hese words in 1 Cor. 11:3 are easily part of one of the most difficult and debated passages in all of Paul's epistles. What, precisely, does he mean when he says that "man is the head of woman"? How are we to understand the assertion of 1 Cor. 11:7, which follows the "head" passage, that man "is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man"? And finally, who are "the angels" in 1 Cor. 11:10, due to whom "the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head"?
These sayings, because they appear in the same immediate context (1 Cor. 11:2-16) are closely tied to one another; thus in my interpretation I shall occasionally need to refer to matter treated in one or both of the other sayings.
In 1 Cor. 11:3 the often-heated debate centers on the meaning of the word head (a literal rendering of the Greek kephale). For most English readers of the text, the common figurative sense of "head" as ruler, leader, chief, boss, director suggests itself almost immediately. Such an understanding of "head" as connoting "authority over" leads to an interpretation of this text (and of Ephes. 5:22-23) as Paul's teaching about hierarchical order in the relation between men and women. Some who stand within this interpretive tradition go so far as to posit a "chain of command," where authority is passed along: from God to Christ to man to woman.
While the NIV, RSV, NASB and NEB are cautious in their translation, rendering the Greek kephale with its literal English equivalent "head," other contemporary versions opt for a figurative meaning. Thus the TEV renders kephale with "supreme over." The LB's paraphrase becomes even more interpretive when it renders the text: "a wife is responsible to her husband, her husband is responsible to Christ, and Christ is responsible to God."
Even when such explicit interpretations of the term kephale are not employed, the literal "head," as in the NIV, implicitly suggests an interpretation along the same lines because of the common understanding of "head" in English when applied to persons in relationships such as marriage or other institutions. Common phrases like "she is head of the division" or "he is the head of his family" illustrate this everyday metaphorical meaning of "head" in our language.
Apart from the question whether this common English meaning is also the common Greek meaning of "head" when used figuratively, serious issues are raised by such an interpretation. How are we to see the relation between Christ and God? If God occupies a rank superior to Christ, then we have here a revival of the ancient heresy of "subordinationism" and a challenge to the classical doctrine of the Trinity.
Further, if husbands (or men; the Greek word is the same) are under the authority of Christ, and wives (or women; the same Greek word) are under the authority of husbands/men, do we then not have a situation where women stand only in indirect relation to Christ, via their husbands? Such a conclusion is in fact reached by some when they understand the series (God - Christ - Man - Woman) as indicating a "growing distance from God," or by others who extend the "chain of command" to children (on the basis of Ephes. 5:21-6:4) and maintain that the woman's authority over her children is a "derived" authority; that is, she exercises that authority "on behalf of" her husband.
The core issue in our attempt to grasp Paul's instruction is this: what meaning, or meanings, did the word kephale have in the common Greek language of the New Testament period? How would Greek-speaking Christians in Corinth have heard Paul when he used kephale? And how did this help them understand Paul's instructions concerning appropriate decorum in their public worship (1 Cor. 11:4-16)? To answer these questions attention will be given to linguistic data, Paul's use of kephale elsewhere in his epistles, and the thrust of his argument in 1 Cor. 11:2-16.
The linguistic evidence points strongly, if not overwhelmingly, away from the common reading of head as "chief," "ruler," "authority over," though there are many conservative scholars who would challenge this. The most exhaustive Greek-English Lexicon covering Greek literature from about 900 b.c. to a.d. 600, among numerous metaphorical meanings for kephale does not give a single definition to indicate that in ordinary Greek usage it included the meaning "superior rank" or "supreme over" or "leader" or "authority."
What is especially interesting in this lexicographic evidence is that in the 1897 eighth revised edition of this lexicon, the final entry under "metaphorical" meanings is "of persons, a chief." But not a single citation from the literature is given to support or illustrate such a definition. Therefore, in light of the lack of evidence, that definition is not included in the later editions. However, among the range of meanings which kephale had in ordinary Greek were "origin" or "source" or "starting point" and "crown" or "completion" or "consummation." As we shall see below, these meanings do far greater justice to the Pauline usages of kephale than the "authority" nuances conveyed by the English "head."
Strong support for the linguistic evidence (that is, that the metaphorical range of meanings of kephale did not normally include the ideas of "authority over" or "superior rank") comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly called the Septuagint) made between approximately 250-150 b.c. by a large group of Jewish scholars for the Jews living outside Palestine whose first, and sometimes only, language was Greek.
