Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism


1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a tricky passage to unpack. But if we look beyond the complexities, it is essentially about the hairstyles (or head-coverings) of the men and women who were praying and prophesying in Corinthian churches. The men and women were doing the same things, but Paul wanted them to maintain gender-distinct, socially respectable appearances.

Towards the end of this passage, Paul brings up the idea of nature as a teacher of hair lengths (short hair for men, long hair for women) or hairstyles.[1] He tells the Corinthians,

“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head exposed? Does not even nature (physis) itself teach (didaskō) 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?[2] For her hair is given to her as a covering (1 Corinthians 11:13-15).

Here are a few notes on what Paul meant by “nature” (physis) and its teaching power.

It’s not about Theology or Biology

In previous verses, Paul presented theological arguments, including an argument from Genesis and creation, but he doesn’t mention creation in verses 13-15, and God is not the focus. I do not believe Paul was primarily making a theological argument here.

And he can’t have been referring to the biological process of hair growth. Paul was an intelligent man. He knew that if left untrimmed, men’s hair has the potential to grow long.

Even if most men’s hair cannot grow as long as most women’s hair, Paul wanted the Corinthian men to have short hair, the usual style for first-century Roman men. This meant that, because of natural growth, most men would need regular haircuts.

Physis (“nature”) as Teacher

So what did Paul mean by “nature” as a teacher? Here’s how four Greek New Testament tools explain physis in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:14-15.

Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
Thayer states that physis can refer to “native conviction or knowledge, as opposed to what is learned by instruction and accomplished by training or prescribed by law.” He further adds that it refers to “the native sense of propriety.” (Bible Hub)

Robertson’s Word Pictures
Robertson writes that Paul “reinforces the appeal to custom by the appeal to nature in a question that expects the affirmative answer … Here [physis] means native sense of propriety (cf. Romans 2:14) in addition to mere custom, but one that rests on the objective difference in the constitution of things. (StudyLight)

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT)
Köster states that physis “is personified as the teacher of [people]. Nevertheless, it simply represents the general order of nature and its only task is to remind us of what is seemly and becoming… nature bears witness to what is fitting in the matter of hairstyles … Hence the use of the absolute physis here can be understood as technical, but it is of no theological significance.” (TDNT 9.272-273)

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG)
Bauer and Danker give the meaning of physis in 1 Corinthians 11:14 as “the regular or established order of things,” and they make the comment, “physis as well as nomos prescribes long hair for women, short hair for men.” (Nomos is probably used here with the sense of “custom” but may mean “law.”)

“Natural Expectation Within the Culture”

I don’t find the explanations above to be especially clear. More simply put, what these men are saying is that “nature” is instinctive or self-evident knowledge for what is culturally appropriate. Paul took the matter of different hair lengths for men and women as instinctively understood: different hairstyles are ordinary and customary because men and women are different (male and female).

Philip Payne agrees with Bauer and Danker and writes,

[Paul’s use] of the noun “nature” apparently carries the meaning BAGD gives for verse 14, “the regular or established order of things.” This meaning is related to the Stoic idea that Nature is the origin and guarantor of culture.[3] Nature as “natural expectation within the culture” fits the context perfectly. What nature teaches, namely “dishonor” and “glory,” are clearly cultural categories, not categories that could be deduced solely from the natural world. The cultural background is summarized in Plutarch’s Roman Questions 267B, “In Greece … men cut their hair short; women let it grow.”[4]

Common Knowledge: “Naturally!”

Perhaps the idea of “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 can be more simply explained by looking at the English expression “Naturally.”

When someone makes a statement or asks a question where the content  is patently true or obvious, we might respond with “Naturally!” When used in this kind of context, “naturally” has an affirmative sense and means, Of course! No doubt! Obviously!

In my mother tongue Dutch, natuurlijk (“naturally”) is commonly used as an affirmation with similar meanings as in English. It effectively means “I agree.” “Naturally” and “natuurlijk” are used when the truth of what has just been stated is shared common knowledge. This common knowledge often has nothing to do with biology or nature, as it is usually understood, but has more to do with custom.

Paul took the differences between men and women to be a given. He further believed it was common knowledge that men and women should have different hairstyles. Paul did not want the Corinthians concealing their sex with sexually ambiguous hairstyles that were socially suspect in Roman Corinth.

Customs and Culture: “Judge for yourselves”

The verses about hair length or hairstyles in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 follow on from Paul’s directive to the Corinthians to judge the matter among themselves (1 Cor. 11:13). Namely, the Corinthians were to judge whether it was appropriate for a woman to pray with her head exposed, knowing that Paul and his colleagues have “no such custom”[5] and neither do the assemblies of God (1 Cor. 11:16). The focus in these last few verses of the passage is on the culturally appropriate appearance of woman; man is mentioned in verse 14, in part, as a comparison.

Every culture has dress codes and hairstyles for men that are different to those for women, even if only slightly. In mid-first century Corinth, long hair on women (worn up with bands and braids) and short (unadorned) hair on men were the socially respectable hairstyles. We know from 1 Corinthians 7, however, that some men and women were renouncing sex and marriage for reasons of piety. They may have worn hairstyles that reflected this renunciation and that concealed their sex.[6] I think some women were cutting their hair short like Thecla and other early Christian women we know of (cf. 1 Cor. 11:6, 15). Paul wanted these women with short hair to cover their heads (1 Cor. 11:6b).

