Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney

This article was written for Ethos, the Evangelical Alliance Centre for Christianity and Society (in Australia), and appears on their website here

On the last Saturday in May, three thousand Christian women attended a conference at the Sydney Convention Centre, while another sixteen hundred women viewed conference sessions via a live stream. In one session, on the topic of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, a speaker showed a photo of actress Kristen Stewart with a buzz cut. And the idea was put forward that there is something rebellious about long hair for men and short hair for women.[1]

Does Kristen Stewart’s short hair have any relevance to Paul’s comments on hair in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth? What were Paul’s views or concerns about women’s hair or head coverings? And what, if any, is the relevance of short or long hair for Christian women living in Sydney today?

The Respectable Roman Matron

In the first century AD, Corinth was a Roman colony and its inhabitants were bound by Roman law. Some of these laws governed what men and women wore and how they presented themselves in public. As in other parts of the Roman Empire, Corinthian society was highly stratified and class conscious, and most of the laws concerning appearance were directly tied to a person’s social status.

For example, only a Roman matron, a respectable married or widowed woman, could wear a stola, a long dress worn over a basic tunic. And only a matron could wear a palla, a garment like a shawl that could be pulled over the head when stepping out of doors. Wearing a stola, and wearing a palla or veil, was a status symbol. These garments signified that a woman was married or widowed and that she was sexually unavailable. Wearing the usual garb of a Roman matron offered women protection against sexual harassment, as it was illegal for a man to ask for sex or to molest a woman when she was out in public if she was dressed as a matron.

A palla or veil did not signify subordination, as some have suggested.[2] In fact, the most subordinate of women in Roman society did not wear veils. It was illegal for slaves, prostitutes, freedwomen, and women from the lowest classes to wear either a stola or a palla. In usual social contexts, they were forbidden by law from veiling their heads in public.

There were no laws to protect poorer women or slave women from sexual harassment, and there were no laws to protect upper class women who chose not to dress as matrons. In Australia, however, we have sexual harassment laws and sexual assault laws which apply to everyone, and potentially protect everyone, both men and women, regardless of social standing or what they wear.

But what about the hairstyles of Corinthian women?

First century Roman woman, Stabiae

Hairstyles of the Rich and Not So Rich

Statues, busts, reliefs, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics and coins survive which depict first-century Roman women. Almost none of these women wear a veil. Their heads are exposed, and so we can see that many had elaborate hairstyles with intricate braids or curls.[3] In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says nothing at all about veils, but urges women not to wear fancy hairstyles (or costly jewellery or luxurious clothing) (cf. 1 Pet. 3:3). If the women in Ephesus were wearing veils, their hair would be covered and the problem of intricately braided hairstyles, as a display and statement of wealth, would not have posed so much of a problem for the Christian community at Ephesus. But Paul’s solution isn’t veils, it is simpler, less ostentatious hairstyles.

The norm was that Roman women, whether rich or poor, had long hair. It was socially accepted that women in mourning might let their hair down. It was less socially accepted that women in certain pagan cults let their hair down in frenzied worship. So even though women generally had long hair, it was almost always tied up in some way with bands or braids or knots. There is a current trend in Sydney for young women to tie up their hair in a topknot or bun, but this is all about fashion and says nothing at all about a woman’s status or respectability.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, there seems to be a concern that men look like men and women look like women while they are praying and prophesying.[4] The reason for this concern would have been understood by the Corinthians, but we can only guess at what the reason was. In our society, however, gender distinctions remain even if men have “man buns” or women have short haircuts. Kristen Stewart looks undeniably female with her short hairstyle. There is no ambiguity about her gender. Queen Elizabeth II, as one other example, has a short hairstyle, and no one would suggest she is being rebellious or blurring gender distinctions.

