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Topic 28: “Head” as “source”


 Kephale: What does this word mean?  How is it used?  This topic offers some background and is a discussion of possibilities.  We focus on 1 Corinthians 11:3.

[3] But I want you to understand that the head [kephale] of every man is Christ, the head [kephale] of a woman is her husband, and the head [kephale] of Christ is God [RSV].

“[vs 3] … the head of every man …the head of a woman …the head of Christ …”:  In this context is kephale to be understood as boss, head, “headship,” chief executive, or can it be origin or source?   The term kephale (here translated “head”) legitimately may be understood not in a hierarchical, authoritarian sense (a built-in external structure), but in a dynamic sense as “source” and “self-giving nurturing.”

(A)  Biblically, the heart, not the head, is the source of decision making.

(1) “The word ‘head’ in the Bible is never connected with the intelligence.  The ancient Hebrews were unaware of the function of the brain and, indeed, had no name for it; the intellectual powers were believed to be situated in the heart” (Dentan, IDB, Volume 2, page 541).

(2)  “From the idea that the heart is the center of intellectual life it is a natural step to the thought that it is the center of the will and hence of the moral life. … the heart, as the innermost spring of the human personality, is directly open to God and subject to his influence” (Dentan, IDB, Volume 2, page 550).

(3)  “We, of course, assume that we know very well the meaning of ‘head.’  Anybody knows that the head makes the decisions for the body, so the passage has been interpreted to mean that Christ makes the decisions for man, man makes the decisions for woman, and God makes the decisions for Christ.  But in biblical times, it was not known that the head makes the decisions and gives orders to the nervous system.  Decision-making was located in the heart, which is why we are told that our belief in Christ is to take place in our hearts and that thoughts issue from the heart (Romans 10:9; Matthew 15:19; Hebrews 4:12; and so forth).  So the passage cannot be a discussion of the head as the decision-maker [emphasis added].  We are then forced to study the context in order to understand the meaning of ‘headship’ here; and the context makes clear that Paul is speaking of the head as the source or origin, as we speak of the head of a stream [emphasis added]… the confusion over the meaning of head is a good example of the confusion which results when we heedlessly ‘read in’ modern meanings for ancient word usages” ( Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible, pgs. 111-112).

(B) Old Testament translations support the idea that kephale does not equal “chief” or “rule” here.

(1) The Septuagint does not use kephale when the Hebrew word for “head” (var) is used to indicate a ruler (Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 151).

(2)  “Can one be certain that arche and kephale were so different…Could kephale not sometimes mean ‘boss’ or ‘ruler’?…note how these two words are used in the Septuagint…if arche and kephale were more or less synonymous and could be used interchangeably, then when the seventy scholars who wrote the Septuagint came to the Hebrew word rosh, they could have used either Greek word they wished…However, they were very careful to note how the word rosh was used, whether it meant ‘physical head,’ or ‘ruler of a group.’  Whenever rosh mean ‘physical head,’ they translated it kephale; or whenever rosh referred to the first soldier leading others into battle with him, they also translated it kephale.  But when rosh meant ‘chief’ or ‘ruler,’ they translated it arche or some form of that word.  Every time, this distinction was carefully preserved” (Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women, pg. 37).

(C)  “Modern research has shown that during the first century kepahle was rarely, if ever, used to indicate authority.  Instead, writers such as Paul used the words exousia (‘authority’; see Rom. 13:1-2) and archon (‘ruler’; see Rom. 13:3) to indicate those who held authority or power” (Parales, Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage, pg. 80).

(1) “Therefore, if Paul had believed as Aristotle taught, that husbands should command their wives and rule over them, then Paul … could have written that the husband is the arche (head) of the wife…However, Paul did not choose to use the word arche when he wrote of how the husband is the head of his wife…Instead, Paul used the word kephale…” (Bristow, page 36).

(2)  “…the word kephale…does mean ‘head,’ the part of one’s body.  It was also used to mean ‘foremost’ in terms of position (as a capstone over a door, or a cornerstone in a foundation).  It was never used to mean ‘leader’ or ‘boss’ or ‘chief’ or ‘ruler.’  Kephale is also a military term.  It means ‘one who leads,’ but not in the sense of ‘director.’  Kephale did not denote ‘general,’ or ‘captain,’ or someone who orders the troops from a safe distance; quite the opposite, a kephale was one who went before the troops, the leader in the sense of being in the lead, the first one into battle” (Bristow, pages 36-37).

