Friday, January 23, 2009

Hair for Testicles, Bible Physiology Error (I Corinthains 11:13-15)

In I Corinthians 11:1-16, Paul presents his argument in favor of women’s head coverings. He makes his argument with appeals to Christology (vs. 3), angelology (vs. 10), gender roles (vs. 7), and finally with an appeal to nature (vss. 13-16). In this post it will become apparent that Paul invokes the ancient physiological understanding of his contemporaries and so errors from what is now commonly known about human reproductive systems and functions. I warn the reader that the background material in this post, though ancient, will incorporate direct references to human reproductive physiology in appropriate-level medical language.

I Corinthians 11:13-16 reads:

3Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering (περιβολαίου).

After Paul’s extended discourse on the appropriateness of women’s head coverings in verses 3-12, Paul suddenly closes his argument with verse 15 by clearly stating “hair for a covering”. In so saying, Paul appears to be utterly reversing his earlier argumentation for head coverings by apparently asserting that a woman’s hear suffices for a covering. Notice that Paul asks for his readers to make a judgment regarding this matter. He states, “Doth not even nature teach you…” He invokes the nature of the matter as a determinant. To understand this argument, we will need to comprehend the ancient, pre-scientific, erroneous understanding of human reproductive physiology.

The term “περιβολαίου” is generally translated as “covering” in most English versions. Because περιβολαίου is contrasted with hair, the semantic domain of this term is particularly relevant. Euripdes (Herc fur 1269) uses περιβόλαιον in reference to a body part. Hercules is cast as making the complaint, “έπει δε σαρκός περιβόλαι' έκτη-σάμην ήβώντα, μόχθους ους ετλην τί δει λέγειν.” Literally translated, this reads, “After I received [my] flesh bags, which are the outward signs of puberty, [I received] labors about which I [shall] undertake to say what is necessary” (my translation with Martin base text). Martin creates the following dynamic translation of the first phrase, “After I received my testicles (περιβόλαια), which are the outward signs of puberty.” Clearly Euripides uses the term περιβόλαια to refer to testicles. A similar use is found in Leuc. Clit 1.15.2 in which Achilles Tatitus builds on the meaning of περιβόλαιον in an erotic description of a passionate garden encounter. Of great interest, Achilles Tatius’s description associates female hair with male testicles.

Why is there an association made between hair and testicles in this ancient understanding of human reproductive physiology? Martin states, “Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow.” He further documents from Hippocratic sources that, “…hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen,” and “Hair grows most prolifically from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is produced or at least stored” (pp. 77-78). Furthermore, “A man with long hair retains much or all of his semen, and his long hollow hair draws the semen toward his head area but away from his genital area, where it should be ejected. Therefore, I Cor 11: 14 correctly states that it is a shame for a man to have long hair since the male nature is to eject rather than retain semen” (p. 78). On the inverse, a woman with long hair has a better semen storage and suction ability which hence enables her potential for conception (pp. 78-79). Aristotle likewise asserts that “long hollow hair increases the suction power of her hollow uterus” (Aristotle, Gen an. 739a.37-739b.20).

Hair, then was seen in the female as an extension of the genitalia. With this understanding, Tertullian counsels women, “Let her whose lower parts are not bare have her upper likewise covered” (Virg. 12, ANF 4:35). Regarding this passage, Martin notes, “Tertullian’s analogy and exhortation presume that hair becomes a functioning part of a young woman’s genitalia at puberty similar to the way testicles become functioning at puberty as part of male genitalia” (p. 82). Informed by Jewish tradition as Paul is, he considers the exposure of ggenitalia indecent for men and women (Exodus 20:26; Isaiah 6:2).

The ancient physiological concept of hair cements well in the context of Paul’s argument. He contrasts long hair in women with testicles in men. Paul states, that appropriate with her nature, a female is not given an external testicle but rather hair that must be uncovered. Likewise, due to the nature of hair as a siphon for semen, Paul argues that it is naturally inappropriate for a man to have long hair.

