Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I Corinthians 11:2-16 (Veils and Christians) Resources

I have to thank Dan Lewis for telling me about Bruce Winter's excellent study, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. This book places the specific difficulties and conflicts in the Corinthian Christian communities within the broader context of Roman law and Greco-Roman culture.

This book is particularly helpful on the issue of veils (head coverings) that the apostle prescribes for women (more precisely, wives) and forbids for males in I Corinthians 11:2-16. While my youthful understanding of this passage focused on the issue of the length of women's and men's hair, the actual meaning of this passage concerns wearing or refraining from wearing veils in public places (including meetings in house churches). The passage addresses both men and women (wives) arguing for head coverings for wives along one line of reasoning and against head coverings for men along an entirely different line of reasoning.

Winter's After Paul Left Corinth has led me into further study and I thought I might share a brief bibliography for interpreting I Corinthians 11:2-16 with you. Some of these resources are free; others can be purchased via Amazon or other book sellers.

Let me begin by highly recommending three books:

Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Eerdmans, 2001). See especially the chapter on ""Veiled Men and Wives and Christian Conscientiousness." Available at Amazon.

Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Eerdmans, 2003). Available at Amazon.

E. Fantham et. al., Women in the Classical World (Oxford, 1994). See especially the chapter on "The 'New Woman': Representation and Reality." Available at Amazon.

The following journal articles and conference presentations are available free as Internet downloads:

Benjamin Edsall, "Greco-Roman Costume and Paul's Fraught Argument in I Corinthians 11.2-16", Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism. Available here.

A. Phillip Brown , "A Survey of the History of the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.2-16", Paper presented at the Aldersgate Forum. Available here.

Mark Finney , "Honour, Head-Coverings, and Headship - I Corinthians 11.2-16 in its Social Context", Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Available here.

David W. Gill , "The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in I Corinthians 11.2-16", Tyndale Bulletin. Available here.

Troy M. Martin, "Veiled Exhortations Regarding the Veil - Ethos as the Controlling Factor in Moral Persuasion". Available here.

Troy M. Martin, "Paul's Argument from Nature for the Veil in I Corinthians 11:13-15", Journal of Biblical Literature. (This one is a little off the wall, but interesting nevertheless.) Available here.


  1. One of the more sensitive issues of New Testament interpretation, particularly with regard to behavioral codes, is the challenge of discerning where Paul (or others) may be addressing local situations, situations that may not have a universal application. Some seem clear enough, as in for instance, when James says that Christians should be particularly generous to visitors to the synagogue, not showing favoritism toward those with wealth and status or demoting a shabby visitor by saying, "Sit on the floor by my feet" (Ja. 2:1ff.). In modern western churches, where congregants sit in pews or chairs, this has no direct application, but in the ancient synagogue, where the "benches" (often stone risers) were in tiers along the wall, it was quite literally possible to have someone "sit at your feet", i.e., on the floor and not on one of the tiers. Or, when Paul instructs wives in Corinth not to interrupt the service by calling out to their husbands, possibly in the circumstance where the men and women in the congregation were segregated (1 Co. 14:35). Paul's instructions about veils may well fall into the same category against the background of Greco-Roman culture. To make absolute such codes seems inappropriate to most Christians, even though there may a principle involved that has a broader application. No church of which I am aware requires absolute silence by women in the congregation (though some come pretty close). Still, Paul's emphatic language, "Women must remain silent", is unqualified in the Greek text--it is sharp enough to be translated as "women must shut up", just as tongues-speakers must "shut up" if there is more than two or three and prophets must "shut up" if someone else is speaking.

    What is less clear is where a behavioral instruction may be based on a broader ethical concept, such as, a clear statement in the Torah. When the Jerusalem apostles sent 'round the encyclical letter to the churches in Syria, Cilicia and Galatia, they included prohibitions about some especially sensitive issues, such as, eating blood and the meat of strangled animals. These are issues to which the Torah clearly speaks, but are the apostles delivering a Torah-observant rule on moral grounds, or are they issuing a carefully nuanced mandate due to Jewish sensitivities. "There is the rub," as Hamlet once said. Paul struggles openly with this tension between faithful obedience and Christian freedom when he addresses the purchase of meat in the open markets of Corinth (1 Co. 8-10). His very nuanced instructions are a masterpiece of delicately picking one's way through a minefield of possibilities, avoiding idolatry on the one hand but championing Christian freedom on the other.

  2. Dan: You challenged me to dig a little deeper. I found an excellent chapter online entitled "Women in the Synagogue" taken from Lee I. Levine's "The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years" - the standard work on the ancient synagogue from Yale University Press.

    If the quality of this chapter is any indication, I am going to have to buy this book very soon.

    1. Thanks for the tip on Levine's work, Joe. I read the chapter, and it was excellent. Most of my information about women in the synagogue has come via Jeremias' "Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus" and the entries by Phyllis Trible and Ben Witherington III in ABD, IDB and so forth.

  3. Quite a vexing question and I think we all struggle with an answer. What I would consider most problematic is a trend I have seen growing over the last twenty to thirty years. This would be the difficulty, even in the most careful of thinkers, find in totally stepping away from current cultural influences when handling sensitive issues such as being discussed. While we attempt to separate ancient cultural norms from that which could be considered acceptable for doctrinal consideration looking forward, I fear we fail to fully account for the potential tainting of our own while looking backwards.

    Though one would find it tough sledding to look at such in a vacuum, greater recognition of the possible pitfalls is also needed. One thought as to why this problem might exist may lie in modern interpreters becoming over enamored with what is believed to be more advanced capabilities. Failing to recognize the influence such capabilities themselves create could influence the conclusion itself.

  4. Sorry about not getting my name on the post. Having problems with the mechanism.

    Bryan Wampler