A Question About Head Coverings: Paul’s Response to the Church in Corinth

“Now, to deal with the matters you wrote about” (1 Corinthians 7:1). These are the words of the apostle Paul, written to the church at Corinth. Paul then begins to first mention and then comment on a number of issues that were evidently brought to his attention.

He begins his letter by explaining that the Corinthian church should not be divided about which Christian teacher they should follow. He mentions himself, Peter and Apollos specifically (c.f. 1 Corinthians 3:22). Apollos taught in the Jewish synagogues (Acts 18:26); Peter was rebuked for deferring to Jewish traditions at the expense of Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul was known as the apostle God had sent to the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:8).

It’s not surprising, then, that Paul feels a need to clarify issues related to Jewish beliefs and traditions. He touches on circumcision, meat offered to idols, hair covering, and whether or not women may speak in the congregation (c.f. 1 Corinthians, chapters 7, 8, 11 & 14).

On each issue, Paul shows that he is intimately acquainted with the traditions, and sympathetic to people’s concerns. Overall, it appears that he attempts to balance freedom, with love and responsibility to others. He encourages maturity, unity and the use of the Spirit’s gifts by Christians, in loving service one to another.

Concerning circumcision, he acknowledges the longstanding sign of the covenant revealed through Moses; AND YET, he says the following to believers in Christ:

“Each of you should go on living according to the Lord’s gift to you, and as you were when God called you. This is the rule I teach in all the churches. If a circumcised man has accepted God’s call, he should not try to remove the marks of circumcision; if an uncircumcised man has accepted God’s call, he should not get circumcised. For whether or not a man is circumcised means nothing; what matters is to obey God’s commandments. Each of you should remain as you were when you accepted God’s call.” (1 Corinthians 7:17-20)

Must Gentile believers now follow the Jewish rite of circumcision? In a word, “No.” The outward sign was pointing ahead to a circumcision of the heart, accomplished by God’s Spirit, for all who are united with Christ by faith (c.f. Romans 2:25-29).

Concerning food offered to idols, Paul is aware that some would view eating this as an act of actually worshiping an idol. Others recognize that an idol “stands for something that does not really exist.” They could eat any food offered at the market with a clear conscience. What does Paul counsel? Freedom of conscience, alongside love and consideration for those who might misunderstand and thereby stumble (c.f. 1 Corinthians 8:4-13).

Concerning head coverings, Paul would be well aware of the oral traditions that have been preserved for us by 1st through 4th century A.D. Rabbis (e.g. R. Yishmael, R. Yehuda, R. Yohanan, R. Assi; as cited in “Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Hair Covering and Jewish Law, by Michael J. Broyde) These traditions stated that a Jewish woman would “cover her hair” in public as an expression of proper “modesty” (Broyde, p. 99). A married woman who did not abide by this custom could be divorced by her husband (Broyde, pp. 99-100). Jewish wives were similarly prohibited from “spinning in the marketplace, or conversing with every man” (Broyde, p. 99). Though not explicitly stated in the Bible the principle of publicly “covering the hair” was “inferred” by Rabbi Yishmael (born 90 A.D.) from Numbers 5:18: “’And he shall uncover her head’…from the fact that we disgrace her in this manner, commensurate to her act of making herself attractive to her lover, [by uncovering her head] we can infer that it is forbidden” (Broyde, p. 100).

Referring to Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 11:10, why would Jewish women cover their heads, “because of the angels”? Tertullian cites the tradition (inferred from 1 Enoch) in the following comment:

“For if (it is) on account of the angels — those, to wit, whom we read of as having fallen from God and heaven on account of concupiscence after females… So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven” (On the Veiling of Virgins, http://biblehub.com/library/tertullian/on_the_veiling_of_virgins/chapter_vii_of_the_reasons_assigned.htm)

Having read 1st Enoch, I’m aware that angels are said to have left their proper place in heaven to explore sexuality with human beings. These angels are actually referred to in the book of Jude:

“And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” (verses 6 & 7)

Neither Jude nor Enoch blames women for “causing” the angels to stumble. Rather, the angels themselves are held fully responsible for their actions, and “bound with everlasting chains for judgment” as a result. The attribution of blame to women is inferred by male theologians.

So what does Paul say about this tradition? A woman should not be ashamed of her hair. It is her “glory” (1 Corinthians 11:15); and she is the most glorious aspect of God’s glorious creation. (Paul uses this language of “glory” to contrast traditions that are rooted in shame.) When God looked upon this glory of glories he had created, what was his response? “Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!” (Genesis 1:31)

In addition to promoting shame, the traditional notion that a woman should wear a “symbol” of authority on her head is not even present in the Greek text of the New Testament.  English translations such as the ESV add this language, and falsely portray Paul as condoning male authority.

And what would Paul say about the tradition that it is “shameful” for a woman’s voice to be heard in church? (c.f. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35)  Once again, he acknowledges the tradition, but then proceeds to correct it. Concerning women prophesying or speaking in tongues in Christian assemblies, Paul’s instructions are, “Forbid not” (1 Corinthians 14:39).

As with the issue concerning a woman’s hair, Rabbinical tradition held that the female voice is inherently sexually provocative:

“A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, ‘For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely.’  R. Shesheth said: A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, ‘Thy hair is as a flock of goats.'” (http://www.come-and-hear.com/berakoth/berakoth_24.html)

Once again, a restrictive tradition is not explicitly stated in the biblical text.  Rather, it is inferred from romantic poetry, written in the context of the attraction shared by a groom and his bride (c.f. The Song of Solomon).

For a more in-depth exploration of 1 Corinthians 14 as it relates to the roles of women in church, please feel free to read the following article:

https://equalityinchrist.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/must-women-keep-silent-1-corinthians-14-the-apostle-paul-and-the-traditions-of-men/

The oral traditions of Paul’s day insisted that women be kept quiet and covered.  For them to be seen and heard publicly–especially in a religious context–was viewed as a threat to male purity.  Did the apostle Paul agree with this viewpoint?  Did Jesus?

No, neither Paul nor the Savior would agree with a theology of shame that holds women accountable for the actions of men or angels.  A woman’s hair is her “glory,” and God both calls and empowers women to proclaim his message in the church and in the world.

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