Paul did not want the Corinthian men and women who were praying and prophesying to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing. Instead, he wanted them to conform to established customs of that time and place so that they would not have a bad reputation in the broader community. And to make his point, he appealed to nature, that is, to common knowledge.


[1] The pertinent Greek verb used in both verses 14 and 15 is komaō which means “let the hair grow long.”
The Douay-Rheims Bible, which translates from the Latin (not Greek), renders 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 as, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that a man indeed, if he nourish (nutriat) his hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman nourish (nutriat) her hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.”

[2] Philip B. Payne notes, “Almost all exegetes have correctly understood verses 14-15 as a two-part rhetorical question, not two statements.” Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 201.

[3] Richard Hays comments on the Stoic and Cynic use of nature.

The appeal to nature (physis) as a source of behavioural norms is characteristic of the Stoic and Cynic philosophers—and highly unusual in Paul. Thus this is perhaps another case (cf. … 3:21-22 and 6:7) in which Paul points out, with more than a trace of irony, that the philosophical wisdom on which the Corinthians pride themselves ought to lead them to behave differently.
Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, 2011), 189.

[4] While some scholars believe Paul is speaking about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, others, such Judith Gundry, Philip B. Payne and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe he is talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20.3 (Summer, 2006): 9-18. (Online: CBE Interntational)
Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42.4 (October 1980): 482-500.
Craig L. Blomberg notes, “In verses 14–15 Paul is definitely talking about relative lengths of hair for men and women, so it is somewhat more natural to assume that he has been talking about hairstyles all along.” Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan ), 178.

[5] “No such custom” is translated as “no other custom” in some English translations of 1 Corinthians 11:16, but the Greek does not support “no other custom.”

[6] Philip Payne believes the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was “men who wear effeminate hairstyles and women who let their hair down to symbolize rejection of Christian marital and sexual morality.” Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 175.

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Excerpt from The Old, Old Story by Godward (1903) depicting a woman with a typically Roman hairstyle. (Wikimedia)

Explore more

More about first-century customs of hairstyles and head coverings, here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
Man and Woman as the Image and Glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
4 Reasons “Head” does not mean “Leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
Chastity and Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15

34 thoughts on “A note on nature and hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14-15

  1. Your comment: “Paul did not want the Corinthian men and women to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing. Instead, he wanted them to conform to established customs of that time and place so that they would not have a bad reputation in the broader community.”

    This reminds me of the information in the wonderful book “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” by Beth Allison Barr. Her studies led her to believe, as well, that when Paul was talking about submission as unto the Lord, it was about being accepted and being good witnesses in the society they were in which was patriarchal. Have you read it? Thanks for this article!

    1. Paul makes concessions to culture a few times. I imagine there was frequently a tension between New Covenant ideals and life in broader society.

      In a footnote here I mention other verses where Paul asks the Christians to comply with socially acceptable customs.

      And here I discuss the idea that wifely submission was also a concession to culture. It’s Paul’s words to husbands that is where the really good stuff is!

