Church Life


Our feature image is a Grave relief from the mid 3rd Century AD depicting a family. Note the mother wears a head covering as her sign of marriage.

In this post we are considering the significance of the veil or head covering in ancient Greco Roman society and especially in Corinth. We know from various historical documents that the wearing of the veil was practised in varying degrees around the Roman empire and very often trends would be set in different areas but especially in the eternal city of Rome. Very often the practice of head covering would be influenced by cultural practice, tradition and trends set by those in positions of influence. Therefore when we consider Corinth it is acceptable to find a practice that varies from that of a another region in the empire.

We find that during the first century there was a shift from the veil being considered a sign of marriage, virtue and honour to a more relaxed attitude with women being unveiled and displaying elaborate hairstyles. Its in this transition period of cultural change that we often find conflict and dispute and in many cases some groups will attempt to retain the old ways not willing to progress with new ideas and practices..

The most common hairstyle for women during this period was long hair divided by a centre parting. Hairstyles evolved over centuries and while women displayed dramatic curls in the Flavian period of the late first century, men wore their hair short. There is  evidence of hair pins, nets, and snoods including costly ornaments of gold and ivory. This suggests that upper classes of women liked to show off their hair and the head-veil — if they chose to wear them — enhanced rather than covered. 

The large evidence of unveiled women, from paintings and sculpture indicate that the veil might have been a choice, or a local custom, rather than a requirement in this era.

When we consider the text of Paul’s letter we note that he states that it is shameful for a man to grow his hair long and for a women to shave her hair. This cannot refer to a religious practice as the Old Testament Nazarite vow allowed both shaved and long hair for men and women. 

We know the the City of Corinth had a reputation amongst the ancients as a city of great sexual deviance and it is evident that the customs of that area dictated your particular connection to the differing groups within the city. In a time of cultural change Paul directed the church to maintain the customs of the region that placed them within those elements of society that best reflected the standards of morality and righteousness.

A married women who refused to wear the veil sent a message out to the people of that region and in that particular locality that message would be received in a negative manner and bring disrepute on the congregation. When Paul says “amongst the other churches we have no such custom” he indicates that in Rome or Pompeii the removal of the veil would not present the same difficulties as in Corinth.  

That many women of the era wore the “Palla” and were able to cover their head to indicate their marriage status and position of honoured virtue is evident from both textual and archaeological sources. The taking of the veil was similar to our present use of wedding rings to indicate marriage. I hold the view that Paul in addressing the Corinthian congregation had an awareness of the local customs of that region and instructed the church to conform to these local customs which presented an honourable and virtuous community to that local population.

In my next post we will consider an additional / alternative view that a woman’s hair was considered a genital member and was covered as it was considered a highly sexual part of the body. 

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