Ancient Bible Scholars Weigh in on the Meaning of the Word “Head”

Hierarchical complementarianism rests on two pillars, which they hammer relentlessly. The first pillar is that the gender hierarchy they espouse is part of God’s good design and His original intent in creation. Therefore we should not merely accept it, they say, but in fact, “we should be rejoicing” over this awesome aspect of creation.  As I showed in an earlier post, their scriptural support for that claim is worse than inadequate.   But when a doctrinal position that you really want to be true rests on only two points, you can’t afford to surrender one of them easily. And so they continue to beat the dead horse and pretend they have a viable scriptural argument.

Their second, and only remaining foundational point is that man is the “head” of woman, (as it clearly says in 1 Corinthians 11:3), and the husband is the “head” of the wife, (as it explicitly states in Ephesians 5:23)….

And so there you have it, ladies and gents! Close your Bibles please, we’re done for the day. Now on to the potluck!–Complementarian huckster

Eh…..not so fast, guys. This brother would like to take a closer at that. Tell me, what, exactly does “head” mean in those two passages?

Of course they bristle at that question, partly because “Man is the head of the woman” is their seven-word mantra which tends to be the “go-to” response to get them out of any theological jam relating to gender. Women preachers? “Man is the head of the woman.” Women elders? “Man is the head of the woman.” Should they serve communion? “Man is the head of the woman.” Equality in the home? “Man is the head of the woman.”

So don’t question the mantra, alright? Because everybody knows what “head” means!  Why…. it’s as plain as the nose on your face! The head of General Motors is the boss, right? He’s the one in charge, the one that calls the shots, the big kahuna!

Well, sure, that’s definitely true in English, in which the word “head” literally means the body part above your neck, and metaphorically can also mean leader/ruler/boss. But the New Testament wasn’t written in English- it was written in Greek. And we always have to keep the original language in mind when we read the Bible.

The big question is- does kephalé 1– the New Testament Greek word that literally means ‘head’- the body part above the neck- also metaphorically refer to leader/ruler/boss? In other words, if someone referred to the president of  GM as the kephalé of General Motors, would that make sense to the Greek speakers of the first century?  (Ignoring the fact that cars didn’t exist back then.)

Wayne Grudem of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood argues emphatically,  ‘YES- this word refers to authority, just like our English word!’ And many other scholars have strongly replied, ‘NO- it does NOT mean the same as our English word, and does NOT refer to leader/ruler/boss. Ever!’ And this debate between a bunch of very smart people has been going back and forth now for more than 30 years.

I won’t presume to place myself on the level of these Biblical scholars. I must admit that reading their exchanges can become confusing and wearisome. It can be difficult at times to know who has the better argument. Can’t it?

Hey, you know what would be great? It would be great if we could have the testimony of some ancient Greek scholars from around the time of Christ, to get their input on the meaning of kephalé, and whether they thought  the word carried an implication of leadership/ rulership/ or authority. That, my friends, would be awesome. Then we’d know for sure, wouldn’t we?

Well guess what? We have that! As crazy as it may sound,  The Lord, in His providence, has given us practically that very thing- a group of 70 linguists from right around the time of Christ who tackled this very question!

Their expert opinion on the meaning of kephalé is recorded for us in the Septuagintseptuaginta translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew language into Greek, the most popular language in the known world at the time. This translation was done approximately 250 years before Christ by a team of 70 translators.

The Septuagint was extremely popular in the early church. Not everyone in the world spoke Hebrew, or even Latin. But owing to the conquests of Alexander the Great, almost everyone spoke Greek. And the early church used Greek widely. Most early church documents are in Greek, as is all of the New Testament. So naturally the early church made much use of the Septuagint. In fact, the Septuagint was Paul’s Bible.

And the Septuagint gives us overwhelming testimony about whether “head” can mean leader, ruler, or boss in the Greek language of the New Testament.

Because as it turns out, the Old Testament Hebrew word for head, “rosh”,  is a very popular word, occurring 595 times in the Biblical text. And  our English word ‘head‘ is the perfect translation for ‘rosh.’   What do I mean by “the perfect translation”? Simply this: the word is an exact match in every sense in which it is used, both literally as a physical head,  and metaphorically as a leader.

We must not fail to appreciate the significance of this. Most words don’t have a single meaning, they have an “area” of meaning”. So, for instance, the word “trunk” can refer to the front of an elephant, the middle of a tree, the rear of a car, or the entirety of a suitcase. If someone is translating from English to Spanish, it can take four or more words to cover all the meanings of our word “trunk” because none of the Spanish words is a perfect match for our English word.

Finding the perfect word to use for a translation is often a challenge and frequently isn’t possible. When the perfect word is available- an exact match that carries the full range of meaning from one language to the next- a good translator will jump at the chance to use it. To do otherwise would be to strip the text of depth and meaning.

Of the 595 times ‘rosh’ occurs in the Old Testament, most of the time it refers to the physical body part, and our English Bibles correctly use the word “head”. At other times the Hebrew word ‘rosh’ refers to a leader or authority. This occurs 180 times in all, or about 30% of the time. And again, our Bibles normally use the word “head” in those cases since our English word, like the Hebrew word, carries both meanings. It is, in fact, the perfect translation of ‘rosh’ in this case.

But that’s Hebrew and English. The question at hand is Greek, and what Paul meant by the Greek word for head, kephalé. How did our 70 ancient Greek and Hebrew scholars translate ‘rosh’ into Greek when they had the chance? Did they believe ‘kephale’ was the perfect translation of ‘rosh’ when it referred to authority? No, they did not.

