Thoughts on 1 Cor. 11:2 – 14 in Light of Ancient Pagan Cult Practice

These verses are obscure and lack needed historical contextualization to draw a full set of strict conclusions. Specifically, St. Paul seems to be drawing on some conversation familiar to the Corinthians, but we do not know what that was. With this in mind, we then can pull from that text what can be known from the text alone without speculating on what St. Paul taught them before. Paul is repeating a clear teaching from Deuteronomy 22:5, “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to Yahweh your God.”

Ancient paganism of Mesopotamia — specifically referring to the fertility cults best known around the god Baal and goddess Asteroth — and the ancient world generally came in much the same form, which often involved transvestites, genital mutilation, and the instinct to confuse the sexes, male and female. These pagan temples, often associated with demonology of the ancient world, would also include male and female prostitution, with all the confusion of that transsexualism. What is remarkable about the limited statues and architecture we know of that time is the Baal and Molech depictions. They often show a man’s body, a beast’s head, and female breasts. The body is clearly masculine while confusing that with animals and women.

Why am I bringing Ancient Near Eastern culture and context to bear? It is because much of the fertility cults and their rituals form the backdrop, or historical cultural context, of prohibitions in the Old Testament. Even the text above, Deut. 22:5 — given the battle ancient Israel had with the worshippers of Baal (and Asteroth) and how frequently these deities are mentioned in the Torah — supposes knowledge of the transvestite (and often genital mutilating) practices of these cults. As we zoom out to look at the rest of the ancient world’s pagan practices, we find a striking similarity among most: prostitution, often of males who were castrated, transsexualism, transvestitism, and orgies or other sexual escapades. These trends do not cease and continue down to the times of the New Testament and indeed even to the modern day.

What can we draw from this rather strange text on how men and women dress and adorn hair? This Corinth passage points to these truths, at least the ones I am comfortable to say are clear: (1) men and woman are to be distinct as distinctly created and different, (2) men are woman are to emphasize those distinctions, (3) and to reduce those distinctions is abhorrent to God, “dishonoring oneself.” The context of the many pagan temples in Corinth should not be missed, including the male (and female) prostitution. Hair styles of that time, which deviated from ‘standard male’ or ‘standard female’ styles, aside from signaling a male going effeminate or a female going masculine, were sometimes used to convey sexual availability especially concerning the cult prostitutes. It is not so much different from today, really. St. Paul’s instructions on how to dress and adorn one’s hair is as much about distinguishing maleness and femaleness in the church as it is about disassociating from the styles or adornments suggestive of cults, transsexualism, and associated illicit sexual behavior. Given that converts were coming into the church from these cults, it is altogether appropriate that St. Paul would readdress the importance of not only male and female distinctions but of cult vs. church distinctions. Social trends and embedded meaning in the culture born from those trends battle and invade subcultures like a church’s culture and ethos. It is no different today from then. Although it may seem trivial to focus in on hair style and adornment, it is really the fool that doesn’t understand the nature of cultural embedded influences who is captured by them. Because of the way hair, dress, and adornment are part and parcel to the cults’ devotees involvement, addressing the same within the church is as prudent as essential: likely the church being just down the street with converts coming in from these cults,

I am unprepared to opine on whether the covering for women is their hair or not; 1 Cor. 11:6 suggests that there is a covering of some sort that is not her hair. However, in 1 Cor. 11:14 – 15 we find that the woman’s long hair is her covering. To revisit what I said at the beginning, there is a historical conversation that we simply do not have access to that might clear all this up. Plenty of commentators run you through the list of possible meaning on this issue, so I will leave that to their capable minds and save myself both the time and space. There are a few words in verse 14 that have always stood out to me: οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει (oude he fusis aute didaskei), “Does not nature itself teach . . .” that a man with long hair dishonors himself and a woman with long hair has glory. I want to leave on this point because I’ve always been captivated by theological aesthetics, or just aesthetics, the “study of beauty.” There is something objectively “true” about a woman with long hair being a marvel of beauty, and I appreciate that “nature itself” teaches this as a way to break out of the notion that all this is merely cultural, built out of and around the meanings embedded at that time in place.

Dr. Scalise