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A Bad Answer is Worse than No Answer: Kephale and Authority 1

September 26, 2011

Recently I was introduced to a rather long article by Wayne Grudem on the meaning of the Greek word κεφαλη (kephale), which means “head”, in the instances when it doesn’t refer to someone’s actual head.  This might sound terribly boring (I will footnote the more technical aspects below the cut) but it has a lot of relevance for any discussion of women in the Bible since there are two oft-quoted verses that state that men or husbands are the heads of their wives (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23).  Besides this, there are two additional useful things this article can remind us of.

The first thing I would like to do is invite you to read the article, or at least from page 10 of the PDF on.  It’s long and so if you decide not to read it I understand but you’re going to have to trust me that it sounds pretty convincing.  Grudem asks (in his title) “Does κεφαλη (“head”) mean ‘source’ or ‘authority over’ in Greek literature?”  As far as I can tell he absolutely demolishes the argument that it means “source”.  And, since he reviews 2,336 uses of kephale there’s reason to believe that his conclusions overall are quite solid – at least until you actually look at his examples and read responses to his article.

This is the first point: nearly anything can sound convincing if you only read one side.  Checking sources and responses is always a valuable thing.  When we examine the uses that are supposed to demonstrate that “authority over” is the correct meaning of kephale, things begin to look less certain.

The very first problem is immediately obvious: Grudem has forty-nine non-literal uses of kephale but not forty-nine independent samples (note that forty-nine non-literal uses out of 2,336 uses means that most of the time kephale refers to someone’s, or something’s, physical head).  Instead, he has forty-one uses distributed across approximately thirty-one sources1, some of which are duplicates2, some of which refer to literal heads and so are really a separate category of references3, and then there’s the issue that Grudem wishes to define kephale to figure out what the “husband is the head of the wife” verses mean but includes those verses in the data that he uses to define kephale4 – clearly circular.  There are valid reasons to count the uses of kephale but it’s also worth noting that Grudem has only twenty instances, excluding the circular use of the marriage passages, where an author chose to use kephale rather than repeating themselves from the previous sentence or copying from a source.

There’s another problem as well.  Koine Greek was a trade language.  This means that many people who wrote Koine Greek spoke another language as well and that even some of the people who may have spoken only Koine Greek would have belonged to a people group that had previously spoken another language.  This means that Koine Greek will inevitably pick up metaphorical uses from other languages, but perhaps not consistently.  So, for instance, in Latin the Emperor was “caput”, a head.  When a Roman author writes about a political authority and calls him a kephale, is that use of a Greek metaphor of authority recognizable to all Koine Greek speakers or is it a transposition of a Latin concept into Greek, perhaps recognizable to other Koine Greek speakers but only as “that thing the Romans do”?  The best evidence for what a New Testament author would have meant by kephale would be uses from a Jewish background.  Uses by eighth century BC Greek-speaking philosophers5 are less likely to represent the sort of things Paul would have said than a use by a third century BC Jewish author.  Of course, a number of the Jewish texts may themselves be translations and so again we run across the problem of whether a use of kephale is endogenous to the Greek or simply a direct translation from Hebrew or Aramaic.

However, it’s possible that a Greek-speaking Jew would speak a dialect with a significant number of Hebraisms and Aramaisms in it.  When we look at the evidence, this seems to be unlikely for the case of kephale.  The Hebrew word ראש (ro’sh, head) is used for leaders and also things that come first – the “head of months” is the first month.  When the translators of the Septuagint translate the Hebrew phrase “head of the tribe” into Greek they render it ruler (αρχον) of the tribe, not head.  In fact, this is good evidence that kephale does not indicate authority.  If “head” meant “ruler” metaphorically in both languages then ראש should become κεφαλη since the words would be nearly identical in all aspects.  The fact that ראש becomes αρχον suggests that κεφαλη does not carry clear connotations of rule, at least for the translators of the Septuagint.

