The Head Covering or Prayer Veil
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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
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
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: