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Women’s hair in Corinth and in Sydney

Sunday, 4 June 2017  | Margaret Mowczko

Recently, three thousand Christian women attended a conference at the Sydney Convention Centre, while another sixteen hundred women viewed conference sessions via a live stream. In one session, on the topic of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, a speaker showed a photo of actress Kristen Stewart with a buzz cut. And the idea was put forward, as one attendee understands it, that there is something rebellious about long hair for men and short hair for women.[1] 

Does Kristen Stewart’s short hair have any relevance to Paul’s comments on hair in his letter to the Christian community at Corinth? What were Paul’s views or concerns about women’s hair or head coverings? And what, if any, is the relevance of short or long hair for Christian women living in Sydney today?

The Respectable Roman Matron and her Head

In the first century AD, Corinth was a Roman colony and its inhabitants were bound by Roman law. Some of these laws governed what men and women wore and how they presented themselves in public. As in other parts of the Roman Empire, Corinthian society was highly stratified and class conscious, and most of the laws concerning appearance were directly tied to a person’s social status.

For example, only a Roman matron, a respectable married or widowed woman, could wear a stola, a long dress worn over a basic tunic. And only a matron could wear a palla, a garment like a shawl that could be pulled over the head when stepping out of doors. Wearing a stola, and wearing a palla or veil, was a status symbol. These garments signified that a woman was married or widowed and that she was sexually unavailable. Wearing the usual garb of a Roman matron offered women protection against sexual harassment, as it was illegal for a man to ask for sex or to molest a woman when she was out in public if she was dressed as a matron.

A palla or veil did not signify subordination, as some have suggested.[2] In fact, the most subordinate of women in Roman society did not wear veils. It was illegal for slaves, prostitutes, freedwomen and women from the lowest classes to wear either a stola or a palla. In usual social contexts, they were forbidden by law from veiling their heads in public.

There were no laws to protect poorer women or slave women from sexual harassment, and there were no laws to protect upper class women who chose not to dress as matrons. In Australia, however, we have sexual harassment laws and sexual assault laws which apply to everyone, and potentially protect everyone, both men and women, regardless of social standing or what they wear.

But what about the hairstyles of Corinthian women?

Hairstyles of the Rich and Not So Rich

Statues, busts, mosaics, frescoes, ceramics and coins survive that depict first-century Roman women. Almost none of these women wear a veil. Their heads are exposed, and so we can see that many had elaborate hairstyles with intricate braids or curls.[3] In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says nothing at all about veils, but urges women not to wear fancy hairstyles (or costly jewellery or luxurious clothing) (cf. 1 Pet. 3:3). If the women in Ephesus were wearing veils, their hair would be covered and the problem of intricately braided hairstyles, as a display and statement of wealth, would not have posed so much of a problem for the Christian community at Ephesus. But Paul’s solution isn’t veils, it is simpler, less ostentatious hairstyles.

The norm was that Roman women, whether rich or poor, had long hair. It was socially accepted that women in mourning might let their hair down. It was less socially accepted that women in certain pagan cults let their hair down in frenzied worship. So even though women generally had long hair, it was almost always tied up in some way with bands or braids or knots. There is a current trend in Sydney for young women to tie up their hair in a topknot or bun, but this is all about fashion and says nothing at all about a woman’s status or respectability.

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, there seems to be a concern that men look like men and women look like women while they are praying and prophesying.[4] The reason for this concern would have been understood by the Corinthians, but we can only guess at what the reason was. In our society, however, gender distinctions remain even if men have “man buns” or women have short haircuts. Kristen Stewart looks undeniably female with her short hairstyle. There is no ambiguity about her gender. Queen Elizabeth II, as one other example, has a short hairstyle, and no one would suggest she is being rebellious or blurring gender distinctions.

In our mostly egalitarian society of Sydney, hairstyles, whether short or long, whether tied up or loose, do not denote status. A man or woman’s hairstyle tells us nothing about their morality or wealth, or their marital status or Christian faith, etc.[5]

Bald Prostitutes or Shorn Adulteresses?

So what do we make of the statement in 1 Corinthians 11:6b, “If it is disgraceful for a woman to have short hair or to be shaved, then she should keep her head covered”?

I’ve heard people say that prostitutes were bald in Corinth and this is what Paul alludes to in verse 6. But there is simply no evidence for bald prostitutes in Corinth or elsewhere in the Roman world. Frescoes and artwork on pottery show that prostitutes, both male and female, typically had a full head of hair. 

