In the Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of the head covering. As most of Paul’s writings, it is important to look at the Historical evidence and the context behind what he is writing. Knowing the audience and their surroundings will help us get a better understanding of what Paul speaks of. Did Paul confirm that women should wear a head covering? Why was this matter even discussed? Let’s investigate.
1Co 11:1-2 Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
Paul starts by commending the Corinthians on keeping to the traditions set forth by the Apostle. What he is about to speak of, had to be a new instruction as Paul praised them for remembering him “in all things” and keeping everything the way he had instructed.
1Co 11:3-5 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
In the above section, woman(G1135-Goonay) can be better translated as “wife” and man(G435-Anayr) as “husband”, as it is speaking of individuals who are bonded together. Because of this reason, Paul’s instructions are limited to the boundaries of marriage. The hierarchy which Paul provides can be summarized as per the below graphic:
A Husband has authority over a wife, while Christ has authority over both. God as the ultimate authority head, is in the top of the hierarchical structure, having authority over Christ, the Husband and Wife.
Verse 6, where it says “Every man praying or prophesying having his head(G2776-Kefalay) covered(G2596-Katah-on)”, can be better translated as “Every man praying or prophesying having anything on his head”… dishonors his head. In this instance, Paul is obviously speaking of authority as we saw in the previous verse, he said that a Man’s head is Christ. In other words Christ has authority over a man. Now he is saying that if a man has something on his “head” (which is Christ), it dishonors his “head” (which is Christ). Paul is obviously talking of something or someone superseding Christ’s authority over the husband. In relation to the previous verse, and as we will see in the verses up ahead, Paul is simply saying that if a wife usurps authority over a husband it can dishonor the rightful owner of that authority, who is Christ. Were there wives in the Corinthian congregation, which overuled their husbands publicly, leading to discord? Let’s read on.
Paul goes onto explain the exact opposite instance, where the wife uncovers her “head”(who is her husband) bringing dishonor to her “head”(who is her husband). Paul is simply saying if the wife does not recognize the authority of the husband, she brings dishonor to her husband. Paul equates such an act to being a woman who has her head shaved. The shaving of a wives’ head clearly is a picture of dishonor according to Paul. This is corroborated by Historians as there is evidence that women who had little to no hair were considered slaves, adulteresses or prostitutes.
Just so Cyprus too had its Demonassa, a woman gifted in both statesmanship and law-giving. She gave the people of Cyprus the following three laws: a woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off and be a harlot — her daughter became an adulteress, had her hair cut off according to the law, and practised harlotry; Dio Chrysostom Discourse 64, section 2-3
But now that I see this maidservant, bearing a weight of water on her shorn head, let us sit down, and inquire of this slave girl, if we may receive some word about the matter,
Euripides Electra Line 109-110
Corinth was known to be a city run rampant with Prostitution. In Greek “I Corinthianise”(Κορινθι-αστής) was used to mean “I practice prostitution”. The 4th Century BC plays by Philetaerus, Ath.13.559a, and Poliochus, Id.7.313c were named Κορινθι-αστής “whoremonger”. Plato in The Republic 404c also equates “Corinthian girl” to a “Prostitute”.
After Antisthenes’ death he moved to Corinth, since he considered none of the others worth associating with, and there he lived without renting a house or staying with a friend, but camping out in the Craneion. For he observed that large numbers gathered at Corinth on account of the harbours and the hetaerae(“female companions.” The name was applied to a wide class of women, ranging from those whose marriages lacked legal sanction all the way to the lowest harlots), and because the city was situated as it were at the cross-roads of Greece. Dio Chrysostom – Discourses 8, Section 5
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. And therefore it was also on account of these women that the city was crowded with people and grew rich; for instance, the ship captains freely squandered their money, and hence the proverb, “”Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.””Source unknown Moreover, it is recorded that a certain courtesan said to the woman who reproached her with the charge that she did not like to work or touch wool: “Yet, such as I am, in this short time I have taken down three webs.” That is, “finished three webs.” But there is a word play in καθεῖλον ἱστούς “finished three webs” which cannot be reproduced in English. The words may also mean “lowered three masts,” that is, “debauched three ship captains.” Strabo – Geographika Book VIII Chap 6 Sec 20
Now Comana is a populous city and is a notable emporium for the people from Armenia; and at the times of the “exoduses” of the goddess people assemble there from everywhere, from both the cities and the country, men together with women, to attend the festival. And there are certain others, also, who in accordance with a vow are always residing there, performing sacrifices in honor of the goddess. And the inhabitants live in luxury, and all their property is planted with vines; and there is a multitude of women who make gain from their persons, most of whom are dedicated to the goddess, for in a way the city is a lesser Corinth, for there too, on account of the multitude of courtesans, who were sacred to Aphrodite, outsiders resorted in great numbers and kept holiday. And the merchants and soldiers who went there squandered all their money so that the following proverb arose in reference to them: “
Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.” Such, then, is my account of Comana.
