What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 7: Household Codes (Eph. 5)

Preston Sprinkle

Introduction 

We finally come to Ephesians 5, where Paul says that “the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife” (Eph 5:23). Does this mean that the husband occupies some kind of authority over his wife? Or that he is “the source of life for his wife since he provided all that was essential for her to live?”1Payne, The Bible, 115. Whether kephalē conveys the idea of “authority” or “source” cannot be determined by word studies alone, as important as these may be. And appealing the context of Ephesians ends in a stalemate, since Paul already has used kephalē to convey the idea of both authority (Eph 1:22) and source (Eph 4:15). Extended attention must be given to the context of Ephesians 5 to determine what Paul’s means when he says that “the husband is the kephalē of the wife.” 

One of the most important contextual features of this passage is Paul’s rhetorical employment of the literary topos (theme) often referred to as a “household code.” In this post, I want to situated Paul’s household code (Eph. 5:22–6:9) in the context of other household codes of the Greco-Roman world in order to tease out their similarities and differences. While this may seem like a detour from our discussion about kephalē, understanding the historical context of Paul’s household code will be essential for determining the meaning of kephalē in particular and Ephesians 5:22–33 as a whole.  

Household Codes in the Greco-Roman World

There are several passages in the New Testament that can be considered some sort of “household code,” which was a common literary topos in the ancient world (Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:22–6:9; 1 Pet 3:1–7; cf. Titus 2:1–7; possibly 1 Tim 2:9-15).2For surveys of “household codes” in the Greco-Roman world, see Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 25-80; Verner, The Household,27-81; Herring, The Colossian, 203-262. Ephesians 5:22–6:9 is by far the longest. And it wasn’t written in a vacuum. Paul was no doubt aware of other household codes, as was his audience. Paul was therefore participating in a cultural conversation about how the household should be run. Understanding other household codes in the Greco-Roman world will help us hear the other side of that conversation and will shed interpretive light on what Paul is doing in Ephesians 5.

Extensive research has been done on the household codes over the last hundred years or so. Fortunately, through the work of David Balch and others, scholars have arrived at a near consensus that the origin and form of the codes in New Testament are derived from Hellenistic discussions about “household management,” and that Aristotle is the primary catalyst for this literary discussion.3See David Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive. Balch himself notes that this has become a consensus (“Household Codes,” 35); MacDonald says this has become “generally accepted” (Woman, 119). In Politics Book 1, Aristotle writes:

Household management falls into departments corresponding to the parts of which the household in its turn is composed; and the household in its perfect form consists of slaves and freemen. The investigation of everything should begin with its smallest parts, and the primary and smallest parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children; we ought therefore to examine the proper constitution and character of each of these three relationships, I mean that of mastership (despotikē), that of marriage and thirdly the progenitive relationship (Politics 1253b).

Hence there are by nature various classes of rulers and ruled. For the free rules the slave, the male the female, and the man the child in a different way. And all possess the various parts of the soul, but possess them in different ways; for the slave has not got the deliberative part at all, and the female has it, but without full authority, while the child has it, but in an undeveloped form (Politics 1260a; cf. Nic. Eth. 1260a).4All translations of Aristotle are from Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1944.

Aristotle lists three pairs of relationships: husband/wife, father/children, master/slave. These same pairs became common among later household codes, including the New Testament (Eph 5:22–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1).5Verner offers a helpful summary: “The topos ‘concerning household management’ may thus be described as follows: it is comprised of four subtopics: master-slave relationships, husband-wife relationships, father-child relationships, and the art of acquiring wealth; furthermore, the three basic relationships are approached as relationships of ruler and ruled, or of superior and subordinate; and finally, the context of this topos is that of a larger tops which concerns the poiteia as a whole” (Verner, 84). For Aristotle, the management of the household is based on the ontological nature of those who rule and those who are ruled.6Aristotle uses the term archō (“to rule, govern”) to describe the man’s relationship to his wife (Pol.  1.1254b; 1.1259b), children (Pol. 1.1259b; 1.1278b), and slaves (Pol. 1.1255a; 1.1259b; 1.1260a); see Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 154-155 n. 9. Since the man has a superior nature, he is therefore the ruler of the house, and everyone else— wife, children, and slaves—is ruled. 

The management of the household was very important for Aristotle, since it was the most fundamental building block of society.7Both Plato and Aristotle treated marriage and family out of a concern for the city (Verner, 71-79). A well-ordered city (polis) can’t exist without well-ruled households, since “it is clear what are the component parts of the state, we have first of all to discuss household management; for every state is composed of households” (Politics 1253b). For Aristotle, the household wasn’t some private affair that was nobody else’s business; rather, it was a political affair that was everyone’s business, especially the leaders of the city. Modern notions of a private nuclear family that’s independent from the city do not exist in Aristotle or his world.8“Those household relationships which we normally consider private, individual matters are here part of a social-political, philosophic ethic” (Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 26).The success of the polis depends on husbands properly ruling over their households.9Cf. Aristotle, Politics II 1269b: “Again, the freedom in regard to women is detrimental both in regard to the purpose of the constitution and in regard to the happiness of the state. For just as man and wife are part of a household, it is clear that the state also is divided nearly in half into its male and female population, so that in all constitutions in which the position of women is badly regulated one half of the state must be deemed to have been neglected in framing the law.” Cf. Plato: “Regarding marriage as a whole there shall be one general rule: each man must seek to form such a marriage as shall benefit the State, rather than such as best pleases himself” (Laws 773B).

Plato also discussed the household in similar ways as his student Aristotle. In the household “parents” are “to rule over offspring” and “the noble to rule over the ignoble,” “older people to rule and of the younger to be ruled,” “slaves ought to be ruled, and masters ought to rule,” “the stronger should rule and the weaker be ruled,” “the man without understanding would follow, and the wise man lead and rule…This is the natural rule of law, without force, over willing subjects” (Laws III 690A-D).10Cited in Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 24 While Plato doesn’t use the specific paring of husband/wife, father/children, master/slave, he does emphasize that the husband is the ruler and everyone else the ruled.

