There was a scholarly article by Troy Martin that came out some years ago about how people in New Testament times perceived hair. I’ve written about it in more detail here and talked about it in the video below, but for now I’m going to summarize the article: Semen was thought to be in the brains of both male and female and hair was thought to be hollow and vacuumed that semen towards it. Once semen reached the end of the vacuum, it then dried out and created longer hair. Therefore, men needed short hair on their head and lots of lower body hair to vacuum the semen down to their genitals while women needed long hair on their head to vacuum semen up into the womb after intercourse. It sounds pretty weird, but honestly it makes perfect sense of a bunch of strange things Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11.
A friend of mine watched our video on this topic the other day and then sent me a question that I thought might be worth repeating here:
Ok… so… I am now thinking more about this hair-testicular-theory. lol. If this was the common understanding then how does a woman washing Jesus feet with her hair fit into it? I mean maybe it adds to the shock value of it and doesn’t change anything in the nature of the act. Or does it become a symbolic act in some way that needs even further context? Or does it make it a sexual act? I don’t know, it just crossed my mind.
I hadn’t thought about the story of Mary and Jesus in the light of this ancient science before, so I did a few minutes of study and then presented my thoughts in return (the most essential thought being found in point 4):
No one in the room draws explicit attention to her hair
The story of Mary washing Jesus’ feet with her hair is told in all four gospels, and surprisingly in all four, neither the pharisees or disciples freak out explicitly about Mary’s hair. Instead, the Pharisees freak out about how she is a sinner, while the disciples (primarily Judas it seems) freak out about the cost of all the ointment and nard Mary has anointed Jesus with. The fact that no one says anything about Mary’s hair shows that, if it was a concern, it wasn’t anyone’s chief concern or the most surprising thing they saw in that moment.
The framing between 1 Corinthians 11 and Mary’s story is different
The framing of Paul’s statement seems to be that of the ancient sexual science of hair, whereas the framing of Mary’s story seems to be that of simply using hair as a towel. I think the framing helps it not be seen in a perverse sexual light. The focus of Mary’s story is not sexuality, rather, her hair just plays a part in the story, whereas Paul’s whole point in 1 Corinthians 11 is sexuality. That’s not to say that they thought differently of the science of hair between the two passages, but the framing does change the tone. If 1 Corinthians 11 and Mary’s story were ran back to back, the framing would be quite different. Jesus Himself frames what she did partially as a crazy generous form of hospitality (Luke 7:44–46) and a way of anointing/preparing his body for the death that’s ahead of him.
Yes, this event would have raised eyebrows
Despite the points above trying to get our heads out of the gutter, married Jewish women were expected to wear head coverings when around others due to the modesty norms of the time. As Craig Keener points out,
…religious Jews resented married women who uncovered their heads and exposed their hair to men’s gazes; because Mary’s brother and sister but not her husband are mentioned, she may have been unmarried (thus young, widowed or divorced); but acting thus toward a famous (albeit single) rabbi might still raise some pious eyebrows.Craig S. Keener The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Print.
So if Mary was married, she definitely turned some eyes by taking her head covering off. But even if she wasn’t married, I’m sure her act probably alarmed some of the more pious sorts in the room. We don’t even think of hair like that today and yet it might have alarmed us if someone kissed and washed a single guy’s feet in front of us. So I think we can still say that there’s an awkwardness going on in this passage for anyone witnessing it. Since many have heard of churches today that have called people out for wearing certain kinds of clothes into their buildings, it probably isn’t too hard to imagine a few surprised people over this situation.
Mary is the New Testament’s dancing David
I think where I would ultimately land on this story is this: Mary’s story is kind of like a “David dancing in his underwear” situation. Was it socially inappropriate for David to do that? Yes. Humiliating? Yes. Were others who saw it humiliated on his behalf? Yes—his wife despised him for it. Could others have even identified it as sexual? Maybe.
But was it sexual for David? No. Was it a beautiful thing to God? Yes. David was willing to humiliate himself with his body for the sake of bringing glory to God just as Mary was willing to humiliate herself with her body for the sake of bringing glory to Jesus.
And even if they did regard hair as a sort of sexual organ, it was a sexual organ more in technicality than in physicality. We all know that there are no nerves in people’s hair that would cause some kind of arousal. She knows she’s humiliating herself and likely felt the awkwardness of the room the whole time. But she also knew this was the right thing to do regardless—just as Jesus agreed it was. She was weeping while touching and kissing dirty gross sandal feet and wiping them off with her hair in front of others, all while losing a very expensive possession through this act. It may appear sexual to others, but there’s nothing sexual about it. Not to mention that there’s nard involved, which was “was traditionally used in burial preparations of the time” (Barry, John D. et al. Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016.). There’s certainly nothing romantic about an act that is foreshadowing a horrific death.
So like David, Mary’s moment is a form of righteous humiliation.