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Is Head Covering Cultural? What about the Corinthian Prostitutes?

Head Covering Objections
The Objection: In Paul’s day, prostitutes wore their hair short and did not cover their heads. Because it was customary in that culture for women to wear a head covering, failure to do so would readily identify a woman as a prostitute. Since the situation was local, a head covering is not necessary today.

While looking at the culture of the time can often be helpful, it becomes dangerous when we start assigning reasons for a command that are different than what the author gives.

R.C. Sproul says, “If Paul merely told women in Corinth to cover their heads and gave no rationale for such instruction, we would be strongly inclined to supply it via our cultural knowledge. In this case, however, Paul provides a rationale which is based on an appeal to creation not to the custom of Corinthian harlots.” 1) R.C Sproul – Knowing Scripture, 1977, ch 5, pg 110. He goes on to say, “We must be careful not to let our zeal for knowledge of the culture obscure what is actually said.” 2) R.C Sproul – Knowing Scripture, 1977, ch 5, pg 110.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul appeals to the creation order, nature’s witness and angels, all which transcend culture. He tells us that head covering is a part of official apostolic teaching and is the practice of all churches, everywhere. So that means a local situation in Corinth cannot explain head covering since it was the standard practice outside of Corinth as well. 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. Additionally, the fact that he commands men to remove their coverings (1 Cor 11:4) in the same sentence cannot be explained by a situation that deals only with women.

1000 Cult Prostitutes

In addition to exegetical grounds, there are also good historical reasons for rejecting a cultural explanation of head covering. The most appealed to reference in support of this position is the 1000 cult prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth.

Before we examine that claim, we’re in need of a brief history lesson on the city of Corinth. Dirk Jongkind (PhD, Cambridge University) says “The City of Corinth had a glorious Hellenic past before its destruction by the Romans in 146 bc. Yet when it was refounded in 44 bc, it was not rebuilt as a Greek city, but as a Roman colony.” 3) Dirk Jongkind – Corinth In The First Century AD: The Search For Another Class, Tyndale Bulletin 52.1, page 139 So Greek Corinth had been destroyed and it was rebuilt 100 years later as a Roman colony.

The primary source quoted to learn about these cult prostitutes is the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BC – 24AD). Strabo travelled widely and recorded what he saw in his work “Geographica”. Here’s what he said, “And the temple of Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess.” 4) Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6  Take note of the past tense of the quote. Strabo wrote this about 30 years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and he was referring not to his present time, but to ancient times in Corinth’s past. He later stated, “The city of the Corinthians, then, was always great and wealthy”.5) Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6 The key words are “then” and “was”. In sharp contrast, in his day he saw on the summit “a small temple of Aphrodite” 6) Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6 not the “temple of Aphrodite [that] was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves…”. 7) Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6

David W. J. Gill (PhD, University of Oxford) writing on “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” says:

Some have taken the urge for women to wear veils as Paul ensuring that they were not mistaken for prostitutes or hetairai. Part of the reason for this view lies in the interpretation of Corinth as a ‘sex-obsessed’ city with prostitutes freely roaming the street. The 1000 hetairai linked to the cult of Aphrodite, and the corresponding notoriety of Corinth, belong to the hellenistic city swept away by Mummius in 146BC. In contrast, the Roman shrine was far more modest… 8) David W. J. Gill – The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Tyndale Bulletin 41.2

Dr. Gill agrees that Corinth did have a wild sex-obsessed reputation and 1000 cult prostitutes in the temple of Aphrodite. However, that belonged to Greek Corinth which was destroyed about 200 years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.

