Saturday, April 4, 2009


I know I haven't posted in quite a while, but this was just too good to ignore. One of my classmates shared an article with us about the difficult passage in 1 Corinthians relating to women keeping their heads covered in church. The passage reads,

"Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God."

It's definitely confusing. For a woman, praying or prophesying with hair unveiled is the same as having her head shaved? It is degrading for a man to have long hair, but glory for a woman? If a woman's hair "is given to her for a covering", why does she need an additional veil?

It turns out the answer is sex. I'll warn you right now that this post is going to be a bit adult, so stop here if you're likely to be offended. The explanation stems from the ancient Greek understanding (very different from our own) of human physiology, and reproduction in particular. The author of the article, Troy Martin, examines Greek medical authors such as Hippocrates as well as others, including Euripides and Aristophanes, to explain this ancient Greek model: "Ancient medical conceptions confirm this association. Hippocratic authors hold that 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 from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is produced or at least stored." In other words, semen is produced and/or stored in the head, so human beings grow the most hair there; this hair acts as a vacuum to pull or attract the semen. Men develop more body hair than women because they need hair to pull the semen downward to the genital area so that they can expel it during intercourse. For the same reason, men should keep the hair on their heads short, so as not to hold back the semen. Women, on the other hand, should wear their hair long so that they can pull as much semen as possible into their bodies. (Yes, I know it's weird, but the Greeks thought a lot of weird things. Bear with me.)

This explains Paul's statement that long hair is degrading for men but not for women, because long hair impedes fertility for men, but improves it for women. So far, so good. The other key to understanding Paul in this passage has to do with the very strange statement "For her hair is given to her for a covering." It seems to contradict what Paul just said about women needing to veil their hair. In fact, the issue is a mistranslation of the word "covering" here. The same word in Greek is used by Euripides; in one of his plays, Hercules says, "After I received [my] bags of flesh, which are the outward signs of puberty, [I received] labors about which I [shall] undertake to say what is necessary." The word here translated as "bags of flesh" (obviously referring to his testicles) is the same word for "covering" in Paul. Using this and other evidence, Martin concludes that Paul is actually saying, "For her hair is given to her for a testicle." In other words, women (unlike men) do not have external genitalia; but a woman's hair functions as part of the reproductive process and is thus effectively an external sexual organ, like the testicles.

Now, as Paul says, "Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?" If hair is considered a sexual organ ("if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved"), then it makes perfect sense that hair should be covered during church, just as men cover their genitals during church. If, on the other hand, we have a different understanding of physiology, and we say that hair is not a sexual organ (as I think we would be comfortable saying today), then there is no longer a reason for hair to be covered in church. Martin concludes, "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."

And now you know. I think this example demonstrates why we study the Bible in the context of its original writers and audience—because what modern person would have figured out this explanation on his or her own?

(Quotations taken from "Paul's Argument From Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering" by Troy Martin, published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. Used with permission.)

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