Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

“Covering” or “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15?

Introduction

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:15b that a woman’s long hair is given to her for, or perhaps instead of, a “covering” (Greek: peribolaion). Troy W. Martin, professor of Religious Studies at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, however, has argued in two journal articles that peribolaion really means “testicle” here, not “covering.”[1]

Michael Heiser is one person who seems to have fully accepted Martin’s thesis and his podcast has to some extent popularised the “testicle” idea.[2]

If you haven’t heard this idea, great. Few scholars have accepted it. But in case you have heard of it, in this article (which I’ll post in two parts) I explain why Paul did not mean “testicle” when he used the word peribolaion in 1 Corinthians 11:15b.

What Does Peribolaion Mean?

1 Corinthians 11:15 occurs in a passage where Paul addresses the appearance of the hair (or the heads) of men and women who were praying and prophesying in churches in Corinth. Paul’s points in this passage are difficult to follow and understand, and various interpretations and scenarios have been suggested to help make sense of the passage. Some scenarios are more credible than others.

Towards the end of his discussion on the hair (or heads) of the ministering men and women Paul states,

“Does not even nature (physis) itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,  but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory (doxa)? For long hair is given to her for/ instead of/ in place of (anti) a covering (peribolaion)” (1 Cor. 11:14–15).

Peribolaion is a common Greek word. Until Dr Martin’s first paper there wasn’t doubt or controversy over its meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:15. The word often refers to a cloak, robe, or mantle, that is, an outer garment that a person “wears” or “throws around” (verb: periballō).[3] Occasionally, it refers to some other kind of covering.

BDAG give only one definition for peribolaion: “an article of apparel that covers much of the body, covering, wrap, cloak, robe.[4] LSJ have “that which is thrown round, covering” as their primary definition.[5] “Clothing” or “covering,” however, are not the senses that Martin argues for in his two papers.

Peribolaion in the Septuagint and New Testament

In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament that Paul was familiar with, peribolaion usually refers to an actual or metaphorical garment, typically an outer garment. Occasionally it refers to an actual or metaphorical cloth covering like an awning.

Here is every occurrence of peribolaion in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and the Greek New Testament. From these texts we can see how the word was commonly understood by at least one community in the Greco-Roman world, the Jewish community.

Deuteronomy 22:12: “cloak/ mantle”
Exodus 22:27 (LXX 22:26): “cloak/ mantle”
Judges 8:26: “garments”
Job 26:6: “covering/ clothing”
Psalm 102:26 (LXX 101:27): “cloak/ mantle”
Psalm 104:6 (LXX 103:6): “covering/ cloak”
Isaiah 50:3: “covering/ garment”
Isaiah 59:17: “cloak/ mantle”
Jeremiah 15:12LXX: “covering”
Ezekiel 16:13: “cloak/ mantle”
Ezekiel 27:7: “coverings/ awnings”
Hebrews 1:12: “cloak/ mantle”
1 Corinthians 11:15: “covering” (“testicle”?)

The automatically highlighted texts above are from the CSB translation which sometimes translates peribolaion simply as “clothing.” And “clothing” is a usual meaning in early Jewish works such as the Epistle of Aristeas, 158, and 1 Enoch 14:20.

Peribolaion in Secular Ancient Greek Texts

Peribolaion is also a common word in secular literature and documents. Here are a few examples from the first centuries BCE and CE, roughly contemporary with 1 Corinthians, with one exception.

Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian writing between 60–30 BCE, includes this phrase in one of his stories: “Then he put on a diadem and a purple cloak (peribolaion porphyroun) …” (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 36.2.4) (Greek; English)

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Roman historian writing around 20 BCE, includes this phrase describing another purple garment: “an embroidered purple robe (peribolaion porphyroun poikilon) like those the kings of Lydia and Persia used to wear, except that it was not rectangular in shape like theirs, but semicircular.” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 3.61.1) (Greek; English)

In a later volume, he has this phrase: “he pulled his cloak over his head” (te peribolēn kata kephalēs eilkuse). (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 15.9.2) (Greek; English)[6]

“Linen coverings” (ta bussina peribolaia) that covered sacred images or statues are mentioned in the first century BCE papyrus P.Strasb. 2.91.9. “The linen garments (ta bussina othonia) of the gods” in line 16 seem to be what is referred to in line 9.

Plutarch (c. 45–120 CE) uses peribolaion for a covering such as a rug that was often spread on seating and beds.

