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Have you ever been told that women should wear long hair and/or that women should wear hats in church? Usually 1 Corinthians 11:2-6 is cited as a biblical basis for observing these customs. Statements like this may lead you to wonder, "What kind of hairstyles did the Corinthian women wear? What did the veils look like that Paul may have asked them to wear?"
Augustus' wife Livia (50 BCE-29 CE) wearing a veil. The veils that were worn in Paul's day by Greco-Roman women did not cover the face. The sculpture (cast; original in Madrid) dates from the first century (Rome) and is in Museum of Roman Civilization. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1982
The section of Corinthians where Paul discusses head coverings and hairstyles in relation to men and women who are praying or prophesying also includes the statement, "Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ." Needless to say, these few verses in his letter have become very controversial in our times.
This coin of Livia shows her wearing a veil with a stephane, which was like a fancy headband. A stephane was a metal arc, higher in the center than along the sides, which extended down behind the ears.
Focusing on women, let's explore the context in which Paul wrote his comments and some recent interpretations his original meaning. As part of this exploration, we will examine archaeological evidence: art from Paul's century that depicts women's head coverings and hairstyles.
The chief Vestal Virgin. From the residence of Vestals in Roman Forum, Rome, Terme Museum. Credit: Barbara McManus2
If Paul wanted the Corinthian women prophets to wear head coverings in worship, he may have been asking that they follow the customs of the dominant culture. Greco-Roman women wore veils in at least some religious contexts. For example, Vestal Virgins wore head coverings. They were six virgin priestesses who guarded the flames of the hearth in the house of Vesta in order to ensure Rome's prosperity. In Metamorphosis, Lucius Apuleius, a second century Roman writer, mentioned that women wore veils when worshiping the Egyptian goddess Isis near Corinth, but customs may have changed in the decades after Paul.1
Altar with Augustus sacrificing with Julia (or Livia) and Gaius Caesar. End of first century B.C.E. Florence, Uffizi Museum. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1990.
In Greco-Roman culture, both women and men wore head coverings in religious contexts. The art at the left shows a woman and two men, including Emperor Augustus, sacrificing at the "Altar of the Lares" (Altar of the Gods). Lares were Roman protector gods of households, associations, and cities.
Some interpretations of this part of Corinthians have assumed that the women prophets were supposed to wear the veil in worship services as a symbol of their subordination to men. The majority of recent interpretations do not agree with this viewpoint.2
This Augustan woman (Octavia?) has a hairstyle where the central part of the hair on the top of her head is braided. A nodus (roll) is at the front. The rest of her hair is pulled back in a chignon (knot). Octavia was the sister of Augustus (Octavian) and wife of Mark Antony. Late first century B.C.E. Arezzo, Archaeological Museum. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1990
You may be surprised to learn that some scholars don't think that Paul was talking about veils at all in 1 Corinthians 11:2-6. For example, Cynthia L. Thompson has argued that Paul may not have been referring to veils but hairstyles. In worship, the female prophets were to wear long hair fastened up instead of flowing down. Their pinned up hair (not veils) was their covering.
Note: Since Corinth was a Roman colony, the web sites relating to Rome will have information that is closer to the dress and hairstyles of Corinth than the ancient Greek sites.
Paul's Letters to the Corinthians
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Notes and Credits
*Nancy A. Carter (email@example.com) has an M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she won the Hitchcock Award in Church History. Her Ph.D. is in literary studies (literature and theology) from American University in Washington, D.C. She has authored books for church laity including Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Who Do You Say That I Am?, a spiritual growth study for United Methodist Women written with Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly.
This web page was originally written in January, 2000.
Except where noted, the pictures above are adapted from photos taken by Barbara F. McManus, 1979, The College of New Rochelle, firstname.lastname@example.org from the VRoma Project. Click on the colorized photo to see original version. See also: Roman Clothing: Women on the VRoma web site.
The computer-altered photograph of the coin depicting Livia is adapted from one at Forum Romanum web site and is used by permission of David Camden.
1Cynthia L. Thompson, "Hairstyles, Head-coverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth," Biblical Archeologist, June 1988, p. 112.
2Antionette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction Through Paul's Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 220. She gives an overview of recent scholarly interpretations about Paul's meaning in pp. 220-223.
Disclaimer: Some links jump to outside sites for further information on Corinthians, the Bible, Paul, and other resources. Links do not constitute an endorsement by the Women's Division of the information on other web sites. External web sites offer us diverse perspectives; afford us an opportunity to compare them to United Methodist positions; and, encourage us to critically analyze the issues raised by the Corinthians web pages.