In our mostly egalitarian society of Sydney, hairstyles, whether short or long, whether tied up or loose, do not denote status. A man or woman’s hairstyle tells us nothing about their morality or wealth, or their marital status or Christian faith, etc.[5]

Bald Prostitutes or Shorn Adulteresses?

So what do we make of the statement in 1 Corinthians 11:6b, “If it is disgraceful for a woman to have short hair or to be shaved, then she should keep her head covered”?

I’ve heard people say that prostitutes were bald in Corinth and this is what Paul alludes to in verse 6.[6] But there is simply no evidence for bald prostitutes in Corinth or elsewhere in the Roman world. Frescoes and artwork on pottery show that prostitutes, both male and female, typically had a full head of hair.

It wasn’t prostitutes who were bald. Rather, 1 Corinthians 11:6 probably refers to a punishment that could be applied to women of the upper classes who were caught committing adultery or prostituting themselves. By law, an adulteress could have her hair cut very short and she was no longer permitted to wear any garment indicative of a matron. Instead, she was compelled to wear a plain toga.[7] These were signs of her disgrace. In Australia, we have no such laws. In our society, we have no hairstyles which signify a disgraced woman (or a disgraced man).

Corinth in Context

The problem with fully understanding and applying any of the letters in the New Testament is that we only have one side of the conversation. However, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he does allow us to hear snippets from the other side: Paul occasionally quotes from either a letter or a report he received from the Corinthians.[8] I suspect that 1 Corinthians 11:2-10 contains ideas that were being pushed by a faction within the Corinthian church.[9] Paul’s words, beginning with “except that” in verse 11, critique or address the previous verses point by point. [10] In verses 11-16, Paul brings correction, or more complete thoughts, and he briefly explains the mutuality and interdependence of men and women who are “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11-12; cf. 11:8-9).

It seems that Paul was not interested in whether women were veiled in church meetings, especially as churches met in homes, in domestic settings; and women did not usually wear veils in homes. (Matrons only covered their heads in public settings.)[11] Moreover, Paul states that a woman’s hair is given in place of a covering or garment, that is, a woman’s head is covered by her own hair (1 Cor. 11:15).

If Paul was not concerned about the hair and veiling of women in ancient Corinth, where there were laws and customs which gave these things significance, how much less concerned would he be with the hairstyles of Sydney women where we have no such laws and customs? If Paul wrote to us today, he might repeat his words, “But if someone wants to argue about this, we don’t have such a custom, nor do God’s churches” (1 Cor. 11:16).


[1] Source: http://www.fixinghereyes.org/single-post/2017/06/04/Jesus-and-the-womens-fringe (Love this article!)

[2] “Covered hair in public represented modesty, honor, status and protection for a woman . . .” Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 31.

[3] Only wealthy women could afford the special slaves whose role was to fashion these hairstyles which often included fancy hairpieces. Wealthy women also wore wigs, often dyed and elaborately styled.

[4] Both men and women could pray aloud (to God) and prophecy aloud (for God) in Corinthian assemblies. There is no hint in First Corinthians that women were excluded from some ministries (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:4-31).

[5] There are a few exceptions. For instance, a person wearing a barrister’s wig gives a clear indication of their profession and their status within their profession.

[6] For example, one author writes that prostitutes in Corinth “went around bare-headed.” Kathryn J. Riss, Journey’s End: Removing “Biblical” Barriers Between Women and their Destiny (New York: Writers Club Press, 2003), 229. The author doesn’t provide a footnote with a source for this information because there is no evidence for bald prostitutes.

[7] Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Women: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 30.

[8] Some of these quotes include, “It is not good for a man to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1); “We all possess knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:1); “There is no resurrection” and “Christ has not been raised” (1 Cor. 15:12, 14); and perhaps 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

[9] First Corinthians was written in response to a verbal report from Chloe’s people (1 Cor. 1:11), and in response to a letter Paul had received from the Corinthians asking his advice.

