A frequent claim is that I Corinthians 11:1-16 only deals with the local customs of the people in the area of Corinth. The wearing of a head covering, we are told, was a common practice in those days and in that region. Hence, Paul was merely telling women not to go against social customs and cause offense to those in the community.
An article written by Floyd Chappelear caused me to wonder if this was actually true. Yes, women wear coverings in the middle-east today, but this is due to the influence of the Muslims. The Muslim religion did not start until 600 years after Christianity. These fashion statements do not tell us how women dressed during the first century when the letter to Corinth was written.
Corinth was a Greek city, so we must assume that most worshippers followed the general Greek customs for worship.
"Among Greeks the habit was to offer worship with head uncovered. Reading for instance in Macrobius Ambosius' Saturnalia Convivia Bk. 1, 8, there the Greek manner of worship occurs with head uncovered." [Alford's Greek New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 564]
"The Greeks (both men and women) remained bareheaded in public prayer ..." [A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 4, p. 159]
"It is true that the Greek practice was to keep the head uncovered at their religious rites (as Grotius and Wetstein have remarked) ... " [W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, The S. S. Scranton Company, 1920, p. 445]
"Greek women did not wear hats, but they did wear their hair in a variety of different styles, sometimes adding a ribbon or a scarf. They also wore jewelry especially earrings and necklaces." [Winged Sandals, Australian Broadcasting Company, 2003, http://www.abc.net.au/arts/wingedsandals/history3.htm]
"The mysteries inscription of Andania (Ditt. Syll.3, 736), which gives an exact description of women taking part in the procession, makes no mention of the veil. Indeed, the cultic order of Lycosura seems to forbid it. Empresses and goddesses ... are portrayed without veils ..." [Oepke in Kittel Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 1965, vol. 3 p.562].
At the time of the New Testament, Corinth was under Roman rule. Its customs and practices would be evident in the city.
"Our heads are shrouded before the altar with a Phrygian vestment" [Virgil (a Roman poet c. 70 B.C.), The Aeneid, Bk. 3, p. 545]
". . . and when now thou raisest altars and payest vows on the shore, veil thy hair with covering of purple robe, that in the worship of the gods no hostile face may intrude amid the holy fires and mar the omens" [Virgil, Aeneis Bk. 3, p.403-409].
"Why is it that when they worship the gods, they cover their heads, but when they meet any of their fellow-men worthy of honour, if they happen to have the toga over the head, they uncover?" (Plutarch, Moralia, The Roman Questions 10)
"It is no piety to show oneself often with covered head, turning towards a stone and approaching every altar, none to prostrate upon the ground and to spread open the palms before shrines of the gods . . ." (Lucretius de Rerum Natura 5.1198-1201).
"It was in accordance with the traditional usages, then, that Camillus, after making his prayer and drawing his garment down over his head, wished to turn his back; . . ." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus The Roman Antiquities 12.16.4).
"The meeting of the congregations in the ancient synagogues may be easily realized, if due allowance be made for the change of costume, by those who have seen the Jews at their worship in the large towns of Modern Europe. On their entrance into the building, the four-cournered Tallith was first placed like a veil over the head, or like a scarf over the shoulders." [W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson, The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, The S. S. Scranton Company, 1920, p. 154]
"Let not the Wise Men, nor the scholars of the Wise Men, pray unless they be covered" [Maimonides, quoted by Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 1946, 435].
"Men sometimes cover their heads and sometimes not; but woman's hair is always covered, and children are always bareheaded." [Talmud, c. 200-500 A.D., Nedarim, p. 30b]
"What is the Jewish law? Let not a woman go with head uncovered. This is founded in the Law, for it is said (of the suspected wife) 'the priest shall uncover her head' Numbers 5:18." [Talmud, c. 200-500 A.D., Chetubb, fol. 72.1]
"Rav Huna the son of Rabbi Joshua never walked four cubits with his head uncovered. He said 'because the Divine Presence is always over my head.'" (Talmud, c. 200-500 A.D., Kiddushin, 32a)
"Artistic representation, such as Egyptian and Babylonian tablets or the synagogue at Dura Europos, generally depict Israelites (and later Jews) without head coverings ... According to the Talmud (Ned. 30b), it was optional and a matter of custom for men to cover their heads." [Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 8, p. 16]
"An example of a custom that assumed the status of law ... is the requirement that Jewish men always keep their heads covered. This began as the personal practice of some of the scholars in Babylonia, who considered covering the head a sign of humility. It spread from them to the Jews of Spain and from there to other communities in Europe during the Middle Ages." [Roy A. Rosenbery, The Concise Guide to Judaism, p. 125]
"Among the Jews, so usual is it for their women to have the head veiled, that they may thereby be recognized." [Tertullian, c. 160-225 A.D., De Corona, ch. 4]
"The Midrash contrasts the attitude of Moses in hiding his face before the Shekinah at the burning bush (Ex. iii. 6) with that of Nadab and Abihu, who looked on with uncovered heads (Ex. xxiv. 9, 10): the one showing reverence and awe; the other, insolence (Ex. R. 3). The proper attitude, therefore, of one called upon to pronounce the name of God in prayer, the "Sheliah Zibbur," is to be wrapped in the mantle or tallit (R. H. 17b; Ber. 51a; Yer. Ber. vii. 11d ). Accordingly, a man with uncovered head is, like one in rags and half-covered, forbidden to recite the Shema'—or, at least, to officiate as Reader or to read aloud from the Torah or to recite the priestly benediction—he not being in a position to pronounce the name of God with proper dignity (Mas. Soferim xiv. 15; compare ed. Joel Müller, p. 199; Azulai, Responsa "Hayyim Sha'al," ii. 35)." ["Bareheadedness," JewishEncyclopedia.com]
Early Christian Worship
Generally, images of Christian worship were depicted with hands raised in prayer. Many such images were preserved in the Roman Catacombs.
