A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 31

Sons of Abraham (Gal 3:6-9)

As Abraham’s faith in God was counted to him for righteousness, so your faith in Jesus was counted to you. You know, then, that they who cleave to the rule of Faith, inherit Abraham’s Faith, and are his sons (for he that inherits is a son).

The idea that they who follow the principle, of Faith are sons of Abraham, whatever family they belonged to by nature, would certainly be understood by the Galatians as referring to the legal process called Adoption, υἱοθεσία.

Now there were at that time in the Roman Empire two kinds of Adoption, and two kinds of law regulating it: there was Adoption of the Greek type and Adoption of the Roman type. In their origin these two types had been so similar that, for our present purposes, they might be treated as one. Adoption had been a process devised to supply the want of a son and heir in the course of nature: a man that had no natural son might adopt a son, in order to prevent the family from coming to an end (which would entail the annihilation of the family-cultus). Adoption was at the same time 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 of 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.

Such had been the original sense of the process of Adoption. In Greek law there had been no serious change in its character. But in Roman law it had developed considerably from its primitive form, and the idea of inheritance or heirship had become dissociated from the idea of sonship: a man might be adopted without any intention of making him an heir, and property might be left to a person outside of the family1 without adopting him.

Now Paul here assumes that all they who inherit that special property of Abraham, viz., Faith, must be sons of Abraham, i.e., that none but a son can inherit, and that the terms “Son” and “Heir” are interchangeable. He assumes also that his readers are familiar with that principle and custom. Obviously, that principle suits Greek law much better than Roman law as it was in the centuries immediately before or after Christ. The question then arises: Can we understand that Paul is here thinking of the Roman Adoption, or must we conclude that he is speaking with reference to the Greek Adoption?

Dr. W. E. Ball,2 in a highly suggestive paper on the influence of Roman ideas on the theology and language of Paul, assumes, without thinking of any other possibility, that the Apostle is here thinking of Roman law; and Halmel has attempted to prove that in his book das römische Recht im Galaterbrief, Essen, 1895.3

Mitteis,4 apropos of a passage in the fifth century Syrian-Roman Lawbook, in which the interchangeableness of “Son” and “Heir” is assumed, has discussed the same question which meets us here, and has decided it on grounds which are perfectly applicable here, though, naturally, he does not notice the parallel case in Paul’s letter. In several places his argument might almost be taken as a reply to Dr. W. E. Ball’s paper, though in all probability he never saw it. We simply transfer his argument to our pages, changing names, slightly modifying and greatly shortening it.

It is evidently impossible that Paul should use, or the Galatians understand, any references to the Roman law of Adoption in its original and primitive form; they could know only the developed form of that law as it was customary in ordinary life, in which the last shred of connection between sonship and heirship had disappeared. Nor is it an allowable supposition that this form of expression had persisted in language after it had ceased to exist in law. Such survivals, indeed, are possible, but in every case they must be proved by examples: now not a trace is known in Roman literature or monuments of such interchangeableness of the terms.

On the other hand the equivalence of sonship and heirship is familiar in Greek literature. The proofs are given in every hand-book and in every dictionary of Greek antiquities.5

In the Greek view it was a calamity both to the individual and to the State, if a citizen died without leaving an heir to carry on the family and continue the family religion: the State, which was an association of families, lost one of its members, the gods of the family lost their worship, and the dead citizen lost the rights and gifts which he was entitled to receive from the surviving family. The State, therefore, looked after the continuance of the family, if the individual citizen had neglected his duty. The only way in which a childless individual could acquire an heir was by adopting him: hence to adopt, εισποιεῖσθαι, and to bequeath, διατίθεσθαι, are used as equivalent terms: childless (ἄπαις) and intestate are practically the same idea. In Roman law adoption imitated nature, and the adopted son was assimilated as much as possible to the son by birth. In Athens, in order to keep the property in the family, the adopted son was permitted and encouraged to marry the daughter of the deceased, thus saving the dowry which she would otherwise require.

In Asiatic countries, where some traces of succession in the female line persisted, it is highly probable that the same marriage custom prevailed, on the theory that the adopted son acquired the right of the daughter to inherit by marrying her. In those countries this was not felt to make any difference between the position of the son by nature and the son by adoption, for apparently both kinds of sons, according to the primitive religious law, acquired right of inheritance by marrying the heiress, their sister by nature or by adoption. The spread of Greek customs tended to discourage marriage between natural brother and sister, except in cases where something peculiarly sacred, such as the right to the throne, was concerned. How far the Athenian custom of marrying the adopted son to the heiress was a survival of a similar ancient social custom we need not here inquire.

