The Yarmulke or Kippah worn by followers of Judaism dates to at least ~600BCE and perhaps as far back as 1000BCE. My understanding is that this is a sign of respect and the Mishne Torah requires that it always be worn during prayer.

Why then, in 1 Corinthians 11:4 does Paul say it is a sign of dishonor to pray with your head covered? What is the meaning and significance of this deviation from Jewish practice as recommended by Paul, a notable Pharisee and well-educated Jew?

  • Left to his own devices, Saint Paul was more-or-less a practicing Pharisee, diverging from ancestral customs and traditions only when accommodating outsiders (i.e., he would never refuse unclean meat when offered in hospitality, since love is the greatest commandment), so it is highly doubtful that he was introducing any new or controversial teaching in the quoted passage. Chrysostom himself nowhere mentions such a connection, which he undoubtedly would have, since he once wrote an entire treatise criticizing fourth-century Judaism. – Lucian Dec 15 '17 at 9:27
  • @Lucian - and that is exactly why I asked the question. it is odd Paul would recommend something so against Jewish tradition. – James Shewey Dec 15 '17 at 14:07
  • 2
    The premise of this question is based on one misleading Wikipedia article. The citations in the article from II Samuel, Jeremiah and Esther have to do with penitence or mourning, not prayer or day-to-day attire. The section "Head coverings in ancient Israelite culture" is a non-sequitur vis-a-vis head covering as a requirement for prayer. It just says that ancient Israelites wore hats - sometimes, maybe, or that the high priest wore a type of hat. In fact there is no requirement for men to cover their heads while praying in the Mishna. Your citation is from the Mishne Torah, not the Mishna. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 15 '17 at 14:29
  • @robin If it was not Jewish practice to wear a head covering of some sort during regular prayer, and it was a Jewish practice to wear a head covering during penitence and mourning then there is apparently no contradiction in 1 Corinthians 11:4. Note that I am a Hebrew speaker and well versed in OT and Talmud but I know nothing about first century eastern Mediterranean Greek culture and next to nothing about the Pauline letters. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 19 '17 at 7:15
  • @robin There is a world of difference between men and women vis-a-vis modesty in dress, then (and now) Jewish women were expected to cover their hair in public at least and at prayer. The Jewish tradition distinguishes between practices of mourning, the humiliation of admission of sin, and day-to-day prayer, feast and fast. These are distinct situations, each with its own very recognizable behaviors and norms. – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Dec 19 '17 at 8:12

The question is based on an anachronistic assumption that the practices of head-covering from rabbinic Judaism were current in Paul's day. They were not:

Wearing of a head covering (yarmulka, skullcaps, kippah [pl. kippot]) for men was only instituted in Talmudic times (approximately the second century CE).

source: "Kippah (Yarmulke)", Jewish Virtual Library.

And further (and by 4-5th C.),

According to the Talmud (Ned. 30b), it was optional and a matter of custom for men to cover their heads. ... French and Spanish rabbinical authorities during the Middle Ages followed this ruling, and regarded the covering of the head during prayer and the study of the Torah merely as a custom.

Meir Ydit, "Head, Covering of the", Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008), vol. 8, pp. 506-507.

There is, then, no tension between Paul's counsel and Jewish custom as linked by OP.


We should note that the community of Corinthians were former pagans and not Jews.

The following is an explanation of the meaning of the passage in the context of the Corinthians, was provided under an answer to the related question Translation of 1 Corinthians 11:4:

The Greek text is κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων - kata kephalēs echōn. The literal meaning is something like "having down of head". This sounds somewhat non-sensical, but the phrase is apparently a well-known idiom meaning to have one's head covered (see, e.g, Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains).

Paul seems to have been alluding to a custom among pagan Greeks to put on some sort of head covering when prophesying.1 According to one Greek explanation from the 4th century, Paul was admonishing Christians who prophesied from imitating pagan customs while doing so:

Having anything on his head: He signifies that even though he pray with a bare head, yet if he has long hair, he is like one covered. For the hair is given for a covering.2

The idea is that it is superfluous to put on any kind of "headgear". This is reinforced a few verses later (v.7):

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

1. John Chrysostom, Homily XXVI on First Corinthians (tr. from the Greek)
2. Ibid.

  • The suggestion that Paul may have been alluding to a custom among pagan Greeks, and, was admonishing Christians who prophesied from imitating pagan customs while doing so ...is a plausible answer, but why would Paul have bothered over such a trivial matter? That is, outward appearances, rather than the inward heart, is not something you'd think Paul would concern himself with? This question of James is a good one, because it's probing. – robin Dec 19 '17 at 4:30
  • It was one of a long list of pagan behaviors he was addressing. 1 Corinthians is essentially a letter to a group of pagan converts that were either falling back or holding on to pagan practices. – user33515 Dec 19 '17 at 16:30
  • Would be helpful if this comment were included in your above answer, so we might press the issue, to better understand if this really were just a long list of negative behaviors? That is, I see concerns about idolatry addressed in verse 10:14-22, but Paul then goes on, in verses 10:23 -11:2, talking more-so about one's liberty in Christ...(Youngs Literal 29-31 "and conscience, I say, not of thyself, but of the other, for why [is it] that my liberty is judged by another’s conscience ...Whether, then, ye eat, or drink, or do anything, do all to the glory of God") – robin Dec 19 '17 at 20:28
  • Again, this comment section is rather limiting; that is, with this pointed statement of Paul's "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God," how is it even logical that shortly afterwards he starts this rant about head coverings and hair, and how this would/ should, indeed, be negatively "judged" by others, as some sort of hindrance between a person and their worship of God? That is, this whole section of verse (11:3-16) just seems to be a spurious addition to Paul's letter ... – robin Dec 19 '17 at 20:42

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