The Cultural Context for the Hair Length/Style vs. Head-coverings Debate in 1 Cor 11: The Meaning of Kephalē part 12

Preston Sprinkle

In my previous post, I analyzed the linguistic arguments concerning whether Paul is talking about hair style/length or head-coverings in 1 Cor 11:2-16. While both views have merit, I argued that based on Paul’s language alone, the head-covering view is more probable. 

However, I invite the curious reader to check out the comments by Andrew Bartlett and Phil Payne, who both argue for the hair length/style view and, especially in the case of Phil, offer extensive reasons why. 

In this post, I want to look at arguments based on history and culture for these two views. I’ll start by summarizing evidence for the hair style/length view. 

Hair Styles and Hair Length in Paul’s Cultural Context

As far as men are concerned, we have much evidence from Greek, Roman, and Jewish sources that it is disgraceful for men to have long hair, since it made men look effeminate and open to the charge of being a passive partner in same-sex sexual relationship. Philo rages against same-sex sexual behavior by criticizing “the provocative way they curl and dress their hair.” In the same passage, he says they go against “the stamp of nature” and are “a disgrace to himself.”1Philo, Sepc. Leg. 3:36. Another Jewish writer says that “Long hair is not fit for men, but for voluptuous women” and his reasoning is that “many rage for intercourse with a man.”2Ps. Phocylides, 210-214 (30 B.C. – A.D. 40). The Stoic Musonius Rufus devoted an entire treatise to hair-cutting, since hair is given as “a covering by nature.” According to Jerome Murphy O’Connor, “He particularly objected to the practice of ‘cutting the hair on the front of the head differently form that on the back of the head’ because this is ‘to appear as women and to be seen as womanish, something that should be avoided at all cost, if indeed they were men’.”3(JMO, “Sex and Logic, 487, citing Rufus, Diss. 31, 1). Rufus goes on to critique (via his student Epictetus) men who give too much time to their appearance, especially their hair.4Epictetus, Diss. 3.1, 30-31.

Many other examples can be cited to show that the general consensus was that it was shameful for men to have long hair.5See e.g. Juvenal, Satire 2.96; Horace, Epodes 11:28; see Payne, Man and Woman, 142-144; Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic,” ???). I say generally, because there were notable exceptions. For instance, Dio Chrysostom mentions philosophers, priest, peasants, and barbarians as exceptions to rule that men should have short hair.6The Thirty-fifth Discourse, Delivered in Celaenae in Phrygia (Cohoon and Crosby, 1961, p. 401) It also appears acceptable for men to have long hair in ancient Greece, as evidenced in Homer’s writings, statues from this time period, and indeed certain Greek gods like Zeus, Dionysus, and Apollo, all who had long hair.7See Thompson, “Hairstyle, Head-coverings, and St. Paul,” 104. Perhaps the most challenging exception to the no-long-hair norm is that Paul himself grew his hair out during his original 18 month stay in Corinth! Luke tells us that he cut his hair after leaving Corinth (Acts 18:18). This, of course, presents a challenge to the long-hair view, since it has Paul telling the Corinthian men not to have long hair when he himself had long hair during his time at Corinth. 

As far as women go, respectable married women would wear their hair bound up above their heads. (Short hair on a woman was also viewed as a sign of masculinity and same-sex sexuality.)8“A woman with her hair closely clipped in the Spartan manner, boyish-looking and wholly masculine” (Lucian of Samosata, Fugitive 27). “[Megilla’s head] shaved close, just like the manliest of athletes” (Lucian of Samosata, Dialogi meretrici 5.3). If a woman wore her hair down in public, it was a sign that she was immodest, if not a sexually promiscuous or a prostitute.9This is especially true in later Judaism. For instance, a man could divorce his wife if she went out in public “with her hair unbound” (m. Ketub. 7:6; b. Gitt. 90b; see Payne, Man and Woman, 162). This doesn’t necessarily mean women didn’t also wear some kind of covering. But we do have archaeological evidence portraying women with their hair done up above their head without any sort of covering. Cynthia Thompson, for instance, examined 16 different artifacts unearthed from Corinth depicting women. Only two of them had some kind of covering, while all of them had bound up hair on top of their heads.10Thompson, “Hairstyle, Head-coverings, and St. Paul,” 107-112. She concludes that “bareheadedness in itself was not a sign of a socially disapproved lifestyle” since these “women certainly wished to be seen as respectable.”11Ibid., 112. According to Phil Payne, in “Hellenistic and Roman cultures for centuries preceding and following the time of Paul, virtually all of the portraiture, sculpture, and other graphic evidence depicts respectable women’s hair done up, not let down loose.”12Man and Woman, 159.

A notable exception, and one that was frowned upon by the broader culture, is the cult of Dionysius, where women wore their hair loose and disheveled, which may have signaled the “wild sexual freedom inspired by Dionysus.”13Payne, Man and Woman, 163. Regarding these women, Euripides says, “They shook their long hair out over their shoulders.” Nonnus says, “Many a maiden driven crazy shook her hair loose.” Lucian writes: “They toss their hair in the wind.” Livy describes women who engaged in cultic practices “with disheveled hair.”14Euripides, Bacch. 695; Nonnus, Dion. 45.47-48; Lucian, Dionysus 2; Livy 39.13.12; all cited in Payne, Man and Woman, 162-163. And Stobaeus warns husbands that “the best way to preserve their wives’ chastity was to keep them away from the worship of Dionysus and the Great Mother.” David W. J. Gill, a scholar of archaeology and Roman history, says: “It is perhaps this type of mystery religion which attempted to go outside the norms of society which Paul wanted to avoid.”15Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 255-56. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that the cult of Dionysius was popular in ancient Corinth.16Payne, Man and Woman, 164; Richard Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Pandemonium and Silence at Corinth,” The Reformed Journal (1978) https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/pandemonium-and-silence-corinth/

This all helps make sense of Paul’s concerns in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Some men may have had long hair, which signaled effeminacy and same-sex sexuality, and some women were letting their hair down instead of binding it up on their heads, which signaled sexual promiscuity and lewd behavior. It would make sense that Paul would would want to discourage both.

