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Kephale as ‘Source’ or ‘Origin?’

Why do some people say that there is no evidence kephale can mean ‘source’ or ‘origin?’

The Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott Greek lexicon lists, among the possible meanings of the Greek word kephale (translated as ‘head’ in English), ‘source’ or ‘origin.’ This is the word translated ‘head’ in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God”) and Ephesians 5:23 (“For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior”).

Here’s the reference from the lexicon, and a link to the same entry, here.

d. in pl., source of a river (Hdt. 4.91) (butsg., mouth, oida Gela potamou kephalêi epikeimenon astu Call.Aet.Oxy.2080.48 ): generally, source, origin, Zeus k. (v.l. arkhê), Zeus messa, Dios d’ ek panta teleitai tetuktai codd.) Orph.Fr.21a; starting-point, k. khronou Placit. 2.32.2 (kronou codd.), Lyd.Mens.3.4; k. mênos ib.12.

And yet, there are those who insist that there is no evidence that ‘source’ or ‘origin’ are acceptable meanings for the word. Why is this?



  1. richard
    Comment #77632 posted January 8, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Liddell Scott is a lexicon for classical Greek more so than for koine Greek. BDAG (the lexicon for classical Greek) doesn’t offer this definition. I am by no means trained in Greek, but this does offer some explanation to your question.

  2. jlp
    Comment #77645 posted January 8, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Are both Liddell Scott and BDAG lexicons for classical Greek? What is the difference between Liddell Scott and the BDAG?

    Is Bauer’s the same as the BDAG? If so, here is some criticism of it, from Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen’s Women, Authority, and the Bible, (100-103).

    Under section two, where Bauer gives ‘superior rank’ as a meaning for kephale, he cites only two references from secular Greek. One comes from Zosimus and is dated A.D. 500 – at least 400 years after the New Testament was written. (Our question is not what kephale meant in A.D. 500 but rather what Paul meant when he used kephale when writing his letters to the churches in the first century.) Bauer’s only other reference to secular Greek to support the meaning of ‘superior rank’ is to Artemidorus in the second century, where kephale is used as a symbol of the father. What Artemidorus said (Lib K, chapter 2, paragraph 6) was ‘He [the father] was the cause (aitos) of the life and of the light for the dreamer [the son] just as the head (kephale) is the cause of the life and the light of all the body.’ He also said ‘the head is to be likened to parents because the head is the cause [source] of life.’ Bauer’s reference may be an example of a lexicographer reading his own cultural understanding (i.e. fathers have ‘superior rank’) into the text…

    Those who, like Bauer, insist that kephale means ‘superior rank’ say that since kephale is used with that meaning in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, that meaning must have been familiar to Greek-speaking people in New Testament times. The facts do not support this assumption.

    The Septuagint was prepared by a large group of Hebrew Greek scholars for the thousands of Jewish people who lived outside of Palestine. For these Jews, Greek was their first and sometimes only language, and they could not have read a Hebrew Old Testament even if one had been available. They used the Septuagint in their synagogues. For all the early churches outside Palestine, the Septuagint translation was the Old Testament, for it was written in the only language they knew.

    We studied all the instances in which the Hebrew word rosh (meaning ‘head’) appears in the Old Testament and how it was translated in the Septuagint. Rosh occurs approximately 600 times and the Aramaic word resh occurs fourteen times. Usually rosh or resh simply means physical head of a person or animal, the same meaning that the Greek work kephale usually has in the New Testament. In the 239 instances when rosh refers to a physical head, the Septuagint translators nearly always translated it with kephale. But like our English word ‘head,’ rosh sometimes had metaphorical or figurative meanings, including leader or someone in authority, or beginning, as in rosh hashshanan (Ezek 40:1 ‘at the beginning of the year’).

