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