“I’ve Got You Covered” The Cultural Background For Veiling Women -- By: Craig S. Keener

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 10:1 (Winter 1996)
Article: “I’ve Got You Covered” The Cultural Background For Veiling Women
Author: Craig S. Keener

“I’ve Got You Covered”
The Cultural Background For Veiling Women

Craig S. Keener

Craig Keener, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Hood Theological Seminary, and author of Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. The latter provides cultural background for every passage of the New Testament.

The current teaching about a husband being his wife’s “covering” is so popular that some people are surprised to find that is actually is based on a shaky inference from I Corinthians 11:2-16, a passage which is talking about a woman literally covering her hair during Christian worship. Rather than enter the popular debate about whether it is valid to read into a text something that is not there (and then impose one’s inference on how other Christians must live), I want to confine myself to asking why head coverings were so important for Paul.1

People covered their heads for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the reason was mourning, though this practice applied to men (Plut. KQ. 14, Mor. 267A; Char, Chaer. 3.3.14) as well as women (Plut, KQ. 26, Mor. 270D; Char. Chaer. 1.11.2; 8.1.7; ARN 1A). Likewise, men (m. Sot. 9:15; Epict. Dire. 1.11.27) as well as women (ARN 9, §25B) covered their heads due to shame. Roman women normally covered their heads for worship (e.g., Varro 5.29.130; Plut. R.Q. 10, Mor. 266C) and Greek women uncovered their heads (SIG 3d ed., 3.999), which might be significant in a city like Corinth which mixed Roman and Greek cultures — except for the fact that Roman men also covered and Greek men also uncovered their heads for worship. However, in I Corinthians Paul addresses a custom that differentiates men from women.

Jewish teachers in Palestine considered it specifically shameful for married women to uncover their heads (m. B.K. 8:6; ARN 3, 17A; Sifre Num. 11.2.2), and this practice seems to have obtained in immigrant Jewish communities elsewhere as well (3 Mace 4:6). The farther East one went, the more pervasive grew the custom of veiling.2 In the East married women dare not go in public unveiled, nor prostitutes veil themselves as if married, as early as thirteen centuries before Paul (Middle Assyrian Laws A.40).

Traditional Mediterranean custom preferred a woman who was not only a virgin physically, but who had never even been seen by another man (Char. Chaer. 1.1.4-6; Ps-Phocyl. 215-16; 4 Macc 18:6-7; Jos. & Asen. 15:1-2; 1...

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