  2. Sorry this is so long, but I felt context was needed. This is an excerpt from my book, How Does God Really Feel About Females?
    In ancient times the Greek word kephale often figuratively referred to extreme punishments, like death (think decapitation). “Since the loss of the head destroys life, this word [kephale] is used in the phrases relating to capital and extreme punishment” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon).
    Conversely, the origin or source of life was also believed to be the literal head (kephale) of a person because it was thought to be the area on the body where semen was allegedly stored. Yes, you’re reading that right. The ancients believed that semen was stored inside a person’s head (females as well as males, but females manufactured less). This belief was widespread. In Asia, for instance, the Indian practice of hatha yoga originated from a perceived need to control head-produced semen.
    In its earliest formulations, hatha [yoga] was used to raise and conserve the physical essence of life, identified in men as bindu (semen), which is otherwise constantly dripping downward from a store in the head and being expended.
    In ancient times, the human head was thus symbolic as the fountainhead, or source, of both life and death, and kephale often meant “source” in figurative usage.
    “[W]e discover a significant number of occasions in which [kephale] was used to express the idea of ‘source’ or ‘origin.’ This is undoubtedly linked to the ancients’ concept of physiology. Among others, Plato identified the physical head as the place where semen was generated, thus the head came to be seen as the source of life. Plato said that the semen then ‘comes from the head down by the neck and along the spine … [its] outlet’ being the male genitals. Similarly, ‘Alcmaeon of Croton, a near contemporary of Pythagoras, believed that the sperm came from the brain, while Aristotle [like his mentor, Plato] explained that the semen descended from the head through the spinal cord to the genitals and was then sent forth to produce new life.’ … The concept of the head as the source of sperm, and therefore of life, prevailed into Roman times.” – David Hamilton, “I Commend to You Our Sister,” (MA Thesis, College of the Nations, 1996), 167.
    This concept “prevailed into Roman times,” including the early years of Christianity when Paul wrote his epistles.
    Cover Your Head
    The idea of one’s head generating semen seems strange to us today, even comical, because we know that human physiology just doesn’t work that way, but it made perfect sense to the ancients, so much so in fact that women wore head coverings because the hair on their heads was considered part of their genitalia.
    For that matter, the entire female body was medically viewed as one large glandular organ that sucked up semen. A woman in ancient times would no more uncover her long hair in public than bare her private parts. And a shaved or shorn woman’s head was considered equally shameful. Oh, I know this may seem odd to you, but please read on.
    “Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.” (1 Cor. 11:4–6)
    “Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering [Gk. anti peribolaion: should read “instead of a covering”]. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”(1 Cor. 11:13–16)
    The Greek word anti is frequently mistranslated in 1 Corinthians 11:15. The word anti means “against,” “opposite,” or “instead of” (Strong’s #G473). Being “against” something is the opposite of being “for” something. The English language uses anti as a prefix for many words (anti-abortion, antifreeze, antioxidant, and so on). Peribolaion always refers to a garment or “covering” of some kind.
    Verse 15b should thus be translated, “for her hair is given to her instead of a covering.” “Instead of” does appear in the Berean Study Bible, Young’s Literal Translation, ISV, Darby, and a few others.
    Instead of what covering, though? Men have hair on their heads, too, but this covering business in Corinthians isn’t addressed to them. The Bible doesn’t tell us what type of covering, so we will have to try to clarify the meaning of perabolaion from other ancient texts. The poet/playwright Euripedes (b. 480 BC) used perabolaion in a secular play, Hercules Furens, by referring to Hercules’ testicles as a “flesh bag covering.” The word peribolaion also appears in Achilles Tatius (Leuc. Clit. 1.15.2).
    “Since peribolaion is contrasted with hair, which is part of the body, the physiological semantic domain of peribolaion in 1 Cor 11:15b becomes particularly relevant. Euripides (Herc. fur. 1269) uses peribolaion in reference to a body part. He casts Hercules as complaining, ‘After I received [my] bags of flesh, which are the outward signs of puberty, [I received] labors about which I [shall] undertake to say what is necessary.’ … A dynamic translation of the first clause would be: ‘After I received my testicles (peribolaia), which are the outward signs of puberty.’ In this text from Euripides, the term peribolaion refers to a testicle.” – Troy W. Martin, Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering, (Chicago: St. Xavier University, 2004).
    A flesh bag covering? A testicle? Could Paul really be talking about a testicle in 1 Corinthians 11:15? A woman’s hair is given to her “instead of a testicle”? That sounds utterly ridiculous, but strangely enough this does make sense when one considers how ancients viewed the human body. They believed the strands of a woman’s hair served as suction tubes that drew up a man’s semen, augmenting the suction power of her uterus, and that a man’s semen eventually congealed to form a baby. The woman’s hair provided a bag covering for semen.
    The idea of semen originating in the head was taught by the Greek philosopher/medical doctor Hippocrates (b. 460 BC), historically renowned as the “Father of Modern Medicine.” A Hippocratic Oath is administered today by most medical schools when students graduate.
    “Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20). Since hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen … Hair grows most prolifically from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is produced or at least stored (Hippocrates, Genit. 1) … During intercourse, semen has to fill all the hollow hairs on its way from the male brain to the genital area (Aristotle, Probl. 893b.10–17). Thus, men have hair growth on their face, chest, and stomach … A man with long hair retains much or all of his semen, and his long hollow hair draws the semen toward his head area but away from his genital area, where it should be ejected. Therefore, 1 Cor 11:14 correctly states that it is a shame for a man to have long hair since the male nature … is to eject rather than retain semen. In contrast, the nature … of women is to draw up the semen and congeal it into a fetus (Hippocrates, Genit. 5; Nat. puer. 12) … As one large gland designed to absorb male reproductive fluid, a woman’s body is assisted by long hollow hair that increases the suction power of her hollow uterus. (Aristotle, Gen an. 739a.37–739b.20)” – Martin, Paul’s Argument From Nature.
    In addition to Hippocrates, Aristotle and other ancient healers also taught this process of conception prior to the first century.
    In ancient times, physicians believed that semen made one’s hair grow faster and thicker. At puberty, the “hollow” hairs that slowly appeared on a young boy’s face, chest, and stomach theoretically created a tubal passageway so semen could travel down his spine to his genital area for ejaculation and procreation. It was believed that long hair on an adult male’s head rendered him basically impotent because his semen remained stored in the “hollow hair tubes” on his head instead of traveling down his body to be ejected.
    Ah, no wonder Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14 that long hair naturally dishonors (Gk. atimia, ignominiously disgraces) a man. For virility, the ancients believed men’s hair should be cut short. Only males unconcerned with their sexual virility (for example, eunuchs, priests, Nazirites, little boys, or the elderly) allowed their hair to grow.

    1. Hi Joanne, Peribolaion is a common Greek word that typically means cloak, robe, or mantle, that is, an outer garment that a person “wears” or “throws around” (verb: periballō). Occasionally, it refers to some other kind of covering.

      Here is every occurrence of peribolaion in the Greek Old Testament and Greek New Testament. In the Bible, it usually refers to an actual or metaphorical garment, typically an outer garment. Occasionally it refers to an actual or metaphorical cloth covering like an awning.

      Deuteronomy 22:12: “cloak/mantle”
      Exodus 22:27 (LXX 22:26): “cloak/mantle”
      Judges 8:26: “garments”
      Job 26:6: “covering/clothing”
      Psalm 102:26 (LXX 101:27): “cloak/mantle”
      Psalm 104:6 (LXX 103:6): “covering/cloak”
      Isaiah 50:3: “covering/garment”
      Isaiah 59:17: “cloak/mantle”
      Jeremiah 15:12LXX: “covering”
      Ezekiel 16:13: “cloak/mantle”
      Ezekiel 27:7: “coverings/awnings”
      Hebrews 1:12: “cloak/mantle”
      1 Corinthians 11:15: “covering” (testicle?)
      (The CSB sometimes translates peribolaion in these verses simply as “clothing.”)

