Polysemy, pre-eminence, and patriarchy in Paul

Part of Christian Smith’s argument against the “biblicist” approach to the reading of scripture is that the Bible simply cannot be reduced to a single layer of meaning. The Bible is multivocal; it speaks “to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things”; it confronts the reader with “semantic indeterminacy” (loc. 1096 in the Kindle version of The Bible Made Impossible).

It’s not altogether clear to what extent he regards the indeterminacy as intrinsic to the biblical text or a problem generated in the course of interpretation (Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism”). If Protestants and Catholics disagree over the meaning of Jesus’ statement, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), are we to conclude that the text has more than one meaning or that Catholics and Protestants see things differently?

But Smith maintains that the phenomenon of polysemy can be found at the level of single words—”as biblical scholars well know”—which gets very close to making it a matter of linguistics rather than interpretation.

For instance, the word “head” (kephalē) in Ephesians: (“the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church”) can plausibly be interpreted to mean either “authority” (as traditionalists interpret it) or “source,” as in the “head” of a river (as egalitarians interpret it). The latter interpretation has the sense of husbands being a kind of source of life for wives by laying down their lives for them as Christ did for the church (cf. vv. 25-28).

I have argued long and hard in the distant past that when kephalē (“head”) is used metaphorically in Hellenistic Greek prior to the New Testament it invariably carries the rather simple and obvious sense of pre-eminence or prominence.1 The head is the most prominent or foremost part of a person or animal, the part by which he, she or it is identified. If a person is described as “head” in relation to another person or group of people, it means only that he or she is the most prominent, foremost, the one through whom the group is identified. It says something about how relationships are perceived.

In many situations the person who is most prominent may also have authority over others, but that is not to say that “head” means a “person who has authority over others”—in the way that terms such as “leader” or “ruler” or “king” do. In Jeremiah 38:7 LXX (31:7 in English versions) the remnant of Israel returning from exile is described as “head of nations”. In the context this can hardly mean that Israel has authority over the nations. Rather Israel is foremost or pre-eminent among the nations in YHWH’s eyes. The sense is effectively given in verse 9: “I became a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

The egalitarian argument about “source” is similarly weak. The source of a river may be described as the “head” of the river because it is (obviously) at the top end. But “head” does not therefore mean “source”, and certainly not when the word is used in an entirely different context. Paul is not suggesting that husband and wife together comprise a river of which the man is the source. In Callim. Aetia, P. Oxy., XVII, 2080, 48 kephalē is used for the mouth of a river, which fits the metaphorical sense of “prominent” or “foremost” but undermines the argument that it carries with it the idea of “source” wherever it goes.

So I think that both the traditionalists and the egalitarians have got this one wrong—and apparently still get it wrong. But we do not help matters by excusing their disagreement hermeneutically, whatever grounds it may give us to resist a totalitarian biblicism. Paul is not trying to say two mutually exclusive things at once—we have no reason to expect that sort of level of incoherence from him. The assumption should be that the disagreement is in principle resolvable.

When Paul describes the man as “head” in relation to the woman, the meaning is neither that he has authority over her nor that he is “a kind of source of life” for her. Given the precedence of the man in the creation narratives, there may be a connotation of temporal priority (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13). But I would suggest that the basic thought is of the man’s social prominence and of the implications which that would have had culturally for domestic relations. The metaphor acknowledges the fact that society gives husbands an elevated status, but then the argument in Ephesians 5:22-33 is that this status needs to be respected by the wife, on the one hand, and not abused by the husband, on the other.

Paul’s argument about the submission of the wife is contingent, therefore, upon a particular social construction of male status, just as his exhortations to slaves and masters simply assume the status quo. Given these prevailing conditions, this is how you should be behave. Inasmuch as you are required to submit to one another, do so “out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

peter wilkinson | Tue, 11/22/2011 - 15:18 | Permalink

Do you mean that kephalē as 'foremost' or 'prominent' is no more than a social construct, when it describes the husband's role in relation to a wife? That in different social settings, a wife might be more prominent, or even that there might be equality of roles? (I'm just asking the question - as I haven't come across your argument before).

Also, I assume there is a difference between polysemy as proposed by Smith, and polyphony? The latter might be a more fruitful way of exploring the bible, and opening up its variety of viewpoint, as opposed to the flattening effect of seeking uniformity of theme and message.

Just to say, I believe in polyphemy, but not to the extent that it makes the bible, as Jeffrey John says, like a room full of people having furious arguments with each other. Polysemy seems more like a room full of academics having disagreements over things which are meaningless to the average reader of the bible.

Do you mean that kephalē as ‘foremost’ or ‘prominent’ is no more than a social construct, when it describes the husband’s role in relation to a wife?


The first contention is that in the light of the lexicological background the metaphor probably means prominent, etc., rather than having authority over or being the source of.

The wife is required to submit, therefore, not because the man has an innate or ordained authority over her but because he is prominent.

Paul is not saying: “The man has been given authority over you, therefore you should submit.” He is saying: “The man is the prominent person in the relationship, therefore you should submit.”

We then have to ask what sort of prominence he might have had in mind. There’s not much to go on. 1 Corinthians 11:2-11 suggests that issues of honour and shame were a crucial aspect. 1 Timothy 2 brings formation and education into view. But we seem to be shifting here from determinative theological qualities to social qualities.

If the submission of the woman is made dependent on such socially constructed dynamics, it seems to me that as society changes, the rules of Christian relationship must also change.


I read your article back in 1998 and I tried to convince Gordon Fee of your argument in my 1st Corinthians seminar class. My feeble attempt did not win over Fee BUT your article won me over. Thanks. I point all of my friends immersed in this debate over "headship" to your article.