Before we dig into the examples Grudem provides, we should flesh them out a bit more (after all, the point of evaluating this article is to evaluate the best evidence).  Grudem does not cite several uses in the Septuagint and one in Philo.  In the Septuagint Deuteronomy 28:13 and 44 both use head and tail language to summarize triumph or defeat.  Lamentations 1:5 appears to use “head” in the same manner.  Jeremiah 31:7 refers to “the heads of the nations” (in both Hebrew and Greek).  Finally, there’s Job 1:17 where the Chaldeans form three heads (military groups) to make a raid.  This, however, may be better classed as a head of an object, visualizing the army as three columns with three leading termini, heads.  Philo also speaks of the head as the progenitor or founder of the parts of an animal and Esau as the head in the same sense of the Edomites (Preliminary Studies 61)6.  This may be one Greek source for the argument that kephale means “source”.  Grudem also touches on a section from Cyril of Alexandria (De Recte Fide ad Pulch. 2.3, 268., just outside Grudem’s sampling range) in the main body of his text.  Here Adam is described as the head of the human race who is replaced by Christ.  Grudem translates αρχη as “ruler” but it also frequently means beginning or source, and the argument for ruler runs across two problems: first, Adam is dead for most of the time period between his creation and Christ’s coming, how does he rule while dead?  Second, a large part of Cyril’s argument is that Jesus has a head in God because he was taken out of Him just as woman has a head in man because she was taken out of him.  This argument makes sense if αρχη is source: the things from which one originates is one’s source.  If αρχη means “ruler” this argument doesn’t make nearly as much sense.

With all of these texts in mind is there sufficient evidence to conclude that kephale means “authority over”?  No.  Grudem’s own list contains several examples that seem to counter his point.  For instance, example 17 cites the seven spirits that are head of the “works of youth” (which seems to mean “foolhardy actions”).  But how does one hold authority over actions?  Perhaps one can, and perhaps cities can rule, too (examples 11-14, Isaiah 7:8-9) but these don’t seem all that clear-cut.  Other examples that don’t seem to help much are 21-22 which propose that a good person is like a head and that the head animates the body.  However, this is not the same as rule.  Indeed, this seems to suggest another alternative for “head” entirely (the animating principle).  Examples 44, 47, and 49 (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18, and Colossians 2:18–19) suffer from a similar body problem: Christ is head over the church which is a body but this is not an entirely clear metaphor despite our attempts to make it so.

The worst examples are ones that are not only better-explained by some other sense for kephale but really don’t make much sense if kephale means “authority over” (a review of all the examples is provided in a supplementary section at the end of the article).  Examples 1-2, for instance, refer to the full citizens of Argos as “head”.  Argos is a monarchy (the same document, 7.148.17) and so if kephale means “authority over” it seems to me that the king should be head and the full citizens something less.  In 15-16 (Isaiah 9:14–16) one group of leaders is the head but another is the tail.  Since these are opposites elsewhere, I would require a lot of convincing that we should simply ignore this “tail” business.  In example 19 Grudem would have us believe that Ptolemy Philadelphus ruled over the Ptolemies.  He clearly didn’t, in large part because he wasn’t alive when most of the other Ptolemies (his ancestors and descendents) reigned.  Instead, he excelled in kingship beyond them.

Given this, “authority over” just doesn’t seem to be a great fit.  In fact, a large part of the reason I went to the trouble of looking these sources up was that Grudem spends the entire article working within an obvious false dichotomy: why are the only two options for “kephale”, “source” and “authority over”?  Or, further back into the presuppositions, why is there only one non-literal meaning of “head”?  As I’ve already pointed out Hebrew uses “head” to indicate authorities but also things that come first in time.  In fact, I think we could tackle kephale a lot better if we split it out into several usage groups.

I’d like to treat the uses with both heads and tails separately.  I wish to do this because “tail” is used metaphorically as well.  In 1 Samuel 25:34 the Septuagint renders “morning” as “the tail of dawn”.  However, other than that, “tail” either means a tail or it is paired with “head”.  Given this, I think that its pairing with “head” is meant to be a first and last comparison whether or not “head” normally implies “first” (and in what manner?).  (Compare this to “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” which doesn’t depend on some already-established idea of what it means to be an alpha or separately an omega.)  In the Deuteronomy 28 passages the contrast between head and tail makes sense under this reading and in Isaiah 9 the head and tail becomes a way to say “the whole thing” which makes more sense than assuming that “head” meant “authority”.  Indeed, these head and tail metaphors may well be untouched Hebrew idioms given the usages of “head” in Hebrew.

I think that the head-body statements also go in their own group.  This rather obviously includes Ephesians 5:22-24 which is one of the cases in which we are interested.  However, even if you don’t think that the head-body statements are their own separate thing there are a number of other options for “head”.