Aristotle’s household code influenced many other writers and the Greco-Roman culture as a whole, especially during the era when the New Testament was written.11Balch says that Aristotle “had very little influence for two centuries after his death. His ideas were not important in the Hellenistic age, although later in the time of the Romans, especially in the late first century B.C., his writings again became available” (Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 37). For instance, Arius Didymus (d. 10 B.C.) wrote an “epitome of Aristotle’s ethical, political and domestic philosophy” that became widely influential in the first-century.12Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 40. In it, he draws on Aristotle to discuss the proper way to run a household: 

The man has the rule (archē) of this house by nature. For the deliberative faculty in a woman is inferior, in children it does not yet exist, and it is completely foreign to slaves. Rational household management, which is the controlling of a house and of those things related to the house, is fitting for a man. Belonging to this are fatherhood, the art of marriage, being a master (to despotikon), and moneymaking (Epitome II 149,5-10).13Cf. Aristotle, Politics, I 1259a 37-39; 1253b 6-14. Didymus earlier explored the different kinds of subordinate relationships in the home: “For the relation of parents to children has monarchic character; of men to women, aristocratic; of children to one another, democratic. For the male is joined to the female by a desire to beget children and to continue the race” (Epitome II 148, 9-20)

Didymus also related the household to a city: 

A primary kind of association (politeia) is the legal union of a man and a woman for begetting children and for sharing life. This is called a household and is the source for a city…For the house is like any small city, if, at least as is intended, the marriage flourishes, and the children mature and are paired with one another; another household is founded, and thus a third and a fourth, and out of these, a village and a city (Epitome II 148,5-13).14Translation by C. Wachsmuth and O. Hense, Strobaeus, Anthologium (Berlin: Weidmann, 1958), vol. II.

Didymus exerted much influence on the first-century Greco-Roman culture. He was a personal friend and philosophical mentor to Caesar Augustus, and he later became imperial procurator in Sicily. His instructions on household management became fairly standard in the first-century.15See Balch, Wives, 40-41; idem, “household,” 27, 40. According to Balch, the Epitome “gives the larger political context in which Greco-Roman persons, including Augustus and his governors, Seneca and his brother Gallio, would have understood the household” (Balch, “Household,” 40).

Several other writers describe household management in ways similar to Aristotle and Didymus. In every case, the husband is to rule over his wife. For instance, Philo says that “wives must be in servitude (douleuein) to their husbands, a servitude not imposed by violent ill-treatment but promoting obedience in all things” (Hypothetica, 7.3).16Cf. Special Laws III.169-171: “The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house…Organized communities are of two sorts, the greater which we call cities and the smaller which we call households. Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men, under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management (oikonmia), to women. A woman then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not show herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple” (trans. Colson). Philo gives a detailed account of how to manage children and slaves in The Decalogue, 165-167. Josephus writes: “The woman, says the law, is in all things inferior to the man. Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed, for the authority has been given by God to the man” (Against Apion II.199 trans. Thackeray). The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus says that Romulus, the founder of Rome, passed a law that obligated 

the married women, as having no other refuge, to confirm themselves entirely to the temper of their husbands, and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions. Accordingly, if a wife was virtuous and in all things obedient to her husband, she was mistress of the house to the same degree as her husband was the master of it… (Rom. Ant. II.24.2, trans. Cary)

While it was widely expected that the wife should submit to and obey her husband, not everyone believed it was because she was ontologically inferior as Aristotle, Didymus, and Josephus believed. For instance, the Stoics discuss household management in ways that sound more egalitarian (or at least less patriarchal). Musonius Rufus (b. circa AD 20-30) says that “in marriage there must be above all perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife” and when “this love for each other is perfect and the two share it completely, each striving to outdo the other in devotion, the marriage is ideal and worthy of envy, for such a union is beautiful (Musonius, xiiia, 17-23). Elsewhere he writes: “The husband and wife” should regard “all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their bodies” (xiiia, 11-13).17Rufus even believed that it was wrong for a husband to have sex with a female slave, even though this was widely accepted: “every master is held to have it in his power to use his slave as he wishes. In reply to this I have just one thing to say: if it seems neither shameful nor out of place for a master to have relations with his own slave, particularly if she happens to be unmarried, let him consider how he would like it if his wife had relations with a male slave” (Musonius, xii 35-39). Musonius’ view of marriage comes close to the mutual love between husband and wife that we find in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 7.18“[T]he clear call for mutual love and co-operation corresponds closely with the tenor of the Eph. HT instruction. In particular, the ideal of self-sacrificial love within marriage presents us with a strikingly similar aspect of the Eph HT sacrifice-model and motivation” (Herring, The Colossian, 252). See also Pseudo-Aristotle, Oeconomica, i.2-5, where “[t]he ruler/ruled dichotomy no longer leads the discussion of household management; concepts such as unity, cooperation, love and honour are tangible values which guide the household relationships…” (Herring, The Colossian, 227). Elsewhere, however, Musonius refers to wives as “the ruled” (tōn archomenōn) while the husbands are “the stronger in judgment” (tous ischuroterous tēn) and “the rulers” (tous archontas)(xii 40-45, trans. Lutz LCL).19Cited in Balch, 144.

