One of the reasons there are so many different beliefs among Christians is that many don’t seek to confirm what they are taught. Paul praised the Berean’s for going to the Scriptures to see if what he said was true. Today, most Christians don’t do this; they simply take what they are told or what they read at face value. If we are to get at the truth we need to go to primary sources not secondary or tertiary sources. If you want to know what Ben Franklin believed, the best way to do this is to read the writings of Ben Franklin, not someone who wrote a book about Ben Franklin. When we read a book about Ben Franklin written by someone else we get the authors opinions of Ben Franklin, as opposed to the words of Franklin himself.
In the same way, if we want to know what the early Christians believed and how they understood the teachings of Jesus and the apostles we need to read their writings, not books about their writings. We have a multitude of Bible commentaries available to us today; however, all they are is opinion. These writers were not there, they have no more ability to understand the Scriptures than you and I. Sure they may have studied the Scriptures more, but, that does not mean they are correct when they tell us what the Scriptures mean. It is easy to get two opposing commentaries on the same passage of Scripture; obviously they cannot both be correct. Most times modern commentators will make statements without giving any supporting evidence. For instance, it is not uncommon to find in a commentary on 1 Corinthians 11 the statement that the reason for the woman’s head covering was so that she would not be mistaken for a prostitute. Here are some excerpts from some popular commentaries.
"1 Corinthians 11:5 ( KJV )
Verse 5 Or prophesieth. Although St. Paul “thinks of one thing at a time,” and is not here touching on the question whether women ought to teach in public, it appears from this expression that the rule which he lays down in 1Co 14:34, 35, and 1Ti 2:12 was not meant to be absolute. See the case of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9 and 2:17). With her head uncovered. For a woman to do this in a public assembly was against the national custom of all ancient communities, and might lead to the gravest misconceptions. As a rule, modest women covered their heads with the peplum or with a veil when they worshipped or were in public. Christian women at Corinth must have caught something of the “inflation” which was characteristic of their Church before they could have acted with such reprehensible boldness as to adopt a custom identified with the character of immodest women." *
"With her head uncovered—That is, with the veil removed which she usually wore. It would seem from this that the women removed their veils, and wore their hair disheveled, when they pretended to be under the influence of divine inspiration. This was the case with the pagan priestesses; and in so doing, the Christian women imitated them. On this account, if on no other, Paul declares the impropriety of this conduct. It was, besides, a custom among ancient females, and one that was strictly enjoined by the traditional laws of the Jews, that a woman should not appear in public unless she were veiled. See this proved by Lightfoot in loco."
"But every woman that prayeth, etc.—Whatever may be the meaning of praying and prophesying, in respect to the man, they have precisely the same meaning in respect to the woman. So that some women at least, as well as some men, might speak to others to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. And this kind of prophesying or teaching was predicted by Joel, Joel 2:28, and referred to by Peter, Acts 2:17. And had there not been such gifts bestowed on women, the prophecy could not have had its fulfillment. The only difference marked by the apostle was, the man had his head uncovered, because he was the representative of Christ; the woman had hers covered, because she was placed by the order of God in a state of subjection to the man, and because it was a custom, both among the Greeks and Romans, and among the Jews an express law, that no woman should be seen abroad without a veil. This was, and is, a common custom through all the east, and none but public prostitutes go without veils. And if a woman should appear in public without a veil, she would dishonor her head—her husband. And she must appear like to those women who had their hair shorn off as the punishment of whoredom, or adultery." ***
We see that each of these commentaries states that woman did not go around unveiled unless they were prostitutes. However, take notice also that none of these commentaries has given any supporting evidence, they have simply stated this as fact. The problem is that when many Christians see this they simply accept it, especially when they see it in multiple commentaries, commentaries that are rather popular. However, is that really the case? Did all women veil their faces? Was it only the prostitutes that were unveiled? Well, let’s leave the secondary and tertiary sources and check some primary sources.
Below are several quotes from Tertullian.