Mistaken Identity

Going hand-in-hand with this view is the claim that if women were seen uncovered, they’d be mistakenly identified as a prostitute. However, this claim is unfounded and there’s good reason to suggest that wasn’t the case. Dr. Gill explains:

Public marble portraits of women at Corinth, presumably members of wealthy and prestigious families are most frequently shown bare-headed. This would suggest that it was socially acceptable in a Roman colony for women to be seen bare-headed in public. 9) David W. J. Gill – The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Tyndale Bulletin 41.2

As he points out, the archaeological evidence supports the fact that is was normal for women be seen bare-headed. This isn’t an isolated piece of evidence but what is “most frequently shown”.

What About Men?

Since the Apostle Paul also commands men to remove their head covering when praying or prophesying (1 Cor 11:4) let’s also see if men having something on their heads would be culturally out-of-step. Richard E. Oster, Jr. (PhD, Princeton Theological Seminary) writing on the “Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians” says:

This Roman custom [of male liturgical head covering] can be documented for several generations before and after the advent of Christianity in Corinth. This custom is clearly portrayed on coins, statues, and architectural monuments from around the Mediterranean Basin. 10) Richard E. Oster, Jr. – Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians

Dr. Oster is saying that men covering their heads during this time in (non-Christian) worship has strong archaeological support. Since Paul instructs the men to go against a common cultural practice, a cultural explanation cannot be accepted. Dr. Oster then summarizes:

…the practice of men covering their heads in the context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was itself a Roman colony, there should be little doubt that this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it has received. 11) Richard E. Oster, Jr. – Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians

Conclusion

Paul doesn’t leave us in-the-dark as to why women are to cover their heads and men are to refrain. The fact that he says, “For this reason” (1 Cor 11:10 NKJV) means the answer will be found in exegesis, not cultural analysis. Having said that, when we do examine Roman cultural practices in that day we see that: 1) men did cover their heads in non-Christian worship and 2) women being seen without a covering was not an outrage or an association with prostitution. Since cultural arguments for head covering must ignore Paul’s own explanation, they should be discarded.

References

1.
 R.C Sproul – Knowing Scripture, 1977, ch 5, pg 110.
2.
 R.C Sproul – Knowing Scripture, 1977, ch 5, pg 110.
3.
 Dirk Jongkind – Corinth In The First Century AD: The Search For Another Class, Tyndale Bulletin 52.1, page 139
4.
 Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6
5.
 Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6
6.
 Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6
7.
 Strabo – Geographica – Book 8, Chapter 6
8.
 David W. J. Gill – The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Tyndale Bulletin 41.2
9.
 David W. J. Gill – The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Tyndale Bulletin 41.2
10.
 Richard E. Oster, Jr. – Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians
11.
 Richard E. Oster, Jr. – Use, Misuse and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians

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.

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  • Really interesting learning about the city of Corinth in contrast to common misconceptions. I’m encouraged to know another reason why the headcovering wasn’t a ‘cultural thing’ :)

    • Evangelist Okujuwa Laban

      because different people have seen other parts of the Bible in a cultural context, they have gone away from the original reason as to why the Bible was written, take for example the Bible says “…honor your farther and mother….” you mean there is a specific culture that this massage was addressed to, therefore we have no part in it ultimately no? i don’t think so i believe the spirit of God knew that it was necessary and beneficial for each christian to uphold or adhere to the massage of the cross preached by the Apostles .

      If you disagree it means the letter to Corinthians should only be read by the Corinthians it should therefore not be read by the Ephesians, Galatians, Americans, Ugandans,chines since its cultural letters. SHOULD WE TAKE IT LIKE THAT DEFINANTLY NOO!!!!!

  • Henry

    A few questions:

    1) What do you mean when you say “it becomes dangerous” to assign wrong reasons to Paul’s commands? This is a strange phrase to hear. We’ve been doing this for many years, what is the danger? I have not seen anyone struck dead if that is what you are getting at?

    2) I’m curious to see the historical passage that is used to support the cult prostitute argument, I don’t think you quoted anything about prostitutes and bare heads? Where does that idea come from?

    Great site by the way, I’ve often looked for a good argument against headcoverings but still not found one. Count me among your number.

