Head Covering and the City of Corinth: An Introduction to Corinth
CONTEXT IS KING
For the last 2,000 years, the Christian practice of head covering has been rooted in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the local church in the city of Corinth. Paul taught, corrected, and exhorted the believers there to live godly lives before the Lord – including the command for women to wear a covering on their heads while praying, and for men to remove any covering (1 Cor 11:2-16).
In his letter, Paul often dealt with both universal and local issues. So, which of those two categories does head covering fall into? The answer often depends on who you ask. But whether the person answers universal or local, both answers often have something in common: they are based on the person’s understanding of head covering in the context of the Corinthian church. In Corinth, was the Christian practice of head covering cultural, or counter-cultural? Let’s take a look at the city of Corinth to learn more about this particular church’s context.
INTRODUCTION TO CORINTH
Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians around 53-58 AD, approximately two decades after the death of Christ. At this time in history, Corinth was a major seaport city, with an approximate population of 400,000 to 600,000. It was the capital of its region in southern Greece.
Corinth had been destroyed about 200 years earlier (146 BC), but a century later it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony. As a result, the public buildings were an Italian style (not Greek) and the official language was Latin (though both Greek and Latin were used for business and in public life). The city was settled by retired Roman soldiers, and Roman influence extended to the city’s politics, currency, courts, inscriptions, and pictures of the emperor.1) For this (and more) about the history of Corinth, see: David Gill, In Search Of The Social Elite In The Corinthian Church (Tyndale Bulletin 44:2, 1993), 327-328; Elizabeth A. McCabe, Women in the Biblical World, Vol. 2 (University Press of America, 2011), 71; Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives (Baker Books, 1992), 28; Mark Harding & Alanna Nobbs, All Things to All Cultures: Paul Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans (Eerdmans Publishing, 2013), 78; Edward Adams & David Horrell, Christianity at Corinth (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 2ff. Note that the Philippian church was similarly located in a Roman colony (Acts 16:12).
In Acts 18, Paul devoted 1½ years to ministering in Corinth. Later, he wrote a letter (now called “First Corinthians”) to the church while he was living 180 miles away in Ephesus. He wrote the letter using Koiné Greek. Koiné (meaning “common”) was a dialect of the Greek language, which was spoken from approximately 330 BC (after “Ancient Greek”) to 330 AD (before “Medieval Greek”). Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koiné Greek had become the universal language of the Greek and Roman Empires.
OCCUPANTS OF CORINTH
Paul’s visit to Corinth, and his later letters to the Corinthian church, occurred relatively soon after it was resettled by Roman soldiers. When he first arrived, Paul began preaching to both the Gentiles and Jews (Acts 18). The presence of the Jews in a resettled Roman colony may be partly due to the “Jewish displacement” initiated by the Romans (cf. Acts 18:2, Jam 1:1). At first, he lived with an Israelite couple and met in the local synagogue to “reason with” and “persuade” the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:4).
However, when the Jews rejected his message, Paul turned his focus to the Corinthian Gentiles (Acts 18:6). The new focus was fruitful. Writing to them later, Paul states that the members of this church were previously “pagans” (literally translated as “Gentiles”) who had been involved in idolatry (1 Cor 12:2). Apparently, the Corinthian church was primarily non-Jewish.2) Note that regarding his evangelistic work, Paul called himself “a teacher of the Gentiles” (1 Tim 2:7). Further, note that the head covering practice taught by Paul was not a Jewish practice.
COVERED HEADS IN THE CITY OF CORINTH?
Some Christians nowadays believe that Paul taught the use of head coverings as a uniquely local issue, related only to the immediate culture in the ancient city of Corinth. The use of head coverings by women would be an honorable part of First Century culture in the city of Corinth, and Paul did not want the Corinthians to abandon their cultural connections since it would hinder their witness for Christ and draw undue attention.
