Rightly Dividing the Cultural Background to 1 Corinthians 11


The Corinth Channel

There are a lot of cultural challenges to 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, a passage that invites discussion about the trinity, gender roles, the use of head coverings, and the role of angels in public worship. Tomorrow I will preach on this passage, but today I share a number of quotations from various commentaries related to various cultural and theological challenges in this passage. These quotes provide some background to this enigmatic passage.


In the context of prayer and prophesy, it makes sense that dress would be considered. For prophets often had a particular dress. Moreover, they often symbolized in their appearance various biblical truths. So for instance, John the Baptist appearance is given as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). Importantly, this outward dress identified him as a prophet in the manner of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8: “They answered him, ‘He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’)

Likewise Isaiah 20 records how God commanded Isaiah to walk through Israel naked for three years to indicate God’s coming judgment on Egypt and on those who trusted in that foreign power. This outward expression of God’s will fits other examples too. For instance, the high priest wore garments of beauty and glory to reflect the presence of God’s holiness with Israel (Exodus 28:2); Nazirites did not cut their hair in order to express devotion to the Lord (Numbers 6); and many grieving saints tore their clothing or wore sackclothe and ash in order to express their contrition. So, throughout Scripture, clothing and hair did play a part in expressing worship to God.

Moving from Old Testament to Greco-Roman culture, the same attention to dress is found.

The Greeks’ self-identity arose most from their speech and education, while our Roman often distinguished himself by what he wore. It was not the Greeks eschewed head apparel. Rather it was clear to them and Romans that the habitual propensity of Romans to wear head apparel in liturgical settings stood in sharp contrast to the practice of others. (R.E. Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” NTS 34 (1988): 494; cited by Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth24)

‘Head’ and Head Covering

There is debate about what exactly Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 11—is it hairstyles or headcoverings? Here are a number of reflections on cultural trends regarding head coverings.

Ancient writers often based arguments on wordplay, as Paul does here. He uses “head” literally (for that which is to be covered) and figuratively (for the authority figure in the ancient household). (Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 476)

It is actually quite astonishing that men did not have their heads covered.

It was the custom of the Jews that they prayed not, unless first their head [sic] were veiled, and that for this reason: that by this rite they might show themselves reverent, and ashamed [contrite] before God, and unworthy with an open face to behold him. (Lightfoot, 1 Corinthians, 229–30; cited by Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians304)

In the Middle East this servant is expected to cover his head in the presence of his master. In regard to servants this view is universally understood and applied across the region. But Jesus called his disciples “friends” not “servants/slaves” (John 15:12–17). The servant/slave does not know what his master is doing. But Jesus revealed to his disciples “all that I have heard from my father” (Jn 15:15). (Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians304)

The covering of the man’s head—called the capite velato—what’s commonplace in a Roman religious cult. . . . The social elite took an active part in the religious cults of the city by serving as priests, and thus those who had joined the church may have introduced this Roman cultural norm into Christian worship. (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, 3:156)

What women wore on their heads is culturally significant for understanding the background to 1 Corinthians 11.

The gender-differentiated covering custom, however, was a sign of sexual modesty intrinsic to a woman honor…(Some viewed a wife’s hair like a private part, cf. 12:23.) Far to the east and in Arabia, modest wives might where even face veils, as in some Islamic countries today; in Jerusalem, Tarsus, and for some of the women of Corinth (including members of Eastern immigrant communities, probably including many Jews), it sufficed to cover the hair, the most prized potentially public object of male desire. (Craig Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 91)

Failing to cover a woman’s head was dishonoring to her husband. A woman would cover her head when she was married. Thus if ‘woman’ is translated as ‘wife’ . . . , in modest dress would reflect badly on her marriage and therefore her husband. (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, 3:157–58)

Oster is correct to stress that Paul is correcting both men and women in this passage in regard to head coverings, not just women. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth234)


Hair played a large role in a woman’s beauty in the ancient world. And hence we must consider that as we read 1 Corinthians 11.