After a little while the king called for a covering (peribolaion), and asked Aratus if he too did not think it cold; and when Aratus replied that he was very chilly, the king ordered him to come nearer; so that the rug (dapis) which the servants brought was thrown over (periballō) both of them together. (Plutarch, Aratus 43) (Greek; English)

I include the following reference, even though it dates a few hundred years before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, because one of Troy Martin’s two texts that he uses to support his “testicle” thesis comes from the same play. Here is a line from Euripides’ Hercules Furens 549: “It is the garb of death we have already put on” (thanatou tad’ ēdē peribolai anēmmetha). (Greek; English) Peribolaion is used in a clothing metaphor here as it may be in the other verse from Hercules Furens which I look at in part 2.

Peribolaion and Women’s Clothing

Peribolaion often refers to clothing. In the context of women’s apparel, the Greek word peribolaion, and more commonly himation,[7] can refer to the palla. (Palla is a Latin word.) The palla was a mantle, a large square of cloth that citizen women draped over their tunics and which they could pull over their heads when they stepped outdoors.

The palla was a status symbol and it offered citizen women some protection from sexual harassment and abuse. Slaves and lower-class women were usually not allowed to wear it. (I have more on the customs of wearing the palla in Roman society here.)

Paul could have simply been saying that a woman’s long hair is like an outer garment, like a palla or shawl. So why the idea of “testicle”? Martin looks to ideas from classical Greek thinkers and physicians of the fourth century BCE.

Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Herophilus on Semen, Testicles, and Hair

Alcmaeon (born c. 510 BCE) believed that semen was a drop, or a clot, of the brain (DK24B13, and Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras, 28). Aristotle (384–322 BCE) and other Greek thinkers also thought that the brain was made up of semen and that semen travelled down the spinal cord to the genitals to produce life.

In his first paper, “An Argument from Nature,” Troy Martin quotes mostly from the Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 BCE). Martin provides this summary of an understanding that undergirds his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:13-15.

Hippocratic authors hold that hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20). 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 (Hippocrates, Genit. I). Hair grows only on the head of prepubescent humans because semen is stored in the brain and the channels of the body have not yet become large enough for reproductive fluid to travel throughout the body (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20; Genit. 2). At puberty, secondary hair growth in the pubic area marks the movement of reproductive fluid from the brain to the rest of the body (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20; Genit. I). Women have less body hair not only because they have less semen but also because their colder bodies do not froth the semen throughout their bodies but reduce semen evaporation at the ends of their hair (Hippocrates, Nat. puer. 20).[8]

Many of the ideas of Hippocrates, however, were challenged when physicians began dissecting cadavers and seeing internal organs with their own eyes, rather than just speculating about how the human body worked. Many of Hippocrates’ and Aristotle’s ideas about the human body were disproven by Herophilus and his younger colleague Erasistratus, for example. Herophilus (335–280 BCE) is recognised as the first person to perform systematic dissections of the human body and to perform autopsies to determine the causes of disease and death.[9]

Herophilus had an understanding of the brain that was considerably different from, and more advanced than, Aristotle’s and Hippocrates’.[10] He knew that semen neither comes from nor is stored in the brain. Furthermore, he understood ovaries to be testicles, and he used the same Greek words for female “testicles” (i.e. ovaries) as for male testicles: orchai and, occasionally, didymi (“twins”).

Did first-century CE Romans still hold to the beliefs of fourth-century BCE men, such as Hippocrates and Aristotle, that semen came from the brain and that hair was hollow and draws up semen? Moreover, is there any evidence that this belief actually affected the propriety of exposed hair on women?[11] Or did the Romans accept the relatively recent and more correct observations of anatomists and physicians such as Herophilus?[12]

Contemporaries of Paul on Hair Lengths and Hairstyles

In his lecture On Cutting Hair, Musonius Rufus (born c. 20–30 CE), a Roman Stoic philosopher and a contemporary of Paul, speaks matter-of-factly about men cutting and trimming head and facial hair without any mention of semen or testicles. And he refers to nature a few times (cf. 1 Cor. 11:14).[13] About the beard, he observed that it is provided by Nature as a cover (skepēn).  (Greek and English p. 128–129)

Plutarch (born 46 CE) comments on the hair length of men and of women in his day: “it is usual for men to have their hair cut and for women to let it grow.” There is no mention of semen or testicles in his brief discussion on hair and head coverings in his Roman Questions, 14 (Greek; English)

There are more examples of men writing in and around the first century and who had similar views to Paul on what were respectable and what were unacceptable hairstyles. These include Philo (Special Laws 3.37-42), Josephus (Jewish War 4.561-63), Dio Chrysostom who mentions nature (Orations 33.52), and Pseudo-Phocylides (212).[14] These men do not associate hair with semen or testicles.

