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kephalē (Greek: κεφαλή) is a word used in the Greek New Testament and in the 13th century. According to the 1940 edition of Liddell, Scott, Jones and McKenzie Greek-English lexicon (LSJ) (covering Homeric, classical and koine common Greek), its most common use was to define the physical head of man or beast. In the late Byzantine Empire, other sources show kephalē being used to denote local and provincial governors.

Homeric, classical and koine Greek[edit]

The extensive research contained in the Liddell, Scott, Jones and McKenzie Greek-English lexicon (LSJ) lists the following as the five most common uses of kephalē, in descending order:

  1. Literal: Physical head of man or beast, etc.
  2. Literal: Extremity such as head of garlic, base of heart, brim of hat, top of a column, etc. In plural, source, origin of a river, but singular, mouth; generally, source, origin, starting point.
  3. Literal: A bust of Homer.
  4. Literal: head-dress.
  5. Metaphorical: Pièce de résistance (i.e., main dish of a meal); Crown, completion, consummation; Sum, total; Hand of men, right hand of phalanx; Astronomy, Aries [as the gable of the world][1]

Greek New Testament[edit]

Kephalē appears some 75 times in the Greek New Testament.[2] It is of considerable interest today because of differences of biblical interpretation between Christian egalitarians and Complementarians as to the intent of the New Testament concerning roles of authority assigned biblically to husbands and wives. A prime example appears in Ephesians 5:21-24 where all Christians are told:

21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

and the following three verses say:

22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife as Christ is the head (kephalē) of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."NIV


Complementarians translate "head (kephalē)" in the above verses (and in similar passages in other Pauline epistles) as meaning “authority", “superior rank", “leader", or similar term signifying authority or rulership of a husband over his wife in perpetuity. They extend this theological position to their belief that the New Testament prohibits women from being pastors, elders, or deacons.

Christian egalitarians[edit]

Christian egalitarians maintain that nowhere in Liddell, Scott, Jones and McKenzie Greek-English lexicon (LSJ) does kephalē translate as “authority", “superior rank", “leader", “director", or anything similar as a meaning—not even metaphorically.

Christian egalitarians believe kephalē in the Apostle Paul's Epistles more likely means "source" or "origin" since the Genesis 2:24 account of Creation indicates that the man was the "source" of the woman since she was described in Genesis 2:21-22 as having been created from Adam's "side", the Hebrew word tsela (צְלָעֹת).

Christian egalitarians propose two possible treatments of the Apostle Paul's use of kephalē:

(1) Old Testament laws of primogeniture gave superior rights to the first-born male (Adam). Since Old Testament teachings historically had given the husband, being male, a superior position in the marriage, kephalē was being used in the sense of "source" or "origin"; or
(2) Since first-century Christians were legally held to the Greco-Roman law of patria potestas—"the Rule of the Fathers" which gave a father almost unlimited power over his household of wife, children, and slaves, Paul was doing his best to "Christianize" the harsh law to make it more tolerable, at least conceptually, for wives who had no choice but to cope with the law.

Paul's counsel to the husbands in New Testament passages that describe husbands as being kephalē made potentially greater demands on the husbands. Paul told them to "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. ... husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself".[Eph. 5:25, 28]

Late Byzantine Empire[edit]

In the Byzantine Empire, kephalē entered use in the second half of the 13th century, and was thought to have been derived from the colloquial language. Consequently, it never became an established title or rank of the Byzantine imperial hierarchy, but remained a descriptive term.[3] In essence, the kephalē replaced the Komnenian-era doux as the civil and military governor of a territorial administrative unit, known as a katepanikion (κατεπανίκιον),[4] but also termed a kephalatikion (κεφαλατίκιον). In size, these provinces were small compared to the earlier themata, and could range from a few villages surrounding the kephalē's seat (a kastron, "fortress"), to an entire island.[3] This arrangement was also adopted by the Second Bulgarian Empire (as Bulgarian: кефалия, kefaliya) and Serbian Empire (as Serbian: кефалиja, kefalija).

In the 14th century, superior kephalai were appointed katholikai kephalai, ("universal heads") overseeing a group of provinces under their respective [merikai] kephalai ("[partial] heads"). The former were usually kin of the emperor or members of the senior aristocratic clans. By the late 14th century, with the increasing decentralization of the Empire and the creation of appanages in the form of semi-independent despotates, these senior posts vanished.[3]


  1. ^ LSJ contributors, "κεφαλή," LSJ, (accessed April 28, 2015).
  2. ^ Strong, James; John R. Kohlenberger III; James A. Swanson. Strongest Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, The 21st Century Edition. Zondervan, 2001.
  3. ^ a b c Kazhdan 1991, p. 1122.
  4. ^ Not to be confused with the very different katepanates of the 10th-11th centuries.