Adoption in the Roman Empire—and God’s kingdom.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 July

Ephesians 1.11-14.

Last time I focused on predestination, God’s great plan to save the world, which Paul spelled out for everyone who read his letter to the Ephesians. We get redemption, forgiveness, goodwill, God’s riches, etc. Ep 1.7-10

We get this through adoption. The plan was for God to adopt us as his kids.

Ephesians 1.4-6 KWL
4 Namely how God chose us in Christ to be holy—
spotless before his presence—before the world’s foundation!
In love, 5 through Christ Jesus, God predestined us for adoption to himself—
according to the goodwill of his will,
6 in glorious praise of God’s grace, which he poured out on us in love.

The problem is adoption nowadays, doesn’t look all that much like adoption back in the first-century Roman Empire. So this passage makes less of an impact than it should. Lemme fix that.

In every culture there are kids without parents. They had biological parents, but those parents are unable, unfit, or unwilling to raise children. So their children are on their own… unless someone else steps in to care for them. (Someone other than the state.) And adoption means these people wanna be parents, not just mere guardians: They wanna take these children into their family, take legal responsibility for them, and have the very same rights biological parents have over their biological children. The kids become their children.

True, some folks in our culture have hangups about adoption. They figure these kids aren’t the adoptive parents’ real children. As you can tell by how they constantly describe that relationship: “Their adopted son,” or “Her adoptive mother”—just to make it clear biology isn’t involved, so there’s not a full parent/child relationship here.

’Cause for some folks there’s a stigma connected with adoption. They’re bothered by the idea people haven’t passed down their own genes, and are raising “strangers,” or someone whose ancestry or background might be deficient, unsavory, or unwell. In some cases they seriously believe if the adoptive parents can’t produce their own biological children, it’s because God doesn’t want them to have children, so adoption is an end-run around God’s will. And sometimes it’s because others have a hangup—so rather than deal with that, they pretend their adoptive kids are their biological kids, and the secretiveness creates the stigma.

The stigma isn’t a recent thing. It’s a very old thing. But it’s a very European thing. Medieval Europeans were the ones who were all hung up on bloodlines: Men, especially men with wealth, wanted to be certain their kids were legitimately their kids, their parentage made absolutely certain. (Well, as certain as you could in those days before genetic testing.) If there was anything irregular about a birth, the kid was “illegitimate” or a “bastard,” and anyone with “legitimate” parentage would try to make sure the illegitimate inherited nothing. Some of these graceless customs are still embedded in European law, and greedy heirs still try to take advantage of them.

But the ancient Romans had no such hangup. They regularly adopted children. A Roman paterfamilias/patriarch could, and did, adopt anyone he wished. Family members, non-family members, close friends, employees, slaves; didn’t matter. A patriarch could choose absolutely anyone and declare them his daughters or sons. And so they were—with full legal rights and responsibilities as a daughter or son.

Nope, ancestry made no difference to the Romans. Because back then, ancestry wasn’t really provable. All you really had was the mother’s word—and as anyone who’s watched The Maury Povich Show knows, some mothers don’t have the most reliable word. So the Roman culture adjusted to this reality: A man was a child’s father because he formally got up in front of family, friends, and priests, and declared, “This child is mine.” It wasn’t a claim; it was a declaration. Any blood relation can weasel out of their parental duties. But if you stood up and claimed that child as your own, that meant something. Still does. And should.

And that is the cultural idea the Romans, Ephesians, and Jews had in the first century. And what the authors of the New Testament meant when they wrote about adoption—particularly about God adopting us Christians as his children.

Roman adoption.

Like I said, for the Romans a man was a child’s father because he formally acknowledged them. And just so there was no question about paternity, he’d do this for his biological children too. That’s right: Even natural-born children were “adopted” back then.

Roman custom was to have an adoption ceremony once their kids came of age, which’d be about 13 years old. The kids would put on adult clothing (a toga virilis/“manly toga” for the boys) for the first time. Names would be changed: Up to this point the kids were known by a nickname or familiar name, but now the nomen gentilicium/“family name” would be added. And quite frequently the adoptive father’s praenomen/“first name” would be added too. When Julius Caesar adopted Gaius Octavius Thurinus, the young man’s name was changed to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

For Romans of great wealth and power, mainly the folks in the senatorial and equestrian classes (the Roman upper castes), adoption was a much bigger deal. ’Cause when our culture thinks of heirs and inheritance, we’re not talking about the same thing the Romans had in mind.

Unlike Hebrew or American heirs, Roman heirs weren’t waiting for their father to die before they could own or control the estate. Roman estates belonged to the family, not the father. The heirs were co-owners of the estate. They owned and controlled it now. Already. It was theirs, same as it was their father’s.

So this was why the sons were given their father’s name: Since the son now had the same name, the son now had the very same legal authority as his father. He owned his father’s estate, same as his father. He could give orders regarding the estate, boss the slaves around, purchase stuff, and make decisions about the family—and his word counted the same as his father’s.

Christ Jesus was adopted by Joseph of Nazareth at the time of his circumcision. Lk 2.21 Jews didn’t wait till their kids were 13; they declared them theirs right away. (Romans didn’t always wait till the kids were 13 either.) No, Jesus isn’t biologically Joseph’s son, but he doesn’t need to be; he was legally Joseph’s son, for only his father could give declare his name Jesus. Mt 1.25

But as for Jesus’s biological father: Jesus was also adopted by God the Father at his baptism. For the Father declared, “You’re my beloved son. I approve of you.” Mk 1.1, Lk 3.22 He publicly declared Jesus to be his, same as a Roman would. Which is why Jesus’s baptism story would make a far greater impact to Romans who read the gospels.

