The Meaning of Kephale ("Head"):
A Response to Recent Studies
In a 1989 issue of Trinity Journal, Richard S. Cervin published a critique
(1) of my 1985 article, "Does Kephale ('Head')
Mean 'Source' or 'Authority Over' in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples."
(2) My primary purpose in this appendix is to respond
to Cervin's critique, but I shall also interact with a number of other studies of kephale that have
been published since my 1985 work (especially those of Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, Philip Payne, Gilbert
Bilezikian, and Catherine Kroeger).
This discussion is of considerable interest today because of its relevance to women's and men's roles
in marriage. What does the New Testament mean when it says that "the husband is the head of the
wife as Christ is the head of the church?" (Ephesians 5:23), or that the "head of every
man is Christ" and the "head of a woman is her husband" (1 Corinthians 11:3)? Christians throughout
history usually have understood the word head in these verses to mean "authority over," but many
authors have denied that in the last few years, claiming instead that head in these contexts means
"source" or "origin," so that Christ is the source of every man, Christ is the source of
the church, and---referring to Adam and Eve---the man is the source of the woman. Support for this
view was claimed from some occurrences of the Greek word kephale, "head," outside the New Testament,
where it was said to take the meaning "source." Furthermore, some argued that the sense "authority over"
was uncommon or unknown in Greek and would have been unintelligible to Paul's readers. (Dr. Cervin's
recent article also denied the meaning "authority over" in these texts, but he proposed not "source" but
"preeminence" as an alternative meaning.)
II. Response to Richard Cervin
At the outset it should be said that, even if I were to agree with all of Dr. Cervin's article (which
is certainly not the case, as will be seen below), the outcome would be to finish this discussion much
nearer to the position I first advocated than to the one I opposed. Specifically, Cervin concludes the
a. The meaning "source" is not "common" (as most egalitarians assert today). Rather,
Cervin concludes that it is "quite rare" (p. 112), and he comes up with only one certain example where
he thinks kephale clearly means "source" (Herodotus 4.91, a fifth-century B.C. text on the sources
of a river, which was analyzed extensively in my earlier article).
b. Cervin says that head does not mean either "authority" or "source" in Paul's epistles,
but rather means "preeminent." Cervin writes:
What then does Paul mean by his use of head in his letters? He does not mean
"authority over," as the traditionalists assert, nor does he mean "source" as the egalitarians assert.
I think he is merely employing a head-body metaphor, and that his point is preeminence. (p. 112)
Cervin goes on to explain how this would apply to the passages on husband and wife in the New Testament:
How can the husband be preeminent over his wife? In the context of the male-dominant
culture of which Paul was a part, such a usage would not be inappropriate. (p. 112)
So it seems to me that even if all of Cervin's criticisms of my article were valid, his article would
still have to be seen as a rejection of the egalitarian claim that kephale means "source" in the
New Testament, and an affirmation of an understanding of the New Testament teaching on male headship that
is congenial with (though not identical to) the one that I previously argued for. If his final explanation
of the meaning "preeminent" with reference to "the male-dominant culture of which Paul was a part"
(3) were correct, his article would have to be seen as
a modification of my position, not a rejection of it.
However, my response to Dr. Cervin must go deeper than that, because I do not think that he has (1) used
proper methodology, (2) correctly evaluated the evidence, (3) represented my own article with complete
fairness, or (4) come to correct conclusions.
A. The Rejection of Data Closest to the New Testament Writings
1. Rejection of New Testament Examples
One of the most surprising aspects of Dr. Cervin's article is that he dismisses all the New Testament
examples of kephale without examining one of them. Yet he concludes his article by telling us what
Paul did and did not mean by kephale (p. 112).
With regard to the 12 New Testament passages in which I claimed that the context indicated that the
meaning "authority over" was appropriate for kephale , Cervin says,
First of all, 12 of these passages (nos. 38-49) are from the NT, and are therefore
illegitimate as evidence, since they are disputed texts. In citing these NT passages, Grudem commits the
logical fallacy of assuming what he sets out to prove. The whole purpose of Grudem's study is to determine
whether or not kephale can denote "authority over" or "leader" in Paul's epistles. He cannot therefore
cite Paul as supporting evidence. (p. 94)
But Cervin here fails to distinguish "assuming what one sets out to prove" from arguing for a meaning
from context, which is what I did in my article in each case (pp. 56-58)
(4). If Cervin disagrees with my arguments from the
context of these New Testament examples, then it would be appropriate to give reasons why he disagrees. But
it is hardly legitimate linguistic analysis to dismiss them out of hand.
