The Metaphorical Meanings of “Head” in Paul’s Letters: Part Two

The Greek word kephalē has meanings other than its literal meaning of “head” and the metaphorical meanings of “origin” or “beginning” given in Part One. Kephalē was also a Hellenistic and Gnostic term.[1] Paul may have used the word in this sense in his letters to the churches in Colossae and Ephesus where a syncretistic heresy was developing.

Syncretistic Heresies in the Colossian and Ephesian Churches

Christian Gnosticism developed into highly complex belief systems in the second century CE and was a serious threat to the Church at that time. But a syncretistic heresy, an “incipient Gnosticism” as F.F. Bruce called it,[2] was developing in some New Testament churches in the latter part of the first century, most notably in the church at Colossae.

Henry Chadwick writes,

At Colossae in Asia Minor Paul met with a grave heresy, a syncretistic amalgam of Christianity with theosophical elements drawn partly from the mystery cults and partly from heterodox Judaism. The Colossian Christians were being persuaded to worship intermediate angelic powers, identified with heavenly bodies, and believed to possess a power to determine human fate unbroken by the Gospel.[3]

Paul described this heresy in Colossae as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world” (Col. 2:8 cf. Col. 2:4, 18). The adherents to this heresy believed they alone had access to wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnōsis). Paul stated, however, that true wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3).

Heresy, or “other teaching,” was also being taught in the church at Ephesus. We see this in Paul’s corrective teaching in his letter to the Ephesians[4] and in his letters to Timothy. (Timothy was caring for the church at Ephesus at that time as Paul’s representative.)[5]

In contrast to these heresies, Paul taught that Jesus is the fullness of deity in bodily form, emphasising Jesus’ divinity and humanity (Col. 2:9). Paul emphasised Jesus’ divinity so that the Colossians and Ephesians would realise that Jesus was not just one of numerous angelic or celestial powers (or aeons) between mankind and God, but that Jesus was the creator of celestial powers and authorities (Col. 1:16), and that he is seated in the heavenly realms supreme above all cosmic forces (Eph. 1:20-23).

Paul stressed Jesus’ humanity because of a faulty belief that Jesus did not have a human body of flesh and blood but only seemed to have had a human body (cf. Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:5).[6] Furthermore, Paul addressed ascetic practices that were encouraged by some false teachers, including later Gnostic teachers (Col. 2:22-23; 1 Tim. 4:3).

Kephalē and Gnosticism

Paul addressed the heresies in Colossae and Ephesus using terms and concepts that first-century Christians and Jews would have understood. One of these terms is kephalē, which literally means “head.” In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, H. Schlier gives an insight into the Gnostic concept of kephalē.

In Hellenistic and Gnostic circles the word [kephalē] acquires a special sense in connection with the aeon and primal man. The cosmic aeon embraces the totality of all things in its head and body. In Gnosticism the divine aeon becomes primal man embracing the substance of the cosmos, but also redeemer man embracing the remaining substance of the fallen world. Primal man, who bears the cosmos, recovers from the fall as redeemer man, who gathers the cosmos to himself. In this scheme the kephalē is both apart from (and superior to) the body but also in unity with it. Elements of this view may be seen in Philo’s commentary on Exodus where the logos is the kephalē which rules the cosmos and in which the cosmos finds its fullness. Gnostic texts are more complicated but in various combinations contain the idea of primal man and/or redeemer man as the kephalē (sometimes equated with Christ.)[7]

Putting 1 Corinthians 11:3 aside, which was dealt with in the previous article, the only places where Jesus is referred to as kephalē are in five passages contained in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. (My use of underlines in the following verses.)

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for [the benefit of] the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Eph 1:22-23 NIV).

. . . but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Eph. 4:16-17 NASB).

He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him (Col. 1:18-19 NASB).[8]

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over* all rule and authority (Col. 2:9-10 NASB). [*There is no word for “over” in the Greek of this verse. “Over” is added as an interpretation.]

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God (Col. 2:18-19 NASB).

The last passage is a clear warning against ideas found in some strands of heterodox Judaism: self-abasement, worship of angels, special revelations through visions. In the other passages, Paul uses the word kephalē to explain that Jesus is the creator and supreme fullness of the cosmos. (See Eph. 1:19-23 and Col. 1:15-19).

Importantly, Paul used the word plērōma (“fullness”) which was also an important word in the heresy of Christian Gnosticism (Eph. 1:19; Col. 1:19). He described Jesus as the plērōma to distinguish Jesus from being considered as just another aeon or celestial power.

Plērōma is a technical term for the totality of the 30 aeons. This totality is closest to God but is his product; he stands over it. The plērōma is the supreme spiritual world from which Jesus comes and into which the spiritual enter. Implied in the term are the fullness and perfection of being.[9]

Despite the enigmatic and negative association of kephalē and plērōma with heresy, Paul used these terms to teach that the church as the “body” on earth must hold on to Jesus Christ as the “head” in the heavenly realms, and grow up into his fullness and perfection (Eph. 4:13; 3:19).

Robert Banks on the Body Metaphor in Ephesians and Colossians

In chapter 6 of his book, Paul’s Idea of Community, Robert Banks looks at the Christian community as a functioning body. Banks differentiates between Paul’s use of the body metaphor in his early letters, especially 1 Corinthians, to that in his later letters of Ephesians and Colossians. Banks notes:

“In Paul’s later writings certain developments in his use of the “body” metaphor may be found. These arise from the different situations encountered by the communities. Religious ideas from a number of sources—Greek, Jewish, and Oriental—have coalesced and threaten to penetrate the small Christian enclaves. According to these foreign ideas various cosmic powers, which are themselves emanations of divinity, can assist people in their contact with God. This being so, believers need to supplement their reliance upon Christ by gaining an acquaintance with such powers.”[10]

Banks does not identify this heresy as a form of Gnosticism. A few pages later, however, Banks does comment on Gnosticism and writes, “Gnostic thought recognizes the idea of the saved community as the body of the heavenly redeemer but only in writings that are later than the NT.” Nevertheless, it seems that Paul was already alert to the way pre-Gnostics were using the head-body metaphor and, using their own terms, Paul brought correction.


Many English-speaking Christians believe that the metaphorical meanings of “head” (kephalē) in the New Testament are perfectly plain and obvious. This is simply not true. Paul used the word “head” in ways that are very different from how we use the word today in English. Apart from its literal meaning, kephalē had different metaphorical meanings which include “beginning” and “origin” in Koine Greek. It only rarely had the metaphorical meaning of “leader” or “authority,” and these few instances are typically in translations into Greek, rather than in works originally written in Greek.[11]

In verses about Jesus Christ, it seems that Paul sometimes used kephalē in a Hellenistic or Gnostic sense. Admittedly, this sense of the word is enigmatic and baffling for most of us who only have a slight knowledge of their syncretistic and complicated beliefs. Keeping in mind the different ways the word kephalē was used in the Greek world, we need to be cautious about how we, today, understand the use of kephalē in the New Testament.


[1] See the meanings of kephalē given in section V.2 (and V.3) in the LSJ Greek Lexicon here.

[2] F.F. Bruce describes the heresy in Colossae as an “incipient Gnosticism,” though not necessarily related to, or easily connected to, the forms of Gnosticism that developed in the second century. Bruce, “Colossian Problems Part 3: The Colossian Heresy,” BibSac 141 (1984): 195-208, 199.
Bruce also used “incipient Gnosticism” to describe the doctrine of the “men of the Spirit” in the first-century Corinthian church. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 261.

[3] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, The Penguin History of the Church, Vol. 1 (Penguin Books, 1993), 34.

[4] The letter to the Ephesians was probably written as a circular letter and intended to be read in several churches in Asia Minor. That is, it was probably not originally addressed specifically to the Ephesian churches. (It may have been written to the Laodiceans, 15 kilometres west of Colossae.) If the letter was a circular letter, then the syncretistic heresies would have been fairly widespread in Asia Minor at the time the letter was written. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 seem to confirm this.

[5] In Against the Valentinians, chapter 3, Tertullian identified the false teaching at Ephesus as an early form of Gnosticism. Tertullian described and denounced this heresy using Paul’s own expression of “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4), and he added “which the inspired apostle [Paul] by anticipation condemned, whilst the seeds of heresy were even then shooting forth.”
Ireneaus also identified the false teaching at Ephesus as an early kind of Gnosticism. Irenaeus (c. 115–c. 202) wrote a five-volume work (c. 180) in which he identified and refuted several strains of Gnosticism. This work is commonly called Against Heresies; however, its true title is: On the Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely-called Knowledge (gnōsis). (My emphasis.) Irenaeus copied Paul’s expression from 1 Timothy 6:20 exactly, “falsely-called knowledge”, for the title. This work opens with Irenaeus remarking on “endless genealogies,” a phrase copied from 1 Timothy 1:4.
Tertullian and Irenaeus may have been projecting the Gnosticism they knew from their day back onto the heresy in first-century Ephesus

[6] 1 Timothy 2:5 addresses a Gnostic belief termed Docetism, which is that Jesus Christ did not really come in a human body of flesh, but only seemed to be human.

[7] H. Schlier, “Kephalē” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds Gerard Kittle and Gerard Friedrich, abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 429.

[8] “The term “head” (Gr. kephale) here does not point to Christ as the ruler of the church, though He is that, but to His being the beginning and the principle in creation and redemption.” Constable’s note on Colossians 1:18 (source)

[9] G. Dellingin, “Plērōma” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, eds Gerard Kittle and Gerard Friedrich, abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 870.

[10] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in their Cultural Setting (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) (source)

[11] The few instances where kephalē means “leader” are in Koine Greek translations, such as a few instances in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), rather than in original Greek literature.

Postscript: March 15 2021

In her book All the Fullness of God, on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Bonnie Bowman Thurston explains the pleroma this way:

In the language of religious syncretism of the time pleroma designated the uppermost spiritual world, the one closest to the deity, a sort of “buffer zone” between gods and humans, and as such an intermediary to god.

Thurston goes on to say,

… such an intermediary is unnecessary since, in having Christ, the Colossian Christians already have God. They don’t need to worry about “principalities and powers” (2:15) or “worship of angels” (2:18) or “elemental spirits of the universe” (2:20). The writer [of Colossians] uses the language of the troublers against them. He takes their cosmology and turns it into Christian soteriology.
Thurston, All the Fullness of God: The Christ of Colossians (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 27.

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