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1 Corinthians 11:3-8 by Robert Dean
Series:1st Corinthians (2002)
Duration:57 mins 35 secs

Head coverings and Sexual Identity; 1 Cor 11:3-8


In the ancient world in both Greece and Rome there were problems with sexual identity. Homosexuality was quite prevalent in ancient Greece, both during the classical in the 5th century BC as well as in the period of rhe New Testament. It was also dominant in Rome in many different ways, and that is one reason Paul specifically mentions that as part of divine judgment on a culture that has rejected God and gone negative at God-consciousness in Romans chapter one. So this problem of sexual identity, gender confusion, cross-dressing, isn't something new but was something that had to be addressed in the Scriptures, and that is really the background for understanding 1 Corinthians 11:3-8.

This is a problem basic, but the basic issue is the question is whether Paul is talking about hair or head covering. Is he primarily addressing men or is he addressing women? We feel he is primarily addressing men and is addressing the problem with women only secondarily. The thrust here is on the role of the man in public worship and his honouring the authorities over him. So is he talking about hair or is he talking about a physical head covering such as a veil or a hat or some other sort of head covering, a shawl or something of that sort? Once we answer that question we have to answer the question as to whether it is cultural or universal. Is Paul addressing something that is just unique to the Corinthian culture, or is he addressing something that has universal application? If it has universal application throughout all cultures in all times, then how do we apply it in the 21st century?

At first glance this passage seems to suggest that women should wear a physical head covering when praying or prophesying in a local church assembly, and that men should not. This, of course, raises the question about cultural relativity. Apparently when Paul originally came to Corinth there was a situation where the women did not wear veils, that was not the normal custom in Greek culture. It was more typical in an oriental culture. So the Greeks did not wear veils but they wore their hair in some fashion that was uniquely feminine. After Paul left it seems the Corinthians were trying to build on the foundation that he laid and believed that they were already victors in Christ in such a way that their present physical bodies, their physical circumstances, were not really important because their physical bodies weren't going to be part of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12). Also we know that they were confused about sex in marriage. They also picked up the idea from what Jesus taught, that just as angels didn't marry, in the future kingdom the role distinctions between men and women between men and women were a thing of the past. They were trying to have a sort of a unisex church with no more role distinctions between men and women. So as a result of that there was probably one group that went against the typical custom of the Greeks where the women generally wore their hair up in some fashion, so some women thought there was no longer any male-female distinctions and so were wearing their hair down. There were others who thought they should maintain their cultural status and wear their hair up, and there was probably a third group who were a little more hyper-conservative, shall we say, that were emphasized wearing a literal shawl or veil. So they were trying to take what Paul had taught and apply it but they were coming up with three different distinctions and it was causing controversy in the church. They didn't understand the principle very clearly.

The question was: Should a man or a woman prophesy, AKATALUPTOS [a)kataluptoj], translated "uncovered," and should a man pray or prophesy covered? Paul has to answer this question within their particular cultural context in such a way that he can lay down the universal principles, and without stating a specific course of action that would then be taken to apply cross-culturally. He can't be too specific because then he would end up with some superficial legalism, and on the other hand he has to clearly provide instruction so that they can apply the principles to their specific situation.

We need to look historically at the issue of women and veils in the ancient world. We can go back to about 1000 BC and see that in the Assyrian laws that governed the Assyrian empire women were to wear veils, and the veil signified ownership and proprietary rights over a woman. Either her father owned her or her husband owned her but the woman wore a veil and it signified that she was owned by a male. If she didn't wear a veil that would signify independence and probably a prostitute. But the Assyrian laws were dated 1000 years BC and that is too early to have application in the New Testament era. In the other ext6reme we have the Islamic custom. This, too, would be irrelevant because Islam didn't come along until the 7th century, a little late for our time period. In the classical Greek period (5th century BC) we see from an examination of the art evidence there that there was an absence of head coverings. So the conclusion is that there is a distinction between the way European women dressed and oriental women dressed. It is interesting that in Rome men customarily prayed wearing their toga over their heads. In mourning rituals, when someone had died, Roman men covered their heads and the Roman women would let their hair down without any sort of veil or physical covering at all. On the other hand, when the Greeks mourned the men would let their hair grow long and women would cut their hair short. So what is being pointed out here is that among Romans and among Greeks there were clearly different customs as to how they handled wearing a veil, how men wore their hair, how women wore their hair, and how they went into the temple to pray to their various gods. Generally, though, in Greco-Roman society women had longer hair but they kept it in some sort of a wrap or bun, or they would tie it in a knot, or there would be some style where it wasn't just flowing loose.

