The head is the topmost part of the body, where symbols of power, authority, and honor were displayed. Kings and priests were anointed on their heads, and this is where their crowns were placed ( 1 Sam 10:1 ; 2 Sam 1:10 ; 2 Kings 9:3 ; Psalm 21:3 ).
Adam was crowned with glory and honor ( Psalm 8:5 ). Prudent men wear knowledge there ( Prov 14:18 ). Gray hair is a symbol of glory ( Prov 16:31 ) that younger people must respect ( Lev 19:32 ). Lifting up of the head was symbolic of promotion ( Gen 40:13 ; Psalm 3:3 ). Saul was head and shoulders above everyone else ( 1 Sam 9:2 ).
The head is a site where beauty is displayed ( Sol 5:11 ; 7:5 ). It is a place where much time and effort is spent on techniques of beautification ( 2 Kings 9:30 ; Isa 3:24 ; Jer 4:30 ; Ezek 23:40 ). It is where the power of one's personality shines forth.
It is a center of communication. Blushing, tears, paleness, and flushing may show fear, anger, or mourning. Tossing, shaking, or wagging of the head may convey wonder, mockery, or rejection ( Isa 37:22 ). The eyes, mouth, and facial features may show favor, boldness, sadness, impudence, or scorn ( Gen 4:6 ; Neh 2:2 ; Prov 7:13 ; Isa 3:16 ).
From the king's head comes his words, which may have power of life or death ( Eccl 8:4 ). Hence in the Septuagint Greek Old Testament translation kephale [kefalhv] may be used of an older, prominent person, a chieftan, or a king.
Covering the Head as a Social Custom. While Greek women sometimes covered their heads, there was no social compulsion for them to wear a veil in public. Greek statues show bare-headed Greek women displaying extravagant hairstyles. Jews regarded this as typical of Gentiles.
Required head coverings for women are an Eastern custom. A Middle Assyrian law required that all women except prostitutes and slaves be veiled. Jewish communities of the New Testament period were strict about this. The Mishnah (a.d. 250) held that failure to comply was grounds for divorce (Ketubin 7:6).
A moral, unmarried woman even wore a veil in front of her parents. Removal of the veil was a sign of disgrace (3 Macc 4:6). Philo of Alexandria indicated that this regularly worn covering was a symbol of modesty (Special Laws 3.56; Josephus Ant. 3.270). Women charged with adultery had this veil removed.
"Paul of Tarsus" ( Acts 9:11 ) was accustomed to seeing women veiled in public. Dion Chrysostom, an orator (a.d. 110), commended ladies there because they never appeared unveiled in public.
William Ramsey saw the woman's head covering as her power. It authorized her to go anywhere in public with respect and protection. Women who failed to wear veils would be objects of contempt and abuse. This might explain why Paul says "a woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head" ( 1 Cor 11:10 ). Interestingly Aramaic words for "authority" and "veil" are similar.
First Corinthians 11:2-16. Corinth was a port city and a commercial crossroad. Many customs and styles were present. The church there grew out of the synagogue ( Acts 18:4 Acts 18:7 Acts 18:8 ). New Testament churches were often located in houses of wealthy converts. Rich Greek women would appear uncovered with elaborate hairstyles.
Poorer Jewish women might feel such customs were done to attract men. This would eventually become a source of disunity. It is not surprising Paul introduces this passage by an exhortation not to offend Jew or Greek. He offers himself as an example of one who tried to please everybody for the sake of their salvation ( 1 Cor 10:31-11:1 ). He closes the passage by stating the churches of God repudiate practices that might cause contention (11:16).
In 11:2 Paul praises the Corinthians for always following his directions. Evidently he had previously taught use of veils by women there. As the church grew many wanted to know the reason for this custom.
Paul begins by presenting a hierarchy of headship: God, Christ, man, and woman. Paul regularly uses the idea of headship in a context of submission to authority ( Eph 5:21-25 ; Col 1:18 ; Colossians 2:10 Colossians 2:19 ). A man may pray to God in public but not dressed so that he shows allegiance to another, namely, with head covered. A woman may pray and prophesy in public if her dress shows submission to her husband's authority ( 1 Cor 11:5-6 ).
If people do not treat each other with respect, their prayers may be hindered ( 1 Peter 3:7 ). If a woman's outward appearance reflects gentleness and submission to her husband, it may win him to Christ ( 1 Peter 3:1-6 ). The appearance of women who take part in the service should show respect to required social customs. Use of head coverings enhanced the acceptance of a woman's contribution to the service.
Paul based his view about the woman's place in the authority continuum on Genesis 2:18-24. Here the woman is formed from man's side in response to a need for companionship and help. She is not formed from dust but was taken from Adam. As a suitable helper she makes man complete.
Woman reflects the glory of God in man so that both bear the image of God ( Gen 1:26-27 ). As a suitable complement to the man, a noble wife is his crown ( Prov 12:4 ). Genesis Rabbah, an ancient Jewish commentary, stated her husband is adorned by her. Her pleasures, beauties, and charms are for her husband alone ( Prov 5:17 ). She is covered as a sign that she is accessible to none but him.
Headship of Husbands. Headship does not mean that man is an unlimited monarch. He is to cherish and nurture his wife as his own body ( Eph 5:28 ). He may not deprive her of what she needs for her happiness and well-being ( 1 Cor 7:3 ). He must be understanding, considerate, and respectful of her as a joint heir of life ( 1 Peter 3:7 ). His love for her is more than physical. It must be the same kind of sacrificial love Christ has for the church.
Sarah is presented as an example of the submissive wife ( 1 Peter 3:5-6 ). She assented to his decisions even when he was wrong ( Gen 12:11-13 ). Yet Abraham also listened to her ( Gen 16:2 ). In Genesis 21:12 God tells Abraham to "listen to whatever Sarah tells you" (about Ishmael). Sarah's orders about Ishmael were used by Paul as binding Scripture in his teaching about law and grace ( Gal 4:30 ). Even though Sarah is obedient, her thoughts and her feelings may not be disregarded and trampled upon. There is a place for mutual submission one to another ( Eph 5:21 ).
Christ as Head of His Church. The church must submit to Christ. We are not our own but are bought with a price ( 1 Cor 3:23 ; 6:19-20 ; Eph 5:23-33 ). He has all authority in heaven and earth ( Matt 28:18 ). He is the head of all principality and power ( Col 2:10 ). People who wander from Christ are like those who have lost their heads ( Col 2:18-19 ). Without the head no nourishment or growth is possible ( Eph 4:15 ; Col 2:19 ). Paul was not dealing in philosophical speculation in his headship analogies. Even the simplest person knew that food, water, and air were taken in by head. He would know that the eyes and ears gave guidance to the whole body.
Bibliography. G. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles; J. A. Fitzmyer, NTS35 (1989): 503-11; W. Grudem, ed., Manhood and Womanhood: A Biblical Perspective; idem, Trinity J NS (1985): 1438-59; G. Hawthorne, et al, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters; W. Neuer, Man and Woman in Christian Perspective; W. Ramsey, The Cities of St. Paul; C. L. Thompson, BA (1988): 101-15.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Head, Headship'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".