- Does περιβόλαιον Mean “Testicle” in 1 Corinthians 11:15?
1 Corinthians 11:2–16 remains one of the most perplexing passages in the interpretation of Paul, and persuasive attempts to understand what Paul is talking about are at a premium.1 The logical difficulty at the heart of the passage is well known. Paul appears to argue that a woman should veil her head while praying or prophesying, but he then goes on to suggest that her hair is given to her for a covering (11:15). Under such circumstances, provocative new interpretations of elements in this passage demand special attention. Troy Martin’s recent article, focusing especially on 1 Cor 11:15, opens up a new and intriguing possibility, that περιβόλαιον here means “testicle.”2
The verse in question reads: . . . ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται αὐτῇ. Martin says that this is usually translated: “For her hair is given to her instead of a covering.”3 He argues that the translation of περιβόλαιον should be “testicle,” thus: [End Page 391] “For her hair is given to her instead of a testicle.” Martin’s contention is that Paul is here assuming ancient attitudes to the body, according to which hair is “part of the female genitalia.”5 He explains:
This ancient physiological conception of hair indicates that Paul’s argument from nature in 1 Cor 11:13–15 contrasts long hair in women with testicles in men. Paul states that appropriate to her nature, a woman is not given an external testicle (περιβόλαιον, 1 Cor 11:15b) but rather hair instead. Paul states that long hollow hair on a woman’s head is her glory (δόξα, 1 Cor 11:15) because it enhances her female φύσις, which is to draw in and retain semen. Since female hair is part of the female genitalia, Paul asks the Corinthians to judge for themselves whether it is proper for a woman to display her genitalia when praying to God(1 Cor 11:13).
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’s covering her head when praying or prophesying.6
Martin has written on ancient medical language and the NT before,7 and his exposition of ancient attitudes to sex and gender is intriguing. In order for the new interpretation of this passage to be established, however, it is necessary to look at the lexical basis for identifying περιβόλαιον as “testicle.” Unfortunately for Martin’s argument, the lexical case is weak. He offers two texts to illustrate that the word was used in this way.8 The first is from Euripides, Herc. fur. 1269.9 Martin asserts that Euripides here “uses περιβόλαιον in reference to a body part,” and he translates the passage thus: “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” (ἐπεὶ δὲ σαρκὸς περιβόλαι’ ἐκτησάμην ἡβῶντα, μόχθους οὓς ἔτλην τί δεῖ λέγειν). Martin adds, by way of explanation: “A dynamic translation of the first clause would be: ‘After I received my testicles (περιβόλαια), which are the outward [End Page 392] signs of puberty.’ In this text from Euripides, the term περιβόλαιον refers to a testicle.”10
Martin does not give any indication that the translation he is proposing is controversial and unparalleled. There are important problems with it, not least his strange translation of ἔτλην as future rather than aorist (first singular aorist indicative active, from τλάω) and the choice not to translate τί as an interrogative, elements that might warn the reader that something is awry in Martin’s translation. But what is most important for Martin’s case, “testicle” is an incorrect translation of περιβόλαιον. The relevant phrase is σαρκὸς περιβόλαι’ ἡβῶντα, where ἡβῶντα (present participle of ἡβάω, “to attain puberty, to be in the prime of youth”) is a transferred epithet agreeing with περιβόλαι(α), “that which is thrown around, covering, clothing” (plural).11 The phrase is naturally construed as “youthful clothes of flesh,” “youthful garb of flesh.” Martin is right that youth and adolescence are in view here, but his literalistic reading misses the point that Euripides is simply using a clothing metaphor.12 Heracles has come of age and has put on his young man’s flesh. It is not a reference to “a body part.” On...