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Adoption is not a common topic in the Bible. There are no direct references to it in the Hebrew Bible. The term hulothesia (lit. “to take a son”) is used only five times in the New Testament, all in Pauline writings. The metaphor has become more popular in postbiblical, Christian discussions of ecclesiology and Christology.

Hebrew Bible.

There are neither laws about adoption nor clear examples of it in the Hebrew Bible. The custom devised for accomplishing the function of adoption in Greco-Roman settings was levirate marriage. In this system the wife of a man who had died without an heir would be given in marriage to a close relative (usually a brother of the deceased), who was expected to produce children in his relative’s name. Thus, the property of the deceased man remained within the family unit.

Some interpreters see allusions to adoption in some Hebrew Bible texts, particularly in references to the king. In Psalms 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 the king is called “God’s son.” This could imply that God was believed to have adopted the king; alternatively, it may point to a designation of status, as would ascription of “sonship” in later Jewish literature. Occasionally Israel is called God’s son (e.g., Hos 11:1), but adoption does not seem implied in such references. Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, and Wisdom (second–first century B.C.E.) also identify Israel as God’s son without reference to adoption. As late as the Second Temple period we find almost no references to either literal or metaphorical adoption in Jewish sources; when such appear, they are almost all reports of Gentile adoptions.

Greco-Roman Adoption.

Adoption was a well-known practice in the Greco-Roman world. It was ubiquitous because of the importance of maintaining family lines, continuing family cultic obligations, and retaining property within an extended family or clan. Such concerns were necessitated by the high mortality rate (30–50 percent during the classical and Greco-Roman eras) among infants and children. So frequent were infant and early childhood deaths that Greeks and Romans usually interred their remains in places other than the cemeteries used for adults. Infants died so often that, according to Aristotle, Greeks would not name them until they had lived seven days (Hist. an. 588a.8–10); by Roman custom infants were named only on the eighth or ninth day of life. The high mortality rate of children in antiquity leads some to estimate that as many as 40 percent of families in classical Greece had no male child as an heir when the head of the household died.

Interpreters are divided over whether Paul’s use of the metaphor draws on Greek or Roman adoption laws, which were similar but have some important differences. They were alike in that adoption was not primarily concerned with taking care of children. Adoption was designed to assure an heir, not to care for a child in need. A child taken into a Roman household for humanitarian reasons had the status of an alumnus or alumna. This status did not automatically qualify the child as an inheritor, and only a small percentage of such children were adopted. Most people who were adopted in the Greco-Roman world were adults.

In contrast to the Hebrew Bible, there were clear adoption laws in ancient Greece and Rome. While Greek laws were not uniform, some important com-mon elements included the public nature of the legal process of adoptions and their purpose of retaining property within an extended family. Thus, most adoptions involved a relative. Some adoptions were completed while the testator was alive; others were accomplished through wills. Greek males with legitimate sons were not allowed to adopt; a male adoptee lost legal status if his adopter subsequently had a biological son.

Roman law recognized two types of adoptions: adoptio and adrogatio. In adrogation, a person not under a father’s power (paterfamilias) agreed to place himself and his property under the power of the one adopting him. The adoptee temporarily lost some self-determination in exchange for the promise of receiving an inheritance. In adoption, a person under the control (manus) of a father was passed to the control of another father. Because Roman adults remained under their fathers’ legal control, a legitimate transfer of such power was required even when the adoptee was an adult. According to ancient Roman law, a son would be released from paternal power after his father had sold him into slavery three times. In accordance with this law, the adopting father symbolically bought the son three times, releasing him from his original father and then claiming him as a son. The language used to speak of this transaction was the new father “redeemed” the son, having bought him back from slavery. The adoptee then came under the power of the new father. Unlike their counterparts in Greece, Roman men could adopt as many sons as they chose, all of whom enjoyed the same legal status as biological, legitimate sons.

In both systems adoption brought new status and privilege for the adoptee but also obligations to the new father. Adoption almost always involved a son, not a daughter, because rights of inheritance favored sons over daughters unless an extraordinary codicil amended a will. Thus, adoption was gender-specific in antiquity: its purpose was to claim a son as an heir.

Beyond this commonplace legal need, the practice of adoption received special significance among Roman emperors. It was far more common for an emperor to be succeeded by an adopted son than by biological offspring. These adoptions were public, for the purpose of designating a political successor. While worries about inheritance would have weighed more heavily on the wealthy, all were affected by the outcome of imperial adoptions.

New Testament.

Although a well-known practice in the Greco-Roman world, adoption was seldom used metaphorically. The New Testament’s figurative uses of adoption primarily emphasize it as a means to distribute an inheritance. Four of the term’s five uses identify believers in Christ as those who are adopted; the fifth (Rom 9:4) names “the adoption” as a possession of Israel. In this passage adoption is one of God’s gifts that sets Israel apart from Gentiles. This use of adoption is arresting because Paul has claimed adoption as a gift of believers in Romans 8:15 and 23. In Romans 9:4, naming adoption as a gift of God to Israel signals that God has claimed Israel as God’s son (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9). While the Hebrew Bible does not speak of God’s adopting Israel, it does claim the title of “son” for Israelites. Here, Paul suggests that the position of Israel as heir is a gift bestowed by God, a sign of the security of Israel’s relationship with God. This is an important claim as Paul begins a discussion of the meaning of Israel’s current rejection of the gospel.