This is especially significant when we realize that a number of the New Testament examples of head
have nothing to do with husband-wife relationships in marriage but speak of Christ's universal rule. For
example, "he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the
church" (Ephesians 1:22). Here head is clearly a metaphor, and it occurs in a context dealing with
Christ's authority "over all things" and the fact that God the Father "has put all things under his feet."
It is hard to avoid the sense of "authority over" or "ruler" in this case, since the fact of Christ's
universal authority is so clearly mentioned in the very sentence in which the word occurs
Similarly, Colossians 2:10 says that Christ is "the head of all rule and authority"---clearly
implying that Christ is the greater leader or authority over all other authorities in the universe.
Moreover, in a context in which Paul says that "the church is subject to Christ," he says that "Christ
is the head of the church" (Ephesians 5:23-24). Once again the idea of Christ's authority over the
church seems so relevant to Paul's statements in the immediate context that it is surprising that Cervin
thinks such texts can be dismissed without any discussion at all.
Other New Testament texts could be mentioned, but at least it should be clear that it is highly unusual
to conclude an article with a statement about what Paul could have meant by the word kephale when
one has not examined Paul's own uses of kephale at any point in the article. I do not recall ever
before reading an article that concluded with a pronouncement about what a certain author meant by the
use of a word but did not examine any of the uses of the word by that author himself. Would Cervin do
this for Plato or Aristotle? If the meaning of a certain term as used by Aristotle was "under dispute"
because some author had recently challenged the traditional understanding of Aristotle's use of that word,
I imagine Dr. Cervin would use the following procedure:
1. He would first look carefully at the uses of that term in Aristotle and try to decide
from the context what meaning the word had in each case.
2. Next he would look at the uses of that word in literature closest to Aristotle
in time (what linguists call "synchronic analysis" of a term).
3. Then he would look at uses further away in time, subject matter, and culture---writers
who shared less of a common linguistic stock with Aristotle because of the possible changes in language
over time. ("Diachronic analysis" refers to such tracing of the different uses of a word over time.)
Such a procedure would be characteristic of sound linguistic analysis.
But this is just the opposite of what Cervin does, for he dismisses the New Testament texts without
examining even one verse. Then by other means he dismisses examples from other literature closest to the
2. Rejection of Septuagint Examples
The Septuagint (LXX) was the everyday Bible used most commonly by the New Testament authors and by
Greek-speaking Christians throughout the New Testament world. Yet Cervin dismisses the value of its evidence
because it is a translation: "As a translation, the LXX is valuable as a secondary source, not as
a primary one (pp. 95-96) (6) At the end of the article
Of the four clear examples, three are from the LXX and one is from the Shepherd of Hermas,
and it is very likely that all four of these are imported, not native, metaphors.... Does kephale
denote "authority over" or "leader"? No. The only clear and unambiguous examples of such a meaning stem
from the Septuagint and The Shepherd of Hermas, and the metaphor may well have been influenced from Hebrew
in the Septuagint. The metaphor "leader" for head is alien to the Greek language until the Byzantine
or Medieval period. (pp. 111-112)
But if the Septuagint was indeed the Bible used by the New Testament authors and Christians throughout
the New Testament world (as it was), then the fact that it was a translation made two centuries earlier
does not mean that its examples of the use of kephale are irrelevant as evidence. To dismiss these
as irrelevant would be similar to someone trying to find out what American evangelical Christians in 1990
meant by the use of a word and then saying that the use of that word in the NASB or NIV
Bibles could not count as evidence because those Bibles were "translations" and therefore may not reflect
native English uses of the word.
