Corinthian Head Coverings – Part Four

Image: Statue of Hippocrates – located in Kos

In this short series on head coverings in Corinth I have presented information that supports the view that Paul referred to a custom of the region and directed the church to maintain this practice in the region of Corinth. The church in Corinth met in a home or homes and the larger houses of the period retained an open doorway usually manned by a household slave or servant. The church in Corinth would have been of great interest to the local populous and it is likely that the slaves of the wealthy may have been sent to the gatherings to spy on those attending. Paul makes it clear that women should cover their heads “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” 1 Cor 11:10. The Greek “angelos” can also be translated “Messenger” “Pastor” or even “spy” and therefore Paul can also be instructing the church to keep to local custom as those from outside who are reporting the activities of the church would bring the church into disrepute by reporting the actions of uncovering hair.

As mentioned in the introduction to this series we find that in verse 16 the ESV Bible uses the correct use of “Such” in the term “no such practice” whilst other bibles translate “no other practice” which is not accurate, as any reference to the Greek text will confirm.

In verse 14-15 Paul states “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering”

The interesting word here is “nature” which leads me to introduce an alternative view which can work alongside the view that customary practice is the main cause for concern with Paul.

Troy Martin ( TROY W. MARTIN Saint Xavier University, Chicago )  has produced a well researched study on the ancient medical beliefs surrounding the movement of semen and where it goes which helps to explain Paul’s statement 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that nature itself indicates that a woman should cover her hair and a male should retain short hair. 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,”

Troy Martin has considered the Hippocratic texts and the medical understanding of sexual reproduction of the day and concluded that the male produced semen for reproduction and that the hair being hollow attracted semen. Therefore, if a male had long hair it would be difficult to direct the semen to the genital area for ejaculation. In the same manner a woman with long hair would attract the movement of the semen and her hair was therefore considered a highly sexual part of the body and almost genitalia itself. 

When Paul informs the church in Corinth that “nature teaches” that it is “shameful” for men to wear their hair long, he is alluding to the belief about the role of hair in sexual reproduction. Men with long hair would divert too much semen from their testicles which at puberty had increased in size for ejaculation. Long hair on women assists the process because those long, hollow hairs add to the suction in her body assisting 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.

The Hippocratic test for fertility in women was linked to the belief about the strong suction power of their head of hair. The test involved a doctor placing a scented suppository in a woman’s uterus and examining her mouth the next day to see if he can smell the scent of the suppository, if he can, she is declared fertile; if not, she is termed sterile because channels to her head are blocked. The male semen is discharged rather than retained, and the woman cannot conceive,”

Troy W. Martin’s JBL article, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering,” (JBL 123/1 [2004] 75­84)

The strongest objection to the view is that Paul would endorse a medical idea that was in fact erroneous and include its tacit endorsement within the inspired text.


I find Troy Martin’s study of the topic interesting and challenging but my current position remains, based on an understanding of the text, which sees Paul counselling the church in Corinth to comply with local customs that agree with the husband and wife relationship and honour the taking of the veil. Paul’s directions to the church at Corinth are meaningful today and we should not discard local customs in a region that are not standing in opposition to the Gospel. I would expect Paul to direct the women in a church located in an Islamic region to continue wearing the Hijab or Burka if that was the customary dress for women in the region.

If a woman wishes to wear a head covering in church then she should act according to conscience and wear her covering, as she does so unto the Lord. The text allows for alternative views on Paul’s directions to the church and therefore we can also discard the veil as a customary practice of the Corinth region in those early centuries.

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