Plutarch also talks about marriage in ways that exhibit more mutuality, but still maintains a hierarchical relationship where the husband is to rule over his wife:

So it is with women also; if they subordinate themselves to their husbands (hupotattousai men gar heautas tois andrasin), they are commended, but if they want to have control (kratein), they cut a sorrier figure than the subjects of their control. And control ought to be exercised by the man over the women (kratein de dei ton andra tēs gunaikos), not as the owner (despotēn) has control of a piece of property, but as the soul controls the body, by entering into her feelings and being knit to her through goodwill. As, therefore, it is possible to exercise care over the body without being a slave to its pleasures and desires, so it is possible to govern (archein) a wife, and at the same time delight and gratify her (Advice to Bride and Groom, 33; Moralia 142E).20Loeb. Dawes argues that “this passage presents the ‘subordination’ of wives in a context which contrasts hupotassein (heauton) with ‘having control’ (kratein) and ‘governing’ (archein). The sense of the word in this context is that of the submission of one’s will to another: hupotassesthai may therefore be described as the act in which one ‘lose[s] or surrender[s] one’s own will’” (Dawes, The Body in Question, 212, quoting Delling’s TDNT entry for hupottasō). 

Plutarch’s view of marriage is less hierarchical than other Greco-Roman writers that we’ve seen. For one, he uses the term hupotassō instead of hupakouō (“obey”), which was much more common in other household codes.21Herring (The Colossian, 256 n. 141), Cohick (“Tyranny, Authority, Service,” 81), and Balch (Wives 98-99) all say that Ps. Callisthenes, Hist. Alex. Magni i. 22.4 is the only other known instance where hupotasōo is used. In every other case, wives are called to obey their husbands. (Cohick lists this source as: Ps.-Callisthenes, A Narrative, Remarkable and Really Marvelous, of the Lord of the World, Alexander the King I.22.19-20) Moreover, Plutarch doesn’t say that women are ontologically inferior to men or should be treated as “the owner has control of a piece of property.” And yet he is still working within the typical framework of a husband who “rules” (archein) and has “control over” (kratein) his wife, though not as a despot (despotēn).22Elsewhere, Plutarch states that “every action performed in a good household is done by agreement of the partners, but displays the leadership (hegemonia) and decision of the husband” (Mor. 139C-D); Marx, “‘Wifely Submission’,” 62-63. Elsewhere, Plutarch advices husbands not to cheat on their wives, but if they do, the wife “ought not be angry or annoyed” (Mor. 142C; cf. 144A). And though Plutarch argues against husbands having sex with other unmarried women, he advises the wife to overlook it if he does (Moralia 143F). Plutarch seems to be trying to strike a balanced between truly honoring your wife with care and sensitivity while maintaining the assumption that the husband rules over his wife.23Verner puts it well: Plutarch attempts “to subsume the new values under the old and so to preserve the essential structure of the old values by making certain minimal concessions to the times” (The Household, 81). Cf. Herring: “Though Plutarch’s instruction to the husband is characterized by rule, it must be added that this rule is depicted in a humane and sympathetic manner” (Herring, The Colossian, 257). Cf. Dawes, The Body in Question, 211-12 for a similar perspective. And see Marx, “‘Wifely Submission’,” 56-88 for a through comparison of Plutarch and Paul on their views of marriage.

Summary and Comparison 

These Greco-Roman codes have some similarities with Paul’s code in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. Most clearly, Paul discusses three pairs of relationships (husbands/wives, fathers/children, masters/slaves) that we find in Aristotle, Didymus, and others. Paul also seems to recognize some semblance of social hierarchy that we see in other codes. Wives are to submit to their husbands, children are to obey their parents, and slaves are to obey their masters. Some scholars therefore see Paul as largely reflecting the same kind of values we see in other household codes,24Regarding the codes in Eph and Col, Verner says: “Thus the traditional domestic morality represented by the household management topos is here taken over uncritically” (Verner, The Household, 85). perhaps in an attempt to defend against the suspicion among pagans that this new Christian movement was a seditious movement that sought to overturn the social hierarchies of the Roman household. Such subversion would be viewed as an act of political treason, since, as we’ve seen, the household was considered the fundamental building block of society. And so, some argue, that Paul basically mimics the same kind of codes we see in the Greco-Roman world in order to stave off attacks from society that the Christian family was subverting Roman values. 

As will be clear below, I think the differences between Paul and other codes far outweigh their similarities. While Paul adopts the rhetorical husk of other codes, he fills it with new—indeed, subversive—content. 

The differences between Paul and other Greco-Roman codes are rather clear.25Though we need to keep in mind that Greco-Roman descriptions of the household are not at all uniform (rightly emphasized by Herring, 203-262). For instance, Aristotle and Didymus exhibit many differences and similarities with the codes found in some Stoic writers. First, Paul’s treatment of the master/slave relationship is unparalleled. The fact that he directly addresses slaves (before he even addresses masters!) in the first place is startling.26“What is most notable is not the subordination of the slaves, but that they are addressed in the codes” (Balch, “Household,” 33). By directly addressing slaves, Paul credits them with equal agency as their masters, since “he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him” (6:9). While some writers advocated for a more humane treatment of slaves,27See Philo, Spec. Leg. ii.137; cf. Spec. Leg. ii.67, 69, 83-84 and the discussion in Herring, The Colossian, 240-245. Paul’s treatment appears to be more radical. He goes so far as to tell masters to “treat your slaves in the same way” (ta auta poieite pros autous, 6:9) as he has just instructed the slaves to treat their masters. Paul literally says “do the same things to them” that I have told slaves to do to you. While Paul does not seek to dismantle the system of slavery, he does challenge the social hierarchy inherent in the system itself.28This point is furthered by the fact that Paul frequently refers to all believers, including himself, as slaves to others. Even Jesus is described as a slave (John 13:1-13; Phil 2:6-9).   

