What is the meaning of ‘head’?

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out in March. I cover Gen 1, 2, 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 11 and 14, Eph 5, 1 Tim 2.

Here is the section on 1 Cor 11. Any comments welcomed.

This passage is often seen as a key one in the discussion about gender relations because of Paul’s use of the idea of ‘head’, and applying this to relations within the Godhead as well as human relations. We need to use this with some caution, since there is much that is unclear about it. C F D Moule said that its problems ‘still await a really convincing explanation’ (Moule, 1961, p 65); G B Caird commented that ‘It can hardly be said that the passage has yet surrendered its secret’ (1972 p 278) and Wayne Meeks called it ‘one of the most obscure passages in the Pauline letters’ (Meeks, 1972, p 38).

Some have argued that this passage is not genuinely Pauline, but in fact the language, style and concerns fit well with the rest of 1 Corinthians. The real challenge is that ‘language can only be understood from content and context. The former we have. The latter is irrevocably lost’ (Cotterell and Turner, 1989, p 317). Paul is clearly working with an understanding of the body quite different from ours today, so Troy Martin has argued that, since hair was commonly thought to store sperm in first century anatomy, there is a symmetry between men’s testicles and women’s hair, so the latter needs covering for modesty.

But the main debate centres on the word ‘head’ (kephale). Paul uses the word metaphorically in v 3, but literally in relation to that part of the body in the rest of the passage. The ‘traditional’ reading of this passage has understood ‘head’ here to mean ‘in a position of authority over’, whilst recent commentators have argued for the meaning ‘source’ or ‘origin’ as in the head of a river. There are some key issues to note.

  1. In English, ‘authority’ is the predominant figurative meaning of ‘head’, and it is hard for us to think past this. But it was not the case in ancient Greek, and in particular in the NT and Greek Old Testament (Septuagint, ‘LXX’) read by Paul and the first Christians. The Hebrew OT uses rosh (‘head’) figuratively as ‘leader’ 171 times, but the LXX only uses kephale to translate this 6 times. For the other 165 occurrences, LXX uses a non-figurative term, whilst it uses kephale 226 times to mean the part of the body (Payne, 2009, p 119). In other words, kephale is not the usual term for ‘head’ as in ‘authority over’.
  2. Wayne Grudem has tried to demonstrate that the contemporary meaning of kephale in wider Greek literature is ‘authority’ by considering 2,336 examples (!). But closer scrutiny shows that this is not the case, and that the use of kephale in a personal sense for leader first arises in the few instances in the LXX, and come from the Hebrew influence of rosh (Payne, 2009, p 120).
  3. Paul elsewhere clearly uses kephale in terms of ‘origin’ or ‘source’ in Eph 4.15–16 and in Col 2.19, where he is seen as the source of growth and maturity. In Col 1.18 being ‘head’ is put in parallel with being the beginning (of creation?) and the firstborn from the dead. In Eph 1.22 and Col 2.10 he is head ‘over all things’ in most English translations. But the Greek cannot mean this, despite its following on from placing all things under his feet; he is head huper all things, and huper cannot mean ‘over’ in the sense of authority or position (for which Greek has another word, epi (Luke 19.14, 21), but is usually translated ‘more than’ or ‘beyond’.
  4. When Paul wants to list things in order of authority or importance, he does this in a logical order, as for instance in 1 Cor 12.28. But, as Payne (2009, p 129) points out, the list in 1 Cor 11.3 does have an order when kephale is understood as ‘origin’. Man has his origin in Christ’s work of creation; the woman has her origin (in Gen 2) in the man; Christ had his origin in the incarnation from the Godhead. It is also interesting to note that, whereas Paul emphasizes the creation origin of woman with man in v 8 (to make a point against women’s independence?), he then specifically goes on to emphasize mutuality of origin in v 12.

