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Friday, April 21, 2006

adopted as sons

Yesterday Douglas Knight blogged on our spiritual "adoption as sons", as in:
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:26 ESV)
Knight's post was a followup on an earlier one of his on sonship.

This brings up an interesting translation issue, one on which some battlelines are clearly drawn for many who take the Bible seriously. In this post I'd like to examine the translation issue from the different points of view.

Those who call for literal or essentially literal translation of Gal. 3:26 correctly point out, as Bible scholar Ken Collins notes, that "a son automatically held his father’s power of attorney" in the Roman Empire, when Paul wrote Galatians. So retaining the word "sons" accurately reflects a cultural practice at the time that Paul wrote what he did about spiritual adoption.

But Paul also wrote two verses later, in Gal. 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (ESV)
Was Paul saying in verse 26 that there was something more special spiritually about sons than daughters?

Or was he using a cultural practice of his time to illustrate a spiritual relationship, expressed in the metaphor of adoption, a relationship that would be true of any child who God spiritually adopts? In other words, is the teaching focus of what Paul is saying on male adoption or on adoption?

One side would insist that if God wanted a more gender-inclusive focus on adoption, he would have used generic language rather than the masculine language of sonship adoption, as Collins also correctly notes:
In the first-century Roman Empire, if a man had a trustworthy slave with a good flair for business, he could adopt the slave as his son. The adoption automatically gave the slave a full power of attorney to manage his adoptive father’s business affairs. It was not uncommon in those days for slaves to be adopted as sons for business purposes.
One side in the translation debate properly refers to the Roman law which allowed a son to have his father's power of attorney. They correctly want to retain the historicity of the Roman law which Paul alluded to in Gal. 3:16. They do not want to transculturate the Bible from its original cultural and historical setting.

The other side in this debate would insist that the focus of spiritual adoption is on what God does for an individual regardless of their gender, unlike Roman sonship adoption which focused on males. This would claim that females are adopted by God just as equally as males are. In addition, they would claim that using masculine language in a translation obscures this generic fact.

And so we have a translation tension, one in which the original illustration keyed into a masculine-oriented cultural practice, but for which that original spiritual illustration was for all, without any greater focus on males than females (Gal. 3:28).

Are female believers actually adopted to some kind of spiritual "sonship"? Is this what the Bible teaches? Or does the Bible teach that God adopts us as his children? What is the focus of the Bible's teaching? These questions are a dilemma for Bible translators who want to be true to the original context of each Bible passage while not obscuring any teaching that was intended to be normative for all cultures and times.

Those who believe that masculine terminology of the Bible should be retained, even if the spiritual teaching is gender-inclusive, believe that the translation decision is clear: We must retain the wording of "adoption as sons". Then we can teach what they consider the "wonderful truth"that females can become spiritual "sons of God" just as males can. A theological system has developed around this masculine primacy believed to be in the Bible.

Those who ask what the focus of the adoption passage is are not so sure the answer is that clear. They believe that Gal. 3:28 makes it clear that gender is not a factor in how God treats people spiritually, including when he spiritually adopts us.

Each side believes that the other is compromising some important spiritual truth. One side believes that removing any male component from Gal. 3:26 or similar passages is "muting the masculinity of God's words", as Poythress and Grudem insist. The other side believes that focusing on masculinity, when passages are about both males and females, compomises the generic nature of the teaching of such passages.

Bible translation can be difficult. There is often a balancing act. The idea of divine adoption, whether to become a "son of God" or a "child of God," is one of the difficult issues which must be faced by Bible translators.


At Sat Apr 22, 05:47:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sat Apr 22, 05:48:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

[Bible translation can be difficult. There is often a balancing act. The idea of divine adoption, whether to become a "son of God" or a "child of God," is one of the difficult issues which must be faced by Bible translators.]

It really isn't that difficult. Either one believes the Supreme Being of the universe is really that petty, and inclined to judge and favor people according to their body parts, or they don't.

At Sat Apr 22, 08:35:00 PM, Blogger Todd Saunders said...

Your blog deals with a very critical subject. Thanks. I'll be eagerly viewing your exchange of information.

Heartily with you in Christ, Todd

At Sun Apr 23, 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Modern Day Magi said...

