Paul, on Head Coverings

Something I said in Sunday School this morning needs clarification. I was discussing the Jewish tradition that men’s heads must be uncovered in synagogue and women’s covered, as contrasted with the opposite traditions among Christians. I speculated that the Christian custom might be a polemic against Judaism. My friend, David then rightly pointed out I Cor 11:4-5, which seems to command the Christian custom. When David and I discussed it after class, I mentioned that I had just read a commentary claiming that Paul was referring to hair but hearing his response I began leaning towards the theory that the Jewish view, since it does not seem to be according to a scriptural command, might instead be a polemic against Christianity. Much of present Jewish tradition comes via the Talmudic Era, roughly 200 – 400 AD.
Having now reviewed the topic in more detail at home, in its scriptural and historical context, I am now satisfied that neither hats, nor wigs, nor hair is intended here, but rather Middle Eastern veils! The Greek for “cover” in these verses is katakalupto, which comes from roots meaning to “cover wholly”, “down and over” the head. Many of you know that my favorite Bible translation is the Complete Jewish Bible, because its translator, David Stern, is a Messianic Jew who is very well versed in ancient Hebrew customs and tradition. Here is the passage in that version:
1 Corinthians 11:3-10 (CJB)
[3] But I want you to understand that the head of every man is the Messiah, and the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of the Messiah is God. [4] Every man who prays or prophesies wearing something down over his head brings shame to his head, [5] but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled brings shame to her head—there is no difference between her and a woman who has had her head shaved. [6] For if a woman is not veiled, let her also have her hair cut short; but if it is shameful for a woman to wear her hair cut short or to have her head shaved, then let her be veiled. [7] For a man indeed should not have his head veiled, because he is the image and glory of God, and the woman is the glory of man. [8] For man was not made from woman, but woman from man; [9] and indeed man was not created for the sake of the woman but woman for the sake of the man. [10] The reason a woman should show by veiling her head that she is under authority has to do with the angels.
So, what these verses are discussing seems to be, not so much choice of apparel or grooming, as roles within the church or synagogue (see I Cor 14:33-35; I Tim 2:9-15). Men are to lead, and women to defer to their husbands.
Is there, then, an implied Biblical Commandment regarding either head coverings, veils, or hair? I think that Paul is here endorsing the cultural norms of the day, at Corinth. His following words indicate that the above discussion does not carry the force of Edict:
1 Corinthians 11:13-16 (CJB)
[13] Decide for yourselves: is it appropriate for a woman to pray to God when she is unveiled? [14] Doesn’t the nature of things itself {Greek phusis, or natural growth} teach you that a man who wears his hair long degrades himself? [15] But a woman who wears her hair long enhances her appearance, because her hair has been given to her as a covering. [16] However, if anyone wants to argue about it, the fact remains that we have no such custom, nor do the Messianic communities {Greek ekklesia, local assemblies: synagogues/churches} of God.

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Paul, on Head Coverings”

  1. Are you including vs. 14-15 in the “cultural norms of the day” or simply the idea of men uncovered and women “veiled”?  I think cultural norms of all time have recognized men as having shorter hair (not to say a buzz, but shorter than any woman) and women having the longer.  It is only in the recent days of decay that men have adopted really long hair and tried to make it acceptable. I studied this once and did not find any era in which the major part of men wore really long hair and women really short. (There are always outliers, of course).

    1. I don’t know if a definitive interpretation of vs 14-15 is even possible in the third millennium, “Nature” here is from Greek “phusis” which, if followed through its roots and derivatives, refers to germination and growth patterns natural to the substance under discussion. I suspect that there may be several ways to look at this, and I would lean towards a combination of all of them: (a) the natural development of hair follicles and the cellular structures of male and female hair may have been in Paul’s mind–you’ll recall that this is what you and I were taught back in the day; (b) it may have been, and certainly appears to have been through much of history, a matter of sexual attraction; or (c) it may have been simply a matter of practicality, with long hair interfering with the military and manual labor activities of men.

      Some commentators claim that the “head coverings” under discussion are, in fact, the hair itself, but I don’t see any way you can justify that in light of vs 5.

      The context of 11:1-16 is a discussion of head coverings–veils, in my view–and the topic of hair is simply used in an analogous sense. But remember that in vs 2, Paul makes it clear that he is referring to tradition. In light of his past life as a Pharisee, he understands the importance of tradition, but because of his relationship with Jesus, he also understands the LIMITS of the AUTHORITY of tradition. For that reason, I think it would be a mistake to give the discussion of head coverings, or of hair, the weight of command, as is often done in legalistic churches.

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