Women’s hair was a common object of lust in antiquity, and in much of the eastern Mediterranean women were expected to cover their hair. To fail to cover their hair was thought to provoke male lust as a bathing suit is thought to provoke it in some cultures today. (Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 475)

The oft-mentioned ‘piled-up hair’ style of aristocrats . . . grew popular especially a generation after Paul’s time. (Craig Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 91)

It is clear from portraits on coins and in sculpture that women’s hair in the middle of the first century A.D. Tended to be warned longer than under Augustus. (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, 3:157)

There is some evidence that shaving was a punishment for adultery.(Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, 3:157)

A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, Thy hair is as a flock of goats [Song 4:1]. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 14a)


A significant part of understanding 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is the role culture plays. Like today, our surrounding culture is a strong determiner in what biblical truths we must repeat and clarify and what practices we must guard against. While biblical truth never changes, different cultures will require of us different ways to identify ourselves with Christ and not the world.

Incidentally, hair and head coverings are often used to do this.

The Amish community of North America is a contemporary Western example of this ancient practice. In conservative Islamic countries today, the public head covering of a woman signals to all that she is a respectable woman who has a family that cares, and anyone who harasses her will face consequences. (Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 300)

Paul is not simply endorsing standard Roman or even Greco-Roman customs in Corinth. Paul was about the business of reforming his converts social assumptions and conventions in the context of the Christian community. They were to model new Christian customs, common in that Assemblies of God but uncommon in the culture, thus staking out their own sense of unique identity. The whole flow of the argument leading up to 11:2ff. leads one to suspect that Paul is opposing factious or divisive behavior here as well. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth, 236)

The proper human response to redemption is that both women and men not only bear witness to who they are but also to whose they are. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth, 237)

It is likely that both, not just women, were creating the disorder in Christian worship. In light of Roman practice, it is very believable that some Christian Roman males were covering their heads when they were about to prayer prophesy. Paul is not interested in baptizing the status quo or normal Roman practice. He is setting up new customs for a new community, and these customs are deeply grounded in his theological understanding of creation, redemption, their interrelation, and how they should be manifested in worship. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth, 238)


Could it be that the problems of hair and head coverings are related to 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 an the divisions between rich and poor at the Lord’s Table? There is at least some evidence to suggest this is the case.

Paul must address a clash of culture in the church between upper class Fashion and lower-class concern that sexual propriety is being violated. (Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 475)

Because most Christians gathered in the wealthier homes, Christians of different social strata and backgrounds that together; ‘naked’ hair held different social connotations for different women. To wealthier women, it signified at most ostentation; to most women from the east, it symbolized in modesty and, at worst, seduction. (Craig Keener, 1–2 Corinthians, 92)

Coin portraits of the emperors wife (e.g., Livia) could show her either with her head covered or bare. These coin portraits show how hair styles developed during the first century into elaborate creations; no doubt the women of the Imperial elite in colonies such as Corinth follow the fashion of the imperial court. And early first century A.D. portrait of a woman found at Corinth shows her with her head uncovered and with the hair braided and brought together above the forehead. (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, 3:157)


The most puzzling verse in this section is verse 10, where the defining reason for head coverings is ascribed to the angels. What are we to make of this? Kenneth Bailey may lead in the right direction when he appeals to ancient Jewish literature.

In this connection Midrash Genesis Rabbah discusses the very first sabbath at the end of the six days of creation. The text reads: “When the sun set on the night of the Sabbath, the light continued to function, whereupon all began praising, as it is written, under the whole heaven they sang praises to Him (Job 38:3).”

Adam and Eve may have joined in, but the angels were the primary singers in that outpouring of praise, “under the whole heaven.” Paul had already affirmed that the angels were watching the activities of the apostles (4:9). So here, the angels present at creation were still on duty, observing the life of the church, and eager to praise God for his new creation. (Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, 311–12)

This is the best explanation of the mysterious verse, “because of the angels,” I’ve found. As we know from the testimony Scripture, angels long to look into the redemption of man (1 Peter 1:12). They give praise when one son of God is repents (Luke 15:7, 10). Hence, we have reason to believe when we walk according to God’s will, the angels sing praise to God. How do we increase the praised of heaven while on earth? Somehow, the praise we offer incites the angels to worship. Thus, when we order our worship according to the Word of God, and in keeping with God’s order for men and women, it increases the praise of heaven.


Verses 13–15 are not Paul’s strongest argument, but to capture the attention of his Greco-Roman audience, he does make the appeal to bolster his argument from creation.

Nature told them, they said, that only men could grow beards; women’s hair naturally seem to grow longer than men’s. Like all urban dwellers, Paul is well aware of exceptions to the rule (barbarians, philosophers and heroes of the epic past, as well as biblical Nazarites [had long hair]); but the ‘nature’ argument could appeal to the general order of creation as it was experienced by his readers. (Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 476)

Gender Distinction

A final word from Ben Witherington nicely summarizes all the cultural and theological debate from this passage.

