Pauline Exegesis: Women's Head Coverings
By Julie Ruth Malone
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
King James Version
2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.
3 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.
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.
5 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.
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.
7 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.
8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.
9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.
13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?
15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.
16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
In the history of the Christian world, no individual – aside from Jesus – has had more influence on Christian thought or practice than the apostle Paul. As the author of at least seven books of the New Testament – there are an additional three that were probably written by Paul, and another three more that might have been written by Paul – few, if any, have had more of an impact on both secular and non-secular thinkers regarding morality and moral behavior, on what is appropriate and what is not. From homosexuality to the behavior of women, the patriarchal interpretation of Paul’s letters throughout the centuries has resulted in the suffering, oppression, and persecution of millions of individuals – to this day, murdering someone because they are a homosexual is perfectly legal in parts of the world, and mainstream Christian denominations prohibit women from partaking in select church leadership simply because they are women. These popular readings of both standard and debatable verses have been left largely unquestioned in mainstream Christianity, as many think that an interpretation that has lasted for two millennia must be correct. But, what if this interpretation is wrong? In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (1), one of the most controversial passages of the New Testament, Paul appears to argue that all women must cover their heads at all times, and that men must never cover theirs – an oppressive order for women. What if, instead of pronouncing a misogynistic burden on all believing women, Paul is urging them to separate themselves from the polytheistic and immoral society in which the Corinthian church is situated by donning a common symbol of respectability? This paper will explore 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and argue that the original meaning and intent of Paul’s writing was to protect the women of the Church from the assumptions and actions of those within and without through the visible, understood, and respected veiling of the head.
A modern explanation of these verses may be that Paul is encouraging the women of the Church in Corinth to conform to prevailing customs of dress and appearance in Corinth. However, this notion would necessarily assume that there existed an overarching and “normal” mode of female dress in a bustling, cosmopolitan city such as Corinth. In the ancient world, and in Corinth especially, dressing customs varied depending not only if one was a Greek, Roman, or Jew – keeping in mind that Hellenization was very prevalent, even for Jews – but also depending on circumstance and occasion (2). A woman participating in a pagan religious ceremony, for example, would not be dressed in the same manner as she would if she were heading towards the baths or in her home. Even in religious ceremonies, different cults had their own prescribed style of appropriate clothing – a woman participating in the Dionysian Mysteries would be clothed (and behave!) much differently than one of the Vestal Virgins. One important point to note is that prostitutes – whether slave or free – were not allowed to wear any of the various styles of head covering, and single women generally did not wear a veil either. A bareheaded woman, therefore, could be interpreted as available, whereas one with her head covered was unavailable. However, in the First Century BCE, it was becoming increasingly common and fashionable for married women – even from high society – to reject the veil. These styles of dress, behavior, and attitudes towards head coverings all cumulated in the large, Greek city of Corinth, and the women of Paul’s church were in no way immune to the sways and norms of outside society.
Paul specifies that women are to cover their heads when “pray[ing] or prophes[ying]” (3), and not at all times. Therefore, the patriarchal interpretation of this verse that a woman must have her head covered at all times is unsupported by Paul’s specification of the occasion for the veil. One explanation for why Paul urges the women of the Church to follow this behavior is that he finds it best that Christian women appear sexually unavailable, especially while attending Church meetings and services, praying, or spending time before God. Among the worshipers there would have been people from many different walks of life, slaves and free, and this would include women forced into prostitution (whether by their slave masters or by necessity). However, elsewhere in his correspondence with the Corinth Church, Paul also urges all people to remain unmarried and celibate if they are able (4). If each Christian woman was to wear the cultural symbol of unavailability, then it would aid them in remaining celibate by serving as a constant reminder – to both themselves and others – that they belong to God.
As is apparent throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the Church there was suffering from divisions within the congregation – class differences seem to be located at the forefront of the issues, with the more wealthy members exercising their advantages over the poorer members. By making it so that all women were to wear a symbol of respectability on their heads while in Church meetings, it would be much harder to discern class differences (although, of course, the other clothing which the women would be wearing would provide valuable clues), and could help to not only ease tensions, but also protect lower-class women from the shame of their current – or past – profession(s). Paul is proving these women with freedom through the veil – freedom from their lives outside of the Church, freedom from judgement within the Church, freedom of virtue, freedom provided through personal security. In this instance, Paul’s mandating of the veil is a push towards equality among the Church congregation, not an attempt to suppress women.
