Is a Husband Supposed to be in Charge of His Wife?

Last weekend I camped out with two of my granddaughters. To pass the time before lights out, we lounged on our sleeping bags and played some games. Everything was going fine until we ran into some difficulties with the second one.

The idea was to work together to make up a story, each person adding a line or two to the plot. The point was to see if we could keep a cohesive story going in spite of having three different authors.

Evelyn, first as usual, launched a narrative about a fairy queen. Layla and I picked up on the theme, gradually adding a few twists and turns, including an evil king who threatened the very existence of the idyllic fairy world.

That plot twist, however, was unacceptable to Evie. The world she envisioned was completely lovely, filled with colorful butterflies and lush foliage and certainly, by no means, included the threat of an evil king.

Things went downhill from there until we abandoned the tale of the fairy queen.

What went wrong in our little game?

Instead of approaching things with an open mind, Evelyn brought preconceived ideas to the task that defined what could and could not be true in fairyland.

Some of us do the same with biblical interpretation. We bring our preconceived ideas to the task, determining in advance what can and cannot be true in Bible land.

This may be nowhere more evident than in the assumptions we make about the non-literal meaning of the word “head” (kephalē in Greek). We read that a husband is the head of his wife and Christ is the head of the church, and we assume the point is that those two guys are in charge of their brides.

We instinctively do this because that’s what the metaphor would mean in English. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the figurative meaning for head in this type of expression as “the person in charge of something; a director or leader.”[1] The same holds true for numerous other languages, including Latin, Hebrew, Spanish and German.

But that’s not necessarily the case with Greek. In fact, one old but significant study states that “in normal Greek usage, classical or contemporary, kephalē does not signify ‘head’ in the sense of ruler, or chieftain, of a community.”[2]

This is why Greek lexicons that focus on how kephalē was used before the New Testament was written do not contain a single meaning that implies leader or authority. Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon lists “forty-eight English equivalents of figurative meanings of kephalē,” yet not one that implies “leader, authority, first or supreme.”[3]

It’s also why the Jewish scribes who translated the Old Testament into the Greek version Paul would have been familiar with avoided kephalē like the plague when the Hebrew ro’sh (head) meant “ruler” or “leader.”[4]

And it’s not because they weren’t familiar with the word. Of 239 cases where ro’sh refers to a literal head, translators used kephalē 226 times. Of the 180 occurrences where ro’sh is used figuratively of a leader or ruler, however, they only used kephalē about 12 times.[5]

Why did the translators of the Septuagint steer clear of using the Greek word for head (kephalē) to mean “leader” 95% of the time? Anyone who has ever done any interpreting knows that whenever possible you retain the metaphor by using the original words. If the words “break a leg” mean “good luck” in the target language, then you use them. If they would lead to confusion, as “break a leg” would in most cases, you go the literal route and say “good luck.”

Staying close to the original can be super challenging when you’re doing on-the-spot interpreting for a speaker addicted to metaphor, and you don’t honestly know what the same words in Spanish or German or Swahili or whatever would imply.

I would know. (Not with Swahili.)

My point is that you only look for different words when using the same words would cause the meaning to be unclear or change it altogether. Otherwise you stick with the original, word-for-word communication. You see this in the way ro’sh and kephalē are translated in Bibles today. English, German and Spanish stick with the original and use head, Kopf, and cabeza, since the figurative meaning of these words is deemed the same as for ro’sh and kephalē. But French Bibles avoid tête when ro’sh and kephalē are assumed to mean “authority” or “leader,” since the translators do not believe it conveys that idea.

And that is exactly what the 70-plus translators of the Old Testament into Greek did almost every time.

If we go on the evidence provided by the men who were experts in the Hebrew and Greek of the time, kephalē would not naturally be understood to connote “leader” or “ruler.”

If head in Greek did not mean leader, then what did it mean? What are the figurative uses of kephalē? Liddell and Scott give “source,” “origin,” “life,” and “starting-point” as a few.[6]

Why would that be? In what universe does “head” mean source, origin or life? We need to look at some ancient examples to get inside this ancient Greek kephalē.[7]

Philo, a first century AD Jewish philosopher, employed kephalē in a head-body combination like we find in the New Testament, so his usage has particular relevance to Paul’s writings. For Philo, the virtuous person is the “head” of the human race and everyone else together constitutes the “body.”

What is the function of the head in Philo’s paradigm? To rule, to direct, to lead?


The function of the head is to give life to the body.

The virtuous one, whether single man or people, will be the head of the human race and all the others like the limbs of a body which draw their life from the forces in the head and at the top.[8]

The purpose of Philo’s head-body metaphor is not to explain that or how or why one person rules over everyone else.[9] In fact, the point seems to be the opposite: the head provides sustenance to the rest of the human race, which is likened to its body, a part of itself.

According to Philo, being the head of the human race means you are the source of life for the rest of humanity.[10]

This usage sounds strange to us, since we would not naturally think of our heads as our source of provision, sustenance, or identity, as ancient Greeks did. Why was kephalē used to identify an individual who was the source of life for others?

Two citations from Artemidorus Daldiani (second century AD) help us answer that question.

Another man dreamt he was beheaded. In real life, the father of this man, too, died; for as the head is the source of life and light for the whole body, he was responsible for the dreamer’s life and light.[11]

The head resembles parents in that it is the cause of one’s living.[12]

Artemidorus points out the primary function of our physical heads according to the ancient Greek understanding of human physiology, explaining the same idea in two different ways: the head is the “source of life and light” for the body and “the cause of one’s living.” In other words, in Greek physiology the rest of the body was believed to draw its life from the head.

This made the head the source of life.

