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A Uniquely Christian Symbol: How Head Coverings Were Unfamiliar To Everyone

A Uniquely Christian Symbol: How Head Coverings Were Unfamiliar To Everyone

When we read 1 Corinthians 11, our minds usually wonder about the culture of Corinth and the general customs of that time. “Maybe this was peculiar to the situation in that city? Maybe women wearing head coverings were normative back then? Maybe a man with his head covered stood for something bad in that culture?” When these questions are raised, the interpreter often concludes that since in our time and culture coverings aren’t normative and men wearing hats are not frowned upon, that we are free to abandon or change the symbol to something more meaningful to us. Though there are exegetical reasons for not taking this route, there are also cultural reasons for why that simply doesn’t work. See, behind this assumption is a belief that what Paul laid out regarding head covering was culturally normative, familiar, and meaningful. That’s just simply not true.

What did first century Jews practice?

The head covering mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 is a symbol peculiar to Christians under the new covenant. It was not instituted until after the new covenant was inaugurated and it was a radical change for Roman, Jewish and Greek worshipers of God. “Are you saying, they didn’t do this under the Old Covenant?” That’s what I’m saying. No where in the Old Testament are head coverings commanded for women nor were men forbidden from covering their heads.

Though Jewish women did cover their heads in the first century, Paul’s command is not for females only. If it was for cultural sensitivities that Paul made his command, it would have to match the cultural practice of both men and women. The fact is that there is no known first century cultural custom for Jewish men regarding their headgear.

Rabbi Abraham Ezra Millgram says:

“Though covering one’s head was regarded during the talmudic period as a sign of respect, there is scant evidence that Jews in the Temple court or in the early synagogue were required to wear any headgear.” 1) From Kippot (Head Coverings) in Synagogue accessed on April 20/15 at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kippot-head-coverings-in-synagogue/

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols also confirms:

“The High Priest wore a special head covering called a mitznefet (miter); the ordinary priest, a turban called a migbaat. But the ordinary Israelite was given no directions about head coverings.” 2) Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teutsch – The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Page 91

If there was no custom, that means some men would have covered their heads while others would have not. Neither would raise any eyebrows. This does not line up with 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul forbids men to cover their heads while praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:4). It was not until the time of the Talmud (3rd century) when the Jewish custom of head covering for men emerges. This custom was the exact opposite of what Paul commanded and is still being practiced today. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols said that the custom arose “largely as a reaction to the Christian practice of praying bareheaded.” 3) Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teutsch – The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Page 91

What did first century Greeks and Romans practice?

You may be thinking, “Well Corinth was a church with a lot of Gentiles so maybe it was the non-Jewish Christians he had in mind.” On exegetical grounds it’s hard to accept this as he appeals to all men and women (v. 4-5), not just Jews and Greeks. He also appeals to what “all the churches” practice (v. 16), not just one church or one region. But laying that aside, the head covering command was a huge change for the Gentile worshiper as well.

Tertullian was a Christian who lived in the 2nd century. He was fully aware of the customs of the day regarding head covering and wrote about them. He said:

“Among the Jews, it is so usual for their women to have the head veiled that this is the means by which they may be recognized.” 4) Tertullian, De Corona ch. 4, Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 3 at 95.

When Tertullian says that a Jewish woman is recognized by her veiled head, this tells us that for Gentiles, it was not their custom. If you can be recognized by what you’re wearing, it implies that everyone else does not wear the same.

Numerous biblical scholars and historians also confirm the fact that the instructions for men and women in 1 Corinthians 11 do not match Gentile practice. Both Greek men and women uncovered their heads while worshiping their gods, whereas Roman men and women would cover their heads while performing public religious acts (like a sacrifice). So no matter which major people group we look at, neither matches Paul’s instruction for both sexes.5) For a list of sources for Jewish, Greek, and Roman practices see “Covered Glory” by David Phillips pages 67-74. That’s because it was a Christian practice, not a cultural one.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and College summarizes this by saying:

“the remarkable fact that the practice here enjoined is neither Jewish, which required men to be veiled in prayer, nor Greek which required both men and women to be unveiled, but peculiar to Christians.” 6) The Cambridge Bible for Schools and College – First Epistle to the Corinthians (Page 158 – accessed online here.)