When we examine the Septuagint, we find that whenever rosh referred to a literal head, such as in Genesis 3:15, “You shall bruise his head,”- they used the standard Greek word for head, kephalé. However, in the 180 times that the Old Testament uses the word “rosh” to mean leader or ruler or boss, they avoided kephalé like the plague!2  

The Septuagint translators weren’t ones to paraphrase. In fact, some have complained they followed the Hebrew text too literally.3  Yet when ‘rosh’ meant head as a leader, they almost always switched to a different word, one that did mean leader, but did not carry the meaning of ‘head’- the body part.

Moreover, the handful of times that the Septuagint translators did use kephalé to imply authority are the first times in recorded history that the word  was used that way. And in almost every instance it was either a case that they were forced to use it by a tough translation choice, such as a head/ tail metaphor, or it is questionable as to whether authority was really implied at all.

Let’s think about that.

If kephalé carries the meaning “leader” in addition to the literal meaning “head”, then it is the perfect translation of ‘rosh’ in every sense it is used. And it would mean the Septuagint translators intentionally avoided using the perfect translation in favor of another word that only carried half the meaning! And not just once or twice or a dozen times, but  one hundred and seventy-one times.

This is a powerful indication that these 70 ancient linguists did not feel comfortable with using kephalé to express that meaning. If kephalé could mean authority to these guys, they wouldn’t have switched to another word that didn’t also mean “head”. It makes no sense that they would have done that.

So when we read “head” in the New Testament where the underlying word is kephalé, be it First Corinthians 11:3,  Ephesians 1:22, 4:15, 5:23, or Colossians 1:18, 2:10, 2:19, or anyplace else- in all of them we need to take the idea of authority off the table as a possible meaning. 4 The word simply did not mean that to Greek speaking people of Paul’s day.

So the second, and only remaining pillar of complementarianism, a hierarchical interpretation of the word head, only works if the word is taken out of its historical and linguistic context. Just like their allegations of male rule as part of God’s good creation, this pillar of complementarianism also falls completely flat when the evidence is examined.

So when you hear that seven-word mantra in conversation, “man is the head of the woman”, said with the intent to limit a woman’s ministry opportunities or diminish her authority in the home, they are misusing Scripture.  You can come back with a seven-word mantra of your own:

“Head in Greek did not mean authority!” 5
“Head in Greek did not mean leader!”
6


The 70 translators of the Septuagint tell us so.

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References

1. Kephalé is pronounced keffa-LAY

2. The Septuagint translators use a different word approximately 171 times out of 180, or 95% of the time.  (Some people count 6 exceptions, some count 9, and some count 11. In any case, it’s a small number.) Good discussion on these exceptions are in articles by Michael W. Kruse, part 1 is here and part 2 is here.

3. Philip Payne- Man and Woman, One in Christ, footnotes 15-16 quoting Peter Walters: The Text of the Septuagint, and F.C. Conybear/ St George Stock: Grammar of Septuagint Greek.

4. In Ephesians 1:22 and Colossians 2:10 the idea of lordship/rulership seems an obvious fit. But we can’t give kephalé a meaning it didn’t have merely because it fits the sentence and our assumptions. The most prominent lexicon of ancient Greek is the Liddell Scott. In its entry it lists 25 metaphorical uses of the word kephalé, and none of them refers to authority. What does fit Ephesians 1:22 and Colossians 2:10 is the meaning “top” or “crown”. (See Payne, page 128)

5. In Matthew 10:25, 24:43, and Luke 12:39, 13:25, and 14:21, the expression “head of the house” does not use the Greek word for head, kephalé. Instead it uses a different word, oikodespótes.

6. Some translations have “head of the synagogue” in Matthew 9:18 and Luke 8:41. The Bible here does not use the Greek word for head, kephalé. Instead it uses a different word, archon.

 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:

Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ pp 119-121

Gordon D. Fee, First Corinthians pp 502-503

What about the Word “Head” in the New Testament? – Laurie Fasullo

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14 thoughts on “Ancient Bible Scholars Weigh in on the Meaning of the Word “Head”

  1. Greg, thanks for digging into this for us. When I hear people try to make a word from one language have the same metaphorical meaning in another language I want to ask them if they have courage in their liver. After all, for a period of time the liver was the metaphorical location of feeling strong and courageous for English speakers. Shakespeare used it that way, in any case, my point being that even in English we need to know the lexical history in order to understand something written centuries ago.

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  2. My memory is very fuzzy, but I had read a commentary that said the likely meaning for head is “source.” They had an ancient example, perhaps from a funeral, that talked about someone being the head. I can’t remember if it implied that the head was a biological source of the others or more of an economic/provider type of source. If it were a father, it could have been both.

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    • Yes, Sheri, “source” is one of the possible metaphorical meanings of kephalé listed in the Liddell Scott lexicon, and it makes a lot of sense, especially given the order of things listed in 1 Cor 11:3.

      A hierarchical order would be: God is the head of Christ. Christ is the head of man. Man is the head of woman. But that’s not what it says.
      Rather: The head of every man is Christ (in creation) the head of the woman is man (Eve from Adam) the head of Christ is God (in the incarnation)
      Thus “source” fits the chronological order given in 1 Cor 11.

      It also fits the contextual implications, particularly Eph 4:15-16 and Col 2:10 and 19- where the head is the source of our growth.

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  3. Pingback: Gender Complementarianism: Marriage, Singleness, Purpose, Identity, Domestic Abuse | missdaisyflower

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