Before we even get started, please know that this is not about whether or not women should wear a head covering. In that regard, we are neutral. Whether or not a woman chooses to cover her head is completely up to her (and her husband). We can say that women covering their heads is not a commandment given by YHWH in the Torah. The only time this issue is addressed in scripture is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We also know that Paul cannot add commandments, so there has to be another reason for his comments in regards to women and head coverings. That is our purpose for this resource, to bring to light the social norms of women in the Pauline communities. To do that we will explore aspects of the Ancient Near East (ANE), Roman culture, as well as Roman law. By the end of this article, we hope that you will have a deeper understanding of the culture and social norms that were affecting the addressees of Paul’s letters.
The bulk of the research for this article was done by reading Bruce W. Winter’s book “Roman Wives, Roman Widows – The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities.”1http://amzn.com/0802849717 I highly recommend purchasing this book if you want a deeper understanding of the cultural context surrounding Paul’s letters, specifically in regards to women.
The first thing we have to do is bring to light the social and cultural norms surrounding Roman women during this time in history. Since the Bible was written for us, but not to us, these critical details are left out of Paul’s letters, leaving us to question why he said some of the things he did. It made perfect sense to the people Paul was writing to because they would have understood the social and cultural issues that Paul was addressing, so there was no need to go into detail about them in his letters. The problem is that 2000 years later, most of us don’t consider this fact and don’t bother to look any farther than the Bible itself to understand ANE culture. Also, we also often apply our own modern day social and cultural norms to the Bible’s ancient writings which cause significant doctrinal errors. To understand what these ancient writings meant to the people they were written to, we have to look beyond the pages of our Bibles and study history. That means we have to read and study books besides just the Bible. Yes, we are killing a sacred cow for some people, but the truth is, many of us don’t even understand the culture of the previous generation, but we think we can just read the Bible and know what was going on 2000 to 4000+ years ago. So, without further ado, let’s get started.
Ancient historians agree that sometime around 44 B.C. a ‘new’ type of woman emerged in Rome.2Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.21. These ‘new’ wives acted in stark contrast to the traditional behavior of married women. Women had more financial independence and social freedom and, as a result, some of them took this freedom even further to include being sexually promiscuous. It was always acceptable for men to be adulterers according to Roman culture and law, but women often remained faithful in their marriages. However, these ‘new’ wives did not.
The promiscuity of these ‘new’ wives was promoted by many poets of the time including Catullus, Ovid, and Propertius. Playwrights also played a major role in furthering the lifestyles of these ‘new’ women, evident by the fact that wealthy older women with sexual prowess became an established character in Roman Comedy. Theatre-going was common among all classes in Rome, and New Comedy had a significant influence on what would come to be socially acceptable behavior.3Crisafulli, “Representations of the Feminine: The Prostitutes in Roman Comedy,” p. 223. In a way, the Theatre was to Roman Culture what Hollywood is to Western Culture, they heavily influenced the morals, modes of behavior, and the understanding of relationships in Roman Culture.4Crisafulli, “Representations of the Feminine: The Prostitutes in Roman Comedy,” p. 222-23. According to Winter, it’s clear that by 44 B.C. there was a major concern, not only in Rome but also in its colonies, about appropriate conduct and possible misconduct concerning Roman wives.
Things got so bad throughout the Roman Empire that Emperor Augustus enacted “lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus” and the “lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis” sometime between 18 and 16 B.C. The “lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus” dealt with the regulation of marriage, incentives for having children and penalties for refusing to have children while the “lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis” made the promiscuity of women a public crime. There are a lot of interesting things surrounding these two pieces of legislation that we won’t get into, but one of interest is this. If a man caught his wife in adultery, he was required to bring charges against her within 60 days. Otherwise, he risked being accused of pimping. Another interesting aspect is that under Augustus’ legislation, women convicted of adultery were compelled to wear a toga as a symbol of their shame; and they were no longer eligible to wear the marriage veil.5McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law, p. 154.
