I’ve been reading the recent issue of Priscilla Papers (Summer 2006). I have been struck by both Catherine Clark Kroeger and Philip B. Bayne’s use of history in their respective articles on 1 Corinthians 11. In Kroeger’s article she is looking at what kephalē, “head,” means in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (NASB). She uses a plethora of secular, Jewish, and early Christian historical sources to show that the conventional meaning of kephalē means “source” or “beginning,” not a hierarchal understanding of a boss or somone who has authority over other people. Bayne does the same thing in his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Using sources contemporary with Paul, he shows what Paul meant by “head” as well as the culture and custom of the day regarding how men and women should wear their hair, which has nothing to do with head coverings. He also looks at what the early Church Fathers had to say about this passage and how they interpreted it. The striking thing is the consistency of the translation of “head” in all the sources: secular, Jewish, and Christian—nowhere is kephalē translated to be an authority over another. It always means source or beginning.
One of the things that has aggravated me about Evangelicalism for the last 15 years is its ignorance regarding Christian history, and it’s arrogance in thinking it doesn’t need it. I am very happy to see Robert Webber and others working to bring Evangelicals back into the stream of our shared history instead of just looking at it as “Catholic history” we don’t need (I grew up Southern Baptist in rural Oklahoma, and this was how early Church history was referred to). I think both of these articles show how important it is for us to know how contemporary sources and the early Church used words, and how the early Church interpreted Pauline and other passages. This history shows that the complementarians are wrong in their translation of kephalē, and corrects how we also interpret head coverings and how Paul wanted men and woman to relate to each other. When we consider all of Christian history and tradition, then we have the resources we need to more correctly understand what the biblical writers were saying instead of imposing our own intepretations and world views on the text.