Morality Ch. 27: Jesus’ Effeminate Hair

Flowing, wavy locks were popular among promiscuous homosexuals in parts of Roman society, so Paul had to tell Christians to keep it short. Jesus probably did have long hair, but we can’t be sure. Is there a rule that we should follow now?


When I was a teenager, as a joke I snuck into a formal photo of a girls’ group at a summer camp. But when the picture was published, the joke was on me – my long, wavy hair made it impossible to guess that I was a boy! I clearly needed to cut it, but I didn’t want a short back and sides – that was reserved for skinheads and the military – so I cut the sides short and kept the back long. It looked strange, but experimenting is what teenage years are for – and as wise parents say, hair grows back.

In New Testament times, experimentation like that could get you into trouble. Long, nicely groomed hair in adult men amounted to an advertisement for casual homosexual sex. As some first-century Jews said: “Long hair is not fit for men … because many rage for intercourse with a man,”1 and “the provocative way they curl and dress their hair … falsifies the stamp of nature.”2 Romans agreed – all the statues and portraits of men have short hair, except when they were depicting their enemies, who are often shown with long hair to make them look effeminate. Deliberately growing one’s hair long to indicate you were open for male partnerships was especially popular among members of the Dionysian cult, who were famous for their alcohol-driven orgies. Perhaps they needed some very obvious markers that could be recognized even when you were drunk.

6-minute summary

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Jesus’ hairdo

Did Jesus have long hair like he does in most of his modern portraits? Based on visual representations of Jews at the time, we can see that in Palestine things were possibly different from in the Roman world. Emperor Vespasian minted a coin in AD 79 to celebrate his victories against the Jews, depicting himself with a fashionable clean shave and short hair, while the reverse shows a defeated, kneeling Jew with long hair and a beard. Similarly, in a frieze on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting the victory parade after the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70, we find many short-haired Romans wearing victory laurels. Driven in front of their horses we see a young, beardless, Jewish captive with hair falling over his shoulders. But these images might be part of the Roman habit of making their enemies look effeminate.

A picture of Jesus’ baptism found in the Roman catacombs portrays him like a typical Roman – standing unashamedly nude, with a shaved chin and short hair. This was painted about AD 330, but a slightly earlier portrait of Jesus was discovered in 1963 in a Roman mosaic in Dorset, England. A Chi-Rho symbol (the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek) is behind his head where later generations would put a halo. He is clean-shaven, but his hair is long and tied back, which was the fashion at the time the mosaic was made. In other words, Jesus is consistently portrayed like anyone else at the time of the artist, so these pictures give us no clue about his actual hairstyle.

Hair fashion was a huge problem at Corinth. This was a Roman city, and Romans were keen followers of fashion. They regarded their appearance as an indication of who they were. So when some Christian men wore their hair long, this was sending all the wrong signals to the Roman population, who regarded long hair as a signal of a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle. Paul has to remind them to cut their hair for the sake of the gospel. He doesn’t need to spell out why – he just has to point out that this is obvious and “natural”: “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” (1 Cor 11:14). Any aging hippie would retort, “What’s natural about a pair of scissors?” But Paul isn’t arguing in the realm of logic – this was a clash of cultures.

Long hair was so disgusting on a Roman man that at first Paul can’t bring himself to describe it in words. In verse 4 Paul says (translating word by word): “a man having down from his head is dishonorable.” There’s clearly something missing here, and most translations have unfortunately added something like “a head-covering,” which is found in the early Latin translations. The correct word is supplied in verse 14—it is his “hair” that shouldn’t hang down from his head. Paul is using a euphemism just like he does when describing the despicable sin of “a man [who] has his father’s wife” (1 Cor 5:1 ESV). Has what? – has her eyes? or has supper with her? He politely omits to say “has intercourse with her,” though we recognize this euphemism because we still use it. Of course, “intercourse” itself is a euphemism that originally meant “conversation.” Like Paul, we frequently omit words when we don’t want to offend.