Now note: Because Roman adoption took place after a child reached what they considered adulthood, it inherently means this adoption was a mutual decision. The father couldn’t simply declare any child to be his, willy-nilly: The adoptee had to agree to it. During the Roman Republic, sometimes the Roman senate had to agree to it too. It wasn’t, as determinists insist, a unilateral, single-sided declaration. True, Julius Caesar adopted Gaius Octavian in his will, which was kind of a surprise to many (Octavian included), but Octavian could’ve refused the adoption. He didn’t; he fully embraced the name Julius Caesar, and called himself Caesar the rest of his life.

Roman custom spread all over the Roman Empire. Arguably it was practiced in the Galilee too. When Jesus told the Prodigal Son story, and described the younger son asking his father for his inheritance, we Christians tend to assume our rules of inheritance apply to the story: “Dad, let’s assume you’re dead; give me what you’d leave me in your will.” Some of us know Hebrew inheritance customs, and how the younger of two sons would inherit only a third of the estate—and assume basically the same thing. But Luke wrote his gospel to gentiles, who didn’t necessarily know Hebrew custom; they knew Roman custom. And Jesus told this story to Galileans, who also knew Roman custom. By Roman custom, the prodigal son wasn’t requesting what he’d get once his father died; he already had it. It’s why the father could tell his other son, “Everything of mine is yours.” Lk 15.31 Not “will be.” Is.

’Cause Roman heirs didn’t have to wait for anyone to die. They had their father’s stuff. They could enjoy their inheritance now. They could enjoy it with their father.

Christian adoption.

We Christians fling around the terms “adoption,” “inheritance,” and “heir” when we describe our relationships with God. But they no longer mean what they did to an ancient Ephesian. And we don’t always know the historical context of these words. So we guess… and guess wrong, and come up with some really mangled interpretations.

Fr’instance I once heard a preacher claim we inherit God’s kingdom because after Jesus died, he stopped being the firstborn, so the inheritance passed to the next of kin, which’d be us. That’s an interesting spin, but entirely wrong. And taken to its logical conclusion, creates all sorts of problems: If Jesus is no longer the Father’s firstborn, it’d mean he’s no longer king. No longer Messiah; no longer Christ. Not really Lord.

After Jesus returned from death, his students correctly recognized the kingdom still belongs to Jesus. Ac 2.6 But if we’re also God’s adopted children, Jn 1.12 it means that even though Jesus is king, the rest of us also inherit God’s kingdom.

God isn’t merely our “adoptive father,” who’s kinda like a father but not really. God’s our legal father. We’re his legal kids. His literal kids. His estate is now our estate, same as a Roman-era father. Everything he has, we now have. He wants us to have it. Lk 12.32

Since we already have God’s kingdom inheritance now, already have access to every supernatural blessing in the high heavens now, Ep 1.3 why don’t we see evidence of it? Well we do. We just haven’t always realized this.

Finally I get to today’s relevant passage.

Ephesians 1.11-14 KWL
11 Because of God, we who were predestined by his plan, by his will’s design,
fell into 12 becoming the first believers in Christ—praise his glory!
13 Because of God, you who heard the truthful message,
the saving gospel in which you believed, were stamped with the promised Holy Spirit—
14 who’s the deposit on our inheritance,
the release of our trust fund—praise his glory!

Romans didn’t use signatures. If they wanted to mark something with their approval or authority, they stamped wax with a signet ring. Each household designed a unique ring.

When a father adopted a child, the child got a duplicate signet ring. Children didn’t have to forge their father’s signature: They were given their father’s signature. It was now theirs. The signet indicated the authority and responsibility to run the household, the family, and the inheritance.

So what’d we Christians get as our signet ring? We get the Holy Spirit. We can’t ask for any more authority and power than God himself living in us. He’s our arravón/“deposit” (KJV “earnest”); the collateral God left with us. He’s the proof God’s not kidding about giving us his kingdom, ’cause he’s not gonna just give his Spirit to anyone. Only his legitimate children and heirs.

This sinking in yet? We inherit everything.

Since God’s never gonna die (well, not again), we never have to worry about being burdened with his job. Those are some massive responsibilities after all. Y’notice every time God delegates running a tiny portion of his world to us, we’ve manage to bungle the job. But when God gives us duties to do, he really does all the heavy lifting; our duty is pretty much to obey.

Still, in order to achieve what God’s instructed us to do, he’s given us his massive authority. He’s given us his kingdom, his signet ring, his power, and the name of Christian.

Yeah, us. We who used to be slaves to sin. It was actually against Roman law to adopt slaves without freeing them first, which is why Jesus had to first redeem us from slavery to sin, and make us a new creation. Ep 1.7 Though we didn’t originally recognize that’s what Jesus’s death was all about, God finally revealed it was all part of his plan. That’s what Paul meant by “the mystery of God’s will” Ep 1.8 —it’s not a mystery any more!

The plan, once again, is to arrange everything around Christ Jesus. Ep 1.10 He made our adoption possible. He got us the kingdom. So, like Paul said, praise his glory!