Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Leon Morris on “Head” (Kephalē) in the New Testament

At the moment I’m reading through a short book called The Bible and Women’s Ministry: An Australian Dialogue published by Acorn Press back in 1990. The eight “chapters”[1] of the book are written by eight different men, all prominent, scholarly ministers and educators in the Anglican Church of Australia. (Not one woman contributed to this book which is on a topic that clearly affects women deeply.)

In the first chapter, Peter Jensen (retired Anglican archbishop of Sydney who was principal of Moore Theological College when he wrote his chapter) explains how we should use scripture in the debate about women in ministry. I won’t comment on Jensen’s chapter except to say that he spends a bit of time critiquing John Stott’s hermeneutic and view on women in ministry. Contrary to Jensen, I agree with what John Stott says here (quoted by Jensen on pages 7-8):

If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which he does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which he does), the Church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should ‘ordain’ (that is commission and authorize) them to exercise their God-given ministry, at best in team situations. Our Christian doctrines of Creation and Redemption tell us that God wants his gifted people to be fulfilled, not frustrated, and his church to be enriched by their service.
J.R.W Stott, Issues facing Christianity Today (Basingstoke: Marshalls, 1984), 254.

The chapter that has really got my attention so far is Leon Morris’s entitled “Leadership and Authority.” (Leon Morris was principal of Ridley Theological College, Melbourne, from 1964 until his retirement in 1976,[2] and was an esteemed New Testament scholar who has written many commentaries on New Testament books, etc. He passed away in 2006.)

In his chapter, Morris writes about the usage of “head” in the Hebrew Bible, in Greek writings, and in the New Testament. In particular, he comments on Paul’s use of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:23, and Colossians. Morris wrote this chapter in answer to the presumption that “head” (Greek: kephalē) in the New Testament has the metaphorical meaning of “leader” or “person in authority.” This faulty assumption is being perpetuated by people such as Wayne Grudem. Leon Morris criticizes Grudem’s 1985 article on kephalē.[3]

Here is the opening paragraph of Morris’s chapter:

We are perhaps too well aware of the fact that we think with our brains. To us it is accordingly the most natural thing in the world to understand “head” in terms of direction and sovereignty. In the physical body it is the head that makes the decisions and gives the commands and when we use “head” metaphorically we quite naturally think of sovereignty. Our problem when we approach the New Testament is that the function of the central nervous system was not known to the ancients; they were unaware of the fact that we think with our brains. For them, thought was not located in the head but in the body, in the diaphragm or the heart. It is also the case that the New Testament writers never explain what they mean by “head” nor do they discuss the relationship between head and body. We must accordingly examine the relevant passages with some care. We must be on our guard against thinking that Paul, for example, means by “head” what we would mean if we used the term, or that he sees the relationship between head and body the same way as we do. He may, he may not. It is not easy to see what the head-body relationship would mean to someone who held that we think with the diaphragm, not the brain. We must think hard about what the ancients had in mind when they spoke about head and body. (p. 23)

It is important that we heed Morris’s caution and take care not to make hasty assumptions about the metaphorical meaning of “head” if we want to faithfully interpret Paul’s meaning and intent.

Note that since writing this post in 2013, I’ve discovered ancient Greek texts where the head (not brain) is clearly understood as governing the body. See further remarks in the postscript below and in the comments section. Nevertheless, I still haven’t come across a clear example in works originally written in classical and early koine Greek where “head” has the meaning “a person in authority over others.”

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Footnotes

[1] The book is divided into four parts, each part containing two chapters (or essays.) The second chapter in each part is a response to the first chapter of each part.

[2] “The Ridley staff and college were openly in favour of women lecturing, preaching, being ordained and when possible being appointed to incumbencies.” (Source)

[3] Morris agrees with Gordon D. Fee’s criticism of Grudem’s article. Morris quotes Fee as saying: “Grudem’s article is quite misleading both in its presentation and conclusion.” (p. 26)  Grudem’s article is in Appendix 1 of George W. Knight III, The Role Relationship of Men and Women: New Testament Teaching (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985). A more recent article by Wayne Grudem on the same subject, which also draws criticism, is available online here.

