On 1 Corinthians 11 and Veils

Fifty years ago historians’ knowledge of women in the ancient world came from tiny bits and pieces scattered about. Such remnants included fragments of Sappho’s poetry, barely preserved in damaged papyrus full of gaps.

Plutarch provides an engaging account of Cleopatra’s hold on Mark Antony, but he says nothing of her maritime knowledge or her ability to rule, and this year Stacy Schiff debunked his suicide-by-asp-bite myth. (Schiff calculated how much venom it would have taken to actually kill Cleopatra and her two servants.) So, entertaining as Plutarch’s account may be, our knowledge suggests he had a rhetorical agenda.

We’ve studied urns featuring scenes from the legends of Dido and Lucretia and of Artemis killing the children of Niobe. Yet how people might have used the urns in everyday or even ceremonial use has been both unknown and unexplored.

The author of an article for Greece and Rome in 1942 observed that the history of the Julio-Claudian house was remarkable for the frequency with which the continuance of the line depended on a woman. The journal writer noted, however, that, “Though the facts are well known, [women] have been too often neglected or minimized by historians.”

Twenty more years would pass before such neglect was rectified with the 1962 publication of Roman Women: Their History and Habits by J. P. V. D. Balsdon. Rather than focusing only on great women, he attempted at least a passing look at the lives of ordinary women, broadening the scope to include harlots, mothers, wives, and divorcees along with their religious beliefs, daily lives, cosmetics, jewelry, and hair styles. Yet Balsdon too had little to go on. Even by the 1960s, the visual, archaeological, and written evidence about women had remained largely uncollected and uninterpreted.

Fast forward to today. Recently I received this message from a woman I don’t know: “I have a hard time with some denominations who believe that women should wear head coverings and be silent in church. To say a woman can’t speak at all in church is a very, very disheartening concept, at least to me, because I love the Word of God and want to fellowship with other Christian brothers and sisters, not sit there and feel like a nobody, you know?”

Sad, isn’t it?

I find it puzzling that people have silenced women by using the same passage in which Paul linked head coverings with a woman’s (probably a wife’s) freedom to speak and pray in church. One of the things I wrote in my reply is that first-century wives probably did not wear veils when the assembly gathered. By “covering” I think Paul meant hair pinned up. The first-century wife in the Roman Empire wore her hair up, often with a headband circling her forehead. And my working theory is that wearing her hair down was not necessarily seductive, but it did say, “I’m available,” comparable with removing a wedding ring today.

Two things worth noting in 1 Corinthians 11 are that much of the passage is also devoted to issues relating to men’s hair, and that the words “honor,” “glory,” “dishonor,” and “shame,” show up repeatedly. Men and women leading in worship brought shame by what their hair suggested. (Paul does not concern himself with the behavior of visitors or unbelievers.)

I just returned from Pompeii where I photographed statues and frescoes of women, with special focus on hair styles and head coverings. Pompeii is a great site for learning about first-century life because so much of the everyday was frozen in time when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried the city for 1,500 years. Unlike Rome with its high concentration of the elite, Pompeii was full of middle- and lower-class people, so their art and sculptures reveal much about everyday women, wives, slaves, and prostitutes. Interestingly, the brothel art there does not appear to depict prostitutes as having shaved heads. I suspect shaving was reserved for the adulteress.

Fifty years after the first book on ancient women was released, we have much more information available from first-century frescoes, sculptures, coins, and pottery. At the same time we have electronic access, making these findings far more accessible to a greater number of people.

And here’s the greatest part: some of the findings have the potential to loosen a thousand tongues of women ready to sing their great Redeemer’s praise.

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • Ken M.

    Great Take

    Thought provoking.  I would be interested how we would satisfy translating the word: Akatakaluptos as anything but unveiled or uncovered (1 Cor. 11:5).  Would you conclude that Paul is using the word (uncovered) poetically instead of specifically.  Please feel free to respond by email.  Thanks for your post!

  • Sandra Glahn

    Veil or Hair?

    Great question!

    It looks like translating it "unveiled" adds too much into the text, but I also don't think Paul is making up a term.

    It looks like the word is synonymous with hanging down or "down from the head" (see Gk. in v. 4, which may be parallel to v. 5). I suspect Paul is borrowing the wording people in his day used to describe someone having hair hanging down.   

    Luke 7:38-39 connects a woman's hair being down with a shameful reputation.

    Num 5:18 refers to "letting loose the head" of a possibly adulterous woman, which translators have rendered "let down the hair."

    The word "head" back then looks to be broad enough to encompoass "hair," which is why Paul does so many word plays in Ch. 11 with honoring and dishonoring one's "head."

    If you'd like to listen in on a two-hour panel discussion with Philip Payne, Alice Mathews, and me talking about this passage, you can go to  


    Scroll down to the March 29 WE: Engage conversation, available in English and Spanish. 

  • Matthew B

    a very, very disheartening concept

    "To say a woman can’t speak at all in church is a very, very disheartening concept"

    We need to be careful when criticizing churches that don't permit women to speak because that is what Paul says in Ch 14:34-37.  If we are honest, our problem is really with Paul.  If women keeping silent in church is from God then mark it as a hard pill to swallow and try to apply -it because it's from God.  But if it is cultural then Paul's character is suspect for promoting an abusive cultural practice. 

  • Sandra Glahn

    Another Option

    Paul affirms women speaking truth on multiple occasions.  But you have given only two options–accept the Word or call Paul abusive. How about option three:  Check out the Greek and see where our Western assumptions might be affecting our translations. 

    The NET Bible translation says 14:34 the women 13  should be silent in the churchesfor they are not permitted to speak. 14  Ratherlet them be in submissionas in fact the law says. 14:35 If they want to find out about somethingthey should ask their husbands at homebecause it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 15   

    Check out the notes. "Women" and "wives" = the same word in Greek. Same with "men" and "husbands." Context tells which. Since husbands are mentioned here, it makes sense to translate the female word in a limited way, as well: wives. 

    The Jewish Law nowhere required wives' submission. Josephus even concedes on this point. But the civil law did, according to Bruce Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Widows). Elsewhere, Paul teaches that Christians are not under the Law (see Galatians). But he is sensitive to keeping civil law, especially when it might affect the church's testimony to disobey. 

    Two chapters earlier Paul assumes wives will pray and prophesy in the assembly (see chapter 11). He also wishes everyone could prophesy as he does (14:1, 3, 5, 39). When he limits prophecy, he does not add gender limits.

    Further, the word for "ask," which they are to do at home, is not the word for a simple inquiry which arises from curiosity.  It has more the sense of grilling or interrogating or questioning.

    So read a different way: Let the wives be silent in the churches, for they are not allowed (according to civil law) to publicly question husbands' prophecies. Rather,  let the wives be in submission, as the (civil) law also says. If they want to interrogate their husbands about their prophecies, let them to so at home. 

    In reading the text this way, we see a consistent Paul–one who does not tell Christians to go back under the Law, who assumes wives will pray and prophesy in the assemby, one who calls women his co-workers, one who wants the church not to despise prophecies. 

    • Matthew B

      Thank you for your comments.

      Thank you for your comments.  I very much would like to agree with your comments.  You do a good job of explaining it. 

      I think if Paul was arguing on the basis of civil law:  "for they are not permitted to speak." he goes way overboard in tagging on the end of his argument: "because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church."

      I think this subject is one where I tend toward eisegesis.  I want your view to be true and will tend to bend a bit to accept it.



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