Exposition of First Corinthians 11:3 — The meaning of Greek kephale (often translated “head”)

There is little doubt that 1 Cor. 11:2–16 is extremely tough to interpret. One piece of this complex passage is 1 Cor. 11:3, and, within that text, the meaning of the Greek noun kephale, usually translated “head.”

Starting in the 1990s, research on social conditions in the Roman empire during the first century began to shed significant light on many passages in First Corinthians.

To better understand 1 Cor. 11:3, check out this video :

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


Exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2–6 Sending social cues to others

1 Corinthians 11:2–6

2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.


The church has had two millennia to interpret 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, but has struggled to do so for lack of knowledge about social conditions in Roman Corinth. As a result, the passage has been understood using the social assumptions existing in the world of the interpreters, an approach with ruinous results. Since the Protestant Reformation, starting about 1517, the dominant view — based largely on medieval customs — has been that the biblical text centered on the subordination of women to men and the need to strictly regulate the participation of women in worship. That interpretation has recently been challenged.

The last twenty years have brought deeper understanding of conditions in Roman Corinth and the wider Roman Empire. This development has also enabled an improved understanding of the possible meanings for the Greek noun kephal?, meaning “head, source, preeminent, foremost.” This word occurs ten times in 1 Corinthians, and nine of those instances occur in verses 3–10; it is clearly a crucial word.

Before we begin explaining the passage, keep in mind that shame and honor were central to Greco-Roman culture. Personal appearance can affect shame or honor. In light of subjects in our passage, Anthony Thiselton reminds us that people make an intentional statement by their appearance: “Clothes and hair or beards play a role in a [system of symbols] which speak volumes about self-perceptions of gender identity, class identity, a sense of occasion, and respect or indifference toward the perception of others.”[1] Google the word “hippie” for an example of how this works.

In particular, during the first century in the Roman Empire, both men and women had to dress carefully or face consequences:

Certain male attire and hair-styles were deemed effeminate and overtly sexual, while appropriate head coverings for respectable Roman women served as protection of their dignity and status as women not to be “propositioned”. . . . “Respectable women did nothing to draw attention to themselves” . . . . A woman who went out . . . unveiled forfeited the protection of Roman law against possible attackers who were entitled to plead extenuating circumstances.”[2]

Other customs defy our expectations: “It was men, rather than women, on whom a woman’s clothing most reflected.”[3] So, if a woman dressed provocatively or wore her hair in an unusual style, it brought shame to her husband and perhaps to his patron — and in our case to Christ!

In the commentary which follows we will continue to stress the views of Anthony Thiselton for one major reason: he argues that the same themes that Paul has developed earlier in 1 Corinthians are applied in 1 Cor. 11:2–16. Paul will address both “rights” of female freedom and “rights” to male headship in the context of public worship. Thiselton explains that Paul once again calls for love to counterbalance rights for the good of the church and the spread of the gospel.[4]

What is often ignored in 1 Cor. 11:2–16 is the relationship between God and Christ. In particular, Thiselton highlights the idea that “’the relationship between man and woman is thus in some sense paralleled by that between God and Christ.’”[5] Clarifying this, he says, “The God-Christ relation has nothing to do with self-glory or the affirmation of the self at the expense of the other . . . it is not an involuntary or imposed ‘subordination,’ but an example of shared love.”

Sending social cues to others

The fact that Jesus Christ is our Lord and that his interests determine how we should live is crucial in understanding our text. It is also vital to remember what Paul taught about equality in Christ: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We have every reason to think Paul taught this in Roman Corinth as well. The women heard his voice and tried to adjust.

Thiselton relates that Paul seems to have received a disturbing report about women’s conduct during worship: “’Some of the women, acting in the freedom and power of the Spirit, have begun to remove their head coverings and loose their hair when they prophesy as a sign of their freedom in Christ.’ In other words, they want to give [social] expression to their freedom and equality.”[6] Even if Paul did not receive such a report, this is the kind of situation he is addressing. Like the issue of eating meat offered to idols, this new issue plays freedom in Christ against the effect on others, both others inside the church and outside. Which side will Paul take? Answer: the very same side he took before — freedom in Christ must be limited by love for others and concern for the reputation of the gospel.

