some secrets…about the siblings…

noth­ing too juicy, just an arti­cle from Sojourner’s Mag­a­zine I found talk­ing about “secret sib­lings”. I thought it was inter­est­ing…

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. Such read­ers eas­i­ly fail to feel the impact of Paul’s empha­sis on brother/sister rhetoric as lever­age for chang­ing the behav­ior of the fol­low­ers of Jesus in his care.


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