Second, Paul avoids the common terms found in other codes that are used to describe the husband. The husband is often called “ruler” (archon), “master” (despotes), and “lord” (kurios) in Greco-Roman household codes, but this language is absent in Paul’s description.29See Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33.” Instead, Paul uses the term “head” to describe the husband. This term of course is debated. But even if it conveys some sense of authority, by avoiding the typical terminology of ruler, master, lord, Paul is distancing the nature of the husband’s authority from its secular understanding.30In the New Testament, archon is almost always used to describe rulers who stand opposition to God’s kingdom or “ruling” in a way that is contrary to the way of Christ (Matt 9:23; 20:25; Luke 12:58; 23:13, 35; 24:20; John 7:26; Acts 3:17; 4:5, 8, 26; 7:27, 35; 13:27; 16:19; 23:5; Rom 13:3), and in several occasions it refers to demonic rulers (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; Eph 2:2). But archon is never used to in reference to relationships in the household in the New Testament (Armstrong, “Meaning,” 155). Despotes (“master”) typically refers to the master of a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; 2 Tim 2:21; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18; Jude 4; Rev 6:10; in 2 Pet 2:1 it refers to Jesus. Instead of referring to the husband as the “ruler” and the wife as one “ruled,” Paul’s use of the head/body metaphor to describe the husband (head) and wife (body). This is significant, since he has already used this metaphor to illustrate the unity of the church (Eph. 4:15). As we’ll see in a future post, the head/body metaphor is also employed throughout Ephesians 5:22-33 to highlight the mutual interdependence of husband and wife. This is true even if we interpret kephalē to mean “authority” and conclude that only wives are to submit to their husbands (and not husbands to their wives). Even if we see some “role distinctions” in the passage where the husband alone has authority, as complementarians argue, these distinctions are stripped of their typical hierarchical framework and imbedded in a rhetorical framework that bleeds with mutuality.

In short, the head/body metaphor, as understood by Paul, challenges the typical social hierarchy between husband and wife in other household codes. 

Third, Paul uses the term hupotassō to describe the wife’s posture toward her husband. After surveying the use of hupotassō in the New Testament, Karl Armstrong concludes: 

In general, the way hupotassō is employed in the New Testament within the context of a household relationship suggests a voluntary act, that is, yielding oneself to another—as indicated by the collocation of allelois (Eph. 5.21), tois andrasin (Eph. 5.24) and tois idiois andrasin (1 Pet. 3.1, 5).31“The Meaning,” 157.

The voluntary nature of submission is especially apparent when it occurs in the middle voice, as it does in Ephesians 5:21 and 24.32Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 158, following W. Larry Richards, “Hupotagesetai in 1 Corinthians 15:28b,” AUSS 38 (2000), 203-206. Armstrong continues: “The mutuality and voluntary nature intensify when we consider the author’s selection of kephalē instead of archōn, despotes or kurios, since these authoritative and patriarchal words prevail with contemporary Greco-Roman household codes.”33Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 158.

It’s actually quite rare for Greco-Roman codes to use language of “submission” when referring to the wife’s relationship to her husband. Typically, they would call on the wife to “obey” her husband.34See note __ above.  Or, more often, the husband is simply commanded to rule over his wife. 

Speaking of submission, we need to make sure we maintain a Christian, rather than secular or Greco-Roman, understanding of this concept. While submission conveys notions of inferiority in other literature, in Christianity the concept of submission has been radically transformed through the behavior of Christ (John 13:1-13; Phil 2:5-11; cf. 1 Cor 15:28). What was seen as a sign of weakness and social inferiority has been turned into a fundamental virtue that all Christians are called to exhibit (Eph 5:21).35We’ll discuss the relationships between 5:21 (“submitting to one another”) and 5:22ff, where only wives are called to submit to their husbands, in a later post. Indeed, submission is the means by which Christ conquered the authorities and became King of the cosmos (Phil 2:5-11). Whatever Paul is conveying when he calls on wives to submit, we must resist reading secular notions—ancient or modern—into the term. For Christians, the virtue of submission should be put on par with other virtues like courage, strength, holiness, and honor. The call to submit is a call the embody the peculiar power of King Jesus. 

This is one reason why I don’t think interchanging “submission” with “subjugation” is helpful in the debate about women in leadership (in church or home). The two are not synonyms. Wives are commanded to “submit to your husband” (Eph. 5:22, 24; Titus 2:5; et al.), and we can debate what this means (whether it’s mutual or one directional; whether it only reflects the 1st cent. social situation and not modern ones; etc.). But one thing is clear: husbands are never commanded to “subjugate” their wives. No Christian is called to subjugate anyone. Submission is a voluntary act done by the person submitting. It’s their agency that’s being recognized and addressed. But “subjugation” only recognizes the agency of the one doing the subjugating and it implies a kind of coercion and hierarchy that’s not inherent in the (Christian) meaning of submission. 

Fourth, there’s no hint of any kind of ontological inferiority among women, children, or even slaves in Paul’s code. Even if we take “submission” to be one directional (wife to the husband and not vice versa), and see the husband alone as possessing authority over the household, these “role distinctions” are stripped of any notion of ontological inferiority that we see in other codes (Aristotle, Josephus, etc.).

Fifth, and most significantly, Paul’s commands to the husbands in the code are extraordinary and countercultural. While it wasn’t unheard of for other writers to talk about mutual love between husband and wife (esp. the Stoics), this love is still part of a relationship where the husbands rule over their wives.36EVID But I’m aware of no writer who describes the kind of love that a husband is mandated to have for his wife in such drastic terms, where the husband is called to give up himself for the sake of the wife and to love her as he does his own body (5:25, 28). Paul’s one-directional command that husbands are to give up of themselves for their wives challenges—if not demolishes—the typical social hierarchy inherent in other household codes.