    About 180 times, the Hebrew word rosh, meaning ‘head,’ clearly refers to a ‘chief something’ – a chief man, chief city, chief nation, chief priest, that is, the leader or authority figure in a group. Apparently, this meaning for rosh was as common in ancient Hebrew as it is in English today. But, as we have seen from the Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie lexicon, that was not a common meaning in the Greek language of New Testament times. The findings of these lexicographers are confirmed when we examine the Greek words that the translators of the Septuagint used when the Hebrew word rosh means ‘leader’ or ‘chief.’ In the 180 instances when rosh means ‘leader’ or ‘chief,’ the Septuagint translators rarely used kephale. Archon, meaning ‘ruler,’ ‘commander’ or ‘leader,’ was used 109 times (about 60 percent). Apparently the translators believed that archon rather than kephale more accurately conveyed the meaning of the Hebrew rosh when it meant ‘ruler’ or ‘leader.’

    Although archon was the most common word used for rosh when it meant ‘chief’ or ‘authority,’ it was not the only one. The translators occasionally used thirteen other words. Some appear in Deuteronomy 1:13-15, where heads appears three times. ‘Choose wise, understanding, and experienced men, according to your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads. And you answered me, “The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.” So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you.’

    Obviously ‘heads’ in this passage meant ‘superior rank’ or ‘authority.’ But the Septuagint translators did not use kephale in any of the three places. Instead, they used the Greek words hegoumenous, hegeisthai and chiliarchos. The verb hegeomai means ‘to rule’ or ‘have dominion.’ The noun chiliarchos means ‘to be a leader,’ ‘a commander of a thousand soldiers.’ Among the fourteen words used to translate rosh, kephale does appear eighteen times. But these include six passages that have variant readings. Four others involve a head-tail metaphor that would not make sense without the use of head in contrast to tail. For example, Deuteronomy 28:44 says, ‘He shall be the head and thou shalt be the tail.’

  3. jlp
    Comment #77647 posted January 8, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    Here’s a comment from Philip Barton Payne on the Mickelsen study:

    The Mickelsens actually understate their case from Greek usage. Including its 1968 supplement, the Liddell and Scott lexicon lists forty-eight separate English equivalents of figurative meanings of kephale. None of them implies leader, authority, first or supreme. To confirm that ‘authority’ was not in the usual connotative range of kephale, I consulted three prominent speicalists in ancient Greek literature (David Armstrong of the University of Texas at Austin and Michael Wigodsky and Mark Edwards of Stanford University). They all agreed that the idea of ‘authority’ was not a recognized meaning of kephale in Greek.

  4. jlp
    Comment #77651 posted January 8, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    I just found this in Women, Authority, and the Bible (97) by Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen:

    The most complete Greek-English lexicon (covering Homeric, classical and koine Greek) in current existence is a two-volume work of more than 2,000 pages compiled by Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie… The most common lexicon… in our day is the koine lexicon… commonly known as Bauer’s.

    So this means Liddell Scott is both classical and koine and that Bauer’s is koine.

  5. Comment #77654 posted January 8, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    In my biblical Greek class (and for those who might not know: koine Greek is the name of biblical Greek – and it is different from classical Greek) at seminary – we learned kephale the first quarter and the only definition given for the word is ‘head.’ The book is written by William D. Mounce, who is a complementarian, on the board for the ESV translation. His book Basics of Biblical Greek is one of the most common textbook for Greek students in seminaries. That might explain a lot.

    • Linda H
      Comment #105236 posted January 9, 2014 at 8:23 am

      Having done roughly 2-2 1/2 years of Greek study, I can say that, generally speaking, because Greek is a complicated language to learn, beginning Greek students are never overwhelmed with the full range of definitions that a word can have. We’d all throw our hands up in despair and ditch the pursuit! :-) It is usually just the most commonly used translation–or what has been a generally-accepted translation. Nobody gets into these debates in beginning Greek. There simply isn’t time.

  6. jlp
    Comment #77655 posted January 8, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    He doesn’t have any figurative meanings for kephale? Just the physical ‘head?’

  7. fjs
    Comment #77665 posted January 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Carrie Miles has an interesting take on head:

    So when Paul describes the husband as ‘head’ of his wife as Christ is head of the church, he draws not on a metaphor of authority but on the metaphor of the head as the source of unity. The husband does this not by leading his wife and certainly not by ruling her but rather by nurturing and serving her in such a way that they grow together head and body into one flesh.