[10] See Margaret Mowczko, The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/the-chiasm-in-1-corinthians-11_2-16/

[11] I recommend Bruce Winter’s book which looks at some of the laws which governed a woman’s appearance in ancient Roman society. On one of his points I disagree, however. He writes, “It was not that Christian women had entered a home and were simply removing their veil because they were no longer in public.” Winter, Roman Wives, 96. I believe this was indeed what was happening in Corinthian church meetings.

Image credit: Excerpt of a fresco from Stabiae showing a first-century Roman woman. (Source: Wikimedia)

Quick thoughts on helping and “headship” in response to comments made by speakers at the Equip conference

I’ve wanted to write an article about hair and 1 Corinthians 11 for a while, and the comments about short hair made at the Equip conference gave me the motivation to do so. However, much more worrying comments were made. One friend, who enjoyed the conference, told me that the women were encouraged to help men and be supportive of men in the church. My concern with this idea is that helping someone shouldn’t be based on gender. Surely we are all to help one another according to our abilities and situation, and not according to gender. More on this here: http://newlife.id.au/women-helpers-of-men/ (Note that Paul asks Christians, both men and women, to help women ministers in Romans 16:1-2 and Philippians 4:2-3.)

A more disturbing statement made at the conference was, “[Male] headship is actually a gift to protect us [women] from abuse.” (This comment also appears on Equip’s Facebook page.) Abuse from who exactly?
I do not believe that Paul’s use of the Greek word for “head” in Ephesians 5:21-33 means that a husband has more authority than his wife. Furthermore, the faulty idea that men have an authority, which women supposedly lack, contributes to the abuse of women. More on Paul’s use of “head” here: http://newlife.id.au/kephale-and-male-headship-in-pauls-letters/

Related Articles

The Chiasm In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?

Journalist Julia Baird has written an article in response to the conference, posted on the ABC News website, here.

Posted June 5th, 2017 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Greco-Roman Culture, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

21 comments on “Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney

  1. Cassandra Wright says:

    Thank you for more information on this. My hair simply hates to be long. It is easier and less time consuming to let it be short as it wishes. It is very fine and I look like an egg with it wet. I have also been faithful to my beloved husband of 40 yrs. But, WOW, do I get nasty remarks from traditionalists and complementarians who tell me that my shorn head testify to my rebellious nature and worse.

    I often laugh at how many women in some very restrictive Christian circles wear their hair in braids despite Paul’s saying not to.

    I have often told people of Roman hairstyles, and then look at what we think of them today. For example, in most of Americans, braids are usually thought of as OK for children, old women and women of color. For the most part they are not considered stylist or a sign of class. I think Paul was telling us to basically fit in with what styles are most appropriate for women in our own culture. We don’t want our hair to be a work of wonder, or drab to the point that we stand out. In my words, not too much Beverly Hillbillies or too much Beverly Hills. And mostly, I don’t think God is really concerned about our hair styles.

    • Marg says:

      hahaha. Not exactly sure what “Beverly Hillbillies” might look like, but you are spot on with “Beverly Hills”. It was the rough equivalent of “Beverly Hills” that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy 2:9-10.

      • Cassandra Wright says:

        The Beverly Hillbillies was an American TV show years back about a poor family of hill people, poor farmers who were part of the culture of the Ozarks. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but a common phrase for it would be “redneck” now. These were a very plain family, wore old fashioned worn out clothes, ate squirrel and rabbit. In other words, about as opposite of Beverly Hills as you can get.

        I think Paul’s idea was that Christians dress, wear their hair, etc., like the respected “normal” people of the time. He didn’t want them to be dowdy, but certainly not showy, either. We do not want to bring shame to Jesus and the church by looking like temple prostitutes or looking like we spend all out time and money on our appearance. He didn’t want to have outsiders being distracted by our clothing to either extreme. I think that the plain dressing of some sects is a distracting as the Beverly Hill look. I believe that Paul was concerned about all these things.

