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Does ‘kephalē’ mean ‘source?

The Claim

Egalitarians sometimes claim that the Greek word kephalē, commonly translated ‘head’, should be translated ‘source’ in New Testament passages concerning the relationship between men and women.

The Facts

Although the meaning of the word kephalē has been debated extensively among evangelical commentators for years, among professional lexicographers there is no debate. Standard professional lexicons do not include the meaning ‘source, origin’ for kephalē as understood by egalitarians, nor do recognized authoritative lexicographers debate whether the word means ‘source, origin’ or ‘chief, ruler’.

Despite years of egalitarian arguments and claims of new evidence, none of the standard lexicons has accepted the egalitarian definition of the word kephalē.[1] [2] Standard professional lexicons specifically identify kephalē as having meanings such as ‘first, superior rank, pre-eminent status, leader, master, head’ in 1 Corinthians 11:3.

Standard Lexicography

Standard professional lexicons define kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3 as a reference to pre-eminent status or authority.[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8][9]

No Dispute

From the evidence provided, readers will see for themselves that there is no genuine lexical controversy over the definition of this word. All the standard lexicons agree. The following quotation from a conservative complementarian scholar describes the current verifiable lexical consensus.

Is there any dispute in the lexicons about the meaning of κεφαλή ?  Where does this leave us with regard to the dispute over kephalē in the ancient world? Up to this time, Liddell-Scott was the only Greek-English lexicon that even mentioned the possibility of the meaning “source” for kephalē. 87 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [10] below]

All the other standard Greek-English lexicons for the NT gave meanings such as “leader, ruler, person in authority” and made no mention of the meaning “source.” 88 [original footnote reproduced in footnote [11] below]

But now the editor of the only lexicon that mentioned the meaning “source” in any connection says that κεφαλή “does seem frequently to denote leader or chief … and here it seems perverse to deny authority” and, “The supposed sense ‘source’ of course does not exist.”

These recent developments therefore seem to indicate that there is no “battle of the lexicons” over the meaning of κεφαλή but that the authors and editors of all the English lexicons for ancient Greek now agree (1) that the meaning “leader, chief, person in authority” clearly exists for κεφαλή, and (2) that the meaning “source” simply does not exist.’[12]

Egalitarian Agreement

Perriman notes the lack of evidence for the definition ‘source’.[13] Liefeld dismisses the definition ‘source’, supporting Grudem’s analysis. [14] [15] Tucker disputes claims for the definition ‘source’.[16]

Osiek explains that the ‘headship’ metaphor to express leadership was well established in Hebrew and Greek before Paul,[17] considering critics of the revisionist interpretation of kephalē have made a convincing case.[18]


[1] An entry in the 1968 edition of LSJ9 has been cited by egalitarians as evidence for their understanding of kephalē, but the editor of the lexicon has explained that this was not the intended meaning of the entry (which has been misinterpreted), that the entry was badly worded, and that the meaning ‘source’ for kephalē as asserted by egalitarians does not exist.

[2] Though a number of the standard professional lexicons have been updated recently with additional lexicographical information derived from additional lexical studies or the discovery of new sources; BDAG, Louw/Nida, LSJ9, and Swanson, for example.

[3] ‘of persons, designating first or superior rank head (1C 11.3);’, Friberg, Friberg, & Miller ‘Analytical lexicon of the Greek New Testament’, volume 4, p. 229 (2000).

[4]in the case of living beings, to denote superior rank (cp. Artem. 4, 24 p. 218, 8 ἡ κ. is the symbol of the father; Judg 11:11; 2 Km 22:44) head (Zosimus of Ashkelon [500 A.D.] hails Demosth. as his master: ὦ θεία κεφαλή [Biogr. p. 297]) of the father as head of the family Hs 7, 3; of the husband in relation to his wife 1 Cor 11:3b; Eph 5:23a.’, Arndt, Danker, & Bauer, ‘A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature’, page 541 (3rd ed., 2000).

[5]The meaning of κεφαλή as leader, chief, master, which is attested for the Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents (see also KQT 197f.) and mediated through Hellenistic Judaism (LXX, Philo, T. 12 Patr.), allows Paul in 1 Cor 11:3 to combine the sociological fact of ancient patriarchalism (Theissen 107f.) with the theological idea of origin and rule.’, Balz & Schneider, ‘Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Translation of: Exegetisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testamen’, volume 1, p. 285 (1990-c1993).

[6] ‘87.51 κεφαλή, ῆς : (a figurative extension of meaning of κεφαλήa ‘head,’ 8.10) one who is of supreme or pre-eminent status, in view of authority to order or command—‘one who is the head of, one who is superior to, one who is supreme over.’ ὅς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλή, Χριστός ‘who is the head, (even) Christ’ Eph 4.15; παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός ‘Christ is supreme over every man, the husband is supreme over his wife, and God is supreme over Christ1 Cor 11.3.’, Louw & Nida, ‘Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains’, volume 1, p. 738 (2nd ed. 1989).