      In ancient writings, in the context of women’s clothing, peribolaion, and more commonly himation, is the Greek equivalent of the Latin palla. The palla was a mantle, a large square of cloth that citizen women draped over their tunic and which they could pull over their heads when they stepped outdoors. The palla was a status symbol and it offered citizen women some protection from sexual harassment and abuse. Slaves and lower-class women were not allowed to wear it. (More on this here.)


      It’s true that Aristotle and other Greek philosophers thought that the brain was made up of semen which travelled down the spinal cord to the genitals and produced life. Pythagoreans believed that “semen is a drop of the brain” (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras 19).

      In On the Generation of Animals, Aristotle also connected semen (from the brain) with food and nourishment. A point to keep in mind, however, is that “brain” and “head” are not synonymous.

      Galen (AD 130-200), a prominent Greek physician and philosopher, was one of the first people to scientifically connect the brain with its real function. (He wrote two treatises on semen which I’ve read.)

      Did first-century CE Romans still believe the assumption of Hippocrates (460 – 375 BCE) and Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) that hair was hollow and draws up semen? Whatever the case, Paul probably had none of this in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.


      I’ve read both of Troy Martin’s paper’s carefully and I reject his definition of peribolaion. As do others, including Mark Goodacre who responds to Troy’s first paper here: http://www.markgoodacre.org/peribolaionJBL.pdf
      I’ve also read and listened to Michael Heiser on this.

      Lucy Peppiat quotes some of Troy’s paper (the bit about long feminine hair assisting the uterus in drawing semen upward and inward) and then makes the comment, “That this argument is even considered seriously enough to warrant refutation is bemusing to say the least.”
      Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 58.

      The idea that peribolaion means “testicle” makes 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 sound ridiculous:
      “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? For her hair is given to her in place of, or instead of, a testicle.”

      Apart from the obvious absurdity, how can her hair be her glory (doxa) and represent or replace a testicle? The word doxa is usually used to refer to something that is seen and/or heard, and admired and praised; it often has a sense of renown or repute. How can this apply to a respectable woman’s genitals?

      Also note that the plural of peribolaion, in the first of two examples given by Troy, translates as “bags” in the phrase σαρκὸς περιβόλαι (“bags of flesh”) (Euripides, Herc. fur. 1269). And it could just as easily be translated here as “coverings.”

      Mark Goodacre explains (p. 393), σαρκὸς περιβόλαι ἡβῶντα, with the verb, “where ἡβῶντα (present participle of ἡβάω, ‘to attain puberty, to be in the prime of youth’) is a transferred epithet agreeing with περιβόλαι(α), ‘that which is thrown around, covering, clothing’ (plural).” “… Euripedes is using a clothing metaphor.”

      In the second example given by Troy, the translation of τῶν φύλλων περιβολαί is literally “coverings of leaves” (Achilles Tatius Leuc. Clit. 1.15.2).
      The leaves of the trees were literally providing a canopy for the lovers, even if the language is being used suggestively.

      I agree with Mark Goodacre’s conclusion (p. 395-396): “If Paul had wished to contrast women’s hair with male testicles in 1 Cor 11:15, we would have expected him to use a plural noun, and the noun of choice would probably have been ὄρχις [which does mean testicle]. There are no known uses of περιβόλαιον to mean ‘testicle.’ The two examples provided by Martin do not make the case.”

      In his second paper, a response to Mark Goodacre, Troy Martin argues technicalities but provides no new examples from Greek literature where peribolaion might mean “testicle.” And he emphasises that his idea of “testicle” does not rest on the two texts he has previously cited but on what he sees as the context of 1 Corinthians 11:15.

      In other words, there’s really no Greek text where peribolaion actually means “testicle.”


      Corinth was a Roman colony in Paul’s day, and many respectable Roman women are depicted in frescoes, mosaics, statues, busts, and coins with their hair fully uncovered. They could hardly do this if their hair was regarded as a testicle, as genitals.

      I acknowledge that there were weird-to-us ideas in the ancient world, but peribolaion with its usual, common, and straightforward meaning of “covering,” as in a garment such as a palla, makes good sense of 1 Corinthians 11:14-15.

      1. Thanks for such a thorough explanation of your position. I am sure you agree that good scholarship requires looking at all sides of a question. Just to take it a little deeper and further, here is a link to Troy Martin’s response to the Goodacre JBL article (Martin disagrees with Goodacre):

      2. Joanne, I clearly refer to Troy Martin’s second article in my previous comment, twice.

        Here’s part of my previous comment.

        In his second paper, a response to Mark Goodacre, Troy Martin argues technicalities but provides no new examples from Greek literature where peribolaion might mean “testicle.” And he emphasises that his idea of “testicle” does not rest on the two texts he has previously cited but on what he sees as the context of 1 Corinthians 11:15.
        In other words, there’s really no Greek text where peribolaion actually means “testicle.”

        Peribolaion is an ordinary, common word. There’s plenty of evidence that peribolain refers to a garment that a person wraps around (periballō) themselves. This is a stock-standard meaning in ancient Greek texts including the Bible.

