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Bible Gemz 1751 - Was it a Nazirite Vow Paul made or a lesser vow? (Acts 18:18-23)

February 10, 2018

Paul stayed in Corinth for some time after that, then said good-bye to the brothers and sisters and went to nearby Cenchrea. There he shaved his head according to Jewish custom, marking the end of a vow. 

They stopped first at the port of Ephesus, where Paul left the others behind. While he was there, he went to the synagogue to reason with the Jews.

They asked him to stay longer, but he declined.

As he left, however, he said, “I will come back later, God willing.” Then he set sail from Ephesus.

The next stop was at the port of Caesarea. From there he went up and visited the church at Jerusalem and then went back to Antioch.

After spending some time in Antioch, Paul went back through Galatia and Phrygia, visiting and strengthening all the believers. (Acts 18:18-23)


Some readers have asked me why I spell the word Nazarite and Nazirite in the same Gemz. Others of course have told me I have made a mistake or that I need to choose which it is. The word comes from the Hebrew term nazir, meaning "to consecrate" and is derived from the Hebrew root nazar, meaning "to separate".  The alternation of Hebrew vowels is a normal process. The reason I left both forms in the Gemz is because some of the portions were quotes and the word had been spelled that way by the original writer. 


Was it a Nazirite Vow Paul made or a lesser vow?


The man or woman who took the Nazarite vow took an oath to separate himself or herself from the world and even from close kinship relationships to serve only Yahweh. The vow of a Nazirite could be a special service performed for a certain length of time or the vow could tie the Nazirite to a lifetime of service. According to the requirements of a Nazirite in Numbers 6:1-21 for the period of time of the vow the man or woman Nazirite must:

  1. Make a formal swearing of an oath of service to God [Numbers 6:2]

  2. Abstain from drinking wine and fermented liquor, including vinegar derived from either wine or any fermented liquor, and will abstain from eating grapes fresh or dried or eat anything that comes from the vine [Numbers 6:3-4].

  3. Let his hair grown uncut for the length of the vow [Numbers 6:5]

  4. For the entire period of the vow he must not come in contact with a corpse.  He is to remain ritually clean and cannot defile his ritual cleanliness even in the event a parent or sibling dies [Numbers 6:7].


When a Nazirite completed a vow he was to cut his or her hair and present the locks of hair, which represented the duration of the oath of service, at the Temple in Jerusalem where it was to be burned on the sacrificial altar with animal and grain sacrifices.  The sacrificial requirements for a completed vow were an expensive undertaking and often wealthy Jews would sponsor a poor Nazirite who had completed a vow. 


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, 

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 evidence is lacking 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. Numbers 6 necessitates the hair to be cut at the end of a Nazarite vow, just as Paul does here. Luke states clearly in 18:18 that Paul’s action marked the end of the vow. If it marked the end of the vow then it wasn't a true Nazarite vow. 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. 


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 anything with which to carry it there “ritually pure”. 


From The Talmud:

All substitutes for the Nazirite vow were considered to be equivalent to the Nazirite vow. If a man said, he would take a Nazirite vow then he became becomes a Nazirite. If a man declared he would take a vow and become like a bird he would grow his hair like feathers and his nails like talons and thus became like a Nazirite. If a man declares himself a Nazirite abstaining from grapes, grape stones, ritual defilement then he becomes a Nazirite in all aspects. The Mishnah taught even though he abstains from one thing only he becomes a Nazarite.  Some Rabbis e.g. R. Simeon, taught he does not incur the liabilities of a Nazirite unless he vows to abstain from everything. If a Nazirite fails in fulfilling the three obligations all or part of the person’s time as a Nazarite must be repeated. This is what was imposed on Queen Helena above. There was disagreement as to whether a man who took on a Nazarite vow could be considered a Nazarite if all four requirements were not kept.  


Others say that by Paul’s time there was a ruling that one who had made a Nazarite vow outside of Jerusalem had 30 days to return to the Holy City and more importantly the temple in order to ritually burn the hair there on the altar and to complete the vow made. There is debate then as to whether Paul fulfilled the vow in this way. 


Now let us briefly look at Acts 18:18 where Paul "cut his hair off in Cenchrea, for he had taken a vow." A vow was a solemn promise made to God. The vow of Paul mentioned in Acts 18 is like a Nazarite vow in that he shaved his head but some argue that if it had been a true Nazarite vow Paul would have waited until he returned to Jerusalem before he shaved his hair. Therefore the vow was not the strict Nazarite vow because he did not shave his hair in Jerusalem nor burn it on the alter in Jerusalem in accordance with Numbers 6:13-18. 


Acts 21:22-24 indicates it was more likely that the Nazarite vow as all the circumstances seem to fit: the ending of the vow in Jerusalem, and the fact that this vow was intended to show Jews that Paul still respected the law. 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. 


I will address the remaining questions in the next Gemz. 



One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. Plato


Trust in God is not an obligation but a privilege. Joyce Meyer


A man may study because his brain is hungry for knowledge, even Bible knowledge. But he prays because his soul is hungry for God. Leonard Ravenhill 


The biggest challenges and problems we face will never be solved with ‘comfortable’ conversations! Rick Godwin


Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status. Laurence Peter





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