Romans 8

14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!"

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God ESV

Paul used 'adoption' as a metaphor in these verses, but was the practice of adoption among those Paul was addressing significantly different to the contemporary practice?

  • 3
    Hello, apologies if I changed your intended meaning. Feel free to re-write as you'd like, but we always appreciate it if you demonstrate that you've done some basic research about the question before posting. Also, it might be helpful to tell us what aspect of modern "adoption" you're thinking about in drawing this comparison. Obviously, God is not a human parent, so (presuming you're referring to the human practice), this terminology doesn't mean exactly what we think of as "adoption" today (an idea that itself likely varies by culture), but there might be shared features.
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 4:03
  • 4
    Hm, giving "hints" does not indicate to me that you're honestly seeking to gain new understanding. It suggests a "guess what I'm thinking" game, which may be hard to engage people in here.
    – Susan
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 4:07
  • My original way of asking the question means exactly the same as your edit, so ...why did you edit it? Plus you removed the greek words that I provided?
    – Hello
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 21:21
  • @Hello the question body is not the place to ask about people's voting patterns. You've been told before that voting is arbitrary. I rolled back that last edit.
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 21:37
  • 1
    Hi Hello, you can comment on David's answer - editing your question isn't the way to do that. Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 19:15

1 Answer 1


The question of how "adoption" as used metaphorically by Paul relates to modern notions of adoption is not as important as comparing it to other ancient understandings. Once this is in place, however, the further comparison of the concept from Roman antiquity with modernity (in industrialized West, by implication?) can benefit from those findings.

The Texts

Although Romans 8 is picked out for comment in the question, in fact the explicit language of "adoption" is infrequent in the New Testament. The key term in Greek is υἱοθεσία (huiothesia); it occurs in the NT only in the following texts (English is from the ESV; Greek is Nestle-Aland 27):

  • Romans 8:15

    • For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption <...>, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"
    • οὐ γὰρ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα δουλείας πάλιν εἰς φόβον ἀλλὰ ἐλάβετε πνεῦμα υἱοθεσίας ἐν ᾧ κράζομεν· αββα ὁ πατήρ.
  • Romans 8:23

    • And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption <...>, the redemption of our bodies.
    • οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ αὐτοὶ τὴν ἀπαρχὴν τοῦ πνεύματος ἔχοντες, ἡμεῖς καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς στενάζομεν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπεκδεχόμενοι, τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τοῦ σώματος ἡμῶν.
  • Romans 9:4

    • They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
    • οἵτινές εἰσιν Ἰσραηλῖται, ὧν ἡ υἱοθεσία καὶ ἡ δόξα καὶ αἱ διαθῆκαι καὶ ἡ νομοθεσία καὶ ἡ λατρεία καὶ αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι
  • Galatians 4:5

    • ...to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption <...>.
    • ...ἵνα τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον ἐξαγοράσῃ, ἵνα τὴν υἱοθεσίαν ἀπολάβωμεν.
  • Ephesians 1:5

    • ...he predestined us for adoption <...> through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,...
    • ...προορίσας ἡμᾶς εἰς υἱοθεσίαν διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς αὐτόν, κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ,

Textual note: In the ESV given above, places marked <...> have the phrase "as sons" which has been supplied in translation; note its absence from Rom 9:4. It is not a quirk of the ESV, but was introduced into this translation tradition by the RSV, and something like it is also in the NIV, NASB, and a bevy of derivatives. As it happens, the simple "...Spirit of adoption, whereby..." (in Rom 8:15) or the like is found in the KJV, ASV, NRSV, ISV, HCSB, and NET, among others. I concur with Cranfield that the phrase "of sonship" is implied, but best omitted as a translation equivalent.1

So, only five verses, then, three of which are in Romans. Four of them apply the concept to those in Paul's churches (i.e., to Christians). The "odd one out" is Romans 9:4 which sees "adoption" as a property of Paul's "own people", i.e. the Jews.2

However, our interest is not so much in the nuances meaning across these texts, but rather how the concept of "adoption" as practised in Roman antiquity informs them all.

Adoption in Antiquity

Sanday and Headlam's (frankly disappointing) treatment of this theme suggests that the term huiothesia is of Pauline coinage.3 This is not the case. Its frequent use in inscriptions is noted even in the brief entry in the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon. So this is not a particularly "Pauline" term in that sense, although he is the only one to put it to use in the Greek scriptures.

The explicitly legal aspect of huiothesia was explored in a pair of articles by Francis Lyall (a professor of Law rather than NT): "Metaphors, Legal and Theological", Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 10/2 (1992): 94-112; and his earlier article devoted to this theme, "Roman Law in the Writings of Paul: Adoption", Journal of Biblical Literature 88/4 (1969): 458-466.4 I draw liberally on his work in what follows.

