Friday, May 12, 2006

Head covering, custom or not?

Sequel to: Head covering? Keep your hair on!

It seems that 1 Corintians 11:16 can be translated in different ways:
But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God. (KJV)
If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (RSV)
These two translations are opposite to eachother. One translations says we have no such custom, the other says we have no other practise.

First I looked up the word custom/practise. The Greek word sunetheia means contact, everyday life, or habituation, custom, practise, habit. In my opinion it then can not refer to being contentious. 'To want to have the last word' is not a daily habit, not a cultural tradition...

The Dutch Studiebijbel comments on verse 16 that Paul means that:
it is not the custom of the other churches for women to come to the meetings with uncovered heads...
That would explain the RSV translation, the text is presented as 'we have no other custom (than covering the head.)' But I still find the RSV variant a strange translation when I examine the Greek (as a lay person.) The Greek word toioutos (such as this, of this kind or sort) does not appear to have any meaning like no other (custom.)

William Welty (see page 2) assumes that the custom in verse 16 refers to the veiling of women. In his interpretation, the other churches did not have such custom.

So there is (and was) no obligation of head covering. However, what is very clear in 1 Corintians 11 is that women were involved in public speaking in the church meetings (see verse 5!)

The original post in Dutch can be found here.


Anonymous said...

Another interesting fact on this point: Paul says "WE have no such/other custom." Who is we? It's interesting that Paul is Jewish, and Jews (in the first century, and still today) practice the OPPOSITE custom - that is, men cover their heads to pray, but women uncover theirs. This is one more reason why its always seemed to me that what Paul is doing is attaching a Christian symbolic interpretation (a symbolic interpretation which I don't claim to understand) to a pre-existing Greek custom, then asking the Corinthians - in all sincerity, and not as a sort of rhetorical flourish - "Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?" In other words, I understand him to be mandating a kind of 'selective traditionalism' - we are to examine our traditions for their content and meaning, and on that basis decide whether or not to keep them.

At any rate, it seems unlikely that Paul thinks all women everywhere need to cover their heads when praying, since it would be very strange if Jewish believers in Jesus had already altered their custom on this matter so early in the history of Christianity.

Ruud Vermeij said...

Are you sure the Jews in the first century already practised head covering for men? I don't remember where, but I recall reading latey that this custom is of later date...

Do you have evidence for your opinion?

Anonymous said...

I believe I read this originally in a commentary on the passage in question (that is, the fact that Jews already practiced male headcoverings at the time), but I'm not entirely sure. The Wikipedia article cites Kiddushin 31a in the Talmud: "Rabbi Huna the son of Rabbi Joshua never walked 4 cubits (2 meters) with his head uncovered. He explained: 'Because the Divine Presence (Shekhina) is always over my head.'" This seems somewhat similar to Paul's explanation, but I don't know exactly how to interpret it in light of the gender issues. Ultra-orthodox/Hassidic women actually still wear wigs and such to cover their heads more completely. It seems that there was an idea in antiquity that one ought to cover one's head in the presence of God, and later (even before the redaction of the Talmud!) it was recognized that one was always in the presence of God, and so should always cover one's head. says that the custom was introduced in "Talmudic times," which overlaps with the time of the New Testament, so I suppose it may have been a 'live issue' in Judaism at the time of wriiting. That's all the evidence I've been able to find... I'll check my study Bible when I get home and see if it was in the Spiros Zodhiates commentary that I read it (quite likely).