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Published Date: April 30, 2010

Published Date: April 30, 2010

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Editor’s Reflections | Spring 2010 (24.2)

One’s identity and self-definition are dependent to a great degree on well-placed trust. That societal, familial, political, or religious forces that define us are not always trustworthy is the catastrophic reality that can lead to tragic effects. Some of these are subtle. Some of them are blatant. Some of them are even violent.

As I edit Priscilla Papers, I continually turn up influences on women’s self-identification coming from Christian scholarship. One example was pointed out in Philip Barton Payne’s excellent “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16” (Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 [Summer 2006]). This careful article reminded us that the authoritative Greek-English lexicon by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott (which draws from authors as early as the eighth century b.c. [Eumelus] through the fifteenth century a.d. [Apostolius, Macarius])1 defines the Greek word kephalē (“head”) as “source,” but not as “authority.”2 Sure enough, when I double-checked this claim, I noticed Liddell and Scott define kephalē as “source of a river . . . mouth . . . generally, source, origin . . . starting point.”3 That made me curious to check out the fairly recent updating of Arndt and Gingrich’s revision of Walter Bauer’s standard lexicon. There, I discovered an opposite definition. The new BAGD, as it is called, presents explanations of kephalē not found in Liddell and Scott, such as “to denote superior rank . . . the symbol of the father.” What is disturbing is the proof for these statements is nearly solely the precise New Testament documents in question: “1 Cor 11:3b; Eph 5.23 . . . Eph 4:15; 5:23b . . . Eph 1.22 . . . Col 2:10 . . . 1 Cor 11.3cab.” In other words, BAGD employs a circular route to definition. One turns to the lexicon for light on the meaning of “head” in these verses and is told they themselves are the proof that it means “a being of high status.” The few supplemental references included are to post-biblical writers like Irenaeus, “Zosimus of Ashkelon [500 a.d.],” “in gnostic speculation.” BAGD seems completely certain, however, that the meaning of kephalē is “not source.” Its proof? A 1989 article in New Testament Studies (“35, ’89, 503–11”)4 by the same author Philip Payne exposes as one who “misleadingly cites as Chrysostom’s comments statements that are Chrysostom’s citation of the heretics’ interpretation, which Chrysostom emphatically opposes.”5

I traced the trajectory of the BAGD lexicon from the original version by Bauer himself, alongside other lexicons contemporary to that one, into the present. I discovered that Bauer defines kephalē as authority as “head of all powers,” and “high head” (Oberhaupt), but does not comment on the possibility of “source” as an alternative meaning.6 Lexicons by Edward Robison (1879), Henry Joseph Thayer (1889), Thomas Sheldon Green (1900), W. J. Hickie (1932), and G. Abbott-Smith (1937) also follow the “principal, chief” definition, without commenting on “source” as a possible meaning. G. W. H. Lampe in his A Patristic Greek Lexicon defines kephalē as “chief headman . . . religious superior . . . of bishops” and does not mention “source” under kephalē. However, under the related adjective kephalaios, he includes both “principal, chiefand “author, source” as the meanings for this root, reaffirming with Liddell and Scott that “source” is part of the word’s meaning.7

Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes under its entry’s subsection, “kephalē in the NT,” that “the origin” of woman is “man.” While the interpretation is not specifically worded in an egalitarian manner (e.g., “Woman is the reflection of man to the degree that in her created being she points to man, and only with and through him to God”), at the same time it notes that Paul is careful not to use kurios (“lord”) or archē (ruler) for the status of man to woman, since Paul “implies one who stands over another in the sense of being the ground of his being.”8 This is clearly a definition of kephalē as “source.”

However, BAGD, the lexicon most in use today, especially among evangelicals, subsumes the adjective under its neuter form, commenting “kephalaios, -a, -on is used only as subst[antive],” by which it means the adjective is only employed as a noun. BAGD then defines the adjective’s appearance as a noun as “a brief statement concerning some topic or subject, main thing, main point . . .
sum of money
,”9 etc., but does not include what Lampe does: that the meanings of the adjective include “source.”

In fact, BAGD’s declaration that the meaning of kephalē is “not source” is a statement made neither in the original Bauer’s edition, nor is it in the Arndt and Gingrich translation and adaptation. Further, the statement is not included in any other previous lexicon I encountered and subsequently listed in this editorial. It has only been added recently, in fact, published in the third edition in the year 2000—a brand new entry. Readers should note, it is one thing to emphasize a definition for “head” within the category of authority, but quite another to specify that the word cannot as well mean “source” in the New Testament.

