Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Hair Lengths and Hairstyles in the Bible

INTRODUCTION

Hairstyles and hair lengths are mostly influenced by culture. And within each culture, certain styles, especially in the past but also today, can convey status, reflect national identity, indicate religious beliefs and ideologies, and signify professions.[1] Hairstyles also typically differ, even if only slightly, between men and women.

In modern societies, the way a person wears their hair can simply be an expression of someone’s personal taste. However, some styles can make strong and provocative statements.

In this article, I look at what the Bible says about hairstyles and hair lengths and at their significance, if any. Does God care about how long our hair is? Or how we style our hair?

HAIRSTYLES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Hair Lengths in First-Century Roman Corinth

Back in the mid-first century when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, respectable Roman men had plain short hairstyles and were usually clean-shaven. Respectable Roman women had long hair, tied up with bands. It seems some men and women in the Corinthian church were renouncing their sexuality and were wearing hairstyles, or had hair lengths, that blurred gender distinctions.[2]

Paul disapproved and told them,

“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory (doxa)? For her hair is given to her as a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:14–15).

Towards the end of the first century, some Roman men were wearing their hair slightly longer and were sporting beards. Fashions change. Paul’s point was not about styles, as such. Rather, he didn’t want men and women in Corinth, especially those who were praying and prophesying in church meetings, to ignore gender distinctions and gender markers of their culture. This could have spoiled the reputation (doxa) of the Christians in broader society and, ultimately, the reputation of God.

I explain the context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 here.
I have an article on Paul’s use of “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14 here.
I look at 1 Corinthians 7, where we see that some were renouncing sex and marriage, here.

Jewish Vows and Hair Lengths

Jewish men and women grew and cut their hair when making certain kinds of vows (cf. Jer. 7:29). Acts 18:18 mentions in passing that Paul shaved his head at Cenchrea (a port town of Corinth where Phoebe was a minister) because of a vow he had made. But we are given no information about his vow.

Cutting or shaving off hair, in the context of vows, is also mentioned in Acts 21:22–24, 26, and is connected with purification and the temple in Jerusalem. These verses contain advice that was given to Paul who was now in Jerusalem.

“We have four men who have made a vow. Take these men, purify yourself along with them, and pay for them to get their heads shaved” (Acts 21:23b–24).
“So the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering would be made for each of them” (Acts 21:26).

Paul had been accused of teaching the Gentiles to ignore the Law of Moses which made some Jewish people angry. The hope was that by following Jewish rituals, Paul’s opponents would be appeased. But it didn’t work, and a riot resulted before the seven days of his vow were completed (Acts 21:27ff; cf. Acts 24:18).

Bernice, Herod the Great’s great-granddaughter, cut her hair and went barefoot as part of a 30-day vow she made in Jerusalem. We hear about this because, despite her unusual appearance, she was compelled to appear before Gessius Florus (Roman procurator of Judea from 64 until 66) and ask that he stop his violence towards the Jewish population in Jerusalem (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.15.1 §313).

Braided Hairstyles on First-Century Women

Both Paul and Peter cautioned women in Asia Minor about having hairstyles that were symbols of wealth and status. Only rich women, who had specially trained slaves, wore elaborately braided hairstyles.

“… I want the women to adorn themselves with modest and sensible fashions, not with fancy braided hair-dos, gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess to be godly” (1 Timothy 2:9–10).
“Don’t let your beauty consist of outward things, such as, the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear, but rather what is inside the heart —the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is valuable in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3–4).

Some hairstyles worn by elite women became extremely intricate and ostentatious towards the end of the first century and into the second. And several secular ancient authors also wrote against this fashion trend.

I have more on the cultural context of 1 Timothy 2:9-10 here.
And more on 1 Peter 3:3-4, especially regarding “a gentle and quiet spirit,”  here.

