by Heather L Hart | Originally posted on1.30.23 via Scot McKnight’s substack newsletter
The tousled love between fathers and sons is a joy to behold. It filled my childhood and fills my current house. And yet. And yet, I’m a daughter and a mother. Straight lines have often been drawn from the words of the Bible to the reality of my world and those lines can feel like boxes to keep me sidelined. Biblical metaphors are helpful, until they aren’t. Jesus uses “Abba, Father,” Paul uses it too and adds in bits about adoption as sons and sometimes it is helpful and sometimes it is like looking through a window at a party I wasn’t invited to. God loves me, but I’m not really on the team.
That’s how it feels sometimes.
But those are the feelings of me, a woman living in 2023.
That is not necessarily what Jesus and Paul, or any of the biblical writers, had in mind.
Two thousand years ago in Rome, mothers did not adopt children and daughters were not adopted. Adoption today has connotations of rescuing vulnerable children; it did not mean that 2 millennia ago. Back in the days of the Roman empire, adoption was a means of continuing a family line when a man had no male heirs. Lineage included the continuation of the family’s free status (vs enslaved), their wealth, worship of the family deities, and the family’s honor and reputation. All these aspects of family lineage worked together to support the political vitality of the empire. It mattered to Rome if family lines continued, and Rome viewed continuity in terms of male heirs. So, fathers without male children adopted sons, typically young adult men of good character with some connection to the family already.
Ancient adoption was about providing a male heir for a family because the empire depended on a steady backing. It was in the empire’s best interest to maintain a strong support network.
So, when Jesus says to call God “Abba, Father” when he’s preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he’s done an about-face with Roman lineage. Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed and these are the people who should call God Father. Fatherhood was never meant to build an earthly empire. Fatherhood is God bestowing divine status, wealth, honor, reputation, and power on the family of God, those trampled by the earthly empires.
Jesus’s choice of “Father” comes with connotations that “Mother” did not carry at that time. His word choice is less about the maleness of fathers and more about the good things fathers give as inheritance and the way family lineage participates in increasing this legacy. Jesus gives a sense of belonging and inheritance to people pushed to the fringe by oppression. They are poor (in spirit and in wealth) because they are not aligned with the tyranny that runs their world. Their lineage comes from God and backs a different kingdom, one not of this world.
I don’t need to wince when I hear father instead of mother, I need to reflect on the cultural differences that give meaning to these words. If motherhood had carried the same social and cultural weight as fatherhood, Jesus might have prayed to God differently. God the Father, is not about excluding mothers, it is about the generosity of God in making a family to bring goodness into the world. Reading “Father” as a definitive indicator God’s similarity to men and dissimilarity to women misreads the word.
Paul sharpens this metaphor in Romans 8. Paul calls those led by the Spirit of God “sons” who have received “adoption as sons” in verses 14 and 15. Sometimes it’s translated as “children” and a truncated “adoption” but the words Paul uses here are male gendered. It makes sense because women were not adopted, and daughters did not carry lineage forward in the same way that sons did. In Paul’s time, the machine of the Roman empire valued sons in a way that it did not value daughters and Paul appropriates this meaning. And then, like Jesus, he flips it on its head.
Paul knew his letter would be heard by an audience of both genders (see Romans 16) and he knew the connotations of adoption in his culture. He makes a point to say that all who believe are adopted as sons. This means that Phoebe who brought the letter is granted “adoption as a son” and given privileges and responsibilities of a “son.” This is not about her gender. This is about God making a family and bestowing status, wealth, honor, and reputation on her. She is a “son” not because of her body but because of what Roman society associates with sons. This is not gender-bending, this is an oppressed people appropriating language of the oppressor and transforming the meaning for their own ends. Paul clarifies his ends in verse 16 when he says we are “children” of God. Here he uses a gender-neutral term. His logic flows like this: All who are led by the Spirit are “sons” > the Spirit “adopts as sons” > God is the “Father,” the source of inheritance > the Spirit bears witness to all “children”.
In Romans 8, both women and men are “sons.” Do I love this use of metaphor? I’m still a little ambivalent. I’ve seen it misused to emphasize bodily maleness so many times it’s hard for me to see past its mishandling. Does Paul’s metaphor make sense? Absolutely. In a culture where women weren’t usually adopted, yes, I understand why Paul grabbed onto these ideas. I also keep in mind that his letter, Romans, was written to the church located in the capital city of Rome, where the living, breathing head of the empire resided. And that living, breathing emperor, Nero, was adopted into the imperial family giving him status, wealth, honor, reputation, and power he was not born with.
Once I see the social and cultural implications of father and son, the windowpane of gendered separation begins to melt away. And I see that Jesus has always beckoned women in; we are on the team, we are in the family.
Bernstein, Neil W. “Adoptees and Exposed Children in Roman Declamation: Commodification, Luxury, and the Threat of Violence.” Classical Philology 104, no. 3 (2009): 331–353.
Heim, Erin M. Adoption in Galatians and Romans: Contemporary Metaphor Theories and the Pauline Huiothesia Metaphors. Biblical interpretation series VOLUME 153. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2017.
Hillner, Julia. “Domus, Family, and Inheritance: The Senatorial Family House in Late Antique Rome.” The Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 129–145.
Kim, Kyu Seop. “Another Look at Adoption in Romans 8:15 in Light of Roman Social Practices and Legal Rules.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 44, no. 3 (August 2014): 133–143.
Lewis, Robert Brian. Paul’s “Spirit of Adoption” in Its Roman Imperial Context. Paperback edition. Library of New Testament Studies 545. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018