In short, there are good cultural reasons for the view that Paul is addressing hair length/style in 11:2-16. However, there are also good reasons that he was addressing head coverings and not hair length/style, at least in vv. 4-10.

Head Coverings in Paul’s Cultural Context

There is much evidence for both male and female head coverings in the Greco-Roman world. In ancient Greece, it was very common for women to cover their heads in public.17For head coverings in ancient Greek culture, see the seminal work by Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones, Aphrodite’s Tortoise. See also Finney, “Honour,” 35-41 (Greco-Roman context), 41-44 (Jewish context). Loyld Llewellyn-Jones, in his groundbreaking work on veiling in ancient Greece, says: “Evidence for the use of the veil in Greek society is undeniable.”18Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 7; contra Phil Payne, who says “Greek women did not customarily wear a garment over their heads” (Man and Woman, 152; cf. also Keener, Paul, 27). Literary sources in particular show that “women in various ancient Greek societies were veiled daily and routinely, at least in public or in font of non-related men, as a consequence of a male ideology that required women to appear subservient in all walks of life.”19Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 14. “In Homeric. Epic” veils are worn by “Helen, Hekabe, Andromakhe, Penelope, Nausikaa, Thetis, Hera, Ino, Kirke and Kalypso daughters, wives and mothers of kings and princes, or else divine women” (Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 124). See, e.g. Iliad 3.141; 22.466-472; Odyssey 1.330-335; 4.623. In the Iliad 22.405-406, a mother throws off her veil in mourning over the death of her son (cf. Iliad 22.466-472). In Odyssey 6.100, unmarried women are veiled, but this may be to ward off potential suitors. For a discussion of veiling in Homer, see also Preston Massey, “Long Hair as a Glory and as a Covering,” 52-72. Corinth, though a Greek city, was a Roman colony and was dominated by a more Roman culture.20Gill, 245; Winter, After Paul, 1-28; Murphy-O’Connor, “Once Again,” 267; Oster, 1988, 489-493, who has extensive documentation to prove this. In any case, it was common for married Roman women to cover their heads in public, as Plutarch notes: “it is more usual for women to go out in public with their heads veiled, and for men to go out with their head uncovered” (Moralia, Roman Questions, 267B). Again: “When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, ‘Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them’!” (Plutarch, Moralia 232c).21See Plutarch, Moralia 142d, where veiled women compared to a tortoise; that is, traveling about within its protective shell, is like the woman in ancient Greece, who always goes about the streets dressed in her veil. For married women veiling, see also Chariton, Chaer. 1.13.11; Petronius, Sat. 14, 16; Lucian, Imag., cited in Finney, “Honour,” 35. If a married woman was unveiled in public, it could suggest that they were throwing of their marriage vows and were seeking a sexual liaison. It’s no wonder, then, that the Roman consul, Sulpicius Gallus (166 B.C.) divorced his wife because she left the house unveiled.22Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 6.3.10. On the supposed contradiction between Valerius and Plutarch (Roman Questions, 267B-C), see Hilton, “Veiled or Unveiled?” 336-342; cf. Ramsay MacCullun, “Woman in Public,” 208-209. Dio Chrysostom says that customary for women in Tarsus—Paul’s home town—to cover their faces so that “nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body.”23Or. 33.48-49, on which see Finney, “Honour,” 35; Chadwick, 7. In some romance tales, a man would be the first one to gaze upon the face of his virgin bride (Chariton, Chaer. 1.1.4-6; cf. Jos. Asen. 15.1-2; 18.6).

On the flipside, unveiled women are described as being masculine (Lucian, Fug. 27; Apuleius, Met. 6), adulterous (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 64.3), prostitutes (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 64.3; Philo, Spec. 3.51),24Keener notes that the evidence for this is slender and a bit dated (see Keener, Paul, Women, 24-25). lesbians (Lucian, Dial. Meretr. 290-91), or simply sexually available—if not promiscuous. Again, married women typically veiled in public while unmarried women typically did not. Ramsay MacMullen, whom the American Historical Association once called “the greatest historian of the ancient Roman Empire”25https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/march-2001/115th-annual-meeting-awards-and-honors says “we have the many testimonies to women in the eastern provinces going about veiled, and the implication therein, that they were to avoid notice by all means possible.”26“Woman in Public,” 218.

At least part of the reason for women veiling was to reserve their beauty for their husband. In Paul’s world, a woman’s hair was believed to be beautiful, seductive, and the source of male lust.27See Keener, 28-31; Watson, “The Authority,” In the apocryphal book Susanna, Susanna is forced to remove her veil: 

Now Susanna was a woman of great refinement and beautiful in appearance. As she was veiled, the scoundrels ordered her to be unveiled, so that they might feast their eyes on her beauty. Those who were with her and all who saw her were weeping” (Sus 1:31-33 NRSV).

Philo says that “if a woman keeps even her hair uncovered, it is a sign that she is not modest.”28See Keener, 29 for more sources. Later rabbis “warned that a woman uncovering her head could lead to a man’s seduction and that a priest must be cautious when loosening the hair of a suspected adulteress.”29Finney, “Honour,” 44, citing Abot R. Nath. 14.35; cf. Num. Rab. 18.20; Sifre Num. 11.2.1-3; y. Sanh. 6.4.1.

