The aim of this study is to determine whether it is Scriptural for a woman Believer to wear a head covering, in order to publically pray or prophesy. The text that is usually quoted is 1 Cor. 11:3-16. It is hoped that the following questions will be discussed:
Is the text commanding women to cover their heads?
What form does the head covering take?
Is the text only of a local nature relevant at the time of the Letter?
Is the text relevant universally and for all time?
Before a study of the text is possible, it is vitally important to set the scene of the place and the times of the Letter. This will enable readers to know what the situation was like in 1st. Century Corinth.
Rav Sha`ul first went to Corinth around 50 C.E. and probably left 18 months later. The Letter was written by Sha`ul in Ephesus no later than 54 C.E. Therefore, the Corinthian Assembly had been under Sha`ul’s teaching for 4 years (Barret p5). Nevertheless, there was little sign of spiritual growth.
Sha`ul is writing to the Assembly at Corinth after receiving a letter from the Assembly. It may be the case that Sha`ul had preached to the Assembly on the status of male and female (as well as Jew/Greek, slave/freeman) in Messiah that can be read in his Epistle to the Galatian Assembly (Gal. 3:28). However, this could be mis-understood and the Corinthians may have been seeking clarification whether it was still necessary to conform to traditional distinctions (Barret p247). Many of Sha`ul’s letters are a result of questions raised by Assemblies, either by letter or by person. In his replies, he was not laying down new commandments, but rather offering halakah, an outworking of the commandments already in place.
Corinth was the second city of Greece after Athens and held the Isthmusian Games, second only after the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, it was probably the most bohemian and cosmopolitan city in the then known world (Barclay p110). It is, therefore, difficult to understand why some commentators would say that the local conditions were irrelevant. It may not be a major contributory factor, but sound hermeneutics requires the student to ask, ‘What did the passage mean to the original listeners or readers?’ Further reading will show that the Corinthian milieu does indeed play a major role.
However, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of יְהֹוָה, and is profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, sound hermeneutics requires an answer to the question, ‘What does the passage mean for readers today?’
Corinth lay on the main trading route north from Athens, south to Sparta. More importantly, it lay on the major east to west Mediterranean shipping route, by-passing the notoriously dangerous Cape Malea. Vessels could unload, trans-ship across the Diolkos and re-load either side of the isthmus (Barclay p1). It was also the location of the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, with its attendant male and female prostitute/priests and
priestesses. The word ‘Corinth’ eventually became a by-word for drunken debauchery (Barclay p3). It would be obvious that Corinth was filled with all the usual ‘trades’ associated with any large sea-port in the world.
Although the relevant passage is 1 Cor. 11:3-16, v3 begins with the conjunctive and. Therefore, it is imperative that a faithful study starts at the beginning of the full account. In this case, the beginning is 1 Cor. 10:25. It is important to recognise that all the chapter and verse references (and in some Bible versions, section titles) are artificial and were added much later to the Bible. In many cases, and this being one of them, the artificial chapter separation cuts the passage in two, making it more difficult to study. In the AENT 1 Cor. 11:1 states “You then be imitators of me, even as I am of Mashiyach” (Roth). The word ‘then’ connects Sh`aul’s desire that the Assembly do what is profitable for the Kingdom and not for him.
Sha`ul calls the Corinthian Assembly carnal infants (1 Cor. 3:1). Although there must have been mature Believers in the Assembly, that Sha`ul had to address the Assembly as such must indicate a large proportion of the Assembly to have been carnal and immature, failing to understand and apply sound teaching. He also called them worse than pagans because of the sexual sin abounding in the Assembly (1 Cor. 5:1, 2).
1 Cor. 10:25-11:2 discusses the issue of eating meat bought at market, whether to abstain completely in order not to eat meat offered to idols. However, Sha`ul does not give a definitive answer but offers mature guidelines to immature Believers. The overarching consideration must be not to give offence and thus become a stumbling block to non-Believers so that they may be saved (1 Cor. 10:32, 33).