Gender distinction is not something human beings created. Paul sees it as a good gift of God, and he wishes it manifested and so celebrated in Christian worship. He does not believe that there is some neutral core of personhood that has nothing to do with sexual identity. Nor does he believe that sexual distinctions are or will be up liberated in the order of redemption. His theology of the redemption of the body points to belief that Christians are both initially and finally redeemed as men and women of God. One must not confuse the social structures of fallen human patriarchy with Paul’s arguments about the structure of the ekklēsia,  which involve the importance and value of affirming gender differences. Furthermore, Paul’s vision of headship or leadership involves the leader in being the head servant—the oikonomos or household steward in the house of God. In Christ, Paul bus inverts the world quarter of two must serve and who will be served. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth, 240)

Surely, these comments do not cover all the biblical, cultural, and theological issues. What else would you include?

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[photo credit: Sandra Bornstein]

2 thoughts on “Rightly Dividing the Cultural Background to 1 Corinthians 11

  1. My response to those who view this as a temporary, local, or cultural issue is as follows:

    1. It is unwise to begin teaching that certain Biblical commands do not apply for cultural reasons without clear and specific exegetical bases for this. I am convinced that does not exist in this case. I would also ask any who suggest that this teaching is cultural what other Biblical command are we now not to follow due to cultural limitations? If this is the only one we should be suspicious simply due to this unique reason for not following it. I am convinced that ultimately this sets a dangerous precedent especially in our day when the Bible’s teachings on sodomy and the role of women in leadership positions over men are being relegated to the historical/cultural dustbin.

    2. There is an absence in the context of 1 Cor. 11:1-16 of any cultural basis for this practice. As a matter of fact, any good student of the situation in the Corinthian community of the 1st century knows that this city was a cultural melting pot including all the know cultures of the Mediterranean world of that day due to its significant location for trade, travel and shipping. This practice does not find support in any extant materials as some monolithic supra-cultural tradition in the 1st century Mediterranean world.

    3. There is a preponderance of trans-cultural reasoning in the context brought in by Paul as argumentation to convince the Corinthians, and ultimately all believers including us, of the necessity of this practice.

    1) The argument Paul presents in 11:3-9 is based on creation itself. The created order, and the principles derived from it transcend any local culture.

    2) The phrase “because of the angels” in 11:10 does not lend itself to a limited or local cultural issue, but rather of something that the angels themselves are aware of and understand. There is little detail or explanation of this phrase in the context, but again, unless one is prejudiced in favor of a limited cultural view, this part of Paul’s argument should certainly give pause before accepting such a localized application.

    3) Paul’s argument from nature in 11:11-15 cannot be reduced to a merely cultural practice. The issue here goes beyond the issue of head coverings within corporate worship services to the issue of the differences in hair length for men and women at any and all times. This is the issue that was introduced and assumed in 11:5-6. Many have suggested that the woman’s covering for corporate worship is merely her long hair based on 11:15. This will not suffice to satisfy the requirement of 11:5, 6, 10 and 13. All you have to do to see through this suggestion is to “plug in” or substitute “long hair” and “shaved” (its opposite) wherever you find “covered” and “uncovered” in 11:5-6. The result: “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head shaved dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be shaved, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her have long hair.” I trust this attempt communicated how ludicrous the argument becomes.

    4) Paul’s conclusion in 11:16 sounds the death knell to any attempt to escape contemporary application of this teaching. He says in effect that if you have a problem with this teaching (“if any man seem to be contentious”), sorry, there is no other way, we do not have any other practice or tradition, and neither do any of the other churches whatever cultures may be represented within their memberships.

    5) Paul introduces this section of his epistle lumping together the teaching of 11:17-34 on the Lord’s supper with this teaching on head coverings under a common heading termed “the ordinances” (11:2). Nothing in the context appears to me to do justice to a view which would see one as a merely temporary local cultural practice separated from the next which is usually understood as a universal and culturally transcendant observance to be obeyed during the entire inter-Advent period.

  2. Pingback: A Beautiful Household (pt. 2): Brothers Who Lead, Sisters Who Labor, and a Heavenly Father Who Knows Best  | Via Emmaus

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