It’s important to note that Rome cared a lot about people adhering to proper attire, especially women. Bruce Winter has compiled much historical data showing that according to Roman law, if a woman was not dressed in the attire that signaled her marriage (that is, with a head covering) and a man had sex with her, she would be found guilty, not him, since her uncovered head signaled that she was not married. For instance: 

If anyone accosts…women [who] are dressed like prostitutes, and not as mothers of families…if a woman is not dressed as a matron [veiled] and someone calls out to her or entices away her attendant, he will not be liable to action for injury. (Ulpian, The Digest 47.10.15.15)30Cited in Winter, 83; also, Westfall, 30).

Rome even enforced government surveillance on the dress of women through the so-called gynaikonomoi, or “supervisors of women.” This was an official office of men who would make sure women were dressed according to their social and marital status and to ensure that “wild and willfully disorderly behaviour” was reprimanded.31Plutarch, Solon, 21, cf. 84, 361; Milet., no. 264; ICret., iv. 252; Illion, 10; cf. Ogden, “Controlling Women’s Dress,” 216-19; Winter, Woman Wives, 85-87.

In light of all this, it is difficult to see how Richard Hays can say: “It was not the normal custom for women in Greek and Roman cultures to be veiled; thus, it is hard to see how their being unveiled in worship could be regarded as controversial or shameful.”321 Corinthians, 185–186; cf. Phil Payne, Man and Woman, 154, who cites Hays’ comment approvingly. Mark Finney rightly, in my opinion, says: “All of the available evidence runs against Hays’s claim” (Finney, “Honour,” 41 n. 39

As far as men go, while they didn’t typically cover their heads in public, there is much literary, archaeological, and numismatic (coins) evidence that high status men covered their heads during pagan worship.33See especially Richard Oster (“When Men Wore Veils to Worship,” NTS [1988], 481-505; idem., “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians, ZNW [1992], 52-73), Catherine Thompson (“Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” BA 51 [1988], 99-115), David Gill, “Roman Portraiture”; Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 122-23; Preston Massey, “Veiling among Men in Roman Corinth,” 501-517. Commonly referred to as the capite velato, it was very common for social elites to pull their togas over the back side of their heads while leading in worship. 

A Roman relief called the Ara Pacis (dating from 13 to 9 BC) is particularly illuminating. This relief shows elites (priests, flamines, the attendant lictor, leading women [possibly vestal virgins], the magistrate Agrippa, Augustus and his wife) taking a leading role in the sacrificial service, while other friezes show a number of men and women without head coverings. Mark Finney points out: “In this context it may be reasonable to conclude that the capite velato is specific to those taking a central and active role in the service and, as such, stands as an unmistakable sign of status and honor.”34Finney, “Honour,” 37; cf. Gill, 247

In Corinth, we have a well preserved statue of Augustus as well as one of Nero with their heads covered (capite velato) while performing liturgical rituals to the gods.35See Gill, 246-47. Evidence of this is found throughout the empire and was designed to be a piece of propaganda, since it even appeared on coins.36Finney notes that about 20 similar statues are found throughout the empire (Finney, “Honour,” 37; cf. Winter, After Paul, 122. In fact, most Roman emperors from the late Republic to the early Empire are depicted covering their heads during worship. (Richard Oster lists: Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Domitian, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Pertinax, and Septimius Severus.)37Oster, 498.

There is much literary attestation to the practice as well. Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that a head covering was the custom “on the occasion of every prayer.”38Ant. Rom. 12.16.3; 15.9.2. Livy says: “The augur seated himself on his left hand, with his head covered, and holding in his right hand a curved staff without any knots.”39Livy, Ad Urbe Condita 1.18; cf. 10.7.10. Virgil writes: “Moreover, when the ships have crossed the seas and anchored, and when now thou raisest altars and payest vows on the shore, veil thy hair with coverings of purple robe, that in the worship of the gods no hostile face may intrude amid the holy fires and mar the omens. This mode of sacrifice do thou keep, thou and thy company; by this observance let thy children’s children in purity stand fast.”40Aen. 3.403-409; cf. 3.543-7; 1.385; cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1198-1200. Plutarch even gives an extended explanation of why Roman male elites covered their heads during worship: 

Why is it that when they [Romans] worship the gods, they cover their heads, but when they meet any of their fellow-men worthy of honour, if they happen to have the toga over the head, they uncover?…For they uncover their heads in the presence of men more influential than they: it is not to invest these men with additional honour, but rather to avert from them the jealousy of the gods, that these men may not seem to demand the same honour as the gods, nor to tolerate an attention like that bestowed on the gods, nor to rejoice therein. But they thus worshipped the gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying. (Plutarch, Mor. 266C)

It is important to stress again that head coverings were common among elite or high-status men (and sometimes women) who were taking a leading role in pagan worship. We also have some references to men covering their heads (and sometimes faces as well) in times of grief or to conceal their identity.41Dio Cassius tells us that Nero tried to flee on horseback and with his head covered (and possibly his face as well) in order to conceal his identity (Roman History 63.27.3; LCL pp. 186-87). Plutarch tells a story about a Roman politician named Scipio (2nd cent. B.C.) who entered Alexandria with his head and face covered, since he was well known in the city and wanted to conceal his identity (Moralia, 200). See Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 17-18 for a discussion of these texts.

It’s difficult to understand how Gordon Fee can say that there is “almost no evidence (paintings, reliefs, statuary, etc.) that men in any of the cultures (Greek, Roman, Jew) covered their heads.”42Fee, 1 Corinthians, 505.

