"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Veiling as a sign of equality?

In my last post, I mentioned reading Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden, and talked about hair and veiling and Paul's instructions for women in the church to cover their heads.  A few of you offered your thoughts and interpretations you have heard. This is what Sarah Ruden had to say about this matter in her book.

Respectable Greek and Roman women traditionally wore concealing veils in public. Marriage and widowhood were the chief things that a veil signaled.  (For a Roman woman, "to get married" and "to veil oneself" were exactly the same word.)  The veil held great symbolism:it reminded everyone that all freeborn women, women with families to protect them, were supposed to enter adulthood already married, and that they were supposed to stay chastely married or else chastely widowed until the end of their lives.  The veil was the flag of female virtue, status, and society.  In the port city of Corinth, with its batteries of prostitution - including the sacred prostitutes of the temple of Aphrodite - the distinction between veiled and unveiled women would have been even more critical.
But on the other hand, society was changing fast: slaves ... gaining more status and security in households and settling down more often with slave partners; slaves being freed; divorce proliferating...- any or all of these things could have made the veil a matter of controversy. Women not entitled to the veil may have wanted it, and women entitled to the veil may not have wanted it.  Bruce Winter puts the emphasis on a new type of married, divorced, or widowed Roman woman on the scene in the first century A.D., more keen on showing off her elaborate hairstyle than on constantly wearing an old-fashioned veil. 


At the very least, there must have been among the Christians women with pasts.  Would not bareheadedness, the lack of a "symbol of authority" on their heads, have galled them? They were entitled to be there - but the norms of the time said that they had to be there in the outfits of degraded, vulnerable beings. It was against the custom and perhaps even against the law for them to be veiled.  At Greek religious festivals, "women's police" would circulate, making sure not only that respectable women were not flashily or revealingly dressed, but probably also that other women did not take on the exclusive, prestigious symbols of a matron or widow.  In Rome also, dress was regulated in detail: for example, any married woman found to have committed adultery would lose forever the right to wear a floor-length, heavily bordered stola and a veil.  Any woman who had ever been a prostitute was of course not allowed to wear them either.

I think Paul's rule aimed toward an outrageous equality. All Christian women were to cover their heads in church, without distinction of beauty, wealth, respectability - or of privilege so great as to allow toying with traditional appearances.  The most hurtful thing about bareheaded, gorgeously coiffed wives might not have been their frivolity but rather their thoughtless flaunting of styles that meant degradation to some of their sisters - as if a suburban matron attended an inner-city mission church in hip boots, a miniskirt, and a blond wig.  Perhaps the new decree made independent women of uncertain status, or even slave women, honorary wives in this setting.  If the women complied ... you could have looked at a congregation and not necessarily been able to tell who was an honored wife and mother and who had been forced, or maybe was still being forced, to service twenty or thirty men a day.

(pgs. 85-88)

What do you think?


Unknown said...

Very interesting! I like it, and it sounds plausible. Definitely something I will want to look into more.

Joni said...

that was super interesting!!

Amber said...

Very interesting. I like it but I'm going to have to read more about it. :)