Who Were the Women with Shaved Heads (1 Cor. 11:5)?

Sandra Glahn's picture

The past fifty years at Pompeii have uncovered an enormous amount of social data that helps us understand New Testament backgrounds. Because the city was buried relatively instantly in A.D. 79, everything was preserved like a time capsule in the same era in which some of the New Testament was written. Interestingly, one of the places that yields data for us is the brothel.

The house of ill repute in Pompeii depicts erotic scenes associated with certain rooms where sexual options appear in paintings with price lists. And this unlikely place actually sheds light on Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:5. There he writes, “But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head, for it is one and the same thing as having a shaved head” (1 Cor. 11:5).

Perhaps you, like me, have been taught that having a shaved head identified a woman as a prostitute. Here are quotes from a couple of commentaries that take such an interpretation:

“There is the local and contemporary custom that had prostitutes and the likes shave their head” [sic].

These women were “cropping their hair, after the manner of the notorious Corinthian prostitutes.”

(Notice that in both cases there is reference to the culture of the day to figure out Paul’s meaning; all commentators resort to culture in trying to figure out the local practices and what they meant.)

But we have no evidence whatsoever that head-shaving was a practice done by prostitutes. We do, however, have evidence that doing so was associated with the punishment for adultery. In fact, we find such a connection in the Old Testament.

In an academic article on the subject, Dr. Phillip Payne writes, “The article in 'the shorn woman' implies a recognized class of woman, probably the accused adulteress whose disgrace paralleled the symbolism of loose hair, since by it a woman places on herself the accusation of adultery. This allusion perfectly fits the ‘bitter water’ ordeal of letting down the hair of a suspected adulteress (Num. 5:11–31) and, if she is convicted, of cutting off her hair.… This custom is paralleled in non- Jewish customs cited by Tacitus (A. D. 98), Germania, 19; Aristophanes 3, 204–07; and Dio Chrysostom (A.D. 100), Discourses, 64.2–3.”  

The brothel art in Pompeii depicts prostitutes with full heads of hair, never shaved. Other erotic art from Pompeii shows sexually promiscuous women with their hair done up as the matrons wore it (see photo below). Prostitutes probably indicated their profession not by their hair style but by their dress, as is still true in most places today.

So what does Paul mean if he’s not referring to prostitutes? Payne is probably right. Most likely the wives in Corinth were “letting down their hair,” a practice probably associated with spiritual freedom in Dionysus worship. But doing so was the equivalent to taking off their wedding rings, which shamed their husbands and suggested they were “available.” It’s not that what these women were doing was suggestive or immodest any more than taking off a wedding ring is sexy. But it was shameful and dishonoring because of what it communicated.

And the instruction appears to be something applicable only to wives. The “head” of a woman” is probably her husband (cp. Eph 5), not all men everywhere. Notice, too, that Paul does not tell all the wives they need to do something about their hair (which was their covering, v. 15). He has in view only those marked as speaking to or for God (i.e., praying and prophesying, v. 5). This latter detail is often lost in the debate. Paul was not discussing whether or not women/wives should speak in the gathered assembly. That was a given. The question was only about how they should do so.

 Sources: Plutarch; Elaine Fantham in Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009; Richard Oster, NT Studies 34, 1998; Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii. Los Angeles: The Getty Museum, 2001; Phillip Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Pris. Pap. 20:3 (Sept. 2006); p. 12. 

Erotic art from Pompeii. I've edited it to for modesty, but it demonstrates that no one has a shaved head.

Comments

Hi Sandi, I really appreciate your article, especially since we are beginning a preaching series through 1 Corinthians at our church. You got me thinking.
i also wonder if we actually miss the main point of the passage, especially in my conservative (fundamentalist/literalist) tradition. We focus SO much on getting the cultural practice correct that we actually do things that go 'fundamentally' against the teaching of the text. Surely Paul's point is that the Corinthian believers were doing things that brought shame and dishonor to their "head". That is, the wives were dishonoring their husbands and the men were dishonoring Christ by what they were doing in their cultural setting, especially when it came to their participation in worship in the church. His instruction is that they should stop dishonoring their "heads" when they come to worship. The correct application for today would be to examine if we are doing things in our worship practices that culturally dishonor our husbands, wives or Christ. What I find interesting is that, in my tradition, seeking to apply this passage and 1 Corinthinas 14 ultra-literally we have prohibited our wives (and all women) from participation in worship and forced them to wear culturally irrelevant and embarrassing head coverings. Have we in fact disobeyed the real point of the text and dishonored our wives in an attempt to force a culturally irrelevant literalistic application which is unwarranted and hermeneutically poor?
i don't see the issue as being head coverings, veils, short vs long hair or any such thing. The issue is simple; are we worshipping or even living in a way that culturally honors our mates and our Saviour? If not then we need to change the way we worship and live. We need to be people and churches that live and worship in ways that bring honor and respect to each other and to Christ within the culture that we live.
Would love to hear your thoughts.
Henry

Sandra Glahn's picture

Henry, I think you totally got it. Spot on. 

In addition, in a pagan culture, it's sometimes easy to add Christ to the cafeteria of gods, which may also have been part of what was happening in Corinth. My intern lived for a year in India, and she noted, "In 1 Cor 11 on men's hairstyles communicating participation in the Dionysian cult: It just seems to me that rather than focusing on the outward signs of hair style or marriage, Paul is focusing on what the believers' behaviors/styles were communicating to their respective cultures about who they worship.

"I think it's interesting and I can see it's relevance in a polytheistic culture, much like when Hindus accept Christ. Are they simply adding Christ to their pantheon and still showing the signs of worship of other gods, like wearing a bindi that would show that they've been to puja that morning? Or are they shedding off all of the other gods to worship God alone? I think there's a connection there."
 
Something often lacking in the debate as well is that 1 Cor 11 (head coverings) and 1 Cor 14 ("let the women keep silent") have a more significant chapter between them: 1 Corinthians 13...the far better way...love.
 
Thanks for taking the time to write and encourage. Bless you as you teach!
Sandra Glahn's picture

S. M. Baugh in  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.3 (1999): 443-460, noted that there is only one piece of evidence—literary—that Corinth had temple prostitutes, and that was based on Strabo writing hundreds of years after it supposedly existed. Follow the link to his article, written fifteen years ago.  

Sue Bohlin's picture

THANK YOU, Dr. Glahn, for all your hard work and the years of working on your Ph.D. to bring fascinating historical details, and thus greater understanding, to our reading of the scriptures.

And thank you for posting an edited picture of Pompeiian erotica. I understand the paintings and sculptures were everywhere in Pompeii.

Sort of like American TV these days.

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