Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Open Letter to David Kotter

CBE posted on kephale. After a long series of comments including a little nonsense, Gender blog responded. And this is my response to Gender Blog. I posted the following in two comments on cbe's blog.

Open letter to David Kotter of the Gender Blog,

In your post of Jan. 15, 2008, you cite John Mark Reynolds who wrote,

    I should make one comment about the general discussion in popular circles about the status of the Greek word for “head.” Too often arguments have turned on meanings found in a wooden manner by looking in lexicons.

    A lexicon is a useful tool, but it cannot substitute for examining the particular figurative usage of a term in its literary context. Context can give definite clues to the author’s intent in using a particular word.

Dr. Reynolds resumé does not indicate that he has ever studied classical Greek as a language, or read Plato’s Republic in Greek. That would be the only viable alternative to using the lexicons.

Reynolds then remarks with reference to Plato,

    In Republic (I) he is using “head” as an image of religious authority. The father (the Head) must leave the discussion or pious young men will not be free to engage in the intellectual discussion they need. Socrates must become their new head.kephale.

This is a misrepresentation of the facts. Since I have read the Republic in Greek, let me respond.

In the opening of the first book of the Republic, the character is Cephalus, (this name derives from the word kephale - “head”) This is who Reynolds is referring to when he says "the Head."

Cephalus is the real name of an real historic personage. Cephalus was a resident alien in Athens and a retired wealthy arms manufacturer. He had three sons. He was in old age in this dialogue and discussing the end of life. He represents "piety" in the discourse. He leaves the house and goes to offer sacrifices to the gods.

There are several reasons why the name Cephalus may have been used.

First, Plato may have wanted to write about the real person, Cephalus.

Second, Cephalus was the father, now aged and passing on his wealth and business. Cephalus was the head of the family in that he was the father, (not the ruler.) There is no indication that the discourse takes place in Cephalus' house rather than in the house of one of the sons.

Third, Cephalus opened the discourse. He was the heading to the story. He was the opening. The word kephalaion is the word for the heading of a chapter in Greek.

Fourth, there has been some discussion that Cephalus may have represented logos vs eros, or logos vs thumos. This would set up a contrast between reason and mind, two elements of the soul. This does not mean that one is the religious authority. The thumos would be more likely to make the decision.

The only sense in which Cephalus represents "religious authority" is that as one of the older generation he is pious and still worships the old Greek gods with sacrifices. He is most emphatically not himself a religious authority, nor does his name Cephalus mean religious authority. The entire mention of "religious authority" is conjecture in this context.

While Reynolds mentions that Plato believes the head is the “divinest part of us which controls all the rest” I do not think that Reynolds is proposing that men are more divine than women or that men should control their wives. Gender blog needs to guard against false and dangerous teaching in this respect.

Reynolds also does not present the alternative, that Aristotle, who clearly believed that women were without authority, did not use the word kephale to express this, but simply the word βουλη meaning “will.” He said that the will of a woman was without authority (ακυριος) That is Aristotle, not Paul. For Aristotle the heart was the central organ, and the most suitable seat of the soul. He did not use kephale to refer to the reasoning part of the human. I would argue, however, that Aristotle is the more likely candidate as someone whom Paul would have been familiar with, than Plato.

Some Greeks also believed that sperm was stored in the head and that the head was the generative part of the male human. Zeus gave birth to Athena from his head. So the head is the progenitor.

Reynolds does not accurately record the different alternative interpretations of the word kephale, in Greek. As one who has read a great deal of Greek, both classical and Hellenistic, I do not find the argument for authority to be convincing. The Greeks, for the most part, located the “will” of a person, the decision-making part, outside of the head. Philo may be an exception to this.

The evidence is overwhelming against the notion that kephale means authority. It is used in reference to Zeus as the beginning, it is used to refer to a small and mobile raiding partly in the army, not the general, it is used to describe the first person in a clan, the progenitor, not the ruler. It is used in many other ways and I have no intention of recreating the various studies. Many people propose it is the source, or the visible or prominent representative. That is also possible. Kephale is not typically used to refer to the person at the top of an organization, as caput was in Latin.

I see no decisive evidence that kephale must mean authority, and much against it.

I would appreciate the Gender Blog admitting that there is a variety of possible interpretations available. There is no need for the remark that those who have experienced a solid education in the Greek language are guilty of “wooden” interpretations, while those who have little education in classical Greek as a language are not. Such unfounded comments are surely counter-productive.


Suzanne McCarthy


The Shark said...


This is John Mark Reynolds.

My dissertation was on Plato and his view of the soul. My Ph.D. included work in Homeric and Classical Greek. I read the Republic at least once a year and work from the Greek text.

You can read a revised form of my argument about soul in my book on Plato's psychology from University Press of America.

My claim in the post was quite modest. Some students I teach have pastors who claim "head" never meant "authority" before the NT period. Since Plato uses the word in this way (which you do not dispute) this claim is wrong.

We of course would not want to use Plato's view as our own, but it does show that the absurd claim that head never means "authority" is wrong.

I clearly stated that this did not settle Paul's use of the term.

Finally, the use of the character Cephalus in Republic (which is a fiction) is of literary interest. The conversation could have been placed anywhere using anyone.

Why was this character used? The Republic stresses his religious role (he leaves to make sacrifice) and his role as head of family (he hands on the argument to his son).

Again, since Plato uses "head" as an image of authority, this is a reasonable interpretation of what he wrote.

It appears you have overreacted to a modest blog note.

The Shark said...

Let me add the text in question in Timaeus 44d:

. . .which body we now call the “head,” it being the most divine part and reigning over all the parts within us."

In Timaeus, Plato uses the literal head as a ruler or command center. This work was of major importance in the East in shaping religious and philosophical views. Not all works are equal . . . and Plato's influence and the particular influence of this work (Timaeus) was massive.

Therefore, when my students were taught that "head" as ruler was a weird or post-NT reading, they were misinformed.

That seems a limited enough claim!


The Shark said...

I should mention that it seems an extraordinary claim to make to say that Paul would have been more likely to have read Aristotle than Plato.

Aristotle, sadly, was in relative eclipse for much of the Hellenistic period. The neo-Platonists included such world class figures as Plotinus.

Check out the references to Plato in Hellenistic philosophers and Greek thinkers as compared to Aristotle.

Note the influence of Plato on Philo and on the translators of the LXX.

For my own sake:

Can you reference a standard work in Hellenistic philosophy that claims a larger cultural influence for Aristotle during the Hellenistic period than Plato?

The Shark said...

In answer to a question, I should also note that Plato links the Timaeus to the Republic at the start of Timaus so looking at his use of terms in both and comparing them is of particular interest.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thank you, John, for stopping in. Your work on Plato sounds very interesting.

I am not sure how either Plato or Aristotle have influenced Paul, not do I know how useful these quotes are to understanding what Paul meant be kephale. however, ...

It seems to me that each side is trying to prove that their view is one possible view of kephale. While this may be interesting, all it does is show that we should have more respect for each other's side.

I would critique Grudem for saying that kephale cannot mean "source" and must mean "authority," and you would critique someone for saying that kephale must mean "source," and cannot mean "authority." Fair enough.

Ultimately, this should give us more respect for each other and free us up to deal with the real issues in life, which are helping the poor and downtrodden.

Please see my post of today.