Bust of a Roman woman circa 140 AD
Most statues, frescoes, mosaics, coins, etc, show
ancient Roman women with uncovered heads.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the most difficult passages of the Bible to interpret. The Greek word kephalē, which literally means “head”, is one factor which contributes to making this passage difficult to understand.

In English, the word “head” has many meanings apart from its literal sense. One metaphorical meaning of head is “leader.” In English, the “head” of a social, political or military organisation is the leader, the top person, the chief, the one in authority. In first-century Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, the Greek word kephalē (“head”) also had metaphorical meanings.

Many Christians have assumed that kephalē means “the one in authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3.[1] However, “leader” or “authority” was not a usual meaning of the word in ancient Greek either before or during the first century. In this article I provide four pieces of evidence that support this claim.

1. When the Hebrew word for “head” meant “leader” in the Hebrew Bible, it was usually not translated with the Greek word for “head” in the Septuagint.

That kephalē did not ordinarily mean “leader” is demonstrated when we compare the Hebrew word for “head” in the Hebrew Bible with the Greek word for “head” in the Septuagint. (The Septuagint, or LXX, is the roughly second–first century BC translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek.)

When the Hebrew word for “head” (rosh) meant a literal head, the translators invariably translated rosh into kephalē. However, in Hebrew, as in English, “head” can also mean a “leader” or “ruler”. In the instances where rosh meant a “leader”, in the majority of cases, the translators did not use the word kephalē in their translation. Instead, they typically used the Greek word archōn, which does mean “leader” or “ruler”.

Gordon D. Fee has observed that out of 180 instances where rosh has the sense of “leader” in the Hebrew Bible, only five are translated as kephalē (if we don’t count seven head-tail metaphors.)[2] It seems that most of the translators of the Septuagint knew that kephalē does not usually mean “leader”, “ruler”, or “one in authority”. (I say “most translators” because not all those involved in translating from Hebrew into Greek were equal to the task. More on this here.)

Interestingly, the Hebrew word rosh can also mean “origin” or “beginning”. Kenneth Bailey writes,

The Jewish new year is celebrated as Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year”. The first day of the year is not “in authority over” the rest of the year. Rather the year “flows from” that first day. In the Old Testament “The fear of the Lord is the head [rosh] of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). English translations usually read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[3]

I suggest that the Greek word kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3 has a similar meaning of “origin” or “beginning”, or, as some say, “source”.

2. Lexicons of secular ancient Greek do not give “leader” as a definition of kephalē.

Another piece of evidence that shows kephalē did not usually mean “leader” in ancient Greek is that LSJ, the most exhaustive lexicon of ancient Greek, does not include any definition of kephalē that approximates “leader” or “authority”.[4] Furthermore, Richard Cervin notes that lexicons of the works of individual ancient Greek authors—pagan authors such as Xenophon, Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus and others—do not include any definitions for kephalē that approximate “leader”.[5]

Heinrich Schlier, in his entry on kephalē in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, notes, “In secular Greek usage, kephalē is not employed for the head of a society.”[6] Al Wolters, who identifies as a complementarian, states that kephalē with a meaning of “leader” is “virtually unattested in pagan Greek literature until about the fourth century AD.”[7] And, “As far as pagan Greek literature is concerned, LSJ (1996) is entirely justified in omitting the meaning “chief” or “leader” from its entry on kephalē.”[8]

Wolters believes, however, that the word is used by Jewish and Christian writers, including Paul, to mean “leader”. In the Septuagint, as already noted, there are five instances where kephalē means “leader”, but careless translating from Hebrew to Greek may account for these. Wolters provides two instances where he says kephalē means “leader” in Philo, and two in Josephus.[9] I am not convinced by these examples, however. The first reasonably clear example where kephalē means “leader” is in the Christian writing, the Shepherd of Hermas (Similitude 7.2). (The date of the Shepherd is uncertain, but many scholars suggest a date of around 140 AD, approximately 90 years after First Corinthians was written.)

While the lexicons mentioned above do not contain a definition of “leader” for kephalē, this is not the case for New Testament lexicons. Every lexicon of New Testament Greek, that I’ve looked at, has a definition that means something like “leader”.

BDAG, for example, gives “to denote superior rank” as a meaning. To support this definition it gives three secular examples, including one from the second century AD and one from 500 AD (which is long after 1 Corinthians was written.) It also gives two examples from the Septuagint (Judg. 11:11; 2 Kingd. 22:44).[10] Thayer’s lexicon gives the definitions: “Metaphorically, anything supreme, chief, prominent; of persons, master, lord . . .” Strong gives “ruler” and “lord” as possible meanings. Other New Testament lexicons have similar definitions.

Unfortunately, it seems that many Christians have simply presumed that “head” means “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 as well as in other verses such as Ephesians 5:23. Richard Cervin suggests three reasons for this discrepancy between lexicons of New Testament Greek and other Ancient Greek lexicons:

I offer several possible reasons, not the least of which is tradition and a male-dominant world-view. . . . Another reason stems from Latin . . . . In the West, Latin has always been more popular than Greek, and until last century, Latin was the lingua franca of the scholarly world. Now the Latin word for ‘head’, caput, does have the metaphorical meaning of ‘leader’ . . . Thus, for English-speaking theologians at least Hebrew, English and Latin all share ‘leader’ as a common metaphor for head, a metaphor which is nonetheless alien to Ancient Greek. [Cervin’s use of italics.][11]

Though New Testament lexicons give a definition of “leader” for kephalē, it is important to note that only God (1 Cor. 11:3), Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; 5:23; Col. 1:18-19; 2:9-10; 2:18-19), men (1 Cor. 11:3), and husbands (Eph. 5:23) are referred to with the word, and only by Paul.

Gilbert Bilezikian notes:

There are scores of references in the documents of the New Testament to leaders from all walks of life: religious leaders, community leaders, military leaders, governmental leaders, patriarchal leaders and church leaders. Never is anyone of them designated as head. A profusion of other titles is used, but head is conspicuously absent from the list. The obvious explanation for this singularity is that head did not mean “leader” in the language of the New Testament.[12]

3. Several early church fathers did not interpret “head” as meaning “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3.

Several early church fathers taught that the meaning of kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3 means “origin” or “beginning” (or “source”). Some of these church fathers were writing at a time when kephalē occasionally could mean “leader” or “a person in authority”. These church fathers also believed that men had a greater level of authority than women, yet they did not use 1 Corinthians 11:3 to support this belief.

Athanasius (296-373), Bishop of Alexandria, stated in “Anathema 26” of De Synodis:

For the Son is the Head, namely the beginning of all: and God is the Head, namely the beginning of Christ . . .

John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), Archbishop of Constantinople, was adamant that “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3. He says that if we take “head” with the sense of governing, the passage won’t make sense and it will lead to false ideas about Jesus Christ, which is his primary concern. (Homily 26 on First Corinthians)[13]

Cyril (376-444), Archbishop of Alexandria, in De Recta Fide ad Pulcheriam et Eudociam wrote:

Therefore of our race he [Adam] became first head, which is source, and was of the earth and earthy. Since Christ was named the second Adam, he has been placed as head, which is source, of those who through Him have been formed anew unto Him unto immor­tality through sanctification in the Spirit. Therefore he himself our source, which is head, has appeared as a human being. Yet he, though God by nature, has himself a generating head, the heavenly Father, and he himself, though God according to his nature, yet being the Word, was begotten of him. Because head means source, he establishes the truth for those who are wavering in their mind that man is the head of woman, for she was taken out of him. Therefore as God according to his nature, the one Christ and Son and Lord has as his head the heavenly Fa­ther, having himself become our head because he is of the same stock according to the flesh.
(See Patrologia Graeca 76, pp.1336-1420.)

These three men, and others, were concerned that if kephalē was understood as meaning “ruler” or “authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 it would lead to a distorted christology. Instead, they understood kephalē as meaning “beginning” or “source”.

4. Secular Greek authors did not use kephalē when writing about the relationship between men and women.

Greco-Roman society was patriarchal and many works survive where Greek authors wrote about the rule of men and of husbands. But no author other than Paul, and Christian authors following him, used the word “head” when writing about the relationship of a husband with his wife, or when writing about men and women more generally. Outside of Christian literature, “kephalē is never used in ancient Greek in a male-female context.”[14]

Plutarch, a prolific author and native Greek speaker, wrote a letter in around 100 AD to a bride and groom where he gives marriage advice.[15] Throughout his letter, Plutarch uses various Greek words to describe the husband’s leadership. He writes, for example, that the husband is the one who displays “leadership” (hēgemoneia) and “decision-making” (proairesis) in the home (lesson 11). And, the husband is “to rule” (kratien and archein) his wife (lesson 33). Plutarch counsels that the husband’s leadership should be done sympathetically and affectionately, and should promote the wife’s “enjoyment and kindness”, but the husband must be the ruler, the one in charge.

Paul, on the other hand, never uses any of the words Plutarch or other Greek writers used when he writes about men and women. In fact, Paul, and every other New Testament author, never uses any of the many Greek words that commonly meant “leader” when writing about husbands.

Kephalē can mean “point of origin”.