So what about the rest of the instances?  Could “authority over” work for them?  The argument for “authority over” isn’t terrible.  This suggests that it’s in the right area even if it misses the right valence.  If we lost the explicit idea of rule and went instead for “primacy” we’d have fewer problems.  For instance, those examples from Isaiah 7 where capitol cities are heads work just fine if kephale implies primacy.  The prime city of Syria is Damascus and the prime man of Damascus is Rezin, the king.  Jephthah assumes primacy in Gilead.  The seven spirits of the works of youth are the primary agents of foolhardiness whether or not we think that works can be ruled.

In fact, one specific sort of primacy seems to come forward in a manner that explains almost all the instances of kephale: a kephale represents that which it is kephale of.  In Jeremiah 31:7 the heads of the nations represent the nations.  In Judges 10-11 Jephthah becomes ruler (hegemon) and the public face of Gilead in its negotiations, and then war, with Ammon.  Kings represent their countries and capitol cities (2 Kings 18:21, Jeremiah 49:27, Amos 7:9, “city of David”).  Similarly, capitol cities often represent entire countries (2 Chronicles 28:23, Zephaniah 2:13, Isaiah 40:2).  In the New Testament Christ is head of the Church and everything – he is also the one who defines these things and is the representative figure of Christianity.  In fact, this idea of primacy even pulls in the two potential sources for the “source” definition: Adam as head of the human race (Cyril) and Esau as the head of the Edomites (Philo).  Again, Adam represents humanity (“Adam” means “man/human”) and Esau represents the tribes descended from him (in fact, ethnic groups are frequently designated as the children of their progenitor – e.g. “children of Israel”, “children of Ammon”).

Despite this, I still don’t think we’ve figured out what kephale means nicely and neatly.  I think that, like a lot of metaphors, kephale’s metaphorical usages aren’t nice or neat and that you should be suspicious of anyone who wants to flatten all this complexity out to make things simple and easy – especially when it meshes so well with a known agenda.  So what do we do with what we have now?  Well, I’ll recap the two smaller points I promised at the beginning.  First, be careful with even very good arguments if you haven’t looked at the counter-arguments.  (Obviously, this means you should check me, too.)  Second, evidence from 2,000 years ago has limits.  Sometimes that means that the best answer is no answer.  But, given that, what do we do with our no-answer?  That’s a question for the next article.


Some of you may be saying, “You only covered fifteen of Grudem’s examples, but he had forty-six.”  Well, yes.  I looked at all the examples, or at least searched for them, but I decided not to put them all in the main text mostly because I think the article was boring enough as is.  But since I looked them up I did, of course, write notes on all of them.  Here those are.

Before I present my notes, it’s worth mentioning that I could not find Plutarch Table Talk or the Old Testament of the codex Alexandrinus for free, and, while I do think it’s worth doing a good job on these research questions it’s not worth purchasing expensive books to check two sources.  There’s also the odd problem of citations.  I found a number of Grudem’s quotes in different chapters and verses than I expected from his citations, and, for Plutarch’s Agesilaus I was able to locate book, chapter, and verse but not the quote.  I’m not sure what’s going on there and it’s possible that I’m simply ignorant of the proper manner of citing such material (although other people with some expertise here seem to have had the same issue).  However, the fact that there was sometimes a great deal of intervening material between the two halves of Grudem’s sentence is stranger since I’m reasonably sure the convention is to mark such elisions with ellipses.

Some of Grudem’s examples are pretty decent (I will refer to the examples by Grudem’s numbering). 8 and 10 (2 Samuel 22:44 and Psalm 18:43) where David describes himself as the “head” of what I believe are conquered nations are good because David’s rule is closely equated with headship and David is, obviously, a king who rules and not just a figurehead.  In 24-25 and 26 two people may in the future become heads of various bodies in a manner that seems to involve governmental rule.  31 through 33 refer to the heads of the tribes which is also pretty good given that they seem to be important people.  Example 43 discusses Christ’s own rule as “head over all things” which also seems straightforward.  If all the examples looked like this Grudem would have a solid case.