I have just found this blog and am very interested in reading much of what has been discussed here.

This request is off topic but I hope you can help me:

I have recently been aproached by a person at work (I work in a Christian Book store) about the "KIng James being the Only true English Bible". I do not believe this to be true although the KJV is a reasonable translation. I was hopeing you could direct me to some information about the texts which different bible have been translated from and the considered accuracy of them. If it is a past post (from here) I could not find or a different site it would be much appreciated. Much of what I have found through Net surfing is either stongly biased on one side or the other. Neatral, academic evaluation of the historical accuracy of the different original texts is what I am after. Thank you for your help.


At Sun Apr 23, 04:53:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Neatral, academic evaluation of the historical accuracy of the different original texts is what I am after.

The textbook by Bruce Metzger is probably one of the best.

Here's a website that you should find helpful.

At Sun Apr 23, 07:56:00 PM, Blogger Modern Day Magi said...

thanks for the quick reply.
Whay may I ask have you not addressed the King James along with the many other Translations. Surely it is more popular than some of the other translations you have addressed here.


At Mon Apr 24, 10:23:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Wayne, this is a very interesting post. BBB continues to make me think outside the "traditional translational box."

in thinking about this, I suppose one must first ask if Paul's adoption analogy absolutely alludes to Roman law. It almost goes without saying that it does, especially Paul's use ofυἱοθεσίαν in Gal 4:5, and I have always taught it that way. However, I'd also be curious to know Jewish tradition regarding adoption as well. I admit that I know nothing about Jewish traditions on the subject off the top of my head.

Assuming that Paul is referring to Roman law, I would be interested to know what such adoption laws say about adopting females. Were females adopted as well as males in Roman society? Maybe that's a stupid question, but honestly, I don't know, and I don't remember ever coming across the issue.

But even if women weren't adopted, that wouldn't mean that Paul's analogy (and no analogy follows perfect parallels with both parties of comparison) wouldn't also apply to women--especially regarding Gal 3:28, as you referenced yourself.

But then, you're right, it does make for a difficult translation problem in our day. On one hand using "sons" and "sonship", females may be inadvertently excluded to the reader, while on the other hand, in using "children," the analogy to Roman law could be diluted.

Personally, as I've commented before, I got past much of the inclusive language issues a while back. But it's the historical ties in the language such as these that I continue to wrestle with.

But isn't this a text that can be explained through biblical teaching? When I've taught on adoption before, I certainly never applied Paul's spiritual analogy of adoption only to men.

There's an interesting compromise in the TNIV. I notice that although the TNIV uses "children" in Gal 3:26, they've opted to retain "sonship" in 4:5 with the note "The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture."

At Mon Apr 24, 06:49:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Mon Apr 24, 07:03:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

[ But it's the historical ties in the language such as these that I continue to wrestle with.]

I know that when it comes to certain subjects, I come off as overly dismissive around this site (it's largely intentional, and to make a point btw), but believe me, I'm familiar with the various aspects dealing with historical situations and language. If anything, I'm not dismissive because of ignorance.

I used to appreciate studying the Bible in this light, but it's just that I've come to the point where I think all of this stuff is literally splitting hairs. My exegetical approach has changed, and has gone back to the basics, if you will. Otherwise, I just end up missing the forest for the trees.

If Paul knew that people would be proclaiming so many falsehoods by grabbing a few words here and there to support their claims, or if he knew that well meaning Christians would be driving themselves nuts on what a single word he wrote in this or that letter actually meant, then I'm sure he would have been a lot more accommodating to our picayune 21st century needs.

Unfortunately, he wasn't.

Anyways, the best way to reach the truth on the gender "issue" (besides a healthy dose of prayer and communion with God, of course) is by examing how Christ and his disciples behaved and addressed similar issues of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality...And trying to deduce their general outlook from those things (and in turn, applying it accordingly).

Build a Gospel portrait of Christ, and you'll find the answer on the "gender controversy" fairly easily.

Meticulous study of what "sons" meant in 1st century Roman society, on the other hand, is hardly the best way to resolve matters...At least not definitively.

At Tue Apr 25, 09:37:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

This is a very interesting post - I was never aware of this issue regarding the phrase, "adoption as sons".

I'm not sure what I think yet, but it will spur me on to farther study.



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