Jesus and Adoption: Some Surprising Facts in Light of the Recent Debates on Gay Marriage

Those in favor of traditional marriage argue that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation and to maximize the likelihood that a child is raised by both biological parents.  Whether you agree or disagree with gay marriage, the idea that any marriage exists solely for procreation is anti-adoption.  This argument suggests that straight, single parents or sterile parents shouldn’t raise children.  And it’s just a little scary hearing the Christian right trumpeting blood relation as the “ideal.”  But let’s face it: they wouldn’t be making this argument if it weren’t for the way they have historically read their Bible.

There’s been so much writing on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible, that I’ve no interest in dragging that dead horse out and beating it over the head one more time.  But adoption and the Bible is a topic not many people have discussed, and it’s an important topic surrounding this debate.  I thought I would take a moment to ask, “What does the New Testament have to say about adoption, or similar forms of fictive kinship?”  So, here’s five interesting topics you might not have known about Jesus and adoption fittingly timed with Easter:

1. Jesus, the adopted savior.  Jesus is adopted not once, not twice, but three times in the Gospel of Matthew (and Luke).  The first one is an easy one: when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and it’s not his kid, he plans to divorce Mary (Mt. 1:19) until an angel instructs him to take the child as his own and name him Jesus (1:21).  So, Jesus’ birth begins with a scandal and questionable origins.  Keep that in mind.  Later, when Jesus is all grown up, God descends upon him at his Baptism and says, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased” (3:18).  This heavenly and public declaration takes the form of a naming ceremony where God “chooses” or “adopts” Jesus as his own.  And this happens again at the Transfiguration as an exact repeat (Mt. 17).  This time Moses, also a Biblical adoptee, and Elijah appear in a bright cloud, and a voice booms out repeating the naming ceremony from Ch. 3 with the emphatic addition, “Listen to him!” (17:5).

Admittedly, the adoption stories are a bit oddly-placed.  If God made it clear to Mary and Joseph that he was the biological “baby-daddy,” why also adopt Jesus later?  Biological parents don’t usually need to adopt their children.  One possibility, however, is that the adoption becomes a public display of Jesus’ sonship, like a proud parent saying to everybody on the football field after the great play, “Heck yeah, that’s m’boy!”  Thus, while biological parents don’t need to partake in the legal process of adopting their children, they do regularly “claim” their children in a proud moment, which can be regarded as a metaphor for adoption, a term that is often interchangeable with the concepts of being “chosen,” “claimed,” “called,” “placed,” “named,” etc.

A different perspective that I like is that the adoption story (of Jesus’ Baptism) was written first, as it appears in the Gospel of Mark, and the Christmas story (which is missing from Mark and John) was a later, embellished fabrication written to drive the point home that Jesus was God’s literal son in the flesh, not just a special helper God called “son.”  In fact, if the adoption story is taken to be true, the Christmas narrative may be an attempt to take the scandal of Jesus’ beginnings and turn it into something good.  However, scholars are not in agreement which was written first – the adoption story or the Christmas story.

If we’re to believe anything historical about the Christmas story, I think it’s also worth noting here that Jesus’ earthly family wasn’t your typical, or ideal, adoptive family.  One parent, Mary, is Jesus’ biological mother.  However, some scholars believe that Joseph could have been the biological father, as well.  After all, when the text says that Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” to be married, this was different from engagements today.  In Jewish betrothals, it was expected that the wife moved in with the husband once the two were engaged.  Thus, sexual relations were not exactly unheard of during this part of the marriage process.  If we are to take Matthew or Luke at their word, there is a third parent – God – who is both a biological and an adoptive parent of Jesus.  It’s a complicated family, to say the least, and I’ll say more about that later.

2. Adoptionists and other Adopted Gods.  There is ample evidence suggesting that there were some early Christians called “adoptionists” (also called “dynamic monarchianists” or perhaps even “Ebionites,” though this distinction is complicated) who rejected the birth story and who were therein labeled heretics.  These Christians would have rejected early concepts of trinitarian theology (that Jesus, like the Father and the Spirit, was fully divine), because they didn’t equate Jesus with God.  Instead, they saw Jesus as a special prophet, appointed and adopted by God but not necessarily divine.  This shows that even in the 1st and 2nd centuries, people were trumpeting blood relation and did not like it when someone suggested that Jesus wasn’t related to God by blood.  Sound familiar?

Of course, we need not think that adoption was always given a negative portrayal in the Greco-Roman or Jewish milieu.  To the contrary, being called a “Son of God” was pretty common in the 1st century, so there was nothing revolutionary about Jesus referring to himself as God’s adopted kid.  You even see this today in churches where people refer to themselves as “God’s children” or a “Child of God.” You also saw it among the Emperors.

Upon the death of Julius Caesar when Octavian becomes the new Emperor through posthumous adoption, the Latin “Divi Filius,” “Son of God,” is used not to highlight Octavian as divine but to highlight his adoptive father, Julius, as a god.  Thus, blood relation was, by no means, the only way to attain divine kinship, and it’s worth asking whether the author of Mark (et. al.) was interested in drawing connections to Jesus’ imperial contemporaries.  Roman citizens who heard that Jesus had been adopted by God would have, no doubt, been reminded of the adopted, divine Emperors, Octavian and Tiberius.  Whether a non-Greek author would have gotten the reference is less clear.