Paul begins by praising the fidelity of the Corinthian church to the traditions he had taught them (1 Cor. 11:2), but he immediately begins a theological argument designed to deal with the issues described above (1 Cor. 11:3). Here in verse three we encounter that troublesome Greek noun kephal?, translated “head” by the NIV. Thiselton criticizes this safe choice as misleading us: “The problem about translating kephal? as head in 1 Cor. 11:3 remains that . . . in English-speaking contexts ‘the head’ almost always implies leadership and authority, as in headmaster, Head of School, Head of Department, head steward. . . . The equivalent assumption in first-century [Corinthian] contexts would be to [understand] head not as authoritative leader in charge, but as one who is ‘prominent, foremost, uppermost, preeminent.’”[7] We cannot make the mistake, made for centuries, of understanding this word according to our cultural context or any recent one; we must understand it first in Roman Corinth! Then we will better understand how to apply it today.

So, using this Corinthian point of view, Thiselton translates verse 3 like this: “However, I want you to understand that while Christ is preeminent for man, man is foremost in relation to  woman, and God is preeminent in relation to Christ.” You may think that nothing much has changed, but consider how shame and honor modify the picture. Christ behaved in such a way as to bring honor — or its equivalent, glory — to the preeminent One, God. Man is responsible to behave in a way that brings honor to his Lord, the preeminent Christ. The woman is to behave in a way that brings honor to man, the foremost of the two genders by creation (see verse 8).

How do we know that we are on the right track? Perhaps the biggest clue is the frequent mention of “dishonor” or “disgrace” (verses 4, 5, 6) — the equivalent of shame — in the immediate context. In addition, Paul soon switches to discussing “glory” (verses 7 below and 10:31 above), since that is the equivalent of honor.

Verses 4–5 will help take the next step in the argument. Obviously, Paul deals first with men and then with women on the subject of head covering. We now know that Roman customs dominated Roman Corinth, and one Roman custom was for men to worship with head coverings. Usually, the men in Corinth would pull the top of their toga up over their heads to form a hood when making a sacrifice in an idol temple. Paul forbids the Christian men to follow this practice. David Garland says that following the pagan practice would shame Christ, who is the metaphorical head of the Christian man.[8]

Did you catch the subtle shift related to “head”? Verse 4 says, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his [anatomical] head covered dishonors his [figurative] head [i.e. Christ].” As Christians, all of us are bound within a set of relationships. Our actions reflect not only on us but on our mate, our church and our Lord, and those actions bring either honor or shame!

Paul next deals with the women in verse 5. Since a woman whose head was uncovered would be saying non-verbally that she was sexually available or a prostitute, neither of which should be said during worship of God, she would dishonor her head. Verse 5a, accordingly, implies, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her [anatomical] head uncovered dishonors her [figurative] head [her husband, the men of the church, and ultimately Christ].” Garland agrees when he says, “As ‘Christ’ is the implied referent for ‘head’ in 11:4, so the ‘man’ is the most likely referent for ‘head’ in 11:5.”[9]

What about the reference in verse 5b about “having her head shaved”? There are many possibilities — none of them favorable for the woman — but Thiselton says, “[Being shaved] may allude to the status of one convicted of prostitution . . . but for the most part the loss of a woman’s hair is taken to denote the loss of her femininity.”[10] Surprisingly, both of these ideas survive to modern times. After the Nazis were thrown out of France during World War II, the loyal women of France cut the hair off all the women who had collaborated with the Nazis — and often shaved their heads — to shame them in public. Verse 6 simply repeats the ideas of verse 5 by adding some rhetorical force, perhaps suggesting the behavior of the women was more in need of correction than that of the men.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 800–01.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 801.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 802.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 799.

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 804, quoting M. Hooker.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 830, following R.B. Hays, First Corinthians, 183.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 817.

[8] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 517.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 522.

[10] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 829.