Growing up, 1 Corinthians 11 was a much-disputed passage. On one hand I grew up in an organization that advocated women veiling their heads, while we fellowshipped with another organization that believe this passage was not in reference to a hair covering, rather that a woman should not cut her hair. Then in certain circles some believed that 1 Corinthians 11:15 “but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory” meant that it gave a woman special spiritual superpowers and if she cut her hair she would lose her powers.
About a year ago after hearing a sermon (argument) on why woman should not cut their hair and that the original Greek was not about veiling, I realized that the argument made no logical sense (I’ll explain in a bit). I decided to research and do some study on my own on the matter.
With that preface, this article is a simplified breakdown of 1 Corinthians 11 with much care taken to the context of what Paul was saying and why he was writing to the church of Corinth. As always I promise not to go to deep theologically; that is never my intent.
As I have already stated, some teach that Paul was instructing women not to cut their hair because the word shorn in 1 Corinthians 11 means, “cut at all.” Others believe that the word uncovered describes the head of a woman who has cut her hair, while others teach that the words long hair in verses 14 and 15 or that the word hair by itself in the latter part of verse 15 means uncut hair.
The word shorn used in 1 Corinthians 11 has been translated from the Greek word keiro, which means “to sheer: a sheep, to get or let be shorn, of shearing or cutting short the hair of the head.” Keiro is used in two other places in the New Testament. The word is translated shearer in Acts 8:32 and Acts 18:18. In the following passage we see the word being used and obviously it wasn’t about cutting locks of hair from the sheep.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth
We also see the word being used in regards to Paul’s vow taken in Acts. It is important to note that both men and women, married and unmarried would take vows such as a Nazarite vow and upon its completion would shave their heads (see also: Num 6:18; cf. 6:2, 6:5). Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.
After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.
Lets break down 1 Corinthians a bit.
1 Corinthians 11:5,6
5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.
The problem with using the logic that the word shorn means “cut at all” fails to address what Paul means by covered and uncovered in these verses. Lets look at verse 6 if uncovered were to mean “cut”.
…but every wife who prays or prophesies with her HAIR CUT dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her HAIR were CUT…
This is a simple exercise in basic logic, yet so many fail to see the fallacy with their argument. In order to maintain the argument that this passage teaches strictly uncut hair for women, one must hold that shorn does not mean, “to cut at all” but means “to cut shortly” or “nearly shaved,” which is the correct definition. With this ideology we would then read the passage as follows, which you can see doesn’t not make very much sense.
…but every wife who prays or prophesies with her HAIR CUT FROM HER HEAD dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her HAIR WERE CUT COMPLETELY OFF…
We also run into another little issue with interpreting the scripture this way. If the scripture in regards to ones hair means “to cut at all” (includes trimming), then it would be OK for a man to grow his hair long as long as he trimmed it. Keep in mind I am referring to the same stance of those who hold that woman should not trim or cut their hair and that men should keep their hair cut and short. As you can see interpreting 1 Corinthians 11 this ways ends up creating a series of fallacies and gets itself into trouble.
So what is Paul talking about in 1 Corinthians then? First the word uncovered comes from the Greek word akatakaluptos and means, “not covered, unveiled”, this is a compound word derived from the Greek words kata meaning kalupto, which means, “to hide, veil.” With that in hand we know that it is apparent that Paul is referring to the custom of veiling. If we look at Greco-Roman culture, the practice of veiling among married women was very common. We know this from history and paintings of Christian women on murals, walls, catacombs, and other Christian artwork.
What was or what is the purpose of the veil for married women? Notice that I used the words, “married women” because the practice of veiling was and is only for married women, not single women. A woman’s hair was considered to be sensual, and a thing of beauty to be hidden from other men, lest they be caused to lust after a married woman and sin. This is one of the reasons why woman cover up in Middle Eastern cultures so that the sins and the issues of the men are blamed on the women and put on them for the whole world to see and bare the sins of the men.
Jewish Orthodox woman who practice veiling who do not wish to veil their hair, will often shave their heads, just like Paul makes reference to in 1 Corinthians 11. The interesting thing to note is that since the legal issue here is hair and its sensuality, a woman can shave off her hair, then wear a wig because technically it isn’t her actual hair and thus the law is kept. The issue of the sensuality of hair is what Paul discusses and gives woman the option to shave their heads according to the custom of the day. However, he also states that depending on the culture or traditions it might be shameful for a woman to shave her head, so it would be better that she veil/cover her head.
NOTE that in the NIV, NKJV and KJV translate that Paul gives the option based on what is culturally acceptable “and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head”.
So is Paul telling us that woman should veil their heads? Not entirely. It is important to realize that Paul is only talking about customs and traditions here and not salvation issues that will keep us out of heaven. When read in context of the history and the traditions of that time, we realize Paul was addressing how to follow the custom of veiling for married woman.
At the end of the passage Paul also addresses that a woman’s hair is her glory and it is a covering, basically God gave it to hair as a blessing, not a curse to be covered. The real issue is the hearts of men and should not be placed on the woman to bear the sins of men for the world to see. When you read Paul’s other writings on the law and dealing with similar issue such as circumcision, you get a clearer picture that he is trying to get people to separate tradition and culture from serving Jesus and to be free of the bondage of legalism because we are saved by grace, justified through the cross and nothing that we can boast of doing on our own. In 1 Corinthians 11:16 Paul even states that the churches of Christ have no such traditions and we should argue over the matter.
1 Corinthians 11:15,16
15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
It is important that when reading the scriptures we not get caught up trying to prove our points, and instead read them with an open heart and mind to seek God’s truth rather than our own. It is also good measure to understand the historical context of a passage we are reading before drawing our own conclusions. We can often get caught up in dissecting the Greek words, and going back-and-forth with trying to figure out what the original meaning of the words were, when all we needed to really do was read it for its original context.
To summarize we have learned that Paul was discussing the practice of veiling for woman, and how that tradition was to be kept; if you indeed followed the practice. We also know that 1 Corinthians 11 has nothing to do with woman cutting or trimming their hair, since historically we know that women cut their hair and even shaved their heads. We know also that the practice of Jewish women shaving their heads was common after completing a Nazarite vow, while in morning, and was symbolic of an ending or new beginning.
One last note before I close. If you do follow the custom of veiling understand why it is you are doing it, for it isn’t to simply cover your head, but to cover your hair IF you are a MARRIED WOMAN because your hair could cause another man to lust after you. Then you must ask yourself if you indeed want to carry the sins of men on your shoulders, when really this should be the job of Jesus Christ, this is after why He died on the cross in the first place and covering your head will not stop the lust in a man’s heart; only the cross can do that.