Men generally had distinct short hair styles. But there was apparently a problem with men who wanted to dress like women and women who wanted to dress like men. One Hellenistic Jew who wrote about 30-40 BC advised parents: "Do not let locks grow on his head, break not his crown, nor make cross-knots. Long hair is not fit for men but for voluptuous women, because many rage for intercourse with a man." A couple of things we can observe from that quote is that there is a distinct hair style difference between men and women. Men were not to wear hair styles that were considered to be feminine. Furthermore, there seems to be a certain style of hair that women has that would indicate that they were a prostitute and looking for a man. Philo also has an interesting quote at this time and he was criticising the effeminacy of men and their hair styles. He wrote about the provocative way that the men curled and dressed their hair. So the fact that there were gender-bending hair styles at that time causing a blurring of distinction between men and women in the society was something that was a problem that many saw in that society.

A lot of material exists on Jewish custom from the first century BC to the 6th century AD, and there are really two sets of customs. There is one set of customs that applied to Palestinian Jews and another that applied to the more Hellenised Jews who were out in the Greek empire and who tended to follow the Greeks, whereas the Jewish women in Judea tended to be a little more conservative.

One of the garments used was called a HIMATION which is a long rectangular mantle that draped over the body with the ends over the arm of the wearer; something like a shawl. This has been identified by one as the garment that Jesus referred to in Matthew 5 in his remark about the Pharisees and their broad phylacteries and the fringes, the tassels on their prayer shawls. Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees was that they enlarged the borders of their garments and added tassels in order to impress men with their spirituality. That prayer shawl garment was called a tallith in the Talmud. Even at the time of Jesus the tallith was worn over the head of a Jewish adult male when he prayed, and it was placed over a body in the grace, the purpose being that a purpose might appear to be white before God. It probably had its origin in Zechariah chapter three when Joshua the high priest was given a new robe that symbolizes his justification.

It would appear, then, that the issue isn't head covering per se, but hair style. One of the things we will see is that if Paul is saying that this is a physical head covering then verse 4 would read: "Every man praying or prophesying having a tallith on his head dishonours his authority." That would have implications for the synagogue. If Paul went into the synagogue and the custom was for men to pray with the prayer shawl over their head and he said that dishonours God, then he could not pray in the synagogue. That would create a whole controversy in the synagogue and that is not something we read about in the New testament. Furthermore, going back into the Old Testament, there are passages that describe the turban that the high priest wore when he went into the presence of God. So there would be a reversal of this whole system and Paul would be critical of Jewish practices. In fact, he would be saying that Jewish practices for the male are no longer applicable but since in Palestine women did wear veils in the synagogue he would be trying to impose that veil wearing universally on women. So we run into some hermeneutical implications there because there is a real problem trying to discern, if Paul is dealing with something unique to a Palestinian culture and he is now trying to apply that to everybody across the board, how to handle other things.

We have to investigate two keys words in this passage. The first word is AKATAKALUPTOS [a)katakaluptoj]. The word begins with an a which is a negative like the English "un" – uncovered. KATAKALUPTOS was the positive word for being covered. After the a (alphaprivitive) is the prefix KATA and then the root word KALUPTOS, and this is the same root that we have for "revelation," to reveal something. The second word that is used is PERBOLAION [peribalaion] which refers top a shawl, a wrapping or a veil.

