Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the "Sinful Woman" in Luke 7:36-50

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

A Woman's Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, with Special Reference to the Story of the "Sinful Woman" in Luke 7:36-50

Article excerpt

In Luke 7:36-50 an unnamed woman described as "a sinner in the city" weeps on Jesus' feet, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with oil from an alabaster flask. My purpose here is to clarify the social meaning of the woman's gestures with her hair in this story.1

A first step is to set forth the stated and implied elements of the woman's actions. She enters Simon's house, carrying an alabaster flask of ointment, and walks over to where Jesus is reclining at table. She positions herself behind him near his feet. In view of what she does next, she must have either bent over or knelt to reach his feet. She begins to weep profusely onto his feet and to dry them with her hair. Her hair must be loose at this point to serve as a makeshift towel. For the time being, we will leave open the question of when she unbinds her hair. Kissing his feet, she anoints them with ointment.

How would Luke and his readers have interpreted this scene of a woman crouched or kneeling at Jesus' feet, with her hair undone, weeping, kissing his feet, and pouring ointment over them?

I. Modern Interpretation of the Woman's Gesture with Her Hair in Luke 7

Many commentators hold that the woman is a prostitute, and a common interpretation of the woman's gesture with her hair is that it shows her to be a sexually promiscuous person.2 But some who are confident that she is a prostitute do not connect her loose hair with her sexual behavior. For example, Walter Radl holds that the woman is a prostitute but sees her undoing of her hair as a spontaneous action in the moment, the purpose of which is simply to dry Jesus' feet.3 Still other interpreters are cautious or doubtful about whether the woman is a prostitute but nonetheless assume that loose hair on a woman is invariably a sign of immodesty or immorality in antiquity. These interpreters tend to see her intentions as good (she aims to express love, pious grief, gratitude, etc.), even if her actions are socially immodest. Joachim Jeremias, for example, raises doubts about whether we should assume the woman is a prostitute but envisions the scene as involving a disgraceful unbinding of the hair. He chalks this up to the woman's absorption in the moment: "she was so shocked at having bedewed Jesus with her tears, that she entirely forgot her surroundings."4 Joseph A. Fitzmyer cautions that the identification of the woman as a prostitute is at best only a plausible inference from the narrative (and not the only possibility). He understands the woman's actions (tears, kisses, the anointing and wiping with her hair) as "signs of love and gratitude" for forgiveness and observes that the unbinding of her hair "does not confirm her sinfulness" but "merely gives rise to an interpretation of her" (by Simon).5 Darrel Bock sees the unbinding of the hair as an act that "some might think immodest" (in her social context) but it is part of her gestures as a whole, which express humility, devotion, reverence.6 According to Frederick Danker, the woman's loose hair is grounds for questioning her character but her actions are "a monument of sacred affection."7

Other commentators give the traditional interpretation of the woman's unbound hair as immodest a more intense coloring. They see the unbound hair as part of a cluster of sexually provocative gestures by the woman. Joel Green describes her behavior as "erotic" and therefore "outrageous." Letting down her hair "would have been on a par with appearing topless in public." Likewise, her touching of Jesus' feet is like the fondling that slave girls performed on guests at dinner parties as a prelude to sexual favors.8 The same or similar points are made also by Kathleen Corley (to whom Green refers), François Bovon, and others.9 These interpreters are not saying that the woman's gestures are meant by her to be erotic, only that they would have been construed that way (e.g., by a character like Simon) and that the public connotations of her actions heighten the drama and underscore the Lukan theme that Jesus accepts the disreputables. …

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