3. Paul’s interest in adoption.  Of course, while Jesus is adopted by Joseph and by God, there is no legal language in the Gospels indicating adoption.  The Greek word for legal adoption, huiothesia, doesn’t show up in the text until you begin to read Paul’s epistles.  Now, this is a curious thing.  Paul rarely mentions Jesus as an historical guy walking around Galilee.  When he talks about Jesus, he’s usually just talking theology: he’s talking about Jesus as God, not Jesus as a human.  On a few rare occasions, he refers to Jesus’ biological brothers (1 Cor 9:5) and to Jesus as having Davidic lineage (Rm. 1:3), so one of the big questions surrounding Paul is this: what did he know about the historical Jesus? Or more specifically, for the conversation at hand, what – if anything – did he know of Jesus’ adoptive origins?  Could those origins have influenced his theology?

Paul mentions legal adoption five times in his letters (three times in Romans and once each in Ephesians and Galatians).  All of the references are pretty similar and they usually sound like this one from Galatians: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.  Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’  So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Gal 4:4-7).

So, Paul knows Jesus was “born of a woman” and that he was born “under the law” (meaning he was a Jew) and then turns to say that Jesus’ purpose was to legally adopt his followers.  So, he makes two historical statements about the life of Jesus, neither of which clarify paternity, and then suddenly jumps to a lofty theological statement about Jesus’ ministry in terms of adoption.  Perhaps Paul’s commentary about Jesus’ role in “adopting” his followers is another historical statement about Jesus as an adoptee who rejected biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed out of obedience to God. To understand that, we need to consider what, exactly, Jesus had to say about kinship.  Was Paul right when he suggested that Jesus wanted to “adopt” his followers?

4. Jesus tells us to hate our family.  Jesus was known for saying some pretty radical things.  It’s worth noting that he didn’t think too kindly of biological kinship: “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple'” (Lk. 14:25-27).  It’s become pretty common to dismiss such hard sayings as hyperbole.  Some Christians will suggest, “Oh, Jesus didn’t really mean you should ‘hate‘ your family.  He just means don’t put your family before God.”  Other Christians look at this text and argue that Jesus is only interested in highlighting role reversals (e.g. later in the chapter, he favors inviting strangers to your wedding instead of your friends).

I’d like to suggest that Jesus’ commands to “hate your family” may have been related to his biological’ origins.  I told you to keep the scandal in mind, didn’t I?  I mean, look at what we know: Luke tells us that Jesus wasn’t welcome in his hometown (Lk. 4:24); at an early age, one of the only stories of his childhood in fact, Luke also tells us that Jesus runs away from his family.  When his mother admonishes him from running away, Jesus responds that he went to his “Father’s house” (Lk. 2:49).  Can you imagine being Joseph and hearing your son say, “I went to my real Dad’s house.”  This could indicate tension between Jesus and Joseph, a character who drops out of the Biblical narrative almost as soon as he was first mentioned.

Moreover, it is very likely that, growing up, the scandal of Jesus’ birth followed him around everywhere.  Even after his death, the scandal of his birth never really goes away.  For example, Origen tells us of an anti-Christian writer named Celsus who was arguing as early as the 2nd century that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.  While many scholars have dismissed this claim of Celsus’, it’s worth mentioning because it demonstrates the difficulty Jesus could have had shaking the claims of bastardy.  After all, being a bastard – or a mamzer in the Hebrew – would have delegitimized not only Jesus origins but also his ministry, as the mamzer was forbidden from entering the Temple, according to Deuteronomy 23:2.  A mamzer, by the way, was not simply someone born out-of-wedlock but also born from a sinful sexual act, particularly prostitution.  Perhaps the reason isn’t welcome in his hometown, and the reason he enters Temples where his origins are unknown can be connected to this history. At any rate, if Jesus ever struggled with his adoption or with questions of illegitimacy at all, it would be no surprise that he would eschew biological kinship to instead favor kinship formed with God.  So, while his statement may, indeed, be a form of hyperbole or of displaying role reversals between the “least of these” and the “greatest,” it stands to reason that we should also consider how Jesus’ own family life affected his views of family values.

5. Jesus’ family values aren’t always hateful.  While on the one hand, Jesus tells us to hate our family, he also redefines family: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it'” (Lk. 8:19-21). Of course, one way to read this is to view it in light of what I already said about Jesus’ potential disdain for his family. Perhaps not letting Mary and James (or another brother, perhaps) near him is just one more jab at the biological family. Was he suggesting, then, that his mother and brothers had not heard or followed the word of God? (Also, where is Joseph?).

Regardless of whatever ill-will Jesus may have held toward his family, I suspect that he is more interested in redefining the family as a unit based on obedience to God. On the one hand, that’s not exactly adoption. On the other hand, it’s so starkly against blood relation that it’s a heck of a lot more like adoption than it is being born into a family. It’s kinship based on choices, after all.

In any case, Jesus’ family values should really raise some serious questions about the importance conservative Christians today place on blood relation.  Jesus did not think of a family as existing for the sole purpose of procreation with a biological father and mother always present.  His own family didn’t even meet those standards.  It was, instead, a complicated family with only one clear biological parent, and two, if not three, fathers whose paternity was disputed to say the least.  If we’re going to construct modern legal language around the Bible, let’s at least be clear that the Bible isn’t exactly clear on what the family should look like.


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