A new practice

So the head covering practice would have been different for Jewish men, Roman men, and Greek women. Jewish and Roman men who followed Christ now had to remove their covering during worship for the first time. Likewise, Greek women had to start covering their heads in worship for the very first time.

Dr. Ben Witherington III highlights the uniqueness of this practice by saying:

“Paul is not simply endorsing standard Roman or even Greco-Roman customs in Corinth. Paul was about the business of reforming his converts’ social assumptions and conventions in the context of the Christian community. They were to model new Christian customs, common in the assemblies of God but uncommon in the culture, thus staking out their own sense of a unique identity.” 7) Ben Witherington III – “Conflict and Community in Corinth” (Eerdmans, 1995) Pages 235-236

It’s hard to believe that Paul would insist on a symbol that was unfamiliar to all groups, the very opposite of what they were accustom to, if he did not intend for it to be carried on. The “contentious” people advocating a different practice now become a little more understandable. People don’t become contentious over what is the normative practice, they become contentious when you take away their normative practice and ask them to do something different. The practice of head covering was as radical in Paul’s day as it is in ours!

How do we treat other symbols?

When we plant a church in a foreign land for the first time, we understand that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper will have no meaning to them in their cultural context. After all, it shouldn’t, as they are Christian symbols which find their base in Scripture. So what do we do? Do we abandon the symbol and instead just teach them what the symbols point to? After all, the meaning behind the symbol is what’s most important. We don’t though, do we? Maybe we shouldn’t abandon the symbols but instead replace Baptism and the Lord’s supper with something more culturally meaningful? But we don’t do that either. When we enter an unreached area, we still Baptize believers and break bread with them because these are Christian symbols. We understand that to them it has no cultural meaning, so we instruct them from the Scriptures on what the symbols mean. The same should be done for head covering.

References

1.
 From Kippot (Head Coverings) in Synagogue accessed on April 20/15 at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kippot-head-coverings-in-synagogue/
2.
 Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teutsch – The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Page 91
3.
 Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teutsch – The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Page 91
4.
 Tertullian, De Corona ch. 4, Anti-Nicene Fathers Vol. 3 at 95.
5.
 For a list of sources for Jewish, Greek, and Roman practices see “Covered Glory” by David Phillips pages 67-74.
6.
 The Cambridge Bible for Schools and College – First Epistle to the Corinthians (Page 158 – accessed online here.)
7.
 Ben Witherington III – “Conflict and Community in Corinth” (Eerdmans, 1995) Pages 235-236

Jeremy Gardiner

Jeremy is the founder of the Head Covering Movement and the author of Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and is a member of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is a husband to Amanda and father to four young children. Jeremy is also the founder and operator of Gospel eBooks, a popular website that provides alerts for free and discounted Christian e-books.

Latest posts by Jeremy Gardiner (see all)

  • http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hair-coverings-for-married-women/

    http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html

    http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/33*.html

    There is more evidence that in Jewish society the origin of head covering was extrapolated from Numbers 5:18 and expanded upon in the oral law. By Jesus’ time, no woman left her house without a head covering for fear of being indecent and/or scantily clad – it was shameful to them.

    There might not have been an enforceable law requiring women to wear head coverings, but it was a cultural norm to do so. Just as there’s no law that’s on the books that says that socks must be worn, it’s a cultural norm to wear them anyway.

    We already know that Romans had a particular tradition – capite velato – the priests (men) would wear head coverings while performing priestly duties. The Greeks, on the other hand, are not as well known. Some evidence has been uncovered that in rituals the women participated with uncovered heads, but there’s also pottery that depicts Greek and Roman women both with and without head coverings. So to break it down: (there are always exceptions.)

