The word adoption is the translation of the Greek “huiothesia,” a word composed of “huios” – a son – and “thesis” – to place, or constitute.
The word is used only by Paul in the New Testament and occurs five times in the KJV:
- Rom. 8:15. Ye have received the spirit of adoption (KJV). (NIV says Spirit of sonship); the contrast in this passage is between child, i.e. teknon, one born, meaning any child; and son, a male child of a specific parent, huis.
- Rom. 8:23. Waiting for our adoption as sons. (huis)
- Rom. 9:4. To whom pertaineth the adoption. (NIV: adoption as sons)
- Gal. 4:5. That we might receive the adoption of sons. (NIV: full rights of sons). Child = “nepios” in verse 1, meaning an infant, a child too young to speak; not speaking.
- Eph. 1:5. Unto the adoption of children. (NIV: adopted as his sons)
The Jewish believers would understand one custom by this phrase, and the Gentiles would understand another, based on their culture – Paul used it in his writings so that the believers would more fully understand what happened when you became a Christian.
Jewish believers would think of the rite of passage for a Jewish boy, the bar mitzvah, or ceremony whereby the boy became spiritually and legally recognized as a man, in the same family with the same parents, but with new and adult-sized rights and responsibilities.
Gentile believers would probably think of the Greek or Roman law of adoption, where the actual family itself was changed, more in line with our American adoption customs except that most often the adopted person was already an adult, not a small child or baby.
To appreciate the full significance of the figures in Galatians 3 and 4 they must be viewed in the light of the law of adoption and more particularly, the Greek law of adoption. At the same time it must be remembered that Paul also uses the term in Romans, so that we must also bear in mind the Roman law on the subject. There is no equivalent law of adoption in England.
In Roman law, adoption was a very serious undertaking. The adopted son became a member of the family, just as if he had been born of the blood of the adopter; and he was invested with all the privileges of a “filius familias.”
As a matter of fact it was by this means that the succession amongst the Caesars was continued. It never descended from father to son. What with poison, divorce, luxury and profligacy, the surviving members of a family were few, the descent suffered constant interruption, and whole families disappeared.
In no case amongst the Caesars did the throne pass from father to son … Augustus was the great nephew of Julius Caesar, and was adopted from the Octavian into the Julian gens. Tiberius was no relation at all to his predecessor: he was merely the son of Augustus’s wife, Livia, by Tiberius Claudius Nero. Here we have the introduction of another family the Claudii … Nero was the great nephew of his predecessor Claudius, who had adopted him in the year A.D. 50. (Septimus Buss).
Adoption was of two kinds: adoption proper, and adrogation.
1. Adoption proper. It must be remembered that the father in Roman law had absolute control over his family, possessing the same rights over his children as over his slaves. By this “patria potestas,” the son was deprived of the right to own property, and the father could inflict any punishment he thought fit, even to the extent of the death penalty. He could also sell his son into bondage.
According to the law of the XII Tables, however, a father forfeited his potestas if he sold his son three times. For this reason, in the case of adoption, a legal ceremony took place in which the father went through the process of selling his son three times, and the son passed over completely to the potestas of the adopter. In later times the cumbersome ceremony was substituted by a simple declaration before the Praetor or Governor.
2. Adrogation. When the person to be adopted was his own master, he was adopted by the form called adrogation (from the word for “ask”, since in this case the adopter, the adopted, and the people were “asked”, rogatur). The law demanded that the adopter should be at least eighteen years older than the adopted.
Adoption imitates nature, and it seems unnatural that a son should be older than his father. (Justinian).
Adoption was called in law a “capitas diminutio,” which so far annihilated the pre-existing personality who underwent it, that during many centuries it operated as an extinction of debts. (W. E. Ball).
The effect of adoption was fourfold:
1. A CHANGE OF FAMILY. The adopted person was transferred from one gens to another.
2. A CHANGE OF NAME. The adopted person acquired a new name: for he assumed the name of his adopter, and modified his own by the “termination ianus.” Thus when Caius Octavius of the Octavian gens was adopted by Julius Caesar, he became Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
3. A CHANGE OF HOME, and
4. NEW RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRIVILEGES. While the adopted person suffered many “losses”, these were more than counterbalanced by his “gains,” for he received a new capacity to inherit. In the case of the adopter dying intestate, the adopted son acquired the right of succession.
Paul alludes to the patria potestas, i.e. the absolute power of the father in the family, in the fourth Chapter of Galatians where he speaks of “the child differing nothing from a slave” and goes on to say “Thou art no longer a slave, but a son” (Gal. 4:7).