So we can see that Augustus’ legislation set a precedent to distinguish the modest wife from the adulteress and the prostitute. Augustus was in effect legislating ‘Shame’ into the Roman Empire. That brings us to a woman’s head covering, the marriage veil. It was not a law that the stola and other ‘matronal’ articles of clothing be worn, but it was certainly a well-established custom that the veil was worn to signify a woman was married.6Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.43. These ‘new’ wives were bucking the custom of wives covering their heads in public. In Roman culture, it was understood that the omission of the veil by a married woman was a sign of her “withdrawing” herself from the marriage.7Sebesta, “Symbolism in the Costume of the Roman Woman,” p. 48. Considering the above information, it makes more sense why Paul would include the instructions about head covering in his letter to the Corinthians. Wives praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered in their religious gatherings were mimicking the actions and attitudes of the ‘new’ wives.
In their culture, a veiled head was the symbol of the modesty and chastity expected of a married woman.8Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.80. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul relates removing the marriage veil with a woman having her head shaved. This has nothing to do with Torah but has everything to do with the Roman law which stated that ‘a woman guilty of adultery shall have her hair cut off according to the law and play the prostitute.9Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.82-3. A woman having her hair cut short or shaven was considered shameful so she would not go around bald-headed, forcing her to veil her head out of shame.
Why was it so important that these women kept their heads covered in their gatherings with fellow believers? We know from 1 Corinthians 14:23 that there were outsiders and unbelievers at their meetings in private homes, and it is implied that this was not uncommon. We also know that there were ‘controllers of women’ in Roman times that would police dress codes, specifically during religious occasions.10Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.85. That brings us to 1 Corinthians 11:10. Winter argues that the Greek word here translated as angels is more accurately translated as messengers. He also points out that the title of messenger is not only for those who brought information but also of those who came to carry information away to others.11Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.89. In other words, a scout or a spy. If this translation is used, Winter suggests that Paul’s concern is with these ‘spies’ as his reason for women to wearing the marriage veil while praying and prophesying.
Why did this matter, though? Because Roman law and custom required respectable women to cover their heads during pagan religious activities. And even though wives didn’t have to cover their heads at home, having public gatherings in one’s home was considered an extension of a public setting, so wives would have been required to wear their marriage veil during such events. This gives credence to the idea that ‘messengers’ were sent out to spy on the activities of these new believers at their gatherings and they could have reported back to the men elected to supervise women’s dress codes in Corinth that married women were inappropriately attired while engaging in religious activity. In any case, their deliberate removal of their veils would have sent a signal that they were identifying themselves as ‘new’ wives who had a reputation for behaving loosely at other gatherings that were often held in private homes.12Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.91
To summarize, we now know that these ‘new’ wives were much more active in social settings than modest wives of the time. They also ignored social and cultural norms of what the modest wife should look like and instead dressed and acted more like prostitutes. They were neglecting their responsibilities as wives to their homes and families. Some of them even went to extreme measures to ensure they would not have children including severe forms of birth control and even abortions.13Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, p.109 Paul’s concern about women keeping their heads covered had little to do with religion and everything to do with acceptable Roman customs of the modest wife. Today for many of us, head coverings are not an aspect of our culture. However, wedding rings are very much a part of Western culture. Instead of a marriage veil being the symbol of married women, today it is the wedding ring. We’re not saying anyone is wrong for not wearing a wedding ring, but in our society, it is a sure sign of a woman (or man) being married. What these ‘new’ wives were doing would be the same as a wife today removing her wedding ring, wearing slutty clothes in public, and even making sexual advances on her husband’s friends. Such behavior is not acceptable today just like what these ‘new’ wives were doing in Roman cities was not acceptable then. Paul was not enforcing a commandment that all women (past, present, or future) must wear a head covering when they pray or prophesy but upholding Roman laws and customs that are not customs or laws in most Western cultures today.
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