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The Head Covering or Prayer Veil

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

What did Paul mean when he wrote, "Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved" (1 Cor. 11:4,5)

Was he talking about long and short hair? Was he addressing something unique to Corinthian culture? We don’t have to guess about the matter, because the historical evidence is strikingly clear.

The historical record reveals that the early churches all understood Paul to be talking about a cloth veil, not long hair. The only thing that wasn't clear to some of the early Christians was whether or not Paul's instructions apply to all females or only to married women. The reason is that the Greek word gyne, used by Paul, can mean "a female" or it can mean "a married woman."

Around the year 200, at Carthage, North Africa, Tertullian wrote a tract entitled, "The Veiling of Virgins." Tertullian makes the argument that the passage applies to all females of age—not just to married women. Of course, Tertullian’s personal view is of little concern to us. But what is so valuable about this work of his is that he discusses the practices of different church in various parts of the world. Here are some key excerpts from his work:

I also admonish you second group of women, who are married, not to outgrow the discipline of the veil. Not even for a moment of an hour. Because you can't avoid wearing a veil, you should not find some other way to nullify it. That is, by going about neither covered nor bare. For some women do not veil their heads, but rather bind them up with turbans and woollen bands. It's true that they are protected in front. But where the head properly lies, they are bare.

Others cover only the area of the brain with small linen coifs that do not even quite reach the ears.... They should know that the entire head constitutes the woman. Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when it is unbound. In this way, the neck too is encircled.

The pagan women of Arabia will be your judges. For they cover not only the head, but the face also. . . . But how severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who remain uncovered even during the recital of the Psalms and at any mention of the name of God? For even when they are about to spend time in prayer itself, they only place a fringe, tuft [of cloth], or any thread whatever on the crown of their heads. And they think that they are covered!

Earlier in his tract, Tertullian testified that the churches that were founded by the apostles did insist that both their married women and their virgins be veiled:

Throughout Greece, and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of churches keep their virgins covered. In fact, this practice is followed in certain places beneath this African sky. So let no one ascribe this custom merely to the Gentile customs of the Greeks and barbarians.

Moreover, I will put forth as models those churches that were founded by either apostles or apostolic men. . . . The Corinthians themselves understood him to speak in this manner. For to this very day the Corinthians veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, the disciples of the apostles confirmed. [Tertullian, The Veiling of Virgins The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4 pp. 27-29,33]

Clement of Alexandria, an elder writing from Egypt around the year 190, counseled:

"Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled." [Clement, The Instructor 3.12]

Hippolytus, a leader in the church at Rome around the year 200, compiled a record of the various customs and practices in that church from the generations that preceded him. His Apostolic Tradition contains this statement:

And let all the women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth, not with a veil of thin linen, for this is not a true covering. [Hippolytus Apostolic Tradition

In summary, the early Christians practiced exactly what 1 Cor. 11 says: Men prayed with their heads uncovered. Women prayed with their heads veiled. Nobody disputed this—regardless of where they lived—Europe, Mid-East, North Africa, or the Far East.

This written evidence of the course of performance of the early Christians is corroborated by the archaeological record. The pictures we have from the second and third centuries from the catacombs and other places depict Christian women praying with a cloth veil on their heads. Some of those pictures are shown below.

So the historical record is crystal clear. It reveals that the early generation of believers understood the head covering to be a cloth veil—not long hair. As Tertullian indicated, even the women who did not wish to follow Paul's teaching were not claiming that Paul was talking about long hair. Rather, they simply wore a small cloth in minimal obedience to his teaching. Nobody in the early Church claimed that Paul's instructions were merely a concession to Greek culture. Nobody claimed that they had anything to do with prostitutes or pagan priestesses. Such claims are merely inventions of the modern church.

For additional pictures of the Christian head covering through the centuries, please see our page on Modest Dress through the centuries.

For further information about the Christian woman's head covering or prayer veil, we recommend the following publications:



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