Hair Styles/Length or Head Coverings? Summary and Analysis

As I sort through all the data, I’m more persuaded that when Paul tells men not to cover their heads while praying and prophesying, he’s referring to head coverings not long hair. Not only does this better fit the actual wording in 11:4 and 7, but it makes good sense in light of the cultural context. Throughout the letter, Paul has been addressing problems related to social status, an issue he will focus on again in the very next section (11:17-34). And he just got done addressing several issues related to the Corinthians’ pagan past (8:1-11:1). Giving the fact that we have much evidence (from the city of Corinth itself) for high status men covering their heads during pagan worship, it makes good sense that Paul would want to distance men in the Corinthian church from this practice. By telling the men not to cover their heads while leading in worship, Paul would be preventing elite men from showing off their status.43David Gill says: “The issue which Paul is dealing with here seems to be that members of the social elite within the church-the dunatoi and the eugeneis (1:26)—were adopting a form of dress during worship which drew attention to their status in society. The dress was a result of these individuals being contentious…(v. 16). This is a concept familiar from other parts of ancient literature, such as Plato where it is frequently linked with the love of honour. The picture is one of rival groups, perhaps from different families, within the church who are using their dress to further their ambition to dominate and thus to be honoured by those present.” (Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 250, followed by Winter, After Paul, 122; cf. Finney, “Honour,” 36). This may explain Paul’s reasoning in v. 7a, where he says: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is in the image and glory of God.” There’s no need to signal your social status, since every man is created in God’s image and reflects his glory—even men who don’t possess an elite status in Roman eyes. Every man has image-of-God status.44Cf. Andrew Clarke: “The use of head covering, thus, denoted status or seniority at a public function. In Paul’s view, with this cultural background, it is inappropriate for men to have their heads covered, because the chief official in their community and at their community functions is Christ. If a man were to wear head covering it would be a statement that he viewed himself as the chief official” (Clarke, 2000, 184).

Even if it was shameful for men to wear long hair in Corinth, warning men against the appearance or practice of “homosexuality” doesn’t seem to be the point of Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 11. He’s already addressed matters of sexuality in chapters 5-7, and even mentioned same-sex sexual behavior in 6:9. Addressing it here seems out of place. Phil Payne, who argues extensively for the hair style/length view, surely can’t be correct when he says that Paul avoids writing explicitly about homosexuality “in order to avoid speaking directly of such disgraceful things.”45Payne, Man and Woman, 145. On the contrary, Paul speaks explicitly about same-sex sexual behavior in 1 Cor 6:9 and even more clearly and extensively in Rom 1:26-27. Not only did Paul know exactly how to talk about same-sex sexual relationships, he has no problem writing about them explicitly. 

As far as women go, the historical evidence seems to also favor the head coverings view. But, there does seem to be a discrepancy between some of the sources. While we have much literary attestation that married women wore head coverings in public, the evidence is a bit mixed when it comes to artistic portraits of women on statues, reliefs, paintings, and coins. As cited above, most of the portraits found at Corinth are of women depicted without head coverings. 

Advocates of the hair style/length view take this as evidence that it wasn’t the norm for respectable women to cover their heads in first century Corinth. However, historians offer other reasons for the discrepancy between literary and artistic sources. 

Ramsay MacCullun, for instance, points out that unlike the literary sources, “[w]oman in mosaics, without exception” are depicted “with their faces and generally with their heads, too, quite uncovered—perhaps the better to display the modish arrangement of their hair.”46“Woman in Public,” 217. He goes on to say that the difference (between covered and uncovered heads) may have been one of class distinctions: 

women who imitated the changes in style that went on at the imperial court, changes depicted in the provinces by portraits of the ladies of the imperial house, were the richer ones, the more open to the new ways, and the more likely to belong to families on the rise. Women of humbler class went veiled, but these others behaved exactly like their counterparts observed in Italy, fully visible, indeed making their existence felt very fully in public.47“Woman in Public,” 217-18.

If this is true, this would fit very well with Paul’s concerns about classism in Corinth, an issue that he’ll address head on in 1 Cor 11:17ff. 

Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones provides a different angle to the same kind of disparity between artistic and literary depictions of women in ancient Greece. He says that 

artistic evidence offers up its own particular problems, and we must be aware that iconographic representation does not always reflect daily reality….it must be recognized that artistic evidence twists and corrupts ‘reality’ for its own ends. Representations of female dress (and its male analogue, nudity), and female veiling in particular, are especially prone to artistic contortions.48Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 10).

He goes on to point out that “[t]he veil is, admittedly, often absent from the iconography of Greek women,” but then claims—and provides much evidence to support his claim—“that the veil actually appeared in daily life far more than it is ever found depicted in art. There is a huge dichotomy between artistic representation of womanhood (which is a kind of fantasy) and the daily reality suggested by the literary sources.”49Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 10; cf. the thorough discussion in chapter 4. Similarly, we see a lot of nude women and men in ancient Greco-Roman sculptures, but this doesn’t mean everyone walked around naked in daily life.50Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 9. “The paucity of images of veiled women in Greek art” and, I would add, Roman art, “can be explained by a desire to reveal what is usually hidden.”51Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 88.

Llewellyn-Jones’ point is not a novel one. It’s something historians often note.52See e.g. Lewis, The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook; Blundell, “Clutching at Clothes” in Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World, 143-69; Caroline M. Galt, “Veiled Ladies,” American Journal of Archaeology 35 (1931): 377 n. 3 and the discussion in Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 5. If, then, we rely more heavily on literary source for windows into daily life, then we can say, with a good degree of confidence, that it was very important for married women to cover their heads in public settings. 

Excursus: Is Paul Actually Talking about a Veil and not a Head Covering? 

