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Does the Bible Say it's Wrong for Women to Cut their Hair?

Unveiling the Myth

by Jason Young

 

The eleventh chapter of First Corinthians is one of the most difficult passages in the Pauline Epistles. As a result, it is perhaps one of the most frequently misinterpreted. One common misinterpretation is that it teaches that women should not cut their hair, but is that what this passage is really saying?

Interestingly, there is no consistent explanation given by those that believe that 1 Corinthians 11 requires women to keep their hair uncut. Some teach that Paul is instructing women not to cut their hair based on the belief that the word shorn in this passage means “cut at all.” Others believe that the word uncovered describes the head of a woman who has cut her hair. Still others teach that the words long hair in verses 14 and 15 or that the word hair by itself in the latter part of verse 15 means uncut hair. In practice, most adopt some combination of the above interpretations. In this article, we will examine each of these assertions in light of scriptural and historical evidence.

The word shorn used in 1 Corinthians 11 has been translated from the Greek word keiro, which means “to sheer: a sheep, to get or let be shorn, of shearing or cutting short the hair of the head.”
1 Keiro is used in two other places in the New Testament. The word is translated shearer in Acts 8:32 that reads, 

“… He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth…”

In this verse, keiro is used in reference to the shearing of sheep, which suggests more than just a simple trimming of the hair. Instead, it suggests a complete or near complete removal of hair from the skin. No one would suggest that a sheep has been shorn if only one lock of hair has been cut from the sheep, yet that is what those that maintain that shorn means “cut at all” are suggesting by saying that if a woman trims her hair (even unnoticeably), she is shorn.

Another place we see this word is in Acts 18:18, 

“And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow.” 

Here we see that Paul had taken the Nazarite vow. Those who took the Nazarite vow (both men and women) were required to cut off all of their hair at its completion (Num 6:18; cf. 6:2, 6:5), not simply trim it. 

Clearly, neither the definition of shorn nor the context in which it is used in the Bible ever refers to merely trimming or shortening one’s hair through cutting but always implies a near complete removal of hair.

To further illustrate this point, let’s look at the relevant verses in question more closely. 1 Cor 11:5,6 says, 

“But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.” 

Suggesting that shorn means “cut at all” fails to address what Paul means by covered and uncovered in these verses. As a result, those that have adopted this definition (cut at all) must then argue that when Paul refers to an uncovered head, he is describing the head of a person from which hair has been cut. In this scenario, shorn would refer to hair that has been cut and uncovered would refer to a head that has had hair cut from it. If this were the case, verse 6 would read, 

“For if the woman [has cut hair from her head], let her also [cut her hair]…” 

Obviously, this interpretation would render the reading of this verse illogical. As a result, anyone that takes the “uncut hair” position must abandon his original definition of shorn

In order to maintain the argument that this passage teaches strictly uncut hair for women, one must concede that shorn does not mean “to cut at all” but means “to cut shortly” or “nearly shaved,” which is the correct definition. With uncovered defined as a word describing a head from which any hair has been cut and shorn defined as “to cut shortly,” the verse would then read more logically:

“For if the woman [has cut hair from her head], let her also [cut the rest off]…” 

It could then be argued that Paul is saying that if a woman even trims her hair, she might as well cut off all off it. Looking at verse 6 in isolation, it is conceivable that this is what Paul is saying. This interpretation, however, is dependent upon two things. First, it must be shown that the word uncovered describes a head from which hair has been cut, and secondly, such an interpretation must be logically consistent within the text. 

The word uncovered comes from the Greek word akatakaluptos and is used only twice in the New Testament -- both times in 1 Corinthians 11. It means “not covered, unveiled”
2 and is a compound word derived from the Greek words kata meaning “down from, through out, according to, toward, along”3 and kalupto, which means “to hide, veil.”4 It is apparent that Paul is referring to the practice of veiling. A few have suggested that akatakaluptos is merely describing the way hair covers a woman’s head. This is highly unlikely considering the prevalence of veiling among women in first century Greco-Roman culture, and such suggestions have been rejected by most Bible scholars. 

