Adoption in the Roman world (Romans 8)

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Adoption was widely practiced in the ancient world; examples have been found from Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and ancient Jewish sources. For example, according to Exodus 2:10 Moses was a foundling adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Generally speaking, only free men (not women or slaves) could adopt, and the adoptee was often an adult rather than child. Sometimes adoption was undertaken partially for the benefit of the adopter. For example, an older man whose natural children had already died might adopt a younger man as his heir; the adoptee would be responsible to care for the adopter in his old age.

Roman law recognized two kinds of adoption: adrogatio, in which a man and all those under his authority were adopted into another family, and adoptio, in which an individual was adopted into a family. In adrogatio the adopted family in effect ceased to exist as a separate entity and became a part of the adopter’s family.

An adopted man or boy no longer belonged to his father’s household and legally became a child of the adopter. The adoptee in the Roman world took the adopter’s name and rank and became his legal heir. Adoption had to be carried out under a specific protocol (e.g. in the presence of the governor), and a will was often prepared in conjunction with the official process. The association of these two activities reveals the connection between the legal, familial status of the adoptee and his inheritanc rights.

Paul embraced the metaphor of adoption in Romans 8 in order to describe the status of Christians in relationship to God. God as the Father of His adopted children has authority over them, while they in turn have taken on His identity. Paul also wrote of the inheritance that belongs to believers because God has adopted them as His children (Galatians 4:5-7). The redemption of the body is one aspect of the Christian’s inheritance that Paul highlighted in Romans 8:23.


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