(1 Cor. 11:5-6) Is it wrong for a woman to have her head uncovered while praying?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.” Why would this be offensive to God?

RESPONSE: Let’s consider several of the important questions one at a time:

What was the cultural significance of UNCOVERED HAIR for women?

We can’t judge another culture by the standards of our culture. Standards of modesty change over time. For instance, women’s swimsuits from the early 1900’s look (by today’s standards) like something a woman would wear in the middle of winter! (Okay, this is exaggerating the point, but surely you get the point.) Women at that time were even arrested for showing too much of their legs or arms. Since Paul is writing to a specific cultural setting, we should understand his words in light of their culture—not ours. In the ancient world, women were far more modest in their clothing than today. Craig Keener writes,

Women in fourth century BCE Athens could not go to the market and were not to be seen by men who were not their relatives. The orators especially attest the separation of male and female spheres of life in classical Athens, and one speaker in court seeks to impress the jury with the respectability of his family by saying that his sister and nieces are so well brought up that they are embarrassed in the presence even of a man who is a member of the family.[1]

Writing in Greek in the Roman period, Plutarch extols the modesty of the virtuous woman who, when a man praised the beauty of her suddenly exposed arm, retorted that its beauty was not meant for the public. Plutarch goes on to explain that a woman’s talk should also be kept private within the home.[2]

A head covering was a necessary sign of public modesty for all Palestinian Jewish women who could afford it.[3]

Loosening a woman’s hair could reveal her beauty and subject her to male lust in both Greek and Jewish tradition. Early Roman women were divorced for not wearing veils precisely because their action laid them open to the suspicion that they were looking for another man. A Jewish woman who ventured into public with her hair down and exposed to view, or who otherwise could be accused of flirtatious behavior, could be divorced with no financial support from her marriage contract. A woman uncovering her head could be described as nearing the final stage in seducing a man. Jewish teachers permitted loosing a woman’s hair only in the case of an adulterous woman, who was publicly shamed by exposure to the sight of men; but even in this case they warned that it should not be done with women whose hair was extremely beautiful, lest the young priests be moved to lust.[4]

Many ancient men had a lower tolerance level for exposed skin than we do today because they saw much less of it. Apparently just seeing a woman’s hair was enough to disturb them.[5]

In both Jewish and Greek cultures, women were expected to keep their hair concealed. Women would unveil and unbind their hair during the marriage ceremony. Catherine Kroeger writes,

By the New Testament era, in some Jewish circles divorce was obligatory for a woman who appeared unveiled in the street. For a woman so to appear was a disgrace to her husband, her family and herself.[6]

The respectable woman was veiled, and the critical point of the marriage ceremony lay in unveiling the maiden and subjecting her to the view of her bridegroom and his relatives. This was called the anakalypteria. At this point, she was vulnerable until her husband, after removing her veil, bestowed gifts on her in exchange for the sacrifice of her virginity. The moment of unveiling was considered the critical part of the marriage ceremony. Thereafter the woman was no longer considered a virgin, though the union had not yet been consummated. The unloosed locks of a girl must now be bound as those of a respectable married woman. When the bride entered her husband’s house, her head was covered with the matron’s veil and was showered with hazelnuts. This symbolized the transition from her father’s house and inclusion into the new household. Small wonder if lack of appropriate headgear loomed as a problem in the Corinthian congregation. It might bespeak not only moral looseness but also marital renunciation. As such, it constituted blatant disregard for accepted social convention. Women would again place themselves in the vulnerable position of the anakalypteria, a position from which their husbands had redeemed them and given them respectable status within the community.[7]

David Garland adds,

For a Hebrew woman to go out uncovered was widely regarded as a disgrace (3 Macc. 4: 6; b. Ned. 30b) because a covered head was a sign of modesty (b. Yoma 47b). To go out with loose hair in public (m. B. Qam. 8: 6) was a greater disgrace and considered grounds for divorce (m. Ketub. 7: 6; b. Ketub. 72a).[8]

According to Tacitus (Germania 19), the husband of an adulterous wife cuts her hair, strips her, and banishes her from the house.[9]

Uncovering the head in public had sexual implications. In discussing the ritual to test the suspected adulteress, Philo (Spec. Laws 3.10 § 56) interprets the purpose of the priest’s removing the woman’s covering (“kerchief”; Num. 5:18) as signifying “that she may be judged with her head bared and stripped of the symbol of modesty, regularly worn by women who are wholly innocent.”[10]

Hair (exposed) is included in a list of sexual incitements in b. Ber. 24a.[11]

Thus in this culture, if a woman showed her head in public at that time, it would be similar to a woman wearing a bikini to a wedding or a funeral. To put it in male terms, this might be culturally similar to a married man taking off his wedding ring while walking into a bar on a business trip. These acts communicated a seductive mindset.

