Some time ago I began a series on the notorious biblical passages that form part of the historical discussion about women in positions of leadership in the church. I expressed some reservations there about wading into the subject, because I don’t think many people are interested in what people who disagree with them have to say about this. So I included there some cautions about how I’m going to approach the subject, and specifically about the sorts of objections I’m not interested in. If you plan to read on, and especially if you plan to comment, it might be best to read that post first.
Then I began the series, starting with a look at a word St Paul uses to describe the relationship between men and women, while he is discussing men’s and women’s roles in the churches in Corinth and Ephesus. That word, which he applies to men, is kephalē (κεφαλή), and literally means “head.” In that blog post, I observed that kephalē in the New Testament does not mean “source,” which some say was Paul’s intended meaning, but rather it is used to mean a literal head, or else, when it is used metaphorically, it refers to “preeminence, priority, authority or superiority in some broad sense encompassing shades of these meanings.” That is what the raw data in the New Testament shows us.
This time I will turn to the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament widely used in early Christianity. You can check the observations I make by seeing for yourself how the word is used there. In the resource I have used for this analysis, kephalē occurs a few hundred times. I have read each of these instances (in English, confirming that kephalē is the word I am observing where this is not clear). I know, doing the groundwork is dry and boring. But you have to do it in order to have any right to tell people what the evidence shows. The approach I am taking here is observing how kephalē is used and describing these “groups” of meaning.
Just as in the New Testament, by far the most common usage of kephalē in the Septuagint is literal, referring to the physical head of the body. There are far too many such examples to list. Our real interest is in the metaphorical use of kephalē/head.
Top / Physical extremity
Sometimes kephalē refers to the top or physical end of something, like a tower, mountain, ladder, bed, etc. This is almost a literal usage, since if a mountain or a tower is a body of sorts, the head is the top part. For example:
Genesis 11:4 (the tower of Babel) “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’.”
Genesis 28:12 “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”
Kephalē in the Septuagint sometimes (at least 9 times) refers to a ruler or leader.
Judges 10:18 “And the people, the leaders of Gilead, said one to another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the Ammonites? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead’.”
2 Samuel 22:44 (David’s prayer of praise and thanks) “You delivered me from strife with my people; you kept me as the head of the nations; people whom I had not known served me.”
Isaiah 7:9 “And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” (Samaria ruled over Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, Pekah, is the person who ruled Samaria.)
And that’s all
You might ask, “Are we done already?” Yes, actually. We are done. Those are the meanings of kephalē in the Septuagint. Yes, this may seem like a sudden end to the survey of such a large book, but that’s it. I have scanned through all the uses of kephalē in the Septuagint a few times. I noted how the word is used, and I have found three usages. If you think I have missed other usages, please alert me to these and I will update this post. I checked the whole list of occurrences several times.
Sometimes I see articles that appear to have been made long just so the author can convince you that they’re a real scholar. And sometimes scholars (or clergy, too), have an air of authority around them in the eyes of “ordinary” Christians. If they tell you there is a very wide range of meanings of a word and it’s all very complicated and they have discovered something in the midst of all this complexity, you believe them even if you can’t see it with your own eyes. They are the scholar, after all. But no, this is actually a very simple matter that does not require any lengthy demonstration. There are three prominent uses of kephalē in the Septuagint. The word nearly always literally refers to a physical head. Of the metaphorical uses, the two prominent uses are the top of something, or a ruler over something or someone, and the word never means “source.”
I have seen it observed that rosh (רֹאשׁ) is the Hebrew word for “head,” and this is used of a ruler more often than kephalē. Sometimes when rosh is used of a ruler, kephalē is not used in the Septuagint, but some other Greek word is used instead. This is true. Evidently there are a few Greek words that can refer to a ruler, and there are other terms that carry a meaning of “authority” or “leader” more often than kephalē does. This is not especially interesting, however. We’re trying to figure out what is within the range of meanings of kephalē, a word that appears in a couple of controversial New Testament passages. My interest, therefore, has been in looking at what kephalē means, by looking at instances of its usage, and then looking at what the word means in that context.
As in the New Testament, kephalē never means “source” in the Septuagint. Instead, it means head (literal), top or end (i.e. physical extremity), or ruler – a person with authority.
I did warn you that my approach was going to be boring. Now we know what kephalē means throughout the New Testament and the Septuagint, that is, all of Scripture in Greek. In the next posts in this series, I will look at the origin of this claim about the word meaning “source,” so that you can see the basis on which some say this is the case. I will also bear in mind the information in these posts about what kephalē means in Scripture, and look at the instances in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians where St Paul uses this words to describe men, as he writes about the relationship between men and women.
- Kephalē in the New Testament: A survey
- Tyndale on Hades
- Nuts and Bolts 016: The Root Fallacy
- 2 Corinthians 12 – an “out of body” experience?
- “You will never die”: What did Jesus mean?