Obviously, Paul uses here an inaccurate and mundane understanding of male and female reproductive physiology. The mundane argumentation of Paul demonstrates the inability of the Bible to transcend out of the cultural context in which it is written. This hence confirms that it is not an inerrant work of an insightful and transcendent God but the work of men.

Martin, T. W. 2004. Paul’s argument from nature from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A testicle instead of a head covering. Pages 75-84. In Journal of Biblical Literature, 123/1


  1. Who is Martin? Hypocratic authors of what time period say that hair is hallow? Who is Euripdes and in what year did he use that word in that fashion? Who is Hercules? Who is Tertullian?

    Semen huh? Oddly enough all of the greek characters of περιβολαίου are used in fluid dynamics equations. Equations are the extent of my greek character knowledge. Is περιβόλαια is just another variation περιβολαίου? Different tense or plural or something like that?

    I'm trying to get a grasp of what you are saying. I would appreciate any clarifications you can offer.

  2. Hello Zee,

    Martin wrote an article in the JBL article in 2004. I rely heavily on his research on this, but I have been aware of this for some time. The Greek sources begin as early as 200 BCE up until the ante-nicean era. Hence, Paul's background would have been contemporary, and, when understood against this background, his argumentation makes sense. Unlike rather than undermining his arguments from previous verses in verse 16, he completes his argument albeit with an erroneous understanding of human reproductive physiology.

    Yes, the difference use of "peribolaia" and "peribolaiou" are matters of numeric differences. The same word is used. What Paul is clearly referring to is the correlation between testicles and a woman's long hair. Long hair in a woman is a reproductive measure and an extension of the female gonad for Paul and his contemporaries. This understand seems to be consistent with Jewish practices as well.

    Paul's argument from nature is a demonstration where the Bible is scientifically wrong. It makes a mistake. Paul actually makes similar mistakes in other epistles, but unless the reader is familiar with his contemporary setting, his mistakes are missed.

  3. I do think I grasp your basic logic. Additionally, with the mind set that this portion of Paul's writting are scientifically as accurate as the Easter Bunny then it would make sense that Church leaders in history would translate it differently in order to hide that.

    You use words very differently then I do. Engineers tend to use some words very differently then people of some other proffessions. It would be logical to me that Paul a tent maker would use words differently then hippocratic authors. I follow the logic that Paul may have just meant head covering.

    As a third option maybe Paul meant both testicals and a head covering and he was suggesting a Roman helmet. For the paticular Roman helmet that I'm refering too I would suggest looking it up at

  4. Hello Zee,

    I think that we have different areas of intelligence. I am a very verbal-linguistic person, and I do poorly with mathematical-logical thinking. My suspicion is that you have a solid mathematical-logical intelligence. So, yes, I use words consistent with my intelligence vector. Where am I going with this? Let me think...

    Oh, Paul was a tent maker; however, there are indications in I Corinthians that he is very familiar with Hellenistic thinking. I actually tend to develop some more examples in future posts, but it is obvious that he is familiar with Aristotle and Hellenistic cosmology. He makes both explicit and implicit references to the same. So, I think it very likely that had Hippocratic thining in mind.

    Yes, the standard English translations miss the important point of I Cor 11:13-15 because of the translation "covering" in vs. 15. This is an example of how translations are biased and nuances in ways that betray the "original" texts.

    I am not sure how much the Trojans were in mind for Paul, but I appreciate your humor. Truly I do. I am not being sarcastic. Biggums found it funny too, she said.

  5. If one views the Scriptures as scientific text book or as under the most fundamentalist of "inspiration" doctrines, I can see this being problematic. From my standpoint, it seems inane. I view scripture as narrative: a varying and often times conflicting account of 40+ authors interaction with the supernatural.

    You're arguing against a very narrow view of scripture.... if it's not scientifically acurate, who cares? I don't think that's the point.



  6. Hello Samm,

    I totally agree. I personally prefer to understand inspiration through cultural accommodation. For a while, for example, I tried to understand Genesis 1 through the perspective of genre criticism, and understanding its mythological language, I considered it a "seeker sensitive" theological narrative in pursuit not of a correct history but a correct theology. Beautiful, I thought.

    But, I would expect for an inspired Bible written by an inspired God to contain content that transcends the limited horizons of the authors. Instead, I see material that is wholly anchored to the cultural and "scientific" world views of the authorship. Similarly, I see ideas that develop according to cultural influence such as the introduction of Hellenism to the personal eschatology, and these developments become internal contradictions between earlier positions or accommodations.

    I appreciate you sharing this. I would be interested in an on-going discussion on the nature of inspiration and the degree of accommodation. I will be giving further demonstrations.

  7. Samm Hodges wrote: 'If one views the Scriptures as scientific text book or as under the most fundamentalist of "inspiration" doctrines, I can see this being problematic'

    Yes, I think that's the crowd that Scrip was aiming for, the "literalists". We've encountered more than a few who seem to hold the bible as revelation in all matters.


  8. Scriptulicious, my mind is definetly more drawn to sudoku then a cross word puzzle. That said I'm still drawn to cross word puzzles on occassion for the challenge even if it takes me a ridiculous amount of time even with cheating.

    I am sure that Paul was very familiar with Hellenistic thinking. Hippocratic writtings imply to me writings related to the school of medicine that took Hippocrates name. The logic of my previous statement is that Doctors may (or may not have) used some words differently then tent makers. I use nipples for a number of applications at my job but the nipples I use has nothing to do with anatomy or even baby bottles.

    Samm, I do not view the Bible as a scientific text book but I do expect it to be scientifically accurate. The scientific accuracy of the Bible is a very complex issue in my mind.

    At the moment I'm not convinced either way on Paul's intentions in this paticular passage. Although Scriptulicious did make a good argument against my Roman helmet theory. I guess a Roman helmet can't be a solution to every problem.

  9. The view of scripture you're arguing against is perhaps one of Christianity's most self-destructive idea: tell kids that if "one word of the Bible is wrong, it's all wrong," don't give them any room to budge on a logical contradictory view of inspiration and then let them loose into the world where they're going to find out that the Bible is not actually a book of utopian ethics or consistent theologies.

    I find that it's helpful to start at a minimal view of "inspiration." I just read it as people writing to other people. Paul writing to Timothy. Moses writing to Israel. In this context, I am often amazed, amused, inspired and enlightened. The supernatural visions and what not don't bother me because, well, I believe there's something larger than us, larger than thin, receding 3 dimensions we see and the back-arched warping of time.

    With Kierkegaard, I find myself compelled, through my consistent doubts, to make that leap into the absurd.

    (Also, I do think that the content, especially the narrative strands and allusions and overarching theological structure does show that there's more to the Bible than would fit within cultural horizons. but that's for a later post).

  10. Hello Samm,

    I appreciate your understanding of these issues. From what I know of you, through Biggums, this is a far cry from where you started. I have my kids today, and I do not have much time for the blog. But, I want to eager to ask you: How do you (or do you) allow the Bible to inform your views or interpretation of science? This, I know, is a broad question, but I am still eager to see how you work with it. Maybe provide an example of where science is at odds with a popular [literalistic] reading of Scripture and touch on (or elaborate) on how the two relate.

  11. The Apostle Peter tells us that Paul’s writings are sometimes hard to understand and often misunderstood:

    2 Peter 3:16 KJV:

    As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

    Yet you declare from an atheistic perspective that you understand perfectly what Paul is talking about! This passage of Scripture has been controversial and understood in various ways for millennia, yet this obscure and bizarre proposal by one scholar tips the scales for you to declare with certainty that the Bible is uninspired? The same Greek word is used in Hebrews 1:12 where it is translated vesture in the KJV. The word means something thrown around one, i.e., mantle, veil, covering, vesture. There is no compelling reason to suppose Paul was thinking about inaccurate physiological concepts unless you have a prejudice against Paul to begin with. Do you?

  12. Hello Tandi,

    I never declared that I understand Paul perfectly. Besides, I don't think it wise to quote II Peter to justify Paul as II Peter is dubious. If you use the dubious to evidence your faith, let me just tell you, it looks bad, and it makes your faith look bad.

    I am not prejudiced against Paul. I disagree with him. I am aware of the use in Hebrews 1:12 and in other extra-biblical references. The word can take on different uses as many and most words do. However, in I Cor 11:13-15 Paul's pro-head covering for women argument becomes the most congruent and salient that I have seen it if it is placed against the backdrop of ancient physiologies. This is what Martin and others have done. I remain compelled.

  13. Zee said: "As a third option maybe Paul meant both testicals and a head covering and he was suggesting a Roman helmet."

    I just got that! :D

  14. Philosobot... Did you just understand the suggestion or did you just get a Roman helmet?

  15. He told me he just got the helmet. Right, Philosobot?

  16. Sure sucks when a wording can have multiple readings. Thousands of years from now people are going to look back on this blog and think receiving a Roman helmet made Philosobot have a big smile.

  17. LOL. They have spellcheck, but they need to invent an ambiguitycheck. Let the record show that I had just understood the joke, and that I emphatically did not receive a Roman helmet.

  18. Note to Self:

    In expanding knowledge base, do NOT consult Urban Dictionary.

    I found the offensiveness level of the original essay borderline, but the suggestiveness of the “medical terminology” has led to this crude humor. Why should I be surprised? Atheism (and Zeeism) always degenerates a person. What a waste of God-given literary talent this blog has become. I leave you with the admonition from Romans and plead with you to put on the helmet of salvation:

    Romans 1:16-22 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools........

  19. Hello Tandi,

    Wow, over reaction? I guess that it's okay when God says it, huh? The Bible contains disgustingly offensive material about open-legged women seeking penetration, etc. and apparently you find such material acceptable for children readership.

    This Romans passage does not apply well. First, I ain't seeing no God in nature. I see noth'in but evidence against the existence of a benevolent, just, purposeful creator. Paul got it way wrong. It's time to move beyond childish things.

  20. Hello Tandi,

    If the content of this post about I Cor 11 is offensive, take the issue up with Paul. He is the one to invoke the ancient understanding of nature (i.e., human sexual physiology). I am just elaborating on what is already there.

  21. Shrug. Bible thumpers are easily offended. I stand behind my Roman helmet theory.

  22. Zee said: "Shrug. Bible thumpers are easily offended. I stand behind my Roman helmet theory."

    As do we all.

  23. Philosobot said: "As do we all."

    I'm offended by that.

  24. A few details appear to have been overlooked here:

    * Martin, as an egalitarian, is actively looking for a method of interpreting Paul which will serve the egalitarian agenda; if we want to talk about translation and interpretation being influence by agenda, let's start here

    * Martin opens his article by saying 'Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza expresses the scholarly assessment of Paul’s argument', and then quotes Fiorenza as saying 'We are no longer able to decide with certainty which behavior Paul criticizes and which custom he means to introduce in 1 Cor 11:2–16'; yet even a brief review of the 'scholarly assessment of Paul's argument' will demonstrate that there is a very broad level of agreement that we are indeed able to decide with certainty which behaviour Paul criticizes and which custom he means to introduce, and this agreement is found across the egaliatarian and complementarian spectrum, across the secular to theological spectrum

    * Martin reads 1 Corinthians 11:15b as saying that the woman's hair is given to her instead of a covering, but the Greek actually says 'AS a covering' not 'INSTEAD OF a covering'; thus Martin's entire argument is already founded in error from page 2

    * Martin then makes a gross error with the word PERIBOLAION, misleading the reader (either unintentionally or not, it makes no difference to the effect), with an extremely poor lexical study which commits the classic error of a 1st year Greek student, assuming that the metaphorical usage of a word in one context must necessarily be the true meaning of the word in every context (combination of the illegitimate totalilty transfer, and the prescriptive fallacy)

  25. * What the reader doesn't understand about the use of PERIBOLAION in the quote from Euripides, is that the word PERIBOLAION here does not have the meaning 'testicle', as Marin's 'paraphrase' would have it; on the contrary, the word PERIBOLAION here has the meaning of 'encasements', which is within the lexical domain of the word's primary meaning 'that which is thrown around, a covering'