Though the definition of uncovered by itself illustrates that Paul is referring to veils and not hair, the strongest argument against the uncut hair interpretation comes from within the scriptures themselves. Even though defining uncovered to describe a head from which hair has been cut and shorn to mean “nearly shaved” makes verse 6 more readable, such definitions render the remaining verses illogical.

If one defines uncovered as a head from which any hair has been cut, the following conclusions must be drawn: If a women that has long hair trims even an inch, she is uncovered. Similarly, if a man has long hair and trims it an inch, he too would be uncovered. Therefore, since a man is to pray or prophesy uncovered (vs. 4, 7), then it would be perfectly acceptable under these definitions for a man to have hair down to his waist as long as he periodically trimmed it because that would make him uncovered.

This brings us to the next argument made by some who advocate totally uncut hair on women -- that the word long hair in verses 14 and 15 or simply the word hair the last part of verse 15 refer to completely uncut hair. As before, let’s first examine the meaning of the words and then illustrate how such a definition would also render the reading of these passages illogical.

The word translated long hair in 1 Cor 11:14 and 15 is the Greek word komao. Komao means “to let the hair grow, to have long hair.”
5  At first glance, this definition might seem to suggest uncut hair as some assert. However, if this definition is put to the test by reading it into the passage, it logically fails for the same reasons the “uncovered” argument does. If indeed long hair in these verses means “completely uncut,” then if a woman had hair to her knees yet trimmed the dead ends she would no longer have “long hair.” Similarly, if a man had hair to his knees and trimmed the dead ends, he would be scripturally sound because he would not have “long hair.” These assertions are illogical, of course, but are necessitated by anyone defining long hair to mean “totally uncut.”

Kome is the Greek word for hair in the second half of verse 15 and simply means “hair or head of hair.”
6 Obviously, there is nothing in this definition that even implies uncut hair, but some suggest that it does. 

In the book, “Why? A Study of Christian Standards,” Paul Ferguson, M.Div, of the United Pentecostal Church states that, 

“According to the passages cited by Bauer and Moulton and Milligan's Vocabulary of Greek New Testament 'kome' is uncut hair. The passages cited by these works where this word occurs in Greek literature demand a meaning of 'uncut hair.'”7 

Ferguson then states that kome is used in Greek literature in relation to the Nazarite vow, but read Ferguson’s statement carefully. He never directly states that Bauer, Moulton and Milligan defined kome to mean “uncut hair,” because they never have. Yet that seems to be the impression he is trying to give. However, to suggest that kome means “uncut hair” is to ignore the fact that this same word can be used to describe cut hair.  Just as the English word hair is used to mean “uncut” in this phrase: 

“The hair of John the Baptist, a Nazarite from birth....” 

Hair can also be used to mean “cut shortly” as seen in the following phrase:

“The hair of Samson, after Delilah caused his fall...”

The futility of trying to find a teaching of strictly uncut hair for women in these passages is now seen. It is worthwhile, though, to examine a few more problems with the teaching that I Corinthians 11 requires strictly uncut hair on women.

Consider the lack of consistency among those that teach that it is wrong for women to cut their hair. As previously mentioned, some say the word shorn means “cut at all,” citing 1 Cor 11:6. Some say that uncovered describes a head from which hair has been cut, citing 1 Cor 11:5. This inconsistency and disagreement illustrates that those holding to these teachings are basing the scriptures on their beliefs instead of basing their beliefs on the scriptures. 

Consider also the question that Paul asks in verse 13, 

“Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”

Since the word comely refers to a woman’s appearance, the only way one can determine that it is not “comely” for a woman to pray uncovered is if being uncovered is visible. Often a woman can trim her bangs or her dead ends, and it is not visible to anyone. If Paul is referring to a woman cutting or trimming her hair, why does he ask this question when her cut or trimmed hair may not be visible? Apparently, Paul is saying that being uncovered is visible – to the point of being uncomely. 