The Greek word for “head” rarely, if ever, meant “leader” or an “authority” in works originally written in Greek before or during the first century AD. And Paul definitely wrote First Corinthians in Greek. “Head” with a meaning of “point of origin” or “beginning” (or “source”) was not common in ancient Greek, but it was less rare than the meaning of “leader”. There are three reasonably clear examples where kephalē means “origin” or “beginning” in surviving texts which date before First Corinthians was written: Herodotus 4.91.2, the Orphic Fragment 21A, and the Testament of Reuben 2.2.

Furthermore, if we take head to mean “authority”, then something or someone is missing from the statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The statement is incomplete. It’s not quite right.[14]

Surely, Christ is the authority and the leader of every woman as well as of every man. There is absolutely nothing to suggest elsewhere in Paul’s letters, or anywhere else in the New Testament for that matter, that women are somehow distanced, even slightly, from the authority and lordship of Jesus Christ.

Covering and Protection or Origin?

1 Corinthians 11:3 has been used to support an idea called “covering”, which is that women need the covering or protection of a man’s (spiritual) authority. Again, there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to support the idea that women need the covering or protection of men. Even in the Old Testament, God bypassed husbands and fathers and spoke to women directly, or he sent an angel to speak to women. In the New Covenant, however, every redeemed man and woman has access to God, through Jesus, facilitated by the Holy Spirit. God did not, and does not, single out men as his authorised spokesmen (prophets) or as protectors. God used, and uses, women as prophets and protectors.

So how are we to understand 1 Corinthians 11:3? Kenneth Bailey interprets it like this:

“The origin of every man is Christ” (i.e. Christ is the agent of God in creation. In 1 Corinthians 8.6 Paul affirms that Jesus Christ is the one “through whom are all things.”)
“The origin of woman is man” (i.e. , Genesis 2:21-23). Woman [ishah] is “taken out of man [ish].”
“The origin of Christ is God” (i.e., the Christ is “the Messiah” and the origin of the Messiah is God). In the language of later centuries, “The Son proceeds from the Father.” Christ comes from God. . . . [16]

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 there are several allusions to the Genesis 2 creation account and to the origin of man and woman (1 Cor. 11: 8-9, 11-12). So it plausible that 1 Corinthians 11:3 also alludes to creation and origins.

1 Corinthians 11:3 is a difficult verse to interpret, and it occurs at the beginning of a difficult passage. One thing is vital, however, we must read on to find Paul’s intent for those who are “in the Lord”. 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 reveals Paul’s desire for mutuality and interdependence between men and women, not hierarchy. Also, we mustn’t let the complexities of this passage overshadow the simple fact that both men and women prayed and prophesied aloud in church meetings.[17]


Endnotes

[1] Wayne Grudem (who published papers on this topic in 1986, 1990 and 2001) and Joseph Fitzmyer (1989, 1993) have investigated the word kephalē and conclude it can mean “leader” or “ruler”. Fitzmyer concludes kephalē can also mean “source”. Al Wolters (2011), who identifies as a complementarian states that kephalē never means “leader” in pagan texts, but it does mean “leader” in some Christian and Jewish texts. Richard Cervin (1989), Andrew Perriman (1994), and Judith Gundry-Volf (1997) each argue credibly that kephalē can have a sense of preeminence or prominence. I acknowledge that the word carries the sense of prominence to some extent; however, I am not convinced “prominence” is its primary meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Alan Johnson summarises these, and other papers investigating the meaning of kephalē, in “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of “Head” (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings”, Priscilla Papers (Source)

[2] Fee writes that 12 of the 180 occurrences of ro’sh are translated as kephalē in the LXX, but some of these include head-tail contrasts where the word kephalē is needed to keep the metaphor. So, according to Fee, there are only 5 instances (not counting the head-tail metaphors) where kephalē means leader: Judges 11:11; 2 Samuel 22:44 (2 Kingd. 22:44 LXX); Psalm 18:43 (Psalm 17:44 LXX); Isaiah 7:8; Lamentations 1:4 (Lam. 1:5 LXX). Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 503 fn44.
Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen count 8 instances. As well as the occurrences Fee lists, the Mickelsens include Jeremiah 31:1 (Jer. 38:7 LXX), and they note that kephalē occurs three times in Isaiah 7:8-9, bumping the overall number up from 5 to 8. Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, “What does Kephalē mean in the New Testament?” in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen (ed) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986) 97-110, 103.
Philip Payne mostly agrees with Fee and the Mickelsens. However, working from a Greek text of the LXX that uses the word kephalē four times and not three times in Isaiah 7:8-9, he dismisses two of the four occurrences as being capital cities and not leaders. That is, he counts kephalē as meaning “leader” twice in Isaiah 7:8-9. Payne also writes that “the reference to Israel as ‘head among the nations’ in Jeremiah 31:7 probably refers to her exalted position in God’s sight, for she did not have leadership or rule over other nations.” So, Payne’s number is 6. Philip B. Payne, “Response,” Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen (ed) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 118-132, 122; and, Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 119 fn10.
There are textual variants in the LXX, which are discussed by Cervin, Payne and others, which affect these numbers too.

