We have now examined the household codes in 1 Peter and in Titus. It is now time to turn to the household codes presented in Ephesians and Colossians. These codes present a major challenge because of a one-word metaphor: kephale, meaning “head.” The word is used several times in the New Testament and the majority of instances are referring to an actual physical head. But there are eleven instances where head is used metaphorically and two are in the Ephesians’ household code (Ephesians 5:23).
A whole theology of “headship” has built up around this metaphor. Husbands are told to be in authority because Ephesians says they are to be the “head” of the house and women are to submit to their husband's “headship.” In other words, head is synonymous with “rule” or “authority.” Now many who hold to this understanding insist on what is called “soft patriarchy.” There is to be leadership by the husband but it is of servant-leadership variety, not domination.
This is not an unreasonable reading of the passage if we rely upon our Western English metaphors for the word “head.” The human head is where the brain resides and it directs the functioning of the body. The “head” of a corporation or government is the one with the power to "call the shots" just like a physical head controls the body. Therefore, when we read Ephesians 5:23 and see, “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior,” the teaching is clear. The husband is to be in authority over his wife as Christ is in authority over the church. But please note the “if” in the first sentence of this paragraph: …if we rely upon our Western English metaphors for the word “head.”
This raises a critical question: Would Greek speaking people have had the same understanding of “head” metaphors that we do? While there is overlap the answer is no.
Let us start with physical anthropology. We routinely contrast “head” and “heart” as “rational” and “emotional” respectively. But in the Greek world, rational thought, emotions and will metaphorically came from the heart. In fact, borrowing from Hebrew anthropology, Jesus suggests that he will metaphorically investigate another bodily organ to learn our innermost character:
And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds (nephros) and hearts (kardias), … Rev 2:23
Nephros is literally “kidneys” and figuratively “innermost thoughts.”
Search all you want to in the New Testament, you will not find one instance of “head” as a metaphor for reason or bodily control. Search for “heart/hearts” and you will find it used metaphorically for actions we view as coming from heart and head. Luke 2:19 says “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her …” Head? No. “…heart.” Scot McKnight, in his book about Mary, points out that “pondered in the heart” is precisely the language that would be used to describe the work of Rabbis and teachers as they reflected on events and tried to make coherent sense of them. This was not Mary sentimentally emoting about what had happened to her.
Greek anthropology does not match ours. “Head” was not the controlling organ of the body. But could head still have meant "one who exercises authority or rules?" Yes. In fact, we know that it had this metaphorical connotation in both Hebrew and Latin, just as it does in English. Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and English seem to have some metaphorical similarities. Head can mean the beginning point: “The headwaters of a river.” It can mean preeminence: “The valedictorian was at the head of her class.” It can mean first in position: “He raced to the ticket window so he could be at the head of the line.” It can mean prominence: “The theater attendant took a head count.” (“Head” symbolically representing the whole person but being the most visible and distinguishing characteristic of a person.) So what about “ruler” or “authority?”
Gordon Fee writes:
The clearest evidence for the real differences between the Jewish and Greek metaphorical uses is to be found in the Septuagint (LXX). In the hundreds of places where the Hebrew rosh is used for the literal head on a body, the translators invariably used the only word in Greek that means the same thing, kephale. But in the approximately 180 times it appears as a metaphor for the leader or chieftain, they almost always [six exceptions] eliminate the metaphor altogether and translate it arche (“leader”), which is evidence that they were uncomfortable with (unfamiliar with?) the Jewish metaphor and simply translated it out. (“Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies” in Discovering Biblical Equality. 150, fn 28)
In a similar analysis, Andrew Perriman finds eleven cases where a metaphorical use of rosh was translated kephale in the Septuagint but none of the examples carry the connotation of authority or ruler. More on that later. Further evidence comes from the language surrounding the “ruler of the synagogue” in first century Judaism. The Hebrew title is rosh ha-keneset or "head" (rosh) "of the assembly" (ha-keneset). If kephale carried the same metaphorical meaning in Greek, then we would expect to find a title that combined kephale and synagoge (the gathering). But instead we find archisynagogos, or "leader/ruler" (arche) of "the assembly" (synagogos).
Therefore, if we are to truly understand the household code in Ephesians 5 and 6, we must wrestle a bit with the “head” metaphor. A look at the use of the “head” metaphor in Greek outside the New Testament will help us better understand the biblical metaphor. There are two predominate views among those who reject the head=ruler metaphor. One sees “head” used to symbolize "origin" and "source." The other believes it is "preeminence" and "prominence." Either or both of these interpretations is at work in biblical metaphors but I suspect that the preeminence and prominence metaphor is the primary image. I will unfold this in coming posts but first I have cataloged the fictive head references in the New Testament. Ten are used by Paul and one by Peter (assuming traditional authorship.)
1 Cor 11:3
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.
18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
1 Peter 2:6-7
6 For it stands in scripture:
"See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."
7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,
"The stone that the builders rejected
has become the very head of the corner, ..."