  2. Knut AK says:

    So many christians seem to believe that God is enormously concerned with our appearance and all the outward aspects about us. I have to admit that this upsets me quite a bit. It’s not just one wrong thing, it’s a whole wrong perspective. But it’s very human, I guess. «The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.» (1 Samuel 16:7, NIV translation)

    God, I think, is not at all interested in regulating our lives, as so many seem to think. He is interested in us being inwardly transformed (Romans 12:2).

    As Cassandra says, God is not concerned about our hair styles. Nor do I think God is concerned about blurring or not blurring gender distinctions.

    And I don’t think Paul here means to give any prescriptions about hairstyle at all. He gives only one prescription in this section, in verse 10. The talk about hair is meant IMO to show that «nature» is on Paul’s side in the matter. «Nature» is «voting» with Paul here.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks for highlighting the most important principle in this discussion. God is indeed much more concerned, or interested, with our heart–our disposition, attitudes, and motivations–than with what we look like.

      I guess what we look like may affect, both positively or negatively our brothers and sisters, so I don’t think we can always wear whatever we like, as in 1 Timothy 2:9-10.

  3. Craighton Hippenhammer says:

    My friend Dr. Troy Martin has tackled the inherent difficulty of I Cor. 11:2-16 where Paul appears to argue that on the one hand women should veil their heads while praying or prophesying but on the other hand their hair provides the necessary “covering,” by saying that the Greek word usually translated here as “covering” really should be translated “testicle.” Dr. Martin has specialized in understanding ancient Roman understandings of medical science, which is quite different than ours. See his article here: Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13–15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering,”JBL123(2004): 75–84. And a Duke professor takes him to task here: markgoodacre.org/peribolaionJBL.pdf.

    Just wondering if you’d come across this unusual (a bit wild but intriguing) interpretation of this passage.

    • Marg says:

      Hello Craighton,

      I’ve read Troy Martin’s paper previously with interest and discussed it with a number of people. I’m not sold on his ideas, but they are unforgettable, so I do keep them in mind.

      On page 30 (fn 91) of her recent book Paul and Gender, Westfall briefly comments on Martin’s paper and writes, “The nature of the sexual attraction of women’s hair and the fact that an uncovered hair was indecent are overplayed by Martin (“Paul’s Argument), who argues that peribolaion is a testicle. For a response, see Mark Goodacre, “Does peribolaion Mean ‘Testicle’ in 1 Corinthians 11:15?,” JBL 130 (2011): 391-96.”

      Thanks for the link to Goodacre’s article. I haven’t read it yet.

      • Craighton Hippenhammer says:

        Dr. Martin almost always responds to his critics, so I emailed him and asked for his response to Mark Goodacre’s criticism, and of course he had published such a response: “Περιβόλαιον as ‘Testicle’ in 1 Cor 11:15: A Response to Mark Goodacre.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (2013): 453-465.

  4. Jan says:

    Good article. it is amazing how much a misunderstanding of scripture can affect an entire culture.
    I am thinking of the Amish and Mennonites of the USA who have interpreted these verses from 1 Corinthians to create an entire culture where the head covering of women is of paramount importance. So much so, that those who are not of the same belief are considered to be “of the world”.

    • Marg says:

      I know next to nothing about the Amish and Mennonites, but I am aware of some evangelical women in western countries who are adopting head coverings because of a mistaken belief that it is a vital expression of faith. 🙁

      • Cassandra Wright says:

        Something fun about those young bonneted Amish women, esp the younger ones. Unless the bishop of their area tells them that they all have to wear their hair the same way, you will see all sorts of different styles of braids. Braids, mind you, that Paul mentions specifically. There winds up being a lot of competition among the young women as to who can make the smallest/largest amount, or the highest number, etc. But as long as they have those prayer bonnets on, it is fine. Once the women get married, they no longer have the need to compete with the other girls. With such restrictions on their clothing, the women will find creative ways to express their individuality.

