Head Coverings in Worship, Part 2: Why Female Hair is a Testicle

I want to update you on the testicle debate.

Regular readers will recall a post of mine entitled Head Coverings in Worship: Why Female Hair Is a Testicle in which I discuss the work of NT scholar Troy Martin regarding his translation of 1 Corinthians 11.15. Some readers of that post pointed to Mark Goodacre's rebuttal of Martin's translation "testicle" in 1 Cor. 11.15.

I wanted to make interested readers aware that Martin's response to Goodacre appeared last week (Journal of Biblical Literature 132, 2013, 453–465): Περιβόλαιον as “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15: A Response to Mark Goodacre.

(H/T to my colleague Trevor Thompson for the head's up.)

Reviewing from the previous post, one of Martin's areas of expertise is in using ancient medical texts to illuminate NT passages, particularly passages that seem confusing to us. Given the fact that we don't share the same medical understandings as the NT writers and their audiences when ancient medical terms or ideas are used we can often miss the meaning.

And a good example of this, according to Martin (see: JBL 123, 2004, 75–84), 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 about this is that after making this argument Paul seems to undercut and contradict himself.

The passage starts off in vv. 5-6 where Paul makes the argument that a woman should wear a covering to cover her hair during worship because not doing so would be a "disgrace" (NIV).

So far so good. But a few verses later Paul goes on to make 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

So 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, Martin 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 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. By contrast, for the man the goal is to pull the sperm downward 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. 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.

That's a popular-level summary of Martin's work with 1 Cor. 11.15.

But as noted above, readers alerted me to Mark Goodacre's work (JBL 130, 2011, 391–96) contesting Martin's interpreting peribolaiou as "testicle," to which Martin has just recently responded.

Much of their debate swirls around their respective translations of an occurrence of peribolaiou in Euripides’ play Hercules (line 1269). Goodacre argues that if the translation of peribolaiou in this text can't be rendered as "testicle," as Martin argues, then much of Martin's case falters has Martin uses this passage in Euripides as an external and critical bit of evidence for his translation of 1 Cor. 11.15.

Martin responds in two ways. First, Martin defends his interpretation of Euripides. Second, and more importantly in his estimation, Martin argues that the meaning of peribolaiou in 1 Cor. 11.15 has more to do with the immediate context and meaning of that passage than with any external comparison one might make (like the one in Euripides). For Martin, meaning within the immediate context is determinative. Thus he challenges Goodacre to come up with a better translation of 1 Cor. 11.15, one that doesn't make Paul look confused or contradictory. Given that Goodacre doesn't provide an alternative translation that resolves the contradiction in Paul, Martin concludes his paper with this:
After carefully considering Goodacre’s evaluation and article, I conclude that my reading of περιβόλαιον as “testicle” in 1 Cor 11:15 makes better sense of this passage than any other reading proposed thus far. If Goodacre or anyone else can suggest a more cogent reading, I am happy to consider it. Until then, however, I shall continue to read this passage in the only way that makes sense by translating περιβόλαιον in the context of 1 Cor 11:15 as “testicle.”
To conclude, given that all this discussion about translations and testicles might seem a bit irrelevant, let's end with this question, as I did my previous post: what if Martin is right with this translation?

That is, if Martin is right should women today continue to follow Paul's advice to keep their hair/testicles covered in Christian worship? At the end of his 2004 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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20 thoughts on “Head Coverings in Worship, Part 2: Why Female Hair is a Testicle”

  1. This is neat. Is there a free way to access the journal article? I'd like to understand how he determines the medical theory; is this directly attested somewhere, or is it a reconstructed?

    Regardless of that, even if Martin isn't correct in the specifics, it seems pretty easy to defend the basic analogy that hair was considered to be like genitals, from the perspective of modesty. Both were clearly seen as things, in the culture of the time, that would be scandalous to display in church. If we have a better cultural etiology to explain it, that is interesting ... but I would suggest that even if medical texts were used to provide an etiology for the practice, that the practice may well still have predated the etiology. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole "medical explanation" was developed, in part, to justify pre-existing traditions around female head-covering. One interesting parallel between their time and ours: we long for an etiology to make sense of things, and we'll often spring for one that isn't (or might not be) accurate, just to get rid of that nagging desire for an explanation. As a reader who totally wants Martin to be right, so that I can have a good explanation for this passage, I can totally understand the very similar desire of an ancient doctor who may have provided his own testicular explanation in order to explain his culture's tradition of female head-covering.