Paul drives home the countercultural nature of the husband’s self-giving love for his wife by associating it with Christ’s love for the church, which he describes in terms associated with the work of a domestic slave.37Cf. Westfall: “the applications of the three actions in this passage [bathing, laundering, nourishing] belong in the domestic sphere and correspond to activities related to the woman’s role in the home: providing clothing (that is already made, not raw material), doing laundry including washing and ironing, bathing, feeding, and nurturing” (Westfall, “Great Metaphor,” 572; see also Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33,” 17). In vv. 26-27, Christ “cleanses” his bride, the church, “by the washing with water” and “present[ing] her…without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (5:26-27). Bathing, washing, and doing the laundry. These were domestic duties that were considered “women’s work” or the work of a slave, not the work of the husband.38For instance, the Stoic Hierocles captures the view of many when he says: “These therefore are to be divided after the accustomed manner; rural, forensic, and political works are to be attributed to the husband; but to the wife, such works as pertain to spinning wool, making of bread, cooking, and in short everything of domestic nature;” Cf. Mishnah Ketuboth 5:5: “These are the kinds of labour which a woman performs for her husband: she grinds flour, bakes bread, does laundry, prepares meals, feed her child, makes the bed, works in wool” (both cited in Westfall, “Great Metaphor,” 571).

To be clear, as most scholars argue, 5:26-27 is a Christological aside. That is, these verses are describing the actions of Christ toward his bride (the church) and not directly telling husbands to “make” their wives “holy” (v. 26). And yet, given the general association between what Christ’s love for the church looks like and the husband’s love for his wife, the connection between domestic duties and husbandly love would not be lost on Paul’s audience.39As several scholars point out, Eph 5:25-26 probably alludes to Ezekiel 16, which ascribes washing and caring for a bride to Yahweh. See esp. Ezek. 16:9-10, 13-14: “I bathed you with water” (elousa se en hudati) and “washed the blood from you…I clothed you…dressed you in fine linen…you became very beautiful” (see Lincoln, 375; Campbell, 255; Arnold, 384-86; Herring, 194). Yahweh’s self-giving actions in Ezekiel 16 are startling and countercultural in their own right!                

In short, Paul’s audience would have been most struck by the startling differences rather than similarities between Paul’s code and the typical family values embedded in other codes.   

Summary 

The meaning of kephalē is, to my mind, intertwined with the subversive nature of Paul’s household code. It seems clear that the social hierarchy embedded in other codes are flipped upside down in Ephesians 5. And yet some characteristics of other codes remain (wives submitting to their husbands; the structure of husbands/wives, parents/children, and masters/slaves). Where does Paul’s understanding of kephalē fall? Does kephalē represent Paul’s agreement with the larger societal assumption that the husband is the authority over his wife and therefore she should submit to him? Or does Paul simply acknowledge that the husband is the source of life and provision for his wife and therefore does not agree with the Greco-Roman assumption that he’s her authority? Or is there something else going on? 

I think there’s something else going on, which we’ll explore in the next post. 