Paul also alludes to tutelage in Galatians 3 and 4, where we have such phrases as “kept in ward,” “tutor to bring us to Christ,” “under guardians and stewards,” and “children held in bondage” (Gal. 3:23 to 4:3).
So far as the ceremony was concerned, the difference between the transferring of a son into slavery and his becoming a member of the family was very slight. In the one case the adopter said: “I claim this man as my slave”; in the other, “I claim this man as my son”.
The form was almost the same; it was the spirit that differed. If the adopter died and the adopted son claimed the inheritance, the latter had to testify to the fact that he was the adopted heir.
Furthermore the law requires corroborative evidence. One of the seven witnesses is called. “I was present”, he says, “at the ceremony. It was I who held the scales and struck them with the ingot of brass. It was an adoption. I heard the words of the vindication, and I say this person was claimed by the deceased, not as a slave, but as a son” (W. E. Ball).
Bearing all these facts in mind, can we not feel something of the thrill with which the Roman Christian would read the words of Romans:
“Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs” (Rom. 8:15,17).
It is not so much the Holy Spirit addressing Himself here to the human spirit in confirmation, but rather the joint witness of the Holy Spirit and the spirit of the believer to the same blessed fact.
Closely associated with the law of adoption was that of the Roman will. The Praetorian will was put into writing, and fastened with the seals of seven witnesses (cf. Rev. 5 and 6). There is probably a reference to this type of will in Ephesians:
“In Whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:13,14).
W. E. Ball translates the latter part of the passage: “Until the ransoming accomplished by the act of taking possession (of the inheritance)”.
When a slave was appointed heir, although expressly emancipated by the will which gave him the inheritance, his freedom commenced not upon the making of the will, nor even immediately upon the death of the testator, but from the moment when he took certain legal steps, which were described as “entering upon the inheritance.” This is “the ransoming accomplished by act of taking possession.”
In the last words of the passage “to the praise of His glory,” there is an allusion to a well known Roman custom. The emancipated slaves who attended the funeral of their emancipator were “the praise of his glory.”
Testamentary emancipation was so fashionable a form of posthumous ostentation, the desire to be followed to the grave by a crowd of freedmen wearing the “cap of liberty” was so strong, that very shortly before the time when St. Paul wrote, the legislature had expressly limited the number of slaves that an owner might manumit by will.
No modern writer has greater first hand knowledge of this term than Sir William Ramsay, and in order to acquaint ourselves with its usage in Galatia, we will first of all quote from Sir William’s A Historical Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians:
The idea that they who follow the principle of faith are sons of Abraham, whatever family they belong to by nature, would certainly be understood by the Galatians as referring to the legal process called adoption, huiothesia.
This adoption was a kind of embryo will; the adopted son became the owner of the property, and the property could pass to a person that was naturally outside the family only through his being adopted. The adoption was a sort of will making; and this ancient form of will was irrevocable and public. The terms “son” and “heir” are interchangeable.
An illustration from the ordinary fact of society, as it existed in the Galatian cities, is here stated: “I speak after the manner of men.” The will (diatheke) of a human being is irrevocable when once duly executed. But, if Paul is speaking about a will, how can he say, after it is once made, it is irrevocable? Up until the death of the writer, couldn’t he change it?
No. Such irrevocability was a characteristic feature of Greek law, according to which an heir outside the family must be adopted into the family; and the adoption was the will making.
The testator, after adopting his heir, could not subsequently take away from him his share of the inheritance or impose new conditions on his succession. The Roman Syrian Law Book will illustrate this passage of the Epistle. It actually lays down the principle that a man can never put away an adopted son, and that he cannot put away a real son without good ground.
It is remarkable that the adopted son should have a stronger position than the son by birth; yet it is so. The expression in Galatians 3, verse 15, “When it hath been confirmed” must also be observed. Every will had to be passed through the Record Office of the city. It was not regarded in the Greek law as a purely private document. It must be deposited in the Record Office.
Here it will be seen that one may be “adopted,” or made the heir, without being at the same time a true child, but in the case of the Scriptural usage of adoption, there is no idea that the believer is “only an adopted child,” for the testimony of the Word is explicit on the point, making it clear that adoption is something added:
“The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16).
The argument of Galatians 4:1 7 proceeds upon the supposition that there is a difference between a “child” (Gal. 4:1,2), and one who has received the “adoption” (Gal. 4:5). “If a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Gal. 4:7). That “adoption” is related to “inheritance” we can see by examining the first chapter of Ephesians. There we find the word “predestinate” used twice, once in verse 5, where it is “unto adoption,” and again in verse 11, where it refers to “inheritance.”