In my previous post, I wrote: 

We shouldn’t think of “veil” as something different from “head covering.” In ancient times, “veil” simply meant “with face or head covered,” and it usually referred to pulling the back of your garment over your head. In some cases, this covering could be pulled across the face as well. I’ll use the terms “veil” and “head-covering” synonymously throughout.

I wrote this current blog post (which I finished over 3 weeks ago) with this understanding in view, but I’ve recently been in contact with Dr. David Warren who has argued that Paul is talking about an actual face veil and not a head covering, and that this difference is important. In a recent paper presented at SBL (Nov 2023), Warren argues that Paul is in fact talking about full face veils for women and not simply head coverings.53David H. Warren, “The Veiled Meaning of Katakalupto (1 Cor 11:6-7),” paper presented at the annual SBL conference, Nov 2023. Many thanks to David for sending me a copy of his paper and for the ongoing dialogue. Warren suggests that the women in the congregation were removing their face veils when they were praying and prophesying, since this would have made it easier to speak. But this would have been viewed as shameful in light of the cultural meaning suggested by an unveiled face of a married woman. (A woman’s face was considered sensual and reserved only for her husband to see.) Warren writes: 


When a woman drops the veil from before her face, her mouth, in order to speak, she is doing something that is considered “shameful,” for it was “shameful” for a woman to show her face to other men who were outside her immediate family.54Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 23.

Warren presents much evidence to support this view and I find it quite compelling.55For instance, the verb katakaluptō occurs in Gen 38:15 where Tamar “covered (katekalupsato) her face” (see also Josephus, Ant. 7.254). I think the most significant reference in support of Warren’s view is Plutarch, Moralia 200f, which says: “When he [the Younger Scipio] arrived at Alexandria and, after disembarking, was walking with his toga covering his head (kata tēs kephalēs echōn to himation), the Alexandrians quickly surrounded him, and insisted that he uncover and show his face (apokalupsashai…deixai pothousin autois to prosopōn) to their yearning eyes. And so he uncovered amid shouting and applause.” Here, the language of covering one’s head with a garment is later understood as covering one’s face as well. Also important is Dio Chrysostom’s description of the good old days—he was writing at the end of the first century A.D.—when women would go out in public with “their faces covered as they walk” and “nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body” (Dio Chrysostom, First Tarsic Discourse, 48–49). I do, however, have three questions about this interpretation. 

First, while face veils might have been a cultural norm for women, they weren’t for men. But Paul uses the same language of covering, katakaluptein, for both men and women (vv. 6-7). Women are to katakaluptein (v. 6) while men are not to katakaluptein (v.7). I find it unlikely that men were actually wearing face veils during worship in Corinth.56Men did cover their faces in times of mourning (e.g. Plutarch, Moralia, 267C; 2 Kgdms 19:5-6), but that doesn’t seem to fit the context of 1 Cor 11. I find it more likely that men of high status were pulling their togas over the backs of their heads during worship, since we have historical precedence for this. 

Second, Paul does talk about face veils in 2 Corinthians 3, but there, he uses the typical word for veil—kalumma. If Paul wanted to discuss face veils and not head coverings, then why does he use language fairly typical of head coverings and avoid language typical of face veils—language that Paul has used elsewhere. 

I need to keep thinking through and considering Warren’s position. I’ve only recently come across it and need to give it time to soak in and evaluate. I do think he provides some compelling evidence to support his view, and I hope Dave and I will continue to dialogue about this.

A Plausible Scenario in Corinth

Based on both Paul’s language and cultural context, I think it’s more likely that he’s referring to head coverings in 1 Cor 11:2-12. (He obviously does talk about long hair in vv. 14-15, which the head-covering view must address.) If this is the case, then here’s a plausible reconstruction of what’s going on in 1 Cor 11. 

Paul prohibits men from covering their heads in order confront the classism so pervasive in the Corinthian church, and also possibly to distance them from pagan practice.57See Preston Massey, “Veiling Among Men in Roman Corinth,” 501-517, for the argument that men veiled out of a sense of shame.

As for the women, it’s possible that classism was the issue as well.58Even Payne acknowledges that married women of higher social status would cover their heads during religious activity as a sign of their status: “Women of the Hellenistic royal families (such as Arsinoe II, wife of Ptolemy II) are portrayed on coins with the himation draped over their heads, probably as a symbol of status or authority. This parallels the Roman convention of draping a toga over one’s head as a sign of social status, particularly while leading worship in the Roman cult” (Payne, Man and Woman, 155). But head coverings for women were primarily about marital status. Married women who didn’t cover their head (or wear a veil over their face) sent a message that they were sexually available (or promiscuous). Similarly, as Francis Watson and others point out, it would have been a sign of modesty in a culture where unveiled women elicited the lustful gaze of men—something that would be good to avoid while you’re praying or prophesying in front of men.59Later Rabbis “warned that a woman uncovering her head could lead to a man’s seduction and that a priest must be cautious when loosening the hair of a suspected adulteress” (Finney, “Honour,” 44, citing Abot R. Nath. 14.35; cf. Num. Rab. 18.20; Sifre Num. 11.2.1-3; y. Sanh. 6.4.1) Bruce Winter’s summary offers what I think is the best reconstruction of the situation: 

The married woman by deliberately removing her veil to pray and to prophesy was also making a statement. It did not mean that she was simply reacting against the actions of the Christian man who was imitating the custom of the imperial and elite in a religious context by pulling the toga over his head, so that by contrast she removed hers. It was not that the Christian women had entered a home and were simply removing the veil because they were no longer in public…By deliberately removing her veil while playing a significant role of praying and prophesying in the activities of Christian worship, the Christian wife was knowingly flouting the Roman legal convention that epitomized marriage. It would have been self-evident to the Corinthians that in so doing she was sending a particular signal to those gathered (11:13).60Winter, 96. Craig Keener comes to a similar conclusion: “It is probable that some well-to-do women thought such restrictions on their public apparel ridiculous, especially if they were from parts of the Mediterranean world where head coverings were not considered necessary. But to other observers, these women’s uncovered heads connoted an invitation to lust. The issue in the Corinthian church may thus have been a clash of cultural values concerning modesty, and Paul wants the more liberated elements within the church to care enough about their more conservative colleagues not to offend them in this dramatic way” (Paul, 30).