[3] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 302.

[4] LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996) The LSJ entry for kephalē can be viewed here.

[5] Richard Cervin, “Does kephalē (‘head’) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature: A Rebuttal”, Trinity Journal 10 (Spring, 1989), 85-112. (pdf here)

[6] H. Schlier, “κεφαλή . . .”, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittle (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 3:673-681.

[7] Al Wolters, “Head as Metaphor”, Koers 76.1 (2011) 137-153, 142. (This paper is available here.)

[8] Ibid, 143.

[9] Wolters writes,

[Philo, who] “calls the mind ‘the kephalē and ruling part of sense-perception’ (De vita Mosis 2.82), designates Ptolemy Philadelphos as the ‘kephalē, in a way, of the (Ptolemaic) kings’ (De vita Mosis 2.30), and speaks of the virtuous man or nation as the ‘kephalē of the human race’ (De praemiis et poenis 125). Since this usage has no parallel in earlier Greek literature, it is reasonable to assume that it represents a semantic loan like the one we noticed in the Septuagint, especially since Philo was intimately acquainted with the Septuagint.”
Wolters, “Head as Metaphor”, 145.

Cervin, however, states that Philo is using kephalē here as “a metaphor of preeminence.” Cervin, “Does kephalē (‘head’) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over'”, 85-112.

Regarding the Josephus’ examples, both in the Wars of the Jews, Wolters writes,

In the first example [Josephus] compares the sovereignty of the capital Jerusalem over Judea to that of the head over the body (3.3.5 §54), and in the second example he designates Jerusalem directly as the “kephalē of the entire nation” (4.4.3 §261).
Wolters, “Head as Metaphor”, 145.

No one denies Jerusalem was a capital city (“capital” is derived from the Latin word for “head”), but these examples do not show that kephalē means “leader”. More precisely, these examples from Josephus do not show that kephalē means the chief person or leader of a society.

[10] BDAG: Walter Bauer, “κεφαλή”, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, by Walter Bauer, revised and edited by F.W Danker (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 542.
There are issues with the examples given in this entry. Quoting the second century Artemidorus reference, cited in BDAG, the Mickelsens show that superior rank is not the primary sense being conveyed:

“He (the father) was the cause (aitos) of the life and of the light for the dreamer (the son) just as the head (kephalē) is the cause of life and light of all the body.” He also said, “the head is to be likened to parents because the head is the cause [source] of life.”
Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, “What does Kephalē mean?”, 110.

The Zosimus reference, apart from its very late date of around 500, may be a greeting that denotes dignity rather than superiority. And a third reference, Pseudo Aristotle’s De Mundo 6.4, does not even contain the word kephalē. Payne, “Response”, 120.

[11] Gilbert Bilezikian, I Believe in Male Headship (Source)

[12] Chrysostom’s homily needs to be read carefully as he uses an imaginary opponent in his arguments who says that kephalē does mean “one in authority”.

[13] Johnson, “A Meta-Study”, quoting from Bilezikian’s 1986 paper “A Critical Examination of Wayne Grudem’s Treatment of Kephalē in Ancient Greek Texts”, presented for a plenary session of the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, (Oct. 20, 1986).

[14] Plutarch’s letter, known in Latin as Coniugalia Praecepta, can be read here.

[15] No current interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 makes perfect sense of every sentence within this passage. This is the case whether kephalē is interpreted as “leader” or “origin”, or if it is interpreted as “prominent”, another contender for the meaning of kephalē (previously mentioned in endnote 1.)
Craig Blomberg, David Garland, Judith Gundry Volf, Alan Johnson, Craig Keener, I. Howard Marshall, Andrew Perriman, A.C. Thiselton, and others, suggest kephalē can have the sense of “prominent”, “preeminent”, “honoured”, etc. This sense may fit with the themes of glory and shame in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. However, the idea of showing honour to people already honoured seems to go against Paul’s instructions in the next chapter (1 Cor. 12:22-25).

[16] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 302. Gilbert Bilezikian interprets this passage similarly in I Believe in Male Headship. Craig Keener offers this interpretation as one possibility in Paul, Women and Wives (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992, 2009), 33-34.

[17] The phrase “prays or prophesies” in 1 Corinthians 11:4 and 5 may be a succinct way of describing all vocal ministry. Prayer is vocal ministry to God, and prophecy is vocal ministry from, or on behalf of, God).


Related Articles

The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Women’s Hair in Corinth and in Sydney
“Head” and “Headship” in Genesis 1-3
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Plutarch and Paul on Husbands and Wives
6 Women who Protected and Rescued Moses
25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women