Women’s Hair in the Bible

Should Christian women cover their hair? It seems like that is what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 11:1-15. However cultural context reveals that there is more to this. In 1 Corinthians 11:3, it says, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” The word guné (γυνή) can be translated as wife or woman. Likewise with anér (ἀνήρ) which can mean male, man, or husband. Men are not literally the head of every woman in the church, but it can be translated to either “Man is the head of the woman” or “husband is the head of the wife”. So the linguistic context must be used to determine which meaning. Since the custom of that era was that MARRIED women covered their hair, then it was the husbands that are the head of their wives. In verse 4 men who are praying or prophesying dishonor their head (which is Christ according to verse 4). In 1 Cor 11:5, it says a woman who prays or prophesies uncovered dishonors their head. The word “head” used here is in reference to husbands from verse 3. It dishonors their husbands, but not God, meaning that all of this was because of the social marriage custom.

Ephesians 5:21 tells husbands and wives to submit to each other, not women submit to all men. Then he says in Ep 5:22-33 for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church and wives to submit to their husband as to God. His explanation is because God is the head of the church, husbands should submit to God by playing his role as provider, lover, and protector for their wives. Meanwhile, wives submit to the husbands, as the husband submits to God. All of this teaching connects marriage to God’s relationship with his people, this was done in the old testament a lot and Paul is just picking up the analogy. So in 1 Cor 11:1-16, Paul tries to appeal to people to follow the customs of the day for the sake of Christianity’s cultural standing. He doesn’t want unbelievers to get the impression that Christian women are wild and that Christian men are irresponsible. Back in those days, men were responsible for everyone in their household, wives, children, and servants, and if a wife did something wrong, her husband got in trouble for it. So Paul is saying for married Christians to mimic the covenant with God, by having wives that properly represent their husbands while he is away, just like we Christians represent Christ as his “ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:20). However, in verse 16 he makes it clear that it is not a legalistic law from God but rather a customary thing that women should cover their heads in that culture and region.

Some see these verses as an issue of women cutting their hair. In 1 Cor 11:6, it says, (NLT) “if a woman refuses to wear a head covering, she should cut off all her hair! But since it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or her head shaved, she should wear a covering”. The shamefulness is not a biblical reference at all, it’s a cultural one. It is not a sin for women to shave their heads, in fact, women did this in the old testament for Nazarite vows (Numbers 6:1-5) and in Acts 18:18 Paul is shaving his head for a Nazarite vow. So there is no old testament framework that prevents women from cutting their hair. The word is translated as cut or shorn (KJV) in 1 Cor 11:6 and Acts 18:18 is keiro (κείρω) which is also used for the word shearer in Acts 8:32, in reference to the silence of the lamb (Jesus) before the sheared. In the larger cultural context of hair at that time, if the word shorn/cut meant don’t ever cut, then it would be fine for a man in that culture to let his hair grow long but with mild trimming. However, Paul says men should keep the custom of keeping their hair short in 1 Cor 11:14-15, otherwise it would be disgraceful. Therefore, the word shorn or cut (keiro) means to shave not just “cut” (as in cut short), so none of this applies to wives getting a simple hair cut or trim. Furthermore, since shaving was allowed in the old covenant for Nazarite vows, then what Paul is actually saying is that wives should cover their heads, unless they have a shaved head then they don’t need to cover it. However, a shaved wife may be considered a social pariah, so insist they just cover their heads to keep things simple.

In most cultures, “purity/impurity” parts like genitals and the buttocks are considered naked. However, outside of that, definitions of modesty vary by culture. For example, in some cultures, a women’s breasts are seen as sensual because they entice men sexually, so breasts are expected to be covered, while in other cultures men and women can go topless. This becomes controversial on the issue of breastfeeding in cultures that consider breast sensual. In other cultures, hair is considered sensual so it could entice men with lust. In many Islamic countries, women are required to stay covered for this reason. In some countries like Iran, it is illegal for women to sing without a male accompaniment or even dance in public. In other countries, the rules aren’t as strict and women are only expected to wear hijab in a Mosque. The sins of the men are blamed on the women. Meanwhile, Jesus taught that if a man lusts in his heart, he commits sin in Matt 5:27-29. Paul is addressing the cultural definition of sensuality which is why he offers women the option to cut it off, that way no one is tempted to lust after a married woman. This is why even Jewish Orthodox wives who do not wish to veil their hair will often shave their heads. Furthermore, some women go bald or cut their hair for various cultural reasons. Ancient Egyptians, male and female, all cut their hair and wore wigs, for hygiene purposes and to keep their heads cool. I think lice may have been a factor here as well.

Paul also mentions the length of men’s hair being limited to short lengths in 1 Cor 11:14-15. This too has to be taken into cultural and historical context. Corinth was the city of sex in this region, that is why Paul wrote 3 chapters in 1 Corthinians on it (1 cor 5-7). In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul has a vice list and on the list, it mentions effeminate men. This implies there were men who dressed as women in order to seduce men for same-sex intercourse which is an illicit sex practice in the bible. Therefore if a man has long hair for the purpose of seducing men it would be sinful. This reason would be men and women are told not to crossdress in Deut 22:5, it was not about wearing specific kinds of clothing like pants but rather about the intent behind why you are wearing a specific outfit.

I don’t think this scripture can be applied on a global scale because of cultural, ethnic, and historical differences from today’s hair views. That’s why Paul says, “But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16). It’s just a social custom, not a commandment. Lastly, since hair covering was only for a married woman, one could infer that this was done to indicate that a woman was married so that men would not lust after her. In the modern era, we use rings and wedding bands, so it’s more of a cultural thing. Wedding bands existed in the ancient world up to 3,000 years ago at least, but I imagine the head covering was something much simpler and more easily accessible for most people.

An article on the subject