Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun κεφαλη (kephale) means head, and although that may seem simple enough, it really isn't. Although our word is the source of a handful of English "cephalo-" words (all words to do with the head or skull) and stems from an ancient Proto-Indo-European root ghebh-, thought to mean head, a head is a different thing to us informed moderns than it was to our ancient forbears.
Sometimes a head is just a head
In antiquity a person's mind, emotions and intellect was not considered seated in the head but rather in the belly — more specifically: feelings were ascribed to the bowels and one's will to one's genitals. Certainly people must have noted that folks who suffered a head injury began to behave differently, but these same people could also observe a change in behavior when their subject was kicked in the nuts, so the jury stayed out on that one.
We gullible moderns love our brains and although we tend to congratulate ourselves for being so deliciously smart, so far science has not been able to determine whether our brains truly store the data-that-is-us, or that the brain is a mere organ of retrieval, and that the data-that-is-us is stored elsewhere (perhaps in the blockchain of our DNA or even outside our physical selves, as some models suppose: think of the Akashic Library, the Hall of Records or the Book of Life; see Psalm 69:28, Philippians 4:3, Revelation 3:5, 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15). Whatever the truth, man's emotions sit clearly in his gut and his will is obviously demonstrated just south of there.
To an creative enough Hebrew audience, our Greek word may have reminded of the name of the 19th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, namely קוף (qoph), which means head and comes from a verb that describes a circular motion. Another such Hebrew verb of circular motion is גלל (galal), from whence come the names Galilee and Golgotha. The latter name is really the noun גלגלת (gulgoleth), meaning skull or head, so the connection is not coincidental. Even the Hebrew word for face is פנים (panim), which comes from the verb פנה (pana), meaning to turn.
So no, in antiquity the head was not typically one's highest of most prominent part or even the part that guided and directed a person, but rather the part that turned like a dish antenna, looking for a signal to home in on.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the head was one's most public feature and seat of the senses and public address. It constantly turned to where one's attentions were drawn or to where one was physically headed. As such, the head was one's most mobile and unstable constituent. Rather like the moon, which is the most ambulant body in the heavenly sky. One's most intimate convictions comprise one's sun. Other people are stars. For a closer look at this, see our article on the noun νυξ (nux), meaning night.
In the Beginning was the head
Our Greek word κεφαλη (kephale) may denote the head of man or beast but, as with the Hebrew גלגלת (gulgoleth), it may also denote the countable person (when one "counts heads"), and as such one's social identity and reputation — hence expressions such as "staking your head on something" or "something being on your head". In other uses our noun may describe an item's extremity or more specifically: its beginning: the bulb of a plant, the source of a river, the rim of a vessel, the capital of a column.
Likewise the Hebrew equivalent of Greek our word, namely the masculine noun ראש (rosh) means "head" in the sense of "beginning." This Hebrew word forms the first phrase of the Bible, namely בראשית (bresheet), meaning "in the beginning" or if you will: "in the heads" (with a feminine plural). When the masculine Christ is said to be the "head" of the feminine church (Ephesians 5:23), he's not said to be the boss but rather the beginning. Likewise, the masculine husband, being the "head" of the feminine wife is not the boss of the wife but the beginning. This latter determination refers back to Eve being formed from Adam, which in turn is a discussion of how society is formed from the individual.
The ancients understood that society isn't merely a bunch of people huddled up, but rather the additional result of many people actively and passionately interacting. No single individual can come up with things like language or art, just like no individual honey bee can make honey. But still, speech and writing (which is the beginning of information technology and data retention; see our articles on ονομα, onoma, meaning noun and γραφω, grapho, meaning to write) is as human as honey is bee-ish and space and time are universe-ish. The ancients knew this and expressed this in stories such as that of Adam and Eve. It took the stupidity of modern humans to understand that story to be about two naked people in a poorly managed safari park.
The constellation Aries was known as κεφαλη του κοσμου, or the "head/beginning/pivot of the kosmos" or world-order. Very creative audiences may have been reminded of the name Cephas by our noun. Despite the creative association, this name comes of course from an Aramaic word for rock and is equivalent with the Greek name Peter, upon whom Jesus would build his Assembly (Matthew 16:18). Another Semitic word for rock formed the name Tyre, which was the signature city of the Phoenicians, who built Solomon's temple. Jesus famously personified with this temple (John 2:19), which was built on Mount Moriah, where Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:13). Greek astrology associated the constellation Aries with a golden ram — hence the fabled golden fleece of Jason and company.
It seems to us here at Abarim Publications that the ancients weren't trying to convey that their favorite totem Aries was the boss of the sky, but rather that the pivot of the wealth of righteous government (Revelation 3:18) came from the intimate understanding of natural law (Colossians 2:3) that in turn arose from eons of pursuit of convention (Psalm 12:6, Matthew 18:20).
Our noun κεφαλη (kephale) occurs 76 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derive:
- Together with the preposition απο (apo), mostly meaning from or out of: the verb αποκεφαλιζω (apokephalizo), meaning to behead. This word literally means to separate one from one's head, which again demonstrates that the head was merely the seat of one's social identity rather than one's actual self — beheading appears to have been thought of as a deadly form of excommunication.
This word is used 4 times in the New Testament (see full concordance), and only in the context of John the Baptist's beheading. The reader needs to remember that in Roman times death by beheading was reserved for members of Rome's elite who had committed high treason (who were guilty of violence against the state). Non-Romans who violated the state were crucified. Roman elite who had committed crimes that weren't acts of high treason were fined or else exiled. Tradition holds that Paul was beheaded in Rome, which means that he was not only a Roman citizen found guilty of high treason, but considered a person of such amazing importance to the state that he was hauled from Judea to Rome to receive his verdict from the emperor himself.
- The diminutive noun κεφαλις (kephalis), meaning little head. This word sporadically shows up in the classics to indicate, well, little heads: little heads of nails, little capitals of small pillars, and so on. In the New Testament our word occurs only in Hebrews 10:7, where it describes an element of a scroll. Commentators will propose that this refers to ornamental buds or bulbs but here at Abarim Publications we're pretty sure it refers to the wooden rollers (turners, if you will) around which the parchment was wound. Hebrews 10:7 quotes Psalm 40:7, where the word מגלה (megilla) is used. This latter word comes from the verb of circular motion גלל (galal), which we mentioned above.
- Together with the preposition περι (peri), meaning around or about: the noun περικεφαλαια (perikephalaia), which describes a kind of head gear that evidently went around the head. This word appears very sporadically in the classics but the New Testament contexts suggest that this word referred to a kind of protective clothing (Ephesians 6:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:8 only). Most translators interpret this word to mean helmet but a much more common word for helmet is κρανος (kranos; hence our word cranium), from κραναος (kranaos), meaning hard. The item called περικεφαλαια (perikephalaia) probably did not denote an item that was signaturely hard but rather an item that signaturely wrapped one's whole head and face in a protective covering: perhaps a cotton head scarf like the familiar checkerboard-patterned keffiyeh that people in sunny, sandy and wind swept area's still wear today.