Furthermore, Corinth was a Roman colony in Paul’s day and many respectable Roman women are depicted in frescoes, mosaics, statues, busts, and coins with their hair fully uncovered. They could hardly do this if their hair was regarded as functioning as a genital, as a replacement for a testicle.

David W.J. Gill notes,

Public marble portraits of women at Corinth, presumably members of wealthy and prestigious families, are most frequently shown bare-headed. This would suggest that it was socially acceptable in a Roman colony for women to be seen bare-headed in public.[15]

I’m not aware of any ancient source that indicates most first-century Romans believed Aristotle’s and Hippocrates’ dated views that brains are made from semen and that hair is a conduit of semen. If there is such a source, I’d like to read it.

In part 2, which I’ll post next week, I look at the two texts Troy Martin believes uses peribolaion with the meaning of “testicles” and I briefly look at what Paul meant by “nature teaches” (1 Cor. 11:14).


Footnotes

[1] 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 (2004); 75-84. (PDF)
Martin, “Περιβόλαιον as ‘Testicle’ in 1 Corinthians 11:15: A Response to Mark Goodacre,” JBL 132.2 (2013): 453–465. (PDF)
Dr Martin is an experienced and respected biblical scholar and a specialist in Greek medical texts. Twenty-Two of his essays, including the two above, have been recently published in Theology and Practice in Early Christianity: Essays New and Old with Updated Reception Histories (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020). (Google Books)

[2] You can listen to Michael Heiser’s podcast on “Naked Bible Podcast 086 — The Head Covering of 1 Corinthians 11:13–15” on YouTube. A transcript is here. Heiser refers, a few times, to the ideas of Aristotle and Hippocrates as “cutting-edge science” in Paul’s day. This was not the case. There were scientific improvements between the fourth-century BCE and the first century CE, a time span of more than 400 years.

[3] The verb periballō is used for God covering his new bride Jerusalem with a trichaptos, a veil of fine netting (Eze. 16:10 & 13). The verb is often used in the context of clothing in the New Testament. See here.

[4] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, (BDAG) revised and edited by F.W Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 800 s.v. περιβόλαιον.

[5] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, revised by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1996), 1369 s.v. περιβολάδιον.

[6] Preston T. Massey cites this quotation in his paper on dress codes in Corinth and he refers to Martin’s first article: “Martin’s article cannot be taken seriously. It is better to take περιβόλαιον in the same sense as employed by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Ant. Rom. 15.9.7): μέλλων δ’ ἀπιέναι τήν τε περιβολὴν κατὰ κεφαλῆς εἵλκυσε (‘about to depart, he pulled his cloak over his head’).”
Massey, “Dress Codes at Roman Corinth and Two Hellenic Sites: What Do the Inscriptions at Andania and Lycosura Tell Us About 1 Corinthians 11.2–16? Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 11 (2015): 51–81, 78. (PDF)

[7] For example, himation is used by Plutarch in this phrase: “he saw his wife pull her cloak (himation) over her head” (Plutarch, Roman Christians 14)

[8] Troy W. Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature,” 77–78. The two works cited here by Hippocrates go by various names in English. They can be read here with the names “Intercourse,” corresponding with De genitals (Genit.), and “Pregnancy,” corresponding with De natura pueri (Nat. puer). Some of the Loeb edition which contains these works can be read on Google Books.

[9] Noel Si-Yang Bay and Boon-Huat Bay, “Greek Anatomist Herophilus: The Father of Anatomy,” Anatomy & Cell Biology 43.4 (December 2010): 280–283. (Online Source: National Library of Medicine)

[10] Bay and Bay, “Greek Anatomist Herophilus.”

[11] Troy Martin states, “Aristotle calls the male testicles weights that keep the seminal channels taut (Gen. an. 717a.30-717b.5). Their function is to facilitate the drawing of semen downward so it can be ejected.” Martin, “Paul’s Argument,” 82-83. This idea is addressed by Galen (129–215 CE) who draws on the work of his predecessors such as Herophilus: “Anyone seeing these things [the anatomy of the reproductive system] will wonder at the men who held that the testicles were generated by nature for pulling down the seminal organs. … The argument of those men has been adequately refuted by the mere location of the testicles.” On Semen 1.15.21, 27. Hundreds of years before Galen, it was realised that testicles and not the brain produced semen, and that testicles do not weigh or pull down supposed seminal channels. Galen is politely pointing out that what Aristotle said about testicles and semen was nonsense.