        Furthermore, Plutarch (born 46 CE), a contemporary of Paul, comments on the usual customs of hairstyles and hair length of men and of women with no mention of semen or testicles.
        English: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0211%3Asection%3D14
        Greek: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0209%3Asection%3D14

        In his lecture On Cutting Hair, Musonius Rufus (born circa 20-30 CE), also a contemporary of Paul, speaks matter of factly about men cutting and trimming head and facial hair without any mention of semen or testicles.
        English: https://www.stoictherapy.com/elibrary-lectures#lecture21
        Greek (and English): https://archive.org/details/MUSONIUSRUFUSSTOICFRAGMENTS/page/n47/mode/2up

        There are more examples of men writing in and around the first century who had similar views to Paul on respectable hairstyles (and nature) and who don’t say anything about semen. These include Philo (Special Laws 3.37-42), Josephus (Jewish War 4.561-63), and Dio Chrysostom (Orations 33).

        Believe what you want Joanne, but unless someone comes up with new evidence, I’m not interested in pursuing this further. I’ve looked at Troy Martin’s idea long and hard in the years since he published his papers, and I’ve followed the discussions it generated. The outcome is that I (and practically all scholars of 1 Corinthians) don’t buy it.

        1. I need to apologize for wasting your time. I did gloss over your response and it was inexcusable. Truly sorry and ashamed of my shoddy scholarship. God’s Word deserves our very best efforts.

        2. Thanks, Joanne. I appreciate that.

  3. Marg, thank you for your smart, tireless work getting us back to the Gospel truth as Jesus intended and away from translations that have an agenda. Your work, the writings of Beth Alison Barr, Dr. Sandra Richter and other women and men of the faith are moving mountains!

    1. Thank you, Anne!

  4. Although I know Greek well enough to be dangerous, I am not a Greek scholar. However, I find this passage, particularly verse 14, to have an overlay of interpretive bias by misrepresenting the Greek.
    There are 135 uses of the Greek word οὐδὲ in the New Testament, and this verse is the only construction of its type. The Greek doesn’t have punctuation, that has been added to ‘help’. οὐδὲ is translated as not, never, neither and similar words. Why the interrogative (a question) when the normal and natural translation is as a statement, “Neither does nature, not even or nature does not…teach you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonor to him.” οὐδὲ is an Adverb modifying to teach (present active indicative). Also, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he had taken a vow, part of which he meant that he had not cut his hair (it was long). He did not cut it until he got to Jerusalem.
    There is a theological issue with men covering their heads, a sign of separation between them and God (the talith), and there was a cultural issue with a married woman uncovering her head, a sign of separation between them and their husbands (and being available).
    Hope that helps, or please correct me if I am not seeing something here.

    1. Hi Paul, It’s nice to hear from you.

      Any form of Greek sentence can also function as a question, depending on context, so it would have been clearer to us if Paul had used an interrogative word. However, questions that begin with an interrogative pronoun, adjective, or adverb usually do not have a “yes” or “no” answer.

      Many Greek questions that expect a “yes” answer begin with ou (“no, not”). Oude [ou + de = “not even” or “and not”] can function similarly.

      Oude in 1 Corinthians 11:14 functions in much the same way as oude in Mark 12:10 and Luke 6:3 (“Have you not read …?”) and in Luke 23:40 (“Do you not fear God?”).

      Oude, rather than the more common ou (“no, not”), functions as an intensifier in questions:
      “Does not even nature itself teach us …”
      “Have you not even read …”
      “Do you not even fear God?”

      I am keeping my mind open to other interpretations of this tricky passage. But for now, I’m leaning towards it being a cultural issue.


      I don’t understand the vow that Paul took in Acts 18:18. The vow in Acts 21:22-24, 26 (cf. Acts 24:18) may be similar to a vow that Bernice took. This vow is connected with purification and the temple in Jerusalem, and it seems the hair is shaved/cut off at the beginning, not at the completion, of the vow.

      Bernice, Herod the Great’s great-granddaughter, cut her hair and also went barefoot as part of a 30-day vow. The only reason we hear about this is that, despite her vow, she was compelled to appear before Gessius Florus and ask that he stop being violent to the Jewish population in Jerusalem. (Josephus, Jewish Wars 2.15.1 §313) (Bernice was a powerful woman!)

  5. The article is fascinating on the social mores of the time, but is it not overcomplicating things a bit? Paul’s point about hair length comes after the point about praying with one’s head uncovered.
    He rambles into asides a bit (which is a problem with Paul) but his point seems to me to be as follows:
    v4: Men cover their heads as a sign of dishonour / repentance.
    v5: Women, in the other hand, go bareheaded or, in extremis, shave their heads as a sign of dishonour / repentance.
    v6: If a woman is bearing her head as a sign of shame, then she may as well therefore shave her head and be done with it, but if not, she should instead keep it covered.
    v7a: Whereas men ought not to cover their heads, as it would be a sign of shame and they represent the image and honour of God.
    v7b-9: As an additional argument, women also, unlike men, have to worry about the damage to the reputation of their husbands if they go about bareheaded.
    v10: Therefore women ought to cover their heads as a sign of respect to “the angels” in meetings.
    v11-12: This doesn’t mean men and women aren’t equal in the sight of God.
    He then adds in some extra points:
    v13: Everyone knows women being bareheaded is unseemly.
    v14-15: (Your point) Different hair in any event means different things in men and women, and
    v16: Women going bareheaded is completely contrary to custom.

    1. Hi Iain, There is basically one point in this article, namely, that “nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 means “common knowledge” and refers to ordinary, well-established customs. My aim is that this piece of information makes Paul’s words clearer, not more complicated.

      Writing letters, especially long letters as Paul’s were, was a very expensive undertaking in the ancient world. I think he worded his letters with care and doesn’t waste his words. I recommend this short article on the processes, etc, of letter writing in Paul’s time: https://www.olivetree.com/blog/letter-writing-in-the-time-of-paul/

      Perhaps what you see as rambling in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is Paul’s chiastic structure. I’ve written about the structure of this passage here.

      Paul says nothing about repentance in this passage. The head/hair instructions were specifically related to men and women who were praying and prophesying, not repenting. However, I will keep a couple of your points in mind.

      My understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is here with a longer explanation here.

  6. I have read most of what is here and I can only say, not as a scholar but as a woman of the Most High God that all of this is rather going around and around with ones own understanding and getting nowhere. God is not that complicated folks. These things must be spiritually discerned. Wisdom from the world is the wisdom that Solomon had and look where it took him. He was a type of anti-christ.

    We really do not have time to waste over semantics in these last days. Only those who overcome shall be saved. Never arriving at the Truth is the issue here. Not getting God’s intent right will bring harm when we are called to be our brethren’s keeper.

    1. Sarah, This article is about Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 that are on a very narrow topic which doesn’t include overcoming or being saved

      I can understand if this blog post is of no interest to you, but it is of interest to me. And since the Bible is written in words and sentences, semantics is required. Semantics (the language and logic of meaning) and spiritual wisdom are not mutually exclusive.

      If my blog and semantics are not your thing, that’s fine, but your judgementalism is uncalled for.

  7. Hi Marg,
    When I read Mark 12:10, Luke 6:3, and Luke 23:40, I do not find that a “yes” answer is expected, but quite the opposite, that a “no” answer is expected.

    Luke 23:40 – “But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you *not even* [oude] fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?'”

    Here, the criminal on the cross (who repented) turned to the other criminal on the cross (who did not repent) because he was hurling abuse at Jesus. He asked the question because he could see that he did not fear God. I do not believe he was expecting a “yes” answer from his question, but a “no” answer.

    Luke 6:3 – “And Jesus answering them said, ‘Have you *not even* [oude] read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?'”

    Here, Jesus answered the Pharisees who said, “Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Jesus’ disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain.) So clearly, Jesus answered by saying, “Have you not even read…” because the Pharisees had not read what David did, or if they did, they did not understand. I do not believe that Jesus was expecting a “yes” answer from His question, but a “no” answer.

    Mark 12:10 – “Have you *not even* [oude] read this Scripture: ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE…’?”

    Here, Jesus directed this question at the chief priests and scribes and elders (Mark 11: 27). Jesus asked them this question because they were not understanding, or accepting, that He was the stone that the builders rejected.

    The word “oude” also appears 7 more times in a question in the New Testament. They are:

    Matthew 12:4 – “But He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat *nor* [oude] for those with him, but for the priests alone?'”

    Matthew 16: 9–10 – “Do you not yet understand *nor* [oude] remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets full you picked up? *Nor* [oude] the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many large baskets full you picked up?”

    Mark 8:17 – “And Jesus aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see *nor* [oude] understand? Do you have a hardened heart?'”

    Luke 12:26 – “If then you *cannot* [oude] do even a very little thing, why do you worry about other matters?”

    John 1:25 – “They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, *nor* [oude] Elijah, *nor* [oude] the Prophet?”

    With the exception of 1 Corinthians 11:14, all other uses of “oude” appear in a statement such as:

    Luke 7:9 – “Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, ‘I say to you *not even* [oude] in Israel have I found such great faith.”

    Luke 20:8 – “And Jesus said to them, ‘*Neither* [oude] will I tell you by what authority I do these things.'”

    If these two negative statements were turned into questions that expect a positive answer, then they would be saying the complete opposite of what was intended.

    So my conclusion, after carefully looking at all 135 uses of the word “oude”( in both questions and statements), is that 1 Corinthians 11:14–15 should be translated as a negative statement:

    “*Not even* [oude] nature itself nature itself teaches you that if a man long hair it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her because the long hair has been given instead of a covering.”

    If we translate verses 14–15 as a question that expects a “yes” answer, then it would be saying the complete opposite of what was intended. It would also be the only question that expects a “yes” answer while the other questions that begin with “oude” expect a “no” answer.

    Nature is the opposite of custom. Nature is “of God” and custom is “of man”. Nature does not teach us that long hair is a dishonor to a man because God has allowed it through nature.

    Anyway, this is just what I believe from my study of the word “oude”. Thank you for allowing me to comment.

    1. Hi Kristen,

      You wrote,
      “ Nature is the opposite of custom. Nature is “of God” and custom is “of man”. Nature does not teach us that long hair is a dishonor to a man because God has allowed it through nature.”

      I have had a similar thought when reading this passage. Unlike you, I have not studied Greek, so I previously wondered (uncharitably to Paul) whether this was an example if his supposed cultural blinders – if he was actually confusing first century Mediterranean social mores with “God’s design for humanity.”

      However, I have a lot more respect for Paul these days (thanks to people like Marg who have convinced me he was not a hopeless misogynist!) and I now realize he was a lot more cosmopolitan than all that. So I do agree with you. He can’t be arguing against long hair for men based on “nature” in the sense of “inherent human nature” or “the physical processes of God’s created order.” Whatever the now-obscure cultural traditions he was referencing, he would have been perfectly well aware that they were just that-human cultural traditions.

      What then did he mean? I have to admit I know no Greek. But your examples did not convince me that the use of “oude” in a question implies that the expected answer is “no.” In Luke 6:3, Mark 12:10 and similar verses, Jesus asks the legal experts if they have read a given scripture. Of course they have, they are the experts! To me the most “natural” reading, if you will, is that Jesus is pointing out that although the literal answer to his question is yes, they have read whatever scripture he is referencing, they have failed to understand it. The fact that “oude” also apparently can mean “nor/neither/not” when used in statements would not prevent it being used as an intensifier in rhetorical questions whose implied answer is yes. as Marg stated above, the meaning seems heavily context dependent.

      All that is to say, I think your argument is based more on the interpretation of the word “nature” than on “oude.” And I don’t see that nature has to be of God and opposed to human customs and instincts. After all, I as an American “naturally” drive on the right, but some people “naturally” do the exact opposite. But naturally, what matters is not whether I can use the word this way in English. What counts is how Paul would naturally have used the Greek word. I am ignorant on that. I am curious if you or someone else can share what other evidence there is for possible meanings of “physis” in Koine Greek?

      1. CMT, Whether Paul is talking about head coverings or hairstyles, or both, this passage is about culturally appropriate appearances, and he appeals to ordinary customs. 🙂

        Physis has a breadth of meanings and usages. I’ve given excerpts from some lexicons in the article. However dictionary meanings cannot give a comprehensive indication of how the terms are used in different philosophical schools, for example, and these can affect use.

        Paul uses physis elsewhere to refer to what is obvious, ordinary, or customary. Romans 2:14 is the key example, but this verse is also much debated. I suspect Romans 2:14 means that while the Gentiles had not been given the Law (it was given to the Israelites and Jews), some Gentiles naturally practised what the Law said.

        Here’s a link to physis in Liddel, Scott and Jones’s exhaustive lexicon (LSJ). Paul’s use may match definition III.

        1. That helps, thank you. I enjoy and learn a lot from your blog, especially because of your dialogue with your readers. Your hard work is much appreciated!

          1. Thanks, CMT!

    2. Hi Kristin, I understand that you have a different understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:14, but I see no point in quibbling over oude which is an extremely common word in Greek, especially when used as a conjunction. Its use at the beginning of questions is also regular. There is no mystery.

      And even if your understanding of those Gospel verses in English is that the answer is “no,” the Greek grammar shows that the expected answer to these rhetorical questions is “yes.” (There are different ways of constructing Greek questions that expect a “no” answer.)

      Furthermore, while physis often refers to biology and is sometimes the antithesis of custom, physis is used in various ways. It can refer to an established order, to “ordinary” and obvious things that are customary.

      As I’ve said before, I think we’ve exhausted this conversation.

  8. Hi Marg, thanks so much for your efforts in spending so many efforts in explaining this passage. May I know your view on why Paul introduced the phrase διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους in v.10?

    1. Hello Scott, I believe Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is reputations, especially, or ultimately, God’s reputation. So Paul wanted the men and women who were praying and prophesying to have socially respectable hairstyles.

      Accordingly, my preferred interpretation is that aggeloi are messengers or scouts sent to spy out the goings-on in Corinthian churches on behalf of their curious or suspicious bosses. I’ve written about this here: https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-112-16-meaning/ Paul didn’t want reputations to be ruined

      Another possibility is that the aggeloi are God’s angels who are invisibly present during worship, perhaps as mediators of some kind, and they expect reverence and decorum. More on this here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/angels.html

      Some connect the aggeloi in 1 Corinthians 11:10 with the aggeloi in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3 NRSV, italics added)

      With this in mind, Cynthia Westfall writes, “Women and men were supposed to be learning to exercise good judgement in ordinary matters in preparation for future responsibilities.” According to this explanation, discerning the correct handling of the hair-head situation was good practice for judging the angels.
      Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 35.

      Others understand this connection as implying that because we are able to judge the angels, women are well able to determine what they will do with their own heads.

      My least favourite interpretation is one put forward by Tertullian, namely that the aggeloi are potentially lustful angelic “watchers” who are aroused by the sight of women’s hair (Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 7; cf. Gen. 6:1-4; 1 Enoch 6-7; Book of Giants).

  9. Hi Marg,

    Have you written about v16 specifically somewhere on your blog? The traditional interpretation is that; all the rest of the churches have no other custom (other than to wear head coverings), so don’t be contentious. In other words, every other church has headcoverings, so Corinthians, toe the line.

    I would be interested in your specific opinion on this verse from the greek and your reasoning behind your interpretation? Thanks!

    1. Hi Sarah, It’s important to note that the correct translation is “no such custom”:
      “If anyone wants to argue about this, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).

      By incorrectly translating toiautēn as “other,” the CSB, NET, NIV, NLT and some other English translations adversely affect the interpretation of the entire passage.