Strabo – Geographika Book XII Chapter 3 Section 36
He also mentions the following sayings of Gnathaeniŏn, who was the grand-daughter of Gnathaena(Athenian Courtesan): It happened once that a very aged satrap, Full ninety years of are, had come to Athens. And on the feast of Cronus he beheld Gnathaeniŏn with Gnathaena going out From a fair temple sacred to Aphrodite, And noticing her form and grace of motion, He just inquired “How much she asked a night?” Gnathaena, looking on his purple robe, And princely bodyguard, said, “A thousand drachmas.” He, as if smitten with a mortal wound, Said, “I perceive, because of all these soldiers, You look upon me as a captured enemy; But take five minae, and agree with me, And let them get a bed prepared for us.” She, as the satrap seemed a witty man, Received his terms, and said, “Give what you like, – Athenaeus Book 13 Page 581 section 44
Veiling of married women in public was common practice because of this reason. This may have been the reason Paul picked this particular tradition to explain the need for proper use of authority.
When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, “Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!” – Plutarch Moralia 232c
So as we have seen with all of the historical evidences, Paul may have used the Covering/uncovering of the head as a metaphor because it was a common practice in places such as Corinth. With the heavy inclination towards debauchery in Corinth, Wives dressed modestly to show that they were unattainable. In this sense, the head covering acted as a sign of marriage (much like the wearing of a ring in our present time).
1Co 11:6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
As we saw earlier, shaving of the head was a sign of a slave, adulteress or prostitute. A wife who uncovered her head in public, uncovered her husband by showcasing that she could be unmarried. This surely brings dishonor to the husband. In this way, Paul’s metaphor is spot on! He is saying that a woman who does not regard that her husband has authority over her in a Godly marriage, brings shame to herself and her husband, becoming like the Prostitutes, adulteresses and slaves of Corinth.
1Co 11:7-9 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
If we use the same argument in the case of the man, A man who uncovers his head, or disregards Christ’s authority over him, dishonors Christ and in turn dishonors God. Paul mentions here that Man was created in God’s image, while woman was created in Man’s image, relating back again to the hierarchical structure he presented before.
1Co 11:10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
This particular verse confirms the theory set forth in this study, by speaking of wives having power(G1849 – also translated as authority) on their heads. The reason Paul gives is, “because of the angels”. Many see the Angles mentioned here, to be heavenly angels, although the same word (G32 – Angelos) can be used as earthly messengers (see Mat 11:10, Mar 1:2, Luk 7:24,27, 9:52, Heb 2:2, James 2:25). The latter interpretation makes more sense, as and when messengers from other congregations come to the Corinthian congregation, they should see that wives submit to their husbands(Eph 5:22, Col 3:18) and not a show of dishonor towards authority and hierarchy.
1Co 11:11-12 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
Most of the time when hierarchy and authority is spoken of, people tend to think that the Husband can rule over the wife however he pleases. Paul quickly makes this clarification by showing that the wife and husband are equals before God, but only that the husband is responsible to care and lead the wife, while the wife is supposed to help the husband with their walk towards God.
1Co 11:13-15 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
A wife who prays to God with an uncovered head is a person who does not submit to her husband’s authority. How will a wife who cannot submit to her own earthly husband, ever rightly submit to her heavenly husband? Finally Paul uses a metaphor from nature, showing how women are naturally given long hair as a covering while men are not.
1Co 11:16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
As Paul closes his argument he speaks to “anyone” who may dispute his claims. The word man is not present in this verse, denoting that maybe there are some women who may dispute the Apostles claims that the wife must be under the authority of the husband. Paul closes the argument saying such a practice where the woman disregards the authority of her husband is not seen in any of the congregations, putting an end to the debate.
Corinth which was known for it’s prostitution, led married women to keep their heads veiled and being modest thereby showing that they were unattainable. Among the many problems in the Corinthian Congregation, there seems to be one where some wives were acting out of term bringing dishonor to their husbands and discord to the congregation. Paul used the metaphor of the head covering which was known by all married women, to teach them about authority and the hierarchical system inside the congregation. While there is no law which states a wife or woman must cover their heads, Paul himself is not asking wives to cover their heads in the above passage. Women are free to dress as they please, as long as they are modest. Wives can choose to cover their heads or not, as long as they submit to the authority of their own husbands; and in turn Christ the head of them all.
Also read: Do men have authority over women according to the Scriptures?