I backed out of writing this series about those biblical passages about women in ministry not too long ago. It wasn’t because the evidence is hard to find or interpret, but it was partly because I had so little hope of anybody listening. They’d agree, I assumed, if they already held an opinion that they saw me affirming, and they’d disagree if they saw me affirming a view they didn’t already hold. The evidence rarely seems to really matter on this issue. People will find a way – any way – to make it fit an ideology. What would be the point of writing about this? But here I am, venturing into that series.
After a cautionary introduction post on what I am about to do (which I insist you read before you read this blog post), this is the first of my blog explorations of the contentious biblical passages about men and women in the church. Any comments you make on this post or any posts in this series must conform to the guidelines I gave in that cautionary post. Talk about the evidence and the issue strictly defined by the blog post. That’s all I’m prepared to allow. Behave or I’ll kick you out. I’m deliberately being boring so as to discourage the elements that make this issue frustrating.
Why would I want to be boring? Here is why: You will probably have seen people who get caught up sharing exciting links on social media about scientific issues. Vaccines cause autism! The earth is flat! Homeopathy cures cancer! Climate change isn’t happening! Quoting what people have said, citing anecdotes, attributing evil motives, citing cultural or traditional pressure, complaining about vested interest – these are all the sorts of things that fly thick and fast in discussions about theories like these. What is less common is the boring approach of slowly, slowly, slowly checking every relevant piece of data. It is not sexy. It does not make for good Buzzfeed articles. But if you want to know what is true and what is false when it comes to the theories that should only be formed after the ponderous work has been done, this is how you do it. The boring way. I am going to write several blog posts about the meaning of one Greek word, kephalē. Fun times.
Alright. Here we go.
I am not going to write here about the role that women should play
The next few posts in this series will be about the way the New Testament talks about a man as the “head” of a woman in a couple of passages that have become the subject of much discussion. As a reminder, I am not going to write here about the role that women should play in the church, home, or any other place. I don’t care what you think about that. I am writing here about the meaning of some pieces of writing in the Bible. You may disagree with what those pieces of writing, and that is fine as far as I am concerned, as long as you’re prepared to admit that this is what you are doing.
In dispute are two occurrences of the word “head,” in 1 Corinthians 11:1-3 and Ephesians 5:21-24. They read as follows:
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”
As readers may know, the Greek words for “woman” (gunē, γυνή) and “man (anēr, ἀνήρ) are sometimes used to mean “wife” and “husband,” and whether or not these meanings are intended must be determined by context. Given St Paul’s interest in marriage in these two contexts, most modern translations give “wife” and “husband,” and I will follow the majority of translations in taking the words to have these meanings.
This blog post is about the meaning of the word translated “head” in the New Testament. There are two broad ways of getting to the bottom of what St Paul is saying when he says that the husband is the “head” of the wife: Lexical and contextual. The lexical approach is to focus on the meaning of the word translated “head” (kephalē, κεφαλή), examining the way the word is used throughout the Greek New Testament and elsewhere (although I am primarily interested in New Testament usage). The contextual approach is to look at what the author takes his claim that a man is the head of his wife to imply and what other facts are associated with this claim.
In this blog post, my only objective is to take the lexical approach and look at the New Testament usage of this word, observing its range of meaning. In the next blog post in this series I will look at how this word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. After that, I will actually say something about the meaning of the two passages I quoted earlier. This blog post has a very modest and limited goal.
Kephalē: The lexical approach
Literally, kephalē refers to a physical head, the thing that sits on our shoulders. But obviously a husband is not literally his wife’s head. She has her own head. In English, we are familiar with the use of “head” to refer to a position of leadership or authority. If we hear that John Smith is the head of a large corporation, we know right away that this means he is the boss. “Head” carries other metaphorical meanings in English, too. A “head of steam” is the amount of steam needed to get a steam engine moving, and by extension it has come to mean the energy to get something started. Also, and relevantly here, given the heated discussion that has taken place about the meaning of this passage, the point of origin (i.e. the source) of a river is sometimes called the “head” of a river. Some allege that in the case of the passages that describe a man as “head” of a woman, the intended meaning is not authority but source, so we will pay special attention to this possible meaning as we survey the examples below.