The significance of all of this is that the latest revision of the standard lexicon that evangelicals tend to use for New Testament studies is theologically revised, in this case, with what amounts to a hierarchically oriented preference. Seminary and college students learning Greek will turn to BAGD and receive an indoctrination that the term for “head” in key biblical passages dealing with the relationship between men and women cannot mean source and can only mean superior to inferior. The end result is that students who are serious about learning the New Testament in its original language are at the same time having their theologies shaped according to a patriarchal premise while defining the koinē Greek word for “head.” The effect on women attempting to assess their calling and gage their identity (and on men, deciding whether to support or oppose women’s sense of calling) by this apparently hierarchically driven dismissal of the accepted definition of “head” as “source” is incalculable.

The irony of this came home to me when I had the privilege of hearing Professor Danker himself, whom all of us universally respect for his many years of lexical service, caution those of us attending his session at this past year’s Society of Biblical Literature meeting in New Orleans to beware of being co-opted by our contemporary culture while searching for meanings of ancient terms. His warning should be heeded by all of us.

I give here but one example of the way women’s search for identity is channeled in some Christian circles. In the secular realm, defining women’s identity and self-image can extend all the way to the lethal. The continuum of second-class status can degenerate by degrees until it downturns into victimization. The multibillion dollar pornography industry does just that in its reducing women to just one aspect—the sexual—thus setting up women in the minds of men for deprecation that can lead eventually to unwanted sexual harassment and even molestation.

A loss of the concept of the equality of all human beings across the board establishes and entitles an unhealthy hierarchy that twists the data of creation to posit one group (males often of a particular cline and people group) as superior and the other (females of any cline or people group) as inferior. What we need clearly is a radical redefinition wherein the hermeneutic (interpretive tool) of equality is applied to ensure women are treated with the respect, deference, and honor that every human being created in the image of the Almighty God deserves as a holy creation.

This issue of Priscilla Papers focuses on defining women’s identity through the lens of equality. The first article, by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Aίda Besançon Spencer, begins with the question of whether God has gender and how the answer to that question rebounds on humanity. Campbellsville University Professor Susan Howell then explores what is actually true about human differences. The results of a victimizing definition are explored in their most lethal ramifications by former prison chaplain and noted author Margaret English de Aliminana in a heartrending examination of the plight of incarcerated women trapped in the prostitution industry. University of Tulsa undergraduate student Kara Kerr then examines society’s influence on adolescent girls’ body image and depression, and Union Theological Seminary student David Csinos addresses one means of correcting the problem through ministry to children. Our poet, Jennifer Reynolds, addresses the effects of sexism on one’s sense of personhood by reinforcing our responsibility to use our God-
given gifts in formulating our own identity. Finally, Jean Lane Dimock reviews Beyond Abuse in the Christian Home, a collection of essays edited by Catherine Clark Kroeger, Nancy Nason-Clark, and Barbara Fisher-Townsend. On our cover, Gordon-Conwell seminarian Sally Steele reflects on her identity in Christ as she hones her ministry gifts.

What we think about ourselves is essential in that it addresses our essence—who we are foundationally—and what we will allow ourselves to do with our lives. If we have been limited by others’ perceptions of us, we will always be confined by the borders that others have drawn around us, unable to cross them even when the Holy Spirit beckons. Jesus Christ came, however, to preach release to the captives. Freedom in Christ involves reassessing our own potential by the measure of the Creator who first built that potential into us. We owe Christ nothing less than a full accounting of all the talents God has entrusted to us. Only the Lord’s understanding of who we are is ultimately the real and binding one.

Blessings to you as you let God’s Spirit define yourself along heaven’s lines,



  1. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, comp., A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, 9th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), xxiv, xviii, xxix.
  2. Philip Barton Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 (Summer 2006), 18, n. 32.
  3. Liddell and Scott, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 945.
  4. Walter Bauer, W. F. Arndt, F. W. Gringrich, and Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BAGD) (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago, 2000), 542.
  5. Payne, “Wild Hair,” 18, n. 32.
  6. Walter Bauer, Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ϋbrigen urchristlichen Literatur (New York, N.Y.: Walter De Gruyter, 1971), 851.
  7. G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 749, 748.
  8. Heinrich Schlier, “Kephalē, anakephalaioomai” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, trans. & ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1965), 679.
  9. BAGD, 541.