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As I was thinking about the cultural view of women's hair in the modern Middle East, and in the Ancient Near East too, it raised significant questions for me about the story in Luke 7:36-50 (I'm interested in added cultural or historical context which could help me better understand the act of washing a man's feet with a woman's hair, and what the implications for Jesus' ministry may have been).

Luke 7:36–50 (ESV): 36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

In the text, there is some obvious discomfort on behalf of Simon the Pharisee, who is concerned directly about the kind of woman that is touching JESUS' feet. Am I correct to understand too, per Jewish customs (read Ketuboth 72), that there would also have been some controversy or discomfort because of the act itself, specifically the use of her hair?

Would JESUS potentially have been seen as a sinner, for allowing Himself to be identified with her adulterous and uncovered hair? Was this kind of exposure or touching considered culturally inappropriate? Could the act have been misconstrued as possibly sexual in nature? Or was this perfectly understood as an act of penance?

Could the use of her uncovered hair have been regarded as a symbolic representation of her identity as an adulterous woman?

And who is considered a woman who violates the precepts of Jewish women? One who, for example, goes out of her house, and her head, i.e., her hair, is uncovered... § The mishna stated: And who is considered a woman who violates the precepts of Jewish women? One who goes out and her head is uncovered. The Gemara asks: The prohibition against a woman going out with her head uncovered is not merely a custom of Jewish women. Rather, it is by Torah law, as it is written with regard to a woman suspected by her husband of having been unfaithful: “And he shall uncover the head of the woman” (Numbers 5:18). And the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: From here there is a warning to Jewish women not to go out with an uncovered head, since if the Torah states that a woman suspected of adultery must have her head uncovered, this indicates that a married woman must generally cover her head.

https://www.sefaria.org/Ketubot.71b.5?lang=bi

My goal in all of it is to further my understanding of times and customs that lend to the understanding of the text. Thank you all in advance for both your time in reading this and any responses given!

2 Answers 2

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Although the Talmudic reference in the OP comes from two centuries after the fact, it probably does reflect the cultural norms of Jesus' time. Indeed, just as shocking as the woman using her hair in the intimate manner described is the fact that the feet were considered to be a "private part" not normally touched by the opposite sex except one's wife:

Foot-washing was a service which the wife was expected to render her husband (Yer. Ket. v. 30a); according to Rab Huna, it was one of the personal attentions to which her husband was entitled, no matter how many maids she may have had; likewise, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ket. 61a), besides preparing his drink and bed, the wife had to wash her husband's face and feet (comp. Maimonides, "Yad," Ishut, xxi. 3; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 80, 4).

The OP asks if the woman's actions were indicative that she was an adulteress. It is easy to understand how shocking this woman's behavior would have been to those present, but the nature of her sin is not disclosed by the text. Since the scene of the story is the home of Simon the Pharisee of Capernaum it may be that her status as "a sinful woman" meant nothing more than that she was known to conduct business on the Sabbath or that she did not follow the dietary rules as Pharisaic tradition defined them. Since a similar act was performed by Mary of Bethany in John 12 it is probably best not to read an implication of adultery into Luke's account of this event. Indeed, the author clearly approves of the woman's act, as does Jesus. She is an positive example, a "bride of Christ" whose inner attitude the reader is meant to adopt regardless of the disapproval of society. Christians should approach Jesus as as both sinners and brides.

Conclusion: while "indecent" may be too strong a word, the woman's actions would definitely be considered shocking. However the implication that she had committed adultery is dubious. She adopted an attitude of a wife to Jesus, and the author's intent is to show her as an external example of the inner devotion which all Christians, in the position of "brides" of Christ," should demonstrate even though the world disapproves.

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  • Thank you Dan for the answer, the source you cited on the feet washing was very illuminating! I wholeheartedly agree that she is a positive figure and should be emulated, that seems to be the thrust of the story and the author seems to relish in making us uncomfortable with this display of repentance and love for Jesus that pushes cultural boundaries. But is it indecent to expose your hair in public - if the talmud equates the exposing of hair with adultery what does that mean for this story? Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 13:17
  • I suppose this leads to further questions (it is really hard for me to accept that she was directly adopting the role of a wife, that would seem to me to be overly presumptuous on her part; and the idea of being the bride of Christ is foreign and anachronistic JESUS' teaching and ministry up to point, but it could just be my knee-jerk reaction) What other family members would have washed someone's feet? Who else would have seen a woman's uncovered hair? In the absence of a wife, whose responsibility was it to wash a man's feet? Would a sister, mother or daughter have performed these roles? Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 13:25
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    I didn't mean to go as far to suggest she literally acted as Jesus' wife but that the author presents her as an example of that kind of devotion, since all Christians come as both sinners and brides of Christ. About whose responsibility it would be... story suggests the host failed in his own responsibility to provide a means for Jesus to wash his own feet when he entered the house. The wife's responsibility would be in her own home, not at a semi-public gathering. Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 14:29
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Whether the act of the "sinful" woman in Luke 7:36-50 was sexually suggestive, seductive or not, is to miss the cental points of the story, namely:

