And I Thought the French Translation Would Help. Silly Me.
In order to understand the meaning of “head” as used by the apostle Paul, it is helpful to determine its meaning within the language spoken by Paul. The authors of works such as A Greek-English Lexicon by Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1968), or Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965, 10 volumes) have thoroughly investigated biblical and contemporary extra-biblical writings and reported that the word kephale was used in the secular and religious Greek contemporary to Paul, with the meaning of source, origin, sustainer, and not of ruler. The second century B.C. translation of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament into Greek provides a case in point. The Hebrew word for head (ros), commonly used for leader, ruler, or supreme is translated in the Septuagint by a Greek word other than “head” (kephale) over 150 times. It was much later that the word kephale began to be used as “authority” under the pressure of Latin usage, as evidenced in the writings of some post apostolic church fathers. For Paul and his correspondents the use of the word kephale as a synonym for ruler or authority would have been as meaningless as attempting to do the same today with tete in French, or Kopf in German. – From Beyond Sex Roles by Gilbert Bilezikian, pp. 277-278, quoted at Just a Berean. Emphasis added.
Since I speak a little French, I began lately to wonder exactly how French Bibles did translate the Greek word for “head,” transliterated “kephale.” In English, “head” can mean “that thing on top of your neck,” or it can mean “ruler/leader.” It can also mean “bathroom,” and also “the thing above, on top or coming first” — as in “headstone” and “headwaters.” So it’s not all that difficult for us as English speakers to look at “Christ is the head of the church, which is his body” in Ephesians 5:23 or Colossians 1:18, and consider the idea that “head and body” here might be a metaphor which meant something other than “leader and follower” or “ruler and subordinate” in the original text. However, “ruler” or “leader” being a legitimate meaning of the word “head” in English, some people insist that this has to be what it means in these passages.
So I wondered if in a language where the word meaning “that thing on top of your neck” doesn’t contain the meaning “ruler” or “leader,” there might be less difficulty with this issue. I decided to look up the passages in my French Bible. I have an old La Bible de Jerusalem which I picked up in Paris when I visited it on a student tour right after my graduation from high school. I opened it and was pleased to find I could still read it fairly well.
And here’s the odd thing. In Colossians 1:18, the passage says, “Et Il est aussi la Tete du Corps, c’est-a-dire l’Eglise.” It does actually say “And He is also the “tete” (that thing on top of the neck) to the “corps” (body), that is to say the church.”
But when I turned to Ephesians 5:23, the word changed. “Le mari est chef de sa femme, comme le Christ est chef de l’Eglise, lui le sauveur du Corps.” Instead of “tete” (that thing on your neck), the translators actually chose “chef,” which means “chief; ruler.” Christ, then, according to the translation of this passage, is the “sauveur” (savior) of the Body– but not “head” to the Body. Instead, He is the “chief/ruler” of the Body — and the husband is the “chief/ruler” of the wife.
It seems, then, that while the translators of La Bible de Jerusalem in French were quite willing that the head-body metaphor should be accurately reflected in Col. 1:18, which is only about the Christ-church relationship, without the husband-wife relationship being in immediate view, they willingly jettisoned the head-body metaphor in Eph. 5:23, which is about husband-wife relations. Eph. 5:23 refers to the church as “du Corps” (the body), but Christ and the husband do not appear as “head” at all. They are, unequivocably, rulers.
I guess the translators were certain the word “kephale” there was supposed to mean “ruler,” so they simply substituted that and lost the metaphor. How is the French reader supposed to see a head-body metaphor in that passage at all? It turns out that the translators’ decision as to what the text means actually obscures any other possible meaning for the word “head,” and thus makes it harder, not easier, for a French speaker to see that Eph. 5:23 might not be speaking of husbands as rulers of wives.
I guess I’ve decided that the ability of the English word “head” to mean “ruler” isn’t such a problem after all. At least I get to still see that there’s a body, and a thing on top of its neck, in the Ephesians text.