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.