Word Study #201 — Adoption in the First Century

The subject of adoption, mentioned only five times in the entire New Testament, and not at all in the LXX (Greek Old Testament), was treated briefly in the studies of “Inheritance” (W.S. 79 and 80). It is also referenced with the applicable passages in the Translation Notes. However, for those who prefer, here is a more coherent summary.

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (see W.S.185), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption” seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of their commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and is unique to Paul’s epistles.

Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for his wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance.

In all three cultures, however, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially if royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that reason.)

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, and the son in question often maintained ties to both. Such adoption usually involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue. Interestingly, under Roman law, an adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.

Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth at marriage.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority, the father was required to make a formal statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word.

It has been suggested that this custom may also have been one reason for the affirmative “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been recognized as the standard legal acknowledgment.

Huiothesia is, however, the word used in all five New Testament occurrences: Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4; Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5. It is a designation, not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and care for the people and property of the father.

Might it be, that Paul’s use of the term is another of his many admonitions to the Lord’s people to “grow up” into the inheritance for which we have been chosen?

For insight into the inclusiveness of that term, please also see the treatment of “sons” (W.S. 100) and the explanation in the essay “The Task of a Translator”.

Perhaps this historical information will help , if not to answer, at least to shed a bit of light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the talk about adoption, if we are born into the Lord’s family?”

BOTH are significant, when viewed in their cultural context. This is why, in the PNT translation, I have substituted “acknowledgment” for “adoption”. The terms are supplementary, not contradictory, both derived from the same original word, but simply applied to two phases of the same process.

Life indeed begins with “birth”, but huiothesia is for “grown-ups.”

May we all be found faithful.

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