It is true that most of the evidence ordinarily quoted to prove this Greek idea of the equivalence of sonship and heirship is distinctly older than the time of Paul; but there is also later evidence. In fact the passage of the Roman-Syrian Lawbook of the fifth century on which Mitteis (l.c.) comments is an example of the way in which the forms of language in Graeco-Asiatic states continued long after Paul’s time to follow the ancient Greek expression that the heir is the son, that the family of the deceased lives on in the heirs, that heir and son are interchangeable terms, that “to make a will” means “to adopt a son”.

Paul, therefore, is using the ordinary Greek forms. He is speaking of a religious inheritance; and it was specially and fundamentally on religious grounds that the Greek heir and son was adopted to continue the family cultus. On the other hand, in Rome, such a proverb as hereditas sine sacris, “an inheritance unencumbered by any religious duties,” indicating a piece of unmixed good-luck — a proverb current as early as the third century B.C. — shows how early heirship and religious succession might be divorced in Roman practice.

Paul’s thought is this: the adopted heir succeeds to the religious obligations and position of the deceased. Conversely, he who succeeds to the religious position of any man is his son: there was no other form under which succession could be made, except through adoption. He who succeeds to the faith of Abraham is the son of Abraham. He could not acquire possession of Abraham’s faith in any other way than as his son. “Ye know therefore that they which be of faith, the same are sons of Abraham.”

Among the Jews, adoption had no importance, and hardly any existence. The perpetuity of the family, when a man died childless, was secured in another way, viz., the levirate. Only sons by blood were esteemed in the Hebrew view: only such sons could carry on the true succession, and be in a true sense heirs. From every point of view the thought in Gal 3:7 is abhorrent to Hebrew feeling. It is one of the passages which show how far removed Paul was from the mere Jewish way of thinking; he differed in the theory of life, and not merely in the religious view. Quite apart from the fact that the Jews naturally abhorred the idea that the Gentiles could become sons of Abraham, the very thought that the possessing of a man’s property implied sonship was unnatural to them. Paul had grown up amid the surroundings and law of Graeco-Roman society; otherwise the expression of Gal 3:7 could not come so lightly and easily from him.

Such passages as this have led some very learned Jewish scholars of my acquaintance, whose names I may not quote, to declare in conversation their conviction that the letters attributed to Paul were all forgeries, because no Jew of that age could write like that, whether he were Christian or no. So far as I may judge, they undervalue the cosmopolitan effect produced on the Jewish-Roman and Greek citizens living for generations in Greek and Roman cities, just as much as many distinguished European scholars do, when they fancy that Paul is a pure Jew, unaffected, except in the most superficial way, by Greek education.

An example of the way in which Paul adapted his exposition and his illustrations to the circumstances and education of his readers, is furnished by the form under which he explains to the Roman Christians that same idea — that the common possession of faith constitutes a relationship, analogous to that of father and sons, between Abraham and the Gentile Christians. To the Galatians he uses a metaphor drawn from Greek law: for the Romans he employs (Gal 4:11) a different metaphor, founded on the customary usage of the word pater. Both in law and in common language pater in Rome had a very much wider sense than “father” in English: the pater is the chief, the lord, the master, the leader, Æneas is the pater of all his followers. A man may be described as the pater of all to whom his qualifications constitute him a guide and leader and protector. The head of a family is the lord and pater over children, wife and slaves.

Accordingly, whereas Paul says to the Galatians, “your possession of Abraham’s property proves that you are his sons,” to the Romans he says, “Abraham’s possession of the same faith that you possess fits him to be your father. He possessed faith before he was circumcised, and thus is suited to be the pater of the faithful Gentiles: afterwards circumcision was imposed on him, like a seal affixed to a document, making him suitable to be the pater of faithful Jews. Thus he is the spiritual father alike of two divergent classes — believing Gentiles and believing Jews.6

How delicate is the change in expression! yet it places us amid totally different surroundings.

Another example may be drawn from Rom 8:16. “The Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs.” Here there is a juxtaposition of the two ideas “children” and “heirs,” just as in Gal 3:7 the ideas, possession of the same property (i.e., heirship) and sonship, are brought together. But in Galatians the sonship is inferred from the possession of the property, whereas in Romans the heirship is inferred from the sonship — “if children, then heirs”. This is in strict accord with Roman law: the children must inherit: a will that left the property away from the children was invalid.


[1] Adoptio per testamentum, which is mentioned by Roman historians, seems to have been a political device, and not customary in private life: so says Mitteis Reichsrecht und Volksrecht, p. 340, who adds that it is never mentioned in juristic sources.

[2] In the Contemporary Review, Aug., 1891, p. 278 ff.

[3] On it see the quotation from Mitteis in our preface.

[4] Mitteis, Reichsrecht und Volksrecht, p. 339 ff. The Lawbook is published in Syriac and German by Bruns and Sachau ein römischsyrisches Rechtsbuch des fünften Jahrhunderts.

[5] See e.g., Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des Antiquités Gr. et Rom. s.v. Adoptio.

[6] Compare Sanday and Headlam, Romans, p. 106.

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