In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Though the Septuagint is not perfect as a translation, it was
certainly adequate to be used throughout the Greek-speaking world for several hundred years. To some extent
it reflected the use of Greek common at the time it was translated, and to some extent (as all widely
accepted Bible translations do) it influenced the language of the people who used it. Because of both of
these facts, the usage of a word in the Septuagint is extremely important for determining the meaning
of a word in the New Testament. The standard Greek lexicon for the New Testament and other early Christian
literature (by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker) quotes the Septuagint more frequently than any other
corpus of literature outside the New Testament for that very reason. In fact, in his "Introduction" to
this lexicon Walter Bauer says, "As for the influence of the LXX, every page of this lexicon shows that
it outweighs all other influences on our literature." (7)
Sound linguistic analysis would recognize this and would pay closest attention to the literature most
closely related to the corpus of literature in question. But Cervin fails to admit such evidence as
relevant, and this must be counted as a major methodological flaw in his argument.
3. Rejection of the Apostolic Fathers
The other corpus of literature most closely related to the New Testament is commonly referred to as
"the Apostolic Fathers" (the name originally was intended to signify authors who knew the apostles personally).
These writings are also extremely valuable for understanding New Testament usage, because the proximity
in time, culture, and subject matter means that these writers shared a linguistic stock that was almost
exactly the same as that of the New Testament writers. Yet again with regard to a citation from the Shepherd
of Hermas (Similitudes 7:3, where a husband is referred to as "the head of your household"), Cervin
admits that the sense "leader" attaches to the word head, but he rejects this as valid evidence
for the use of a word in the New Testament because he says that the author was unknown: "We do not know
who wrote the Shepherd…. If the author were a foreigner, it is entirely possible that this metaphor could
have been calqued from his own native language. If this were the case, then this would be another example
of an imported, not a native metaphor" (p. 105).
But this is hardly a sufficient basis on which to reject the evidence of this quotation. The Shepherd
of Hermas was so widely known in the early Christian world that for at least two centuries many thought
that it should be included as part of the New Testament canon (in 325 Eusebius still classified it among
the "disputed books"; see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.3.6).
4. Rejection of Examples from Plutarch
Plutarch (ca. 50-ca. 120 A.D.) was a secular Greek historian and philosopher. Because he lived so close
to the time of the New Testament, his writings are another useful source for understanding the meanings
of Greek words around the time of the New Testament. But Cervin rejects three examples of kephale
meaning "authority over" in Plutarch because he says they may have been a translation from Latin.
Regarding two examples in Plutarch, Cicero 14.4, where head is used as a metaphor for the Roman
emperor, Cervin admits that they refer to a "leader," but objects that the examples are illegitimate primarily
because (8) "Cataline was speaking in Latin, not
Greek... and it is equally possible that Plutarch translated the Latin rather literally for the sake of the
'riddle.' If this were so, then this use of head for 'leader' is really a Latin metaphor, and not a
Greek one…. These examples are therefore illegitimate" (p. 102).
Then regarding Plutarch, Galba, 4.3, he says, "Galba was a Roman, not a Greek, and that this
passage, like the preceding, may have been influenced by Latin. Ziegler provides no known source material
for this passage in Plutarch. This example is therefore dubious" (p. 103).
But in response we must remember that Plutarch wrote not in Latin but in Greek, and that Plutarch
certainly thought himself to be writing Greek that was understandable to his readers. Whether or not the
text was based on some Latin source material does not provide legitimate grounds for rejecting these examples.
5. Rejection of Patristic Evidence
Cervin then rejects any instances of head meaning "authority" from the period immediately after
that of the Apostolic Fathers, the period of the Patristic writings. He admits that in Lampe's Patristic
Greek Lexicon there are many citations referring to Christ as the "head of the church," and a few
citations where kephale refers to "religious superiors or bishops" (p. 107). These references would
seem to be strong evidence that kephale could mean "authority over" or "leader." But Cervin dismisses
these examples with the following sentence: "It appears that the use of head in Patristic Greek
is a technical term referring primarily to Christ, and occasionally to members of the ecclesiastical order"
But what kind of linguistic analysis is Cervin doing here? If the examples of kephale meaning
"authority over" are few, he calls them "rare." If the examples are many (as in the Patristic literature),
he says it is a "technical term." One wonders what kind of evidence would satisfy him so that kephale
does mean "authority over"? He concludes, "Grudem's citation of Lampe is misleading" (p. 107), but by what
kind of logic do examples that support a case become "misleading"? It is not clear to me how he can reason
that instances of kephale where it refers to Christ or to church officers in authority over the
church do not show that kephale can mean "leader" or "authority over."
6. Rejection of New Testament Lexicons
In addition to dismissing without examination, or explaining away, the instances of kephale
meaning "authority over" from the New Testament, the Septuagint, the Apostolic Fathers, Plutarch, and the
Patristic writers, Cervin also dismisses evidence from all the lexicons that specialize in the New Testament
period and impugns the competence of their authors. He asks,
If "leader" is a common understanding of kephale, as Grudem claims, then
why is it apparently never so listed in any Greek lexicon outside the purview of the NT? I offer several
possible reasons, not the least of which is tradition and a male-dominant world view.
As Cervin continues his explanation, he for some reason repeatedly refers to those who write lexicons
specializing in the New Testament period as theologians:
The expertise of theologians (9)
is the NT, not Classical, or even Hellenistic Greek, per se. While it may be true that some theologians
have had a grounding in Classical Greek (especially those of the 19th century), they spend their time
pondering the NT, not Plato, Herodotus, or Plutarch.… Another reason stems from Latin…. The Latin word
for "head," caput, does have the metaphorical meaning of "leader."… Thus, for English speaking
theologians, at least, English, Hebrew, and Latin all share "leader" as a common metaphor for
head. Thus, the forces of tradition, a male-dominant culture, the identical metaphor in three languages,
and a less-than-familiar understanding of the Greek language as a whole, could, in my mind, very easily
lead theologians to assume that the metaphor of "leader" for head must be appropriate for Greek
as well. (p. 87)
The result of this analysis is that Cervin rejects the judgment of the editors of those lexicons that
specialize in the very period of the Greek language for which his article intends to give us a meaning
But several objections must be raised against Cervin's evaluation of the value of these lexicons:
(a) The assertion that the authors of New Testament lexicons do not read "Plato, Herodotus, or Plutarch"
simply indicates a lack of familiarity with the Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker lexicon, whose pages are peppered
with thousands of references to extra-Biblical authors, frequently including Plato, Herodotus, and Plutarch,
as well as many, many others. The primary author of this lexicon, Professor Walter Bauer of Guttingen
University, worked for more than thirty years at this task (see BAGD, pp. v-vi), during which time he
"undertook a systematic search in Greek literature" for "parallels to the language of the New Testament"
(ibid.). Moises Silva says,
Bauer was fully sensitive to the need not to isolate the New Testament language from
the contemporary speech and thus his work abounds with thousands of invaluable references to secular literature
where parallel constructions occur---these references alone make Bauer's Lexicon a veritable treasure
While Cervin cites with approval many specialized lexicons for authors such as Xenophon, Plato, Sophocles,
etc. (pp. 86-87), he makes the serious mistake of rejecting the value of Bauer's lexicon. By contrast,
Moises Silva says of Bauer's lexicon, "It may be stated categorically that this is the best specialized
dictionary available for any ancient literature." (11)
(b) One may wonder if Cervin would follow a similar procedure when attempting to determine the meaning
of a Greek word in some other specialized corpus of literature. Would he reject the use of a specialized
lexicon for Aristotle, for example, when attempting to determine the meaning of a word in Aristotle, simply
because the authors of the lexicon spent more of their time looking at Aristotle's words? And would he
call the authors of an Aristotle lexicon "philosophers" (rather than "linguists") because the subject matter
about which Aristotle wrote was philosophy? Similarly, would he insist on calling the linguists who wrote
a specialty lexicon for Herodotus "historians" (rather than "linguists") because Herodotus wrote about
history? The editors of New Testament Greek lexicons (such as BAGD) should not be dismissed so easily.
(c) It is not immediately apparent why "tradition and a male-dominant world view" would have any effect
on a scholar trying to determine what the New Testament means when it says that God made Christ "the head
over all things for the church" (Ephesians 1:22), or says that Christ is the "head of all rule and
authority" (Colossians 2:10). Rather than a male-dominant worldview, the only thing required for someone
to see "authority over" in these passages would be an ability to recognize that the first-century authors
had a "Christ-dominant" worldview and expressed that in their writings.
(d) The fact that head can mean "leader" in English, Hebrew, and Latin should not influence a
competent team of editors to see that meaning in Greek unless the context required it in various places.
