In case things haven’t got weird enough yet in our discussion on women and the church, New Testament scholar Troy Martin did some research on 1 Corinthians 11 in attempts to make sense of Paul’s explanation of head coverings; because on one hand Paul says women should wear head coverings, but then he undoes his logic by saying that a woman’s hair is her head covering. So then which is it?
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man…. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. (1 Cor 11:4-7, 13-15)
While scholars have been incredibly confused as to what to make of Paul’s statement, Martin’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature really sheds light on Paul’s thesis (1). The Greek word Paul uses for covering that brings everything into unison is peribolaion—“For her hair is given to her for a peribolaion” (1 Cor 11:15). This same Greek word is used in other Greek texts in Paul’s time and is translated not as covering, but as testicles.
I told you it would get weird. After all, why would hair be given to a woman as a testicle? We’d think that Martin’s argument is a lost cause, except for the fact that Greek literature and even the medical documents of ancient times support Martin’s case.
While the science is entirely wrong, the people of Paul’s time believed that semen was stored in the brains of both men and women (though women had less) and that hair was hollow and therefore created a vacuum that pulled semen towards it. In their understanding, this is why hair begins to appear on the body at puberty—it is the signal that the channels of the body have opened and that semen is being transported throughout the body.
This is also why men get more hair on their bodies as semen belongs not in their brains, but in their genitals—each hair is creating a vacuum to pull the semen down where it belongs. This is also why Paul says that “nature itself” teaches us that long hair is a disgrace for men. His reasoning is simple: If you’re a man with long hair, then the semen in your body is going to the wrong place. Likewise, this is why “nature itself” teaches that long hair on a woman is her glory; for she needs long hair to increase the suction power in her body and pull the male’s semen up into her womb after intercourse so that she can create a baby.
But what’s the point of all of this and why is Paul bringing it up? Martin concludes that it all has to do with “Jewish tradition, which strictly forbids display of genitalia when engaged in God’s service” (2). He goes on to say that
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. (3)
Once again we’re back at something that resembles “decent and in order”—we just didn’t know it because of our cultural separation. Women were to make themselves appropriate and hide what the Greeks considered a form of genitalia from those around them and from the angels.
Art by my sister-in-law, Alyssa Bradley of Whimsy Design and Illustration.
This is an excerpt from my chapter “Women in Ministry” in my book, The Rush and the Rest. A series on women and the church will continue every day this week here on my blog to help us cover many of the confusing passages that often oppress women.
1. Martin, Troy W. “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 123, No. 1, 2004, pp. 75–84. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3268550.
2. Ibid. p 83.
3. Ibid. p 84.