Exchange concerning how David W. Bercot used Tertullian's treatise On the Veiling of Virgins
Here is my complaint with Bercot. On page 52 of your book he said, "When I was in a liberal church, I remember the pastor saying, 'Well back there in the first century, to come to church without a veil on your head would be the equivalent of today a sister coming to church without a blouse—coming topless—or something like that. It was just a shocking scandal, and the women were doing this in Corinth so Paul writes to address that.'" On page 53 he comments, "Well after further digging and trying to get to the bottom of this whole thing, to find why I was told that, I finally realized that there was no historical basis whatsoever for those statements! They were something someone just made up. And because they tickled the ears of today's hearers, because they were what people wanted to hear today, then they were passed around without objection, even though there was absolutely no historical basis whatsoever for those statements having been made."
His condemnation of that pastor is about as strong as you can get! Yet the very tract by Tertullian that Bercot quotes so much shows that the pastor was historically accurate. He was not making up what he said. Here is what Tertullian said in chapter 13 of On the Veiling of Virgins:
"If on account of men they adopt a false garb, let them carry out that garb fully even for that end; and as they veil their head in presence of heathens, let them at all events in the church conceal their virginity, which they do veil outside the church. They fear strangers: let them stand in awe of the brethren too; or else let them have the consistent hardihood to appear as virgins in the streets as well, as they have the hardihood to do in the churches. I will praise their vigour, if they succeed in selling aught of virginity among the heathens withal. Identity of nature abroad as at home, identity of custom in the presence of men as of the Lord, consists in identity of liberty. To what purpose, then, do they thrust their glory out of sight abroad, but expose it in the church? I demand a reason. Is it to please the brethren, or God Himself? If God Himself, He is as capable of beholding whatever is done in secret, as He is just to remunerate what is done for His sole honour."
That paragraph clearly shows that in Tertullian's day (which was not that long after Paul's), it was considered immodest by the community (not just by Christians) for a woman to appear in public unveiled.
In chapter 17 he said, "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." So both the heathen of Tertullian's own society and the heathen of Arabia considered it immodest for a woman to appear in public unveiled. Indeed, Tertullian gives no hint that it was any different in any other society he was familiar with.
In chapter 7, commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:10 he says, "For if (it is) on account of the angels — those, to wit, whom we read of as having fallen from God and heaven on account of concupiscence after females — who can presume that it was bodies already defiled, and relics of human lust, which such angels yearned after, so as not rather to have been inflamed for virgins, whose bloom pleads an excuse for human lust likewise?" It is impossible to understand Tertullian's view on this verse unless we recognize that he considered a woman's head covering to be a necessary part of modest dress.
Why would Bercot make such a reckless statement, accusing honest men of having made something up? I would rather not believe that Bercot is dishonest. The only alternative I can see is that he is incompetent to read Tertullian. And if he is incompetent, he ought to at least have the humility not to accuse more competent men of dishonesty. But whether Bercot is dishonest or just incompetent, he is certainly misleading people. I fear God may bring his statements before him in the Day of Judgment.
I do not expect that this new understanding of Tertullian will make any difference to what you believe about 1 Corinthians 11. But it might make a difference to some of the readers of your book. I am grieved that you quoted Bercot with full approval in that book. You repeatedly emphasized that there was no custom in New Testament times of women covering their heads. From Tertullian's treatise it appears that that was not correct.
When I preached on this subject a few years ago I was careful to mention that the early church fathers all believed women should cover their heads in the service. That was not a fact that swayed my own thinking on the passage, but I thought my hearers deserved to hear all the facts I was aware of — not just the ones that favor my position.
From PKW: Thank you for sending me Tertullian's treatise on virgins covering their heads. I have read it and commented on it in the attached article. It appears to me that Bercot used the treatise in a correct way. He wrote:
The interesting thing I noticed in reading Tertullian's essay or tract on the subject of "veiling" was that there was no issue in the churches of his day on what 1 Cor. 11 meant.The only issue that was there was whether Paul's words applied to all mature females, or whether it applied only to married women. So that was what he was discussing in his work.
As I mentioned, this was the only issue that was around when Tertullian wrote around the year 200. Tertullian was answering the question as to whether Paul was talking about all women, or whether he was talking only about married women. Tertullian makes a case that Paul is talking about all females, and we'll get to that in a little bit.
This comment is a correct representation of Tertullian's treatise.
However, Bercot makes reference to some things which I didn't notice in the treatise you sent me. He says he found this in Ante-Nicene Fathers, you can find this in volume 4, and I'll be reading from page 37.
"For some, with their turbans and woollen bands, do not veil their heads but bind them up."
He says some of them put on turbans or bands so they were kind of binding their hair up. He says, "They were protected indeed in front, however they are bare where their head properly lies. Others are to a certain extent covered over the region of the brain with linen doilies of small dimensions which do not quite reach the ears. Let them know that the whole head constitutes the woman. Its limits and boundaries reach as far as the place where the robe begins. The region of the veil is co-extensive with the space covered by the hair when unbound." So the issue again was not wearing a veil or not wearing it but what kind of veil she was wearing.
"Arabia's pagan females will be your judges. For they cover not only the head but the face also."
"How severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve who during the psalms and at any mention of God remain uncovered. Even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness, they place a fringe, tuft, or any thread whatever on the crowns of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered."
Admittedly I read the treatise in a hurry, but I don't recall all of those statements. Perhaps they are there, or perhaps Bercot is referring to another writing of Tertullian. At any rate, these statements make it clear that he was working on the practical implementation of Paul's words in 1 Cor. 11, and that he took it for granted that all understood a women must be veiled in worship.
I agree that Tertullian says all the churches required women to cover their heads in the worship services. Bercot may be confusing about the modesty issue (as you observed), but I do not find Tertullian confusing about it at all. In Tertullian's society women covered their heads when they went out in public. Tertullian also refers to two societies that were even stricter than his own: Arabian women covered their faces as well as their heads. He mentioned Jewish women in his article The Chaplet. Their head-covering was closer to a face-covering, though I don't think Tertullian mentioned that.
You quoted Bercot saying, "It also shows that it wasn't the custom of all women to veil themselves in public because if it were, Jewish women couldn't be recognized because of their veils, could they?" That is not a valid inference. The style of veil that Jewish women wore was different from those of other societies, just as the hats of Jewish men today are different from other hats. I can recognize a Jewish man in Bangor from his hat even in the winter when everyone is wearing a hat.
D found an interesting article describing the different types of head coverings in the first century. http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html There are a number of pictures on that page. (The author takes the same position you do on the head covering.)
D found another article reviewing a recent scholarly non-religious book that takes the position that both Roman and Greek women of the first century covered their heads when they were in public. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2004/2004-06-09.html That author recognizes that the pictures of women from that age generally do not show the women with their heads covered, but he says they purposely showed them that way while giving subtle clues in their art that the women would in fact have had their heads covered (and perhaps their faces as well). I have not read the book, but the review is quite detailed. What he says agrees 100% with what I have learned from reading Tertullian. His explanation about Roman and Greek art explains why Bercot was misled by looking at that art while ignoring the literature of the time. (I still do not understand how Bercot could be so strong on reading the anti-Nicene fathers while completely misunderstanding Tertullian's statements about the customs of his own society.)
David W. Bercot
22012 Indian Spring Trail
Amberson, PA 17210
November 13, 2006
Here is a brief reply to K's comments:
He is basically superimposing Tertullian's arguments over Paul's—when they are two entirely different things. Tertullian does not speak for Paul; in fact, he doesn't even speak on behalf of the church of his day. Tertullian intermingles Paul's discussion of the veiling as a symbol of headship with Peter's teaching about modest dress.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says not one word about modesty. His entire argument is built around headship—not around modesty. In fact, he only mentions that a woman should cover her head when she is praying or prophesying. If the issue was modesty, then Paul would have hardly limited the head covering to praying or prophesying.
What I said about the "topless" argument still stands—despite K's protestations to the contrary. The statement the pastor had made was that it was as shocking in Paul's day for women to be unveiled in church as it would be today for a woman to come to church topless. If that were the case, why would Paul have limited his instructions to praying or prophesying? If a woman showed up topless in a church today, would the minister tell her to cover her bosom when she prays or prophesies? Hardly! He would require her to immediately cover herself and to stay covered at all times.
Again, I stand by my original assertion: it is an absolute falsehood to say that it was as shocking in 1st century Corinthian society for a woman to appear unveiled as it would be for a woman to appear topless in our society. There are hundreds and hundreds of pictures of women in Roman society in various functions. Sometimes they are veiled, but more often they are not—even though they are otherwise fully clothed. Where does any Roman or Greek writer say that their women veiled themselves in public? Where do the Scriptures say any such thing?
As I have mentioned, in his essay on the head covering, Tertullian presents two separate issues: headship and modesty. Again, Paul does not present two issues. Only Tertullian does. Yet, Tertullian's essay, taken as a whole, disproves the "topless" argument. The thesis of his essay is that Paul's instructions apply to unmarried women as well as to married women. Apparently, many churches understood Paul to be giving his instruction to married women only. Now, if the issue were gross immodesty, no church would have thought that it was okay for the single sisters to go about "topless" and only the married women had to cover themselves. But if the issue is headship, it's quite understandable that some churches would interpret Paul's instructions to apply only to married women in recognition of their husbands has their heads.
Although Paul says nothing about modesty, Tertullian adds modesty as an additional issue. Yet, even he never makes the claim that the pagans are shocked because Christian virgins were not veiling themselves in church. Nor does he indicate that pagan women normally veiled themselves in public. Rather, as K has quoted, he reveals that it—in his day—it was customary for Christian women to veil themselves in public. That is why that through the centuries—until the late 19th century—most spiritually-minded Christian women wore some kind of head covering in public. (But that is a wholly different issue than 1 Cor. 11).
In fact, rather than indicating that pagan Roman women wore veils in public, Tertullian says: "Yet, even among the pagans, a bride is led veiled to her husband. She is veiled at betrothal." So the pagan practice was similar to today's practice in society at large, where brides veil themselves, even though they don't normally wear veils at other times.
Tertullian argues for a standard of modesty that goes beyond anything either Scripture or what the church required. He says: "The pagan women of Arabia will be your judges. For they cover not only the head, but the face also." This demonstrates that the practice of Arabian women veiling themselves is not something introduced by Mohammed, but was already the custom in that land. But the custom in Arabia has nothing to do with the custom in Corinth or any other Roman city. The fact that Tertullian has to go to a country outside the Roman empire shows that there was no similar custom within any part of the Roman empire—or he would have used that as an example instead.
In fact, the various statements that Tertullian makes show quite clearly that there was nothing shocking to the Roman world of a woman going about unveiled. For he says this about Christian women themselves, who had a higher standard of modesty: "I also admonish you second group of women, who have fallen into wedlock, not to outgrow the discipline of the veil. Not even for a moment of an hour. Because you can't avoid wearing a veil, you should not find some other way to nullify it. That is, by going about neither covered nor bare. For some women do not veil, their heads, but rather bind them up with turbans and woollen bands. ...Others cover only the area of the brain with small linen coifs that do not even quite reach the ears."
Again, he writes: "But how severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who remain uncovered even during the recital of the Psalms and at any mention of the name of God? For even when they are about to spend time in prayer itself, they only place a fringe, tuft, or any thread whatever on the crown of their heads." These women were covering themselves only for prayer—as Paul instructed—and what they were using as a cover was not for the purpose of modesty. Tertullian doesn't like this, but obviously the church had no problem with it.
I think the quote that clinches the matter is from Tertullian's essay, De Corona. Here he makes the statement: "Among the Jews, so usual is it for their women to have the head veiled, that they may thereby be recognized." Now, if all females in Roman and Greek society were wearing veils, then how could it be that the Jewish women could be recognized by the simple fact that they went about with their heads veiled? Obviously, Roman and Greek women did not normally veil themselves in public. And just as obviously, going about in Roman society without a veil was not the same as going about today topless.