The argument must simply be decided on the basis of the actual Greek texts in which such a meaning is
claimed to be found---but Cervin does not provide us with any such analysis for the important New Testament
7. Acceptance of Specialized Lexicons Distant from the New Testament Period
It is surprising that Cervin gives extensive weight to lexicons specializing in authors far distant
from the New Testament period. Thus, he gives a long list of lexicons that he examined and in which he
did not find the meaning "authority over, leader" for kephale. What he does not tell the reader,
and what certainly would not be evident to the non-technically trained reader of Trinity Journal
who sees this long list of titles of Greek lexicons (many with Latin titles), is the dates of the
authors for whom these specialty lexicons give definitions. But the authors covered by the lexicons (with
dates) are as follows (following the order in Cervin's list, pp. 86-87):
Xenophon - 4th century B.C.
Plato - 5th/4th century B.C.
Thucydides - 5th century B.C.
Sophocles - 5th century B.C.
Aeschylus - 5th century B.C.
Theocritus - 3rd century B.C.
Homer - 8th century B.C.
Herodotus - 5th century B.C.
Polybius - 2nd century B.C.
Plotinus - 3rd century A.D.
Diodorus Siculus - 1st century B.C.
What is proved by such a survey? The impression given the reader is that Cervin has found new evidence,
but he has not. Rather, he has only shown my earlier study to be affirmed by these additional lexicons. I
searched several of those authors exhaustively for the term kephale in my earlier study, and (with
the exception of one citation in Herodotus and one in Plato), I did not find the meaning "authority over"
in any of those authors either. But most of them (with the exception of Polybius and Diodorus Siculus) are
quite distant from the time of the New Testament---far more distant than the instances in the New Testament,
the Septuagint, and the Apostolic Fathers, which Cervin dismisses.
But a further question arises. Why is a lexicon on Plato or Thucydides given more credence than a specialty
lexicon in the New Testament period? In his selection of evidence from lexicons, as well as in his admission
of examples of kephale as relevant evidence, Cervin places evidence that is most distant
chronologically on a much higher level than evidence that is chronologically nearest to the writings
of Paul. He thus fails to carry out the careful synchronic analysis necessary to good lexical research.
8. Conclusion: A Flawed Methodology Producing an Erroneous Conclusion
What is the outcome of this procedure? Cervin by one means or another places all the examples where
kephale means "authority over" in special categories: the New Testament texts are "under dispute."
The Septuagint is a "translation." Shepherd of Hermas may have been written by a "foreigner." The Patristic
writings use kephale as a "technical term." The citations from Plutarch "may have been influenced
by Latin." And the New Testament lexicons were influenced by "tradition and a male-dominant world view"
as well as "a less-than-familiar understanding of the Greek language as a whole." Thus, by eliminating
all the examples where kephale means "authority over" in the New Testament period, Cervin is enabled
to conclude that kephale did not mean "authority over" "until the Byzantine or Medieval period"
(p. 112). Yet we must keep in mind that he can do this only by the incorrect linguistic method of deciding
that all the relevant texts from the second century B.C. to several centuries after the New Testament do
not count as evidence. It seems fair to conclude that Cervin's article is fundamentally flawed at the
outset in its methodology, a methodology that wrongly excludes the most relevant data for this investigation
and thereby leads him to an erroneous conclusion. On this basis alone, we must reject Cervin's claim that
kephale did not mean "authority over" at the time of the New Testament.
We can now examine Cervin's analysis of specific texts in more detail.
Grudem's response to Cervin's claim that "kephale" may mean "source" in some texts
B. The Claim that Kephale May Mean "Source" in Some Texts
1. Herodotus 4.91.
Cervin does not claim that the meaning "source" is common for kephale, but he thinks that it
occurs at least once where it clearly takes that sense:
Can kephale denote "source"? The answer is yes, in Herodotus 4.91; perhaps,
in the Orphic Fragment and elsewhere (in Artemidorus Daldianus, T. Reuben [no. 17], and in
Philo [nos. 21-22]). Is the meaning "source" common? Hardly! It is quite rare. (p. 112)
But are Cervin's arguments convincing concerning the one clear example of the meaning "source," which
he finds in Herodotus 4.91? Cervin says that "Grudem… has failed to comprehend Herodotus" (p. 89), and
then he goes on to quote the Herodotus passage at length, showing that "in context, it is clear that Herodotus
is discussing the 'source' (pegai) of the Tearus River…. The context of this passage should make
it abundantly clear that Herodotus is using kephalai as a synonym of pegai, referring to
the source of the Tearus" (p. 90).
