It was the first and only time I’d ever heard a student yell at a teacher. Using the Greek text of the New Testament, our seminary professor had been walking us through some difficulties in the gospel accounts, places where the four evangelists appeared to disagree on the details.
As a good teacher does, this professor was laying the groundwork, piling up problem after problem so that he could then show us how trained Bible scholars approach apparent discrepancies. But before he was able to turn that corner, a pointed finger shot up from a student two rows in front of me. He shouted, “You’re a liar!” The professor was stunned and before he could respond, the student stormed out of the classroom. He never came back.
Lost in Translation
There is a certain tension that exists when we come to the Bible. Because the Bible itself claims to be reliable and authoritative, it follows that it should be understandable. At the same time, the Bible was written in the ancient world, informed by cultures, beliefs, and traditions very different from our own. Something is bound to be lost in translation.
Yet many people are like that angry seminary student. They simply can’t accept that the plain meaning of the Bible may not be so plain to them. As a result, they storm out and leave the conversation, or worse: they hold their native tradition higher than scripture and ignore anything new that might shed light on a difficult passage. But we stand in a long line of people whose lives were changed when they glimpsed the Bible with fresh eyes. The disciples on the Emmaus road had their hearts set ablaze when they were shown how the Law and the Prophets speak of Jesus. Paul had to rethink many Old Testament passages when he met the risen Christ, and his improved understanding helped form much of the New Testament. And in the past millennium, the seeds of the Protestant Reformation were sown when Martin Luther uncovered the true meaning of Romans 1:17 after it had been lost.
In my day job as content director for an organization focused on biblical literacy, I have the rare privilege of spending much of my working life studying the Bible and then writing about it. Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a new way of approaching 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s infamous (and divisive) passage about head coverings. This novel interpretation is not the sort of thing someone would glean from the English text, no matter how many hours were spent staring at it. In truth, it’s not even something most Bible scholars would pick up on reading it in the original Greek. But the more time I spent with it, the more I found myself nodding in agreement as the puzzle pieces came together. I have to warn you, though—it’s going to sound weird and maybe even a little gross at first.
Of Hercules and Head Coverings
In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul instructs women to keep their heads covered while praying or prophesying. Otherwise, it’d be the same as if they shaved their heads. In fact, he says a woman’s long hair is her “glory,” though she ought to keep it covered up with a “symbol of authority . . . because of the angels.” And in case some of the Corinthians weren’t convinced by his straightforward shaved-head-glory-angels argument, Paul appeals to nature for the use of head coverings, because of course when one looks at the trees and the birds and the stars in the sky, it’s impossible not to come to the conclusion that a woman should cover her head in church.
Is it any wonder Bible readers and Bible scholars alike have stumbled through this passage trying to pick up what Paul is laying down?
It’s a strange passage, so it’s not surprising that its interpretation is a bit strange as well. It all begins with Hercules. Don’t think Kevin Sorbo in leather pants fighting alongside Xena, Warrior Princess. Think ancient literature, specifically Euripides’s tragedy Heracles from the fifth century B.C. In that work, Hercules complains about his pesky “bags of flesh,” his testicles. What exactly is going on in Euripides’s play isn’t important for our purposes, but what is important is that the word for “bags of flesh” is the same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:15, normally translated “covering.” Paul writes, “For her hair is given to her for a covering [a testicle].” (I warned you this is weird, gross territory.)
Hercules isn’t the only one throwing the word around. Hippocrates (the namesake of the Hippocratic Oath) and his followers use it—and this is where the connection to a woman’s hair comes from. Ancient medical practitioners held a pre-scientific worldview of the human body. Their texts present a conception of anatomy and physiology based on what could be observed without microscopes or laboratories. In their minds, hair had something to do with sex and reproduction, because at puberty hair starts growing in places where it didn’t before. Plus they knew that semen was essential to conception. Therefore, it followed that semen must be produced in a person’s head, since there’s so much hair emanating from a person’s scalp.
The ancients deduced that individual hairs were hollow tubes where congealed semen could collect. The purpose of a man’s testicles—his “bags of flesh”—were to act as weights to draw the semen in his head downward for intercourse. A woman’s hair served the same function but in reverse. Since semen could flow into the tubes of her hair, a woman’s long hair served to draw the man’s semen up into her body into her womb during sex.
With this in mind, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11 begins to make sense. Weird, gross, but logical sense. A woman’s long hair is her “glory” because her locks allow her to be fertile and bear children. Her head should be covered in public worship because her hair is essentially a sexual organ and to leave it exposed would be immodest and indecent. By the same token, nature dictates that a man’s hair should be short, so his testicles don’t have to compete for semen distribution, thus making him more fertile.
Perhaps Paul mentions the “angels” in his rationale out of respect for any angels who might be observing Christian worship in Corinth, à la Hebrews 13:2. Another option is that the Greek word for “angels” is better translated “messengers” and simply refers to human visitors. A third way to understand Paul is to connect his warning with Genesis 6:1–4, in which heavenly beings lusted after human women and broke the boundaries between the supernatural and earthly realms in order to procreate. If this is the case, the issue has potentially cosmic consequences.
The High Status of Covering Up
So what does all this mean for us today? While Paul’s understanding of human anatomy is formed by pre-scientific guesses rather than hard facts, the principle is the same: women ought to dress modestly in public worship settings. Hair is obviously not a sexual organ, but all the same, 1 Corinthians 11 contains good advice we can all follow: women (and men alike) should keep their genitals covered up in church.
There’s something else going on here too. When believers come together, the place they gather becomes sacred space, a temple for God’s presence. It’s why Paul refers to believers corporately as the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Christ, every man and woman is a royal priest. In this New Testament passage about head coverings is an echo of a more ancient command, one God gave to the priests, the sons of Aaron, in Exodus: “Make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked bodies; they must cover from the waist to the thighs.”
These women in Corinth were not second-class citizens of God’s kingdom. They were priests of God Most High, praying and prophesying in his presence. In telling them to keep their heads covered, the apostle Paul was reminding them of their high status as priests, inviting them to see themselves as God sees them. I imagine that every time they heard someone read about the priesthood from the Torah, they found something deeper and richer in the text because of Christ—and I imagine they sat up a bit taller and straightened their veils.
For a scholarly exploration of everything testicular taking place in Corinth, see 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.
Cover image by Ethan Bodnar