In Acts 18:18 the English Standard Version states:

At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vow.

The cross-references for this point to Numbers 6:2, 18 which describe the Nazarite vow. Reasons for this vow have been described as: taken for the fulfillment of a wish or to have the opportunity to make a sin-offering.

Also this passage seems to depict the shaving of one's hair as the end of the Nazarite vow - does this mean at Cenchreae Paul completed his vow?

I understand that Paul may have taken a Jewish vow so that he might appease more of the Jewish population and thus be able to help them believe in Jesus Christ more readily (what I understood from Acts 21:20-24) but why in particular does he take/ do the brothers at Jerusalem give him this vow?

9 Answers 9


Good question! Commentators seem divided over whether Paul's vow in Acts 18:18 is 1) The beginning of a nazarite vow, 2) the completion of a nazarite vow, or 3) a different kind of vow altogether.

1) It is the beginning of a nazarite vow. Though nothing is said about the necessity of hair-cutting at the beginning of a vow, it is not unreasonable to think that some may have practiced this. Yet the sparsity of evidence and the fact that 2) is more likely seem to rule this out as a likely alternative.

2) It is the end of a nazarite vow. Num 6 commands the hair to be cut at the end of a nazarite vow, just as Paul does here. Though one can imagine that Paul might have wanted to take a vow to God in the hope that his journey to Jerusalem would be safe, it is more likely that his hair-cutting represents the end of the period of time he spent devoted to God in Corinth. A strong counter-argument here is that the Bible says that the end of a vow must be accompanied by a sacrifice in Jerusalem - though one might think that Paul was on his way there to sacrifice to mark the end of the vow, it is thought by many unreasonable to end the vow before making the sacrifice. Perhaps this was because he wanted the freedom to eat and drink what he wanted in order not to offend people on his journeys (cf. 1Cor 9-10).

3) It is another kind of vow of uncertain nature. In favor of this option are the facts that the circumstances of Paul's haircut don't all fit well with the nazarite vow - and though they can be made to fit, it is argued by some that the better option is to see this as a different kind of vow. Those in favor of this option often quote the Mishnah (a long book of Jewish sayings/traditions), which says that a nazarite vow cannot be ended outside of Israel, and gives the example of Queen Helena who herself decided to end a 7-year nazarite vow outside Israel and was forced to be a nazarite for another 7 years. Furthermore it was common practice to throw the shorn hair in with the sacrifice - yet Paul who cut his hair outside of Jerusalem probably did not have a baggie with which to carry it there unharmed. Yet it is uncertain whether the Jews had the same practice in Paul's day, and if they did, whether Paul would have cared to follow a Jewish regulation not explicit in the Tanach (the Old Testament).

In Acts 21:22-24 it seems more likely that the nazarite vow is in view - all the circumstances seem to fit: the ending of the vow in Jerusalem, the fact that this vow was intended to show Jews that Paul still respected the law, etc. The only thing that may be argued not to fit is that nazarite vows according to the mishnah were to last a minimum of 30 days - it may seem coincidental that all these men could end their vow at the same time. Yet this is hardly an insurmountable obstacle and is very speculative.

My belief is that Acts 21 describes a nazarite vow and that Acts 18 probably describes the end of a nazarite vow or a nazarite-like vow. As much of the argumentation depends on the Mishnah, it might be a good idea to read (parts of) it: http://halakhah.com/pdf/nashim/Nazir.pdf.


A person taking a Nazarite vow was to abstain for a specific period from partaking of grapes or any of its products whether intoxicating or not, cutting his hair, and touching a corpse . Such a person is called a Nazirite (Heb. nazir, נָזִיר). At the end of the period of abstention the Nazarite shall shave his head and put the hair in the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offerings. If a nazirite fails in fulfilling the three obligations there may be consequences, such as that all or part of the person's time as a nazirite may need to be repeated. The subject is dealt with in the Priestly Code, in Numbers 6:1–21.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers says there can be no doubt that the “vow” was that of the temporary Nazarite, as described in Numbers 6:1-21. Ellicott's says the grammatical structure of the Greek sentence makes it possible to refer the words to Aquila as well as St. Paul, but there is hardly the shadow of a doubt that the latter is meant. So, Acts 18:18 is telling us that Paul had taken the Nazarite vow, which would be fulfilled by burning his hair on the temple altar.