Throughout the centuries, 1 Corinthians 11:10 (“For this cause ought the women to have exousia on her head because of the angels”) has been a hot topic of debate, because the Greek word exousia can be translated and interpreted in various different ways, not all of which return a similar rendering of the verse as a whole. The King James Version reads “power,” the New American Standard Bible reads “a symbol of authority,” with a continuing list of different translations. In order to gain a more complete and accurate knowledge of the intent behind Paul’s use of this word, I engaged in a word study using Strong’s Concordance and analyzed the different ways in which this word is used – and translated – throughout the New Testament, Paul’s letters especially. It is interesting to note that the only instance in which exousia is said to have the definition of “a sign of the husband’s authority over his wife” is in this verse. While this may be the only verse in which that definition is possible, it does not change the fact that it is a divergent interpretation. More common definitions of exousia – as Paul uses it – which may fit better into 1 Corinthians 11:10 include: “power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases; leave or permission” or “the power of authority/influence and of right.” Paul utilizes these definitions in his other letters as well as in 1 Corinthians; if one of these meanings was instead intended in this verse as well, the interpretation transitions from the veil being a symbol of the divine (“of the angels”) right or authority of the husband over the wife to being a powerful symbol of the woman’s freedom through the divine power of God. She has the right to wear the veil, to be revered as a respectable, virtuous individual with the right to her own body and behavior. This interpretation would also mean that Paul was in no way attempting to infringe on the rights of women, or to subjugate them to an inferior position under God.
This feminist interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – that Paul is being remarkably egalitarian and not misogynistic – though upheld by those such as Sarah Ruden in her book Paul Among the People (5), is largely discounted by the majority of Biblical scholars throughout time, male scholars especially. Although these scholars would not label their interpretations of these verses as patriarchal and inherently sexist, they are quick to assert that Paul intends for all women – married or not – to “[acknowledge]…the fact that she is under the man’s authority” (6). Michael Marlowe, in his 2008 exegesis of these verses entitled “The Woman’s Headcovering,” agrees with the major scholarship on 1 Corinthians 11:10, going so far as to assert that Paul is utilizing irony in his phrasing by implying that women are to have anything remotely related to power or authority, as opposed to men (7). Marlowe argues that, in these verses, Paul believes that the head covering is forever a symbol of women’s submission and should be followed by all Christian women to this day, saying “I cannot believe that the avoidance of unstylish headcoverings for the ladies is worth the trouble we will get from compromised principles of interpretation” (8), comparing women not wearing head coverings to picking and choosing parts of the Gospel. He follows his sexist assertions of his version of proper female behavior by emphasizing that “a manly soul is not content to obey,” as opposed to a feminine one, and that “there is...a certain emulation of God proper for men which is not characteristic of female piety” (9). This is the writing of a man who has fully internalized the patriarchal interpretations of the Bible – not to mention the privilege afforded him as a male – which have been largely based on writings of men also living in a patriarchal society. His understanding of Paul’s writing is contingent upon two thousand years of male dominance and female oppression, and his exegesis does not consider the intricacies of language and wide range of possibilities outside of this lens.
In conclusion, although the dominant interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 asserts that women must wear a veil as a symbol of their submissive nature – not only to God, but to earthly men – engaging in careful analysis of cultural dress behaviors and word study, as well as an understanding of Paul’s other writings, leads the Biblical scholar to a vastly different conclusion. Instead of encouraging a patriarchal norm inside the Church, the apostle Paul is instead fostering an egalitarian and supportive community in which all women are given respectability under God. For Christian women in today’s world, this ancient command by Paul translates as a command to live in such a way that one both demands respectability because one is a Christian woman, as well as remembers that one belongs to God. The wearing of the veil was a means for the Christian women in Corinth to experience freedom through visibly asserting themselves as under God’s influence and authority; modern women may wish to practice this through wearing Christian jewelry, dressing modestly, or wearing a veil themselves. Regardless of the means through which they choose, the ultimate meaning behind Paul’s words is to remind Christian women that they are daughters of God and their behavior should mirror this thinking.
- Thank you to Caroline Todd and Kiera Judge for reviewing this paper. This paper will utilize the King James Version.
- Michael Marlowe, “Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World”, February 2005, http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html (accessed 4 December 2015).
- 1 Corinthians 11:5
- 1 Corinthians 7:1-16
- Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People (New York: Image Books, 2010), 83-88.
- Michael Marlowe, “The Woman’s Headcoverin,” October 2008, http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings.html (accessed 4 December 2015).
The Holy Bible. King James Version.
Marlowe, Michael. “Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World.” February 2005. http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html (accessed 4 December 2015).
Marlowe, Michael. “The Woman’s Headcovering.” October 2008. http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings.html (accessed 4 December 2015).
Ruden, Sarah. Paul Among the People (New York: Image Books, 2010), 83-88.