However, history tells a different story. Rather than reinforcing the head covering customs of the local society, Paul’s instructions were actually the opposite of the Corinthians’ Roman culture. Specifically, Roman men wore a head covering during religious activities, and Roman women normally went without a head covering while in public. Even in nearby Greek culture, women did not wear a head covering during worship. Thus, Paul’s instructions cannot be simply an endorsement of cultural propriety.3) For further discussion, see Appendix C in Covered Glory as well as our article, A Uniquely Christian Symbol: How Head Coverings Were Unfamiliar To Everyone.
The Early Church writings on the topic likewise do not describe the use of head coverings during prayer as conformity to the local society. To the contrary, Tertullian (a theologian in the Early Church) specifically stated that the Christian practice of head covering was not something that came from the Gentiles.4) “On the Veiling of Virgins” (ch. 2, 8) in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4 (Book One, Part Three). Further, various Early Church sources document the use of Christian head coverings outside of Corinth, and so the practice was not based on local Corinthian customs.
UNCOVERED HEADS IN THE CITY OF CORINTH?
Another cultural assumption often gets repeated, and it goes like this: “Paul required women to wear a head covering (and grow long hair) because in First Century Corinthian culture, a woman without a head covering (or long hair) was usually a prostitute. Corinth was known for its immorality. Specifically, the Temple of Aphrodite5) ”Aphrodite” was the Greek goddess of love. The equivalent Roman name was “Venus.” in Corinth housed 1,000 temple prostitutes with uncovered, shaven heads. Paul desired the women in the local church to avoid any shame or ‘appearance of evil.'6) 1st Thessalonians 5:22 (KJV). It was necessary to avoid dressing like a prostitute associated with a pagan religion.”
Scholars have pointed out that this explanation is, for multiple reasons, historically inaccurate. Corinth’s reputation as an extremely immoral city was long gone by the time of Paul. The Temple of Aphrodite was destroyed over 200 years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Further, the Corinthian prostitutes were not known for having shaved hair and uncovered heads – they actually wore “transparent veils” as a “distinguishing feature.”7) Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 81.
“Some have taken the urge for women to wear veils as Paul ensuring that they were not mistaken for prostitutes or hetairai [or hetaera, mistresses or prostitutes that were artistic or educated]. Part of the reason for this view lies in the interpretation of Corinth as a ‘sex-obsessed’ city with prostitutes freely roaming the streets. 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 146 BC. In contrast the [new] Roman shrine was far more modest.”8) David Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” in Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990), 245-260.
“The sexual vice “of Corinthian life, however, has tended to be overplayed by most NT scholars… It was commonly suggested that short hair or a shaved head was the mark of the Corinthian prostitutes… But there is no contemporary evidence to support this view (it seems to be the case of one scholar’s guess becoming a second scholar’s footnote and a third scholar’s assumption).”9) Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1987), 2-3, 511, 496. See also: Is Head Covering Cultural? What about the Corinthian Prostitutes? and Sources, Sources…What are your Sources? | The Head Covering Movement.
“The old view that made Corinth almost synonymous with prostitution should be abandoned… [These references are] to Greek Corinth, destroyed in 146 B.C., not in Corinth after it had been resettled and rebuilt as a Roman colony. It is anachronistic to apply the epithets to the Corinth of Paul’s day.”10) David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Baker Academic, 2003), 240.
The Early Church writers, when discussing the use of a head covering, make no mention of the proposed need to avoid looking like a pagan temple prostitute. The “Corinthian prostitute” explanation also contradicts the fact that First Century Greek and Roman women normally had uncovered heads while in public. Note that this misunderstanding is very Corinth-centric, while multiple Early Church sources11) As well as the Apostle Paul himself (1 Cor 11:16). document the use of Christian head coverings outside of Corinth.
OR WAS IT FOR THE MEN IN CORINTH?
The other half of the biblical equation is that Paul taught that men ought not pray with their heads covered. Nowadays, a common Corinth-based “explanation” is that in First Century Corinthian culture, Roman men covered their heads with a toga when making sacrifices to false deities — and Paul didn’t want Christian men to shame their “head” (that is, Christ: v.3-4) by bringing the clothing styles of pagan religions into the Corinthian church.
