An article by David W.T. Brattston
The Veiling of Christian Women
When the gospel was new and pure, Christian women were to cover themselves with long robes and to veil themselves in public, just like women in most Muslim traditions today. This was no chance remark by a single author, but was the unanimous judgment of all early Christian writers that commented on the subject. There was a controversy whether the forerunners of nuns needed to veil themselves during church services, but there was no dispute that Christian women, especially married women, ought to conceal their eyes and other bodily features when in other public places. All sources took for granted that they actually did so. Even proto-nuns covered themselves in the street.
The earliest reference is Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 11:
5: But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
6: For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
To emphasize the aspects of intuitive decency and the repugnant nature of an uncovered female head, Paul added:
13: Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
In verse 16 he also drew from the universal practice and tradition of the whole Christian church:
"But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God."
Although considering it highly improper for a woman to be bareheaded in church, Paul did not record why some Christian sisters would do so, or whether they should be covered in the outside world. Subsequent Christian authors left no doubt.
How was 1 Corinthians 11 interpreted by the first heirs of the gospel? They had the benefit of the oral teachings and scripture interpretations of Christ and the apostles, and could observe firsthand the actual practice of Christians from only a few generations before. The way they applied this scripture is an indication of how first-century Christians judged themselves, and what was the custom of the churches.
The next reference is from Clement of Alexandria, who wrote while he was dean or president of Christianity’s foremost institution of learning between AD 192 and 202. He wrote that it is unseemly for clothes to end above the knee, "nor is it becoming for any part of a woman to be exposed."i
A Christian woman was to be entirely covered, unless she happen to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face.ii
Clement also pointed out that:
"it is prohibited to expose the ankle…it has also been enjoined that the head should be veiled and the face covered; for it is a wicked thing for beauty to be a snare to men."iii
He considered as improper clothing for women anything that did not cover the eyes,iv or hide the shape of the body.v
Shortly after Clement, in the opening decades of the third century, the Didascalia mentioned modesty in female attire, particularly as it applied to married women. Produced in Syria or Palestine, the Didascalia was a comprehensive manual of Christian corporate and private life in the genre of Christian literature known as "church orders". As such, it drew from wider traditions than did individual authors, and possessed a broader influence and applicability than they did.
After discountenancing otherwise-honourable women who even then adopted the clothing, footwear, and hairstyles of streetwalkers, the Didascalia instructed:
Thou therefore that art a Christian, do not imitate such women; but if thou wouldst be a faithful woman, please thy husband only. And when thou walkest in the street, cover thy head with thy robe, that by reason of thy veil thy great beauty may be hidden. And adorn not thy natural face; but walk with downcast looks, being veiled.vi
In reference to the ubiquitous Roman practice of public nude bathing of both sexes together, the same chapter asked Christian women how they could appear naked in such circumstances even though they took pains to cover their faces and bodies in the street, and added "For it behoves women by a veil of modesty and humility to shew (their) fear of God".vii
Between the times of Clement and the Didascalia, came the church father Tertullian, although his On Prayer may have been as early as AD 198. In what was supposed to be an exposition on prayer, it presents a comparatively long dissertation on whether the forerunners of nuns were free to be unveiled in church when all Christian women wore veils outside it. There was a controversy in the Carthaginian church over whether "woman" in 1 Corinthians 11.5-16 applied to (1) every post-pubescent female, or (2) only an adult female who was sexually experienced, i.e. not a virgin. The founder of Christian literature in the Latin language, he was a prominent Roman lawyer before converting and being ordained. He championed the cause that "woman" included both sexually-inexperienced and married adult females.
At more than one point in Chapter 22, Tertullian spoke of hiding the face in public as universal among Christian females. As part of his argument, he called on proto-nuns to be consistent by veiling at public worship as well, and spoke of outdoor veiling as a law of nature.viii He rhetorically queried:
"Why do you denude before God what you cover before men? Will you be more modest in public than in the church?"ix
Part of his reasoning was that, as brides of Christ, the sisters ought to be veiled because "He bids the brides of others to be veiled, His own, of course, much more."x
Tertullian was consistent in his views on the topic after he left the mainline church in the middle of his writing ministry and joined the Montantists, an apocalyptic denomination that enjoined a more rigorous and committed mode of Christian practice, as witness his:
"For it is they which must be subjected, for the sake of which ‘power’ ought to be ‘had on the head:’ the veil is their yoke."xi.
Again, he asked why the forerunners of nuns adopted full dress and veiled their heads in public, in the presence of heathen men, but did not do so in church, xii with the implication that all adult Christian females wore burkas, or at least ample veils, outside home and church.
Not one extant author in the first two centuries of the Christian church was barefaced enough to dispute that married women must be veiled in church or that all believing adult females must cover their features when outside it or their home.
Addressing the virgins, Tertullian incidentally indicated that what Mohammed did centuries later was actually to liberalize the rules on veiling among his people:
"Arabia’s heathen females will be your judges, who cover not only the head, but the face also, so entirely, that they are content, with one eye free, to enjoy rather half the light than to prostitute the entire face."xiii
iExcept where otherwise indicated, all patristic references are to The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the Edinburgh ed. by A Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), hereinafter cited as ANF.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
iPaedagogus 2.11 ANF 2.266
ii Paedagogus 3.12 ANF 2.290
iii Paedagogus 3.12 ANF 2.266
iv Paedagogus 2.11 ANF 264f
v Paedagogus 2.11 ANF 2.265
vi Didascalia Apostolorum Chapter 3 translated by R Hugh Connolly (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929) 26
viii On Prayer 22 ANF 3.688
ix On Prayer 22 ANF 3.688f
xi On the Veiling of Virgins 17 ANF 4:37
xii On the Veiling of Virgins 13 ANF 4:35
xiii On the Veiling of Virgins 17 ANF 4:37
Author: David W. T. Brattston, Post Office Box 1599, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, B0J 2C0
Original posting: 2019-JUN-22