Why do Greek Orthodox Christian priests and monks wear long beards — and why are most of their Roman Catholic counterparts clean-shaven?
Only since the First World War have there been any clean-shaven Orthodox monks or priests, with closely-shorn hair, but this fashion has been continued among some of the clergy down to our own day.
The beards — and often the very long hair — of Orthodox priests and other holy men are some of their most striking attributes, marking them as different from other Western religious men. But aren’t they in violation of the New Testament passage in which Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? (I Cor. 11:14)?
Well, according to some scholars, including those at orthodox info.com, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Orthodox Christian piety begins in the deep tradition of Old Testament days, they say, and our relationship to God, holiness, worship, and morality was formed in the ancient times when the first books of the Bible were written.
In the Book of Leviticus, priests are told: “And ye shall not shave your head for the dead (a pagan practice) with baldness on the top; and they shall not shave their beard… (Leviticus 21:5), and to all men in general, Ye shall not make a round cutting of the hair of your head, nor disfigure your beard (Lev. 19:27).
The significance of these commandments, some believe, is to illustrate that the clergy are meant to devote themselves completely to serving the Lord, without attempting to conform to any societal norms having to do with appearance.
The Nazarite Old Testament tradition regarding beards
This adjuration was repeated in the law given to those belonging to the sect called the Nazarites, “when a razor shall not come upon his head, until the days be fulfilled which he vowed to the Lord: he shall be holy, cherishing the long hair of the head all the days of his vow to the Lord… “(Numbers 6:5-6).
Each boy or man who was to become a Nazarite (meaning “consecrated” or “separated”) has been devoted to God for a certain period of time — or in some cases for his whole life — and one of the many conditions for becoming a Nazarite is not to shave the beard or hair.
In Leviticus 21:5, it says “They shall not make baldness upon their head,
neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh.”
Samson — whose powers were cut off by Delilah
One of the most well-known Nazarites was Samson, whose life was recounted in the Old Testament, in the Book of Judges 13–16. As is universally known, Samson’s great God-given superpower sprang from a prohibition to shave his hair (and not to drink wine, although that is another story for another day).
And we all know what happened when Delilah decided to cut Samson’s hair.
However, it was a different world in the days of the New Testament, and many believe that St. Paul was advising Christ’s followers to adopt new ways when he made references to hair in his letters.
“If a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him”
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (I Cor. 11:14) the apostle uses a certain Greek word for hair when he says “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?”
The Orthodoxinfo.com writers state “But that particular word for hair designates hair as an ornament (the notion of length being only secondary and suggested), differing from the Greek word ‘thrix’ (the anatomical or physical term for hair).”
This means that Saint Paul’s selection of words criticizes laymen for wearing their hair in a stylized fashion, which was contrary to the pious Jewish (and Christian) love of modesty.
Saint Paul, in the cited passage above, is addressing laymen and women who are praying (I Cor. 11:3-4). His words in the above passages, as well as in other passages concerning head coverings (I Cor. 11: 4-7), are directed to laymen, not clergy.
“In other passages, Saint Paul makes an obvious distinction between the clerical and lay rank (I Cor. 4:1, I Timothy 4:6, Col. 1:7, and others),” the writers point out.
Paul, they state, did not oppose the Old Testament ordinance in regard to hair and beards in general since, as seen from elsewhere in the New Testament, he himself wore a type of headband that was used as a way to keep long hair off the face.
Jesus almost universally depicted with long hair and a beard
And of course, Jesus Himself is near-universally depicted with long hair and a beard “as the Great High Priest of the new Christian priesthood,” they state.
So how did the fashion of cropped, or “stylized,” hair and shaved beards find its way into the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds?
These customs had become so normalized for the Roman clergy by the eleventh century, they say, that the Eastern ways were even listed among the reasons for the “Anathema,” the pronouncement that the Eastern church was not in communion with the West.
This fateful proclamation was made by Cardinal Humbert on July 15, 1054 against Patriarch Michael in Constantinople, an act which precipitated the Western Church’s final, formal separation from the Orthodox Church.
Beards become a custom separating East and West
“While wearing beards and long hair you (Eastern Orthodox) reject the bond of brotherhood with the Roman clergy since they shave and cut their hair,” it stated, in an early proof that the custom had already divided Christianity to some extent.
By that time, one of the Orthodox Church Fathers, Bishop Chrysostomos of Etna, had already written that long hair and beards were no more or less important to a Priest than “feathers are to a bird.”
All Orthodox monks and lay brothers closely followed the ancient tradition — and still do — since the wearing of long hair and beards traces back to the time of the desert hermits in the early years of Christianity.
The main reason why ascetics did not shave their hair or their beards was as a way to avoid vanity, and therefore this old hermitage practice also had a spiritual foundation.
Westerners followed Roman tradition of closely-cropped hair and clean-shaven faces, Greek Orthodox priests had beards
In the early Roman Empire, it was customary for men to shave and wear closely-cropped hair. The Romans believed that only barbarians did not shave and were proud of their different look compared to other peoples, who they viewed as inferior.
With an edict by Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, any residual beard-wearing on the part of the clergy was rooted out. In trying to imitate the great days of the Roman Empire, he wanted the clergy of his time to be clean-shaven (although, according to a mosaic of him that still exists, he sported a rather long moustache himself).
At 1816’s Council of Aachen, Charlemagne’s seat of power, it was stipulated that “all priests and monks were to shave every two weeks.”
Even today, only Eastern Catholic priests are unshaven as a rule, while the members of a few monastic orders do not shave (notably certain Franciscans).
Although today, even Orthodox Christian priests are not obligated to wear beards, it is still the cultural norm for them, for the most part.
Either as a way for Orthodox Christian clergy to resemble Christ more closely, or a way to distinguish themselves from the laity, the tradition continues.
Their physical appearance is meant for many of them to be a symbol of Christ’s humility, which is the ultimate aim of their lives.