Skip to content


January 25, 2014

I remember being told by my pastor how much easier it was to teach the gospel with the words “adoption as sons” for the Greek word uiothesia, than “adoption as children.” He explained to me about Roman laws regarding inheritance and so on. A lot of people could see his point. In fact, in the TNIV, Gal. 4:5 was translated as “adoption to sonship,” just so that this version could be used to explain salvation, in spite of otherwise using inclusive language like “brothers and sisters.” Sonship was a very important word. Women are saved through sonship and being under headship. It takes two ships to save a woman.

And as one evangelist explained about Matt. 5:9,

Actually, the TNIV appears to be a move not toward greater accuracy but away from it. One example: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.’ (Matt. 5:9). The TNIV changes sons to children. But the Greek word huios in its plural form means ’sons,’ not ‘children. ‘My Latin Bible translates it ’sons’ (filii). My German Bible, my Dutch Bible, and my French Bible translate it ’sons.’ Likewise, every English Bible I own translates it ’sons.’ Indeed, from the first century until today, the whole world has understood what the Greek says.

I had never made a serious investigation into finding out which Bibles translated Matt. 5:9 using “children” once I knew that the KJV and Luther used “children” or the linguistic equivalent. But eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to line up six verses for investigation. They are Matt. 5:9, Romans 8:15, 8:23, Gal. 4:5 and Eph. 1:5. Here are the verses in the ESV using “sons.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Matt. 5:9

but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father! Romans 8:15b

we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies Romans 8:23b

so that we might receive adoption as sons. Gal. 4:5b

he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ Eph. 1:5

The preface to the ESV says of “adoption of sons,” “it was used as a legal term in the adoption and inheritance laws of first-century Rome.” Yes, the term was used when a man with no heir adopts a free male citizen with no father, and that adopted son is under the authority of his adopted father until the father dies, and then the adopted son inherits and carries on the family name. The adopted son was not free nor did he inherit until the adopted father was dead. Not much comparison with Paul’s epistles. However, that is the explanation.

In any case, here are the translations I have picked, Tyndale, Coverdale, Bishop’s Bible, Geneva Bible, KJV, Luther and Calvin’s French Geneva Bible, 1588. I feel that this covers the Reformation fairly well. I will simply list the terms used in each of these 5 verses in the various Bibles.

Tyndale:  chyldren, adoption, adopcio, naturall sons, heirs

Coverdale: chyldren, adopcion, childshippe, childshippe, as children

Bishop’s Bible: chyldren, adoption, adoption, adoption as chyldren, adoption as children

Geneva Bible: children, adoption, adoption, adoption of sons, adopted

KJV: children, adoption, adoption, adoption of sonnes, adoption of children

Luther: kinder, kindschaft, kindlichen, kindschaft, kindschaft

Calvin: enfans, adoption, adoption, adoption d’enfans, adopter

Following the use of “adoption” all these translation used the word for “children” or the linguistic equivalent, except for the 3 cases I have noted. I would like to note further that all these translations use “children of God” in Matt. 5:9, and Luther, Calvin and Coverdale, three significant Bibles of the Reformation use “children” and “adoption as children” throughout.

Continuity with the Reformation seems important to some people, and I wonder if they would like continuity with Reformation Bibles. Afterall, these were the Bibles which influenced so many for salvation, for doctrine, for literary and secular purposes as well. These are the recognizable Bibles. How does the TNIV stand up to this,

TNIV: children, adoption to sonship, adoption, adoption to sonship, adoption to sonship

Clearly this correctness overall did not affect the acceptance of the TNIV. It was doomed for including women on any level, in spite of the inclusive tradition of the Reformation Bibles. How about the NIV 2011?

NIV 2011: children, adoption to sonship, adoption to sonship, adoption to sonship, adoption to sonship

Well, I have no statistics to say that “adoption as sons, or to sonship” as saved more people than just plain adoption, or adoption to childshippe, I just don’t know. But I do know that if we want to connect with our heritage, we need a few more children. I know which ship I want to be on.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2014 11:03 pm

    ‘My Latin Bible translates it ’sons’ (filii).

    This just makes my head explode, and not in a good way. My first thought was “Somebody doesn’t understand how mixed-gender plurals in gendered languages work.”