    Jewish women – head covering in public and by religious custom (cultural norm / law)

    Jewish men – head covered (religious custom / prayer), uncovered (in public)

    Roman women – uncovered heads (in public), covered on occasion

    Roman men – head covering (religious custom), uncovered heads (in public)

    Greek women – uncovered heads (religious customs), covered on occcasion

    Greek men – uncovered heads (in public and by cultural norm)

    In 110 A.D., Dio Chrysostem wrote of a particular custom in Tarsus: “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.” It was not a new custom, pressumably it was the norm from long before Paul even grew up there.

    Like baptism, the act / ritual was already commonplace before Paul wrote to Corinth. All he did was (1) encourage women to wear them, (2) discouraged the men from wearing them, and (3) gave it a religious meaning and (4) denied their cultural ideas. So was it unique? No. Was it just a Christian symbol? No. It is not as if one could sit down in front of a church or synagogue and point out which women were Christians and which ones weren’t by the style of their head coverings.

    • There’s a couple things I’d challenge from this. For Jewish men, I’d ask their source material as there’s no known custom for men in the 1st century. It would strengthen my case to agree that their men covered but the evidence is for centuries later. Roman women did not have a mandated custom. Far more Roman women covered their heads though (defending on the region of course) so I’m not sure why they’d say “uncovered heads (in public)” as that would have been closer to a minority.

      I’d also say that the Dio Chrysotom quote about Tarsus is irrelevant. The customs of Tarsus were different from Corinth. Paul was not enforcing Tarsus customs on the church worldwide. Corinth was a multicultural city where lots of people from different cultures would pass visit/passthrough (picture New York/Atlanta though not as big) and every form of custom would be evident on the streets. So my question Jamie would be to the person who wrote the article you quoted, who’s custom is Paul enforcing? The custom he’s enforcing doesn’t match any one culture’s practice. Also, the Christian practice was for worship and not meant to visually identify Christians from non-Christians. It was unique in the sense that no culture had this custom for both men and women for religious practice.

      For a list of source material on Jewish, Greek and Roman customs I’d recommend pages 67-74 here http://write2david.github.io/CoveredGlory.pdf

      • http://www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/newsletter/september-1993/tallit

        The prayer shawl is the tallit. Originally the tallit was a four-cornered outer garment to which were attached the fringes, or tzitzit. Though the wearing of the tallit has its basis in Old Testament Scripture, the word itself is not found in the Bible. The tzitzit (tassels), however, are.

        In the New Testament we find the tallit and tzitzit mentioned as an ordinary all-day garment. Condemning the ostentatious religious practices of some people, Jesus referred to the extreme length of their tzitzit.

        But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments (the tzittzits of their tallits) – Matthew 23:5

        Eventually the tallit was no longer worn as an outer garment but an inner one. Some think this change took place after Israel was exiled from the land because the tallit wearer, clearly marked as a Jew, would have been subject to persecution or discrimination.

        ***

        The real problem with using the internet is a source is that both of us will be able to find evidence to support whichever position we happen to hold.

        I think it is relevant – Saul grew up in Tarsus where the women were completely covered except for one eye so that they could see the road, He grew up into a Pharisee where he would have worn a prayer shawl until his conversion and he became the Paul we all know and love. He was already biased (because he was human) that women ought to be covered because he had never known it possible otherwise. To his defense, Rabbis believed that a woman’s hair was alluring and would distract men from their prayers.

        http://www.bibleandjewishstudies.net/articles/haircovering.htm

        What was he to do? Allow for the freedom of the Gentiles and liberate the Jewish women from an ancient standard of modesty? Or trap the Gentiles into modesty to maintain the Jewish standard – only by giving them different reasoning in the name of Christianity. Since apparently each going about it their own way was out of the option (cover if your culture calls for it, uncover if your culture calls for it.)

        • Amy Unruh

          So are you saying that Paul’s teaching was not from God?

          • Specific aspects that have been read out of it and read into it are not from God. Since Scripture does not indicate that ‘Christ’ covered his head for the sake of his head ‘God (Trinity)’ then I’m inclined to believe that ‘Woman / Wife’ covering her head for the sake of her head ‘Man / Husband’ was a concession to the time that Paul was suggesting ought to be done away with as soon as culture permitted it – that is, as soon as they stopped believing that an uncovered woman was the same as one who had committed adultery and deserved to be dishonored by forcing her hair to be shaved in accordance with Jewish law, not Biblical commandments. If Jesus had worn a Tallit while praying, then according to Paul he would have disgraced the Trinity.

    • 1 Corinthians 11 does not enforce the customs of Tarsus mentioned here. God never commanded women to cover at any time other than praying or prophesying. There is definitely no indication, anywhere in Scripture, that women should be veiled from head to toe, all the time.

      So I don’t think we can argue that Paul was pushing the customs he grew up with.

      Furthermore, priests in the Old Testament were required to wear headcoverings, while men in the New Testament are required NOT to wear headcoverings while praying and prophesying. Uncovering men’s heads was certainly not the custom Paul would have grown up with.

      • Paul did not say how to cover and he also did not say how not to cover – he left that up to each culture. So Christians women in Tarsus didn’t cast aside their head-to-toe veiling – according to Dio Chrysostom, the custom was still in effect over a hundred years after Paul’s time. The point was that he had never known a time when women didn’t wear a head covering and couldn’t conceive of a time when it would be normal for women everywhere to not have to wear them. Instead of allowing each culture to cover if it called for it and remain uncovered if it didn’t call for it; he decided to call for the tradition he had known to supersede the traditions of other cultures.

        In studying Christianity, there’s been a historical view that men were superior to women – it lasted in the centuries before the 1800s. Men were superior, they didn’t wear head covering. Women were inferior, they wore head coverings. That thought changed. Men and women are equal. Either men can wear hats or women do not have to wear head coverings to show that they were the same. Which happened? The majority of men didn’t start wearing hats. Most still don’t. The majority of women opted not to wear head coverings to affirm this equality – and allow them to have some really big 70’s and 80’s hair. The practice of head covering ended surprisingly suddenly. I’m all for head covering being optional – for both men and women. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink or what we wear or don’t wear – it’s intangible things like peace / love / joy / happiness / etc.

        As to ancient custom, a book I’ve been reading tells me that we have a tendency to read our western biases into Scripture – we don’t know what it would have meant culturally to have gone around with head coverings or without them for men and women. We do know that the ancient world was a mecca of cultures and peoples interacting with each other. So much information has been lost or was never recorded in the first place that we have to be careful about not assuming anything in either direction – what is said is not always what is meant just as what is meant is not always said. It’s true that I’m not for these verses, but neither am I out-right against them. We’re looking at a two-thousand year old custom from the other part of the world as if it is timeless and ought to be enforced everywhere, always. We don’t wear the sort of head coverings they would have worn – it’s left up to culture. My culture doesn’t wear head coverings like that anymore. It upholds equality by not asking men to wear head coverings and not requiring women to wear them either. How are men and women equal if they are to be treated differently?

        • Christian Filbrun

          Jamie, obviously we are coming from two significantly different methods of hermeneutics, but how do you personally dismiss Paul’s definite address in 1 Cor 1 as the letter being for/to both the Corinthians AND ALSO (emphasis mine) all that in every place call on the Lord, as well as his statement in 1 Cor 11:16 of not having a custom of contention in the churches of God against his teaching? Perhaps you’ve explained that already and I missed it…? Thanx. -Chris

          • To dismiss implies that I read it, decided I didn’t like it, and threw it out – sort of like what Thomas Jefferson did to his Bible. That verse remains in my Bible, but it’s not a primary portion of my theology. I don’t wake up every morning and thank God that He personally directed Paul to write “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (Which law?) So I can tell the elderly widow that sits next to me that she should shut up about her daily life in the retirement home because the Bible says so. I just ignore the verse, politely nod and carefully listen to her because that’s the respectful way to treat elders. Because my belief hangs on the Golden Rule (treat others as you would like to be treated), Love your neighbor as yourself (everyone’s my neighbor, put their needs before mine) and Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind – I interpret scripture with compassion on others. If a verse says that I can order people to shut up, I ask “would I want to be silenced?” Truth is, I like having a lot to say and the freedom to say it, so I allow everyone to say their piece. “Would I want others require me to wear something?” Truth is, I like having the freedom to chose what I wear or what I don’t wear, so I don’t require people to wear anything they don’t want to. You see, I would want to be treated with respect, with compassion, and with dignity, so that’s how I interpret Scripture – that’s how Jesus treated everyone in his midst, men and women alike.

          • Christian Filbrun

            Jamie, I’m still scratching my head a bit on how something is in your Bible, but it isn’t a primary portion of your theology… Do you mean that essentially you choose not to emphasize the parts of Scripture you don’t consider to be important, or at least relevant? Don’t mean this to sound glib, but that sounds awfully Jeffersonian, except that he had the forthrightness to cut it out of his “bible” rather than leaving it in and trying to debunk it (or at least relativize it) for others. I guess what I have been gathering from your approach throughout your posts here (some of which have been quite thought provoking) is best illustrated in this last reply of yours, in that (from a straightforward reading of what you’ve said) you seem to base your theology or choices to leave Scriptural teachings to individual interpretation upon what you “like having”, and you’ve used the “golden rule” as the justifiable means by which you can relegate various Scriptural teachings (such as those to which this site is dedicated) down to the postmodern mantra of what’s right for one person may be different for another. Honestly not trying to attack you, just trying to get a hang on how you actually approach and apply the Scriptures in order to dialogue with you with less miscommunication. Would the previous be a correct assessment, regardless of any judgment of whether your method of interpreting is or isn’t acceptable?

          • The Pharisees once asked Jesus which was the most important commandment. He had over six-hundred commandments to choose from. He could have ranked them in order of importance, starting with the least important. He could have chosen five, ten or twenty of them. He chose two: love God and love everyone else. The rest were less important – including the ones the disciples broke on occasion. The Pharisees also taught in the oral law that women ought to be silent and ought to wear head coverings – these were less important than the law of love. He also warned us to beware the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the belief that keeping the commandments will be enough to save us or keep us in right standing with God, the belief that we could obey the New Testament as much as humanly possible and receive an extra reward for it. The golden rule keeps me compassionate, but compassion requires empathy and love. If I have no love, then I might as well be a modern Pharisee. If I want to be like Jesus, then I have to think like Jesus. He wasn’t a literalist with the Old Testament, nor should we be with the New Testament. I’m just not sure that I should believe that 1 Corinthians 1:2 or 1 Corinthians 14:34 or 1 Corinthians 11:6 is right up there with Jesus’ words. Jesus was Paul’s God, not the other way round.

          • Christian Filbrun

            “He wasn’t a literalist with the Old Testament, nor should we be with the New Testament.” Well, that’s certainly the ultimately clarification. In all seriousness, thank you.

  • Kinuko H

    Excellent, powerful article! Thank you so much for your effort, brother Jeremy! Kinuko

  • good teaching brother.

  • Karen Regling

    Thank you for this! Nobody in my circles, that I have asked, has ever known anything about cultural headcovering practices in early Christian history. It bothers me that they don’t seem to care enough to seek it out, and even offer made up opinions that they “heard somewhere” when asked. I believe that if you can’t say something edifying, you shouldn’t make it up.

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