1 Cor. 11:15 refers to the head covering #G4018 περιβόλαιον peribolaion which means something that is thrown around i.e. a mantle or wrapper (Souter) and would probably be a full covering of the head and shoulders, leaving the face clear. This would be in line with the custom of Oriental women at the time and not to any form of hat.
v3 – And I desire that you know that the head of every man is Messiah, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Messiah is יְהֹוָה. Rav Sha`ul begins this part of his discussion with a personal plea. The following verses are given as guidelines and not a direct commandment from יְהֹוָה (cf 1 Cor. 14:33b-35). It may well be that Sha`ul is not commanding women to be covered according to the Written Law, but in being submissive to their husbands according to Oral Law or tradition. Usually when Sha`ul does not explain himself with regards to the Oral Law, it is because it is taken that it is well known to the recipients. However, the Corinthians were mostly Greek and so would not be conversant with Jewish custom.
With #G435 ἀνήρ aner – man/husband and #G1135 γυνή gyne – woman/wife, it cannot be conceivable that this verse refers to man and woman as every man cannot have be a head over every woman. Therefore, this verse refers to a spiritual and matrimonial authority and the bonds of marriage.
v4 – Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. During these times, slavery was widespread. It was a sign that a man was a free-man when he could wear a cap (Barret p250). To have an uncovered head, was a sign that a man was at least indentured if not an actual slave. Therefore, when a Believing man came into the Assembly, and uncovered his head it would be an act of humility declaring he was a slave to Messiah.
v5 – But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonours her head. For it is one and the same thing as if she were shaved. Barret (p251) quoting Kummel doubts that Sha`ul was against women’s emancipation but wants to establish an Oriental custom in Greece. Sha`ul did not want to cause offence to the Jewish section of the Assembly, by allowing women to take part in the service without her head being covered. Her taking part in any public activity in the service would be novel to Jewish men and women. Thus the head covering would act as a means of a woman concentrating on her words on יְהֹוָה and not on man (Barret p215).
Sha`ul was accustomed to religious worship where women were kept segregated from men, and certainly would not be able to take part in public worship. The head covering signifies a new (יְהֹוָה given) authority whereby women could now take an active role in public worship (Barret p255). Sha`ul first held meetings in local synagogues, but as he became known as a Believer in the Messiah, these venues would no longer be available to him. Therefore, he would have had to held meetings in private houses and this resulted in men and women worshipping together.
v6 – For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For women to move about in public with no head covering was at least contrary to common decency, and to make a public announcement or spectacle would have been considered a scandal. A woman with no head covering would be judged as being an adulteress or having lax morals with the usual punishment of having her head shaved. Sha`ul seems to ask the rhetorical question of the women, ‘Would you voluntarily shave off your hair?’ They would answer, ‘Of course not.’ To which Sha`ul would counter, ‘Then why not keep your head covered?’ (Massie p213). When a woman walked about with her head covered, it offered her some safeguard from harassment or harm, as the covering would signify that she was under a man’s authority and hence his protection.
v7 – For a man indeed ought not to have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of יְהֹוָה, but the woman is the glory of the man. According to Anne Nissim (thefreepressonline.co.uk), man is the representation of the glory of יְהֹוָה whereas woman is the representation of man. Therefore, man must display the glory of יְהֹוָה by having his head uncovered and a woman must not display the glory of man by having her head uncovered. This is the start of the theological reasoning behind female head coverings. However, others have countered that the rationale for this was of a more practical kind. (See more below).
