Sunday, November 01, 2009

Orphism and κεφαλή

A commenter on my post on Kephale as "source" asks,
    Hi Suzanne,

    Does it concern you that the strongest evidence for kephale to mean 'source' is actually from a source with variant readings and is dated to 500BC approx?

    I ask because many people dismiss the LXX examples that it has a leader overtone on the basis of variant readings. If the LXX cases are considered illegitimate, should we not also consider the Orphic Fragment illegitimate?
My answer is no, not at all. Let's look at the citation supporting the interpretation of "source" or "beginning." I would like to point out that this argument depends on demonstrating that κεφαλή is a variant of ἀρχή, meaning "beginning" or "source." One cannot easily disentangle the two.

Now I would like to disentangle some of the threads of your very interesting question.

First, you ask about the dating of the evidence for kephale as "source". Is the major occurrence dated around 500 BC, and doesn't this mean that is has little to no influence on how we read Paul in the letter to Corinthians?

Second, doesn't the fact that kephale is a variant reading in the Orphic fragment mean that we should also accept the use of kephale as a variant reading in the LXX?

I think it is essential to examine the use of kephale in both the LXX and in the Orphic literature to understand the influence that each of them would have in first century Christian literature. Let us assume that Paul is writing to a multithnic group of believers. Would this group be more familiar with the passages in the LXX using the term kephale in a hierarchical sense, or with the literature of Orphism using the term kephale in the sense of beginning or source?

A detailed discussion of the Orphic fragment occurs in Modern Linguistics and the New Testament by Max Turner,* page 171.
    In this fifth-century B.C.E. fregment, Zeus is called κεφαλή ("Zeus was first, Zeus is last with white vivid lightening: Zeus the head, Zeus the middle, Zeus from whom all things are perfected"). An alternative text has ἀρχή instead, and so it is inferred that "source" is what κεφαλή must have meant here. But this could be an instance of ἀρχή ("beginning,""head of time"), a sense already recognized in Classical Greek.

    .... so it must be said that we have no good evidence of κεφαλή meaning "source" in the public domain of Paul's day. Those who wish to protest that "head" as "authority over" is relatively rare should at least be prepared to admit that "head" as "source" is considered rarer "probably to the point of vanishing altogether.)
I could not disagree more with Max Turner. My disagreement rests first with dividing the meanings of "source" and "beginning" into two different meanings, and thus demonstrating that "source" is not the meaning.

Here is my problem. We are trying to decide what the word κεφαλή meant in Greek, not in English. If an author cannot break out of his English mindset in order to do exegesis, it is very difficult to discuss this. In my opinion, κεφαλή in 1 Corinthians should be treated as if it meant ἀρχή, and then the different interpreters can digress from there into discussing man as the origin or beginning of the human race, or God as the first principle of the godhead, or whereever you wish to go. This was the practice of the early church fathers, who also interpreted
κεφαλή as "authority" along with the other possibilities. But at least for them, they could discuss the various interpretation as interpretations.

To say, as Turner does, that the meaning "source" is virtually non-existant in the public domain at the time, denies the fact that ἀρχή has this meaning, and that κεφαλή and ἀρχή are considered synonyms, in some contexts, from the time of the Orphic fragment, in 500 B.C.E. to the time of Cyril of Alexandria in the 5th century A.D.

Here are the two citations,
    Therefore of our race he become first head [κεφαλη], which is the source [αρχη], and was of the earth and earthy. Since Christ was named the second Adam, he has been placed as head, which is source, of those who through him have been formed anew unto him unto immortality through sanctification in the spirit. Therefore he himself our source, which is head, has appeared as a human being: indeed, he, being by nature God, has a head, the Father in heaven.
This is a passage from Cyril of Alexandria, (died AD 444), De Recte Fide ad Pulch. 2.3, quoted by Kroeger Clark.

Here is the passage on Zeus, 6th century B.C.E.
    Zeus is the first. Zeus the thunderer, is the last.
    Zeus is the head (kephale). Zeus is the middle, and by Zeus all things were fabricated.
    Zeus is male, Immortal Zeus is female.
    Zeus is the foundation of the earth and of the starry heaven.
Max Turner cannot simply dismiss these as saying that κεφαλη means "beginning" or "origin" and not "source" and is therefore out of the running. Not at all. In some way, κεφαλη did mean "origin" "beginning" and "source," all these English meanings encorporated in the Greek word ἀρχή.

I have to question why someone would work with a sense of the dominance of English semantic organization replacing the Greek semantic organization of the words κεφαλη and ἀρχή.