[12] The eleven medical treatises that Herophilus wrote do not survive, but Galen, among others, quoted from them. Galen who admittedly was active well after Paul wrote to the Corinthians, understood that hair was not a conduit for semen; he speaks about the spermatic ducts with no reference to hair whatsoever. And like Herophilus, he understood that male and female humans had testicles (orchai).

Galen barely mentions hair in his two exhaustive essays on semen. Here are the only references to hair that I could find, one in the first essay and the other in the second.
First, in a paragraph about testicles being a source of strength and heat, Galen says that the testicles “pour forth a large amount of heat to the body, and for that reason those who have lost them are without hair not only on their chins but over their whole body …”  On Semen 1.15.41.
Second, Galen mentions hair in passing when describing different physiological features of male and female humans: “They differ also in that one sex has less hair, the other more, the one has soft hair and wide hips, the other a broad chest, and they have many others differences …” On Semen 2.5.12. Galen does not associate hair with semen, spermatic ducts, or with sexual organs!
Quotations from Galen’s On Semen are from the translation by Phillip De Lacy (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum; Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1992). This can be accessed online here.

[13] Richard Hays comments on the Stoic and Cynic use of “nature” and applies it to 1 Corinthians 11:14:

The appeal to nature (physis) as a source of behavioural norms is characteristic of the Stoic and Cynic philosophers—and highly unusual in Paul. Thus this is perhaps another case … in which Paul points out, with more than a trace of irony, that the philosophical wisdom on which the Corinthians pride themselves ought to lead them to behave differently.
Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997, 2011), 189.

[14] In “Paul’s Argument from Nature,” p.79, Troy Martin quotes from Pseudo-Phocylides, a first-century Jewish author, who states, “Long hair is not fit for males, but for voluptuous women” (212). Martin uses this quotation to support his views, but neither semen nor testicles are mentioned here.

[15] Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41.2 (1990): 245–260, 251.

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Explore more

Hair Lengths and Hairstyles in the Bible
A Note on “Nature” and Hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14
Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney
Head Coverings and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.

 

3 thoughts on ““Covering” or “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15?

  1. In regard to the origin of semen, Alcmaeon taught in the early 5th century BC that semen was a drop of brain. Hippocrates and his followers seem to have been largely of the same view (as per On the Seed), though apparently some thought it came from all parts of the body (as per On Sacred Disease).
    The 2020 article by Bay and Bay tersely states that Herophilus ‘recognized that spermatozoa were produced by the testes’. The only reference given for this is the book by von Staden, Herophilus, The art of medicine in early Alexandria (CUP, 1989), with no page number cited.
    However, Plinio Prioreschi, in A History of Medicine: Vol II – Greek Medicine (2nd edn, 1996, reprint 2004) at pages 280-281, says: ‘The first clear statement that the semen originates in the testes and proceeds to the penis through the ductus deferens is from Rufus of Ephesus (end of 1st century AD).539’
    [Footnote 539 says: ‘Rufus of Ephesus, Satyriasis and Gonorrhea, in C. Daremberg and C.E. Ruelle, Oeuvres de Rufus d’Ephèse, Paris, 1879, reprinted Amsterdam, Adolf M. Akkert, 1963, pp. 67-68.’]
    Since Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was written about 15 years before Rufus was even born, I’m wondering about the solidity of the evidence for the proposition that people in Corinth in Paul’s time understood that semen was not, after all, a drop of brain, as had been believed for many centuries.
    I don’t see this query as supporting Troy Martin’s theory. However, if people in Paul’s day thought of semen as originating from the brain, this may perhaps be of some relevance for understanding the ‘head’ metaphor in 1 Corinthians 11 as indicating ‘source of life’?

    1. Thanks for that correction, Andrew.

      Herophilus understood the function of the testicles to some extent and, more importantly for this discussion, their location. Semen wasn’t travelling from the brain to the genitals, even if the first clear (surviving) statement about the function of the vas deferens dates to the end of the first century.

      A lot happened scientifically in the roughly 400 years between Hippocrates and Paul. But as always, I’m happy for corrections.

      Also, I’m not sure that the “head” metaphor in 1 Cor. 11:3 means “source of life” as such.

  2. Good article. I’ve heard the semen pump idea spoken of by people like Heiser, Dale Martin, and others, and kinda just uncritically accepted it. Although, I didn’t feel like I wanted to. You seem to roundly rebut them, so it’ll be interesting to see if the pro-testes position are able to make a stronger case.
    Unfortunately, scholars are as susceptible as laymen when it comes to confirming their priors.

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