    (p.s. it might be worth spending some more ink on Doug Wilson’s argument)

    • The danger is spiritual because essentially no biblical command is safe. It doesn’t matter how strong of an argument or what is appealed to we can always find a way to culturalize a command. I’ve seen this done with not only head covering, but women in pastoral ministry and homosexuality.

      • Kay

        It may be that as we grow in Christ, we stunt our maturity when we come across a teaching, come to an understanding, and refuse to acknowledge it. My mom uses the phrase “taking another trip around Mt. Sinai.” The refusal to submit to God allows Satan a foothold (James 4:7), and keeps us incapable of digesting the meat of the Word. If you struggle with understanding, or have differing interpretations, I don’t believe that is the issue. But once something is clear to you, (might even be a wrong understanding) and you are stubborn about your own subjection to it, you hinder the Spirit within. (my thoughts of course)

  • Karen Giancaterino

    You are then suggesting that women should be covered all the time. I hypocritically cover my head during Sunday meetings which isn’t what Paul seems to be talking about if he mentions prayer. What are your thoughts?

    • Hi Karen, it’s our position that he’s speaking about instructions for corporate worship. We defended this here: http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/where-are-head-coverings-to-practiced-in-church-or-everywhere

      • Karen Giancaterino

        That sorta segues into woman speaking during corporate worship. Why is a woman prophesying mentioned if they aren’t allowed to speak. Sorry, these questions are never really answered well enough. I’m compliant with these instructions but I certainly don’t want to follow blindly. I appreciate your insight.

        • Karen Giancaterino

          You do have this come up in the comments in Where is this to be practiced. I’ll check out the links you suggested. IDK sometimes following Him can be, not knowing all the answers.

        • My answer to Joelle on that page will have some helpful links for study.

  • Colin

    I can’t speak for everyone, but it seems that you miss the point of the cultural argument just a bit. First of all, just because an author cites a moral principle to defend a specific practice doesn’t mean that a practice necessarily becomes moral. For example, if I were asked by someone whether or not a Christian wife should take her husbands last name, or to keep her own last name, in order to show her independence from her husband, I would defend her taking her husbands last name. I would also probably do so using arguments similar to those Paul uses in 1 Cor. 11, like the creation order and the roles of men and women. If, however, I were in a culture where the wife did not take a husbands last name, I would not demand that a wife do so, because the cultural action doesn’t carry the same moral significance.

    Think of this another way using the example of foot washing.

    1. Christ commands the Apostles to wash each other’s feet.

    2. Every principle from which Christ derives this practice is a permanent and universal principle, i.e. the necessity of Christ cleansing us, the Lordship of Christ over his disciples, the command to follow Christ’s example, and the necessity of serving one another.

    3. If the constituent premises upon which a practice are perpetual and universal, then the practice itself is perpetual and universal.

    Conclusion. The command to wash one another’s feet is perpetual and universal.

    The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that if a premise of an argument carries a specific attribute, then the conclusion must carry the attribute as well. This seems to be similar to the fallacy of composition.The fallacy of composition arises when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part). So, if one says, “all of these bricks are rectangular, therefore the wall they build with these bricks will be rectangular,” one would be in violation of this rule of logic. Simply because one constituent part carries a particular attribute, it does not follow that the whole carries this particular attribute. Simply because all constituent parts carry a particular attribute, it does not follow that the whole carries a particular attribute. Sodium, if ingested on its own will kill you. Chlorine, if ingested on its own will kill you. Sodium Chloride (table salt) if ingested as a compound is necessary to human life. An attribute of the constituent parts cannot be carried over to the composite whole. Your argument essentially runs like this. Every premise that the Apostle builds his case off of is a permanent and universal truth, therefore, when combined together, whatever is deduced from these truths must be permanent and universal as well. This does not logically follow.