Thiselton (2000, p 820) comments that deciding the meaning of this word on lexical grounds alone is not tenable, but concludes that, in the light of Paul’s use in this passage, kephale does not ‘denote a relation of subordination or authority over.’ This makes sense when we reflect on the purpose of this whole passage: it is to enable women freely to ‘pray and prophesy’ in the assembly (vv 5, 13) without bringing the community into disrepute. Paul saw the ministry of prophecy as foundational (1 Cor 12.28, ahead of teaching), and in the early church it clearly carried authority; when prophets spoke, the people acted (see the role of Agabus in Acts 11.28 and 21.11). In Roman law, women had freedom to hold political and religious office, though generally in Hellenism women were seen as their husband’s property and expected to conform to social conventions, whilst pious male Jews prayed ‘I thank you God that you did not make me a woman.’ In this context, Paul’s arguing for women’s full participation in the worshipping assembly was radically emancipatory.

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8 thoughts on “What is the meaning of ‘head’?”

  1. Equal to Serve is an accessible evangelical book on these sorts of areas – do you quote it at all as for some Grove readers it may be a good place to start to read more about this topic. This is what I used when I wrote the Sophia Network session on Headship.

    In exploring the origins of the word in other literature written at a similar time to the New Testament both classical and Christian the translation of head as source can easily be justified (Kroeger 1989:267). This is source as in a river, for example and in a different use of the word Plato uses kephale to mean the beginning of a story or argument (Kroeger 1989:274). A difficulty of understanding the word in a hierarchical manner is found later in the passage where God is the head of Christ. Early Christian Councils promote the idea of equality within the Trinity and the idea of subordinate relationships were dismissed by those regarded as authoritative today thus it is illogical to read this passage meaning hierarchically.

    Catherine Clark Kroeger (1989) “The Classical Concept of Head as ‘Source’” in Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, Equal to Serve. London: Scripture Union.

  2. Yes, that’s interesting, though I am not quite sure what it would mean in this context. In his shorter commentary the example he uses is ‘head of cattle’, but I don’t really see what that could mean in the context of man as head of woman, or even God as head of Christ. I need to look at his longer commentary for his arguments against head as ‘source’, though I also think that ‘source’ sounds less convincing than ‘origin’, which we have in English in the expression ‘fountainhead.’ I have found it striking to see that Paul clearly is concerned with the question of origin, since he expresses that explicitly (and mutually) in v 12, man in relation to woman, and both in relation to God. And this fits with Paul’s use in Ephesians and Colossians.

  3. This is compelling.
    Paul is riffing on the wordplay around kephale developed from the context of not allowing our practice of freedom in Christ to offend/alienate others; and in particular, in the setting of a marriage relationship within the community of believers (I think?!). The to and fro nature of some of the rest of the passage seems to suggest that he is emphasising the mutuality in the relationship, but to our 21st century ears, head/origin does suggest authority. However, I think it does have to do with your link to Ephesians about the husband loving his wife in a way that reflects Christ’s love for the church – and so somehow sustaining her? Yikes!

  4. 28 pages? That is a challenge as I doubt it could be done in 280 pages. But one can at least give some ideas and then pointers to find more details.

    Yes, Paul is using kephale in at least 2 ways in this section of Scripture. Part of the challenge to understanding this section is that his argument does not make sense to us today, as we live in a vastly different culture. Many think they should read the Bible using the hermeneutic of: If I said this today, then I would mean X, so the Bible means X; but this is a very flawed method leading to all sorts of errors.

    Another aspect of the challenge is that some translations add some words in some crucial places when they THINK they understand Paul’s argument (in a supposed attempt to be helpful, but not really in this case, as the argument does make sense, just not how those translator’s thought it did.)

    Ken Bailey in his recent book on 1 Cor points out that this teaching unit is a chiasm. This aids understanding as the matched pairs of stanzas can be seen to help explain each other.

    What one needs to do is to multiple passes thru the text and use the principle that the clearer texts are used to help understand the less clear texts; in this case it means skipping lightly over some of the early parts of the teaching unit as they are very unclear (at first) and only later going back and trying our best to figure out Paul’s argumentation based on 1st century culture.

  5. A question. If the New Testament approach to ministry is based on giftedness rather than hierarchy, it would clarify the context would it not? The emphasis in I Corinthians seems to largely on equality of persons who minister as gifted Christians rather than selected and elected men in authority.


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