The second category is pretty ambiguous.  4 through 7 (Judges 10:18-11:11) all deal with Jephthah but within this block he is also called ήγέομαι twice (verse 6 and 11) from the verb “to hold rule” (and the basis for the English “hegemon”).  Does “head and ruler” emphasize the same idea or does it describe two functions7?  36 (where those who deride government authorities are said to have “heaped on their own heads insults) simply seems ambiguous.  Grudem seems to want us to read “heaped insults on” in a straightforward fashion and “their heads” as the metaphor.  I would actually group this with a different metaphorical usage for head where it means “self”.  For instance, “Your blood shall be on your own head,” (1 Kings 2:37) means, “Your death will be your fault.”  Examples 17 and 11-14 which I treated in the main body of this article would go here as well.  Once these examples are included in the sample the possibility of saying anything definite really drops.  These can be fit into the “authority over” model but they aren’t very clear.

The last set of examples (besides the counter-proofs mentioned in the main text) are dud examples.  In example 23 the general is compared to the head of the army but the rest of the body parts don’t seem to be arranged in hierarchical order.  The feet, for instance, are the cavalry, normally composed of aristocrats.  Examples 34 and 48 (Ezekiel 38:2, Colossians 2:10) both include other ruling words (“ruling head” and “head of all rule and authority”) and so its not clear why “head” is the word that indicates rule. None of these should have been counted as positive evidence for “authority over” and are difficult to fit into that model.

[1] There’s room to quibble here. I counted sources as being the same source if they were sufficiently close to one another in a text. “Sufficiently close” is subjective, though. I believe my count of thirty-one cuts the balance best but the range for disagreement appears to be thirty-five (only uses in consecutive sentences are grouped together) to fifteen (only separate authors/anonymous books are separate sources) sources.

[2] Sources 8 and 10 are the same words of David, once in 2 Samuel and one in Psalms. Similarly, some quotes from the Bible (normally the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) are cited once in the Bible and once in another source that is quoting from the Bible. The pairs 9 and 33 and 4 and 35 are of this sort.

[3] Sources 3, 18, 19, and 20. They are supposed to serve to demonstrate that the head was considered the ruling part of the body but even here one of the examples appears to be straining to find some allegorical meaning in a literal head. And, of course, demonstrating that the head is considered the ruling part of the body is a separate thing from establishing that the commonality between real and metaphorical heads is rule.

[4] 30, 37, 38-42, and 45-46.

[5] I have no idea why Grudem goes eight centuries backwards from the New Testament and four centuries forward when trawling for uses of kephale. He doesn’t explain it and perhaps he has good reasons (I don’t know much of anything about the history of Greek) but I find the lack of symmetry odd.

[6] The English translation of Preliminary Studies that is easiest to access is this one which calls Esau “chief”. However, the Greek text is available here for those who can navigate it and the word in question is γεναρχης, a progenitor or founder, not a chief or ruler. Thanks to Suzanne McCarthy for providing me with several citations, including this one, for progenitors as heads of large groups.

[7] The Hebrew also uses two words. The Greek is odd mostly because the Hebrewראש becomes κεφαλε (head) not αρχον (ruler, archon) as it normally would in this situation. However, this is a case of a translator being more literal than usual and so I’m not sure that this is anything but a Hebraism getting imported into Greek.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2014 6:05 pm

    great article, i am glad i found it, can i post it on my website.. I am doing a series of the woman in the body of Christ

    • Eric permalink
      June 11, 2014 9:22 pm

      In what manner do you wish to post it? You are obviously free to link to it (I have at least one article in which I refer readers to someone else’s article for explanation of an important point) but I’d want to know more details if you want to actually transfer my material to another site.

  2. Eric Breaux permalink
    September 30, 2014 12:57 am

    This guy clearly has an agenda regarding this subject

    • Eric permalink
      October 2, 2014 8:32 pm

      Yes. Some time ago I was alerted to the presence of that article since you linked to me in the comments and some people followed the link back to me. However, I also noticed two things:

      1) The article’s author did not ever address any of the critiques I made but instead dismissed my arguments based on my education (while appearing not to have better formal credentials). (Specifically, he spends a lot of time discussing why we should believe that kephale means head but my main point is that this is not sufficient – one also needs to establish what “head” means when used metaphorically and this is a much, much harder task.)

      2) The article’s author seems to like threatening people with bans and other behavior that suggests to me that his agenda does not include “have a rationale conversation in which everyone learns”. This is rather a pity because the author also appears to be well-read and I would have valued meaningful criticism of my points. However, I don’t think that’s what I would have gotten.

      Given this I’ve never bothered to engage the author.


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