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Heady Stuff

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Few verses in the New Testament have been the source of more controversy, ancient and modern, than 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In the first few centuries of the church it was disputed because of debates over Trinitarian theology and Christology; more recently it has been disputed because of debates over gender roles; and in the last few years there have been significant arguments over whether these things (Trinitarian theology and gender roles) should even be connected. You’d think it would be hard to make “authority on her head because of the angels” (11:10) the second most controverted part of a passage, but Paul seems to have managed it when he wrote verse 3. He was on fire that day.

We all know Paul is speaking metaphorically. We know that the Greek word kephalē does not have exactly the same range of meanings as the English word “head”, and that Paul has chosen the word because of the point he is about to make about head coverings. But beyond that, there is disagreement. Particularly tricky is the question of what “the head of X is Y” might mean, practically speaking, given that we find it said of three relationships which look on the surface to be very different from each other: man-Christ, wife-husband, and Christ-God. What is going on here?

Some say it is about “authority”. What we have here, argue Joe Fitzmyer, Wayne Grudem and others, is an ordered hierarchy: authority flows from God the Father to Christ, and then onto man, and then woman. Fitzmyer’s article in New Testament Studies 35 (1989) is probably the classic statement of this position.

Others say the word head means “source”. Gordon Fee, Wolfgang Schrage and others have suggested that Paul’s point is about origin, and that he is using the word kephalē in the same way that we speak of the “head” of a river. Stephen Bedale’s essay in Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954) was the starting point for this approach.

Most contemporary scholars reject both of these on lexicographical grounds, and prefer the idea of “prominence” or “foremostness”. Andrew Perriman made a particularly strong case for this in his article for Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994), and he has been followed by heavyweight interpreters like Anthony Thiselton, Andreas Lindemann and David Garland, as well as (more cautiously) Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner.

Given that diversity, it’s precarious to attempt a summary of “the state of current scholarship” – but then, attempting precarious things is partly what blogging is for. The majority view, as I say, would be the third one, but with most acknowledging that although hierarchy and authority are a long way from Paul’s point here – and the text places no restrictions on women in ministry, or anything like that – authority within marriage is probably implied by the way Paul’s argument works. Here’s a couple of representative quotations:

Even if by “head” Paul means “more prominent/preeminent partner” or (less likely) “one through whom the other exists”, his language and the flow of the argument seem to reflect an assumed hierarchy through which glory and shame flow upward from those with lower status to those above them. In this context the word almost certainly refers to one with authority over the other. (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 509)

Although the Pauline statement lends itself to hierarchical rearrangement along these lines, it is not its intention to assert any such account of being as hierarchy. As the threefold statement stands, there is no descending or ascending hierarchy: only a series of assertions in which a ‘head’ is assigned to man, to woman and to Christ. The reference is probably to pre-eminence and authority rather than to relations of origin. (Francis Watson, Agape, Eros, Gender, 43)

Roughly translated: kephalē here doesn’t mean “source”, it doesn’t mean “ruler”, it doesn’t explicitly mean “authority” but it probably implies it in this context, and it basically means “to occupy the position at the top or front” (Perriman). So there.

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