Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 28, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 6: What does “kephelay” mean?)

In part 5, one of the things we discussed was that when Paul used the word kephelay, or “head,” in 1 Cor 11:3, the context suggests that what he meant by that was “source,” not “boss.”  It makes sense to look next at the “Household Codes,” but before we do, we’ll spend a little more time looking at the Greek word kephelay. This probably won’t change anyone’s mind, since scholars who know a lot more about Greek than I do remain divided on this issue.  I think it’s interesting reading, though, and I’m the kind of person who likes completeness, so here we go.

Words change meaning within a language over the centuries.  When my family and I vacationed in New England years ago, a docent explained to us how, “back in the day,” families would pile up the hot coals in the back of fireplace before retiring, in the hopes that they would still be able to start a fire with them in the morning.  They used a contraption that resembled a lid for a pot as a shield to keep any sparks from flying out into the room and burning the house down.  This article was called a “curfew.”  I know you see where I’m going with this.  When those in power were concerned about an insurrection or some other disruption of social order, they would order folks to be in their homes by the time the curfew went on.  Parents would instruct their older children to be home at “curfew time.”  Once a fireplace tool, now the most common meaning of the English word “curfew” is “time to be home.”

Scholars Berkely & Alvera Mickelson argue that the Greek word kephelay underwent a similar change in meaning, and while it is now used in Greek to mean “boss,” there is no evidence that people used it that way until approxmately the 5th century…long after the Biblical texts were penned.   We’ll look at how “head” is used throughout the Old and New Testaments to see if there is anything to this thesis.  Since the Old Testament was originally penned in Hebrew, we’ll use the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible undertaken between the third and first centuries BCE.   It is often abbreviated “LXX” because it is said to be the work of about 70 scholars.  This was the Old Testament translation used by many in Jesus’ day, notably the leaders of the early church.

The Hebrew word for head is r’osh, and carries the same authority connotations as it does in English.  R’osh is used figuratively (i.e., not in reference to someone’s physical head) 108 times in the Old Testament.  In only 8 instances is this figurative use of r’osh rendered kephelay in the LXX.  The fact that the LXX translators overwhelmingly bypassed kephelay in favor of arxi, hegoumenos, and basileus should alert us to the possibility that the authority connotations of the “head” metaphor present in Hebrew (and English) posed a translation problem with respect to first-century Greek.  In other words, if a commonly accepted meaning of kephelay was “authority figure,” then why didn’t the translators simply translate r’osh (Hebrew for head) to kephelay (Greek for head) every time?  But the fact is, when r’osh meant “authority figure,” the translators deliberately chose not to use kephelay in the overwhelming majority of instances—100 of them!  Since kephelay does appear in a few isolated instances, we must acknowledge that “authority figure” is one possible meaning for kephelay; however, the pattern we observe in the LXX suggests that it is not the only meaning, and certainly not the most common one.  It is also possible that the few translator(s) who did use kephelay may have been unaware that the metaphorical use of kephelay was linguistically problematic.  It is also important to note that in every instance of “head of household,” the translators always chose arxi and never kephelay.

If kephelay were a common metaphor meaning authority figure, there are several instances in which we might expect to see it used in the New Testament, as well.  For example:

1. Matt. 10:25, 13:52, and 24:43 identify “the head of the house” not as a kephelay, but an oikodespotayn, or “housemaster.”  Interestingly, “head of the house,” oikodespotayn, is also the appellation for the Christian wife (not the husband) in 1 Tim 5:14.  See also Luke 12:39, 13:25, and 14:21.

2. Luke 19:2 describes Zaccheus as “chief” tax collector (the God’s Word translation renders it “director of the tax collectors”); in Greek, the arxi-tax collector, not the kephelay-tax collector.  (Similarly the appellation “chief priests” throughout the gospels.)

3. Similarly, in John 2:8-9 the headwaiter is the arxi-waiter, not the kephelay-waiter.

4. Again, in 1 Peter 5:4, Jesus is described as the arxi-shepherd, not the kephelay-shepherd.

5. In Acts 14:12, Paul is the hegoumenos speaker, not the kephelay speaker

6. Acts 28:7 describes Publius as the chief official of the island:  the proto, not the kephelay

7. Jairus, a leader or ruler of the synagogue, is described by Matthew and Luke as arxon and by Mark as the arxisunagogon; none of the gospel writers chose to describe him as the kephelay of the synagogue

8. Acts 7:10 describes Joseph as hegoumenon, not kephelay

9. 3 John 1:9 refers to Diotrephes, who loves “to be in charge,” “to be first (or in first place),” or “preeminence.”  Verse 10 clearly illustrates that it is authority, not a quest for renown or importance, that is in view here.  John, like Luke, uses proto not kephelay.

Whenever the obvious meaning is authority, kephelay is conspicuously and consistently, indeed, completely absent among the New Testament writers.  Insisting that the metaphoric use of kephelay must always carry the connotation of authority is basing this assertion strictly on obscure usage, which violates the analogy of faith.



  1. Vic, can you add the previous installments to an archive?

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