HAIRSTYLES IN THE HEBREW BIBLE

Long Hair on Men

Some men in the Old Testament, perhaps most, had longish hair and there were regulations about Israelite men not cutting their hair in certain ways (Lev. 19:27, 21:5). Jeremiah speaks about a distinctive hairstyle, cutting the hair around the temples, that was pagan and unacceptable for Israelites (Jer. 9:25–26; 25:23; 49:32). Short cut hair on men could be a sign of mourning or distress (e.g., Mic. 1:15–16), but so was loosened and dishevelled longer hair.[3]

Note however, that many men may have worn a kind of turban which hid their hair. We know that turbans were worn by priests and high-status Israelite men in the Bible. (See here.) Perhaps they were worn widely. Turbans are still worn by some men in the Middle East and parts of Asia today. Baldness, which was not regarded as a good look (Isa. 3:22; cf. Lev. 13:40; 2 Kings 2:23), could be conveniently hidden by a turban.

The following are the only Bible passages in the Hebrew Bible that I could find that give some indication of hair length for men.

Long Hair on Men Dedicated to God

There are regulations about Nazarites, men and also women who vowed and dedicated themselves to the Lord. One of these regulations was that they grew their hair during the period of dedication and then cut it short when the vow was complete. (See Num. 6). Other people devoted to the Lord also grew their hair.

Samson had long hair that was never cut until the Philistines shaved it off (Judg. 13:5; 16:17). Samuel seems to have had long hair too. When asking God for a son, Samuel’s mother Hannah vowed, “I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut” (1 Sam. 1:11). It is possible John the Baptist also had long hair (cf. Luke 1:13–17). These three men were dedicated to the Lord for special life-long service. Did Jesus have long hair?

Hairstyles for Priests

In Leviticus 10:6, Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar are told not to loosen their hair, a sign of mourning. This was when Aaron’s other sons Nadab and Abihu were killed because of their unauthorised offerings (cf. Lev. 21:10–11). That Aaron had hair that could be loosened may indicate that he and his sons, who were all priests, had long hair.[4] However, the Hebrew verb used here, פָרַע (para’), might also mean “uncover” (cf. Lev. 10:6 KJV).

Hundreds of years later, the Levitical priests descended from Zadok were given this instruction: “They may not shave their heads or let their hair grow long, but are to carefully trim their hair” (Ezek. 44:20; cf. Ezek. 44:17–19). This regulation is not mentioned previously in the Bible, so perhaps former priests or priests not descended from Zadok may have grown their hair long.

Ezekiel the Prophet

In Ezekiel 5, God gave Ezekiel, who was a priest and a prophet, a prophecy that he had to act out. It involved shaving off the hair on his head and shaving off his beard. This hair was then weighed and divided in three portions and dealt with in three different ways (Ezek. 5:2), with a few leftover hairs being treated differently. This prophetic sign would have only worked well visually if Ezekiel had plenty of long hair.

Ezekiel 8:3 might also indicate that the prophet normally had longish hair: “He stretched out what appeared to be a hand and took me by the hair of my head.” It’s difficult to take someone by the hair if it is short.

Absalom the Prince

Absalom was King David’s son and of royal blood. He had famously long hair and had to cut it once a year because it grew too thick and heavy (2 Sam. 14:26). Unfortunately, his hair led to his downfall when it got stuck in a tree (2 Sam. 18:9), but there’s nothing to indicate that his long hair was inappropriate. In fact, the Bible describes his good looks and long locks positively (2 Sam. 14:25–26).

MORE HAIRSTYLES IN BIBLE

People with Skin Diseases: “Lepers”

Men and women with serious skin diseases, traditionally understood as leprosy, had to wear their hair long and loose to indicate that they were unclean (Lev. 13:45). If and when such a person recovered, they had to shave off all their hair, twice (Lev. 14:8-9).

Women’s Hairstyles

It is generally assumed that Israelite and Jewish women had long hair (e.g., Songs 4:1; 6:5; 7:5; Luke 7:37–38; John 12:3; cf. the long-haired locusts in Rev. 9:8). They only had short hair in unusual circumstances. As already mentioned, women who began or had completed vows, and women who were cured of skin diseases, had their heads shaved as part of a purification ritual, and so did female prisoners of war (Deut. 21:10–14).