The covering here is not the same word as the woman’s. #G2619 κατακαλύπτω katakalyptō which is usually translated as veil, something hidden. Men were using veils to hide their faces when taking part in pagan rituals, generally of a sexual nature. The veil would cover their faces as opposed to the woman’s mantle that exposed the face.
vv8 & 9 – For man is not from woman, but woman from man; for neither was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. Woman has man for the reason for her existence, partly because she was made out of man and partly as a suitable helper for man (Gen. 2:20-23). However, it would be totally wrong and even blasphemous to suggest that יְהֹוָה `Elohiym had man name all the creatures so that a suitable helper could be found amongst them. In finding none, יְהֹוָה `Elohiym then had to make woman. This suggests that יְהֹוָה `Elohiym had no insight into what the future holds and had to bring forth a ‘Plan B’ for man.
v10 – For this cause the woman ought to have authority on her head, because of the angels. Nissim suggests that because angels were present when man and woman were made, woman should show respect and wear the head covering in their presence. One long held Rabbinic tradition has it that it was the angels that were seduced by the long hair of the daughters of man (Gen. 6:1, 2; Barclay p110). Yet, Scripture says that the angels ‘took for themselves wives’ inferring that the angels were the instigators of this particular sin. With their heads covered, it may be to demonstrate that when a woman covers her head, she is showing her authority under Messiah through her husband.
Barret (p254) quoting Hooker suggests that angels are present in assemblies (Rev. 1:20) in order to keep order and proprietary and they may be distracted by the uncovered women. If the angels were also responsible for the protection of the assemblies, then this distraction could have dire consequences.
Sha`ul may have had Aramaic in mind as the sh-l-t means power, authority and occasionally veil (Barret p254).
vv11 & 12 – Nevertheless, neither is the woman independent of the man, nor the man independent of the woman, in the Master. For as woman came from man, so a man comes through a woman; but all things are from יְהֹוָה. When woman was made, it was not for woman to be subservient to man, but as a complementary partner. Woman was originally taken from man but now, in child-birth, man is taken from woman. Each is co-dependent upon one another and both dependent upon יְהֹוָה.
V13 – Judge for yourselves. Is it appropriate that a woman to pray to יְהֹוָה uncovered? This full passage, 1 Cor. 10:25-11:16, is one of the most beautiful pastoral passages in the Renewed Covenant. Sha`ul could lay down a directive one way or the other, but this is the way to treat children and would be considered heavy shepherding. Sha`ul wanted to encourage the Corinth Assembly to make more decisions for themselves, by looking at the full argument and to listen to their conscience governed by the Ruach HaKodesh.
v14 – Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonour to him? Sha`ul cannot mean that long hair on a man is an abomination. This would be contrary to יְהֹוָה’s commandment for the Nazir vows (Numbers 6:1-21), and hypocritical because of his own Nazir vow (Acts 18:18) and his participation in the termination ceremony of four men (Acts 21:22-26; Roth p520 #47).
Sha`ul is commenting upon the sinful character of some of the men and women in the Assembly. Corinth was renowned for is licentiousness and homosexual and lesbian activity was rife. It would be difficult to believe that these practices were not exercised by some of the congregants. Therefore, there must be a clear differential between men and women. Sha`ul accused the Corinthians of behaviour worse than the pagans (1 Cor. 5:1, 2) and sexual immorality (2 Cor. 12:21; Roth p843).
Halakah usually offers a ‘hedge’ to keep a person away from breaking any commandments. The commandments Sha`ul would have been considering would be for a man not to dress as a woman (Deut. 22:5) and for a man not to have sexual relations with another man (Lev. 18:22). The same laws would be inferred for women (Barret p251). Sha`ul was building a ‘hedge’ around these commandments by asking men to keep their hair at a respectable length. This difference was assigned at Creation and was not superseded or countermanded by Gal. 3:28. Sha`ul was guiding the Corinthians in being over-modest rather than too lax and re-iterating the vital relationship between a man (husband) and woman (wife) (Barclay p110).
v15 – But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory for her, for her hair is given to her as a covering. The head covering is what is necessary in order to publically pray or prophesy but the woman’s hair, given to her by nature, cannot replace the clothing covering (Roth p520 #48). It was given as a modesty covering but long hair on a man was both unnatural and a disgrace (Barret p215).
v16 – But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the Messianic communities of יְהֹוָה. Sha`ul once again appeals to the conscience of the Corinthians and states that it is up to their own judgment and not to refer to him in further arguments.
