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Kinship terms in Hebrew

September 20, 2012

Dana asks,

Is adelphoi used at all in C1 literature to indicate sibling-by-blended-family or cousin?

To answer that, one needs to start with Hebrew kinship terms, at least I do. It’s as close as I can get to Aramaic, the language spoken by those who feature in early Christian literature. The first thing to realize is that no Bible translation (that I am familiar with) even begins to provide insight into Hebrew kinship terms. Some pretend to.

The Hebrew word אח means “brother, sibling, fellow.” It can refer to a boy who has the same parent as you do, any sibling, or someone, male or female, who belongs to the same group or nation. “Fellow Hebrew” or “Fellow Christians” are perfectly acceptable ways to translate this word. It communicates the meaning much better than the word “brothers” which sounds in English like a male cabal, bent on no good!

But how then does the Hebrew language refer to one’s cousin? A quick search of various Bible translations may suggest that there is a Hebrew word for cousin, but that is a trap. Here is an example. I have chosen the ESV, as the English translation, since it claims to be literal.

or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself

אוֹ-דֹדוֹ אוֹ בֶן-דֹּדוֹ, יִגְאָלֶנּוּ, אוֹ-מִשְּׁאֵר בְּשָׂרוֹ מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, יִגְאָלֶנּוּ; אוֹ-הִשִּׂיגָה יָדוֹ, וְנִגְאָל

Now this verse clearly refers in Hebrew to the uncle, specifically one’s father’s brother, and the son of one’s father’s brother. This expression, בֶן-דֹּדוֹ ,  is not a word for cousin. It does not refer to the son of one’s mother’s brother or sister, or to a daughter or any other sort of cousin. It is specific to the Hebrew kinship system. In Jeremiah 32, the same Hebrew term is used.It is specifically the son of one’s father’s brother.

So the ESV is just pretending that there is a Hebrew word for cousin. There isn’t one that is used in Biblical Hebrew.  I suggest that this is not a passage about male authority but about prior responsibility in this kinship system. Anyone can redeem the poor person, any relative at all, so of course a wealthy woman could do so. But the father’s brother, or his son in his stead, has a prior responsibility in this cultural context. This responsibility does not confer any authority. The idea is to rescue a poor relative and set them free.

Curiously, in this passage in Leviticus 25, the ESV translates the plural of אח as “brothers” when it is clear that either a woman or a man could be the “poor relative” that is referred to here. So the real meaning is lost. But then the phrase בֶן-דֹּדוֹ , which means the “son of the brother of one’s father,” is translated as “cousin.” Once again meaning is lost. So frustrating!!

Here is the passage in the ESV,

47 If a stranger or sojourner with you becomes rich, and your brother beside him becomes poor and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner with you or to a member of the stranger’s clan, 48 then after he is sold he may be redeemed. One of his brothers may redeem him, 49 or his uncle or his cousin may redeem him, or a close relative from his clan may redeem him. Or if he grows rich he may redeem himself.

And here it is in The Contemporary Torah,

If a resident alien among you has prospered, and your kin, being in straits, comes under that one’s authority and is given over to the resident alien among you, or to an offshoot of an alien’s family, [your kin] shall have the right of redemption even after having been given over. [Typically] a brother shall do the redeeming or an uncle or an uncle’s son shall do the reeeming – anyone in the family who is of the same flesh shall do the redeeming; or, having prospered, [your formerly impoverished kin] may do the redeeming.

The Contemporary Torah translates the word אח as “kin” since it clearly refers to any relative, not just a male sibling. And it correctly translates בֶן-דֹּדוֹ as “uncle’s son” to emphasize who typically has the first responsibility. But no family member is restricted from redeeming a relative. This is not a restriction to only “the uncle’s son” but an indication of what was normal practice in that kinship system.

So, the upshot is that there is no generic Hebrew word for “cousin.” Could the word אח then mean “cousin?” My guess is that the Hebrew would typically say “the children of my mother’s brother” or some such expression, but I am not sure.

In Greek there is a word for cousin, and here it is in  Col. 4:10 – καὶ Μᾶρκος ὁ ἀνεψιὸς Βαρναβᾶ. I have not answered Dana’s question. I don’t know the answer for sure. I am still thinking about it. I really do think that Jesus had actual brothers and sisters. Why not?
And yes, I highly recommend The Contemporary Torah as a way to gain insight into the original Hebrew.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Ames permalink
    September 20, 2012 3:18 pm

    Thanks, Suzanne.

    On the way into EOrthodoxy, this is one of the things I considered. I came to believe what has been handed on – not because it’s recorded in the Protoevangelion, but that it probably had its origin even before the P. was written – is plausible:

    that Mary was one of a group of girls who served in the temple as weavers until they were of childbearing age – well, someone had to do it 🙂 and it was an honorable task for women;
    (just for kicks, years ago I did an internet search thinking that if this were the case, Jews who are preparing for the next temple to be built would be re-instituting this – and I actually found such a group, though can’t find the site now)

    that when the girls reached childbearing age they were then free to marry, and sometimes married older men for protection for themselves and to serve the needs of their husbands (not always sexual, though this was of course possible, and perfectly okay);

    that Joseph was older and had grown or nearly-grown children and so did not need to have more children, and married Mary for the protection reason;

    therefore, those referred to as adelphoi were not the offspring of Joseph and Mary, but some others belonging to their “tribe” – Joseph’s children, or members of Mary’s or Joseph’s extended family.

    As I said, this seems plausible to me, and I wondered if the plausibility could be supported by the scriptural text as well.

    In EO, Mary does not have to have been “immaculately conceived” as in RC teaching – she did not need to be some sort of super-human being. She was capable of sinning and needed to be redeemed like everyone else. And, she was the one out of all humanity and all Israel that God prepared and prepared for, because God knew her heart would always be turned toward him; she got a lot of “extra help”, too (“full of grace” – grace = the Holy Spirit actually acting) for what she would be participating in (sorry for the dangling participle) – which was far more, and more important than, being some sort of “tube” through which Jesus had to pass, or having some sort of overly-sentimental, “übersüss” wallflower persona.

    I read a quote from St Basil (!) once, in which he said that if Mary had not remained a virgin it would not have been a bad thing or changed the reality of who Jesus is and what he accomplished, but that the majority of “ordinary folks” held to it, and therefore at the least it could not diminish that reality, and at the most it was probably true…

    All that to explain why I asked the question, and of a trusted source.


  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 22, 2012 12:06 am

    I am simply not informed in these traditions. It is not something that I am familiar with.

  3. June 23, 2019 5:06 pm

    the son of your father’s brother IS your cousin

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