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:


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.


1 Timothy 2:12-15: Paul’s Original Language, Timothy’s Original Context

Throughout history, the institutional church has been characterized by a male-dominated social hierarchy. Still today, some religious leaders insist that men must hold authority over women at church and in the home. This worldview has been so pervasive in the church that some even consider it to be “God’s created order.” In light of the prevalence of this pattern, some people have asked me, “Has there ever been a female-dominated culture?” Frankly, the answer is “yes.”

A 1st century B.C. historian by the name of Diodorus Siculus provides us with the following information:

“Beside the river of Thermadon, therefore, a nation ruled by females held sway, in which women pursued the arts of war just like men…. To the men she [the nation’s Queen] relegated the spinning of wool and other household tasks of women. She promulgated laws whereby she led forth the women to martial strife, while on the men she fastened humiliation and servitude. She would maim the arms and legs of male children, making them useless for service in war.” (as cited in Murphy, 1989, p. 58)1

Another historian from the 1st century B.C., Pompeius Trogus, supplies us with additional information about this “nation ruled by females”:

“They also dismissed all thought of intermarriage with their neighbours, calling it slavery rather than marriage. They embarked instead upon an enterprise unparalleled in the whole of history, that of building up a state without men and then actually defending it themselves, out of contempt for the male sex…. Then, with peace assured by their military success, they entered into sexual relationships with surrounding peoples so that their line would not die out. Males born of such unions they put to death, but girls they brought up in a way that adapted them to their own way of life….

After conquering most of Europe, they also seized a number of city-states in Asia. Here they founded Ephesus.” (as cited in Yardley, 1994, p. 29)2

Historians Ferguson and Farnell write extensively about the religious traditions of this female-dominated culture in Asia Minor. They worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to the shores of Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; they called her Artemis.

The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity for life, through the act of ritual castration. Once they were castrated, they would periodically enter into trance-like states and become spokesmen for the goddess.  In addition to being castrated (and celibate), they also abstained from certain types of food.

A historian from the 1st Century A.D., Josephus, observed that some of the Jews who had been exiled to Asia Minor in the second century B.C. began to incorporate some of the religious traditions of the native culture into their brand of Judaism. Like their Asian counterparts, they shunned marriage, viewing it as a form of slavery. To avoid experiencing bodily passions, they avoided women altogether. They also fasted from meat and wine, believing that this kind of food and drink might stir their passions. They believed that their denial of the body gave them the special ability to interpret what they described as the allegorical meanings behind Mosaic law. These allegorical meanings were referred to as the true knowledge of God’s law. They justified their unique interpretation of the Torah by referring to seemingly endless genealogies through which they claimed to be the descendants of Zadok. (see references to Farnell, Ferguson, Jones, and Cook, as cited in Edwards, 2013)3

The epicenter for this form of religious asceticism in Asia Minor was Ephesus, the city where Timothy preached the gospel. It was to Timothy, in Ephesus, that Paul wrote his letter warning against: false teaching, doctrines of demons, endless genealogies, forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods. He urged Timothy to guard the gospel against that which was falsely called knowledge, and protect the church from people who claimed to be teachers of the Law, but did not know what they were talking about (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21). Given the history of the region we have just reviewed, his warnings were well-deserved.

In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul also warned against “a woman” teaching and practicing something he called “authentein” against “a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).

Most modern Bibles translate the word “authentein” to mean “exercise authority.”  This particular meaning can be traced back to earlier English, German and Latin translations of the Greek manuscripts. In the 4th Century, for example, St. Jerome translated “authentein” as “dominari,” which means to dominate or exercise dominion over a man. While “dominate” suggests an abusive form of authority, most recent translations remove all negative connotations from the Greek word “authentein.”

Throughout the history of Greek Literature, particularly from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. however, authentein represented something notoriously violent. Leland Wilshire documents this in his book entitled, “Insight into Two Biblical Passages: The Anatomy of a Prohibition, 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church.” According to Wilshire, authentein had the following meanings:

– “doer of a massacre”
– “author of crimes”
– “perpetrators of sacrilege”
– “supporter of violent actions”
– “murderer of oneself”
– “perpetrator of slaughter”
– “murderer”
– “slayer”
– “slayer of oneself”
– “authority”
– “perpetrator of evil”
– “one who murders by his own hand”
(Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Philo, Appian of Alexander, Irenaeus, Harpocration, Phrynicus, as cited in Wilshire, 2010).4

Similarly, in the Wisdom Literature of the Septuagint, “authentas” (the noun plural form of authentein) referred to the murder of children in worship to false gods.5

Given an accurate understanding of “authentein” as it was most commonly used from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., and given the religious history of Ephesus–the intended destination of Paul’s letter–is it likely that Paul was warning simply against women (in general) “exercising authority” over men in the church? Frankly, I don’t think the evidence supports this opinion.

It is much more likely that along with his warnings against false teaching, deceiving spirits, mythology, forbidding marriage and the eating of certain foods, he is also warning against an abusive form of power, traditionally held by women, that was historically expressed through acts of violence against men—ranging from murder to ritual emasculation.

Furthermore, women who worshiped Artemis or Cybele in Ephesus called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter seems to shed important light on this mystery.

Similarly, the church has questioned why Paul makes reference to the creation narrative in 1 Timothy 2:13-14. In the religious culture of Ephesus, all life and purity had its origin in Cybele, a woman. All sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. Women were viewed as life-giving and pure. Men were seen as evil, simply because they were men. To this female-dominated hierarchical culture, Paul explains that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall.  According to Chapman (as cited in Edwards 2013) there is evidence that by the second century A.D.  the cultural norms of Asia Minor had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities calling themselves Christian.6

So, is it Paul’s intent to replace a historically violent female-led hierarchy with a male-dominated system of governance? Would he agree with some of the early church fathers that women rather than men should be blamed for the problem of evil? Absolutely not.

Rather than reinforce the social injustice of a hierarchy dominated by either gender, Paul penned words of resounding equality: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV) In Christ, the gender wars can finally come to an end.


1Murphy, E. (1989). A Translation with Notes of Book II of the Library of History of Diodorus Siculus.

2Yardly, J. (1994). Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press.

3 Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go, A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DV2JRHQ

4Wilshire, L.E. (2010). Insight into two biblical passages: Anatomy of a prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG computer, and the Christian church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.

5The Wisdom of Solomon (2013). In The Greek Old Testament (Septuagint). Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http//www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/Septuagint/chapter.asp?book=29&page=12.

6Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go, A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DV2JRHQ

Edwards, B. (2013) cites the following sources:

Chapman, J. (1911). Montanists. In the Catholic encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved March 28, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10521a.htm.

Cook, K. (1886). The fathers of Jesus: A study of the lineage of the Christian doctrine and traditions. London, GB: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co.

Farnell, L.R. (1977). The cults of the Greek states: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers.

Ferguson, J. (1970). The religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Jones, A.H. (1985). Essenes: The elect of Israel and the priests of Artemis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.