Head Coverings in Worship: Why Female Hair Is a Testicle

Posted on 9.27.2012

One of the joys of being friends with bible scholars is the stuff they share with you to explore. Recently, my colleague Trevor Thompson, who is a New Testament scholar here at ACU, shared with me some of the work of another NT scholar, Troy Martin, who is a friend of Trevor's. One of Martin's areas of expertise is using ancient medical texts to illuminate NT passages, particularly passages that seem confusing to us. In various studies Martin makes the observation that some of these confusions stem from the fact that we don't share the same medical understandings of the NT writers and their audiences. When ancient medical terms or ideas are used we often miss the meaning.

A good example of this comes from 1 Corinthians 11.2-16.

This passage has caused a lot of head scratching. In this text Paul makes an argument about women needing a head covering during worship. But what is strange is that after making this argument Paul seems to undercut and contradict himself. Specifically, in vv. 5-6 Paul makes the argument that a woman should wear a covering to cover her hair during worship. Not doing so would be a "disgrace" (NIV).

So far so good. But a few verses later Paul makes an argument from nature that seems to contradict what he has just argued, that a woman's hair is a "disgrace" if uncovered. The perplexing text is v. 15:
...but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.
You can see the problem. In vv. 5-6 the woman's hair needs a covering to avoid disgrace. But in v. 15 a woman's hair is its own covering and her glory. What's the deal? Is a woman's exposed hair disgraceful or a glory? Does a woman need to cover her hair or is her hair its own covering?

This is one of those passages where Martin argues that a proper understanding of ancient medicine, in this case reproductive medicine, can help resolve the apparent paradox. Specifically, in an article Martin published (Journal of Biblical Literature, 123/1, 2004, 75-84) he argues that the root of the interpretive paradox has to do with the proper interpretation of the word "covering" in v. 15.

The word rendered "covering" in v. 15 is peribolaiouPeribolaiou can refer to an outer garment and given the discussions about covering up in this text most translators have gone with this meaning. However, Martin points out that in the ancient world peribolaiou had a wider range of meanings.

Specifically, peribolaiou could refer to testicles. Which raises a question about the connection in the text with women's hair. Why is Paul talking about reproductive anatomy in a discussion about hair?

According to Martin, it has to do with how the ancients understood where sperm was stored and how hair aided the movement of sperm through the body.

Two ideas are important here. First, the ancients saw the head as the place where sperm was stored. Second, the ancients saw the hair as functioning like a straw, exerting a sucking force on the sperm. That is, where more hair was located more suction was exerted.

The idea is roughly as follows. A woman has a lot of hair on her head so that, when sperm enters her body during intercourse, the hair can suck the sperm upward and into her body. For the man the goal is to pull the sperm down and out of the body. The testicles were believed to be "weights" that helped exert this downward pull.

What all this means is that, according to the ancients, the hair was a part of reproductive anatomy, with the female's hair functioning as the analog of the male's testicles. The testicles in the male pull semen down and out and the hair of the female pulls the semen up and in.

This is one reason why Paul considers long hair on a man to be problematic. If a man grows his hair long he'll be unable to eject semen as his long hair will exert too much suction upward. (Insert funny and inappropriate joke about my own long hair.) A similar line of argument goes for females with short hair.

And all this explains what Paul is saying in 1 Cor. 11.15. Paul's argument is that a woman's long hair is proper to her nature. Why? Well, just as a man has testicles so a woman has long hair. The proper reading of v. 15b is this: "For long hair is given to her as a testicle."

And if a woman's long hair is sort of like a testicle then of course you'd want to keep that covered up during the worship service.

All of which brings us to the issue regarding if today's women should continue to keep their hair/testicles covered in Christian worship. At the end of the paper Martin concludes:
Informed by this tradition, Paul appropriately instructs women in the service of God to cover their hair since it is part of the female genitalia. According to Paul’s argument, women may pray or prophesy in public worship along with men but only when both are decently attired. Even though no contemporary person would agree with the physiological conceptions informing Paul’s argument from nature for the veiling of women, everyone would agree with his conclusion prohibiting the display of genitalia in public worship. Since the physiological conceptions of the body have changed, however, no physiological reason remains for continuing the practice of covering women’s heads in public worship, and many Christian communities reasonably abandon this practice.


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