Paul couldn’t have meant that it was disgusting for a man to pray with his head covered because the opposite was true. Jewish men normally wore a prayer shawl, and Roman men pulled their toga over their heads when leading prayers. No man in Paul’s day prayed with his head uncovered, and to do so would have been regarded as dishonorable to his deity. Even in the Old Testament the priests wore headgear (Exod 28:4), so there is no reason why Paul’s readers would regard a covered head as dishonorable when praying.

6-minute summary

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Hats on? Hats off?

The mistranslation (adding “head covering”) led to centuries of banning men from wearing hats in church. The archbishop of Canterbury even vetoed broadcasting the wedding of the future George VI and Elizabeth in 1923 because some men might listen to it on the radio without removing their hats. This is still a cultural norm. Even though women no longer have to cover their heads in church, most men will still take off their hats – even those nailed-on baseball caps.

Hats for women were based on a similar misunderstanding. Paul, in his euphemistic style, criticizes women who are (translating word by word) “with their heads uncovered” (1 Cor 11:5). What should they be covered with? – a veil, a shawl, a burka, an Easter bonnet? Whatever it was, it was obvious to everyone. Just as with men’s hairstyle, everyone knew what was acceptable, so Paul merely has to say: “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered?” But covered with what? Here again, we find the answer in Roman culture and in a later verse.

Roman women never let their hair down in public – they kept it up on their heads, except when with their lovers and perhaps their intimate family – just as in Britain until the early 1900s. Wearing it down was equivalent to being partially undressed. Paul makes clear in verse 15 that the head should be covered with hair: “long hair is given to her as a covering.” Only prostitutes would ignore this rule. But his initial coyness in verse 5 means that here too the early Latin translations added the word “head covering” and constrained Christian women to wear hats in church for many centuries.

This was clearly an important issue for Paul and the early church. If long-haired men were seen taking a public role in the church by leading prayers, Roman visitors might reasonably conclude that casual homosexual sex was normal among Christians. This assumption was based on a prejudice, of course – even in Roman society it is possible there were men who wore long hair for reasons other than advertising for male lovers. But this prejudice was an unnecessary hindrance to the church, and Paul says they should avoid it. Similarly, women who wore their hair down in public were acting like prostitutes and causing a scandal to the church.

The Old Testament isn’t interested much in hairstyles. Absalom, whom people appear to have regarded as handsome, used to cut his hair once a year – we are told his annual hair growth weighed five pounds, so it must have been lush (2 Sam 14:26). The point is that it doesn’t appear to matter whether hair was long or short. There was an obscure regulation that is still taken very seriously by Hasidic Jews today: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev 19:27; 21:5). We can’t be sure what this originally referred to: the context suggests it was a mourning rite, or perhaps it was because other desert tribes did do this (Jer 9:26; 25:23; 49:32). Or perhaps it was a law against personal grooming.

Does It hinder the gospel?

These rules about hairstyles aren’t timeless, as can be seen by the way they change with time, and they reflect culture. The Bible doesn’t have timeless commands forbidding the carefully clipped beards of hipsters or the long, flowing hair of hippies. The purpose behind these rules is unclear in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament Paul appears to be telling believers to respect the rules of decency in fashion at the time. Men should not have hair long enough to flow down from their heads, and women should not let their hair down in public. Both of these styles were used in Rome only by those who were advertising for casual sex. It was like wearing fishnet stockings or pinning a condom package to your lapel today.

So these rules are still relevant in that the purpose for that rule does still exist. We still have to ask ourselves: Is there any part of our lifestyle that hinders the gospel? If there is, then we should restrict our freedom so that others will be more able to hear the gospel without being put off by us. Paul says when he is asked why he restricts his personal freedom: “I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33). These early Christians were willing to restrict their freedom in all kinds of ways, and they set us a very high standard.




1^ Pseudo-Phocylides XC – XCI (TinyURL.com/PseudoPhocylides), early first century AD.
2^ Philo, Special Laws 3:36, 38, trans. C. D. Yonge (TinyURL.com/PhiloSpecial3).



This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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