While the Greek phrase “something on his head” (v.4) could be used in reference to a toga pulled over a man’s head during a Roman sacrifice, this specific religious context was not inherent in the phrase. The same Greek phrase was also used to refer to someone simply covering their head to hide their appearance.12) For example, Esther 6:12 LXX uses the same phrase to describe Haman’s behavior after being forced to honor his enemy Mordecai. Also, Plutarch (a Greek historian who lived during the time of Paul) used the phrase (in a Roman non-religious context) to describe a man walking through a city while covering his head in order to avoid being recognized. Cf. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 506-507; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2003), 517.
The crux of the issue is that both Scripture and the Early Church actually discuss Paul’s specific reasons for men to pray without a head covering, but they never mention any connection to Roman sacrificial customs.
Indeed, if an association with pagan Roman worship was the reason that Paul did not want Corinthian men to cover their heads, then “one would wonder why Paul would not have similar problems with women covering their heads, since that was also the norm for Roman worship.”13) Roy E. Ciampa, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 2010), 514.
CONCLUSIONS ABOUT CORINTH AND HEAD COVERING
Over the course of 15 verses, Scripture teaches the practice of head covering for specific reasons, but does not attribute the practice (or reasons) to local Corinthian culture. In other words, a Christian today is not required to learn ancient Corinthian culture in order to understand the biblical teaching on head covering. However, it often is helpful to learn the historic context of biblical passages. Knowledge of Corinthian culture actually serves to further affirm that the Christian practice of head covering was not based on local customs. In fact, Paul’s teaching was counter-cultural.
When we ignore actual cultural history and instead conjecture up imagined cultural history in order to “explain away” clear biblical teaching, we have a problem. Theologian and pastor R.C. Sproul addressed this same concern in his book Knowing Scripture…
“It is one thing to seek a more lucid understanding of the biblical content by investigating the cultural situation of the first century; it is quite another to interpret the New Testament as if it were merely an echo of the first-century culture… For example, with respect to the hair-covering issue in Corinth, numerous commentators … [state] the reason why Paul wanted women to cover their heads was to avoid a scandalous appearance of Christian women in the external guise of prostitutes. What is wrong with this kind of speculation? The basic problem here is that our reconstructed knowledge of first-century Corinth has led us to supply Paul with a rationale that is foreign to the one he gives himself. In a word, we are not only putting words into the apostle’s mouth, but we are ignoring words that are there. 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. We must be careful not to let our zeal for knowledge of the culture obscure what is actually said. To subordinate Paul’s stated reason to our speculatively conceived reason is to slander the apostle and turn exegesis into eisogesis.”14) R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977), 110.
The practice of headcovering is a uniquely Christian command, especially because the reasons for the command are uniquely Christian. The meaning of the Christian head covering symbolism did not match the meaning of any First Century head covering practice.
In fact, Paul begins his discussion about the practice of head covering by emphasizing the importance of maintaining certain “traditions” which he “delivered” to the Corinthians. In other words, the practice of head covering did not originate with the Corinthians, but was simply a Christian “ordinance”15) KJV. The Greek word is Παράδοσις (paradosis), used in 2 Thes 2:15 to refer to instructions given by the apostles. that Paul passed on to them. The Corinth-based explanations of 1 Cor 11:2-16 ignore the passage’s own references to both “universal Christian principles” and “universal Christian practice.” Because of this, it is “inappropriate to assign to Paul a reason for his saying something that is different from the one he himself gives.”16) R. C. Sproul, “To Cover or Not To Cover?” in Hard Sayings of the Apostles (Ligonier Ministries). Available on MP3, Audio Tape #675 Side B, and YouTube.
- Head Covering and the City of Corinth: An Introduction to Corinth - January 12, 2023
- Is The Head Covering Movement Part of the Hebrew Roots Movement? - October 3, 2022
- Gentlemen, Don’t Let Head Covering Go to Your Head - September 19, 2022