"Chap. I.—Truth Rather to Be Appealed to than Custom, and Truth Progressive in Its Developments. Having already undergone the trouble peculiar to my opinion, I will show in Latin also that it behoves our virgins to be veiled from the time that they have passed the turning-point of their age: that this observance is exacted by truth, on which no one can impose prescription—no space of times, no influence of persons, no privilege of regions. For these, for the most part, are the sources whence, from some ignorance or simplicity, custom finds its beginning; and then it is successionally confirmed into an usage, and thus is maintained in opposition to truth." ****
"What, then, is the Paraclete’s administrative office but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the reformation of the intellect, the advancement toward the “better things?” (Cf. Hebrews 11:40, Hebrews 12:24) Nothing is without stages of growth: all things await their season. In short, the preacher says, “A time to everything.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, briefly) Look how creation itself advances little by little to fructification. First comes the grain, and from the grain arises the shoot, and from the shoot struggles out the shrub: thereafter boughs and leaves gather strength, and the whole that we call a tree expands: then follows the swelling of the germen, and from the germen bursts the flower, and from the flower the fruit opens: that fruit itself, rude for a while, and unshapely, little by little, keeping the straight course of its development, is trained to the mellowness of its flavour. (Cf. Mark 4:28) So, too, righteousness—for the God of righteousness and of creation is the same—was first in a rudimentary state, having a natural fear of God: from that stage it advanced, through the Law and the Prophets, to infancy; from that stage it passed, through the Gospel, to the fervour of youth: now, through the Paraclete, it is settling into maturity. He will be, after Christ, the only one to be called and revered as Master; (Cf. Matthew 23:8) for He speaks not from Himself, but what is commanded by Christ. (John 16:13) He is the only prelate, because He alone succeeds Christ. They who have received Him set truth before custom. They who have heard Him prophesying even to the present time, not of old, bid virgins be wholly covered." ****
"The virgins of men go about, in opposition to the virgins of God, with front quite bare, excited to a rash audacity; and the semblance of virgins is exhibited by women who have the power of asking somewhat from husbands, not to say such a request as that (forsooth) their rivals—all the more “free” in that they are the “hand-maids” of Christ alone (Cf. 1 Corinthians 7:21, 22)—may be surrendered to them. “We are scandalized,” they say, “because others walk otherwise (than we do);” and they prefer being “scandalized” to being provoked (to modesty)." ****
"Chap. XVII.—An Appeal to the Married Women.
But we admonish you, too, women of the second (degree of) modesty, who have fallen into wedlock, not to outgrow so far the discipline of the veil, not even in a moment of an hour, as, because you cannot refuse it, to take some other means to nullify it, by going neither covered nor bare. For some, with their turbans and woollen bands, do not veil their head, but bind it up; protected, indeed, in front, but, where the head properly lies, bare. Others are to a certain extent covered over the region of the brain with linen coifs of small dimensions—I suppose for fear of pressing the head—and not reaching quite to the ears. If they are so weak in their hearing as not to be able to hear through a covering, I pity them. Let them know that the whole head constitutes “the woman.” (1 Corinthians 11:6, etc) 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; in order that the necks too may be encircled. 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. 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." ****
"But how severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve, who, amid (the recital of) the Psalms, and at any mention of (the name of) God, continue uncovered; (who) even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness place a fringe, or a tuft, or any thread whatever, on the crown of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered? Of so small extent do they falsely imagine their head to be! Others, who think the palm of their hand plainly greater than any fringe or thread, misuse their head no less;" ****
"I add still one case more, as it will be proper to show you how it was among the ancients also. Among the Jews, so usual is it for their women to have the head veiled, that they may thereby be recognized" *****
Tertullian says that Jewish women were recognized because they were veiled. This is evidence that not all Gentile women were veiled, if they were then the Jewish women would not stand out
The followings is a quote from Clement of Alexandria
"Woman and man are to go to church decently attired, with natural step, embracing silence, possessing unfeigned love, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God. Let the woman observe this, further. Let her 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. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled." ******
So, we can see from looking at primary sources that it was not cultural customs that Paul was addressing, as we see in Paul’s epistle he was appealing to the created order not the cultural practices of the time.
This should give us good reason to do as the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see if those things are true. We can find this same thing with other teachings we find. The point being that we need to verify the things we are taught and not just accept them at face value. Just because something gets repeated over and over again, doesn’t mean that it’s true.
* The Pulpit Commentary – New Testament
** Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament
*** Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the New Testament
**** The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4
***** The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3
****** The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2