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.
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).
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 order, nature’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.