Like the English word "head" and the Greek word kephale, the Hebrew word ro?š has first of all the literal meaning "head of man or beast." But like English and Greek, it also has numerous figurative meanings. In an exhaustive study of how the Septuagint translators rendered the Hebrew word ro?š, the following data emerged. In the more than 200 times when it refers to a physical head, the translators almost always used kephale. About 180 times, ro?š clearly has the figurative meaning of "leader" or "chief" or "authority figure" of a group. There is thus a close similarity between the English "head" and the Hebrew ro?š figuratively, both frequently designate an authority figure.
When the translators, however, sought the appropriate Greek word to render this figurative meaning, they used not kephale but archon (and its derivatives) in the great majority of cases (138 times). Archon means "ruler," "commander," "leader." Its derivatives include meanings such as "authority," "chief," "captain," "prince," "chief of tribe," "head of family." Most of the remaining occurrences of ro?š (when it designates an authority figure) are translated by several other specific Greek words (such as hegeomai, "to have dominion over"). In only eight out of 180 cases was kephale used to translate ro?š when it designated the leader or ruler of a group. It is very possible that one of the figurative meanings of kephale (namely, "top" or "crown") allowed the translator to use it in describing a prominent individual. It may also be that in these few cases one of the Septuagint translators simply used the literal equivalent for ro?š, namely kephale (since both mean "head"). This is in fact what happens all too frequently in any translation when it is too literal. The exact equivalent may, in fact, distort the meaning conveyed by the original in its own context.
It is clear from this data that the Greek translators were keenly aware that kephale did not normally have a metaphorical meaning equivalent to that of ro?š. This linguistic evidence, which suggests that the idea of "authority over" was not native to the Greek kephale, has led numerous scholars to see behind Paul's use of "head" either the meaning "source, origin" or "top, crown, completion."
Another factor to take into consideration is that nowhere else in the New Testament is kephale used to designate a figure of authority. If that had been a prominent meaning, it could have served well in numerous places in the Gospels where the head or master of a household appears; yet it is never used to convey this meaning (see, for example, Matthew 10:25; Matthew 13:52; Luke 13:25; Luke 14:21).
If the readers of Paul's Greek did not hear our "headship" concept in the word kephale, but rather the idea of "source, origin," what did it convey to them, and how did that meaning in 1 Cor. 11:3 lay the foundation for Paul's admonitions about appropriate hair length and decorum in public worship? Cyril of Alexandria, an important Greek-speaking leader of the church in the fourth century, commenting on this text wrote: "Thus we say that the kephale of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephale of woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephale of Christ is God, because he is from him according to nature."
This interpretation meets all the requirements of the passage and its context, and at the same time sheds light on several other of Paul's statements where both Christ and the man are designated as "head" of something or someone (Ephes. 4:15; Ephes. 5:23; Col. 1:15-20; Col. 2:19). Paul, as other New Testament writers, affirms Christ as the one by whom all things were created (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16).
Thus Paul can say that Christ, as God's agent of creation, gave the first man, and thus every man, life ("Christ is the source of man's life"). Such a meaning is confirmed by the fact that in the same passage (1 Cor. 11:7-9) he clearly has the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in mind. Though it is obvious that, in a final sense, Christ/God is also the source of the woman's life (1 Cor. 11:12), Paul is here considering the sequence of creation of the human species in Genesis 2.
This temporal, sequential thought continues in the sentence "And the head of the woman is man" (that is, "the man is the source of woman's life"). According to Genesis 2:21-23 Adam is the origin of Eve's being. And it is precisely this Old Testament text which Paul has in mind (1 Cor. 11:8, 12). That "source" is the appropriate meaning of kephale in 1 Cor. 11:3 is confirmed by Paul's "source" language in his appeal to Genesis 2.
Behind this temporal sequence stands God ("everything comes from God"; that is, God is the source of everything; see 1 Cor. 8:6). Therefore, "the head of Christ is God" (that is, the source of Christ's being is God). Cyril of Alexandria said, "the kephale of Christ is God because he is from him according to nature" (emphasis mine). Though Cyril's language reflects the later trinitarian discussion, his affirmation is solidly grounded in the New Testament. According to John 1:1-14, the Word, which was God and was with God, came forth and became flesh in the Incarnation.
In John 8:42, John 13:3 and John 16:27 Jesus is said to have come from God.
It would therefore seem best to translate 1 Cor. 11:3 as "I want you to understand that Christ is the source of man's being; the man is the source of woman's being; and God is the source of Christ's being." When read like this, it lays a solid foundation for, and sheds light on, the rest of the passage (1 Cor. 11:4-16), in which the next two hard sayings are located.