What Paul Really Said About Women

What did the apostle mean when he said 'the husband is head of the wife' and 'wives, be subject to your husbands'?

Excerpted from "What Paul Really Said About Women" with permission of HarperCollins.

"The husband is head of the wife," Paul explained, "as Christ is head of the church." In English, the word "head" means literally the physical head of one's body and figuratively the leader of a body of people. The two meanings are intertwined.

Not so in Greek, where two different and distinct words are translated "head." One of these is arche (pronounced ar-KAY). It means "head" in terms of leadership and point of origin. It was used to denote "beginning" in the sense of the first or point of inception (and we use this Greek word as a prefix in such words as archaeology, archetype, and archives, all relating to old or first things). Just as it was used to denote point of origin, so we use head that way in the word headwaters (of a river). Arche was also used to denote "first" in terms of importance and power (and we use it as a prefix in such words as archangel, archbishop, archenemy, archduke, and so on, all relating to the head of a group in terms of leadership). Forms of arche are used throughout the New Testament, including the writings of Paul, to designate the head or leader of a group of people. These forms are translated "magistrate," "chief," "prince," "ruler," "head," and so forth.


Now, in the Bible we find many puns, not as a form of humor so much as a form of wisdom, where a word was used that meant two things, both of which were true and were intended to be understood by the one word. For example, Jesus told a woman in Samaria that he would give her "living" water (John 7:10), and the word translated "living" also means "running." Another time Jesus "breathed" on his disciples and told them to "receive Holy Spirit" (John 20:22); in Greek (and also in Hebrew) the word for "spirit" also means "breath."

Therefore, if Paul had believed as Aristotle taught, that husbands should command their wives and rule over them, then Paul could have made a pun out of the word arche. He could have written that the husband is the arche (head) of the wife, and in that one sentence he would have meant that the husband is to rule over the wife and at the same time have reminded his readers how man (Adam) was the source of woman (Eve, who was formed of Adam's rib). Both senses of arche (ruler, and point of origin) would have been invoked.

However, Paul did not choose to use the word arche when he wrote of how the husband is head of his wife. He was well aware of that word, but he deliberately chose a different term.

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