Postscript: August 15, 2017

Since posting this article, I’ve come across passages in Plato (Timaeus 44d ff) and Philo (Special Laws III.33.184) where it is stated that the head (not the brain) guides or governs the body. This is because of the head’s ability for sense perception (eyesight, hearing) and because, according to Plato, the head contains the soul.

However, a fifth-century BCE work entitled The Sacred Disease, a work attributed to the famous Greek physician Hippocrates (circa 460-370 BCE), there seems to be some understanding of the brain’s function.

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only, arise our pleasures, joys, laughter and jests, as well as our sorrows, pains, griefs and tears. Through it, in particular, we think, see, hear, and distinguish the ugly from the beautiful, the bad from the good, the pleasant from the unpleasant, in some cases using custom as a test, in others perceiving them from their utility. It is the same thing which makes us mad or delirious, inspires us with dread or fear, whether by night or by day, brings sleeplessness, inopportune mistakes, aimless anxieties, absent-mindedness, and acts that are contrary to habit. These things that we suffer all come from the brain, when it is not healthy, but becomes abnormally hot, cold, moist, or dry, or suffers any other unnatural affection to which it was not accustomed. Madness comes from its moistness.
“The Sacred Disease”, in Hippocrates, Vol. 2, trans. W. H. S. Jones, Loeb Classical Library (London: 1923), 175.

Philip Payne observes,

Modern science regards the brain as the control center of the body and so reinforces the metaphorical use of head for leader, but this was not the consensus of ancient Greek thought. Although some medical writers [e.g., Hippocrates] argued that the brain is the seat of cognition, Plato “moved the command centre to the heart (Timaeus 70a ff.), followed by Aristotle and Diocles (3) of Carystus. The debate continued until Galen reasserted the very early primacy of the liver in the 2nd cent. AD”
Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 122-123, quoting J.T. Vallance, “Anatomy and Physiology” in Oxford Classical Dictionary (rev. 3rd ed.; 2003), 82-85, 83.

See the discussion below, in the comments section, on what is not a clear-cut topic.


Related Articles

4 facts that show kephalē does not mean leader in 1 Corinthians 11:3
(1) Kephalē and Male Headship in Paul’s Letters
(2) Kephalē and Proto-Gnosticism in Paul’s Letters
LSJ Definitions of Kephalē 
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Who is the Head?
Mutual Submission in Clement’s First Letter

13 thoughts on “Leon Morris on “Head” (Kephalē) in the New Testament

  1. We’ve been discussing this post on my Facebook page and I thought it would be good to share some of the discussion points here.

    Some people in Paul’s time thought the brain was made up of semen that travelled down the spinal cord to the genitals and produced life. In earlier times, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers taught this. For example, Pythagoreans believed that “semen is a drop of the brain.” Diogenes Laertius, Life of Pythagoras, 19.

    The Greeks also connected semen (from the brain) with food and nourishment (cf. Eph. 5:28-29). http://www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Aristotle_Generation.htm
    Here is another source for Aristotle’s On the Generation of Animals:
    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Generation_of_Animals

    Galen (130-200 AD), a prominent Greek physician and philosopher, was one of the first people to scientifically connect the brain with its real function. (ANd he wrote two treatises on semen.)

    Before Galen, most Greco-Romans saw the brain as the source of life and of nourishment, while we see the brain as the source of thought and emotion as well as the organ that governs the body.

    Furthermore, we tend to conflate “brain” with “head.” However, we need to understand what Paul was saying to his original readers in the Greco-Roman world if we are to correctly understand how he used the word “head” metaphorically in his letters.

  2. Morris states that, ” For them [i.e. the ancients], thought was not located in the head but in the body, in the diaphragm or the heart.

    Whilst this view was certainly held by some ancients, it was not held by all. One need only read Plato to see this. In his dialogue Timaeus he states:

    “First, then, the gods, imitating the spherical shape of the universe, enclosed the two divine courses in a spherical body, that, namely, which we now term the head, being the most divine part of us and the lord of all that is in us: to this the gods, when they put together the body, gave all the other members to be servants, considering that it partook of every sort of motion. In order then that it might not tumble about among the high and deep places of the earth, but might be able to get over the one and out of the other, they provided the body to be its vehicle and means of locomotion; which consequently had length and was furnished with four limbs extended and flexible; these God contrived to be instruments of locomotion with which it might take hold and find support, and so be able to pass through all places, carrying on high the dwelling-place of the most sacred and divine part of us.” (Timaeus 44d-45a)

    Clearly then, for Plato at least, the head – which contains the rational soul – is the lord of the rest of our body, which is servant to the head.
    I do not know what else Morris suggested, not having read the article in question – but it is simply wrong to suggest that no one in the ancient world considered the ‘head’ as the place where thought happens, and as the place that gives direction and sovereignty to the rest of the body.
    When such an important and influential philosopher as Plato clearly teaches such, one would expect that this, at least, should be seriously taken into account as one reconstructs a picture of anthropology in the ancient world.

