Secret Siblings: Paul's Letters Talk about Jesus' Radical New Vision of Believers as Family. but Some Bible Translations Miss the Point Altogether

By Bartchy, S. Scott | Sojourners Magazine, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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Secret Siblings: Paul's Letters Talk about Jesus' Radical New Vision of Believers as Family. but Some Bible Translations Miss the Point Altogether


Bartchy, S. Scott, Sojourners Magazine


"Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."--Jesus (Mark 3:35)

Their first lawgiver [Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers and sisters of each other after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods.--Lucian of Samosata (The Passing of Peregrinus, 2nd century C.E.)

IF ONE OF PAUL'S contemporaries could time-travel to the 21st century and read popular English translations of his letters, puzzlement would surely provoke some questions: "Why in so many passages has the Greek word for 'brothers' been mistranslated using non-family terms? Don't the translators know that Paul's favorite way of referring to us was as his 'sisters' and 'brothers'? Why has one of the most important features of our new identity in Christ been hidden from these English readers?"

Jesus is remembered by both friend and foe (as in comments by Mark and Lucian, above) to have redefined the basis and limits of family life, rejecting blood ties in favor of the faith-based sibling-like bond that he created among his followers. Persons who do God's will have become Jesus' siblings with God alone as their parent (see Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50, and Luke 8:21). Most English translations of the gospels do faithfully report that fact. Yet this translational accuracy disappears in many English versions of Paul's letters.

A close reading of Paul's Greek in his letters reveals that he not only knew about Jesus' radical redefinition of "family" but also made it his core relational term to describe the converts in the faith-related, household-based congregations to whom he wrote. Paul profoundly affirmed and implemented Jesus' vision of a society based on the surrogate kinship of faith-related siblings. This shared vision undermined blood-kinship obligations in favor of relationships rooted in the individually chosen and deeply shared commitment to the will of God as revealed by this Jesus. Paul's basic model for his new communities was a family of such "brothers and sisters," without any person in the group, including himself, enjoying the traditional authority and privileges of an earthly parent.

For most modern English readers, however, Paul's strong emphasis on sibling relationships is a "secret." Two factors keep it that way: 1) cross-culturally insensitive translations and 2) interpreters who uncritically assume that first-century brothers and sisters related to each other as siblings frequently do in contemporary Western culture. Note first that inadequate translations from the Greek have used nonrelational terms such as "one," "another," "friend," and the individualistic term "believer" to render the Greek words for "sister" and "brother" (in the NRSV and often the NIV). And often Paul's general term for "brothers and sisters" together (adelphoi) is limited to the "brothers" alone (as in KJV, RSV, NIV), thereby making the "sisters" invisible and obscuring one of Paul's most consistently inclusive applications of his baptismal teaching that in Christ "there is no longer male and female" (Galatians 3:28).

The Greek words for "sister" (adelphe) and "brother" (adelphos) share the same root: delphys, meaning "womb." In the most literal sense, these adelph words designate persons born from the same mother. The plural, adelphoi, means "brothers" or "brothers and sisters," according to context. There was no other Greek term available for Paul to use that embraced all female and male offspring in one family, of whatever age. So the context is, as usual, critical for determining meaning. In Paul's letters the reader may anticipate that the context calls for the translation "brothers and sisters" or "siblings," the inclusive and concise English word that I use most frequently in my teaching and writing.

For many of us, there is little in our own socialization and experience to help us connect with Paul's approach here. The phenomenal mobility of persons in Western culture permits them to live far away from the family members with whom they grew up, weakening sibling ties.

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