    This definition is interpretively solid in context and relates accurately to the meaning of the text. It makes sense out of Paul’s comment when he switches to the oneness of Christ and the church in Ephesians 5:31:

    ‘As the Scriptures say, “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.” This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one.’

  8. fjs
    Comment #77666 posted January 8, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    The quote is from Carrie Mile’s article, ‘Who Is My Mother and Who Are My Brothers? Jesus and Family Values’ on the CBE website.

  9. jlp
    Comment #77667 posted January 8, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    But why the claim by some people that there is no evidence that kephale meant ‘source’ when Liddell Scott lists it? In addition, these same people claim it means ‘leader’ or ‘authority’ yet Liddell Scott doesn’t list that as one of its meanings. Why do these people say what they do in light of this?

    • Linda H
      Comment #105238 posted January 9, 2014 at 8:43 am

      It’s called “eisegesis.” (reading something INTO a verse, rather than extracting meaning OUT of it, i.e. “exegesis.”) It’s virtually impossible for anyone NOT to view Scripture with some sort of filter that is a result or previous teaching or indoctrination. Most of us can, however deliberately choose to set aside our preconceived ideas and allow Scripture to speak for itself. Unfortunately, the more arrogant a person is, the more likely he is to assume that he already knows what the Bible says–so don’t you dare disagree! I grew up in that kind of environment. Logic is rarely part of the process . . .

  10. richard
    Comment #77691 posted January 9, 2008 at 6:50 am

    It seems that Philo, who was a contemporary of Paul, used kephale as ‘head’ rather than ‘source.’

  11. Comment #77692 posted January 9, 2008 at 8:42 am

    Why do ‘they’ do this? Better to ask ‘them’ as I’m sure you have! We do each choose our own experts and feel more comfortable with translations which back up our preconceived notions, so why would convinced complementarians take any notice of a commentator who disagreed with their beliefs?

    It is illogical to us who believe/understand differently and we get frustrated when people don’t ‘get it’ but unless someone is questioning their belief they won’t be in a position to look at another viewpoint, however sound the scholarship may be.

  12. fjs
    Comment #77695 posted January 9, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Did Philo use head as ‘first,’ or as ‘leader?’

  13. jlp
    Comment #77710 posted January 9, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Richard, can you give the exact reference of Philo’s to look up? I want to check out the year and the sentence that he uses kephale in. Thanks. If you could put a link here it would be really useful.

  14. Lori
    Comment #77711 posted January 9, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    See comment 77692.

    Why do ‘they’ do this? Better to ask ‘them’ as I’m sure you have! We do each choose our own experts and feel more comfortable with translations which back up our preconceived notions, so why would convinced complementarians take any notice of a commentator who disagreed with their beliefs?

    Bingo! My dear, you just said in a paragraph what I was going to say in four words: because they want to. It really is as simple as that. You can throw around Greek definitions from now until the Lord comes back, but no dyed-in-the-wool patriarch will ever accept it because they don’t want to. Their entire worldview depends on keeping women subordinate, so for every bit of proof you offer they will quote some ‘expert’ of their own that will support their own view. I mean, look at the whole ‘Jesus is subordinate in the Trinity, so women must be subordinate on earth’ controversy. Wayne Grudem says it, so that means it’s gospel truth for his followers. End of story.

  15. richard
    Comment #77716 posted January 9, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Again, I am well out of my league on when I point to the Greek, but when I hear other arguments made, I still try to weigh them with what knowledge I have. I’ve read Webb’s book ‘Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals,’ as well as Giles ‘The Trinity and Subordinationism.’ They seem like the strongest arguments I’ve heard so far, but I did not find them convincing. I only say that to show that I really have tried to see an egalitarian point of view, but I respectfully disagree.

    Anyway, I did a search in Bibleworks on the lemma of kephale, and I’ve posted the Greek/English here.

    Note that I am posting this on my own, and my comments should be seen as coming from me, and not on behalf of the website on which I’ve posted this document.

    While I appreciate the interaction, I likely won’t be able to continue, since this is more technical than I am capable. However, I felt that the initial post was an attempt to be more provocative than informative, which is why I posted what I did. Again, thanks for the interaction!

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