  • the woman was a "sinner" (ie, a local ex-prostitute)
  • She had not been invited to the Simon's party but came of her own volition (V37)
  • Simon was just as much as sinner as the woman (this is true for all humans - see Rom 3:10-18)
  • Simon believed, as did all pharisees, that he was not a sinner, and thus worthy of God's respect (such was their arrogance!!)
  • Simon had neglected to wash his guests' feet (V44)
  • Simon allowed his arrogance to interfere with his belief in Jesus as a prophet and Messiah (VV39)
  • Jesus dispelled this notion by knowing what Simon was thinking but rebuked him kindly
  • Jesus' parable of the two debtors was to show Simon that one loves in proportion to the extent of their forgiveness (V47). Therefore, even if Simon's assumption about his own superior righteousness (compared to the sinful woman) is correct, it showed that he loved less because he had been forgiven less.

Indeed, the central point of the story is to show that we are all sinners in desperate need of forgiveness; and the greater extent to which we realize how much God has forgiven, the more we love and appreciate God and His gifts.

There was nothing salacious about the woman's action in anointing Jesus' feet - it was an act of pure love (and not seduction). However, it was the custom for women to cover their hair. See appendix below.

Lastly, if the woman's actions were, by social norms of the time, were sexually suggestive, she would have been rebuked by Jesus. Instead, she was encouraged to continue to do what she was doing. Now, it must be admitted (as documented above) that for a woman to let down her hair was not normal, but that did not bother Jesus nor the woman.

APPENDIX - Cambridge Commentary

Here is an extract from the Cambridge commentary on Luke 7:38.

  1. stood at his feet behind him This is explained by the arrangement of the triclinia, by which the guest reposed on his elbow at the table, with his unsandalled feet outstretched on the couch. Each guest left his sandals beside the door on entering. Literally the verse is, “And standing behind beside His feet weeping, with her tears she began to bedew His feet, and with the hairs of her head she wiped them off, and was eagerly kissing His feet, and anointing them with the perfume.” As she bent over His feet her tears began to fall on them, perhaps accidentally at first, and she wiped them off with the long dishevelled hair (1 Corinthians 11:15) which shewed her shame and anguish, and then in her joy and gratitude at finding herself unrepulsed, she poured the unguent over them. The scene and its moral are beautifully expressed in the sonnet of Hartley Coleridge.

“She sat and wept beside His feet. The weight

Of sin oppressed her heart; for all the blame

And the poor malice, of the worldly shame

To her were past, extinct, and out of date:

Only the sin remained—the leprous state.

She would be melted by the heat of love,

By fires far fiercer than are blown to prove

And purge the silver ore adulterate.

She sat and wept, and with her untressed hair

Still wiped the feet she was so blest to touch;

And He wiped off the soiling of despair

From her sweet soul, because she loved so much.”

No one but a woman in the very depths of anguish would have violated all custom by appearing in public with uncovered head (1 Corinthians 11:10).

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  • I understand that it is not presented as sinful in the text, because Jesus is essentially looking at her heart, while Shimon is looking towards appearances. But my question is not about the meaning of the passage as a whole (which you have outlined perfectly!) but the cultural background behind the foot washing and the hair-uncovering. The background changes how we read the story and understand what is going on - either what she did was totally normal, and the pharisee was merely overreacting, or it was extraordinary (for a variety of reasons). Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 13:21
  • Would a close relative wash someone eleses feet? Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 13:21
  • @Dottard I do think your opening sentence to be on the weak side. To me it makes you appear more interested in the "central points of the story" than the actual question which is about a detail of that story. ["woman's hair"].
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 13:54
  • @C.Stroud - accepted - I have added further explanation to fix this.
    – Dottard
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 20:13
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    @TheodoreReinJedlicka - OK, so I have added some extra material to fix this problem.
    – Dottard
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 20:14

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