    My second thought was “But wait, that would be the same damn logic used in English to assert that “men” of course means people and therefore includes both men and women”


  2. jay permalink
    January 26, 2014 6:25 am

    “It takes two ships to save a woman.” That’s choice Suzanne. 🙂

  3. January 26, 2014 8:33 am

    Wonderful post (and so was your earlier one)!

    I wonder if we should bring New Testament translating N. T. Wright into this, since there are questions (like here and here) about his relationship with the Reformationists.

    R. C. Sproul seems really not to care too much for N. T. Wright’s positions:

    But he’s probably okay with brother Wright’s translation … in some places;

    Wright’s translation: children, sonship [although “Children of God” is in the margin as part of a header to the section including Romans 8:15b], adoption [although “Sonship” is in the margin as part of a header just below the section including Romans 8:23b], sons, sons and daughters.

    (Ann Nyland has some great notes on the Greek in these contexts in her Study New Testament For Lesbians, Gays, Bi, And Transgender: With Extensive Notes On Greek Word Meaning And Context. And our own Craig R. Smith has produced an English translation that is both very readable and is, like those of many of the Reformers in these verses especially, highly accurate: children, children, all of us, heirs, children.)

  4. January 26, 2014 4:43 pm

    The TNIV also has this footnote for its use of “adoption to sonship” in Gal. 4, Ephesians 1 and Romans 8: “The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture.”

    This usage also forms the basis of a new book called The Full Rights of Sons by K.E. Stegall –

    The books contends that the word is used by Paul to teach that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female all obtain the same legal status in Christ– the full rights of sonship through adoption into God’s family– and that this legal status applies to our lives on earth and is not just about everyone getting to go to heaven. To apply the ESV definition to it– the point is that if we are under our Father’s authority until we get our full inheritance, we nevertheless ALL have the same status that freeborn male citizens who had not yet inherited had in Roman law. To say that some of us still have to be under the headship of others of us is simply to misunderstand what this means.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 27, 2014 8:57 am

    The reality is that those who insists on “sons” for huioi also believe in the eternal subordination of women in heaven. Not much “sonship” there. The reason I don’t think that the masculine part of huiothesia is all that important is that Paul clearly says that we “inherit as children.” εἰ δὲ τέκνα, καὶ κληρονόμοι· Paul uses an inclusive term in the Greek for the rest of the explanation. There is no emphasis on being “sons” in Paul’s rhetoric. He may have picked up the word huiothesia, to mean adoption in general, not adoption as sons.

    Some suggest that Paul is more involved in thinking about the relative positions of Israel and the church, rather than “men and women” per se, so gender is not in focus at all. That is my impression.

  6. Sarah Rasmussen permalink
    February 8, 2014 6:32 am

    This is only a theory I thought of 10 seconds ago, so I’m not particularly attached to it, but what if, by “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons (NASB),” Paul meant precisely the opposite of what the CBMW folks want it to mean?

    I don’t know much about the differing rights of males and females of varying age, class, and ethnicity in ancient Rome, but I suspect that over all, male heirs had more rights than female ones. Since Paul transitions from calling us sons of God in verse 14 to calling us children of God in verse 16, could he perhaps be making the point that all of us children–even the female ones–have the same status as a son would in Paul’s present society? That is, not only are we all children of God, but we are also all sons of God–NOT in the sense of being male, or in the sense of Grudem’s absurd “male representative” theology–but in the sense of the status and rights that accrued to sons in Paul’s culture. I.e., God does not distinguish between male and female children, even if Roman law does?

    It’s just a thought.

  7. Sarah Rasmussen permalink
    February 8, 2014 7:31 am

    Just to belabor the thought a little more, we could consider Galatians 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (NASB). Here, once again, we have Paul discussing a spiritual/theological issue–whether or not we are in bondage to the law–using the language of an earthly socioeconomic relationship, i.e., slavery. And once again, his language excludes some fraction of his audience, since presumably some of the Galatians were slaves, who were unable to obey the command, “do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery” as a literal statement about their status on earth.

    But in another sense, Paul is speaking even more to the slaves than he is to the free. Granted, since the slaves still have earthly masters, they still have to worry about earthly consequences for their actions, and this is no small burden, but from a moral standpoint, there is no written law compelling them to do anything. They are free to obey their own hearts, or at least, the parts of their hearts that carry the imprint of the law God has written there.

