Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Head Coverings in Rome

In this picture Augustus and Livia lead the procession with Julia his daughter, her children, other royal children, Vestal vergins, male officials and priests.

This is from a favourite book of mine, Women in the Classical World. It is hard to generalize about who covered their head in the classical world. However, covering your head was always a sign of dignity and status. The divorced women, courtesan or slave would not cover her head. All Roman matrons would wear cover their head for some occasions.

This kind of head covering does not compare with putting on ones head an object that was designed to cover the arms and back of a chair. That is a humiliation and men who wish to see their wives accorded equal dignity and worth with men would never think of it. Well, I am refering to Dan Wallace's argument. That is more or less what he says about head coverings.
    The important thing to note is that the early church adopted a convention already in use in society and gave it a distinctively Christian hue. That Paul could say that no other churches had any other practice may well indicate how easily such a practice could be adopted. This finds parallels with baptism in Israel. The Pharisees did not ask John, “What are you doing?” Instead, they asked, “Why are you doing this?” They understood baptism (even though John’s baptism was apparently the first to be other-baptism rather than self-baptism); what they didn’t understand was John’s authority and what his baptism symbolized.

    In a similar way, the early church practice of requiring the women to wear a head covering when praying or prophesying6 would not have been viewed as an unusual request. In the cosmopolitan cities of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, no one would feel out of place. Head coverings were everywhere. When a woman wore one in the church, she was showing her subordination to her husband, but was not out of place with society. One could easily imagine a woman walking down the street to the worship service with a head covering on without being noticed.

    Today, however, the situation is quite different, at least in the West. For a woman to wear a head covering7 would seem to be a distinctively humiliating experience. Many women--even biblically submissive wives--resist the notion precisely because they feel awkward and self-conscious. But the head covering in Paul’s day was intended only to display the woman’s subordination, not her humiliation. Today, ironically, to require a head covering for women in the worship service would be tantamount to asking them to shave their heads! The effect, therefore, would be just the opposite of what Paul intended. Thus, in attempting to fulfill the spirit of the apostle’s instruction, not just his words, some suitable substitute symbol needs to be found.
I think maybe his wife didn't want to wear a head covering. I was brought up to wear a head covering, but now I do not. I think that it is better to dress as a dignified and modest member of the society about you, a person that other people do not want to take pictures of because of how quaint you look. That does not honour God.

Actually I am not sure that wearing a head covering was originally a sign of subordination. In the image above only the emperor and his wife were wearing head coverings. It was certainly a sign of dignity and respectability. It used to be that a man wanted his wife to wear a hat or a covering as a sign of her status and dignity. My father was very careful to go with my mother to buy her a really nice hat. My mother wore a hat really well, better than the queen, I think. My dad was always proud of how she looked.

Wendy's Modest Dress has an excellent collection of head coverings if you really want one. I think a triangle looks better than a doily. Now the only women who wear a head covering in my city are Moslem women, cancer patients, and members of the Red Hat Society. Red Hat ladies are becoming very popular in Vancouver. My husband doesn't want me to look like any of these. It would be upsetting for him.


Ruud Vermeij said...

Did Paul say (1 Cor. 11:16) that the churches had "no other custom" or that they had "no such custom"? And to what custom is he referring; covering heads or being contentious?

This whole pericope seems to be flooded with exegetical problems. In fact, we realy don't know what was going on here...

Talmida said...

Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair once they are married.

A woman's hair is part of her feminine beauty, and makes her attractive to men. Once she is married, she covers her hair when she is not alone with her husband, because her "attractions" are now reserved for him alone.

I'm sure you can find someplace that explains it better than that, but that is how it was explained to me by one who practised this concept of modesty.

And I think there are other examples where girls (aka unmarried women) CAN go bare headed, but once married, the hair is covered. I have a memory that girls can wear their hair down too, but that married women wear it up? Don't know what corner of my brain that comes from. ;)

Matthew Celestine said...

Talmida, there are such traditions in different cultures.

Ruud, I think the most sensible interpretation of that verse is that the custom is being contentitous by not covering.

Suzanne, this is a really interesting and fresh look at headcovering.

It is refreshing to find a positive evaluation of headcovering within a more Egalitarian framework, especially given that many Complementarians reject headcovering on very weak exegetical grounds.

Every Blessing in Christ


Suzanne McCarthy said...


I am reading the article which you sent a while ago by William Welty. Thanks very much. It is an interpretion I had not read before. I will mention it soon.