Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Kephalē and “Pre-Gnosticism” in Paul’s Letters

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.

Conclusion

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.

Footnotes

[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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(Part 1) Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters
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LSJ Definitions of Kephalē
1 Timothy 2:12 – The Heresy in the Ephesian Church
Adam and Eve in Gnostic Literature and 1 Timothy 2:13-14
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6 thoughts on “Kephalē and “Pre-Gnosticism” in Paul’s Letters

  1. Hi, I’m an egalitarian through and through. However, I always struggle with Colossians. Some of these verses you already touched on, but there are parts that are still hard for me to reconcile. For example:

    Col 1:18 “Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead”. I agree this aligns with “kepale” as “source” but what does it mean that he is therefore “supreme over all”, which implies hierarchy and superiority?

    Col 2:10 “So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority.” Again, how do we reconcile this idea of “head over” where the word “over” implies leadership or hierarchy?

    Col 2:19 “…and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body, for he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it”. Here, I don’t see how “source” works, as it implies that by being the head he keeps the whole body together, and therefore looks a lot like authority and leadership.

    Thanks for your great work here. I have been so incredibly encouraged!

    1. Hi Leah,

      I have only rarely (once in fact) seen kephalē clearly mean “leader” or “authority figure” in and of itself. The meaning of “source” is also fairly rare, though I strongly believe “source” or “origin” is the meaning in 1 Corinthians 11:3. The head-body metaphor of unity is a more common in Greek literature, and I believe unity is the sense meant in Ephesians 5:23.

      As for the verses in Colossians, I’ve tried to boil the following down as much as I can.

      Colossians 1:18

      Colossians 1:18 is just a few clauses within a very, very long sentence which, in the Greek, begins at the beginning of verse 15 and ends at verse 23. We can’t look at verse 18 without the surrounding verses. Christ’s supremacy is not just based on the things mentioned in verse 18. In fact, verse 19 begins with the Greek word for “because”, giving even more reasons for Christ’s supremacy.

      On the other hand, the mention of Jesus as kephalē follows the thought “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This conveys ideas of both source and unity, or possibly cohesion: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together, and he is the head of the body, the church . . .” (Col. 1:17-18).

      Colossians 2:10

      Colossians 2:8-15 is also one long sentence, and contrasts a gnostic understanding of spiritual forces, powers, and authorities, with Jesus who is described using gnostic terms: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the kephalē of every power and authority.”

      There is no Greek word for “over” included in this passage, but it doesn’t make much difference either way, because the context of these verses is of divinity, power, and authority. While, as I said, kephalē does not mean “authority” in and of itself, if Jesus is the source of every power and authority, then he is himself is in a position of power and authority.

      This passage, and the idea of power, can hardly be compared to a husband being the kephalē of his wife; there are no words of power or authority ascribed to the wife, or the husband, in Ephesians 5:23.

      Colossians 2:19

      As I said, “source” is a rare meaning for kephalē and it obviously isn’t the meaning here. On the other hand we have a clear head-body metaphor of unity and connectedness in this verse. Verses 18 and 19 are about people who hold to heretical Christian beliefs and have separated from the Jesus the kephale.

      Summing up: Of course Jesus is our leader, our Lord, and our authority. This is stated numerous times in the New Testament with different words and with various concepts, but kephalē does not usually have the meaning of “leader” or “authority”. The verses that say Jesus is kephalē are telling us other things about Jesus.

      I hope this helps. 🙂

      1. Thank you so much (especially for the time and effort you put into the answers!). That helps!

        1. You’re welcome. 🙂

  2. I was reading through this and other articles about kephale, and I had a few questions about it. In Ephesians 1:22, when Paul says Jesus is head over all things, could that also imply authority? And if so, is that an instance where head is used as “authority over”? I was also reading in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata Book 4 in Chapter 8. He says that “ruling power” is the head. He quotes from 1 Corinthians 11 a few times in that chapter, and 1 Corinthians 11:3 twice I think. I know he was writing in the second century, but do his comments show that head could be used of “ruling” close to Paul’s time? Lastly, I’ve heard that the head-body metaphor could be used for hierarchy in literature outside of the Bible, but I’ve also head it can be used of unity. I was wondering if you know of any sources where I could find examples of the head-body metaphor being used of unity outside of the Bible?

    1. I believe “head” is used metaphorically with the sense of preeminence. People with preeminence–with a greater social presence, a higher social standing, and a higher level of honour–often have more authority, and so “head” is sometimes used in contexts of authority, as in Ephesians 1:20-22 which is all about Jesus’ rule and authority. But Ephesians 1:22 is all about status, and clearly so.

      I don’t believe “head” actually means “a person in authority over others” and this is why Paul chose to use this word when speaking about husbands in Ephesians 5:23 and about men in 1 Corinthians 11:3.

      I’ve previously used the example of the word “first.” A person who is “first” might be a leader in authority over others, but the word “first” does not mean leader. It means “first.” The problem with “head” is that it does mean “chief leader” in English and it can be difficult to see that it doesn’t have this meaning in Greek.

      To be clear, there are a number of Greek words that ordinarily and unmistakably mean “leader.” “Head” is not one of them. When “head” is used in the context of authority, it doesn’t have a plain sense of “leader.” It has other senses.

      In Greco-Roman society, men had a higher status and more honour than women. They had more doxa. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:22ff and 1 Corinthians 11:3ff are with the higher status and higher level of male honour in mind. But Paul turns this around. He wants the Ephesian men to sacrificially love and serve their wives, and he reminds the Corinthians that both men and women have their ultimate source in God (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

      No Bible author tells men to lead wives. Paul tells husbands to love their wives. And mutuality is the underlying ideal in the 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

      When it’s all said and done, whether we think “head” means “preeminent” or “leader,” the meaning of Ephesians 5:22ff and 1 Corinthians 11:3ff doesn’t change appreciably because of what Paul says before and after the verses that contain the word “head.” Paul was not telling men to be leaders and wield authority.

      Chrysostom doesn’t say that head means ruling power. He says the ruling power is the head. This is typically true. A person who is a ruler has a higher level of preeminence and honour than those who are ruled. Chrysostom speaks about equality concerning the capabilities of women to philosophize and to be virtuous, but he clearly believes men do this better and are superior to women. And he joins 1 Corinthians 11:3 with 1 Corinthians 11:7 which he misunderstands. Chrysostom says a lot of nice things about women, but he also gets a lot of things wrong.

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