Lyall defines "adoption" as

the legal device found in many legal systems by which a person leaves his own family and enters the family of another.

And this device is used typically to ensure continuity of the family line ("Roman Law", p. 459). Most important is Lyall's contention that Roman law, in distinction from Jewish law (an obvious source for Paul) or even Greek law provides the necessary context for understanding the metaphor as used in the Pauline epistles. In the case of Jewish law, he argues (at length in the JBL article) that it included other measures to achieve the aim of continuity of the line, and so "adoption" was foreign to it. While there may, in fact, be potential parallels in ancient Near Eastern law (Nuzi in particular), these are much too remote from Paul to be meaningful parallels for his usage. On the other hand, Greek law offers only "a pale shadow of the Roman, existing more as a succession device than anything else" ("Roman Law", p. 465).

But Paul was also a Roman citizen, and was under jurisdiction of Roman law.5 Roman law knew several technical variations on the legal device, but the two leading forms

have the same fundamental effect. The adoptee is taken out of his previous state and is placed in a new relationship with his new paterfamilias. All his old debts were cancelled, and in effect he starts a new life. From that time the paterfamilias owns all the property and acquisitions of the adoptee, controls his personal relationships, and has rights of discipline. On the other hand, he is involved in liability by the actions of the adoptee and owes reciprocal duties of support and maintenance.

("Roman Law", p. 466.) Or, put in slightly different terms in "Metaphors, Legal and Theological", p. 106:

In Roman law adoption meant that one entirely ceased to be a member of one's own former family and came under the power and authority of a new head of family, the paterfamilias.

This Roman conception of "adoption", Lyall concludes, provides a sufficiently cogent parallel to Paul's context, and only the Roman form has this quality.


This differs from most of the other forms of ancient adoption which were rather an instrument for familial continuity, or indeed from modern forms of adoption which tend to involve orphan care and/or bringing children into a home where biological offspring are not possible. (I simplify greatly here.)

Although other commentators broaden the associations beyond Lyall's strict bounds, the main outlines of his case are often discernible.6 Cranfield's highly regarded and dense presentation of the material, replete with classical sources, provides one such example.7 Fundamentally, the legal transfer of domestic identity lies at the heart of Roman adoption.


  1. C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans 1-8 (ICC; Edinburgh, 1975), p. 398, n. 1
  2. And to confirm explicitly, it is absent from the Septuagint, in spite of something like "adoption" being found in Genesis 15 and Esther 2, and perhaps a few other places. Lyall (see below) discusses a number possible precedents from the Hebrew Bible; see also note 7.
  3. W. Sanday & A.C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 5th edn (ICC; T & T Clark, 1902), p. 203. At three other points in the commentary they refer the reader back to this discussion, minimalist as it is. I feel like I must be overlooking something obvious, but I'm fairly sure I'm not.
  4. It might amuse and/or interest some BH.SErs to know that he also "published five crime novels and edited nine collections of science fiction"! His more relevant work to this Q&A is his Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles (Academie Books, 1984).
  5. Lyall cites J.S. Candlish, "Adoption", in A Dictionary of the Bible..., ed. by James Hastings et al (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898), vol. 1, pp. 40-42, as helpfully incorporating attention to Roman adoption law in explaining Pauline usage. The later and larger Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, also edited by Hastings (and also Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1908 - but now in 12 volumes, plus an index volume) has seven connected articles on "adoption" in various cultures and contexts; "Adoption (Roman)" by W.J. Woodhouse is found in vol. 1, pp. 111-114.
  6. Lyall's case is broadly followed by, e.g., J.A. Fitzmyer, Romans (Anchor Bible; Doubleday, 1992), p. 500.
  7. Cranfield, Romans 1-8, pp. 397-398; J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (Word Biblical Commentary; Thomas Nelson, 1988), p. 452 simply refers his readers to "Cranfield's excellent note"!
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    this answer is researched well and brings lots to light to think about, thank you so much!
    – Hello
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 21:54
  • I've been searching too and there is something that might not be included in what you wrote, I will need to study what you wrote first to see if you did, there is a lot there, i don't want to mis anything
    – Hello
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 21:58
  • Davïd - I love the BibleWebApp site with the verse and Bible versions side-by-side - awesome resource and reference. Thank you (and Happy New Year)!
    – Joseph
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 22:00
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    @Hello if it's a useful answer, please upvote and move on. If it is factually wrong, please point it out and downvote. If missing something you are looking for, then post another answer (and this is likely a stump-the-chumps since you would then be looking for a specific answer rather than willing to upvote multiple perspectives, which was several users' fear about this question - including my own).
    – Dan
    Commented Dec 31, 2014 at 22:22
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    @Dan- "ich was several users' fear about this question - including my own). – Dan - - fear not, I voted, I don't think there are any chumps on the site :) - there was something I wanted to find out about
    – Hello
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 4:43

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