1 Corinthians 11:15 NASB "but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering." This is a bad translation. There is a tendency when translating certain Greek prepositions into English to use this simple word "for." Actually, that is a bad translation any time it is used, we have to have a broader translation. There are two words in Greek that imply substitution. The first is HUPER [u(per] plus the genitive, which we find in passages about salvation: that Jesus Christ died as a substitute for you; He died in your place, instead of you. The second word used here is the preposition ANTI [a)nti]. In Latin this same form, ANTI, means against; and that came to influence the English word ANTI. But in Greek the preposition ANTI is the other preposition for substitution and it also means "instead of" or "in place of." In most places when translating these two words in relationship to salvation they are both translated "for." However, this is also the situation where you do something for someone's benefit, and in English we use that same preposition "for." That is the more dominant use, so in English when I way I am doing something for you I am not necessarily doing something in your place, I am doing something on your behalf, something that is beneficial to you. So we have some confusion because we use the word "for." Romans 5:8 NASB "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." That is weak, it is much more than that: u(per plus the genitive means "Christ died instead of us." So when we understand that these two prepositions have a concept of substitution behind them, then when we read 1 Corinthians 11:15 it should read from the Greek: "If a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, for her hair is given to her instead of [in place of] a covering."

There are two different words used for covering in this passage. This is a real problem. Up to this point the word for covering is KATAKALUPTOS, but when we get to verse 15 it is the word PERIBALION which means a shawl, a wrapping or a veil. So verse 15 suggests that if a woman has long hair it is that hair that is given to her instead of a shawl or a veil or a wrapping. So that seems to suggest that the passage is not talking about a physical veil, shawl or hat, but the covering has to do with the hair itself.

So now we have to do a word study on KATAKALUPTOS and its positive form KATAKALUPTA which is generally translated "uncovered" or "covered." We need to look at some examples in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 44:18-20 NASB "Linen turbans shall be on their heads and linen undergarments shall be on their loins; they shall not gird themselves with {anything which makes them} sweat. [19] When they go out into the outer court, into the outer court to the people, they shall put off their garments in which they have been ministering and lay them in the holy chambers; then they shall put on other garments so that they will not transmit holiness to the people with their garments. [20] Also they shall not shave their heads, yet they shall not let their locks grow long; they shall only trim {the hair of} their heads." This is describing the garments of the priests in the future Millennial temple. Verse 20 is the key verse. Notice it says: a) The priests are not to shave their heads bald. That is prohibited to a priest in both the Old Testament economy, in the Mosaic law, and to priests who are functioning in the Millennial temple. It doesn't apply to today; b) it says they are not to grow their hair long. So it is clear from a Jewish perspective and a biblical perspective, it applies both in the Old Testament in the Mosaic law and in the future Millennial kingdom that the priest was not to grow his hair long, and then it says: "they shall only trim {the hair of} their heads." The word there for trim is the word KATALUPTO [kataluptw]. In other places it has a more general sense of cover or uncover, but here it has the idea related to cutting the hair. 

Another reference has to do with regulations in the Mosaic law related to the identification of a leper: Leviticus 13:45 NASB "As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered [AKATAKALUPTO], and he shall cover his mustache and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!'" If KATAKALUPTO means to trim the hair then its negative would be to leave the hair untrimmed, to leave it growing wild and shaggy. So the idea here from AKATAKALUPTOS [LXX] is that the way you would see him coming through the streets is that he has a sort of wild, unruly dishevelled hair, and he would have his hand over his mouth and cry out. The Hebrew word that is translated "uncovered" is the word parua, and it means to be uncut or to let the hair grow long. So this word AKATAKALUPTOS doesn't mean simply to be uncovered as if you don't have a hat or a veil on, but it has the idea of growing the hair long in almost an unkempt or dishevelled way, to let the hair down.

This also applied to a woman who was caught in adultery. Numbers 5:18 NASB "The priest shall then have the woman stand before the LORD and let {the hair of} the woman's head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse." The word translated "go loose" is the word APAKALUPTA, for revelation. Here it is used for letting the hair down, and it is from that same KALUPTO root as KATAKALUPTOS and AKATAKALUPTOS. So the woman who is accused of adultery is signified by letting here hair down is this sort of dishevelled way. So in the New Testament era when Jews were forbidden to exercise any kind of capital punishment for adultery, and especially the Hellenised Jews who were outside the land, the way they indicated a woman who was accused of adultery was that she wore her hair loose and down. If she was guilty they would shave her head, and that is what Paul is going to indicate here.

