The Polluted Body: Dale B. Martin

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

Our third perspective on Head Coverings in Corinth comes from Dale B. Martin in his work The Corinthian Body, which examines the constructions of body and sexuality within Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Here we will examine the contextual concerns Martin argues are important for interpreting First Corinthians 11.2-16, his interpretation of the passage on ‘head coverings,’ and his understanding of the Pauline conception of body. Ultimately, we find that Martin argues that Paul understands the body to be a potentially polluted agent.

Dale B. MartinMartin’s perspective is unique in that he pays little attention to more traditional historical-critical resources in his construction of the Corinthian context. He argues that Paul conceived of Corinth as one of his most important operational locals as he propagated his message about Jesus of Nazareth and that because of this centrality Paul paid special attention to the competing ideologies of the human body within the Corinthian congregation.[1] Key for Martin’s reading of First Corinthians is his argument that the numerous conflicts between the Corinthian Strong and Corinthian Weak stemmed from their differing conceptions of the normative human body. Within this framework, Martin understands Paul, along with the majority of the Corinthian Christians, to have viewed the body as being threatened by polluting agents, while a minority of Corinthians elites emphasized a hierarchical balance in the arrangement of the body without Paul’s concerning for bodily boundaries and pollution.[2] The divide between Strong and Weak encompassed socioeconomic status,[3] though Martin argues that a more important contextual concern were ancient discourses about the body driven by ideological constructions viewing the human body in certain ways due to societal influences and interests.[4] Martin argues that for ancients, the body was a microcosm of the universe,[5] perceived as a transitory point in the midst of cosmic movement,[6] within the hierarchical structure of Roman society.[7] Hierarchy was similarly formative with respect to the construction of sexuality, as all humans were understood along the lines of the spectrums of active/male and passive/female.[8] Setting Paul’s writing firmly within the tradition of Greco-Roman rhetoric,[9] Martin argues that Paul rejected the higher status Corinthians denigrating lower status Corinthians because of their lack of gnosis,[10] as he understands Paul to reverse normal power and hierarchy structures within the church whilst simultaneously affirming communal boundaries between the body and corrupt cosmos, especially concerning issues divided along social status lines.[11] Ultimately, Martin divides Paul’s concerns in First Corinthians into two major topical sections, those concerned with hierarchy and those concerned with pollution, situating Paul’s discourse on head coverings that we now turn to within his consideration of bodily pollution.[12]

As Martin’s interpretation comes within a topical monograph rather than a commentary, his perspective takes a topical, rather than verse by verse, approach to First Corinthians 11:2-16. He labels his consideration of this passage as “Prophylactic Veils,” underscoring his understanding of Paul’s prescription for head coverings, and beings his commentary by noting that once scholars move past presumptions that ancient conceptions of androgyny implied equality Paul’s comments become more clear, as he understands Paul to not believe that androgyny implied equality between the sexes.[13] In other words, Martin argues that one cannot read modern gender egalitarianism back into Paul’s conception of bodily androgyny, such as that for which he argues in Galatians 3:28 or his admission of women to important positions within the churches.[14] Rather, Martin writes that Paul understood female bodies, because of their precarious physiologies, to be potential centers of danger for the larger church body.[15] Especially influenced by the conceptions of the medical writers of women as “porous” and thereby highly susceptible to invasion, Martin argues that Paul emphasizes women’s need to veil themselves when they pray or prophesy in the church.[16] Martin argues that the Corinthians would have understood female’s natural precariousness to have been heightened during moments of inspiration, and the Paul’s commands thus point toward veiling as addressing concerns of order and sexuality within the Corinthian church.[17]

The Corinthian BodyPerhaps most notable within the context of this comparison is Martin’s claim that Paul’s writing concerning angels[18] was actually Paul expressing concern that angels should have been understood to pose potential threats to the purity a of women.[19] He writes that, “Given the ambivalent role played by angels (and similar beings) in Greco-Roman culture, the physiology of prophecy, and the sexual significance of veiling outlined above, the meaning of Paul’s reference to angels, regardless of his conscious intentions, must include a sexual threat.”[20] The issue of communal pollution of the body, with the protection of “porous” women especially whilst praying or prophesying as representing the protection of the entire social body,[21] underscores Martin’s interpretation of First Corinthians 11:2-16. Martin writes that whereas Paul elsewhere in First Corinthians opposed hierarchical constructions within the body of Christ, in this instance his theology was shaped by his physiology of the female body, thereby accepting and even reinforcing, with appeals to nature and scripture, a hierarchy in which the female body was subordinated to the male body.[22] Until the resurrection of the Corinthian church, Martin writes that the best way to protect the church body from invasive pollutions through women is their veiling, especially during participation in “opening” activities such as praying and prophesying.[23]


When compared to the perspectives of Hays and Horsley, Martin’s commentary of First Corinthians 11.2-16 already gives specific attention to constructions of the body. Here we note some of the more overarching themes of his perspective on the conception of polluted bodies. Undoubtedly Martin’s attention to the theme of pollution and the polluted body influences his entire reading of veils in this passage. When reading this portion of First Corinthians, Martin emphasizes the need to not assume that gender androgyny necessitates gender equality, that male and female bodies are truly the same on a fundamental level. Thus we can see that Paul agreed with the Greco-Roman medical writers in conceiving of female bodies as inherently porous and prone to invasion and pollution by outside forces. In this way female bodies needed to be protected that male bodies did not, revealing a fundamental difference and inequality between the two. The differences between male and female bodies are so great that in this reading Paul advocated veils in order to protect women from polluting outside forces that may include angelic beings. In this instance then, Martin concludes that Paul’s theology was shaped by his physiological understanding of the susceptibility of the female body to polluting agents that could harm the entire Corinthian community.


[1] Dale B. Martin. The Corinthian Body. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1995. xi. [2] Ibid., xv. [3] Ibid., xv. [4] Ibid., xii. [5] Ibid., 16. [6] Ibid., 25. [7] Ibid., 30. [8] Ibid., 32-4. [9] Ibid., 47-52, 67-8. [10] Ibid., 69-71. [11] Ibid., 79, 86. [12] Ibid., xii. [13] Ibid., 229-30. [14] Ibid., 231. [15] Ibid., 233. [16] Ibid., 233. [17] Ibid., 242. [18]That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. I Cor. 11.10, ESV. [19] Ibid., 244. [20] Ibid., 245. [21] Ibid., 248. [22] Ibid., 248. [23] Ibid., 249.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

2 thoughts on “The Polluted Body: Dale B. Martin

  1. Is Martin talking about physical or spiritual harm here? Or both? Is her using the medical writers and Jewish scripture at the same time?

    1. Christian,
      Thanks for the question. My reading of Martin posits something of a “both” response to your question, as I think he understands Paul’s conception of body to necessarily entail body and spirit. Thus, harm comes to the entire person as a result of sexual misconduct of any sort, not just that which is “physical” (fornication) or spiritual (involving angels). Paul is pre-Descartes, so my hunch is that there is not a whole lot of body-spirit dualism at work in this interpretation.
      As for his use of medical writers and Jewish scriptures, Martin seems to be relying primarily on Greco-Roman medical writings as the basis for his understanding of women as “porous”. I think you rightly point to the need to consider Jewish understandings of female bodies when reading Paul, excellent point.
      Best, JJP

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