    * In the quote from Euripides the testicles are indicated not by PERIBOLAION, but by the noun phrase SARKOS PERIBOLAION HBWNTA, which means 'youthful encasements of flesh', a euphemistic reference to the testicles; it is the noun phrase which has the euphemistic meaning 'testicles', not any one of the component words, and the context makes this clear (not only that, but this very reference is given in the authoritative classical lexicon by Liddell/Scott/Jones as an example of the meaning 'encasements' for PERIBOLAION, not 'testicles')

    * Martin therefore fails to inform the reader that the word PERIBOLAION in this passage from Euripides does not mean 'testicle', but 'encasement', and that it is the entire noun phrase which refers euphemistically to the testicles, nor does he inform the reader that this very passage in Euripides is used in the standard classical lexicon to illustrate the meaning 'encasements' for PERIBOLAION, not 'testicles'; the omission is either ignorance or deliberate suppression, neither of which generate confidence in Martin's exposition

    * Incredibly, Martin makes not a single reference to any of the standard scholarly lexicons, which (in combination of the previous two points), suggests strongly that he is deliberately suppressing information contrary to his position, which is an argumentative fallacy (quite apart from being misleading)

    I can post here the lexical definition of PERIBOLAION from all the standard scholarly lexicons if necessary. It will be transparent that Martin has ignored every single one of them.

    I have been unable to verify Martin's quote from Aristotle's 'Generation of Animals' (739a.73-739b.20). In fact it appears that it is not even a quote, but Martin's interpretation of Aristotle.

    In this article by Scriptulicious, the words 'long hollow hair increases the suction power of her hollow uterus' are placed in quote marks and attributed directly to Aristotle. Yet in Martin's original article these words are not placed in quote marks, and they are represented as Martin's own words, not Aristotle's. He merely cites 'Aristotle, Gen an. 739a.37-739b.20' after his own words. The article by Scriptulicious therefore misrepresents both Martin and Aristotle.

  26. Not to my surprise, I discovered that Martin has also completely misrepresented Pseudo-Phocylides.

    Martin writes:

    "As one large gland designed to absorb male reproductive fluid, a woman’s body is assisted by long hollow hair that increases the suction power of her hollow uterus (Aristotle, Gen an. 739a.37–739b.20). Consequently, another author, Pseudo-Phocylides, appropriately states, “Long hair is not fit for males, but for voluptuous women” (a[rsesin oujk ejpevoike koma'n, clidanai'" de; gunaixivn) (212)."

    Martin represents the comment of Pseudo-Phocylides as a direct consequence of the belief that 'a woman’s body is assisted by long hollow hair that increases the suction power of her hollow uterus'. But when read in context, it is clear that the comment of Pseudo-Phocyclides has nothing whatever to do with this. Here is the quote in context:

    "Do not let locks grow on his head. Braid not his crown nor make cross-knots on the top of his head. Long hair is not fit for men but for voluptuous women. Guard the youthful beauty of a comely boy, because many rage for intercourse with a man.” (Pseudo-Phocylides, 'Sentences' 210–14)

    It is clear that these comments are in the context of distinguishing men from women. They have nothing whatever to do with the hair of a woman increasing the suction power of her uterus. Note also the following points:

    * Martin translates 'Long hair is not fit for males', whereas standard translations are 'Long hair is not fit for boys', or 'Long hair is not fit for men'; Martin is trying to make Pseudo-Phocylides' comments refer to essential differences between the biology of males and females, whereas he is actually referring to what hair style is appropriate for differentiating socially between the genders, specifically what hair style is appropriate for boys, who will one day be men

    * Pseudo-Phocylides' comment with reference to 'voluptuous women' has nothing to do with hair increasing the suction power of the uterus, but with the outward appearance of women who seek to increase their beauty with the aim of achieving sexual liaisons; long hair is more appropriate for voluptuous women because such women are seeking thus to increase their likelihood of sex, whereas a young boy has no need of such allurements, and should on the contrary be protected from them