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Published Date: January 31, 1996

Published Date: January 31, 1996

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“I’ve Got You Covered”: The Cultural Background for Veiling Women

The current teaching about a husband being his wife’s “covering” is so popular that some people are surprised to find that is actually is based on a shaky inference from I Corinthians 11:2-16, a passage which is talking about a woman literally covering her hair during Christian worship. Rather than enter the popular debate about whether it is valid to read into a text something that is not there (and then impose one’s inference on how other Christians must live), I want to confine myself to asking why head coverings were so important for Paul.1

People covered their heads for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the reason was mourning, though this practice applied to men (Plut. KQ. 14, Mor. 267A; Char, Chaer. 3.3.14) as well as women (Plut, KQ. 26, Mor. 270D; Char. Chaer. 1.11.2; 8.1.7; ARN 1A). Likewise, men (m. Sot. 9:15; Epict. Dire. 1.11.27) as well as women (ARN 9, §25B) covered their heads due to shame. Roman women normally covered their heads for worship (e.g., Varro 5.29.130; Plut. R.Q. 10, Mor. 266C) and Greek women uncovered their heads (SIG 3d ed., 3.999), which might be significant in a city like Corinth which mixed Roman and Greek cultures — except for the fact that Roman men also covered and Greek men also uncovered their heads for worship. However, in I Corinthians Paul addresses a custom that differentiates men from women.

Jewish teachers in Palestine considered it specifically shameful for married women to uncover their heads (m. B.K. 8:6; ARN 3, 17A; Sifre Num. 11.2.2), and this practice seems to have obtained in immigrant Jewish communities elsewhere as well (3 Mace 4:6). The farther East one went, the more pervasive grew the custom of veiling.2 In the East married women dare not go in public unveiled, nor prostitutes veil themselves as if married, as early as thirteen centuries before Paul (Middle Assyrian Laws A.40).

Traditional Mediterranean custom preferred a woman who was not only a virgin physically, but who had never even been seen by another man (Char. Chaer. 1.1.4-6; Ps-Phocyl. 215-16; 4 Macc 18:6-7; Jos. & Asen. 15:1-2; 18:6). In some parts of the Empire men felt that women were best kept in seclusion as much as possible (philo. Spec. Leg.3.169-75; Phut.Bride9,30-32,Mor.139Q 142CD; Char. Chaer. 5.4.10). This was to keep other men from looking at one’s present or future wife. Married women were normally so well covered that men could get “turned on” over bare arms, excusing themselves, of course, as weakened beyond control by the woman’s seduction (cf. Char. Chaer. 6.4.5; Test. Jos. 9:5). But the supreme object of male desire was the woman’s hair (Apul. Metam. 2.8-9; Char. Chaer. 1.13.11; 1.14.1; ARN 14, §35B; Sifre Num. 11.2.1; p. Sanh. 6:4, §1). This was why many peoples required married women to cover their hair, but allowed unmarried girls to go uncovered (e.g., Charillus 2 in Plut. Sayings of Spartans, Mor. 232C; Philo Spec. Leg. 3.56). In such a society a married woman who went out with head uncovered was considered adulterous, seeking lovers, and was to be divorced without any payment whatsoever (m. Ket. 7:6; b. Sot 9a; R, Meir in Num. Rab. 9:12).

Traditional Islamic societies in the Middle East today also mandate women’s relative seclusion and the use of scarfs as a sign of seclusion when in public,3 and the purpose for such seclusion fits exactly die primary purpose for women’s public headcoverings in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean: the guarding of women’s chastity.4 In some locations,

A girl’s luxuriant hair, symbolic of the entanglements by which men are ensnared, must be controlled. Around the age of menarche when sexuality ripens, it must be enclosed. The headscarf, which a girl dons at this time, covers and binds her hair and symbolically binds her sexually…5

In others, the woman dons the headcovering when she is married.6 In any case, the woman in or past puberty whose head is uncovered is thought to invite men’s sexual advances, so that if a man allows his wife to go uncovered he intends to share her sexually with others!7

In Paul’s time, ancient Corinth was a Roman colony in Greece, a colony where upper-class women changed their hairstyles regularly (whenever the Empress set a new fashion) and so went about with heads uncovered to show off their hair.8 For lower-class women from the Eastern Mediterranean, however, the ostentation of these upper-class women signified seductiveness. This was a situation Paul needed to address.

Paul gave a variety of arguments on why women should cover their heads, one even grounded in the “creation order.”9 We should follow consistently here the method of interpretation we use for the rest of the Bible. If we read the rest of the Bible and say, “Whatever the writer said applies directly to all times, without taking into account cultural context,” we must require all women to cover their heads in public worship; otherwise men will not be able to control themselves. This is the conclusion of the proof-texting approach, and the issue of women’s roles is only one issue among many that it affects. Conversely, if we believe that God inspired the biblical writers to address concrete situations of their day as models for us to do the same (cf. I Cor. 10:11), we must take into account the differences between the various cultural settings they addressed and our culture today.

I pray earnestly that God will send our generation a revival of His Word. Without wishing to offend anyone, I am convinced that people who proof-text the Bible and ignore the culture it clearly claims to be addressing (would Paul have written about slavery were he writing to twentieth-century Americans?) manage to do so only because they have not read the Bible very much, or because their presuppositions about the way they think God should have written his Word mean more to them than what God actually said. If no other matters were at issue, the nature of God’s Word is at issue.

In our contemporary culture where people prefer sound bites to study, true prophets calling the Church back to the Word may always be in the minority (compare Jeremiah, Micaiah, or Jesus, against the religious establishments of their day); but true prophets derive their strength from God’s calling, not from human popularity. Covering heads is not the issue; the issue is that we should not cover over shallow readings of God’s Word, but insist that people begin to read the Bible the way God inspired it to begin with.


  1. By head covering in Corinth, we mean especially a shawl covering the hair, not the face veil of the most conservative areas of the East (cf. Ramsay MacMullen, “Women in Public in the Roman Empire,” Historia 29 [1980]: 210 n. 4).
  2. Cf. e.g., MacMullen, “Women In Public,’’ pp. 209-10; Cynthia L. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” Biblical Archaeologist 51 (2, June 1988): 113.
  3. Carol Delaney, “Seeds of Honor, Fields of Shame,” pp. 35-48 in Honor And Shame And Unity Op The Mediterranean, ed. David D. Gilmore, AAA 22 (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987), pp. 41-42.
  4. Delaney, “Seeds of Honor,” pp. 42, 67.
  5. Delaney, “Seeds of Honor,” p. 42.
  6. Dale F. Eickelman, The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989), p. 165.
  7. Delaney, “Seeds of Honor,” p. 42.
  8. MacMullen, “Women in Public,” pp. 217-18. Catherine Kroeger, ‘The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women,” JETS 30 (1, March 1987): 37, rightly notes that “universal veiling of women would certainly cause the least offense.”
  9. Craig Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage And Women’s Ministry In The Letters Of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992), pp. 19-69 on the arguments as well as more detail on head coverings, except for the Islamic practices.