What Does the Apostle Paul Mean by “Nature” at 1 Corinthians 11:14?
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a perplexing passage to many Christians. It deals with head coverings and veils for women and the hair length of both sexes. It is,of course,a passage that angers many feminists and at present seems to have little meaning to most people in the western world. So how should we deal with it?
One key to interpreting it may be found in verse 14 where Paul says,“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair,it is degrading to him,but if a woman has long hair,it is her glory?” Then,in verse 16 he goes on to say,“But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom,nor do the churches of God.” Why then may this verse be the key to interpreting Paul’s full statement?
Simply this:when Paul was talking about “nature teaching,” he did not mean what we mean by nature as described today. The Greek word for nature is physis from which our words “physical” and “physics” are derived. But the ancient Greeks and Paul obviously thought of physis as being different from what we mean by physical entities alone. If one takes a look at Bauer,Arndt,and Gingrich’s A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament under the word physis,he or she will note that the first definition given is that of a “natural endowment or condition,inherited from one’s ancestors.” In Greek it quotes Isocrates who uses the words physei polites which indicate that he was speaking of the accepted customs of the city.
Paul no doubt knew that there were very different races with different types of hair. After all,there were certainly a few black Africans in the Roman world,and Paul would have known that Africans do not have the long,straight hair that most Europeans do. So when he was talking about “nature teaching,” he was undoubtedly talking about the customs of the people and churches living in the Roman Empire of his day and especially in Greece,Asia Minor,and Palestine.
It would be wrong to suggest that physis did not at times mean that which exists in the physical world. Sometimes physis was contrasted to habit or custom. So how then can it be said that Paul was not using the term much in the way that people of our times do? The answer is that the Greeks,and after them the Romans,developed certain concepts of “natural law.” In Latin these were called the ius civile, the ius gentium,and the ius naturale. The first of these meant the common law of the Romans while ius gentium meant the law of the nations. Both were subsumed under the ius naturale or natural law. But the question remains:how can custom be an aspect of natural law?
The natural law concept goes back to Aristotle and the Stoics,but it was developed by the Romans. And when Roman law began to become popular in the thirteenth century in Western Europe again after many centuries when it was unknown or ignored,legal codes were developed that included the concepts of natural law and the law of the nations. One of these was Las Siete Partidas (The Seven Parts of the Law) which was developed in medieval Spain during the reign of the thirteenth century Castilian king Alfonso the Wise. Therein,we get a discussion of the meaning of both natural laws in their broadest sense and the law of the nations. Interestingly,Las Siete Partidas gives examples of the natural law and the law of the nations. In one case it states that what we would describe as scientific natural law dictates that in order to reproduce,all animals (then known) had to copulate,something true of humans as well. But the law of the nations provides something special for humans. That is that all human societies have marriage laws as well,and while marriage may differ from society to society,in one form or another it exists everywhere among humans.
So,getting back to 1 Corinthians 11,it seems that Paul was saying that Christians must practice the ius gentium or customary law of the world in which they lived,so long as it did not violate positive Christian moral law,or they would cause scandals that would affect the churches negatively. But since our customs today are much different today than those of Paul’s day,we need not slavishly follow the instructions he outlined at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.