• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Thursday, May 31, 2012

    Adoption, Babbling Paul and The Silver Chalice

    I'm preaching on Romans 8:12-17 on Sunday where Paul talks about us being adopted. Yesterday I read William Barclay's commentary on the passage where he talks in depth about adoption in Rome. One thing he mentions is how the adoption ceremony had to be witnessed by seven separate witnesses.

    It brought to mind Paul Newman's role in The Silver Chalice (1954). It's been about 5 years since my only viewing of the film, but I do remember a sub-plot involving Newman's character, Basil, being adopted, but then after his new father's death there being trouble finding witnesses. The witness scene features early on, but there are only five original witnesses rather than seven. I'm unsure of Barclay's source for this information but it seems to be Justinian's "Institutes".

    In any case, three of the witnesses have died, and one has turned against Basil. The other, Kester, is no longer in Rome and is eventually found in Jerusalem. (you can check this on the subtitle script here).

    The other thing about the passage is the translation of the opening phrase of verse 12. The KJV, NKJV, NRSV and ESV all have "we are debtors, not to the flesh...". Other popular translations (NIV, NASB, GNT) have "we have an obligation (but not)". The problem is that such translations don't really make sense of the following verses.

    Paul, as the Epicureans and Stoics pointed out, was a bit of a babbler. His letters and speeches are full of him going off on tangents in an attempt to cover all the bases (I suffer from the same affliction, only without Paul's eloquence). So to unpick Paul's train of thought, you often have to work out which bit is tangent and look at that separately from his main thrust. And if you try and do that neither of these translations above really make sense.

    The key for me is verse 15 "For you received not a spirit of slavery...but a spirit of adoption". It's a classic rhetorical contrast between being a slave and being an heir. What I think is significant is that if you look through the earlier verses for a similar pattern you find it.

    One such place is in what appears to be part of the tangent in verse 13 "For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if you live according to the spirit you will live". The other appears to fall either side of that tangent, but the above translations miss out the contrast, tying in the "not" to the bit that follows (which is most natural). My knowledge of Greek is exceedingly poor, but I've translated it below very roughly using numbers 1 and 2 to mark out the parts of the contrast with the tangent marked by square brackets and the contrast within the tangents marked with i and ii.

    So then brothers...
    1 we are not debtors to living to the flesh
    [i For if you live according to the flesh, you die
    ii But if {you live} by the Spirit [killing bodily malpractice] you'll live]
    2 For those led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God

    1 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery [again to fear]
    2 but you received a spirit of adoption [hence we cry out,“Abba, Father]

    Or taking out the minor tangents and straightening it out a bit:

    1 We are not debtors to living to the flesh
    2 For those led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God

    [i For if you live according to the flesh, you die
    ii but if {you live} by the Spirit you'll live]

    1 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery
    2 but you received a spirit of adoption

    That seems to me to the clearest way of understanding a rather confusingly worded passage. Critically though that takes the exactly opposite view of most other translations. There are a couple of exceptions however. Some of those outside the tradition of the KJV such as the NEB, NLT and the Holman Christian Bible do tie the "not" in with the debtors.

    This is significant because it says that actually we aren't debtors: indeed such a translation ties in very well with the image of Roman adoptions. That's not to say that we don't owe God a tremendous debt, but the thrust of the passage I would suggest is that we have been freed from the debts of our previous fleshy lives to be free (adopted) heirs. We may not have been born as his free sons (and daughters) but now that is what we have become.

    The reason for making this post is not to show how great I am compared to Greek expert scholars, but perhaps to ask those who know more about Greek than I do why they translate it the way they do and not the way that makes sense to me? Is it lined in with not wanting to remove a verse that stresses the debt/obligation we owe to God? Because it seems to me that you can get that from elsewhere without having to force this passage to say it here. I'd be really interested in hearing some feedback on this.