Avram Yehoshua (The Lifting of the Veil: Acts 15:20-21, page 200 note 563 ) says that scholars are perplexed that Paul would do such a thing. Yehoshua says (page 201) anyone taking the vow held God's law in the highest esteem. Although a proud Jew, Paul, in his own epistles, frequently referred to Christians as not under the law of the Jews, thus making this vow seem incongruous for him. This could not be more obvious than in the following passage:

Romans 6:14-15: For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

Before dealing with why Paul took the Nazarite vow, we should first attempt to establish whether he did actually take the Nazarite vow.

Mark's Gospel several times refers to Jesus as a Nazarene, and Matthew 2:23 acknowledges this appellation, but Jesus was not a Nazirite and is never described as one. Acts 24:5 has Paul described as being a Nazarene, clearly an accusation that could not have been understood as 'Nazarite', but in answering that accusation, Paul says that Jews found him purified in the temple (Acts 24:18), an allusion to the process a Nazarite underwent. Luke appears to be deliberately conflating the two terms.

Cenchrea is in Corinth, where Paul had to this point continuously spent more than a year and a half among the gentiles (Acts 18:8,11,18). In his epistles, Paul tells the gentiles that they are not under the Jewish law, yet three times in Acts, he contradicts this by taking the Nazarite vow in the presence of gentiles, who are precluded from the same vow, yet in 1 Corinthians 11:1 asks them to be his imitators (μιμηταί). It is inexplicable that Paul would slight the Corinthians in this way, and inexplicable that many were converted.

Acts could be seen to portray Paul as a Nazarite in three separate passages: Acts 18:18;21:24-26;24:18. The author sometimes uses triple repetition to persuade his readers regarding the veracity of an event. Another example is the disputed conversion on the road to Damascus (i), described in Acts 9:1-19;22:4-16;26:12-18. Of course, triple repetition does not disprove any of these events, but it is specific to Luke's style. If scholars are perplexed that Paul would do such a thing, it is possible that Luke is portraying Paul as taking the Nazarite vow for the author's own theological reasons.


(i) Some scholars, including Uta Ranke-Heinemann, have noted that the conversion accounts appears to have been based on the Bacchae, a play by Euripedes. Also see Paul's Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis Of The Three Reports In Acts for a discussion of the conversion accounts as " theologically and stylistically motivated" elements of Luke's literary technique.


No deep theological evidence to back this up, but reading Ch. 18: 9-11, is it possible he vowed to the Lord to do his will and preach in Corinth after receiving the vision? Upon leaving Corinth, when he reached Cenchreae, cut his hair to indicate that he had kept his vow to the Lord and it was now over. Coincidentally, (if that term should ever be used in a situation involving the working of the Holy Spirit) his having a shaved head when they arrive at Ephesus and he visits the synagogue (v.19), would add an image of one obedient to Jewish customs and dedicated enough to take and fulfill a vow according to their customs. This could be a good way for him to be introduced to the Jews in Ephesus, since many times his presence led to jealousy from some Jewish leaders. J.A.B.

  • Hi J.A.B., welcome to BHSE! Please take the Site Tour when you get a chance - this helps explain the SE format and how to help with Questions and Answers on the site. This is a really good first answer, I'd be fascinated to see if you could dig up a bit more evidence to substantiate it, which would help people upvote the Answer if it is a good fit to what happened here.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 11:38

This Bible Hub webpage is a good resource on this subject. It states the following:

I. THE NATURE AND CONDITIONS OF THE VOW. There can be no doubt that the "vow" was that of the temporary Nazarite (Numbers 6:1-21). It implied a separation from the world and common life (this was the meaning of the word "Nazarite"), and while under the vow the man who had taken it was to drink no wine or strong drink, and to let no razor pass over his head or face. When the term was completed, he was to shave his head at the door of the tabernacle and burn the hair in the fire of the altar. It will be noted that the Nazarites in Acts 21:24, who are completing their vow, shave their heads. Here a different word ("shorn") is used, which is contrasted with "shaving" in 1 Corinthians 11:6. It was lawful for a man to have his hair cut or cropped during the continuance of the vow and this apparently was what St. Paul now did. But in this case also the hair so cut off was to be taken to the temple, and burnt there and this explains the apostle's eagerness, "by all means" (ver. 21) to keep the coming feast at Jerusalem.