Before written instructions could be circulated, traditions and customs were the usual means of transmitting halakah and hedges around commandments. However, these must only be used as guidelines and never be considered as (Oral) Law.
The term ‘we’ is not clearly defined in this verse. It may refer to Sha`ul and the Corinthians; Sha`ul and the Ephesians (from where the letter was written); Sha`ul and all people of יְהֹוָה or Sha`ul and the Yerushalayim Council (Roth p843). However, it would credible that Sha`ul was in contact with the Yerushalayim Council and sought consistent teaching. “We have heard that some men from us went out and confused you with words and have agitated your souls, saying that, ‘You should be circumcised and guard the religious customs, something that we did not command them.’” (Acts 15:24).
The key verse for the total passage must be v13 –‘Judge for yourselves. Is it appropriate that a woman to pray to יְהֹוָה uncovered?’ Sha`ul does not give a direct commandment from יְהֹוָה. However, having laid down the ‘evidence’ he wants to see how his teachings have been accepted. Any teacher must look for feed-back in order to determine whether or not the ‘students’ have listened and taken in what has been said. Sha`ul would also know that his time on earth was limited and needs all the assemblies to learn how to discern truth and rely on the Ruach HaKodesh and not on any man.
Sha`ul would have wanted the women to meet at the assembly, dressed in a modest fashion but ready to take an active part of the service. By wearing the mantle, a woman fulfils both criteria. However, in modern western culture, this would not be acceptable. To have no head covering is no longer a sign of loose morals. Therefore, as the covering in order to pray or prophesy is a symbolic gesture, any form of additional head wear such as a hat, shawl or head scarf would be satisfactory. This would also include wigs as with the custom of Orthodox Jewish women.
It is clear from the study that here was a considerable concern over the lax morals of Corinth becoming entrenched within the Assembly and service. Therefore, it was necessary for Sha`ul to give guidelines on how to appear in mixed meetings.
Nevertheless, as “Every Scripture inspired by יְהֹוָה is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction which is in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16), there must be lessons to be learnt in 21st. Century.
A Believer is continuously under scrutiny whether at home, work, leisure or about in the community. The way a person dresses and acts are probably the most noticeable aspects of a person’s character. It is encumbrant upon Believers to set clear examples wherever and whenever they are. Care must be taken not to look to the liberty in Messiah as a reason to be lax in standards and it would be better to err on the side of modesty.
It cannot be more stressed that this whole passage is about personal choices on issues that are not commandments. In no way does Sha`ul give license to choose whether to obey some Laws and discard others. Sha`ul’s driving force was to see people saved and grow spiritually. His guidelines were issued so that a Believer’s choice does not cause a non-Believer to turn away and subsequently be lost or that an immature Believer is deterred from growing.
If a woman Believer knows that her assembly does not require a head covering, then it is perfectly acceptable to take an active role uncovered. Likewise, she must cover up if she knows that it is the custom of her assembly. To do otherwise would be contentious and Sha`ul takes great lengths to avoid this in a meeting. However, if she attends a new assembly where she is in doubt of the practice, then it would be wise to take a hat and ask discreetly once she arrives.
The main ethos is not to enforce your opinion onto others but let them come to their own decision based upon Scripture and the leading of the Ruach HaKodesh.
Barclay W. (1959) The Letters to the Corinthians, Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh.
Barret C.K. (1987) A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hendrickson Pub., Peabody, Mass.
Massie J. The Century Bible, A Modern Commentary, Corinthians, Caxton Pub., London.
Roth A.G. (2008) Aramaic English New Testament, 4th. Ed., Natzari Press, U.S.A.
Souter A. (1925) A Pocket Lexicon To The Greek New Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford.