Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Head coverings "because of the angels"

For me, one of the most cryptic and difficult passages of the Bible is found in 1 Corinthians 11:7-10. Here, St. Paul discusses the issue of women's head coverings when praying. He says:

"For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels" (1 Cor. 11:7-10, RSV).

What is the meaning of this phrase "because of the angels"? What angels, and why do they care whether or not a woman has her head covered? The Ignatius RSV footnotes give no help;, although I'm told there is a little footnote on the passage in the Ignatius Study Bible. However, I had to do some digging in some older Bibles before I could get anywhere with this, which was where I uncovered my first clue in the mistranslation of the word "veil." The RSV use of the word "veil" is a sloppy translation, as is any edition of the Scriptures that uses the word "veil," for the Greek word in verse 10 is exousian, which is best rendered as power or authority. Some older editions use this translation, such as the Jerusalem Bible and the Douay-Rheims; hence, it should say "That is why a woman ought to have power on her head." Look at the Latin translation from the Vulgate and notice the use of the word "potestatem" (power):

Vir quidem non debet velare caput quoniam imago et gloria est Dei mulier autem gloria viri est non enim vir ex muliere est sed mulier ex viro etenim non est creatus vir propter mulierem sed mulier propter virum ideo debet mulier potestatem habere supra caput propter angelos.

So, the first thing we can establish is that the veil Paul is referring to is best understood as a sign of authority or power, adding a new twist to the idea that veils are signs of submission. But more interesting is the fact that the women bear this sign of authority "because of the angels." Paul does not go on to explain anything else about this cryptic statement, which suggests that he thought the Corinthian congregation sufficiently familiar with what he meant that he did not need to say anything more.

One interpretation given by some of the Fathers, especially Tertullian, is that this phrase refers to the fallen angels described in the apocryphal Book of Enoch - these angels, called the "Watchers," were not among the angels that rebelled with Lucifer but were nevertheless led astray by lusting after the daughters of men. Acting out of lust, these angels took on human forms and mated with human women, giving birth to the "giants." God punished these angels by casting them down into the netherdarkness to be reserved for punishment at the end of the world. This is described in the Book of Enoch VI and VII and merits quoting at length:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.' And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: 'I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.' And they all answered him and said: 'Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.' Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And they were in all two hundred; who descended in the days of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. And these are the names of their leaders: Sêmîazâz, their leader, Arâkîba, Râmêêl, Kôkabîêl, Tâmîêl, Râmîêl, Dânêl, Êzêqêêl, Barâqîjâl, Asâêl, Armârôs, Batârêl, Anânêl, Zaqîêl, Samsâpêêl, Satarêl, Tûrêl, Jômjâêl, Sariêl. These are their chiefs of tens.

And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. And they became pregnant, and they bare great giants, whose height was three thousand ells: Who consumed all the acquisitions of men. And when men could no longer sustain them, the giants turned against them and devoured mankind. And they began to sin against birds, and beasts, and reptiles, and fish, and to devour one another's flesh, and drink the blood. Then the earth laid accusation against the lawless ones.

This story is obviously an explication of Genesis 6 and was very well known in the time of St. Paul. It is mentioned in the Book of Jude 1:6 ("The angels too, who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains, in gloom, for the judgment of the great day") as well as some other apocryphal works like the Book of Jubilees and the Testament of Adam.

Relating this story to St. Paul's admonition that women wear veils in Church "because of the angels," Tertullian says: "What angels? In other words, whose angels? If he means the fallen angels of the Creator, there is great propriety in his meaning. It is right that that face which was a snare to them should wear some mark of a humble guise and obscured beauty" (Contra Marcion 5:8).The meaning is plain - because the angels once were led astray by the beauty of human women, it is fitting that women cover the heads so as to not arouse the lust of these fallen angels who may be lingering about.

This is not the only time Tertullian mentions this. He says, in his essay On Veiling of Virgins, that the countenance of a woman can be a "stumbling stone" even as far as heaven:  

"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? ...So perilous a face, then, ought to be shaded, which has cast stumbling-stones even so far as heaven: that, when standing in the presence of God, at whose bar it stands accused of the driving of the angels from their (native) confines, it may blush before the other angels as well; and may repress that former evil liberty of its head—(a liberty) now to be exhibited not even before human eyes. But even if they were females already contaminated whom those angels had desired, so much the more on account of the angels would it have been the duty of virgins to be veiled, as it would have been the more possible for virgins to have been the cause of the angels' sinning" (Veiling of Virgins, 7). He mentions a similar argument in Apparel of Women 2:10, where he states that because it was through the agency of the evil angels that women first were taught to wear costly items (gold, silk) and use eye-powder and make-up.

While tempting for its exotic nature, this argument is problematic for a few reasons: first, according to the Book of Jude, Enoch and the other apocryphal works that mention this episode, the angels that lusted after human women are being kept in "chains" by God and are "reserved" for punishment; we do not get the idea that they are freely roving about, least of all hovering around over the Church's liturgies looking for unveiled women to lust after. Second, we can't ignore the huge problem of how an immaterial, spiritual being like an angel is capable of carnal lust, something that pertains to the flesh. Thus, the problem of angels looking down from heaven and lusting after the daughters of men is highly questionable.

It is also questionable that St. Paul, who so frequently warned his flocks not to go astray after Jewish fables and mythologies (1 Tim. 1:4 and 2 Pet. 1:16,  for example) would go ignore his own words and base an ecclesiastical discipline upon such fables.

Nevertheless, we don't want to rule it out entirely - St. Augustine says in The City of God (Book X), that the demons are attracted by certain sensible things, not as animals to food but as spirits to signs. Therefore, it is not impossible for demons to be attracted by sensible realities, though not in the way that a person would be attracted to something by sense perception. This is how Augustine explains the demon's attraction to the rites and sacrifices to the pagan gods. It is also a common interpretation, from Augustine on down to Aquinas, to insist that it is indeed possible for angels to have intercourse with human beings, although there are differences of opinion on how this is possible (remember Aquinas' writings the issue of demons begetting children?) - Even Pope Benedict XIV, in his famous De servorum Dei beatificatione, says of Gensis 6:4, "This passage has reference to devils known as incubi and succubi"; he went on to say, "Some writers deny that there can be offspring…Others, however, asserting that coitus is possible, maintain that children may result." Opinion on the matter is obviously divided, and I do not want to make any certain determinations one way or another.

St. Thomas Aquinas also deals with this verse in his Commentary on First Corinthians. He begins his treatment of this passage by saying that the veil is a sign of woman's submission to man, but that through this orderly submission, she actually submits to God's design and thus to God, and this is her glory:
Then when he says, "That is why", he draws the intended conclusion, saying: "That is why", namely, because man is the image and glory of God, but woman the glory of man, a woman ought to have a veil on her head, when she places herself before God by praying or prophesying. In this way it is shown that she is not immediately under God, but is also subjected to man under God. For the veil put on the head signifies this. Hence another translation has it that the woman ought to have power over her head, but the sense is the same. For a veil is a sign of power.
Then, regarding the verse "because of the angels," Aquinas speculates that the word "angel" refers either to the good angels, who are present when the Church comes together corporately to worship, or perhaps is another word for priest. According to Aquinas:
[W]hen he says, "because of the angels", he gives a third reason, which is taken on the part of the angels, saying: "A woman ought to have a veil on her head because of the angels." This can be understood in two ways: in one way about the heavenly angels who are believed to visit congregations of the faithful, especially when the sacred mysteries are celebrated. And therefore at that time women as well as men ought to present themselves honorably and ordinately as reverence to them according to Ps 138 (v. 1): “Before the angels I sing thy praise.”

In another way it can be understood in the sense that priests are called angels, inasmuch as proclaim divine things to the people according to Mal (2:7): “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the angel of the Lord of hosts.”

Therefore, the woman should always have a covering over her head because of the angels, i.e., the priests, for two reasons: first, as reverence toward them, to which it pertains that women should behave honorably before them. Hence it says in Sir (7:30): “With all your might love your maker and do not forsake his priests.” Secondly, for their safety, lest the sight of a woman not veiled excite their concupiscence. Hence it says in Sirach (9:5): “Do not look intently at a virgin, lest you stumble and incur penalties for her.” [Note that this is the same as Tertullian's argument, save that physical priests have replaced angels - the issue is still about a woman protecting herself from lust]

Augustine explains the above in another way. For he shows that both man and woman are made to the image of God...considered according to the spirit there is no difference between male and female; consequently, the woman is the image of God, just as the male. For it is expressly stated in Gen (1:27) that “God created man to his own image, male and female he created them.” Therefore, Augustine says that this must be understood in a spiritual union, which is in our soul, in which the sensibility or even the lower reason has itself after the manner of the woman, but the superior reason after the manner of the man, in whom the image of God is considered to be. And according to this the woman is from the man and for the sake of the man, because the administration of temporal or sensible things, in which the lower reason or even the sensibility is adept, ought to be deduced from the contemplation of eternal things, which pertain to the higher reason and is ordained to it.

Therefore, the woman is said to have a veil or power over her own head, in order to signify that in regard to dispensing temporal things man should apply a certain restraint, lest he transgress the limits in loving them. This restraint should not be applied to the love of God, since it is commanded in Dt (6:5): “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” For no limit is placed in regard to loving the end, although one is placed in regard to the means to the end. For a doctor produces as much health as he can, but he does not give as much medicine as he can, but in a definite amount. Thus a man should not have a covering on his head. And this on account of the angels, because, as is said in a Gloss: “Sacred and pious signification is pleasing to the holy angels.” 
This last statement about pious significations being pleasing to the holy angels comes closer to what was written by St. John Chrysostom on the subject.Chrysostom, in his Sermon for the Ascension (c. 407), writes:
"The angels are present here. Open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church! ...Hear the Apostle teaching this, when he bids the women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels." 
Chrysostom's words draw upon the perennial teaching that, in the Sacrifice of the Mass, not only the Church Militant but the Church Triumphant is engaged as well - the angels and the saints are present along with those members of the Body still on earth as the entire Church joins together in adoring Christ. Thus, the veiling of the head during Mass becomes a sign of the acknowledgement of the presence of the holy angels. This is pleasing to the holy angels, who always rejoice when men act righteously, because in veiling their heads women in effect assent to God's plan. Chrysostom mentions this again in Homily XXVI:5  in his series of homilies on 1 Corinthians, where he says that veiling the head is a way that women "reverence the angels."

Chrysostom is not alone here; Origen seconds this view:
"There are angels in the midst of our assembly we have here a twofold Church, one of men, the other of angels. And since there are angels present women, when they pray, are ordered to have a covering upon their heads because of those angels. They assist the saints and rejoice in the Church."
The angels take joy in seeing men and women obedient to God; likewise, in a mysterious manner they are "grieved" when God is dishonored. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, St. Cyril of Alexandria said "The angels find it extremely hard to bear if this law [that women cover their heads] is disregarded."

Which is the correct view? Each position has its own merit, but the last one mentioned - that of Chrysostom - seems to have become the mainline view of theologians on this point by the early Middle Ages (Aquinas mentioned this view first in his elucidations).

The wearing of the veil is something that has by and large fallen away in the modern Church; even in orthodox parishes, veils are seldom seen outside of independent Traditionalist chapels and parishes that offer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass exclusively. I am blessed in that we attend a parish where a good number of women wear veils, my wife included. How rich a custom it is to know that that veil is a sign of power and authority and is meant to call to mind the presence of the holy angels at the sacred liturgy! May the Holy Spirit move more women to take up the veil, the sign of their dignity and power in God's providential ordering of creation.


Sam Danziger said...

Thank you very much for this article!

Two comments:

1) My wife is very fetching in a mantilla. If that counts as a veil, I'm not sure that such a thing would remove a "stumbling stone."

(Incidentally, my family has joined an FSSP parish and we are very happy there.)

2)The Ignatius Study Bible has the following footnote:
11:10 Because of the angels: A warning that gender confusion and improper attire at worship will offend the heavenly hosts. The underlying idea is that (1) angels are ministers of the natural order, and (2) angels are present in the sacramental worship of the Church.

It also has an additional footnote on the word veil: "Greek authority (the veil being a symbol of this)"

This seems to say the roughly the same thing as your post, minus the parts with the apocryphal books. While your analysis is much more complete, I'm not sure it's fair to say the "footnotes give no help," unless we're using different Ignatius bibles.

Boniface said...


Thanks for the input - we are in fact using different Bibles...I had the Ignatius RSV Catholic Edition (blue cover), which is not a Study Edition. Still, I did amend the post since you say they do include some exegesis of the passage in the Study Edition.


Daftpunkett said...

Wow Thanks Phil! do you know you are the first person to ever give me a reasonable argument for wearing a veil? Most women can't explain why they wear a veil, I always felt that it may cause some vain tendencies or a "holier than thou" mentality and in some cases, women have presented themselves in that manner. I think Chrysostom's argument was a perfect argument against these concerns. I guess this means I'll have to go shopping for a veil...sigh.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

It seems to me that the use of the word "power" or "authority" as being worn on a woman's head refers not so much to her power or authority, but that it is a sign of her husband's authority over her.

Yes? No?

Jeffrey Pinyan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Boniface said...


Yes and no. It certainly does symbolize her acceptance of the place she has in God's order - that is, in submission to her husband. But by accepting his authority, this glorifies her and becomes a sign of her own authority over the fallen angels, at least in the view espoused by Tertullian. In this view, the veil literally becomes kind of sacramental that has the "power" to ward off evil angels, similar to the way the Sign of the Cross is used against the Evil One.

Michelle Therese said...

I was *just* asking God about this confusing verse and I just told my husband today that I never understood it. (I veil almost all of the time, even outside of Mass.)

You can imagine my delight when I came across this post of yours that was linked from "Veiled Glory." God is so good at answering our questions!

God bless!

margaret said...

If you put too much emphasis on the authority of a husband it's hard to justify single women covering their hair. It has to be something more fundamental than that.

Roxanne said...

"Because of the angels..." Also, in the book of Isaiah, the angels covered their glory when in the presence of God ("each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet...") speaking of the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2)

If the angels covered their glory, the man should cover his glory (the woman) and the woman should cover her glory (her hair). God's glory, the man, is not covered.

Interesting topic. I do not wear a head covering in church, but did back when the mass was in Latin. After Vatican II we stopped. We never knew why we wore them in the first place. Things were not explained to us back then and to have questioned would have been seen as rebellion.

I don't wear one now because I'd be the only one and would stand out. (I'm not Catholic any more.) Maybe that is bad, I don't know. Some say a woman's head should always be covered because she is always in the presence of God. I wouldn't want to have to do that.

Modern life is confusing. Once you stop doing something, it is hard to go back and start doing it.

Boniface said...


Agreed, which is why it's not only about submission but, as Paul says, "because of the angels" too. But, one could also say that the submission argument still applies in the sense that women, in general, were created after man and in submission to him in general, even if one particular woman does not have a husband. I didn't come across anything in the Fathers that said the veil was a sign of submission to a husband, but only that it was a sign of submission to the order established by God (as Paul says in the preceding verses, that woman came forth from man, etc).

thepalmhq said...

Great article. You beat me to it, but did a better job than I could have done, so it's just as well. Without knowing about your posting, I posted my own on head coverings:

There I point out what I had concluded as a result of my own study into the theological reasons for the veil. I had found many of the same passages as you had, especially concerning the meaning of "on account of the angels". It does indeed seem to be primarily a matter of gender distinction and not modesty--although they are not mutually exclusive. All the more troubling, then, that this practice was simply abandoned--at the very time when gender distinctions are so heavily under attack in the culture at large and with no other symbolic gesture put in its place to proclaim this aspect of the created at the Holy Sacrifice.

Again, very nicely done.

martinmom5 said...

My journey of faith has led me from Catholicism in my youth through Evangelical and Apostolic Pentecostal, and now returned to the true Faith of Cathoicism. It was in the Apostolic faith that I was first made aware of this passage of Scripture. Earlier in the passage St. Paul is talking about head coverings in the context of shorn,(or cut), and unshorn hair. He goes on the say that a woman ought not pray or prophesy with her head uncovered and that her hair has been given to her as a covering. In the Apostolic teaching it is believed that this sign of authority that is given to women is their long hair and that it is, therefore, a calling to go without cutting your hair. What is the teaching as to the reference of hair in these verses?

Boniface said...


I can see that Paul may here be referring to hair, but I think it is more likely that he is referring specifically to the type of head veil/covering that Jewish women wore - and in Judaism, even men as well. I have to look much more into this, but I don't know of any teaching in Catholicism that mandates either short or long hair, other than the general rule of thumb that men ought not to look like women and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Behold the brilliant Haydock Commentary of the Douay-Rheims Bible! Oh, how easily your troubles could have been solved --

[7] The man indeed ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man. [8] For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. [9] For the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for the man. [10] Therefore ought the woman to have a power over her head, because of the angels.

[10] "A power"... that is, a veil or covering, as a sign that she is under the power of her husband: and this, the apostle adds, because of the angels, who are present in the assemblies of the faithful.

Boniface said...

Uh, I checked Haydock, but that doesn't "solve" the problem because that's not what a lot of the Fathers thought.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I were talking about angels and the result of angels & women resulting in Giants. Then she continue digging and found your article. Many thanks for your research and work. It is most appreciated.


joannis said...

I believe that one of the true marks of devotion, piety, and adoration of the Blessed Trinity in worship is the supreme virtue of humility, expressed by the genders in ways appropriate to each one. It thus has a dignity, even a vocational dignity unto the end of holiness. As "God is holy" & we are called to be holy, we imitate, as it were, the holy family of Joseph and Mary. Thus I see the imitative value in veiling for women - imitative of the Holy Theotokos. She was veiled, because of her blinding holiness. Scripture says that Moses when he came down from the Mountain or exited the holy Tent of Meeting - that his countenance was bright & holy & thus needed to be veiled. So a woman humbly imitates her perfect Mother in Heaven, Mary Most Holy!

Anonymous said...

As a woman I humbly before the Lord want to ask this:
Even if woman would cover their hair ( head, )because it could possibly attract fallen angels or angels.. the beauty of her face is still showing, her body cirves are still showing through clothing( even if she would wear a big sack. Het bossom stands out, her hips are wide, .
Or does that long hair has something we dont know?
When Incover my hair for a gew hours I seriously get a headache🙂‍↕️
So I try to cover my head in church and keep a scarf nearby for when I want to pray at night.
But then… I constantly talk to the Father durong the day in my thoughts..
I am
A bit confused. I do my best however .

Boniface said...


Why would you cover your head for *hours*? The custom applies only to Mass/in the church. It does not apply when you are praying at home or in private. And the custom is not even still canonically binding; if you don't want to cover your head when you pray, then just don't do it.

As to your other question, it is something about hair specifically, but who knows the rationale. This was just the opinion of the Church Fathers and it might not be correct.