One of the goals of this Advent series is to understand the social and cultural issues happening at the time of Jesus, so today we are going to look at a spicy issue of women showing their hair in church, and it comes out of Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth where he writes,
Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off, but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. -1 Corinthians 11:5-6
After being decimated to the ground under Alexander the Great, Octavius Augustus rebuilt the city of Corinth, helping it to regain its prominence. A huge agora (basically a city center) was built, the largest in the empire at the time, even bigger than the forum in Rome, positioning Corinth as a major hub of trade and commerce.
However, the main attraction of the city was the Acrocorinth, a massive mountain towering 1,886 feet above the town that was the site of the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. What we read in historical documents is that serving at Aphrodite’s temple were over 1,000 female temple slaves, also known as priestesses’ who practiced prostitution as a form of worship to Aphrodite. It’s said that everyone from wealthy merchants to poor galley slaves who visited Corinth participated in the ‘veneration of the goddess’ if you get my drift. In other words, it was Vegas.
Every morning, people in Corinth would see a procession of temple slaves descending the steps of the mountain, making their way into the city to provide visitors and merchants the opportunity to ‘worship’ the goddess through them. To attract attention, the women would wear sandals with the words “Follow Me” carved into the bottom of their sandals. Then, as they walked the dusty streets, the phrase was imprinted on the ground, and anyone looking for their services could quickly identify them.
Not only that, as part of their service to the temple, one act of devotion required of these women was to shave their heads. Now, cultural anthropologists tell us that hair has been surprisingly important throughout history and that shaving one’s hair would have been unusual to the Corinthians because, in Greek culture, a woman’s hair displayed her honor and dignity. After WW2, for example, French women who were found working for the Nazis had their heads shaved. And still, in some countries, a woman who is caught cheating on her husband has her hair cut off.
Here’s why this matters. Paul visited Corinth at least three times that we know of, and during his first visit, he stayed for a year and a half. There is little doubt that Paul was familiar with the Aphrodite priestesses, and surely, some of these women heard the Gospel and accepted salvation through Jesus. So, to create a safe place for these new believers, Paul asked all women at church meetings to cover their heads with scarves. This gave all the women in the church an equal standing like it is written, ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free’ (Galatians 3:28-29). There was a legitimate cultural reason for head covering at the time, it was an expression of showing love and dignity to these new converts.
Daily Reading: 1 Corinthians 11
Source: Greece, A Biblical Tour of Historical Sites by Costas Tsevas (HIGHLY RECOMMEND)