    1. Thanks for this, aletheia. I appreciate this information.

      So for Plato the head is the “most divine and holy part” of man, and contains the soul. This is important considering what he says about the soul in 46d: “the one and only existing thing which has the property of acquiring thought is Soul …”

  3. Here is some information about the ancient Hebrew understanding that the heart, and not the brain (or “head”), is the organ of thinking and emotion.

    “There is no Hebrew word for brain, and neither the Israelites nor any of the other ancient peoples knew what the brain was for. The Egyptian priests who mummified bodies carefully preserved all of the important internal organs in canopic jars, but they pulled the brain out with a hook through the nostrils and discarded it as so much trash. For the ancients, the representation of the heart as the seat of intellect and emotions was not simply figurative speech, as it is for us. They knew of no other reality.”
    John H. Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary) Zondervan, p. 88.

    John Walton also talks about this at the 27.15-minute mark in this video.

  4. In further criticism of Morris, it might also be useful to see how Paul’s own near contemporaries were using the word head (‘kephale’).

    For instance, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing in about AD 75, states,
    “[52] The city Jerusalem is situated in the very middle; on which account some have, with sagacity enough, called that city the Navel of the country. [53] Nor indeed is Judea destitute of such delights as come from the sea, since its maritime places extend as far as Ptolemais: [54] it was parted into eleven portions, of which the royal city Jerusalem was the supreme, and presided over all the neighboring country, as the head does over the body. As to the other cities that were inferior to it, they presided over their several toparchies;” (Emphasis added)
    Or, in Greek,
    “[52] μεσαιτάτη δ᾽ αὐτῆς πόλις τὰ Ἱεροσόλυμα κεῖται, παρ᾽ ὃ καί τινες οὐκ ἀσκόπως ὀμφαλὸν τὸ ἄστυ τῆς χώρας ἐκάλεσαν. [53] ἀφῄρηται δ᾽ οὐδὲ τῶν ἐκ θαλάσσης τερπνῶν ἡ Ἰουδαία τοῖς παραλίοις κατατείνουσα μέχρι Πτολεμαΐδος. [54] μερίζεται δ᾽ εἰς ἕνδεκα κληρουχίας, ὧν ἄρχει μὲν βασίλειον τὰ Ἱεροσόλυμα προανίσχουσα τῆς περιοίκου πάσης ὥσπερ ἡ κεφαλὴ σώματος: αἱ λοιπαὶ δὲ μετ᾽ αὐτὴν διῄρηνται τὰς τοπαρχίας.”
    – Jospehus, De bello Judaico, Bk.3, Ch3, Sec.5

    In other words, we have here a near Jewish contemporary of Paul, who makes an analogy between the (1) status of Jerusalem in relation to the surrounding cities, and (2) the status of the head in relation to the body – namely:
    (1) As the city of Jerusalem is supreme (or chief, ruler – ἄρχει), and presides over (or is eminent above, both in terms of its geography but more importantly in terms of its political status – προανίσχουσα), and just like, in turn, those cities that were inferior to Jerusalem (which Jerusalem was chief over) also presided over their several toparchies, so also:
    (2) The head (ἡ κεφαλὴ) has this same relationship to the body (σώματος).
    Which must mean that, for Josephus, the head presides over, or has eminence above, the body. This is in terms of its being supreme (chief or ruler).