    Also, it needs to be noted that as a supporter of a cultural interpretation, I am not arguing that Paul is asking Christians to take their dress from pagan Greek worship services. In Deuteronomy 12: 29-32, God explicitly commands the Israelites not to look around them at the worship practices of the pagan nations and borrow from them. Obviously Paul would not ask Christians to do the same. Paul is asking them to use the common dress practices from their everyday lives inside worship as well as outside of worship. This is why the Westminster Confession, the London Baptist confession, and the Savoy Declaration all defend the phrase, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence,” by citing 1 Cor. 11: 13&14. All three of these Reformed confessions see head coverings as an action, “Common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence.” It should also be noted that out of all three of these documents (and also the Westminster Catechisms, and Directory for Public Worship) this is the only circumstance where the subject of head coverings even comes up.

    • Christian Filbrun

      Colin, not meaning to pick here, but would you apply the same logic to the command of water baptism as you do to footwashing or the headship veiling?

      • Colin

        Hi Christian!

        Thanks for the question! I’m happy to give whatever answer I can, I just need a little clarification. When you ask if I would apply the same logic to baptism that I would apply to the other two, are you referring to the fallacy of composition, that something isn’t inherently moral just because it was deduced from a moral principle? Sorry for any confusion on my part, I’m just a little unclear on what you are referring to. Thanks!

        Blessings in Christ,
        Colin

        • Christian Filbrun

          More to the point, baptism was a cultural practice that was then commanded by Christ for his followers and continues to be practiced throughout time and culture. Am curious what might be your difference in criterion of which culture specific practices the church should maintain. More simply, why maintain literal water baptism but not literal footwashing or the headship veiling?

          • In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” – My last church taught that while people have always focused on water baptism, there’s a lack of emphasis or teaching on the Holy Spirit / fire baptism, which is something that people in and of themselves cannot do (without help from God), but is entirely scriptural. Acts 19 makes me think of the modern church, we can do the water thing, but I don’t think most churches go beyond that.

          • Colin

            Hi Christian!

            Thanks for the reply. That helped to clarify things for me! You might need to explain something to me a little further… When I say that foot washing and the head covering we’re a cultural practice, I’m saying that they were customs common to the civil societies of their day. Foot washing was a custom that carried a signification of service and and respect in both Jewish and non Jewish cultures prior to Christ ever discussing it. Female head covering was a custom that carried a significance of submission and modesty in almost all eastern cultures (including Greek and Jewish) prior to Paul ever discussing it. Baptism is a symbol which signifies the cleansing of sin by union with the death and resurrection of Christ, so unlike the former two, it has a religious, not civil signification, and as such could not be a civil custom. In order for baptism to be a civil custom, it would seem that you would have to argue that in some civil society somewhere , a bunch of people decided amongst themselves to start washing themselves to show their union in the life death and resurrection of Christ, prior to the Christ ever being born. I’m not aware of any society that practiced this, and as such it is difficult for me to see baptism as a previously existing national custom. Please let me know if I’m misunderstanding you, but it would seem to me that in order for me to answer your question I would have to assume that baptism was a customary practice of ancient culture, which I just don’t see. If I’m not understanding, I’m sorry!

            Blessings in Christ,
            Colin

    • Yudo NeidaNo

      hello colin,

      certainly an interested argument that deserves attention.

      regarding the last name example. i suppose you would understand that since you aren’t inspired by the Holy Spirit as paul was in writing 1st Corinthians 11, such a command would not be binding on the church. there isn’t a command for a woman to take their husbands last name that i know of, though i would want my wife to do so. still, i would not have divine authority to bind her conscience on the matter.

      on the foot washing example, Christ didnt give a command for the disciples to wash people’s feet in john 13 but rather he gave a command for His disciples to humble themselves in service to others and used the example of washing someone’s feet. this was a rather humble cultural practice in a time of no cars and no shoes where people walked for miles and miles barefoot and their feet got dirty.

      same thing in 1 timothy 2 as foot washing being named as one of the good deeds that widows should perform for enrollment in being known for performing good works. the command is to do good works and one of the good works that was common at the time of no cars and no shoes was to wash the dirty feet of travelers, namely in this passage, the saints.

      not so with headcoverings in 1cor11. this is not a cultural practice the church adopted to give an example of submission. as this article points out, woman covering their heads and men uncovering their heads was not the cultural norm. this was a commanded practice of the universal church during public worship and also at times of prayer.