Additionally, Paul is specific in his admonition saying that a woman is to be covered while “praying or prophesying.” This suggests a temporal nature to the covering  – something that can be taken off and put back on. If uncovered refers to a head from which hair has been cut, then why does Paul state that this is only forbidden while praying or prophesying? Why does he even mention praying or prophesying? Why doesn't he simply say in verse 5, “But every woman who has an uncovered head dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven,” leaving out “while praying or prophesying” altogether?  Clearly, hair is not something that can be put on prior to church and then taken off after the service, which indicates that Paul is referring to a temporal covering.

Furthermore, teaching that women are forbidden to cut their hair fails to consider the Nazarite vow, which was carried into the New Testament. John the Baptist was a Nazarite for his entire life, which means that he never cut his hair. In all likelihood, his hair was very long. As pointed out earlier, Paul himself took the Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18), and there were four disciples in Acts that did as well (Acts 21:23). The important part is that the Nazarite vow could be taken by both men and women (Num 6:2). If a woman took the vow, she, like a man, would be required to shave her head at the end of the vow. How could this be if a woman was absolutely forbidden from cutting her hair?

Perhaps more than anything else, the history and culture that surrounded the Corinthian church of the first century can illuminate Paul's subject and intention when writing eleventh chapter of First Corinthians. Corinth was not only under the political control of the Roman Empire at the time the epistle was written but was also greatly influenced by the culture and religions of the Roman Empire, much of which was borrowed from the Greeks. The predominant religious practice of that day was the cult worship of the Greco-Roman gods. One of the most prominent gods was Dionysus, the god of wine, which was especially popular among women. It was believed by his followers that Dionysus was a homosexual, she-male sort of character that had been raised as a female though born a male. As part of their worship, his followers would kill live animals by ripping them limb from limb and then drink the animal’s blood while eating the raw meat (cf. Acts 15:28,29). Worshipping the god of wine, they would also drink wine to the point of incoherence and engage in lewd homosexual acts with one another. It is the way these pagan worshippers dressed, however, that offers the most valuable insights into Paul's teachings in 
I Corinthians 11. 

According to researchers, the female worshippers of Dionysus would frequently dress like men.  They would remove their veils and either cut their hair very short or completely shave their heads. The men, attempting to imitate women, would grow their hair long and don veils during the worship ceremonies. 

In an article published in the “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society,” Catherine Clark writes that when women worshipped the god Dionysus, that the 

“...uncovered head and bound hair was to signify both commitment to the strange god of wine and at the same time repudiation of male injustice.”

In describing the practices of similar cults, Clark further states that, 

“A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress.”8

A telling artifact that was discovered is a vase painting from Corinth that depicts a woman dancing before Dionysus with a shaved head. 9  

Jimmilea Berryhill, M.A., adds additional insight: 

“In the Dionysiac cult, as well as other Greco-roman mystery rites, transvestitism was a specific distinction and by the second century A.D. was considered to be indispensable. Veils and long hair were worn by men as sign of dedication to their god while the women used unveiling and shorn hair. Men masqueraded as women and women as men.”10

It seems apparent, then, that the focus of Paul’s writings was to admonish the Corinthians to avoid paganistic and counter-culture practices. Essentially, the veiling of women was the cultural norm in Corinth and pagan worshippers rejected this practice out of rebellion against “the establishment.” Paul was merely instructing the women of Corinth not to remove their veils during worship either because they too were rebelling or because they would be inappropriately identified with pagan practices, or both. By admonishing the women to wear veils and the men not to wear veils during worship, he was instructing the church to not engage in or be identified with the rebellious cross-dressing practices of the pagans that included female unveiling and male veiling.  Furthermore, Paul's reference to shorn and shaven heads as being shameful in 1 Cor 11:6 also seems to be directly related to the practices of the pagan women in and around Corinth.

Some suggest that in 11:15, which says, “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering” that Paul was stating that a woman’s hair is given to her  instead of a covering. Considering the cultural surroundings of the Corinthian church, this is highly unlikely. If Paul is indeed saying that hair replaces a man-made covering, or veil, then he would be giving license to rebel against the cultural norm in Corinth.  This would not only contradict the common preaching and practice of Paul that Christians should be sensitive to the culture and customs surrounding them (cf. Acts 16:3, 1 Cor 8, 1 Cor 10:33, Romans 14) but would also cause the Corinthian women to be associated with paganism. 