        The Amish faith concerns more about obeying the rules of the church, and not as much about salvation by faith. Trying to earn salvation by obeying the law does not work out well, especially when obeying the letter of the law and missing the spirit of it completely.

    • Jo says:

      I am from an Amish/Mennonite background in the US Midwest, and I can tell you that a head covering is a big deal! Jan is correct! And, at least in my experience, the teaching was that the head covering indicated submission because of the order of Creation. Female church members, married or single, even 14-yr-olds (for example)had a certain prescribed head covering during the church service. Then, in time, there came to be a smaller head covering for activities other than the formal church time. This could be no more than a small piece of cloth, maybe a 1″ wide ribbon, maybe 4″ long, on the top of the head. It didn’t cover much at all! ha Merely symbolic. Nevertheless, this denomination still adheres to this even now. I, however, am “of the world”, as Jan says, and not everyone would consider me even a believer. I am certainly not considered the same as the church members are. My official designation is someone who is a “friend of the truth”.

  5. Adi Paterson says:

    This scholarship based approach makes sense and provides the context which is crucial to sound interpretation. The value of this is inestimable, as is the measured use of of the background. Women need our voice to be amplified, so that the church to which Paul wrote, and worried about, can be unleashed today.

    • Cassandra Wright says:

      Interesting how Paul was giving these women ways to represent Christ in the world and church. His words allowed women to step out of the bonds of paganism and the often sheltered life of the “decent” women of the time. Now the church too often uses the same words to keep women in bondage to the law, and push women back into a sheltered life. I expect Paul rolls over in his grave about this.

  6. Dalaina May says:

    Wonderful as always, Marg!

    You know, I’ve lived most of my life outside of the West now, and when I encounter pretty much any prescriptive theological perspective, I always ask, “Would this work for a poor single mom in Africa?” If it doesn’t, I won’t give it the time of day.

    The “long-hair” rant is very racist because it excludes my African sisters whose hair cannot grow long from being able to be obedient to God. It doesn’t hold up. God’s directives aren’t for a small subset of the population.

    • Marg says:

      And it wouldn’t have worked in many places where men had long hair, such as China until the 19th century, many native American nations, ancient Israel, etc.

      Jesus is typically depicted as having long hair. If he really did have long hair, he certainly wasn’t being rebellious.

    • April says:

      A most excellent point!

  7. Patricia Hayward says:

    A careful exegesis and hermeneutic of the Bible shows that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.
    I try to use inclusive language so shall I say that God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Comforter, expressed as the Trinity, oppose hierarchies and wanted to bring in a new but not yet kingdom.
    Many Aussies don’t want us to be under a monarchy so maybe a more helpful term would be to say the clearly revealed desire is for a community of equals.
    The word “headship” appears NOWHERE in the Bible.
    A basic rule in studying the Bible is that the obscure gives way to the clear. The head covering thing is obscure.
    Galations 3:28 is, however, pretty clear. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    • Cassandra Wright says:

      A round of applause goes out to you! I often use the verse about baptizing the dead as an example of trying to make a rule out of a verse we don’t understand. As far as I know, there is only one church that baptizes for the dead, and that church is heretical. We don’t understand what Paul meant, or who he was writing about, there is nothing else in the Bible that supports the idea. We find the thought of making doctrine from something so esoteric to be totally unacceptable. Yet, too many Christians feel perfectly justified in using that same technique in those few verses about women. If we call them on us, they call us rebellious, etc. If it weren’t so maddening, it would truly be funny.

  8. Another great piece. I too always thought that in that culture women who had their heads shaved were prostitutes and Paul was referring to the custom of women covering their heads in public and if they didn’t they might as well cut their hair which would have been disgraceful since that is what the prostitutes did. Plus only pagan women went out in public without a head covering. You gave a really new insightful info on this subject matter. Thanks again. God Bless

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