It wasn’t prostitutes who were bald. Rather, 1 Corinthians 11:6 probably refers to a punishment that could be applied to women of the upper classes who were caught committing adultery or prostituting themselves. By law, an adulteress could have her hair cut very short and she was no longer permitted to wear any garment indicative of a matron. Instead, she was compelled to wear a plain toga. These were signs of her disgrace. In Australia, we have no such laws. In our society, we have no hairstyles that signify a disgraced woman (or a disgraced man).

Corinth in Context

The problem with fully understanding and applying any of the letters in the New Testament is that we only have one side of the conversation. However, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he does allow us to hear snippets from the other side: Paul occasionally quotes from a letter or a report he received from the Corinthians.[6] I suspect that 1 Corinthians 11:2-10 contains ideas that were being pushed by a faction within the Corinthian church.[7] Paul’s words, beginning with “except that” in verse 11, critique or address the previous verses point by point.[8] In verses 11-16, Paul brings correction, or more complete thoughts, and he briefly explains the mutuality and interdependence of men and women who are “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:11-12; cf. 11:8-9).

It seems that Paul was not interested in whether women were veiled in church meetings, especially as churches met in homes, in domestic settings; and women did not usually wear veils in homes. (Matrons only covered their heads in public settings.)[9] Moreover, Paul states that a woman’s hair is given in place of a covering or garment, that is, a woman’s head is covered by her own hair (1 Cor. 11:15).

If Paul was not concerned about the hair and veiling of women in ancient Corinth, where there were laws and customs which gave these things significance, how much less concerned would he be with the hairstyles of Sydney women where we have no such laws and customs? If Paul wrote to us today, he might repeat his words, “But if someone wants to argue about this, we don’t have such a custom, nor do God’s churches” (1 Cor. 11:16).

Margaret Mowczko has an MA from Macquarie University specializing in early Christian and Jewish studies. She regularly writes and speaks on the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism. Margaret’s blog is at newlife.id.au.

[2] “Covered hair in public represented modesty, honor, status and protection for a woman . . .” Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 31.

[3] Only wealthy women could afford the special slaves whose role was to fashion these hairstyles which often included fancy hairpieces. Wealthy women also wore wigs, often dyed and elaborately styled.

[4] Both men and women could pray aloud (to God) and prophecy aloud (for God) in Corinthian assemblies. There is no hint in First Corinthians that women were excluded from some ministries (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:4-31).

[5] There are a few exceptions. For instance, a person wearing a barrister’s wig gives a clear indication of the person’s profession and their status within their profession.

[6] Some of these quotes include, “It is not good for a man to touch a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1); “We all possess knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:1); “There is no resurrection” and “Christ has not been raised” (1 Cor. 15:12, 14); and perhaps 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

[7] First Corinthians was written in response to a verbal report from Chloe’s people (1 Cor. 1:11), and in response to a letter Paul had received from the Corinthians asking his advice.

[8] See Margaret Mowczko, The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/the-chiasm-in-1-corinthians-11_2-16/

[9] I recommend Bruce Winter’s book which looks at some of the laws which governed a woman’s appearance in ancient Roman society. On one of his points I disagree, however. He writes, “It was not that Christian women had entered a home and were simply removing their veil because they were no longer in public.” Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Women: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 96. I believe this was indeed what was happening in Corinthian church meetings.


June 7, 2017, 1:13PM
Well done pulling apart all the faulty logic. Luckily we don't have to dress anymore according to the styles/laws of two millennia ago.

All that's left to say is that the whole concept of headship stinks, no matter what book it comes from. Celebrate women and men as they are, without artificial differences brought in by ill-conceived authority on the matter by religions.

What's missing from the historical account is that Paul had the leisure to write how the (mostly poor) had to behave, who were living in bad conditions and were often beaten for breaking slightest rules. For the rich, the rules merely helped to reinforce their status.

Funny how the lowly/poor apostles somehow had the resources and wherewithal to write the bible. Only a stone's throw away from the slightly more miraculous Mohamed writing the word of god whilst illiterate.
Marg Mowczko
June 7, 2017, 6:20PM
Hi Chris,

My observation is that there are more lines in Paul's letters addressing the behaviour of the wealthier members of various congregations, than the poorer members.

Paul, who was educated, had plenty of time to write letters when he was stuck in prison or under house arrest. And, in his letters, we can see that his missions were funded by congregations, such as the church at Philippi, and by individuals, such as Phoebe, deacon of Cenchrea.

Paul was no stranger to living in bad conditions or being beaten himself. Furthermore, in the context of providing for the poor, he writes, 'Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality' (2 Cor. 8:13 NIV). Paul was into equality and justice.

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