Having studied the word of God, I don't believe it was the 'Nazarite vow' that was taken by Paul, but the vow of understanding the Zadok priesthood that is mentioned and detailed in Ezekiel 44:10-31. God speaks of raising up sons of Zadok (meaning righteous; justified in 1 Sam 2:35) specifically in verse 35 it is written "I will raise up for Myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in My heart and in My mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall walk before My anointed forever". This faithful priest is Yahshah; Jesus; the Son of God who walks before all and we follow. In this Paul was demonstrating his following of The High Priest and his anointment is clearly known.


The Nazarite vow was not completed because Paul definitely didn't sacrifice any animals:

Num 6:9 And if any man die very suddenly by him, and he hath defiled the head of his consecration; then he shall shave his head in the day of his cleansing, on the seventh day shall he shave it. Num 6:10 [B][U]And on the eighth day he shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons, to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation:[/U][/B] Num 6:11 [B][U]And the priest shall offer the one for a sin offering, and the other for a burnt offering, and make an atonement for him, for that he sinned by the dead, and shall hallow his head that same day.[/U][/B] Num 6:12 And he shall consecrate unto the LORD the days of his separation, and shall bring a lamb of the first year for a trespass offering: but the days that were before shall be lost, because his separation was defiled. Num 6:13 And this is the law of the Nazarite, when the days of his separation are fulfilled: he shall be brought unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation: Num 6:14 And he shall offer his offering unto the LORD, one he lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings, Num 6:15 And a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil, and their meat offering, and their drink offerings. Num 6:16 And the priest shall bring them before the LORD, and shall offer his sin offering, and his burnt offering: Num 6:17 And he shall offer the ram for a sacrifice of peace offerings unto the LORD, with the basket of unleavened bread: the priest shall offer also his meat offering, and his drink offering. Num 6:18 And the Nazarite shall shave the head of his separation at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall take the hair of the head of his separation, and put it in the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace offerings.

As you can see, animals have no part of this until the 8th day.

Act 21:27 [B][U]And when the seven days were almost ended[/U][/B], the Jews which were of Asia, when they saw him in the temple, [b]stirred up all the people, and laid hands on him[/b], Act 21:28 Crying out, Men of Israel, help: This is the man, that teacheth all men every where against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place. Act 21:29 (For they had seen before with him in the city Trophimus an Ephesian, whom they supposed that Paul had brought into the temple.) Act 21:30 And all the city was moved, and the people ran together: [B][U]and they took Paul, and drew him out of the temple[/U][/B]: and forthwith the doors were shut.

Yet still during the 7th day Paul was taken out of the Temple and did not return.


Did Paul take the Nazarite vow in Cenchreae? If so, why this vow?

Acts 18:18 (NASB)

18 "Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea [a]he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow."

Did Paul take a Nazirite vow at Cenchreae: The answer is No. Why?

A Nazirite was to have his head shaved "at the entrance of the tent of meeting." It would seem that such a requirement could be carried out only in Jerusalem and thus not in Cenchreae.​ Numbers. 6:5, 18.

Numbers 6:5 (NASB)

5 "All the days of his vow of separation no razor shall pass over his head. He shall be holy until the days are fulfilled for which he separated himself to the Lord; he shall let the locks of hair on his head grow long."

Numbers 6:18 (NASB)

18 "The Nazirite shall then shave his dedicated head of hair at the doorway of the tent of meeting, and take the dedicated hair of his head and put it on the fire which is under the sacrifice of peace offerings."

The scriptures are silent and do not state what Paul's vow was, perhaps it was to help him and give him the courage to continue with his ministry. Anyway, whatever the vow was, it was not sinful


It seems to me that he didn't, the rituals of head-shaving and sacrificial offering seem to be instrumental for his capture, the riot and ultimately his testimony to the crowd in Luke 22.

  • Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for your contribution. Please remember to take the tour (link below) to better understand how this site works. This answer reads more like a comment than a full answer. are you able to supply supporting references and argument?
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 6:46

It couldn’t be the Nazirite vow because one who took that vow couldn’t partake of wine which Christian’s were to partake of in the Lord’s Supper. It is well documented that in the First Century the Supper was taken each Sunday ( I Corinthians 16:1-2). Paul would have been unable to partake of this memorial.


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