But it is unclear from this how Cervin has said anything different from what I said in my first article
when I said that "someone speaking of the 'heads' of a river is speaking of the many 'ends' of a river
where tributaries begin to flow toward the main stream" (p. 44), and when I cited the Liddell-Scott reference
to kephale as "the source of a river," but pointed out that they only said that it had that meaning
"in the plural." I agree completely that kephalai (plural) in this statement by Herodotus does refer
to the sources of the Tearus River. But Cervin has said nothing in answer to my analysis of this statement,
where I suggest that the quotation uses "head" in a commonly accepted sense, namely, "beginning point,
furthest extremity, end point," and that the quotation does not show that kephale could mean
"source" in any general sense. In fact, the only "sources" that are called by the term kephale are those
that are also at the geographical or physical "end point" of something. This explains why the "mouth" of
a river (the other end point) can equally well be called the head (kephale) of a river.
This fact would not make sense at all if kephale meant "source" generally, but it does make sense
if kephale means "end point" generally. Cervin has failed to address this understanding of kephale
as an alternative explanation to the general sense "source."
Moreover, it should be noted that Liddell-Scott itself agrees with my analysis of the Herodotus quotation.
The overall structure of the kephale article in Liddell-Scott is as follows (I have reproduced
the outline structure exactly as it is in Liddell-Scott-Jones):
1. Head of Man or Beast
a. Down over the head
b. On the head
c. From head to foot
d. Head foremost
2. As the noblest part, periphrastically for the whole person
4. In imprecations, on my head be it!
1. Of things, extremity
a. In Botany
b. In Anatomy
c. Generally, top, brim of a vessel… coping of a wall… capital of a column
d. In plural, source of a river, Herodotus 4.91 (but singular, mouth;
generally, source, origin, Orphic Fragments 21a; starting point [examples: the head of time; the
head of a month])
e. Extremity of a plot of land
III. Bust of Homer
IV. Wig, head dress
1. The pièce de résistance
2. Crown, completion
3. Sum, total
4. Band of men
5. Astronomy, "head of the world"
This outline indicates that the definition "source" (II.d.) was never intended by Liddell-Scott to be
taken as a general definition applied to all sorts of "sources," but they were simply indicating that the
general category "Of things, extremity" was illustrated by the fact that both the beginning point and end
point (the source and the mouth) of a river could be referred to with the term kephale
Neither Cervin nor Liddell-Scott give any citations where kephale is applied to a person and
clearly means "source."
2. Orphic Fragments 21a.
This text by an unknown author from the fifth century B.C. or earlier was analyzed at some length in
my earlier article (see pp. 45-46). The text reads, "Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, Zeus from whom all
things are perfected."
Cervin concludes that several different meanings are possible here and no clear decision can be made:
Grudem's understanding of "beginning" for this fragment is quite valid. However, the
understanding of "source" is also quite valid… Zeus as the "head/beginning/source/ origin/ cause" are all
plausible readings. This fragment contains a series of epithets of Zeus. Otherwise, there is really no
context which can be appealed to in order to settle which meaning(s) were intended by the author. (p. 91)
At this point I concur with Cervin's analysis and simply note that the ambiguity of the text makes it
illegitimate to use it as a clear example of kephale meaning "source."
3. Other Possible Examples of the Meaning "Source"
Cervin briefly analyzes a few other texts that have been cited by Philip Payne
(13) as examples of the meaning "source." These texts
are Philo, Preliminary Studies 61; Philo, On Rewards and Punishments, 125; and six instances
in Artemidorus Daldianus, Onirocriticon (Cervin, pp. 92-94). But Cervin does not see any of these as
certain examples of the meaning "source," for he simply concludes that kephale "perhaps" has
this sense in some of those passages (he is doubtful about a number of the passages Payne cites).
(14) I will discuss these passages more fully below
in the section on Philip Payne's article (15).