This is obviously a contentious issue for those who seek to interpret Paul’s references to headship in places such as 1 Corinthians 11. People often talk about ancient backgrounds, including comments such as the following:
- In Greek literature ‘head’ was not used to connote authority, unless the rest of the body was also taken up in the imagery
- In Hebrew literature ‘head’ was used to connote authority
- In some ancient literature ‘head’ seems to connote ‘source’
- In the ancient world, they did not associate the ruling faculties with the head in the way that we have now come to do since the onset of modern science
All of these matters are disputed. I just want to take up one of them here – the last one. I have certainly heard it said before that modern notions of the head ruling the body arise from biological knowledge that the ancients lacked. But I’ve just noticed that Plato addresses this very issue in Book 12 of Laws, where his ‘Athenian Stranger’ speaks about the significance of different body parts:
The feet are the most willing servants the body has, and the head is the organ of supreme control, the natural seat of all the principal senses of the body. (Laws, book 12, 942e; Cooper’s edition, 1592)
Of course, this doesn’t tell us what Paul means, but at least it provides a little illumination about certain ancient assumptions regarding the physical role of the head in relation to the body.