    Paul affirms that God sees all of us, right now, as worthy of all the rights that the world bestows on males, and worthy of all the rights that the world bestows on the free. I guess that since God isn’t Aristotle, he doesn’t complete the triple by affirming us all the rights of a parent over a child. That one’s His job.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 8, 2014 8:39 am

    It is important to be familiar with Roman law. In Rome, under inheritance adoption laws, there were certain conditions of this law.

    First, the adoptee had to be an adult free citizen, whose father had died or disowned him, and he was therefore sui juris, completely representing himself in law.

    Second, in order to inherit, the adoptee had to come under the potestas patris, under the authority of the new father. So the passage was from freedom to being under authority, and often this kind of adoption happened in a will, or was posthumous.

    There was no Roman adoption law whereby a slave became free son directly, or whereby a child received legal freedom when he or she became an adult. There are no points of comparison between scripture and Roman law. Strictly speaking under Roman law, one went from being free to being under authority.

    Also women could and did inherit equally to their brothers. But they could not carry on a family line. So the daughters certainly inherited and there were many wealthy women in Rome, but they were only free if they were widows and their father and father-in-law were dead. But the same for the males, they too were under the authority of their fathers until their father died.

    Since Roman adoption means going from freedom to being under authority, and no slave or child can be adopted under this particular system of inheritance, it does not seem that Paul was referring to this law. My impression is that commentaries are leaning away from talking about comparison with Roman law, and are looking at comparison with God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt, where they were indeed slaves, and in leaving became free.

    Of course, in Greece and Rome, families did adopt orphans or relatives, or those without children arranged to adopt children from other families.

    Slaves could be freed by their masters in one ceremony, and then be adopted in another. But they did not by law, in one step, go from being slaves to being heirs. The Roman laws are quite complex, not sure I understand them completely, but Paul was only using the idea of adoption, not the details as far as I can see. And we inherit as children. I don’t think he was making a statement about women one way or another, but thinking of the freedom of being children of Israel, and children of God.

  9. Sarah Rasmussen permalink
    February 8, 2014 12:13 pm

    Wow, thanks for your reply.

    Roman adoption was only of adults?! Okay, then I agree, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the sort of adoption Paul was discussing. Perhaps, then, his usage of uioi in 14 before transitioning over to tekna in 16 and 17 was more just an effort to maintain continuity with, for example, the uion in 2 Samuel 7: 14 LXX? In either case, I don’t see where anyone gets “adoption of sons” out of huiothesias. I mean, the etymology involves the word son, but that’s like saying that anthropos should be translated man-person because of the aner in its etymology.

    Interestingly (I just looked it up) the LXX for Hosea 11:1 uses tekna, even though Matthew’s quotation of it in 2:15 uses uion. Maybe Matthew just doesn’t care about the difference, but Matthew (and Luke, too) do take the trouble to preserve the LXX’s “anthropos” from Genesis 2:24’s “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,” which I’d always thought was a particularly sloppy translation on the LXX translators’ part, since 2:23-24 and 3:16 are the only places in the whole creation story that use “ish.”

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    February 8, 2014 12:36 pm

    There were famous cases of Roman emperors adopting their heirs and next emperor, and it was called huiothesia. There were also two forms of Roman adoption, adrogatio, and adoptio. So one could adopt children, but is this what Paul is referring to. If you adopt a child, it still has child status.

    I’ll be honest with you. The more I read commentaries on this subject the more confused I get. I just don’t think that it was necessary in Paul’s day, or in the Reformation, or today, to have a law degree in Roman adoption statutes. I don’t think Paul was thinking of gender at all in this passage. I don’t think he ever developed a real theology of gender. He just referred to it here and there, without developing a cohesive approach.

    On the one hand, women needed to stay home and be in charge of the children, slaves and household business. On the other hand, Paul interacted with wealthy independent women all the time. I don’t think he really worried about it one way or another. I honestly believe that what he said about gender was incidental and often completely obscure. We don’t really know why he thinks it is natural for men to have short hair. He himself grew his hair long. The more you try to make sense out of some of these passages, the more elusive they become.

    I know this isn’t an answer and I don’t have one. I lean towards philology and linguistics, rather than ancient law.


  1. Godes Bearns and Bible Resources | BLT
  2. Words on the Word | Septuagint Studies Soirée #6, and this Saturday

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: