So what can we say about “head” as a metaphor in Greek? At least two things.
First, “head” is not used to signify “rule over” or “have authority over,” although it clearly is used on occasion with regard to people who rule and have authority. It sometimes is used to indicate a differential in these qualities. The one who is “head over/of” in authority has authority that is “higher,” preeminent, and of greater status or magnitude than others. The head metaphor is a statement about relative position (just as the head is relatively higher than the rest of the body) and could be used with any human quality that can be ranked. For example, Barry Bonds is head over/of all baseball players in hitting homeruns. Head indicates the magnitude of the quality is greater or higher but it is not the quality itself. The head is figuratively the summit, not a body part that controls or rules the body.
Second, I believe there are actually three ways the metaphor is employed in the New Testament based on three different ways of perceiving a physical head. We can view the physical head in terms of function, representation, and elevation.
Function – According to the Greeks, the anatomical function of the head was to provide life-giving sustenance and nurture to the rest of the body. It is the origination point from which the rest of the body springs up.
Representation – The head is the most visible and physically distinguishing part of the body. The face and head are the primary means by which we identify a whole person. The head represents the whole body to the world.
Elevation – The head is at the top, the highest point, of the body. In Greek, high elevation signifies prominence, preeminence, and importance.
I believe it is possible for any given instance of the head metaphor to have more than one of these connotations in play at the same time. We will see this as we visit the New Testament passages. Context is critical in each case. But before going to these passages, I want to refresh our memories concerning the idea of status in the Greco-Roman world.
We Westerners in the twenty-first century quickly identify political power and authority as signs of status. Wealth is the other great measure of status. For the Greco-Roman world, status was everything but status was not primarily measured in political power and wealth. It was measured in number of clients obtained through charis. Charis is a process where you did something for someone so significant he or she could not possibly repay you. You became the patron and the recipient of your gift became your client. You worked to expand your connections and influence so you could do things for your clients that they could not do for themselves. In response to your patronage, they would do your bidding whenever you needed something of them. Whatever clients your clients might develop became your clients as well by extension. How big a pyramid of clients you had established your status. Political power and wealth could be instrumental in developing status but they were means, not ends. (See Patronage and the Dance of Grace)
Charis is the word we interpret as “grace.” It is the word Paul used to describe what God has done for us in Christ. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Christ has atoned for us; made us “at-one” with God and each other. It is an extravagant gift we cannot repay. God is our patron and we are his clients called to do his mission in the world. Because of what Jesus has done in laying down his very life for us, the most costly gift of all, he is elevated to the highest status. He is the firstborn son of a new creation. Yet paradoxically, what Jesus asks of us as his clients is to have his same disregard for status. The way to the right and left hand of God is by putting everyone else first. The way to high status is to treat everyone else as if his or her status is higher than your status.
The Emperor was considered to have the highest status in the Empire. Christians were worshiping a crucified non-Roman, the opposite end of the status spectrum. I believe this inversion of status plays prominently in some head metaphor passages in the New Testament.
Now, on to the New Testament passages.