That 1 Corinthians 11 refers to the practice of veiling was universally agreed upon by the early church as evidenced in their writings. Not one single early church writer ever wrote that 1 Corinthians 11 taught strictly uncut hair (see chart).

If these verses are primarily dealing with the practice of veiling, then what implications does this have for the church today? To fully understand Paul’s teachings and their implications, it is best to read the entire passage in context, verse by verse. 

11:3 – “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”

This is perhaps the most important verse in this chapter, for it is the basis of the entire passage. Paul is teaching that there is a spiritually ordained, hierarchical arrangement between man, woman, Christ and God. God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of the woman. It must be noted that woman in these passages does not refer to the female sex in general, but a wife.11  These passages define the relationship between a man, his wife (woman) and God.  This arrangement is one of spiritual leadership. Jesus Christ was not an authoritarian, but a servant-leader and as such, this is the role that the man should play in the household and in the church. He, in following the example of Christ, should be a servant-leader to his family and to the church. A true servant-leader, as Christ was, never takes a heavy-handed, dictatorial approach to those in his charge but leads by example in love.

11:4 – “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.”

A man wearing a veil is effeminate and dishonors his head, Jesus Christ (v. 3), because he is rejecting the spiritually ordained hierarchy by rebelling against the role that he has been placed in by God.

11:5 – “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”

Likewise, any woman that refused to wear a veil was also rejecting God’s spiritually ordained hierarchy by rebelling against a custom of that day that showed her submission to her husband. In fact, she was committing the same sin of rebellion committed by the pagan women who cast off their veils and shaved their heads in protest against “male dominance.” Veiling was a custom practiced by women to show their commitment to their husbands in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

11:6 – “For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.”

If a woman refused to wear a veil as the pagan women did, she might as well shave her head as the pagan women did. However, since such pagan practices were shameful, then the women should have put on a veil while worshipping. 

11:7-9 – “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.  For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.  Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”

At this point, we begin to see that Paul is speaking as much about spiritual coverings as he is about physical coverings. God, through Jesus Christ, is man’s spiritual “covering,” and man is woman’s spiritual “covering.” Again, this is a reflection of the servant-leader role played by Christ to mankind and of the servant-leader role played by man to his wife. A man is to act as a spiritual protector, or covering, for his wife as Christ does for us. The man-made covering (the veil) was a symbol of this relationship, providing a sign of spiritual submission by the wife to the husband. By refusing to wear a veil, the Corinthian women were showing a rebellion towards this Godly relationship.  Verses 8 and 9 tell us that just man was created for God, woman was created for man. As such, the spiritually ordained hierarchy has been in place since the creation of mankind. 

11:10 – “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.”

The word power in this verse is the Greek word exousia and refers to hierarchical authority.12 Since woman was created for man, then a woman should have “power on her head” or, in other words, authority over her. Furthermore, a woman should not rebel against this divine relationship as the pagan women did because doing so is the sin of rebellion which was also committed by the angels that followed Lucifer – they too rejected the authority over them, which was God.

11:11,12 – “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.  For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.”

Though woman was created for man, man also exists today because the woman gives birth to man. Paul is teaching that there is a check and balance. Man does not have sovereign authority over a woman, for both were made by God. God alone is the sovereign authority.

It is important to understand that these passages are not giving permission to men to be authoritarian or dictatorial towards their wives and families. Paul expressly states that man is not the ultimate authority over the woman, but God is. God requires man to fill a role in the family as a servant-leader and as a provider. Being a provider is much more than bringing home a paycheck. Man must also be a provider of spiritual and emotional needs. Just as a woman must recognize the institution of family and her role therein, a man must also recognize his role to provide financial, emotional and spiritual support for his family (1 Tim 5:8). The man who rebels against these responsibilities is also in sin. 

11:13 – “Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”

Since veiling of women was commonplace in the Corinthian culture as a sign of submission, any woman seen praying without a veil would have been repugnant to the observer. To them, the women would be praying to God while simultaneously rebelling against Him.

