
Art of the catacombs created by Roman Christians has also been cited. This is equally irrelevant. For one thing, Christians did not begin meeting in catacombs until late in the second century AD (Shaff II.93). The earliest art of the catacombs dates to the end of the second century, and most of it is later than that. With such a time gap, it is preposterous to use this art as evidence of first century practices. Additionally, the fact that these carvings depict women who are indeed covered, but who are covered in a noticeably different manner than that described by contemporaries of Paul only serves to further the position that the covering was a culturally-based custom. Customs vary from one time and place to another; truth and commandment do not.
Truth and commandment are exactly what we are trying to discern here. When we are in search of truth and commandment, we take the whole of scripture, especially the New Testament, into account.
How does 1 Timothy 2:9-10 show a differing custom from 1 Corinthians 11?
1 Timothy 2:9-10 states, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly, and discreetly not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”
Paul’s “likewise” draws our attention back to the previous verse. 1 Timothy 2:8 says, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” The “therefore” is a reference to Paul’s appointment as a preacher and apostle. On this basis, he commands that men pray in every place. The context of the verse, then, is “every place.” Likewise— that is, in every place— women are to adorn themselves with proper clothing. The adornment is to be modest, and discreet. Paul elaborates on what “modest and discreet” adornment is: not with braided hair, not gold, not pearls, not costly garments. It has been supposed that Paul is not forbidding these articles specifically, but is merely saying that the woman’s decor should be that of the heart. The original language does not bear this out. While Paul certainly is offering the heart as a woman’s primary adornment, he is also forbidding these items. The preposition “with” is the Greek preposition “EN” and in this use means a “marker introducing means or instrument, with” (BDAG). 1 Corinthians 5:8 shows a similar construction. Paul commands that the feast be celebrated “not with” old (figurative) leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness. Are we to understand that it would be okay to have malice and wickedness, or that these items are forbidden? Obviously, malice and wickedness are forbidden. Likewise, in 1 Timothy 2:9,10, modest dress is not done with the instruments of braided hair, gold, or pearls.
Paul is concerned about the possibility that the women may draw their beauty from these worldly things, including their braided hair. Why would he be concerned about this possibility if it were not, in fact, a possibility? If the women of Ephesus were practicing the same headcovering as those in Corinth, it would not be a possibility. Marlowe states, “The Apostle Paul’s remark about braided hair in 1 Timothy 2:9 implies that in his experience women prided themselves on elaborate hairstyles, which is impossible with a headcovering.” We have already shown that the covering spoken of in 1 Corinthians was complete. The entire head was covered. Considering that Paul is clearly concerned about the Ephesian women being vain over their hair, we have two possibilities:
- Paul is unreasonably concerned. Remember that this is inspired scripture. If we say that Paul writes this out of unreasonable concern, we must say, too, that the Holy Spirit writes out of unreasonable concern. Since that is blasphemy, this position is untenable.
- Their hair is exposed, and could prove a stumbling block to them. If their hair is exposed, they are not wearing the covering prescribed by Paul to the Corinthians.
Remember that the context of this passage is “every place.” This would include the assembly. Even if we maintain that the context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is corporate worship (which has already been discussed; the author does not hold this view), this is included within the context addressed by 1 Timothy 2:9.
It is evident, then, that the Ephesian women were not wearing the same covering Paul praised the Corinthian women for. Peter, in 1 Peter 3, speaks of braided hair as well. His passage seems to be somewhat more lenient as he does not forbid the same items that Paul does in writing to Timothy, though he does admonish these not be the woman’s source of beauty. Nevertheless, the message of all three passages is the same. Men are to be those in authority. They are to lead in worship as well as home life. Women are to be submissive and consider godliness above all as their adornment. Paul cites the natural order of creation in both passages, and Peter cites the example of Sarah. In this we see that this practice— of men in authority, and women in submission— has always been.
What about those inclined to be contentious, and Paul preaching the same in every church (11:16)?
1 Corinthians 11:16 reads, “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” Often the original language can clear up such verses by connecting us back to what is being referred to by means of verb and noun tenses. No such luck here. The question, then, is “contentious about what practice?” There are four practices discussed in the passage which Paul may have in view:
- The practice of headship/authority
- The practice of wearing of veils by women and nothing by men
- The practice of women having long hair and men short hair
- The practice of being contentious
One of these possibilities we can eliminate immediately. For Paul to address the practice of being contentious would be a tangent unrelated to anything else in the context. This is, therefore, not a viable interpretation. The practice of having long hair and men short hair is the practice which immediately precedes this verse, and is therefore a likely consideration. Remember that what Paul is aiming for the reader to understand is headship and authority. Considering that he moves on to another topic in the next verse, it makes sense that he would go back to the beginning of the discussion and “book end” the passage, reminding him of his purpose in the discussion. Therefore, a likely interpretation is that Paul is admonishing those who might be contentious with the order of headship. Additionally, we see that Paul did indeed preach the same practice of headship/ authority in every church, but did not preach headcovering in every church (see this article’s discussion of 1 Timothy 2:9). The interpretation which has the least support of these is that Paul is saying there is no other practice within the churches than that women be covered, and men uncovered.
These are the considerations and scriptures which convinced me that headcovering is not a required practice today. Others, however, are not convinced. To those who are not convinced, I advise you to wear a covering lest you sin against your conscience. It is not my aim to encourage anyone to sin against their conscience.
It is also not my aim to cause or stir up contentions. The women I know who practice headcovering are sincere sisters who do so out of personal conviction, and I have never heard any of them judge or look down on those who do not cover. They often suffer persecution in pursuit of pleasing God above all. I have hesitated to write on this topic because the last thing I want to do is be a source of strife to any of my sisters. Those who wear a veil do so for the Lord and those who do not wear the veil are still obeying the command to be submissive. Whatever our practice we should not judge one another or regard one another with contempt (Romans 14:9).
by Erynn Sprouse
Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : 328. Print.
Chrysostom, and Loeb. “Dio Chrysostom — Discourse 33”. Penelope.Uchicago.Edu, 1940, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/33*.html#ref65. Accessed 30 Oct 2018.
Clement of Alexandria. “The Instructor.” Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire). Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Vol. 2. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885. Print. 266. The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Marlowe, Michael. “Headcovering Customs Of The Ancient World”. Bible-Researcher.Com, 2005, http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html#nota15. Accessed 30 Oct 2018.
Shaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, vol 1. AP & A.
Tertullian. “On the Veiling of Virgins.” Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix;
Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Trans. S. Thelwall. Vol. 4. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885. 32. Print. The Ante-Nicene Fathers.