[7] ‘… 2. LN 87.51 superior, one of pre-eminent status, figurative extension of first entry (1Co 11:3;’, Swanson, ‘Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains:  Greek (New Testament)’, DBLG 81, #5 (2nd ed. 2001).

[8] ‘2. In 1 C. 11:3, in relation to the question of the veiling of women in divine service, Paul says: θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι, ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός. From 11:7: ἀνὴρ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ὀφείλει κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλήν, εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπάρχων• ἡ γυνὴ δὲ δόξα ἄνδρός ἐστιν, we learn that to the direct subjection of the man to Christ corresponds the fact that the man is εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ, and to the position of man as κεφαλή of the γυνή corresponds the fact that she is the δόξα ἀνδρός.’,  Kittel, Bromiley, & Friedrich, ‘Theological dictionary of the New Testament’, volume 3, p. 679 (1964-c1976).

[9] ‘(II) Metaphorically of persons, i.e., the head, chief, one to whom others are subordinate, e.g., the husband in relation to his wife (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23) insofar as they are one body (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:8), and one body can have only one head to direct it;’, Zodhiates, ‘The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament’, G2776 (electronic ed., 2000).

[10] ’87. Professor Al Wolters has pointed out to me in private correspondence (Dec. 7, 1997), however, that the recognition that Herodotus 4:91 speaks of the “sources” of the Tearus River with the plural of κεφαλή is rather standard in Greek lexicons in other languages than English. I agree that κεφαλή is applied to the sources of the river in the Herodotus passage, but I would also agree with the analyses of Glare and Chadwick that this is simply an application of the word to the geographical end-points of a river, and fits the common sense “extremity, end-point” for κεφαλή, and should not be counted as an example of a new meaning, “source.” (Wolters himself thinks the Herodotus reference is a result of semantic borrowing from Persian, and so has a rather un-Greek character. This is certainly possible, and would not be inconsistent with my understanding of κεφαλή.)’, Grudem, ‘The Meaning Of κεφαλή (“Head”): An Evaluation Of New Evidence, Real And Alleged’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, p. 61 (44.1.2001).

[11] ’88. See BAGD 430; Louw-Nida, 1:739 ; also the older lexicons by Thayer, 345, and Craemer, 354; also TDNT 3:363–372; as well as the sixth German edition of Walter Bauer, Griechisch-deutsches Wšrterbuch (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1988) 874-875; and most recently A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint (ed. J. Lust, E. Eynikel, and K. Hauspie; Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1996) 254; similarly, for the patristic period see Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon 749, as cited above’, ibid., p. 61.

[12] Ibid., p. 61.

[13] ‘Perriman (1994: 612–14) notes that this connotation does not occur in the LXX, and the evidence adduced from extrabiblical sources is ambiguous and unpersuasive. Perriman (1994: 621) points out that nowhere “do we find anything like the idea of material origin that ‘source’ must imply in this context (woman created out of the body of man).”’, Garland (egalitarian), ‘1 Corinthians’, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 515 (2003).

[14] ‘The meaning “source,” adduced by Bedale as a clue to some of Paul’s passages, lacks clear evidence.’, Liefeld (egalitarian), ‘Women, Submission, and Ministry in 1 Corinthians’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, authority & the Bible’, p. 139 (1986).

[15] ’In my judgment, however, it is no longer possible, given Grudem’s research, to dismiss the idea of “rulership” from the discussion.’, ibid., p. 139.

[16] ‘In conclusion, it is my impression that whatever the word kephale meant to the apostle Paul as he wrote 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5, it was generally interpreted by the church fathers and by Calvin to mean authority, superior rank, or pre-eminence. These findings bring into question some of the Mickelsens’ assumptions — particularly that the “superior rank” meaning of kephale is not “one of the ordinary Greek meanings” but rather a “meaning associated with the English word head.”’, Tucker (egalitarian), ‘What does kephale mean in the New Testament: A Response’, in Mickelsen, ‘Women, authority & the Bible’, p. 117 (1986).

[17] ‘Does the Bible teach male headship? I would certainly say it presumes male headship. References to individuals as “head” (rosh, Hebrew, or kephale, Greek) are quite common in biblical and other ancient sources, and of the numerous examples, they are nearly always male: a military commander, a chief of a clan, a ruler, or the leader of a group of people. This metaphorical use of the word for “head” tells us that the people of ancient biblical times considered the anatomical head as the guiding agent of the body.’, Osiek, ‘Did Early Christians Teach, or Merely Assume, Male Headship?’, in Van Leeuwen (ed.), ‘Is Equal Regard in the Bible?‘, p. 23 (2004).

[18] ‘More recently, the argument has been put forth that kephale (head) can ,mean “source” rather than “leader,” particularly in the case of 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul says that the head of the man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. There is some good evidence for interpreting kephale as “source” here, but I think that the critics are correct that most of the evidence does not support that interpretation as a general meaning.’, ibid., p. 24.

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