Linus, who died somewhere between A.D. 76-79, was a bishop in Rome. In the document Liber Potificalis, written about A.D. 530, it states: Linus "by direction of the blessed Peter, decreed that a woman must veil her head to come into the church."
The following quotes are from Ethan Longhenry's blog:
In On the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian argues against a custom that has developed within the churches, that virgins are exempt from the command of I Corinthians 11:3-16, the charge of women to be covered when praying or prophesying. Never is the need for wives to be covered challenged by anyone -- Tertullian's witness demonstrates that the covering was a practice within Christian churches in the late second century, and was not inherently cultural. Yes, virgins were covered when outside, among heathens (as he himself establishes in On the Veiling of Virgins p. 13) ... but such is never said of married women.
Tertullian on whether it is a "custom":
Having already undergone the trouble peculiar to my opinion, I will show in Latin also that it behooves our virgins to be veiled from the time that they have passed the turning-point of their age: that this observance is exacted by truth, on which no one can impose prescription — no space of times, no influence of persons, no privilege of regions. For these, for the most part, are the sources whence, from some ignorance or simplicity, custom finds its beginning; and then it is successionally confirmed into an usage, and thus is maintained in opposition to truth. But our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, (John 14:6) not Custom (ibid, p. 1).
The nature of the change from before:
But not even between customs have those most chaste teachers chosen to examine. Still, until very recently, among us, either custom was, with comparative indifference, admitted to communion. The matter had been left to choice, for each virgin to veil herself or expose herself, as she might have chosen, just as (she had equal liberty) as to marrying, which itself withal is neither enforced nor prohibited. Truth had been content to make an agreement with custom, in order that under the name of custom it might enjoy itself even partially. But when the power of discerning began to advance, so that the licence granted to either fashion was becoming the mean whereby the indication of the better part emerged; immediately the great adversary of good things — and much more of good institutions — set to his own work (ibid., p. 3).
Testimony regarding the pervasiveness of the practice:
Throughout Greece, and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of Churches keep their virgins covered. There are places, too, beneath this (African) sky, where this practice obtains; lest any ascribe the custom to Greek or barbarian Gentilehood. But I have proposed (as models) those Churches which were founded by apostles or apostolic men; and antecedently, I think, to certain (founders, who shall be nameless). Those Churches therefore, as well (as others), have the self-same authority of custom (to appeal to); in opposing phalanx they range "times" and "teachers," more than these later (Churches do). What shall we observe? What shall we choose? We cannot contemptuously reject a custom which we cannot condemn, inasmuch as it is not "strange," since it is not among "strangers" that we find it, but among those, to wit, with whom we share the law of peace and the name of brotherhood (ibid., p. 2).
Regarding long hair and the covering:
If, moreover, the apostle further adds the prejudgment of "nature," that redundancy of locks is an honour to a woman, because hair serves for a covering, (I Corinthians 11:14-15) of course it is most of all to a virgin that this is a distinction; for their very adornment properly consists in this, that, by being massed together upon the crown, it wholly covers the very citadel of the head with an encirclement of hair (ibid., 7).
Herein consists the defence of our opinion, in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with Nature, in accordance with Discipline. Scripture founds the law; Nature joins to attest it; Discipline exacts it. Which of these (three) does a custom rounded on (mere) opinion appear in behalf of? or what is the colour of the opposite view? God's is Scripture; God's is Nature; God's is Discipline. Whatever is contrary to these is not God's. If Scripture is uncertain, Nature is manifest; and concerning Nature's testimony Scripture cannot be uncertain (ibid., p. 14).
Tertullian's witness is manifest: around 207 CE or so, in North Africa and Greece and other places, Christian women were expected to have long hair that they would veil, or cover, when praying. While this cannot, in and of itself, prove the validity of I Corinthians 11:3-16 for today, it certainly demonstrates that the situation was not merely a certain matter in Corinth, or that it was considered a mere custom. It was, in fact, considered as "the law of veiling the head" (ibid., p. 4).
Overall, it's clear that much has changed in perspective since the early third century. Have we accommodated the world too much? Or was Tertullian a legalistic crank? It's an interesting conversation to have.
- Michael Marlowe, "Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World," Bible Researcher