    So what is important to note here, is that for Josephus the reason that the head has eminence over the body, and thus is considered chief or ruler over the body, is not necessarily because of any supposed anthropological understanding that the head ‘thinks’ or ‘makes decisions’ (or is somehow associated with these activities). It seems quite independent of this. In fact, it is for the simple reason the the head sits higher than the rest of the body. It is elevated in terms of its position, and so for that reason it can act as a metaphor for being elevated in status. The higher the position, the higher the status, as it were.
    So Jerusalem, being geographically higher than its surrounding environs is a symbol of its status as being the politically ‘higher’ city among its environs. It acts as chief or supreme amongst the cities in the region, and this is nicely exemplified in its being geographically elevated also.
    But likewise those cities which are inferior (in political status) to Jerusalem also exercise a status of being supreme or chief amongst their several toparchies – and here, whether or not they are geographically higher.
    So, to directly interact with the quotation from Morris:
    Morris states,
    “We are perhaps too well aware of the fact that we think with our brains. To us it is accordingly the most natural thing in the world to understand “head” in terms of direction and sovereignty. In the physical body it is the head that makes the decisions and gives the commands and when we use “head” metaphorically we quite naturally think of sovereignty. Our problem when we approach the New Testament is that the function of the central nervous system was not known to the ancients; they were unaware of the fact that we think with our brains. For them, thought was not located in the head but in the body, in the diaphragm or the heart.”

    The problem here is that Morris is not being clear in who he means by ‘ancients’. Certainly, it may be argued that some in the ancient word, did not consider the head to be in any way connected with thought. This thesis may be able to be sustained with, for example, the Homeric poems.
    But, clearly, Morris is wrong if we consider the quotation from Plato (Timaeus 44d-45a) cited in a previous reply above. So not all the ancients can be categorised as Morris suggests.

    Morris continues:
    “It is also the case that the New Testament writers never explain what they mean by “head” nor do they discuss the relationship between head and body. We must accordingly examine the relevant passages with some care. We must be on our guard against thinking that Paul, for example, means by “head” what we would mean if we used the term, or that he sees the relationship between head and body the same way as we do. He may, he may not. It is not easy to see what the head-body relationship would mean to someone who held that we think with the diaphragm, not the brain. We must think hard about what the ancients had in mind when they spoke about head and body. (p23)”

    The problem here, is that Morris seems to be stuck in considering that the only way someone could maintain that the head can act as an authority over the body, is because the head is considered to be what we use to ‘think’ and so give direction to the body. But people in the ancient world did not maintain this – so alleges Morris.
    Again this is erroneous – in two ways.
    (1) People in the ancient world did believe that the head is associated with thought. Plato being one of them, who maintained that the rational soul was in the head. Not because of any (and philosophically erroneous I might add) modern brain-mind identity theory, but rather because the head is spherical.
    (2) It is entirely possible to build a metaphor of the head being an authority over the body without any commitment to ‘where’ thinking takes place, or what bodily organ (if any!) is associated with thinking. Josephus is doing just this in the passage above. It is because of its being physically higher than the rest of the body, that the head has eminence over the rest of the body. To be elevated over another is to be more authoritative – a chief, or ruler. That is why kings were bowed down to in times past (and even today!). Contrary to Morris then, it is very easy to see what the head-body relationship is, independently of what one considers to be the organ one thinks with (again – if any).

    1. Thanks for this aletheia. This is excellent information.

      Andrew Perriman, among others, believes that “head” is used with the sense of preeminence. Preeminence and/or prominence may be what Josephus is saying here about Jerusalem standing out, or above, the surrounding regions.

      Update: I’ve written about Paul’s use of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, including the sense of preeminence, here: https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

  5. Marg,
    In the endnotes, you listed, “A more recent article by Wayne Grudem on the same subject, which also draws criticism, is available online here.”

    I read Grudem’s article but do not see any criticism or rebuttal of it. Do you have any recommendations of sources that review it and give an alternate explanation?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Anca,

      I’m not sure what you mean by you “do not see any criticism or rebuttal of it.” Do you mean criticisms/rebuttals of Grudem within Grudem’s paper? The criticisms were in response to his paper; they came after the paper was published.

      Anyway, this sensible article gives a rundown of the papers, etc, that have contributed to the kephalē debates, including the papers that refute some of Grudem’s ideas.

  6. Hi Marg,
    Yes, I was thinking that the paper linked would have Grudem’s claims and then rebuttals. After reading his paper, I am really curious now to see how the criticisms. Thank you so much for the link!