Historically, the Pagan women in Corinth were openly flaunting this cultural view. Winter writes, “It is of interest that all statues, except one, of Roman women found in Corinth portrayed them with heads unveiled.”[12] Paul was telling the Christian women not to follow in their footsteps.

What does “shaven hair” refer to?

The hair style of prostitutes? Some commentators argued that shaven hair was the style of Corinthian prostitutes. However, this cannot be historically defended. Gordon Fee writes, “It was commonly suggested that short hair or a shaved head was the mark of the Corinthian prostitutes. But there is no contemporary evidence to support this view (it seems to be a case of one scholar’s guess becoming a second scholar’s footnote and a third scholar’s assumption).”[13]

The hair style of adulteresses? The cutting of the hair was a way of shaming adulteresses. In Cyprus, the law stated, “A woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off and be a prostitute” (Dio Chrysostom, Orations, 64.3).[14] Under this view, an adulteress woman had her head shaven for being an adulteress—not because she was a prostitute. However, in virtue of being an adulteress, she was forced into a shameful life of prostitution.

The hair style of cross-gender mixing? Women with short hair were considered to be blurring the lines of male and female identity—either in the sense of transvestitism or lesbianism. Fee writes, “The shame seems clearly to be related to her becoming like a man with regard to her hair.”[15] Lucian writes, “A woman with her hair closely clipped (κεκαρμένην) in the Spartan style, boyish-looking and quite masculine” (Lucian, The Runaways, 27). He also writes of a woman named Megdilla who pulled off her wig to reveal “the skin of her head which was shaved close (ἀποκεκαρμένη), just as on the most energetic of athletes” (Lucian, Dialogoi Hetairikoi, 5.3). Catherine Kroeger writes, “The thought shifts to propriety of dress in worship. The directions to men are often overlooked, but they are important. In the religions known to have existed at Corinth, especially in Dionysiac celebrations, the exchange of male and female garments was a ritual act. Men in the cult of Cybele castrated themselves to become she priests. For women too, donning male personae was a part of worship. In a painted vessel recovered at Corinth a woman dances before Dionysos with a false phallus. While there was deliberate clothing exchange in cults, it could not mask the deeper problems with sexual identity that were addressed by such moral philosophers as Epictetus: “Therefore we ought to preserve the marks God has given us; we ought not to give them up, nor, as far as we can prevent it, confuse the sexes which have been thus distinguished” (Discourses 1.16, 155). In a similar vein, Paul calls for Christians to assume the gender that nature had assigned them.”[16]

Does this mean that women should cover their hair in all cultures today?

While Paul’s command of modesty is still binding, this specific expression of modesty (i.e. head coverings) is not binding. Put another way, the principle doesn’t change, but the practice does change. What we do is not the same as how we do it.

Consider Paul’s command to greet one another with a holy kiss (1 Thess. 5:26). While we might not follow this practice today (i.e. kiss other men and women in the church), we should follow this principle (i.e. show affection for one another).

Since head coverings are not important to our culture, wearing them can actually create barriers, rather than knock them down. This is the great irony of this passage: Paul was commanding these Christian women to cover their heads, because they were creating barriers with their culture. However, modern day fundamentalists who enforce female head coverings are committing the same error as the Corinthians. That is, the Corinthians were creating cultural barriers by taking their head coverings off, while today fundamentalists are creating cultural barriers by putting head coverings on! It is interesting to note that in verse 13, Paul concludes, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” Since this specific expression was culturally c0ntained, we are told to judge this for ourselves.

For further reading, see our earlier article “Christianity and Women.”

[1] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 22-23.

[2] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 23.

[3] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 26.

[4] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 29.

[5] Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 37.

[6] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 659.

[7] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 660.

[8] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 519.

[9] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 520.

[10] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 520.

[11] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 521.

[12] Winter, Bruce W. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 129.

[13] See footnote. Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 510). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[14] Cited in Winter, Bruce W. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 128.

[15] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 511). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[16] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 659.