What Did Paul Mean by “Man is the Head of Woman?” (Part 3)
Head (kephalē) as source.
A growing number of scholars including Gordon Fee, F. F. Bruce, Berkeley Mickelsen, Alevra Mickelsen, and Catherine Clark Kroeger believe that Paul’s use of kephalē should not be understood in terms of “leader “or “ruler over.” They see kephalē as meaning “source,” as in the source or head of a river. Instances can be foundin Greek literature where the beginning of a river is refered to as the “source” or kephalē of a river.10
Catherine Kroeger points out that the human head itself was also thought of as the source of life and that which produces growth.11 Aristotle believed that human sperm was generated in the head, flowed down the spinal cord and out through the genitals.12 Examples are also found in Greek literature where the body is viewed as drawing life from the head (kephalē).13
Although the metaphorical use of head as “source” is less common in Greek literature than “prominence,”14 “source” does fit well in the contexts of both 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and Ephesians 5:21-24.
In both these passages, Paul is likely referring to the creation story in Genesis, and could be pointing out that woman originated in man as the church originated in Christ. When asked about Paul’s use of “head” kephalē, in these two passages, F, F, Bruce stated:
It [kephalē] implies that the head is the source of the being of the other party in question. Paul is referring to the Genesis story of Eve’s being formed out of Adam’s side. In that sense, the husband was the source of the wife’s being. This suggests priority in terms of existence, but not otherwise.15
Dr. Gordon Fee agrees with F.F. Bruce, stating in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, that kepahle should be understood, in terms of “head” as “source,” especially “source of life.”16
But, while the idea of “source” works well in both of the passages in question, it is not the most common metaphorical use of the word “head,” kephalē. It is possible that the Corinthians would have understood Paul to mean more than “source of life” in his metaphorical use of kephalē.
Linguist Dr. Richard Cervin argues that the word kephalē is often best understood in terms of “prominence” or “preeminence.” He points out that, in Greek literature, kephalē is often linked to what sticks out the most or is most notable. This would make sense in that men were more prominent or more noticeable than women in the Greco-Roman world and would also fit with the earthly relationship between God the Father and the Son. Jesus is the “only begotten Son” (John 1:14, 3:16; 1 John 4:9) and was sent by the Father (1 John 4:14). Prominence in this sense can be seen as circumstantial and temporary because it is the Son that chose to empty himself, taking on the form of a man (Phil. 2:7). In this way, an understanding of “head” in terms of prominence does not undermine the doctrine of the Trinity because it does not imply Subordinationism.
Dr. Cervin states:
I think he [Paul] is merely employing the head-body 16. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 503. 107 UNSilenced Draft 8.1.16 FINAL metaphor, and that his point is preeminence. This is fully in keeping with the normal and ‘common’ usage of the word.17
When interpreting this passage, it is important to keep in mind the cultural context and that “prominence” does not equate with “authority over,” or “leader.” For one can be prominent or more noticeable without leading or having authority over another.
The Cultural Context
Males dominated the Greco-Roman society of Paul’s time. Men would have been much more prominent and would have held more power than women. In context, then, Paul is asking men as the more prominent partner within the marriage relationship, to be the head like Christ is the head…treat your wives like Christ would have you treat them. Paul is not giving men a charge to rule their wives. On the contrary, he speaks to the reality of that culture and instructs men not to abuse the power that is given to them by their culture.
Summing Things Up
In conclusion, “authority over” or “leader” is an incorrect understanding of Paul’s metaphorical use of “head” (kephalē). “Source” as a metaphor for head is a less common than the idea of “prominence,” but it fits very well contextually in both 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 and Ephesians 5:21-24 and has wide support from current New Testament scholars. More commonly, head was understood as meaning “prominent,” which also works in both these texts. Whether head (kephalē) is understood in terms of “source” or “prominence,” these two passages do not support a hierarchical position of men over women in the church and in marriage.
From chapter 8 of the book UNSilenced. Now on Amazon.com
© 2016 Alan Garrett, alsgarrett.net
10. Kroeger, “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of “Head”,” 4.
11. Ibid., 5-6. See also: Mickelsen, Women, Authority & the Bible, 124-125.
12. Kroeger, “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of “Head”,” 5.
13. Mickelsen, Women, Authority & the Bible, 124-125.
14. Garrett, Summary/Review of Two Word Studies About Kephalē, 4.
15. Ward and Laurel Gasque, “An Interview with F.F. Bruce.”
17. Cervin, “Does Kephalē Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority over’ in Greek Literature? A Rebuttal.” 108.