11:14 – “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" 

In the pagan culture of Corinth, men often wore long hair to appear feminine. The “shame” here is not so much the long hair itself, as many men in the Bible including John the Baptist had long hair (e.g. the Nazarite vow), but the attempt to appear feminine and reject the male role.

11:15 – “But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” 

A woman’s long hair is a glory in that it is a natural covering that, like the veil, reflects her acceptance of her husband as her spiritual covering.  In reflecting her acceptance of her husband's role, God is also glorified. Paul is not saying that her hair is given instead of a covering (as addressed previously). He is merely reinforcing his original argument for female veiling, not contradicting it by saying that a woman’s hair replaces the veil. 

11:16 – “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”

While this verse is translated as saying, “no such custom,” most Bible scholars agree that it would be more appropriately translated, “no other custom.” Paul is saying that if anyone wishes to be divisive over this, tell them that we accept nothing less than veiling in the church of God. It is unlikely that Paul would have gone through such a lengthy discourse only to say in the end, “Well, if you disagree, that’s okay because we don’t have such a custom anyway.” Neither is Paul referring to being contentious as not being a custom in the church. Veiling is indeed a custom, but it would be inaccurate to call contentiousness a custom.

Veiling was a custom in much of the Roman Empire and Paul frequently upheld customs, even when they weren’t laws, just as he does here. In Acts 16:3, Paul saw to it that Timothy was circumcised, not because it was law, but because Paul was culturally sensitive to those he was witnessing to. This is one of the reasons Paul wrote to the Corinthians about veiling. Veiling isn’t a law or a requirement, but Paul admonished the Corinthians to continue in the practice, or else they could have been identified with paganism and become a stumbling block to believers and unbelievers alike. In cultures today that still practice veiling, it is only appropriate for Christians in those societies to continue in their custom.  In cultures that do not veil, no requirement is placed upon them by this passage.

1 Corinthians 11 is a complex chapter in the Bible, but it provides great insights into Christian conduct, and it can be understood. Once a person recognizes the core issue that Paul is writing about, it becomes apparent that hair is the least of Paul’s concerns. For that matter, veiling itself is somewhat secondary. 

In the early Gentile church, as it is in many cultures today, veiling was a symbol representing submission to authority. By women removing their veils, they (at the very least) were mimicking the rebellious pagan women of their day that removed their veils to show their disdain for male headship.  It is likely that some of the Corinthian women weren't just mimicking a fad, though, but were actually showing their own disdain for male headship. In doing so, they were revealing a rebellion in their hearts toward their husbands and toward God, and rebellion is the very sin that caused one-third of the angels to fall.  While the veil was merely a symbolic custom, the rebellion in the heart that led to rejecting its use was quite real.  Paul's actual concern here is not about hair, or even veils for that matter, but about spiritual authority and the necessity of recognizing it in the Christian life. 


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Bibliography:

1-Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Keiro". "The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon". Strong's # 2751.

2-Ibid. "Greek Lexicon entry for Akatakaluptos". Strong's # 177.

3-Ibid. "Greek Lexicon entry for Kata". Strong's # 2596.

4-Ibid. "Greek Lexicon entry for Kalupto". Strong's # 2572.

5-Ibid.  "Greek Lexicon entry for Komao". Strong's # 2863.

6-Ibid.  "Greek Lexicon entry for Kome". Strong's # 2864.

7-Paul Ferguson. "Why? A Study of Christian Standards". Word Aflame Press.

8-Catherine Clark Kroeger. "The Apostle Paul And The Greco-Roman Cults Of Women". " Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society". March, 1987. 

9-L. R. Farnell." Cults of the Greek States".  5, 275-280. Published by Oxford. 

10-Rev. Jimmilea Berryhill, M.A. "First Century Woman - Hellenic and Latin Influences on Western Views of Women". Published at: www.restorationfoundation.org.

11-Thayer and Smith. "Greek Lexicon entry for Gune". "The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon".  Strong's # 1135.

12-Ibid. "Greek Lexicon entry for Exousia". Strong's # 1849
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