The fact that we have historical evidence suggesting that not all married women went out publicly with their heads covered does not negate the fact that we also have much evidence that some (perhaps many) believed they should. It doesn’t seem to be such a stretch that such a viewpoint might have been prevalent enough at Corinth to warrant Paul’s concern that all women praying or prophesying should cover their heads. 

The head covering view still faces two challenges in the text. First, there’s the problem of the explicit mention of women being shaved and shorn if they are “uncovered” (vv. 5-6). Some take this as evidence that Paul has been talking about hair all along.61CITE However, it actually makes perfect sense if Paul is talking about head coverings for women. It was well-known that women who committed adultery could have their head shaved as a sign of shame and humiliation.62In Cyprus law, “a woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off (eporneueto) and be a prostitute” (Dio Chrystostom, Or. 64.3 (cf. Tacitus, Germania, 19); see McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome, 147; Winter, After Paul, 128. In fact, Meander (ca. 341-290 B.C.) once wrote a play set in the scene of Corinth, where a wife was suspected of having an affair, so her husband has her hair shaved off as punishment.63P. Oxy. 211; Peter Brown, Meander: The Plays and Fragments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The play itself is even titled perikeiromenē, which is a compound of the same word Paul uses in 1 Cor 11:6 (see Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 20). According to the historical reconstruction above, a married woman who prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered could be viewed as sexually available, promiscuous, or an adulterer. Paul’s logic, then, would be that if a married woman uncovers her head, it’s the same as if she had her head shaved. In both cases, she’d be presenting as an unfaithful wife.64Cf. Winter: “Therefore, Paul equated not wearing a veil with the social stigma of a publicly exposed and punished adulteress reduced to the status of a prostitute” (Winter, After Paul, 128). Debates about whether the phrase “dishonors her head” (11:5) refers to the woman’s literal head (Watson, “The Authority of the Voice,” 529) or to her husband, her metaphorical “head” (Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 256; Finney, “Honour,” 51 n. 80), aren’t very important for the current point. A woman who was viewed as an adulterous would certainly bring shame upon herself and her husband.

The explicit reference to male and female hair length in vv. 14-15 is a bit tougher. It is, to my mind, the strongest piece of textual evidence in favor of the hair style/length view, especially since these verses are correlated with the reference to being “uncovered” in v. 13 (cf. v. 5). I think the best argument from a head covering perspective is Francis Watson’s view that Paul is simply giving an analogy of male/female differences that have to do with their heads (namely, hair length). Aside from the cultural currency that head coverings had in that culture, Paul is also concerned with maintaining sex differences. And hair differences in male/female biology offers an apt illustration that women should be “covered” (long hair) while men should not (short hair). In and of itself, I think vv. 13-15 offers strong support for the hair style/length view. But in light of all the evidence cited above and in the previous POST, I think it’s the weaker view. Therefore, the head covering view has to offer the best plausible explanation of vv. 13-15, and I think seeing this section as Paul offering an analogy is the best attempt. 

Does it Matter? 

One might say—and one might be right—that I’ve spent all this energy analyzing a debate that doesn’t ultimately matter for understanding male/female relations in the church and in the home. Head coverings. Hair style/length. Who cares? Either way, women are prophesying in a mixed public setting, so this adds support for an egalitarian (or at least “soft complementarian”) position, where Paul had no problem with women communicating God’s word to men in the congregation. 

This might be right; maybe it doesn’t matter for our question at hand. But is there any possible connection between the head covering vs. hair length/style views that speak into the egalitarian/complementarian debates? 

From my vantage point, I could see an argument from the head covering view that could lend support for a complementarian position, according to some interpretations. If a head covering was a symbol of a husband’s authority over his wife, as 11:10 (cf. 11:3) could be taken to say, then complementarians might draw upon the head covering interpretation, rooting in a head = authority understanding of 11:3, as support for their view. (The “symbol of authority” interpretation of 11:10 is, of course, a torturous reading of the Greek.) 

But if Paul is talking about hair length, then perhaps he’s not talking about male authority at all. Rather, he’s talking about male/female sex differences and sexual ethics (i.e. forbidding men from engaging in same-sex sexual practices, or at least the appearance of them, and guarding women from the perception that they imitating the sexual libertine practices of the Dionysiastic cult). The language of “headship” from 11:3 could then refer to the man as the “source” of the first woman, as per the creation account, which Paul alludes to in 11:7-9. 

But these aren’t the only two interpretive outcomes of the head covering vs. hair length/style views. So I do wonder: how much does it matter whether we interpret Paul as talking about head coverings or hair length/style for the complementarian vs. egalitarian discussion? 