Now what about the notion that the citation from the Orphic fragments would have been unknown in the Hellenistic era as it comes from the 6th century B.C.E.? In fact, this is the very opposite of the truth. It was a well-known citation, judging from its influence on other authors of Paul's time.

Here is a passage from Josephus, for example,
    The first command is concerning God, and affirms that God contains all things, and is a Being every way perfect and happy, self-sufficient, and supplying all other beings; the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things.
Against Apion, ll:23

Of overall significance is the simple fact that Orphism as a religious tradition endured from at least the 6th century B.C.E. throughout the Hellenistic era to become a tradition which rivaled Christianity. Plutarch ( A.D. 46 - 120) was a follower of Orphism.

Orphism contained rituals of purification and initiation, communion services centred on a meal of raw flesh and a libation cup, and offered the hope of personal salvation and immortality. It was a widespread tradition, and no doubt was better known to the inhabitants of Corinth than the passages in the LXX which use the term κεφαλη with the sense of hierarchy.

The passages in the LXX which use the term κεφαλη in this sense are listed by John Hobbins in this post. (Num 1:2.20; Deut 28:13.44; Isa 9:14; 19:15; Ps 17:44 (= 2 Kgd 22: 44); 117:22; Isa 7:8; Jer 38:7. To the list one must certainly add Judg 10:18.) I don't see any of these passages encorparated into common rituals of Corinth. I have read Max Turner and John Hobbins on this issue and I respectfully disagree with their position.

I welcome further questions from the anonymous commenter although I would encouage him or her to provide a name of some kind for future reference. Thank you.

*This article is found in Hearing the New Testament ed. by Joel Green.


Peter Kirk said...

This is interesting. Surely you can add to your evidence that this Orphic fragment was known in NT times some rather clear echoes of it in the NT itself: Christ as the first and the last, as the kephale and the one by whom all things were made. Of course we don't get "Christ is female"!

Mark said...


My name is Mark, the anonymous commentor. I appreciate what you wrote.

However you really ignored my questions. I wasn't questioning if it would be understood as source in the NT period, but rather the variant reading issue.

Many a time, egalitarian scholars dismiss the LXX passages based on variant readings. If this is what we should do, should not the same be done with the Orphic Fragment. You can try to dismiss them as synonyms, but none the less they are variant readings.

The two strongest citations for an understanding that 'source' is Pauls intention in 1 Cor come from 500BC, and 450AD. Neither close to the NT period.

Where as the LXX comes from approx 200BC and is most probably the translation used by Paul. Not to mention the early church fathers understood it with an 'authority over' overtone.

How it is understood in the NT is between biblical scholars,i agree, but it seems very srange to press the issue that 'source' was the common understanding for kephale during Paul's lifetime. It simply was not.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Mark,

You write,

"Many a time, egalitarian scholars dismiss the LXX passages based on variant readings."

First, there is a difference between a word used in a translation and native speaker use. I think that is the most important issue here.

Second, several of these variants are used with reference to Jephthah, and I would suggest that Paul is unlikely to be influenced by the passage on Jephthah.

Another variant is in 1 Kings 8:1, where the expression in Hebrew is heads of rods, meaning "leaders of tribes." In this case, there is an attempt to translate literally an expression which has a double meaning in Hebrew.

How successful a translation was it using kephale? Kephale seems fine for the head or top of a rod, but otherwise does not occur in the LXX. How can we explain the fact that it never occurs elsewhere for the leader of a tribe?

The phrase from the Orphic fragment, however, it appears was in use in the liturgy of Orphism, which was an ongoing rival to Christianity.

I don't find the phrases containing kephale in the LXX to be very likely parallels to 1 Cor. 11:3 but I do find the phrase from the Orphic fragment to be quite similar.

Perhaps you could cite some of the occurrences in the LXX and defend your case using them. I would be interested to see what you make of them.


I think there are other allusions to the wording of this Orphic fragment but I need to track them down. Then, yes, I do see some references to this in the NT. But I want to be careful about this.

Mark said...


I will again look up some passages for you to support my understanding of kephale once i get home.

Perhaps equally you might try and find 1 instance in the LXX where 'source' was the intended interpretation of kephale. You might be hard pressed to find such an occurance.

The main problem i have with biblical scholars who understand 1 Cor with 'source' is the inconsistent use of it. In what way are men the 'source' of Christ? Is this the same 'source' as man to woman. Obviously not. What 'stuff' of Christ does man specifically have? Again in what way is Christ the 'source' of God? If it is the same as man/woman, aren't we then saying Christ was a created being? The only way to reconcile this is either,
1. Source is a bad translation
2. Source means different things in each relationship, which seems unlikely as Paul uses it in quick sequence to emphasise a point.