      • Christian Filbrun

        “on the foot washing example, Christ didn’t give a command for the disciples to wash people’s feet in john 13 but rather he gave a command for His disciples to humble themselves in service to others and used the example of washing someone’s feet.”

        Yudo ~ Just a thought, but about this assumption that Jesus didn’t command literal footwashing? Why would you not take Jesus’ command to wash feet, and his literal example, as a direct symbol/practice for Christians to continue practicing? And something to chew on – John 13:10 suggests that footwashing is as much or more of a symbol of cleansing (and specifically for those that Jesus had already washed clean) as/than it was of service… Not to minimize service in any way, but the context of John suggests a much different, or at least an additional, lesson behind it than just doing good deeds to others.

  • David

    If the symbolism of headcovering was cultural – and so that particular symbol, relevant to that particular culture was how they conveyed the truth of headship – and no longer relevant for today’s culture, then why do we still baptise people today when the symbolism associated with that particular practice is clearly based on a cultural practice of that day. The same with Communion. Surely the reason for THE CHURCH in every age to do these various things is to recognise the timeless truth that lies behind them… Otherwise, if some think we ought to re-symbolise headship to reflect our modern culture, then don’t we also have to re-symbolise The Lord’s Supper and baptism…?

  • Samuel

    About the baptism coments here ; didn’t Jesus said if you are not reborn of water and the Holy Spirit you can’t enter the Kingdom of heaven? That water is the one in baptisms.

    He also order his disciples to wash others feet and to do as he did. He gave a similar ordinance to the last supper, to the baptism and to the washing of feet. Three ceremonies (not two and defenetly not one) to be practiced according to Jesus words.

    About the head covering; in my opinion It was God who allowed and approved for men and woman to have long hair at first , our God of Israel also order so in Leviticus 19 not to shave you beard and everyone doesn’t follow those laws, Paul was clearly talking about culture in 1 Corinthians 11 that’s why he mentioned ” Doesn’t nature its self tell us for men Having long hair is shameful” because men in Corinth that had long hair in that culture and era were prostitutes and or involved in sexual immoralities but long hair was not shameful in the culture of the Hebrews , yes the ones God delivered from Egypt and Jesus and many men of God had long hair so what nature was Paul talking about ?? The nature of the Romans or the nature of the corinthians and its prostitutes ?? For women in the Corinth culture to have a shaved head was a sign of prostitution and or sexual immoralities , not the case for the woman in the Moises Era …woman in the Moses era with shaved head were idolatrous and learn it from Egypt and the pharaoh culture. However we can’t bring any of those cultures into our culture in America , the Gospel of Jesus is truth not culture . We must preach Jesus love mercy and grace not culture and law. In America Men can have long hair and woman can shave their head, have short hair it’s not the Mayority that do it but that’s no sin ,in other words want Paul was saying is that they can’t be in church services after being delivered living and or looking like prostitutes distracting holy brothers and sisters. Every denomination have their rules and regulations (some are erroneous , some are holier but there is no perfect doctrines now because of all the confusion) What prostitutes look like now? Paul in this era would say something like “no stilettos and no booty shorts ,no mini skirts and none of that prostitution and sexual immorality looks , now do you know what men prostitutes look like now ? They are harder to identify since they blend in . I’m just a student of the word of God . Love you all . Paul said that the long hair of woman is honor and it’s given and serves as a veil to cover their head . And that the church of God doesn’t have such customs / culture/ practice (meaning in regards To shave / cut hair)

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