For Long Hair is Given to her Instead of a Testicle

My friend Paul McNabb alerted me to the following article:

Troy W. Martin, “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 123/1 (Spring 2004): 75-84

which may be read here

The author, Troy Martin, is at St. Xavier University here in Chicago. He makes what, on the surface, seems a bizarre argument, but when you actually read his piece it strikes me as rather compelling. I will try to give a brief synopsis of his argument, but I encourage those interested to read the full aritcle.

1 Cor. 11:13-15 reads as follows in the KJV:

13Judge 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.

and as follows in the NIV:

13Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.

Paul’s argument here is quite obscure. How is it that “by nature” women should have long hair and men short? And if women’s long hair is given to them instead of a covering [anti peribolaiou], why do they need to wear another covering over their hair, since their hair is already serving as a covering? Paul’s statement here appears to contradict his earlier argument.

Martin sees the key to resolving this issue in the term peribolaion in v. 15b. The word is traditionally rendered as some type of a head covering, whether a shawl or a veil. And the dominant semantic domain of this word is indeed a garment of some sort. But the semantic range of this word is much broader than that.

A passage from Euripides has Hercules complaining , “After I received my bags of flesh, which are the outward sign of puberty, I received labors about which I shall undertake to say what is necessary.” In this passage, peribolaia is used for “testicles.”

Most of Martin’s article is an examination of ancient medical literature (largely from Hippocrates), in which the hair of women is functionally the same as testicles in men. I can’t do justice to his full discussion of this, but the very short version is this:

Hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing. Since hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen. Hair grows most prolifically on the head because semen is produced, or at least stored, in the head. A man’s testicles serve the function of weights; they keep taut the channels of the body allowing semen to flow from his head and be ejected. Conversely, a woman’s long hair serves to draw the semen up to her head, where it congeals into a fetus.

(I found it interesting that according to this ancient medical science women also have semen in their body, just less than men.)

If a man has long hair on his head, it counteracts the need for the semen to come down from his head and ejaculate. But if a woman doesn’t have long hair on her head, it adversely affects her fertility.

Appropriate to her nature, a woman is not given an external testicle, but long hair instead. Since long feminine hair is conceived of as functionally equivalent to a man’s testicles, in effect making such hair genitalia, it is essential that she cover her genitalia, her nakedness–IE her hair–when approaching God in prayer or worship.

We can all agree with the basic principle Paul was espousing, that genitalia should not be exposed in public worship. So the principle still stands. But of course, our understanding of the physiology of sex has changed dramatically since Hippolytus and the ancient medical writers. Since the reason for women covering their heads no longer obtains in our scientific worldview, the injunction is properly dismissed with today.


  1. So, would women cover their hair at all times? Would seem that one would always want to cover their genitalia.

  2. On what basis should we assume that Paul had acquired such “medical” knowledge? Doesn’t this argument depend on Paul being aware of such a medical argument? Or does Martin make the case that such was the general and not professional understanding of testicles and hair?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    1. No, women wouldn’t necessarily cover their heads at all times. Martin argues that special care was taken for modesty when praying or otherwise worshipping God. (Sort of like building a fence around the Law kind of an idea.) Presumably a distinction was recognized between the hair, which could be seen under normal circumstances, and the pudenda, which would always be kept hidden from the public.

    2. Hippocrates lived in the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., and his writings were still normative in Paul’s time. Paul need not have had detailed technical knowledge akin to that a physician would have to understand the basics of how human physiology “worked.” Most of us are not doctors, but we understand the basics of human sexual physiology.

    What I like about this explanation is that Paul expressly makes this argument according to phusis, which is the source for English “physics” but in Greek more naturally has to do with medical science.

    It’s probably still a strained argument, but at least with this reading the “according to nature” line makes sense, and there is no contradiction anymore within Paul’s argument.

    Even if you don’t like this as an exegesis of Paul, the article is worth a read for its summary of the absolutely fascinating ancient conception of human sexual phyiology. For example, Hippocrates in his work On Glands basically considers a woman’s body one big gland.

  4. Frankly, it doesn’t look like responsible exegesis to me. That’s a real temporal and cultural s-t-r-e-t-c-h for a connotation. Better to stick with the uses of the word closer to home in the rest of the NT/OT and use the logic thereby generated.

    BTW, phusis is also used elsewhere by Paul and in the deutero-canonicals of the LXX. In that case, Paul’s usage will take precedence.

  5. Kevin — a very interesting idea. I like the notion of at least creating a framework in which Paul’s comments make sense. On their own, from our cultural perspective, there is nothing inherent or natural regarding the length of hair of men or women or the need to cover or not cover it while praying. And we’ve formally rejected those things from an LDS perspective, to the degree that we do not require women to cover their heads while worshipping or praying.

    I appreciate you bringing interesting food for thought around for me to think about.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    If it is helpful to anyone, here is another treatment by Prof. Martin making the same argument, more succinctly, as part of a broader consideration of the rhetoric of Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 11. I haven’t read this one yet, but thought I would point it out for anyone interested.

  7. Heather O. says:

    “For example, Hippocrates in his work On Glands basically considers a woman’s body one big gland.”

    Gotta tell you boys, at times that doesn’t seem like such a stetch.

  8. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m not sure why everyone is so quickly dismissing the argument from nature. I think we might be confusing our rhetorical sophistication with Paul’s lack thereof: it seems completely reasonable to me that Paul would think, “Women have naturally long hair; men do not; this is God’s way of telling us something.”

  9. …there is nothing inherent or natural regarding the length of hair of men or women or the need to cover or not cover it while praying.

    Temple anyone?

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Mogget, on Paul’s use of phusis (good point, BTW, about giving precedence to Paul’s own usage), here’s an interesting one: Romans 2:27:

    hE ek phuseOs akrobustia

    lit. “the uncircumcision [or foreskin] by nature”

    used to describe an uncircumcised man.

    The NEB renders the verse “He may be uncircumcised in his natural state, but by fulfilling the law he will pass judgement on yhou who break it, for all your written code and your circumcision.”

  11. it seems completely reasonable to me that Paul would think, “Women have naturally long hair; men do not; this is God’s way of telling us something.”

    That’s always seemed a little odd to me. As far as “nature” is concerned, doesn’t a man’s hair grow just as quickly as a woman’s? Isn’t it just a cultural norm for men to wear it short and women long? How does “nature itself” tell us long hair is disgraceful for men, when it grows just the same?

  12. On what basis should we assume that Paul had acquired such “medical” knowledge?

    Hanging out with luke all the time, whose profession was medical knowledge.

  13. I found it interesting that according to this ancient medical science women also have semen in their body, just less than men.

    Wasn’t this a rather common ancient view? That women were just men only more “incomplete”? Sort of a view I think Freud may have picked up some ideas for. So women are missing facial hair, penis, testicles and lung (to explain the deep voice). I was listening to Bart Ehrman’s interview on NPR the other day and he made this point (relative to Jesus’ famous statement about women becoming men in the Gospel of Thomas)

    In Aristotilean senses it probably makes sense. Especially at the time of Christ when in the Greek world especially there were degrees of rationality from plants, to animals, to humans to gods.

    Of course it was justified, in part, by the rampant sexism of the time. Further I think it helped excuse horrible treatment of women.

    As for Paul’s knowledge. He appears fairly well versed on the main Roman philosophy of the time. He quotes Stoic philosophers and poets, for instance. He also appears to use Stoic argumentation. So I think the theory that Paul was exposed to at least the broad outlines of views on this topic is reasonable.

  14. Seth R. says:

    You know, whether this is true or not …

    Why on earth would I want to know this?

  15. Kevin, I think this is fascinating. I’m not quite persuaded by Martin’s argument but I don’t dismiss it outrightly either.
    Interesting that Jewish men have to cover their privates in worship (and in regular life depending on your type of Judaism) with an extra shawl because they won’t be able think about God without layers and layers covering their sex. Women also cover their heads (not privates) and generally can’t worship with men in Judaism because the men can only really think about sex with the women around and not God. This is Paul’s tradition too.

    I also think it’s funny that every Mormon representation of Jesus depicts him with hair longer than most Mormon women. What on earth could that mean?

  16. Amri, forget that, here’s the real question: why are women given hair instead of only one testicle. What happened to the other? (Resisting the urge to sing of Hitler’s other ball in the Albert Hall.)

  17. Seth — because of your hairy genitals.

  18. Eww.

  19. Ronan! That question is going to keep me up at night. Damn you!

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    Funny you should bring this up, Kevin, as this was the topic of my Gospel Doctrine lesson last Sunday. I’d like to be able to say my lesson went well, but alas, the prudish class members became very offended, and I was promptly stoned to death.

    Aaron B

  21. “I also think it’s funny that every Mormon representation of Jesus depicts him with hair longer than most Mormon women. What on earth could that mean?”