With all of this background it perhaps gives us some kind of a basis for understanding the text as we get into it. The question is: Should women be allowed to let their hair down in church? In answering, Paul doesn't go to culture. This is so important because the feminists say that this was all culturally determined. Paul starts with an eternal absolute in verse 3: "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." There are role distinctions and authority distinctions in the home, that God designed men with a certain kind of soul to function in a certain way in relationship to the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, and He designed women with a different soul, and how they relate to one another in society must be related functionally to God's original intent.

So we come to the application: 1 Corinthians 11:4 NASB "Every man who has {something} on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head." In the Greek it reads: "Every man [while] praying or prophesying," and there we have two participles that are present active indicative participles (the first is a present middle passive, but it is a deponent verb so it has an active meaning). Since they are anarthrous they should be taken as participles of time. Then it has the phrase, kata kefalhj e)xwn, "having according to his head." It doesn't say having what according to his head. There is a problem, there is something left out, and that is why in most versions it says having "something" on his head, and that something is in italics. In the Greek that word is left out. Then the word KATAISCHUNAI [kataisxunai], "shamed, embarrasses or disgraces" his head. That second word "head" is the concept of authority. So the man is told that if he prays or prophesies in a certain way it is a disgrace to the authority that God set over him. We know from verse three that the authority that is set over man is Jesus Christ.

The two options that we have seen so far is either wearing his hair a certain way, or wearing a hat or shawl or some kind of physical covering. Option one would read: "Every man who has long hair [or hair worn in a feminine fashion] while praying or prophesying, disgraces his head [the authority over him]." The other view would translate it: "Every man who has a veil or a hat on his head while praying or prophesying would disgrace his head." As has already been pointed out the second option would have serious consequences for Jewish custom. We don't think that he is saying that. This would go back to Exodus 28:36-40 where we have the description of the head gear of the high priest: NASB "You shall also make a plate of pure gold and shall engrave on it, like the engravings of a seal, 'Holy to the LORD.' [37] You shall fasten it on a blue cord, and it shall be on the turban; it shall be at the front of the turban. [38] It shall be on Aaron's forehead, and Aaron shall take away the iniquity of the holy things which the sons of Israel consecrate, with regard to all their holy gifts; and it shall always be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. [39] You shall weave the tunic of checkered work of fine linen, and shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash, the work of a weaver. [40] For Aaron's sons you shall make tunics; you shall also make sashes for them, and you shall make caps for them, for glory and for beauty." So this was the standard, and Paul would be rejecting all of that if this had a literal application.

So the best option, understanding the word study, the culture and the relationship to Israel, is that what Paul is saying in verse 4 is that a man should not wear his hair in an effeminate style. He doesn't get specific. In every culture, though, there are distinctly feminine styles and distinctly masculine styles. Basically, what Paul is saying here is" "Men, be men, be masculine, follow masculine customs; ladies be feminine; be feminine in your dress and in your hair style." This is a passage which clearly rejects the modern trend toward unisex styles, unisex dress and unisex hairstyles, because that doesn't reflect the fact that God created males and females with distinct roles. The point is that when men aren't acting as men and aren't dressing as men, especially in public worship, then it dishonours the authority set over them which is Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:5 NASB "But every woman who has her head uncovered [hair down] while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved." She was wearing her hair in a style that was indicative of her being an adulteress, a woman of loose morals, or a prostitute. That was the idea. When we apply this it doesn't mean that women can't have their hair down because it doesn't mean the same thing today in our culture. We know that a woman can wear her hair in certain provocative styles that certainly would indicate that she is a prostitute, that she has rather loose morals. That is the idea. A woman her has her head uncovered or who wears her hair in a style that is culturally associated with a woman of loose morals disgraces her authority—the husband who is the authority over her. "For," Paul says, "she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved." She is acting as if she is a prostitute or guilty of adultery.   

1 Corinthians 11:6 NASB "For if a woman does not cover her head [her hair is down], let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head." In saying "let her also have her hair cut off" Paul is being sarcastic. If she is going to dress like a prostitute go all the way. "Let her cover her had," i.e. let her hair be in an acceptable style.

Then we go to verse 7 where he begins to explain the male-female difference in relationship to the image of God.