Friday, December 31, 2010
Adoption in the Greco-Roman Culture
Family is the metaphor that I am playing with this season, and adoption seems to be Paul’s way that all of us enter into God’s Family. Adoption is a spiritual metaphor that is quite unique to Paul in the Bible. It is only mentioned a handful of times, but it has a a huge part to play in Paul’s understanding of who we are in Jesus, and what we receive through relationship with him.
To begin with I am going to affirm that family is the most dominant metaphor for Paul in his letters. We will explore this at a different time, but for the time being, hear the words of Robert Banks, “The comparison of the Christian community with a family must be regarded as the most significant metaphorical usage of all... More than any other image utilized by Paul it reveals the essence of is thinking about community.”
The challenge of understanding Paul in this metaphor is that he is a mish-mash of a variety of cultures. He was Jewish, a Hebrew of Hebrews, he was Hellenist (he was Greek in his culture), and he was a Roman Citizen. Adoption had a different meaning in each culture, so we will explore what it looked like in each culture and then seek to make a few educated guesses about which one he might have been leaning towards.
What we know right off though, is that his understanding of adoption will be different than our own understanding of it. This is a common danger when we read the bible, we read our own experience with different words and metaphors. We are surprised later to learn that Paul meant something very different when he used that metaphor. This is certainly true with adoption.
Today I am going to explore adoption in the Greco-Roman tradition. That has been so fun to do in Italy because these days I get to live in the heart of Roman culture. I wake up and see the sun rise over an old Roman town, and the little village I am living in is a “suburb” of a classic old Roman town, Veroli. Yesterday we spent the day in the epicenter of Roman culture, Roma itself. One can’t help but breathe in Roman culture here, it is all around (It is all around us in America as well, but more disguised). The Greek culture is present, but you have to travel to find it (we will be visiting a Greek city next week).
Greek understanding of anything is a challenge because Greece was a whole host of different little city-states (imagine describing an American understanding of sales tax). As well it spanned a long period of time and most of the info we have around adoption is from 400 years before Paul wrote. Here is a broad picture though. Adoption tended to be used in the case of older men without sons who would adopt younger men to care for them in in their later years and to give them a proper burial. It was most often used within families to keep estates within the family. One method of adoption even happened after death.
Adoption came with a series of responsibilities that often included marrying a daughter of the adopted parent. It was not an absolute legal action in that the adopted son could keep relationship with his birth family. It came with the reward of name and inheritance, but it is clear in Greek culture that adopted sons were not offered the same rights as birth sons.
This changes in Roman culture. There is a much clearer understanding of adoption in Roman culture, with the expected changes over a the long period of Roman dominance. Adoption was a oft-used and treasured practice in Rome as a safeguard against the demise of a family. The father(paterfamilias) in a family was the spiritual center of a family. family was the main spiritual building block in the Roman Pantheon of thousands of God. We saw this demonstrated as we toured the Roman Forum. right near where Julius Ceasar was burned is the temple of Vesta and the home of the Vestal Virgins (Celibate Women who were appointed for 30 years to tend the flame to the God of Vesta). The temple was shaped like a big Roman house to celebrate this truth.
A family without a male offspring would essentially end, along with the name and the spiritual cult of that family. In adoption a Pater Familias (Father, Head of Household) would take a young man, often related in some way, who was not the only son of another family, as a son, caretaker, and successor. It was an absolute transaction as the son was considered a true son of the adopted father from then on, with all the same rights and privileges of a biological son. He was no longer considered a part of his birth family. He was responsible for the care and burial of the father, as well as the role as paterfamilias of the new family. the benefits were the status of the new family and the inheritance he received on the death of the father.
It seems like this Roman picture of adoption seems to be the one that Paul is working with. It would have been a common occurrence in Paul’s culture and community, as well as the culture and community of people he wrote to. We notice here that he only uses adoption imagery in his letters to mostly Roman churches (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians). It was much in the news at the time Paul was writing as adoption was practiced by the line of Caesars during that time. From 27BC-68AD the line of Caesars proceeded only by virtue of adoption (Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who adopted Tiberius, who adopted Caligula. His uncle Claudius then adopted Nero.
We get to see in Nero’s Adoption how absolute the Roman understanding of Adoption was. Nero went on to Marry Octavia, the daughter of Claudius. The laws had to be bent to allow him to do this as it was a brother marrying a sister, even though not by blood.
As we delve into Paul’s use of the adoption metaphor, we will get to explore how much this understanding of Adoptions plays into his understanding.
Posted by Doug B. at 1:57 AM