  • 1
    Payne, The Bible, 115.
  • 2
    For surveys of “household codes” in the Greco-Roman world, see Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 25-80; Verner, The Household,27-81; Herring, The Colossian, 203-262.
  • 3
    See David Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive. Balch himself notes that this has become a consensus (“Household Codes,” 35); MacDonald says this has become “generally accepted” (Woman, 119).
  • 4
    All translations of Aristotle are from Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1944.
  • 5
    Verner offers a helpful summary: “The topos ‘concerning household management’ may thus be described as follows: it is comprised of four subtopics: master-slave relationships, husband-wife relationships, father-child relationships, and the art of acquiring wealth; furthermore, the three basic relationships are approached as relationships of ruler and ruled, or of superior and subordinate; and finally, the context of this topos is that of a larger tops which concerns the poiteia as a whole” (Verner, 84).
  • 6
    Aristotle uses the term archō (“to rule, govern”) to describe the man’s relationship to his wife (Pol.  1.1254b; 1.1259b), children (Pol. 1.1259b; 1.1278b), and slaves (Pol. 1.1255a; 1.1259b; 1.1260a); see Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 154-155 n. 9.
  • 7
    Both Plato and Aristotle treated marriage and family out of a concern for the city (Verner, 71-79).
  • 8
    “Those household relationships which we normally consider private, individual matters are here part of a social-political, philosophic ethic” (Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 26).
  • 9
    Cf. Aristotle, Politics II 1269b: “Again, the freedom in regard to women is detrimental both in regard to the purpose of the constitution and in regard to the happiness of the state. For just as man and wife are part of a household, it is clear that the state also is divided nearly in half into its male and female population, so that in all constitutions in which the position of women is badly regulated one half of the state must be deemed to have been neglected in framing the law.” Cf. Plato: “Regarding marriage as a whole there shall be one general rule: each man must seek to form such a marriage as shall benefit the State, rather than such as best pleases himself” (Laws 773B).
  • 10
    Cited in Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 24
  • 11
    Balch says that Aristotle “had very little influence for two centuries after his death. His ideas were not important in the Hellenistic age, although later in the time of the Romans, especially in the late first century B.C., his writings again became available” (Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 37).
  • 12
    Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive, 40.
  • 13
    Cf. Aristotle, Politics, I 1259a 37-39; 1253b 6-14. Didymus earlier explored the different kinds of subordinate relationships in the home: “For the relation of parents to children has monarchic character; of men to women, aristocratic; of children to one another, democratic. For the male is joined to the female by a desire to beget children and to continue the race” (Epitome II 148, 9-20)
  • 14
    Translation by C. Wachsmuth and O. Hense, Strobaeus, Anthologium (Berlin: Weidmann, 1958), vol. II.
  • 15
    See Balch, Wives, 40-41; idem, “household,” 27, 40. According to Balch, the Epitome “gives the larger political context in which Greco-Roman persons, including Augustus and his governors, Seneca and his brother Gallio, would have understood the household” (Balch, “Household,” 40).
  • 16
    Cf. Special Laws III.169-171: “The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house…Organized communities are of two sorts, the greater which we call cities and the smaller which we call households. Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men, under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management (oikonmia), to women. A woman then, should not be a busybody, meddling with matters outside her household concerns, but should seek a life of seclusion. She should not show herself off like a vagrant in the streets before the eyes of other men, except when she has to go to the temple” (trans. Colson). Philo gives a detailed account of how to manage children and slaves in The Decalogue, 165-167.
  • 17
    Rufus even believed that it was wrong for a husband to have sex with a female slave, even though this was widely accepted: “every master is held to have it in his power to use his slave as he wishes. In reply to this I have just one thing to say: if it seems neither shameful nor out of place for a master to have relations with his own slave, particularly if she happens to be unmarried, let him consider how he would like it if his wife had relations with a male slave” (Musonius, xii 35-39).
  • 18
    “[T]he clear call for mutual love and co-operation corresponds closely with the tenor of the Eph. HT instruction. In particular, the ideal of self-sacrificial love within marriage presents us with a strikingly similar aspect of the Eph HT sacrifice-model and motivation” (Herring, The Colossian, 252). See also Pseudo-Aristotle, Oeconomica, i.2-5, where “[t]he ruler/ruled dichotomy no longer leads the discussion of household management; concepts such as unity, cooperation, love and honour are tangible values which guide the household relationships…” (Herring, The Colossian, 227).
  • 19
    Cited in Balch, 144.
  • 20
    Loeb. Dawes argues that “this passage presents the ‘subordination’ of wives in a context which contrasts hupotassein (heauton) with ‘having control’ (kratein) and ‘governing’ (archein). The sense of the word in this context is that of the submission of one’s will to another: hupotassesthai may therefore be described as the act in which one ‘lose[s] or surrender[s] one’s own will’” (Dawes, The Body in Question, 212, quoting Delling’s TDNT entry for hupottasō). 
  • 21
    Herring (The Colossian, 256 n. 141), Cohick (“Tyranny, Authority, Service,” 81), and Balch (Wives 98-99) all say that Ps. Callisthenes, Hist. Alex. Magni i. 22.4 is the only other known instance where hupotasōo is used. In every other case, wives are called to obey their husbands. (Cohick lists this source as: Ps.-Callisthenes, A Narrative, Remarkable and Really Marvelous, of the Lord of the World, Alexander the King I.22.19-20)
  • 22
    Elsewhere, Plutarch states that “every action performed in a good household is done by agreement of the partners, but displays the leadership (hegemonia) and decision of the husband” (Mor. 139C-D); Marx, “‘Wifely Submission’,” 62-63. Elsewhere, Plutarch advices husbands not to cheat on their wives, but if they do, the wife “ought not be angry or annoyed” (Mor. 142C; cf. 144A).
  • 23
    Verner puts it well: Plutarch attempts “to subsume the new values under the old and so to preserve the essential structure of the old values by making certain minimal concessions to the times” (The Household, 81). Cf. Herring: “Though Plutarch’s instruction to the husband is characterized by rule, it must be added that this rule is depicted in a humane and sympathetic manner” (Herring, The Colossian, 257). Cf. Dawes, The Body in Question, 211-12 for a similar perspective. And see Marx, “‘Wifely Submission’,” 56-88 for a through comparison of Plutarch and Paul on their views of marriage.
  • 24
    Regarding the codes in Eph and Col, Verner says: “Thus the traditional domestic morality represented by the household management topos is here taken over uncritically” (Verner, The Household, 85).
  • 25
    Though we need to keep in mind that Greco-Roman descriptions of the household are not at all uniform (rightly emphasized by Herring, 203-262). For instance, Aristotle and Didymus exhibit many differences and similarities with the codes found in some Stoic writers.
  • 26
    “What is most notable is not the subordination of the slaves, but that they are addressed in the codes” (Balch, “Household,” 33).
  • 27
    See Philo, Spec. Leg. ii.137; cf. Spec. Leg. ii.67, 69, 83-84 and the discussion in Herring, The Colossian, 240-245.
  • 28
    This point is furthered by the fact that Paul frequently refers to all believers, including himself, as slaves to others. Even Jesus is described as a slave (John 13:1-13; Phil 2:6-9).
  • 29
    See Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33.”
  • 30
    In the New Testament, archon is almost always used to describe rulers who stand opposition to God’s kingdom or “ruling” in a way that is contrary to the way of Christ (Matt 9:23; 20:25; Luke 12:58; 23:13, 35; 24:20; John 7:26; Acts 3:17; 4:5, 8, 26; 7:27, 35; 13:27; 16:19; 23:5; Rom 13:3), and in several occasions it refers to demonic rulers (Matt 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; Eph 2:2). But archon is never used to in reference to relationships in the household in the New Testament (Armstrong, “Meaning,” 155). Despotes (“master”) typically refers to the master of a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; 2 Tim 2:21; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18; Jude 4; Rev 6:10; in 2 Pet 2:1 it refers to Jesus.
  • 31
    “The Meaning,” 157.
  • 32
    Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 158, following W. Larry Richards, “Hupotagesetai in 1 Corinthians 15:28b,” AUSS 38 (2000), 203-206.
  • 33
    Armstrong, “The Meaning,” 158.
  • 34
    See note __ above. 
  • 35
    We’ll discuss the relationships between 5:21 (“submitting to one another”) and 5:22ff, where only wives are called to submit to their husbands, in a later post.
  • 36
    EVID
  • 37
    Cf. Westfall: “the applications of the three actions in this passage [bathing, laundering, nourishing] belong in the domestic sphere and correspond to activities related to the woman’s role in the home: providing clothing (that is already made, not raw material), doing laundry including washing and ironing, bathing, feeding, and nurturing” (Westfall, “Great Metaphor,” 572; see also Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33,” 17).
  • 38
    For instance, the Stoic Hierocles captures the view of many when he says: “These therefore are to be divided after the accustomed manner; rural, forensic, and political works are to be attributed to the husband; but to the wife, such works as pertain to spinning wool, making of bread, cooking, and in short everything of domestic nature;” Cf. Mishnah Ketuboth 5:5: “These are the kinds of labour which a woman performs for her husband: she grinds flour, bakes bread, does laundry, prepares meals, feed her child, makes the bed, works in wool” (both cited in Westfall, “Great Metaphor,” 571).
  • 39
    As several scholars point out, Eph 5:25-26 probably alludes to Ezekiel 16, which ascribes washing and caring for a bride to Yahweh. See esp. Ezek. 16:9-10, 13-14: “I bathed you with water” (elousa se en hudati) and “washed the blood from you…I clothed you…dressed you in fine linen…you became very beautiful” (see Lincoln, 375; Campbell, 255; Arnold, 384-86; Herring, 194). Yahweh’s self-giving actions in Ezekiel 16 are startling and countercultural in their own right! 

 

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4 comments on “What Does “Head” (Kephalē) Mean in Paul’s Letters? Part 7: Household Codes (Eph. 5)

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  1. Philip B. Payne on

    I applaud the overall thrust of this post and especially the clear contrasts between Greco-Roman household codes and Ephesians 5.

    Preston’s lead paragraph, however, frames the debate with statements that assert as facts key points that are in debate:

    Preston begins, “We finally come to Ephesians 5, where Paul says that ‘the husband is the head (kephalē) of the wife’ (Eph 5:23).”

    Note, however, that Paul actually writes Greek words that differ from the English translation Sprinkle provides in three ways.

    First, the English translation “head” causes most English readers to interpret “head” as “authority,” whereas, as I have noted in comments to Preston’s earlier posts, standard secular Greek dictionaries do not include “authority” as a meaning for head anywhere near Paul’s day. Because “head” is a common idiom for “leader” in English, e.g. “the head of the company,” English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures translate as “head” most of the 180 instances where the Hebrew word “head” means “leader.” For example the NASB translates 116 of these 180 “head,” and the ASV translates 115 of them “head.” Both, however, translate all instances of “head priest” “chief priest” because “chief priest” sounds more natural in English than “head priest.” In sharp contrast, the best-attested text of the Septuagint (= LXX) Greek translation of the Hebrew text used in Paul’s day translates only one of these 180 kephalē clearly as a metaphor meaning “leader.” All other alleged instances were added by Origen in the third century, are explained in their context to mean something other than “authority,” or are translated eis kephalēn, “as head,” which readers could understand as a simile, “like” a head.
    לראשׁ (“as head”) occurs eighteen times in the MT where ראשׁ (“head”) means leader. Seven are translated εἰς κεφαλήν in at least one LXX manuscript. They are Judges 10:18; 11:8, 9, 11; 2 Samuel 22:44; Psalm 17:44 (MT 18:44, English 18:43); and Lam 1:5. Of these, three occur only in Codex Alexandrinus: Judges 10:18; 11:8, 9. The earlier Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (ending at 11:2) have ἄρχων, not κεφαλή. It is therefore doubtful that Paul and his readers’ LXX text had κεφαλή in these three. Seven εἰς κεφαλήν translations out of nineteen לראשׁ occurrences contrasts sharply with one of 180 where ראשׁ meaning leader is translated simply κεφαλή.

    Why did at least one LXX translator translate לראשׁ when it refers to a leader εἰς κεφαλήν seven out of eighteen times, but the LXX translators translated ראשׁ without ל prefix meaning leader κεφαλή in only 1 of 161 times? In light of the meanings secular Greek lexicons list for κεφαλή, the answer should be obvious. The LXX translators recognized that κεφαλή is not an appropriate metaphor to convey the meaning “leader,” so they almost never translated the Hebrew word for “head” κεφαλή as a metaphor for leader. They recognized that Greek speakers would think it odd to call someone “head” (kephalē) with the metaphorical meaning “leader.” But Greek speakers could imagine someone being compared to a head without regarding that statement as odd. Because εἰς κεφαλήν means “as leader,” it could make sense to Greek readers either as “like a [physical] head” or with the common Greek metaphorical meaning “as top.” So even though seven of eighteen is not nearly as high a percentage as most English versions that translate the majority of these 180 “head,” LXX translators clearly regarded εἰς κεφαλήν as far more appropriate to convey “leader” than κεφαλή by itself. They recognized that κεφαλή was not a native established Greek metaphor for “leader.”

    The only English equivalent that either BDAG 288–91 or LSJ 491–92 lists for εἰς that fits these seven LXX εἰς κεφαλήν is “as head,” just as the NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament (ed. John R. Kohlenberger III; 4 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) translates all of them. No meaning BDAG or LSJ lists for εἰς conveys “so as to be.” GKC (Genenius’ Hebrew Grammar ed. E. Kautzsch, translated by Arther E. Crowley; 2nd ed.; Oxford: Clarendon, 1910) §119 t explains, “esteeming as something.” Nigel Turner, Vol III: Syntax (A Grammar of New Testament Greek; ed. James Hope Moulton; 4 vols.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1963), 247, cites five examples where εἰς means “as (like normal Greek ὡς).” H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, (Toronto: Macmillan, 1957), 103 cite εἰς meaning “as, expressing equivalence” in Heb 1:5, “as a father” and “as a son,” Mark 10:8, “as one flesh,” and Acts 7:53, “as delivered by angels.” Similarly, BDAG 290 4.d cites “as a witness” (Jas 5:3), “as servants” (Heb 1:14), “tongues are as a sign” (1 Cor 14:22). BAG 229 4.d, 8.b. cites “as her own son” (Acts 7:21) “as a light for the Gentiles” (Acts 13:47). These examples show that Greek readers could naturally interpret εἰς κεφαλήν “as head” rather than as a metaphor, “is head.”

    The second way that Paul’s text differs from the English translation Sprinkle provides of Ephesians 5:23 is there is no article (“the”) before anēr (“man” or, if there had been an article, “the husband”). Every other instance in Ephesians 5 where anēr clearly means “husband,” it has an article. If Paul had written an article before anēr in Eph 5:23, this would have clearly associated anēr with the prior “the husband” in 5:22. The absence of the article “the” favors that Paul writes: “man is the head-source of woman.” The fact that every other reference to husbands in this chapter includes the article “the” draws attention to this instance as different. This makes the translation “man” for anēr one that should not be ignored. Ephesians 5:23 identifies a reason for a wife to submit to her husband. Respect for one’s source (woman coming from Adam’s rib) is a good reason for a wife to submit to her husband. Furthermore, Ephesians 4:15–16 speaks of Christ as “the head” from whom the body grows,” namely as the source of the body’s growth. In such close context, it prepares readers to understand “head” in 5:23 to refer to “source” as well. Furthermore, Paul’s own explanation of “head” as “savior” fits “source” better than “authority.”

    Third, Preston’s translation omits Paul’s explanatory statement, “man is the head-source of woman as Christ is head-source of the church, he the savior of the body. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 399 identifies Paul’s explanation that by “head” Paul means “savior” “emphatic apposition”: “Christ, head of the church, he savior of the body.” Ephesians 5:25 explains how Christ became savior of the church: he “loved the church and gave himself up for her.” 5:25 also explains that husbands are to follow Christ’s example in being a source of love and self-sacrifice for their wives: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The way Paul explains Christ as head of the church as a model for husbands is Christ as the source of love (5:25, 28, 29, 33) and nourishment (5:29), not Christ as commanding the church or exercising authority over the church. Consequently, if anēr is understood as a reference to “the husband,” “head” still makes best sense as meaning “source,” namely source of love and nourishment, just as Christ as “head” of the church in Ephesians 4:15–16 is the “head” from whom the body grows, namely the source of nourishment for the church.

    Preston states, “And appealing to the context of Ephesians ends in a stalemate, since Paul already has used kephalē to convey the idea of both authority (Eph 1:22) and source (Eph 4:15).”

    Philip B. Payne: Again Preston has assumed something that is not only debated, but which is actually doubtful, namely that kephalē conveys the idea of authority in (Eph 1:22). The context and the range of established meaning of kephalē at that time clearly favors the meaning “apex” or “top.” Note all the spatial references in Ephesians 1:20–22: “raised … made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above … and above … and has put all things under his feet and has given him, apex over all things, to the church.” (1:20–22). This passage does not identify Christ as “head of the church” or “authority over the church.” It states that God “gave” Christ, apex over all things, to the church.

    In addition to these issues of substance, a couple of typos should be corrected:
    “In this post, I want to situated Paul’s household code (Eph. 5:22–6:9) in the context”
    Should be: “In this post, I want to situate Paul’s household code (Eph. 5:22–6:9) in the context”

    “Paul’s one-directional command that husbands are to give up of themselves for their wives”
    Should be: “Paul’s one-directional command that husbands are to give themselves up for their wives”

    Philip B. Payne: The fact that all believers are commanded in Ephesians 5:2 “to walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” proves that 5:25’s identical command addressed to husbands is not “one-directional” since Paul has just given the identical command to all Christians, including wives. Note the identical wording:
    5:2 ἀγάπη, καθὼς και ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάρησεν … καὶ παρέδωκεν ἑαυτὸν ὑπερ …
    5:25 ἀγαπᾶτε … καθὼς και ὁ Χριστὸς ἠγάρησεν … καὶ ἑαυτὸν παρέδωκεν ὑπερ …

    Reply
  2. Seth Stewart on

    Thanks for this, Preston. This is a really helpful summary.

    Here’s my question: How does Paul’s household code compare to Jewish thinkers and authors of his time? Has his belief in Jesus as Lord and Messiah changed a typical Jewish view of the relationships between men/women, kids/parents, and slaves/masters? Or does Paul simply give Christocentric motives to an essentially Jewish way of thinking about household relationships? It seems obvious that Paul is in dialogue with his Greek neighbors, but presumably, his time as a Pharisee meant he coached many young husbands and “heads” of a house on how to treat their wives, kids, and slaves. I’m curious what research exists about early 1st century Jewish understandings of household relationships and how that might affect our understanding of what Paul means by “head”?

    Again, this is really helpful, and I’m thankful for your ministry!

    Reply
    • Seth Stewart on

      Maybe to clarify a little more, are any 1st-century Jewish sources engaging with the “household code” genre?

      Reply
  3. L.Z. on

    Hello Preston, I’ve been following along your journey a bit, seeing as I’m making my own journey around this topic at about the same time. I appreciate your approach, recognizing the respect for thoughtfulness and taking the time to ask sincere questions. My current understanding is that all passages in the Bible about male authority and female submission are meant in the context of marriage. Even the 1 Tim 2 passage. For multiple reasons, but here’s one: I think Gen 2 and 3 and the reference thereto is about marriage. And the lense is Eph 5, or the church as the bride of Christ. Adam was the first son of God (Luk 3:38). And his wife was made from his side, like the Church birthed from Christ’s side when He ‘slept’. I think we as a church are to be ‘bone of His bone, flesh of His flesh’. Well there’s a lot more in those passages.
    But the thing is, Adam is never referred to as ‘the prototypical male’, nor is Eve referred to as ‘the prototypical female’. Adam is always either ‘human’, or an image of Christ. And Eve is referred to as ‘the bride’ and the church (2Cor 11). Ofcourse they were the first male and female. But to me it seems when the biblical authors never emphasize that, but always refer to them in the light of marriage or as image of Christ and the church, or as ‘human’ (male and female), we should let our thoughts be formed by that. And we shouldn’t make Adam to represent all men and Eve to represent all women.

    So I think it’s important to figure out what Paul is saying about marriage relationships in these passages, because it says something about how we as church relate to Christ! And I think your going really good on that one! I’ll follow along more, because even as I feel I’m landing now, I still have questions. There’s so much being said on this topic.
    Blessings thinking about all of these things!

    Reply

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