  2. I don't know of any free access. You might email the authors directly to have them forward you a copy.

  3. Well, that's the wackiest thing I've read all day :) Not wacky like "you're all gonna burn" wacky. Wacky like "did I just read what I read?" wacky.

  4. There once was a man who was bald,
    Renown for his prowess (so-called),
    While his wife had long hair
    (And a fine derrière):
    “I’d advise family planning,” said Paul.

  5. The translation makes sense, as does the interpretation. But I have not found an english translation of Paul that reads like that, including Wycliffe, my question is not should women continue to cover, but what was the reason they stopped? It obviously was not because we now understand the human reproductive system.

  6. I learned this in one of my bible classes. My professor went on to say the longer the woman's hair the stronger her fertility. It learned that it was a woman's hair that was the so called magnetic force to draw into her the seed of her husband. Shorter hair not much pull, longer hair and her fertility was stronger.

  7. Here's a link I found when I Googled for it: http://paul.mcnabbs.org/religion/JBL-paul.pdf.

  8. "Why is Paul talking about reproductive anatomy in a discussion about hair?"

    Because he's a Gnostic pervert? Either that, or the philologist who came up with this is. Take your pick.

  9. First problem: If Goodacre is right, then there is no attested hint of a possibility of a clue that the word means "testicle." The fact that it makes this particular passage (perhaps) make sense, is irrelevant. It would also help this particular passage make sense if we made up some other possible meaning here.

    Second problem: If Martin is right, and the word might mean "testicle" here, there is a strange progression from "this passage might, obscurely, mean something no interpreter has ever thought it meant" to "we don't think this new, proposed obscure meaning agrees with our view of biology" to "we can therefore ignore what this passage clearly says, because its obscure possible meaning doesn't sound good to us."

    I don't think women need to cover their hair. But I hope I have a better line of reasoning than this one.

  10. I think this is a terribly interesting piece. I have always found that people who have an understanding of the culture and language nuances of the NT times can make interesting interpretations of the scripture and bring new and useful dialogue. At the same time, it's in reading these that I understand the motivations of more conservative Biblical literalists. Because if you need to have all of this knowledge and background information before we can begin to truly interpret and understand the Bible, then who really has the chance to be sure they have it right? It seems more like luck than anything would bring someone to the right answer. And wouldn't God have made sure that his word remain untainted? So it must be that the Bible can and should be literally interpreted.

    Which, in turn, is why I've been drawn to the Universalist perspective. Because that means that we don't have to get it all right. There isn't the threat of Hell over everyone's head. So we are free to get something wrong. People can come to the Scriptures with their own biases and additional information (as an aside, I believe that taking the NT writings on their own terms and in their own context-- as one would any ancient writing, is the only way to go) and come away with different interpretations without fear that getting it wrong could mean an eternity in Hell. Which allows people to start asking tough questions.

  11. "If Goodacre or anyone else can suggest a more cogent reading, I am happy to consider it."

    Here it is: 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head [her _husband_ according to Paul's initial usage of head in verse 3] uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man [★] wears long hair, it's a disgrace for him? 15 But if a woman has long hair, it's her glory! Hair is given to her for a covering!

    ★ The view which assumes “her head” in verse 13 refers but to a wife's own head should not expect Paul to point us to the head of a man, much less point out from nature that man can't get a glorious covering by letting his own head hair grow long. And those who think that only the wife is the visible glory of a husband can't explain why Paul would want a man's wife's glorious head hair to be hidden. If she's his glory, and she is, let all her hair covering shine! It's glorious, obviously, but not a "symbol of authority", especially since hair originated from a man—Adam.

  12. My full article: https://www.facebook.com/notes/charles-franklin-bernard/head-covering-coronation-a-symbol-of-authority-a-wife-lays-on-her-husband/10150603632407506

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