    Wouldn’t it be funny if Jesus had gone prematurely bald and just had a large head of hair in the resurrection because he finally could?

  22. Clark, I’m certain you’re right. Where else would all that mythology about God knowing all the hairs of your head and that none of them will be lost in the resurrection?
    You’re also saying that Jesus had enormous amounts of semen pre-resurrection and very little afterwards. And I’m not at all sure what that could mean.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, the friend who pointed me in the direction of this article said that he’s been waiting for a good opportunity to raise this theory in GD class, but so far none has presented itself.

    He may be waiting for a long time.

  24. This kind of reminds me of the talk about young men and the soldiers…

  25. Seth R. says:


    Not all of us do all our thinking between our legs thanks.

  26. “I found it interesting that according to this ancient medical science women also have semen in their body”

    I researched this question after reading the phrase “enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.” I found (Jewish Encyclopedia) that it was thought that vaginal discharge was the female equivalent of semen, so Eve was said to have “seed.”

  27. Elisabeth says:

    Interesting! This connection between long hair (which both men and women grow equally as well) and sexual reproduction is based on the social custom of how people wear their hair, not on biology or divine nature. And so is Paul’s disparate treatment of women and men.

  28. Nate T. says:

    Having done this kind of studies in Chinese, I find it intresting he does not reffer to the meaning of the word as it was current in Paul’s time, but instead dives back into ancient Greek to explain a Hebrew paratice. It seems flawed to me.

  29. TrailerTrash says:

    The argument doesn’t quite make sense to me. If hair = genitalia, then why don’t men have to cover thier hair?

    The medical literature is about fertility. I am much more persauded that the veil for women is a prophylactic against the lust of angels (i.e. Gen 6) as they commune with God in prayer and prophesy. Tertullian gives this interpretation of the text as well. The warning about the angels in 1 Cor 11:10 seems to support this reading, but doesn’t fit at all with the question about fertility.

    I don’t see how this can be related to Paul’s concern here with how one should pray. What am I missing?

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Great comments so far.

    Ok, let’s review the bidding, first by reviewing the positive features of the argument, then those that don’t work so well.

    On the plus side:

    – The argument works better with phusis “nature” than most other arguments. I claimed too much when I equated this with medical science, but as Paul uses the term it does seem to refer to something physical within a body or being. We recognize short hair on men and long hair on women as cultural, not something imposed by nature itself.

    – The argument gives full meaning to the preposition anti governing the genitive peribolaiou, which would have the connotation of “instead of, in the place of, in lieu of.” Virtually all English tranlsations fudge this. The concept is one of equivalency or exchange; a woman’s hair is given to her in lieu of a peribolaion.

    – The argument avoids the contradiction of requiring a woman to wear a covering, but saying that her hair itself already serves as a covering.

    – The ancient medical literature seems to support the argument. (This is actually part of a broader study to bring to bear ancient medical science on scriptural exegesis.)

    – The ancient medical notion of women as imperfect or lesser men works well with the rest of Paul’s argument.

    On the minus side:

    – I think ascribing the meaning “testicle” to peribolaion is pretty problematic. That word lit. means “that which is thrown around,” and its basic meaning is some sort of a “covering.” Euripides does indeed use the word to mean “encasements of flesh”; IE euphemistic for “testicles” [and metaphoric for “youth, manhood”]. But as several have pointed out, that usage derives from Attic. The word is not at all common, but I cannot find a comparable usage in any other Koine text. So query, if this is what Paul meant, would a first century reader have understood him?

    – Ronan has a point, in that the plural would be a more natural usage than the singular.

    – As J. and others point out, if the argument is taken to its logical conclusion, women should never show their hair, nor should men.

    – Trailer Trash raises an interesting question about meshing this argument with v. 10.

    In sum, I think the strength of the argument is the medical science, and the weakness is the lexical connection of peribolaion to testicle.

    After hashing this out, I’m inclined to be sceptical. If this is what Paul intended, then it was a strained attempt by Paul to bring the science of his day to bear on the argument he really was trying to make, which was grounded in the culture. Contradictions remain, but it may be folly to assume that the contradictions in Paul’s argument were not there all along.

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    Actually, on Ronan’s point I should have said “dual” rather than “plural.”

  32. Lynn Svedin says:

    I read this article several years ago and really enjoyed it. I have used it several times in discussions with people who claim the Bible is easy to read and understand. Apparently, after reading this article, I have re-learnt that one cannot understand scripture fully until one understands the culture the scripture is written in.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m glad you found this, Lynn, and commented. Thanks.

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