    Regardless what kephale does or does not mean, if you listen to Grudem’s teachings on how a husband leads his wife, I believe he is a sick man. I read once where he said that his wife has to ask him permission to take a trip to the park or to eat at a restaurant. This is so dehumanizing and shameful, how can they dare call it leadership, it is domineering over another! It is about the humiliation of women and wives, and if a woman does not like it, she is to blame for refusing her proper “role.” After having all your rights taken away as a wife and being reduced to the status of a small child, I cannot imagine having to show gratitude to your husband for allowing you to take your next step.

    He did a video where he says he allows his wife to go out with friends. As if a grown woman does not have a sovereign right to community and friendship and needs a husband’s permission! As if the husband even has the right to allow or deny his wife these fundamental things! He considers the act of allowing her to leave the house and meet up with a friend an act of “love.” These guys then expect the wife to swoon over them for being such great leaders, when in fact they have done nothing for their wives other than what their wives could do for themselves. This has nothing to do with leadership, it is about power over another for the boost of their own egos. This stuff is highly shameful to a woman, there is no dignity in this. And if God created me as a woman to be led by my husband, then why do I have my own brain capable of reason.

  7. Thank you for this very interesting article and discussion on this Greek word. I have a question regarding something I’ve noticed about references to the head and body in certain passages. In Plato’s passage aletheia mentions, the head is mentioned as being lord of the body and the body is a servant of the head. In Josephus’ passage, the head is associated with being a ruler and authority over the body. In Philo’s Special Laws III, he says that the head has the chief or lordly position over the body, and that the head governs the body. Is it possible that Paul uses a Jewish-Greek idiom in which the head in a head-body metaphor denotes that the head is a ruler and governor over the body?

    1. Hi Taylor,

      There is no doubt that the head is the most prominent part of the body. And sometimes kephalē, with the sense of prominence/preeminence or of being first, is used in statements about people and things that are rulers and leaders (cf. Eph. 1:20-23). But my understanding is that the word kephalē, in and of itself, does not mean a leader or a person in authority in ancient Greek.

      The sense of preeminence is used by Josephus in regards to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital city according to Jewish thinking (though it was not the capital city of the Roman province of Judea.)

      A position of preeminence is the primary sense of kephalē in Philo’s Special Laws III (33.184):

      “Because, as nature has assigned the chief position in the body to the head, having bestowed upon it a situation the most suitable to that preeminence, as it might give a citadel to a king (for having sent it forth to govern the body it has established it on a height, putting the whole composition of the body from the neck to the feet under it, as a pedestal might be placed under a statue), so also it has given the preeminence among the organs of the external senses to the eyes. At all events, it has assigned them a position above all the others, as if they were the chiefs, wishing to honour them not only by other things, but also by this most evident and conspicuous of all signs.” (Italics added)

      “Govern” is used in this paragraph, but all the other language is about the elevated and prominent position of the head. Further, the context of this passage is about the value of eyes and not the head itself. It addresses the regulation in Exodus 21:26: “When a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave and destroys it, he must let the slave go free in compensation for his eye.”

      It is definitely a passage to keep in mind in discussing what Paul might have meant when he used the word kephalē in his letters. Yet my understanding remains that the word kephalē, in and of itself, does not mean a leader or a person in authority though other words can lend those meanings to the word. As Cynthia Westfall has stated, kephalē “is not a stock metaphor for authority in Greek.”

      I imagine that Paul would have chosen to use clear language, including readily understood metaphors, when writing to the churches in Asia Minor and Roman Corinth, churches that included Jews and Gentiles. If kephalē with the sense of leader was a Jewish idiom, as some have suggested, I doubt that Paul would have used it when writing to both Jews and Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20-21). But I don’t want to close my mind to the possibility altogether.

      I’ve written more about kephalē, and I mention both Philo and Josephus, here:
      https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/ See footnotes.

      1. Thank you for this wonderful information and clarification. I’ve been reading some about kephalē recently, and it has certainly given me a lot to think about. I have found that your articles are very helpful and well written, and I always enjoy being able to learn something from them.

        1. It’s difficult to sift through the surviving ancient literature. There certainly is lots to think about!

          Also, I should point out that though Philo says that the head governs the body, he is saying this literally. He is talking about an actual head and an actual body. It is a leap to then say that ancient Greeks also used this idea as a metaphor signifying authority. It is just not clear that this was the case. On the other hand, we do know they used “head” as a metaphor of prominence.

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