The Helmet of Salvation 1

As we approach the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year—it seems appropriate to look at the armour covering the head which Paul wrote about his letter to the people of Ephesus.

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:17 NIV

The word Paul used for helmet is perikephalaia. Strictly it isn’t a helmet, just something that goes around the head. I guess it’s translated as helmet because Paul was talking about armour. Perikephalaia is formed from the prefix ‘peri-’, around, and from kephale, meaning head. It’s probably related in Paul’s thinking to the Aramaic word karbela’, a helmet, turban, mantle or robe—just something you wrap around yourself.

In fact, all these wraparound things were meant to remind Paul’s Ephesian readers of this nifty verse from Isaiah: He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; and He put on garments of vengeance for clothing and wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.

Isaiah 59:17 NAS

Still, perikephalaia does specifically mention the head, ‘kephale’. But kephale goes further than just meaning head: it also encapsulates a sense of supreme, chief, principal, prominent and even cornerstone.

Surprise! Surprise! We’re back on one of my favourite topics and I didn’t even have to try hard. In ancient times, the cornerstone was not only the first part of a building laid down, it was also a most sacred place, the threshold. In Hebrew it is kaph, a word associated with atonement, but in this case meaning a shallow basinstone to catch the blood dripping from the lintels and doorposts when a guest was welcomed with a fatted calf or sheep.

Kaph and kephale might come from completely different languages but they have something significant in common: the idea of the cornerstone.

Digging deeper into kephale, head, however, we can note it comes from kapto, a Greek word related to the Hebrew kapthor, crown.

So in my view this is why Paul used a simple non-technical word like perikephalaia for the helmet—because it’s not just a helmet. It has a royal crown on it as well. And the crown is encrusted with glittering wine-red gemstones.

Garnets to be precise, if I understand the clue properly.

Garnet, you see, comes from the word, pomegranate. One look inside the fruit and it’s obvious why. The pomegranate is a tiny round jewelcase of glistening claret-coloured seeds that look exactly like chips of garnet. The cultivated tree is adorned by flowers with orange-red ruffles petals like the skirt of a flamenco dancer.

In traditional Jewish culture, the pomegranate is eaten on the first day of the New Year: Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year.

Appropriate enough reason to be talking about the helmet and pomegranates today!

Although pomegranates were embroidered on the hem of the High Priest’s robe, alternating with golden bells, they are usually symbolic of the head. In Hebrew, pomegranate is kaphtor, crown. No doubt it was named for its serrated calyx which looks so much like a crown it’s said Solomon modelled his coronation circlet after it.

Kaphtor was also the name given to the pomegranate-like decoration on the tops of the two main pillars of Solomon’s Temple. Eventually it simply came to mean any ornamental work on the capital of a pillar. It’s like a lintel on top of a doorway: and yet again we’ve threaded our way back to the threshold covenant and the ‘zebihat’—the welcome to a guest shown by the red-stained lintel, doorposts or pillars and threshold stone.

In fact there are allusions to pillars right at the beginning of Paul’s admonition in verses 13 and 14: Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to standStand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place…’

Note that the word ‘stand’ occurs as the last word in verse 13 and the first word in verse 14. It is histemi in Greek and is derived from stuo, pillar or post.

Isn’t this exquisite and poetic? It’s not just emphasis, it’s a verbal creation of two doorposts.

Before verse 20, Paul will also have alluded to a door, a threshold, a lintel, a hinge and a gate. However, let’s concentrate on just one for the moment.

His single word perikephalaia is not simply a warrior’s headgear. It has deep, subtle allusions to:

  • a royal helmet
  • a pomegranate flower
  • a garnet-studded crown
  • a blood-stained lintel

All this in one well-chosen word—and we haven’t even looked at the significance of the fact it’s a helmet of salvation!


But more on that in the next post!


  1. Thanks for starting a new series Annie, I’m looking forward to more of this. I hope it’s going to be a long series.

    I’ve just bought myself an e-copy of God’s Poetry and God’s Panoply. That way I can read them on the go at any time. I love reading the paperbacks in bed though 😉

  2. Thanks, Lyn. This series actually isn’t in the new book, God’s Panoply. These are all recent discoveries – since the manuscript went to the printer.

  3. You amaze me Annie with the things you discover.

  4. Thanks again Anne. I really appreciate word studies. Was doing one for an article on 2 Peter 1:21 A.V. uses the word ‘moved’ in speaking about God’s prophets and their speaking role. The various ways the Greek word can be used is interesting and I think illuminating.

    Anyway I appreciate your research. Used some from God’s Panoply last Sunday (showed the book too).
    Have a good week.

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