I'd love to know your views.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Perhaps equally you might try and find 1 instance in the LXX where 'source' was the intended interpretation of kephale. You might be hard pressed to find such an occurance.

I don't expect to find any so I won't bother. :-)

In what way are men the 'source' of Christ?

??? I think it is the other way around. Christ is the source of man, man the source of woman and God the source of Christ.

But we might say in English the first principle or cause, or the origin.

Of course, I think every church father believed that the relationship between Christ and man was not identical to the relationship between man and woman. You cannot apply the metaphor the same in every relation.

I do think we can say that Christ shares his nature with man, when he became human and gave mankind a new nature. And man shares his nature with woman, as according to Paul, woman gets her humanity from her origin out of man. And God shares his nature with Christ in that Christ is fully divine.

It does not mean that Christ is a created being but the opposite.

God and Christ are divine and immortal.

Man and woman are both human and mortal.

Christ and man represent the new regenerated humanity, since Christ became human and replaced Adam as the head of the human race. Christ now imparts his immortal nature to the race of mankind.

Mark said...

Suzanne, sorry it took me a while to respond back to you.

The LXX verses where i see a clear authority overtone are these
1.2 Samuel 22:44
2.Psalm 18:43
3. Isaiah 7:9

As far as im aware these are the non-disputable uses of kephale in the LXX which are not apart of variant readings. Do you agree?

Tre' Harden said...

Hello Suzanne,
It would seem to reason that the two suggested meanings of kephale, head and source, do not oppose each other but rather complement each other, especially considering the fact that we live in a society dominated by the opinion that such words as "head" infers that males dominate their female counterparts. Man is the head because he is the source and because man is the source he is the head. Rivers have a source or head, a point from which the river begins and flows out. It is the head and source. It is the most significant part of the river without which the entire river would not exist. The word kephale indicates both hierarchy and origin. This is comparable to Jesus who is the beginning or firstborn of creation (colossians 1:15) and the head and source of the congregation. These terms head and source are complimentary.


Tre' Harden said...

I forgot to mention that "being the head and source" does not indicate a position of harsh domination. Going back to the illustration of a river, the head of a river while important does in no way dominate the rest of the river. Rather, through out the river, there is peace. The bible uses this word picture at Isaiah 48:18 saying the phrase "peace just like a river." A male would not dominate a woman harshly as Ephesians 5 mentions that both the husband and the wife are subject to each other. This is underscored by 1 Corinthians 7 that says a husband renders to his wife "her due." (And visa versa; also see 1st Peter 3:6) Basically, a husband owes wife (and by extension men owe women) respect. The Greek word for respect phobeo indicates an outright and abject fear so much so that it could cause the person fearing to run away though not about of mere morbid fear but more so out of awe. A male should appreciate his female counterpart so much that he literally and figuratively runs away from any superior attitude or aire or harsh behavior toward women. Men have an example in Jesus of this matter. He is the head and source of the Christian congregation. Through the gospel accounts, he set the pattern of how to respect his followers and even his opposers. Ephesians 5 calls Jesus "a savior of this body." A male savior would go out of his way to love, respect, and benefit those under his care. That is what Jesus did. Therefore, headship is not a position of glory and power over a female, rather it is a position of responsibility and servitude where a males has to ensure the best care of those who submit to his headship. Compare what a man would do if he became the owner of a store and inside the store, there was precious and expensive equipment. What would he do? He would take measures to secure his store at all times. He would advertise to invite ones to his store so that his store could profit. He would keep his store clean and in good working order. All of these things are reasonable expectations. Similarly, a man even more so is expected to treat females with a high degree of love and respect to a superlative degree. There were examples on the news today of men in Egypt's military assaulting two women which is an obvious abuse of government and masculine power. In fact, it is not power but a weakness. True power would be like that of a weight lifter that is able to bear heavy burdens. When a man, can patiently, deal with and bear all the complications of a relationship with a woman and still maintain love, respect, and self-sacrifice, only then does he possess the strength of character that the Bible implies. 1 Corinthians 13:8 speaks of this strength in the words "love bears all things." Therefore, though headship does imply hierarchy, it does not imply dominance. Rather respect, love, patience, self-sacrifice, and the promotion of peace is absolutely necessary on the part of a man that aspires to be a kephale.

Suzanne said...

Hi Theo,

Like Lydia, I support my own family, and, in fact, nobody is offering to be my head. Remarkably, I don't miss it. If men are made for headship, women are made not to mind missing out on the headship of a male.

Women do want a father to take at least as much responsibility for the kids as the mother does.

We need to happily disagree on headship and both be kind to someone today.

Thanks for stopping by.