(3)  “The word Paul used in this passage for head is kephale, and not arche. … arche means ‘beginning,’ ‘boss,’ or chief,’ while kephale means ‘physical head,’ or, figuratively, ‘one who proceeds another into battle.’  Although Paul did describe Christ as arche of the Church in Col. 1:18, in this passage whenever ‘head’ appears, it is a translation of kephale” (Bristow, page 84).

(4) “In Greek usage the word, when metaphorical, may apply to the outstanding and determining part of a whole, but also to origin (e.g., in the plural, to the source of a river) … Paul does not say man is the kurios of the woman; he says that he is the origin of her being.  In this he is directly dependent on Gen. ii. 18-23, where it is stated (a) that woman was created in order to provide a helper suited to him, and (b) by the removal of a rib from Adam’s body” (Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pg. 248).

(5)  [vs 8] … For man was not made from woman, but woman from man …. [12] … for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.  And all things are from God” (1 Corinthians 11:8,12):  “In verses 8 and 12, Paul speaks of the man as being the source or point of origin for woman.  This reinforces an understanding of ‘head’ or ‘source’ in verse 3; clearly, this concept is not alien to the passage, but serves as an important line of Paul’s argument” (Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 159).

(D) “[vs. 3]: … the head of Christ is God …”: kephale here cannot refer to a chain of command, or else Christ is not equal to the Father (see John 10:30; 14:7; Hebrews 1:3).  To hold that God is “in authority over” Christ denies the equality of the persons of the Trinity.

(E)  Note the context of “head” in these New Testament texts suggesting “nourishing rather than “bossing” or “ruling”:

(1)  “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

(2)  “… and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19).

(F) A person’s head (kephale) was thought of as the source of physical life.


The arrangement, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not hierarchical, but (a) chronological and (b) unitary through the dynamic of self-giving:

(A)  “the head (source) of every man is Christ…

(1)  John 1:3: Christ was God’s agent in creation; Christ participated in the creation of Adam.

(2)  Colossians 1:16: “… for in him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.”

(B)  “the head (source) of every woman is man…

(1) Genesis 2:21-23: God takes the rib, or side, from the earth-being and fashions a female.

(2) 1 Corinthians 11:8 and 12 both say woman originated from the man.

(3)  See notes under 1 Corinthians 11:7-16; Paul challenges the understanding of “head” as “authoritative, controlling” with an evangelical “in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman.”

(C) “ the head (source) of Christ is God…

(1) Luke 1:32, John 1:14; 5:26, 2 Cor. 1:3:  God is the source of Christ when Christ was incarnated in human form through the woman Mary.

(2) Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you..”

(3) 1 Corinthians 11:12 says all things originate from God.

(4) “If God is the source of Christ, and Christ is the source of man, and man is the source for woman, and through a woman God is the source of Christ, then God is the ultimate source of all things” (Parales, page 82).

(D) God is the source of all, and each gives to the other, empowering, seeking not to be served, but to serve and nurture and nourish the other.  Each contributes.

(E) The next verses (1 Corinthians 11:4-16), then, demonstrate the reciprocity, the returning to God what is his, the honor, the praise, through specific acts that are culturally non-offensive, that strive to maintain God-given cohesion and unity and return to God his rightful due.  Paul’s line of argument is that reciprocity follows reciprocity.

(F) In 1 Corinthians 11, the context is husband/wife relationships; the context does not address “all men and all women” or “headship” of men over women in general.

(1) The concept of kephale is not applied to the Apostolic ministry, or to any of the offices within the early Christian community.

(2) “It was pointed out that a logical corollary to the ‘Kephale argument’ [when kephale is understood in the sense of “holding authority over”] is that the church should then today crusade for the subordination of women in society generally, not merely in the church, since this subordination to man, the head, comes from creation’s structure and seemingly should apply to all of society.  Our Christian duty would be to repeal the 19th Amendment” (Reumann, “What in Scriptures Speaks to the Ordination of Women?”).