Generally, however, short hair on women was seen as disgraceful (cf. 1 Cor. 11:6). And throughout history, cutting a woman’s hair was sometimes used as a humiliating punishment.

Women typically wore their long hair bound up. It was unusual for women to have their hair hanging loose unless they were in mourning or they were “lepers” (which was a demeaning and alienating disease. See Num. 5:1–3). In the ordeal of bitter water, a jealous husband could make his wife stand trial to see if she had committed adultery.[5] As part of this humiliating trial, the woman’s hair was loosened and let down (Num. 5:18).[6]

An article on the bitter water ordeal in Numbers 5:11–31 is here.

HAIRSTYLES TODAY

So what does all this mean for us today? For us who live in modern societies, most hairstyles have little or no cultural or religious significance, and fashions can change quickly. Hair lengths and hairstyles do not necessarily convey messages but usually reflect personal tastes or current trends, or they may simply be what is convenient.  So we are free to wear our hair in a variety of ways.

Women can have short hair and men can have long hair without it making a statement, without it disguising our sex, and without it being a problem. Queen Elizabeth II had short hair but was considered dignified and respectable.

Hair length isn’t a hard and fast gender marker in most modern western societies.  However, as a general rule, we must always be careful that our behaviour, our attitudes, and our appearance don’t cause the word of God and the mission of the church to be maligned by critics and outsiders (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:10; Titus 2:5).


Footnotes

[1] Status: Throughout history, certain hairstyles, especially elaborate styles with decorations and hair pieces, were the domain of the rich.
Nationality: In the past, men in parts of Asia had long hair. Native North American men also wore their hair long, and some still do. Many more nations or ethnic groups could be mentioned here.
Religious beliefs and ideologies: Buddhist monks typically have shaved heads, but so did the 80s skin heads. Some Jewish men grow their hair long around their temples.
Professions: Some ancient Greek philosophers had long hair, and in modern Australian society, barristers wear wigs in court.

[2] Writing in the first century, Philo speaks about some male “passive” partners of homosexual relationships who had their hair “conspicuously curled and adorned” and wore makeup (Philo, Special Laws, 3.6 §37). They were grooming themselves like women (e.g., 2 Kings 9:30).
Conversely, we have several early Christian texts, such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla, where pious women who have renounced sex and marriage cut their hair short and sometimes wore men’s clothes. These hairstyles, at that time, made strong statements about the person’s sexuality.
Paul did not want such hairstyles worn by the Christians in Corinth. Intentionally trying to look like the opposite sex is against the law in Deuteronomy 22:5.

[3] Putting ashes, dirt, and even dung on hair was also a sign of mourning and distress in Old Testament times (e.g., 2 Sam. 13:19; Ezek. 27:30; Greek Esther 14:2).

[4] Interestingly, in a cleansing ritual, new Levitical priests had their entire bodies shaved (Num. 8:5–6).

[5] This ordeal was abolished by the Sanhedrin in the first century. See Sotah 3.14.

[6] The Hebrew verb פָרַע (para’) (as mentioned above in the paragraph about priests and Leviticus 10:6) may mean loosen or cover. Most modern English Bibles have the idea that the woman’s hair is loosened and let down in Number 5:18. Philo comments on the bitter water ordeal and writes that the priest “shall take away from her the head-dress on her head, that she may be judged with her head bare, and deprived of the symbol of modesty, which all those women are accustomed to wear who are completely blameless” Philo, Special Laws 3.10 §56. But a few sentences later (in §60) he uses language that may indicate the woman’s hair is also loosened. I discuss this ambiguous language in “A Note on Akatakalyptos in 1 Corinthians 11” at the end of this article here.

© Margaret Mowcko
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A Note on “Nature” and Hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14
Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney
Head Coverings and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Paul’s Instructions for Modest Dress
Busy at Home: How does Titus 2:3-4 apply today?
A List of the Beautiful People in the Bible

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