  • 1
    Philo, Sepc. Leg. 3:36.
  • 2
    Ps. Phocylides, 210-214 (30 B.C. – A.D. 40).
  • 3
    (JMO, “Sex and Logic, 487, citing Rufus, Diss. 31, 1).
  • 4
    Epictetus, Diss. 3.1, 30-31.
  • 5
    See e.g. Juvenal, Satire 2.96; Horace, Epodes 11:28; see Payne, Man and Woman, 142-144; Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic,” ???).
  • 6
    The Thirty-fifth Discourse, Delivered in Celaenae in Phrygia (Cohoon and Crosby, 1961, p. 401)
  • 7
    See Thompson, “Hairstyle, Head-coverings, and St. Paul,” 104.
  • 8
    “A woman with her hair closely clipped in the Spartan manner, boyish-looking and wholly masculine” (Lucian of Samosata, Fugitive 27). “[Megilla’s head] shaved close, just like the manliest of athletes” (Lucian of Samosata, Dialogi meretrici 5.3).
  • 9
    This is especially true in later Judaism. For instance, a man could divorce his wife if she went out in public “with her hair unbound” (m. Ketub. 7:6; b. Gitt. 90b; see Payne, Man and Woman, 162).
  • 10
    Thompson, “Hairstyle, Head-coverings, and St. Paul,” 107-112.
  • 11
    Ibid., 112.
  • 12
    Man and Woman, 159.
  • 13
    Payne, Man and Woman, 163.
  • 14
    Euripides, Bacch. 695; Nonnus, Dion. 45.47-48; Lucian, Dionysus 2; Livy 39.13.12; all cited in Payne, Man and Woman, 162-163.
  • 15
    Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 255-56.
  • 16
    Payne, Man and Woman, 164; Richard Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, “Pandemonium and Silence at Corinth,” The Reformed Journal (1978) https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/pandemonium-and-silence-corinth/
  • 17
    For head coverings in ancient Greek culture, see the seminal work by Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones, Aphrodite’s Tortoise. See also Finney, “Honour,” 35-41 (Greco-Roman context), 41-44 (Jewish context).
  • 18
    Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 7; contra Phil Payne, who says “Greek women did not customarily wear a garment over their heads” (Man and Woman, 152; cf. also Keener, Paul, 27).
  • 19
    Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 14. “In Homeric. Epic” veils are worn by “Helen, Hekabe, Andromakhe, Penelope, Nausikaa, Thetis, Hera, Ino, Kirke and Kalypso daughters, wives and mothers of kings and princes, or else divine women” (Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 124). See, e.g. Iliad 3.141; 22.466-472; Odyssey 1.330-335; 4.623. In the Iliad 22.405-406, a mother throws off her veil in mourning over the death of her son (cf. Iliad 22.466-472). In Odyssey 6.100, unmarried women are veiled, but this may be to ward off potential suitors. For a discussion of veiling in Homer, see also Preston Massey, “Long Hair as a Glory and as a Covering,” 52-72.
  • 20
    Gill, 245; Winter, After Paul, 1-28; Murphy-O’Connor, “Once Again,” 267; Oster, 1988, 489-493, who has extensive documentation to prove this.
  • 21
    See Plutarch, Moralia 142d, where veiled women compared to a tortoise; that is, traveling about within its protective shell, is like the woman in ancient Greece, who always goes about the streets dressed in her veil. For married women veiling, see also Chariton, Chaer. 1.13.11; Petronius, Sat. 14, 16; Lucian, Imag., cited in Finney, “Honour,” 35.
  • 22
    Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 6.3.10. On the supposed contradiction between Valerius and Plutarch (Roman Questions, 267B-C), see Hilton, “Veiled or Unveiled?” 336-342; cf. Ramsay MacCullun, “Woman in Public,” 208-209.
  • 23
    Or. 33.48-49, on which see Finney, “Honour,” 35; Chadwick, 7.
  • 24
    Keener notes that the evidence for this is slender and a bit dated (see Keener, Paul, Women, 24-25).
  • 25
    https://www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/march-2001/115th-annual-meeting-awards-and-honors
  • 26
    “Woman in Public,” 218.
  • 27
    See Keener, 28-31; Watson, “The Authority,”
  • 28
    See Keener, 29 for more sources.
  • 29
    Finney, “Honour,” 44, citing Abot R. Nath. 14.35; cf. Num. Rab. 18.20; Sifre Num. 11.2.1-3; y. Sanh. 6.4.1.
  • 30
    Cited in Winter, 83; also, Westfall, 30).
  • 31
    Plutarch, Solon, 21, cf. 84, 361; Milet., no. 264; ICret., iv. 252; Illion, 10; cf. Ogden, “Controlling Women’s Dress,” 216-19; Winter, Woman Wives, 85-87.
  • 32
    1 Corinthians, 185–186; cf. Phil Payne, Man and Woman, 154, who cites Hays’ comment approvingly. Mark Finney rightly, in my opinion, says: “All of the available evidence runs against Hays’s claim” (Finney, “Honour,” 41 n. 39
  • 33
    See especially Richard Oster (“When Men Wore Veils to Worship,” NTS [1988], 481-505; idem., “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians, ZNW [1992], 52-73), Catherine Thompson (“Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth,” BA 51 [1988], 99-115), David Gill, “Roman Portraiture”; Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 122-23; Preston Massey, “Veiling among Men in Roman Corinth,” 501-517.
  • 34
    Finney, “Honour,” 37; cf. Gill, 247
  • 35
    See Gill, 246-47.
  • 36
    Finney notes that about 20 similar statues are found throughout the empire (Finney, “Honour,” 37; cf. Winter, After Paul, 122.
  • 37
    Oster, 498.
  • 38
    Ant. Rom. 12.16.3; 15.9.2.
  • 39
    Livy, Ad Urbe Condita 1.18; cf. 10.7.10.
  • 40
    Aen. 3.403-409; cf. 3.543-7; 1.385; cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 5.1198-1200.
  • 41
    Dio Cassius tells us that Nero tried to flee on horseback and with his head covered (and possibly his face as well) in order to conceal his identity (Roman History 63.27.3; LCL pp. 186-87). Plutarch tells a story about a Roman politician named Scipio (2nd cent. B.C.) who entered Alexandria with his head and face covered, since he was well known in the city and wanted to conceal his identity (Moralia, 200). See Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 17-18 for a discussion of these texts.
  • 42
    Fee, 1 Corinthians, 505.
  • 43
