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Why Head Covering Was Not a Jewish Custom

Why Head Covering Was Not a Jewish Custom

In 1 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul commands the practice of head covering when praying and prophesying. One of the most common objections to this being practiced today is the belief that Paul only commanded it for that specific culture. Whenever someone says this, the first thing I want to ask them is, “which culture?” Corinth was multi-cultural city. So which culture was Paul telling the Corinthian believers to adapt to? In this series of posts we will examine the three different cultures that are relevant, which are Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. Today we will answer the question, did Paul command head covering so that believers would not offend Jewish culture?

The Jerusalem Council

Around A.D. 48-49, the apostles and elders met together in Jerusalem to debate what was required of gentile believers who were coming to God. Some of the Pharisees said that Gentiles had to “be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).  This belief was what led to the council being called. After discussing and debating the issue, they came to a conclusion. They articulated this by letter which was delivered to the churches. Here’s what it said:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you [gentiles] no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. (Acts 15:28-29 ESV)

The Gentiles were instructed to abstain from four different things so that they would not offend Jewish custom. There was nothing further to be required of them so that there may be “no greater burden”. They didn’t need to be circumcised, they didn’t need to observe feasts and festivals, they didn’t need to do specific washings, and they didn’t need to cover/uncover their heads. No other Jewish practices would be required of Gentile believers. This is significant as the church in Corinth was comprised primarily of gentiles (1 Cor 12:2). So, if Paul were to command the Gentile Corinthians to practice headcovering in order to avoid offending the Jews, that would be contradictory to edict passed down from the Jerusalem council.

Historical evidence

The second reason why this command was not based on Jewish custom was because there was no Jewish custom regarding men’s head coverings. When most people think about head covering, they primarily think about women, but Paul provides instructions for the men as well. He says:

“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head” (1 Cor 11:4 ESV)

So if the goal of Paul’s instructions was to avoid offending Jewish practice, we’d obviously expect his instructions to match first century Jewish practice. His instructions for women do match, as Jewish women in that time did cover their heads. However, there was no custom for men regarding their head gear. Let’s turn to a few Jewish sources to show this:

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. Similar wording also appears in the  JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (2004, Jewish Publication Society) page 375.

It was not until after 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 (Kippah). 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 So what does this mean? It means that in Paul’s time some Jewish men might have covered their heads and others would not have, but neither would be seen as odd or offensive. Now here’s the important thing: Paul’s instructions for the men are mandatory and they have a moral implication. He says if a man covers his head while praying and prophesying he “dishonors his head.” He does not use the language of option, but obligation. So the question needs to be asked, why would Paul demand gentile men uncover their heads so as to not offend Jewish custom, when no such custom existed? There is zero historical evidence that a Jewish man who had something on his head in the first century would have been seen as “dishonorable” (1 Cor 11:4).

Summary

The Jerusalem council ensured Gentile believers would not have to uphold Jewish custom beyond the four things listed in their letter (and head covering was not one of them). Paul was appointed by the church to participate in this meeting (Acts 15:2), played a key role in the Council’s discussion (Acts 15:12), and served as an official representative in delivering the Council’s decision to the Gentiles (Acts 15:22). So that means he would not have delivered a contradictory message by telling the Corinthian believers to observe a Jewish custom of head covering. We also see that in the first century there was no custom of Jewish men having to uncover their heads. Since Paul’s instructions about head covering don’t match Jewish practice during this time, it could not be the reason why he gave those instructions.

Above and beyond these issues, the strongest argument that Paul’s head covering commands were not just a reflection of local culture is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 itself. In that passage Paul appeals to the creation ordernature’s witness, and angels, all of which transcend culture. He tells us that head covering is a part of official apostolic teaching and is the practice of all churches, everywhere. Earlier in Paul’s letter when he had a command that was due to the situation at the time, he mentioned it. He recommended not to marry “in view of the present distress” (1 Cor 7:26). Paul could have done the same with head coverings, but he didn’t because what was happening at the time wasn’t the reason for the command. We conclude therefore that head covering for women (and uncovering for men) was not a Jewish custom but is a symbolic practice for all Christians under the New Covenant.

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. Similar wording also appears in the  JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions (2004, Jewish Publication Society) page 375.
3.
 Ellen Frankel and Betsy Teutsch – The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols (1992, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Page 91

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)

  • Kinuko H

    Powerful and very convincing post! I shall translate it into Japanese soon!! Thank you, bro. Jeremy, for your effort.

  • Leslie Anid

    When reading Acts 15, v. 1, we see that the problem is not whether one should follow the law but rather some Jews saying people needed to follow the law in order to be saved. But we see over and over how that is not true. First we come to salvation then we learn God’s ways (His law). God showed us the pattern when He saved His people out of bondage, then He gave them His law to follow. Thus the people were to abstain from these 4 things immediately, and they would learn the rest of the law as Moses is read every Sabbath.

    Jesus said anyone who teaches others to break even the least of the commandments will be called least in heaven, and he who keeps them and teaches others to do so will be called great (Matthew 5). Paul kept the law even after his conversion (mentioned a couple of different places after Acts 15).

    Jesus told the people to listen to the Pharisees as they read from Moses (God’s law – Torah), but don’t do as they do because they followed their own law (the Talmud).

    Anyone who told others not to follow God’s ways was a false prophet and should be put to death (Deut. 13), so the Jews would not have listened to Jesus or Paul if this is what they were preaching. Jesus said to follow Him, walk as He walked. This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome.The Bible defines God’s law as perfect, truth, light, life, the way, righteousness, freedom (Psalm 119).

    The new covenant is made with the House of Israel, and we are grafted in. God said He would write His law on our hearts in this new covenant (Jeremiah 31). But that new covenant is not yet fulfilled, since we are still teaching our brothers to know the Lord. In the future we will still be celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles and anyone not showing up will be cursed (Zechariah 14). Proverbs 28:9 says if you don’t want to listen to the law, your prayer is an abomination. Yikes!!

    Jesus is the living Word; God’s law is His Word. They are both the way, the truth, and the life. Because we are saved, the curse of not following the law has been taken away for us, but we still get the blessings if we follow it. What wonderful mercy! God never changes, and His ways are still good.

    • Jason

      An excellent reply, but know and understand the new covenant has been fulfilled in the sense that the Torah has been written on the hearts of God’s chosen. Even Paul makes note of that in Romans 2:14-16. The problem becomes when we allow the old nature (our former mind) to get in the way. This is why Paul states we must die to our old nature daily and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. God is already at work within each of His chosen having written His law deep within our hearts. He is daily revealing His love within us. Our goal must be to put to death our sinful mind to become a new creation in the Messiah (2 Corinthians) so that we may love one another and be in unity with Yeshua (John 15). The new covenant has been made and His Torah is in our hearts. It needs to come to fruition in our minds. This is the refining and purifying we are going through. We await his second advent for our redemption into an everlasting kingdom and salvation.

  • Cody Goldsbury

    Interesting. I just saw this on one page:

    “Leviticus 13:45 – “As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered

    Numbers 5:18 – And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering; and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse.

    Here we have two scriptures detailing a clear positive commandment to remove the head covering of a man, and the head covering of a woman for specific cases. Point: Notice the Torah assumes there is a head covering being worn, and does not say “if there is a head covering, then remove it.””

    If there was no custom regarding a man’s head covering, why would there be an instruction for a leper’s head to be uncovered? Would it surprise you to know that King David wore a head covering in 2 Samuel 15:30? It seems to be connected to grief for them though in Esther 6:12 and Jeremiah 14:3-4. So there is a tradition recorded in the Bible.

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