Paul’s previous uses of adoption language in Romans set it in an eschatological context. In 8:15 believers have received the “spirit of adoption.” That spirit leads them to call God “father” (i.e., the one who controls the inheritance) and is evidence that they are children of God. Interestingly, Paul uses the word “children” (tekna), a gender-neutral term, rather than “sons” (huioi). (In 8:14 Paul says that the Spirit makes believers—men and women—“sons [the literal wording of the text] of God.”) But he immediately identifies the “children” as heirs of God. Here, the gift of the Spirit transforms believers into heirs, giving them the knowledge that they are heirs. More than this, they are fellow-heirs with Christ (8:17). They are heirs because they have been identified with Christ, who is the heir. The inheritance that believers are now qualified to receive is identified in part as “being glorified” with Christ. Thus, an element of the inheritance believers have been adopted to receive is eschatological salvation in its fullness.

Paul’s second use of “adoption” in Romans appears in 8:23. Again, it is connected to the presence of the Spirit and to eschatological salvation; again, Paul identifies believers as children of God (v. 21). In this text the Spirit is the “first fruits” of coming salvation. This image implies the presence of God, experienced as the Spirit, as the sample and guarantee of what is to come. Here Paul says that believers are waiting for their adoption, which he identifies as the “redemption of our bodies.” In this section of Romans, Paul asserts that believers possess some blessings of the end time in the present (expressing Paul’s partially realized eschatology), even as they await a final consummation and experience of the fullness of God’s blessings. Thus, just as literal adoption involves an immediate change in status whose full benefits are realized only later, so also Paul uses adoption in Romans 8 to express two stages of the believer’s experience. In verse 15 believers already possess adoption; in verse 23 they look forward to its fulfillment in the time when God reclaims all of creation.

The same themes observed in Romans accompany the only other use of “adoption” in the undisputed Pauline letters, Galatians 4:5. Here and in the following verses Paul says that receiving adoption makes believers “sons,” brings the presence of the Spirit, leads adoptees to address God as father, and assures their status as heirs (4:6–7). Paul says here that God redeemed believers so that they could receive adoption, an image that may point to the Roman practice of the adopter’s buying the son from slavery, instead of the more general image of buying back an enslaved people.

Although not excluding the idea of God’s expression of love by adopting believers (cf. Rom 5:8), the main emphasis of adoption is that God claims them as heirs, those who will receive an inheritance. Paul’s intent is to help believers understand that they have been given a new status, that of heir. There are current benefits to that new status (such as the presence of the Spirit in their lives), and there are future benefits that come only when they receive the full inheritance.

The single New Testament use of “adoption” outside the undisputed letters of Paul is Ephesians 1:5. One of the central goals of Ephesians is to support the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the church. Even though this letter was written late in the first century, its author sees Gentiles as those who have been brought into the people of God. They are those who were “far off” (2:13) and “aliens” and “strangers” to God’s promises (2:12). But in Christ they now participate in God’s blessings and are members of God’s household (2:19). One of the strategies Ephesians uses to bind together Jews and Gentiles in the church is to identify them as members of the same household—that of God. The author signals this unity early in the letter with the image of adoption. The letter’s opening benediction asserts that God destined “us” (believing Jews and believing Gentiles) for adoption. Here, all believers are adopted; all in this family enjoy equal standing on the same divine basis. Although elsewhere in Ephesians Jews seem to be natural members of the household and Gentiles are made heirs from outside (2:11–19), at the beginning all are adopted through Christ. Thus, this metaphor establishes a basis for unity among Jews and Gentiles in the church. All come into the blessings of God in the same way.

All Pauline uses of adoption with reference to believers in Christ assume that more than one son can be adopted. Christ is the primary heir; believers are then adopted and made heirs along with him. At least this aspect of the metaphor draws on Roman, not Greek, adoption law.

Although an uncommon biblical metaphor, when it appears “adoption” usually draws together important themes: the presence of the Spirit, believers’ new status as heirs of God, and coming eschatological blessing. In later Christological controversies this image was used in debates about the ontological nature of Christ (e.g., Epiphanius Haer. 2.54 and the Council of Frankfort [794]; cf. adoptionist views found in Abelard [1079–1142] and Duns Scotus [ca. 1266–1308]), thus adding a layer of meaning arguably absent from the biblical texts.




  • Byrne, Brendan. Sons of God, Seed of Abraham: A Study of the Idea of the Sonship of God of All Christians in Paul Against the Jewish Background. Analecta Biblica 83. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1979.
  • Corley, Kathleen E. “Women’s Inheritance Rights in Antiquity and Paul’s Metaphor of Adoption.” In A Feminist Companion to Paul, edited by A.-J. Levine and M. Blickenstaff, pp. 98–121. Feminist Companion to the New Testament and Early Christian Writings 6. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.
  • Forman, Mark. The Politics of Inheritance in Romans. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 148. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Gallant, Thomas W. Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece: Reconstructing the Rural Domestic Economy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Johnson Hodge, Caroline. If Sons, Then Heirs: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in the Letters of Paul. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Lagia, Anna. “Notions of Childhood in the Classical Polis: Evidence from the Bioarchaeological Record.” In Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy, edited by Ada Cohen and Jeremy B. Rutter, pp. 293–306. Athens, Greece: American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 2008.
  • Lindsay, Hugh. Adoption in the Roman World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Peppard, Michael. “Adopted and Begotten Sons of God: Paul and John on Divine Sonship.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 92–110.
  • Rawson, Beryl, ed. The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.
  • Stevenson-Moessner, Jeanne. The Spirit of Adoption: At Home in God’s Family. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Walters, James. “Paul, Adoption, and Inheritance.” In Paul and the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, edited by J. Paul Sampley, pp. 42–76. New York: Trinity, 2003.

Jerry L. Sumney

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