Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism


Introduction

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 of 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.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor states succinctly, “All modern commentators recognize that ‘nature teaches’ (v. 14)  does not refer to natural law in any technical sense but to what Paul’s generation accepted as conventional.”[5]

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”[6] 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.[7] 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.


Footnotes

[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 as Judith Gundry, Richard B. Hays, Philip B. Payne, and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe he is talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
See for example,
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.
Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997, 2011), 182–190.
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] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 173, footnote 69.

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

[7] 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.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor states, “… the problem with which Paul is dealing in 11:3–16 concerns the blurring of distinctions between the sexes …” Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, 174.

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Image

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.
Hair Lengths and Hairstyles in the Bible
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
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 are here.
A wife has no authority of her own body? (1 Cor. 7:4)
Chastity and Salvation and 1 Timothy 2:15

18 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. 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!

  3. 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.
    paul

    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!)

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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.”

  7. 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?

    Thanks!

    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.

  8. 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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