Artemidorus used this concept to argue that since, in another way, our parents are our source of life, it only makes sense that our heads (faces) resemble our parents. So if you dream that you’re beheaded, Artie goes on to say, it might mean your father is going to die.

The logical links are a bit obscure, if you ask me, but you get the drift: our physical heads are our source of life in one way, our parents are our source of life in another, so a dream about losing one’s head could mean you’re going to lose a parent.

Watch out for those dreams of being beheaded.

The figurative usage of head to mean source or source of life apparently grew out of this understanding of the function of our literal heads as our literal source of life.[13] This concept is the basis for Philo’s understanding of humanity drawing its life from the “head.”

Besides the example from Philo, classical Greek thought identified Zeus as the head, or source, of everything. A fragment of an Orphic hymn puts it like this.

Zeus is the head, Zeus the middle, and from Zeus all things are completed.[14]

Zeus is the beginning, the middle, and the end, the “head” from which all things are completed. It has been argued that head is not used here in the sense of source, but simply as “beginning” or “first one.”[15] However, a commentary on the Orphic hymn from around the first century AD explicitly equates this statement with Zeus being the “source of all.”

Zeus himself is the source of all. Therefore it is properly said by the Orphics… “Zeus is head, Zeus the center, from Zeus comes all that is.”[16]

Zeus is called head precisely because he is the “source of all.”

A few hundred years later, in the fourth century AD, church father Eusebius agreed with this interpretation of the Orphic hymn. In Preparation for the Gospel, Eusebius noted that it demonstrates the Greek belief that Zeus was the creator, or source, of all that exists.

The authors of the Orphic hymns supposed Zeus to be the mind of the world, and that he created all things therein, containing the world in himself. Therefore in their theological systems they have handed down their opinions concerning him thus:

Zeus was the first, Zeus last, the lightning’s lord, Zeus head, Zeus center, all things are from Zeus… Zeus alone first cause of all.[17]

Note the significance Eusebius ascribed to the Orphic Hymn. Eusebius did not use the Orphic Hymn to explain that Zeus was believed to be ruler or authority over everything, but rather that he “created all things.”

In other words, Zeus was the source of everything and, as such, the “head.”

While it is true that over time kephalē came to be associated with people assumed to be in positions of leadership, the question is whether that was what Paul was getting at when he used the word.

For now, though, I want you to see that “head” (kephalē) could very well mean source or source of life in the Greek of the New Testament era, and open your mind to the possibility that this is what Paul intended when he penned 1 Corinthians, Ephesians and Colossians. We’ll need to look at Paul’s words in context in an upcoming post, of course, for you to decide what you think.

And perhaps, like me, you will end up letting go of your preconceived ideas about what can and cannot be true in Bible land, and simply let the evidence lead you where it will.

Don’t be afraid; go ahead and break a leg.


[1] The Oxford English Dictionary online at, accessed July 10, 2018.

[2] Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of Kephalē in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 4 (1954), 211. Bedale’s article is one of the earliest studies on figurative meanings of the word “head” that shed light on the fact that they were quite different in ancient Greek than they are in English and many other languages.

[3] Philip Barton Payne, “Response,” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 118.

[4] I am referring to the Septuagint, or LXX as it is commonly called. Translated from Hebrew in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, it was the primary Bible of Greek-speaking Jews during the New Testament era.

[5] The precise number is debated, but varies from 6 to no more than 18. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 503, is reasonable when he recognizes “about 12.”

[6] Greek-English Lexicon, ed. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott and Henry Stuart Jones (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 945.

[7] I became aware of most of the examples cited here through Gordon Fee’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 503. Fee, in turn, gives credit to the work of Philip B. Payne, cited above.

[8] Philo, De Praemis et Poemis 125, in Loeb’s Classical Library, Philo VIII, 389.

[9] Wayne Grudem, “Appendix 1: The Meaning of Kephalē,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton/Crossway, 1991/2006), 443, translates the middle phrase as follows: “All the others will be like the parts of the body which are animated by the powers in and above the head.” Yet he argues that the word he chose to translate as “animated” (psychoō) can have other meanings in Philo, so the meaning “source” is not a given. Grudem then goes on to explain, using contemporary reasoning, why “leader” or “authority” makes more sense here. My question for Grudem is why, if other meanings for psychoō are possible, he used animated in the first place?

[10] F. H. Colson explains it as the “source of spiritual life.”  As cited in Payne, “Response,” 124.

[11] Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 1.2, as cited by Payne, “Response,” 124-25.

[12] Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 1.35, in Payne, “Response,” 125.

[13] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 81, says the literal meaning “was expanded to metaphors that included identity, source, life and provision.”

[14] Orphic Fragments 21a, in Payne, “Response,” 125.

[15] Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephalē (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 173, argues that “head” in the Orphic Hymn means “beginning, first one,” and that “the meaning ‘source’ cannot be established for kephalē from this passage.” See below (n.16 & 17), however, for Grudem’s omission of the interpretation of this quote by the other ancient sources I cite in this article.

[16] On the World, probably first century AD, as cited in Payne, 125. Grudem, “Meaning of kephalē,” 174-75, omits “Zeus is the source of all,” arguing that this is nothing more than a repetition of the Orphic fragment and so retains no significance of its own.

[17] Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 3.9, in Payne, ibid. Once again Grudem, “Meaning of kephalē,” 175, leaves out Eusebius’ commentary on the Orphic quote.

9 thoughts on “Is a Husband Supposed to be in Charge of His Wife?

  1. Sarah, this is excellent – well researched and well written. The information about Zeus and Eusebius was new to me. You have done a great job of setting up the need for an honest enquirer to open his or her mind to the possibility that head may not mean what they think it does.


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