When asking about the variety of ways a word is used in Scripture, there are circles of relevance. The first circle is the immediate context. Does the writer use the word elsewhere in this passage? If so and if the meaning of that usage is clear, that can inform our understanding of the usage we are examining. The next circle is the book or letter. Does the author use this word elsewhere in the same work? Next, we look at the other writings by the same author (with the caveat that, due to the practice of using a secretary or amanuensis, vocabulary and style may vary considerably for the same author). Lastly we would consider the use of that term by other authors. Where possible we would focus on examples that have a similar context (i.e. the writer is talking about the same subject).
A still wider circle, if we have not yet found enough examples to see a pattern, for example if the writer is using language that is not generally used in the New Testament, is literature outside of the New Testament, written in the same language and in the same era (i.e. Koine Greek in the first century CE). The further removed a piece of writing is from the New Testament (for example, written centuries before or after), the less relevant it becomes, belonging to progressively larger circles of relevance. The exception would be the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. Our hope, of course, would be to find a number of other examples in circles closer to the centre, either in the letters of St Paul or at least in the New Testament. When an author wrote will be relevant in deciding how much weight to give the evidence their writing provides. For example, a writer of a New Testament epistle may well be influenced by the way words are used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), but that influence cannot work the other way around.
Kephalē occurs 76 times in the New Testament, in 68 verses. In the vast majority of cases the word is used literally, to mean a person’s physical head. These uses are of no interest to us, and include:
Matthew 10:30 “But the very hairs of your head (kephalē) are numbered.”
Mark 15:19 “And they struck him on the head (kephalē) with a reed, and spat on him…”
Romans 12:20 “If your enemy hungers, feed him. If he thirsts, give him a drink. For in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head (kephalē).”
1 Corinthians 11:5 “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head (kephalē) uncovered dishonours her head (kephalē).”
There are a couple of examples where the literal meaning and the meaning of authority are each possible. Specifically, this is the case where Christ is said to be the head of the body of Christ. This double-meaning may be intentional, although in context authority is a more likely meaning. This is because the author says things to imply that he conceives of members of the local church as being, for example an “eye,” which is part of the head. But if Christ were the physical head of the body (i.e. that’s his role in the body metaphor – the head part of the body), then nobody would be the eye, because Christ is the head, including the eyes. Christ’s role as “head,” then, is probably intended to mean that he is the leader or authority over the church, rather than that he is a part of the local church, which is the body of Christ.
Here I will quote and comment on every example – besides these two in 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 – in the New Testament where kephalē is used as a metaphor (don’t worry, the list isn’t huge). The purpose of doing so is to see if there is a tendency in the New Testament for the word kephalē to be used in any particular sense when it is not being used literally. It may be a dry, boring task to engage in, but this is the data that will answer the question before us, so this is what we’ve got to do.
Matthew 21:42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
The phrase translated “cornerstone” here in the ESV is literally head (kephalē) of the corner. The presence of kephalē here is why some translations read “chief cornerstone.” The idea of “source” is nowhere in sight and would make no sense here. However, in context the contrast between being unimportant (rejected) and taking first position is the theme, indicating that here kephalē refers to something being first in importance.
Luke 20:16-18 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
This same quotation from the book of Psalms is made in Luke 20:17 where kephalē is used again in the phrase “head of the corner,” indicating that Luke is using the term in the same way Matthew did, as described above. In context, Jesus has told the parable of the wicked tenants, who killed one servant after another, and then eventually killed the son of the vineyard owner. The point here is that Jesus is greater than any of the prophets because he is God’s own son. He is not just any building stone, as a prophet might have been, he is something more important.
Acts 4:11-12 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
This is, yet again, the same quote from the book of Psalms with the same intended meaning, here used in connection with the supremacy of Christ’s name over all others.
Ephesians 1:16-22 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Here Christ is said to be kephalē over all things to the church. In context the clear theme is that Christ has supreme authority: He is seated in the heavenly places, he is above all other rule and authority, his name is above every other name. His being the head over all things to the church is directly connected to all things being under Christ’s feet. This is the same short book in which the husband is said to be the head of the wife.
Colossians 2:9-10 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
Here Christ is said to be the kephalē of all rule and authority. It is linguistically possible for “source” to be the intended meaning here, so that Christ is being said to be the origin of all rule and authority. This may reflect the idea expressed in Romans 13, also penned by St Paul, that there is no authority except that which God has established. However there are two considerations that weigh against this possibility in Colossians 2, and in favour of “head” in the sense of authority. Firstly, in Colossians 2 the stress is on the high status of Christ, which is why the writer is at pains to say that in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells. He is truly divine. Secondly, as seen in previous examples, it is not true that Jesus is the source of all rule and authority. God, who put all things under Christ and gave Christ a name above all others, is that source. Hence the idea in Colossians 2:9-10 is that Christ is supreme over all earthly rule and authority. This is less like Romans 13 and more like Philippians 2:9.
1 Peter 2:4-7 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”
This is the quote we have seen several times already, and Peter’s use of it does not appear to add anything new.
This concludes the survey, which is exhaustive of every non-literal usage of kephalē other than the two disputed cases in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. I told you it wasn’t a long list! If I have missed any examples, please let me know. Here are some closing comments about what the evidence shows us:
- There is value in surveying the biblical usage, since context can be construed as a set of concentric circles as we ask ever widening questions: 1) How does the same author use this term (if at all) elsewhere in this same passage? 2) How does the author use the term elsewhere in the same book? 3) How does the author use the same term in other books? 4) How do other biblical authors use the term in the same genre? 5) How do other biblical authors use the same term? 6) How do other writers outside the New Testament with different goals in mind but writing at the same time use the term? Etc. Relevance diminishes but does not disappear altogether as the circle of our questions widen, and it is worthwhile knowing the answers to the earlier questions even without knowing the answers to the latter questions. The short survey in this blog post provides the answers to 1-5 as far as the New Testament is concerned.
- In presenting this survey, I refrain from any direct comment on what kephalē means in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23, other than to say that if the word means “source” in these two passages addressing husbands and wives, these verses stand alone in the New Testament. This is not a matter of reasonable dispute. It is what the raw data proves. I will comment on the meaning of kephalē in those two verses in a future post.
- In presenting this survey (which is admittedly of a small set of data) I also offer this disclaimer: How a term is used elsewhere in Scripture, even universally so, is not absolute proof that it cannot be used in a different sense. At best it illustrates a tendency. This tendency does not exhaust linguistic possibility, and I should not be construed as saying otherwise. But if somebody asserts that a word carries a unique meaning in one or two places in the New Testament, they must be prepared to argue that this meaning is the intended one, not simply that it is possible.
- Based on New Testament usage alone, we are required by the evidence to conclude that nowhere else in the New Testament does this word translated “head” mean source, and when it is used metaphorically it always, in the New Testament, indicates preeminence, priority, authority or superiority in some broad sense encompassing shades of these meanings. This is something we can take as fact – a matter that should not be among the disputed claims. If you believe this is not the state of the evidence, you will need to clearly identify instances of the relevance evidence about the meaning of kephalē in the New Testament (for that is the scope of this blog post) and give a clear argument for your position on its meaning.
Chances are you think this is the boring approach. One blog post, one very specific, dry, hard-data related point. Good. As I said earlier, it is the boring approach. There’s no room to talk about other issues, and that’s the point. We don’t have the right to opinions until we’ve done the groundwork, and this is a piece of that groundwork.
As indicated earlier, in the next blog post in this series I will look at the available data in the Septuagint, which is the Scripture used by Greek-speaking Jews and Christians in the first century. I might blog about other subjects before I get around to finishing that post.