      The ESV, NASB 2021, NRSV, KJV and some other translations render toiautēn correctly as “such” in 1 Corinthians 11:16.

      You can see how the Greek word is translated in other NT verses here: https://biblehub.com/greek/strongs_5108.htm

      I’m not sure what Paul is referring to in verse 16. Perhaps he is saying that the churches have no such custom of men and women having gender-confusing hairstyles. He wanted the Corinthian women who are praying and prophesying to have long hair (1 Cor. 11:15).

  10. Thanks Marg,

    I had a look at all the other verses with that word and yep; in every other place it’s translated “such”. And the word “practice” is a good translation rather than “tradition” (which he uses in v2 and is a different word altogether).

    I’ve heard this reasoning: that the “traditions” in v2 are doctrine/practices like the breaking of bread and therefore applicable to us today. So essentially saying why should we have to keep the bread and wine if we dont have to keep head coverings and that 1 cor 14v37 says that Paul’s writings about head coverings are “The Lord’s commandment”?

    I would appreciate your thoughts on this. Thanks!

    1. Yes, paradosis (“tradition”) in 1 Corinthians 11:2 is a different noun from synētheia (“custom, habit, practice”).

      I think Paul is just paying a compliment to the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 11:2 before he corrects them about hairstyles and reputations. He doesn’t mention which traditions he’s referring to here.

      The verb for passing on traditions also occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and in a couple of other places in 1 Corinthians: 1 Cor. 11:23 and 1 Cor. 15:3. These traditions are stories about Jesus; they’re not instructions or practices for the Corinthians to follow. “Traditions” is often used as another word for “stories” when speaking about the early church. However, it can also have the sense of “precepts.”

  11. Hi Marg,

    Are you able to point me to where you found information about the following 1st century practices:

    a) A wife having her hair shaved off to shame her for committing adultery
    b) Women wearing their hair loose being inappropriate.

    C) And if you know where I can find information about some men choosing to wear their hair long or braided in an effiminate way?


    1. Hi Sarah, I’ll need to get back to you on that. I’m busy for the next few days. Feel free to remind me if I forget.

      In the meantime, here’s a link to Philip Payne’s journal article, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20:3. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/wild-hair-and-gender-equality-1-corinthians-112

      I’m reasonably confident from various readings that married Roman women wearing their hair loose was inappropriate with a few exceptions such as when mourning the dead. But I haven’t written down or memorised sources where this idea is mentioned. The numerous depictions of respectable Roman women in statues, reliefs, frescoes, etc, confirms that they usually did not wear their hair down, but had long hair worn up.

      There are written ancient sources about Roman men wearing their hair in women’s styles from authors who disapproved. Philip Payne cites a few of these sources. And see this statue of Hadrian’s male lover Antinous: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antinous#/media/File:Antinous_Mondragone_Louvre_Ma1205.jpg

      What is less certain is that shaving a woman’s head, or cutting her hair very short, was a usual punishment for an adulterous Roman matron. I’ve read this idea and accepted it in the past, but I’ve not found hard evidence to support it. (Or, I can’t remember what hard evidence there is.) There is the general idea that shaving a woman’s head shamed her, but I’d want evidence about circa first-century Roman women. Again, however, the visual evidence points to long hair worn up being the norm for respectable women, not loose hair or short hair.

  12. Bottom line

    Was this for the Corinthian church in particular or the Christian Church in general to this time?

    1. Hello Bright,

      Bottom line: 1 Corinthians was primarily written to the church at Corinth and deals with issues and concerns of the church at Corinth in the mid-first century (1 Cor. 1:2). Much of 1 Corinthians was written in response to a letter the Corinthians had sent Paul and in response to a report from Chloe’s people who had just come from Corinth.

      Nevertheless, other first-century Christians who had access to the letter could learn, be inspired, and draw principles from this letter, as can we today.

      Bottom line: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is about a particular issue within the Corinthian church involving men and women who were praying and prophesying in assemblies with culturally inappropriate hairstyles (or head coverings). This issue was affecting their reputation, and God’s reputation, with outsiders in the broader Roman world of the city of Corinth.

      All of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 deals with this particular issue with first-century Roman customs in mind. (Corinth was a Roman colony.) It is not general teaching as such.

      My summary of this passage is here: https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-112-16-meaning/

      1. Thanks for clarification! It solves a lot.

        But to go off topic. There is still a problem.

        I, the average or even below the average Christian, has the narrative. That it is the Old Testament with mostly an integration of God’s will and people’s culture. And that the New Testament is mostly just God’s will.

        So me, the average or even below the average, read the bible as it is in English (prima facie) and would not anticipate the scholarly work on the Bible like this post.

        I personally knew or thought or felt that there was something lacking in the standard narrative and I could not do anything about it so I am lucky to find this site.

        I now find it crucial or vital not to have just Bible classes but to have scholarly bible classes down to the average Christian locally for the sake of contemporary Christian practices.

        1. Bright, I agree that there is a problem.

          The way I see it, many Christians today read the New Testament letters as though they were written to churches and people like themselves. But many of us today live in societies and belong to churches that have very little in common with societies and the fledgling churches in the first-century Roman Empire. And so we can miss or misunderstand what is being said in the letters.

          These first-century churches also had very little in common with customs and practices of the ancient Israelites, even though many of it members would have been Jewish. There is a big difference between customs and regulations among the ancient Israelites and first-century Jewish people who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

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