    David Gill says: “The issue which Paul is dealing with here seems to be that members of the social elite within the church-the dunatoi and the eugeneis (1:26)—were adopting a form of dress during worship which drew attention to their status in society. The dress was a result of these individuals being contentious…(v. 16). This is a concept familiar from other parts of ancient literature, such as Plato where it is frequently linked with the love of honour. The picture is one of rival groups, perhaps from different families, within the church who are using their dress to further their ambition to dominate and thus to be honoured by those present.” (Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 250, followed by Winter, After Paul, 122; cf. Finney, “Honour,” 36).
  • 44
    Cf. Andrew Clarke: “The use of head covering, thus, denoted status or seniority at a public function. In Paul’s view, with this cultural background, it is inappropriate for men to have their heads covered, because the chief official in their community and at their community functions is Christ. If a man were to wear head covering it would be a statement that he viewed himself as the chief official” (Clarke, 2000, 184).
  • 45
    Payne, Man and Woman, 145.
  • 46
    “Woman in Public,” 217.
  • 47
    “Woman in Public,” 217-18.
  • 48
    Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 10).
  • 49
    Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 10; cf. the thorough discussion in chapter 4.
  • 50
    Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 9.
  • 51
    Aphrodite’s Tortoise, 88.
  • 52
    See e.g. Lewis, The Athenian Woman: An Iconographic Handbook; Blundell, “Clutching at Clothes” in Women’s Dress in the Ancient Greek World, 143-69; Caroline M. Galt, “Veiled Ladies,” American Journal of Archaeology 35 (1931): 377 n. 3 and the discussion in Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 5.
  • 53
    David H. Warren, “The Veiled Meaning of Katakalupto (1 Cor 11:6-7),” paper presented at the annual SBL conference, Nov 2023. Many thanks to David for sending me a copy of his paper and for the ongoing dialogue.
  • 54
    Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 23.
  • 55
    For instance, the verb katakaluptō occurs in Gen 38:15 where Tamar “covered (katekalupsato) her face” (see also Josephus, Ant. 7.254). I think the most significant reference in support of Warren’s view is Plutarch, Moralia 200f, which says: “When he [the Younger Scipio] arrived at Alexandria and, after disembarking, was walking with his toga covering his head (kata tēs kephalēs echōn to himation), the Alexandrians quickly surrounded him, and insisted that he uncover and show his face (apokalupsashai…deixai pothousin autois to prosopōn) to their yearning eyes. And so he uncovered amid shouting and applause.” Here, the language of covering one’s head with a garment is later understood as covering one’s face as well. Also important is Dio Chrysostom’s description of the good old days—he was writing at the end of the first century A.D.—when women would go out in public with “their faces covered as they walk” and “nobody could see any part of them, neither of the face nor of the rest of the body” (Dio Chrysostom, First Tarsic Discourse, 48–49).
  • 56
    Men did cover their faces in times of mourning (e.g. Plutarch, Moralia, 267C; 2 Kgdms 19:5-6), but that doesn’t seem to fit the context of 1 Cor 11.
  • 57
    See Preston Massey, “Veiling Among Men in Roman Corinth,” 501-517, for the argument that men veiled out of a sense of shame.
  • 58
    Even Payne acknowledges that married women of higher social status would cover their heads during religious activity as a sign of their status: “Women of the Hellenistic royal families (such as Arsinoe II, wife of Ptolemy II) are portrayed on coins with the himation draped over their heads, probably as a symbol of status or authority. This parallels the Roman convention of draping a toga over one’s head as a sign of social status, particularly while leading worship in the Roman cult” (Payne, Man and Woman, 155).
  • 59
    Later Rabbis “warned that a woman uncovering her head could lead to a man’s seduction and that a priest must be cautious when loosening the hair of a suspected adulteress” (Finney, “Honour,” 44, citing Abot R. Nath. 14.35; cf. Num. Rab. 18.20; Sifre Num. 11.2.1-3; y. Sanh. 6.4.1)
  • 60
    Winter, 96. Craig Keener comes to a similar conclusion: “It is probable that some well-to-do women thought such restrictions on their public apparel ridiculous, especially if they were from parts of the Mediterranean world where head coverings were not considered necessary. But to other observers, these women’s uncovered heads connoted an invitation to lust. The issue in the Corinthian church may thus have been a clash of cultural values concerning modesty, and Paul wants the more liberated elements within the church to care enough about their more conservative colleagues not to offend them in this dramatic way” (Paul, 30).
  • 61
    CITE
  • 62
    In Cyprus law, “a woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off (eporneueto) and be a prostitute” (Dio Chrystostom, Or. 64.3 (cf. Tacitus, Germania, 19); see McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome, 147; Winter, After Paul, 128.
  • 63
    P. Oxy. 211; Peter Brown, Meander: The Plays and Fragments (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The play itself is even titled perikeiromenē, which is a compound of the same word Paul uses in 1 Cor 11:6 (see Warren, “The Veiled Meaning,” 20).
  • 64
    Cf. Winter: “Therefore, Paul equated not wearing a veil with the social stigma of a publicly exposed and punished adulteress reduced to the status of a prostitute” (Winter, After Paul, 128). Debates about whether the phrase “dishonors her head” (11:5) refers to the woman’s literal head (Watson, “The Authority of the Voice,” 529) or to her husband, her metaphorical “head” (Gill, “Roman Portraiture,” 256; Finney, “Honour,” 51 n. 80), aren’t very important for the current point. A woman who was viewed as an adulterous would certainly bring shame upon herself and her husband.
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