A Review of the Scholarly Debate on the Meaning of “Head” (κεφαλη) in Paul’s Writings -- By: Alan F. Johnson

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 41:0 (NA 2009)
Article: A Review of the Scholarly Debate on the Meaning of “Head” (κεφαλη) in Paul’s Writings
Author: Alan F. Johnson

A Review of the Scholarly Debate on the Meaning of “Head” (κεφαλη) in Paul’s Writings

Alan F. Johnson*

From at least the middle of the twentieth century there has been an ongoing, sometimes acrimonious debate over the meaning of the metaphor “head” (Greek, kephalē) in Paul’s letters, especially his use in male-female contexts such as 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. The literature is extensive. The debate continues.

However, few, who have tentatively embraced a position themselves, have been able to access and to read all the significant discussions. This article is an attempt to review the most significant scholarly literature that has emerged in the debate and to summarize each without critique. The focus is narrow and should not be taken as a summary of all aspects of the debate on male and female relations in the church, home, and society.

I offer the following review as the fairest attempt that I can give of the history and current state of the issue. At the end I give my own brief application of the results to 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:23. Only the most significant contributions (in my estimation) from all sides can be included. I offer my apologies to any who were overlooked.

The history of the debate

Stephen Bedale (1954)

We begin with an early seminal article by Stephen Bedale.1 Amazingly brief for the firestorm it sparked (4 pages), the points Bedale raised continue to be played out in the current debate. Bedale argued that since the normal Greek metaphorical meaning of kephalē would not be understood as ‘ruler’ or ‘chief,’ Paul must have been influenced by the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX) where kephalē was used sometimes to translate the Hebrew ro’sh (when it meant ‘ruler’ or ‘chief’).

However, ro’sh could have a second figurative meaning as well in other contexts, ‘first’ or ‘beginning’ (translated by the Gk. archē, ‘first,’ ‘beginning,’ ‘principal’). The two words (archē and kephalē) became “approximate in meaning” in ‘biblical Greek’ (i.e., Greek influenced by the LXX). Thus in Colossians...

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