Ancient Science Regarding Hair in 1 Cor 11

Hey guys, I recently came across this article on 1 Cor 11:14 and how it wrestles with the question of “nature” and Paul’s use
of it in his context. Would love to know your thoughts on this.

Reason I share this here is in relation to how we see ‘ancient science’ in scripture.

Prime example is Paul’s use of a 3 tiered cosmos in Philippians 2:10. Certainly Pauls point isn’t scientific, but there are some ancient scientific assumptions embedded in his words.

Similarly, in 1 Cor 11:14, according to this author, there is an assumption in the text based on ancient medical science.


I skimmed through the 25 pages. Ultimately I don’t think it matters and I’m not entirely sure if they all believed that way, such as hair being a sign of this or that.

I think Paul is simply using biblical language to talk about a subject. It’s also unclear among scholars what was being quoted and what was being answered. Because when you read verses 12-16 it says something a little different. He says women came from men ( Eve from Adam ) and that men then came from women ( kids being born ). Then his final conclusion on hair is that “ if anyone is included to being contentious about it we ( the church ) have no tradition about it meaning that ultimately they can decide for themselves because there is no set law.

So I think for him he was recognizing it was more of a cultural thing than a actual scientific thing and that it’s definitely not a moral thing.

The author of the paper linked in the OP is concerned with how the word nature has been co-opted in discussions of same sex attractions and how Paul could have seen long hair as part of a woman’s physiology. We should note that the 1 Corinthians passage in question is not about sexual ethics or immorality at all, it’s about propriety in worship. We need to keep the discussion here on how to approach ancient scientific ideas in Scripture and not veer off into how those ideas relate to condemning or affirming same sex relationships, which is not a topic we entertain on the forum because of its potential to generate controversy and offense on all sides.

I’ve seen the ancient science behind the passage discussed in several papers, most influentially, in Troy Martin’s “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.”

Here is an SBL review of that article, which isn’t available without a subscription:

It summarizes the “ancient science” in view.

The apostle Paul wanted women to cover their tresses while praying because he — like the rest of Hellenistic culture then — believed that the long hair of adult females was the sexual equivalent of male testicles, according to a newly published study.

Citing writings from Aristotle, Euripedes and the disciples of Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” Troy W. Martin of St. Xavier University in Chicago said that Paul reflected the physiology of his time in believing that the hair of adult women “is part of female genitalia.” Martin’s article appears in the spring issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature .

Modern commentators on the First Letter to the Corinthians have often confessed their confusion over exactly what Paul was telling the Greek church to do. Martin contends that is partly because Paul used a sexual euphemism in 1 Corinthians 11:15 for a word translated as “covering.” The word means “testicle” in works by Euripedes and a second-century AD Greek novelist, he said.

Ancient medical views of where semen comes from and where it goes help to explain Paul’s convoluted argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Martin wrote. “Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing,” he said. The brain is the place where this fluid is produced or at least stored, they thought. “Since hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen,” Martin said.

Martin, a professor of religious studies at the Catholic university, is collaborating on a multivolume work aimed at using ancient medical texts to illuminate passages and concepts in the New Testament.

When Paul tells the church in Corinth that “nature teaches” that it is “degrading” for men to wear their hair long, the apostle to the gentiles is alluding to once-common beliefs about the role of hair in sexual intercourse, he said. Men with long locks would divert too much semen from their scrotum where their pubic hair and testicles have become larger at puberty. Luxurious hair on women serves them well, however, because those long, hollow hairs add to the suction in her body.

“Long feminine hairs assist the uterus in drawing semen upward and inward; masculine testicles, which are connected to the brain by two channels, facilitate the drawing of semen downward and outward,” wrote Martin. The favorite Hippocratic test for fertility in women was linked to the belief about the strong suction power of their head of hair. “A doctor places a scented suppository in a woman’s uterus and examines her mouth the next day to see if he can smell the scent of the suppository,” said Martin. If he can, she is declared fertile; if not, she is termed sterile because channels to her head are blocked. “The male seed is therefore discharged rather than retained, and the woman cannot conceive,” he wrote.

“Informed by the Jewish tradition, which strictly forbids display of genitalia when engaged in God’s service, Paul’s argument from nature cogently supports a woman covering her head when praying or prophesying.”

Six-winged seraphim in Isaiah who take part in divine liturgy have two that reverently cover their face and two that cover the feet for modesty. “The term ‘feet’ euphemistically refers to the genitals of the seraphim,” the scholar said. Hebrew priests approaching the altar are to wear linen breeches to cover their naked flesh, according to Exodus, but Martin said that “flesh” in that context means their genitals.

A woman’s hair is her “glory,” says Paul, but he added that for the sake of decency her hair should be veiled during public worship. Inasmuch as conceptions of the body have changed, Martin added, “no physiological reason remains for continuing the practice of covering women’s heads in public worship, and many Christian communities reasonably abandon this practice.”

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The whole idea that the Bible teaches “women should have long hair and men should have short hair” is a misreading.

Paul assumes that in the Corinthian cultural context, it would be a disgrace for women to have their heads shaved or men to have long hair. And yes, it probably had to do with their ideas about biology. But the directives to the church are about head coverings, not hair length. I think this is an example of Paul accommodating the cultural context of the church, not Paul insisting Christians view the world a certain way.

Thank you Christy,

Is this review of T.Martin’s paper by Mark Goodacre (Does περιβόλαιον Mean “Testicle”
in 1 Corinthians 11:15)?

I got the sense that Branson Parler also disagreed with Martin’s translation, but still gave room for seeing some ancient medical science in Paul’s comments.


It’s just a summary of Martin’s paper by John Dart. I included it because it is a concise summary of the “ancient science” at issue. How authors have applied it to various exegetical questions is another issue. People can agree or disagree about the implications for how we understand what Paul intended by “nature” or “covering,” but I haven’t seen anyone disagree with the representation of the first century Greek medical/physiological knowledge.

I just skimmed Parler’s article, but it seems he operates (like many Bible scholars) under the code model of communication, where words (in this case, nature) have this intrinsic meaning carried by the word itself. So if you get insight into one use of the word, you can transfer that intrinsic meaning to a different use.

In my field, applied linguistics and translation theory, that is considered an outdated way to conceive of how language and communication works. You can’t discover something about how a word is used in Corinthians and apply the “intrinsic meaning” in some mathematical way over to Romans. The prevailing model is the inference model. Hearers calculate meaning based on inferences about what is relevant to the particular context in which they hear something, not be accessing intrinsic meanings of words and adding them up.

The ancient science around hair is super relevant to figuring out what the audience would have inferred when they heard, 'Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering."

But you can’t say, in this verse, because of ancient science, nature means X.
Therefore, in Romans 1:26-27, natural also has to do with X. There is nothing about “hair is genitalia” in Romans. If the main point is just that Paul observed men and women were physiologically different and it is in their nature to procreate together, then I don’t see how that is controversial or informative of anything in the wider debate about Christian sexual ethics where that the physiological differences between the sexes and reproductive capabilities are generally regarded as an obvious fact.

Er doods, this ain’t science.

Sorry if iM
mistaken but i always though ancient greeks had long hair no?

The men don’t in the statues.


Well it depends but im gonna assume those who had long hair wasnt the majority

Greeks introduced barbers to Italy 300 BC. Long hair was barbaric thereafter.

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