The Common Good
November 2004

Secret Siblings

by S. Scott Bartchy | November 2004

Paul's letters talk about Jesus' radical new vision of believers as family. But some Bible translations miss the point altogether.

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"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.

Sibling Solidarity

How, then, can we best position ourselves to "get" what Paul sought to communicate? First we must put aside our "common sense" views of family life. For example, it is widely assumed in modern Western family life that the adult individual will usually experience her or his deepest sense of emotional bonding in marriage. In sharp contrast, the tightest unity of loyalty and affection in the world of the early followers of Jesus was found among brothers and sisters. It is exceedingly significant, therefore, that Paul chose to regard even married followers of Christ first of all as surrogate brothers and sisters of each other, rather than simply wife and husband. For example, his line of reasoning in 1 Corinthians 7 repeatedly emphasizes that the "sisters" have their identity primarily "in Christ" rather than in their blood families or in a subordinate relation to their husbands. As such they are declared the sexual equals of believing husbands (7:4-5) and the spiritual "powerhouses" in marriages to nonbelievers (7:13-16). As such, Paul identified "our sister Phoebe" as a leader of the house church in Cenchrae, with no mention of any male figure except Paul, who calls her his "patron" (Romans 16:1-2).

Such radical social consequences of the gospel met serious resistance among his converts. Why?

The parents of these followers of Jesus certainly had taught them how biological siblings should relate to each other—with fairness and generosity. At the same time, the parents had raised them to regard everyone outside the blood-related family as a potential challenger of the honor of the family and of every individual within it. Thus, if those responding to Paul’s message had simply been peers from one social group or class, Paul’s house congregations already would have been tension-filled, because these people had previously regarded each other as competitors for recognition and honor.

Yet Paul’s challenge was made substantially greater by the fact that he had proclaimed a radically inclusive message, resulting in an astonishing diversity in his house congregations. They confounded conventional Mediterranean group expectations because of their cross-class social makeup, embracing men and women of every economic status and all local ethnic backgrounds. This questionable melange was not accidental, as if Paul had to settle for whatever response he inspired. Rather it seems quite intentional, as a direct extension of the historical Jesus’ practice of radical inclusivity (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). Paul’s statement that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Galatians 3:28) meant both that every man and woman was welcome without discrimination and that these status indicators were to play no role in the everyday life and relationships within his groups.

So Paul made a daring and risky move when seeking to persuade persons from such disparate backgrounds to think of themselves as "family." Yet it was logical, brilliant, and true to the Jesus tradition for Paul to chose sibling language to describe the relationships among the followers of Christ.

Tricky Translations

In 1 Corinthians alone, Paul employs brother-sister terms 41 times, only once to refer to persons who are biologically related, namely, "the brothers of the Lord" (9:5). In the other 40 passages, Paul addresses the various persons in the Corinthian house congregations as his own siblings and siblings of each other. Yet in the NRSV, in 13 of the sentences in which Paul uses some form of the root adelph the translators have substituted such non-family-related words as "believer," "friends," and even the pronoun "one of them," sharply diminishing for the modern reader the intended force of Paul’s rhetoric. These followers of Christ often remain "secret siblings" because translators have used non-family terms to translate Paul’s words.

I assume that it was these translators’ intention to express male and female inclusion by using just one word, in combination with a literary desire to avoid frequent repetition of the phrase "brothers and sisters," that led them to substitute for "brother" or "sister" such gender-neutral terms as "friends," "beloved," and "believers." Nevertheless, such substitutions regularly "pull the plug" on the force of Paul’s intended challenge to his hearers to treat each other like true siblings at their best. Perhaps the NRSV translation of 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 displays the most striking example of this translation error, totally obscuring Paul’s appeal to surrogate family obligations: "Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer (adelphos, ‘brother’) and another, but a believer (adelphos) goes to court against a believer (adelphos)—and before unbelievers at that?" (6:5-6)

This passage opens a window on a particularly egregious violation of sibling values: suing each other in a court of law. The high density of sibling language here powerfully illustrates Paul’s use of this rhetoric in his attempt to resocialize his converts and change their behavior, focusing in this case on the economically elite among them.

The translators decided to emphasize the contrast between the followers of Christ—the "believers"—and the "unbelievers" (apistoi) to whom they had turned to judge their law suits. This is good as far as it goes, but spectacularly misses Paul’s central point: Siblings don’t sue each other! Such an action would declare to the world that the litigants no longer regarded each other as part of the same family. In Paul’s words: "To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you" (6:7). If they regarded each other as siblings, they would suffer injury rather than sue (Paul writes "defraud") each other.

While their motives might have been good, the NRSV translators’ work has produced two particularly negative consequences. First, using the nonrelational word "believer" plays into the hands of the kind of individualism and lack of concern for others that Paul did so much to resist and transform among his own converts. Such individualism and isolation from others have developed into strikingly unpleasant and unjust social norms in Western culture, especially in the United States, where "looking out for number one" is urged upon us at every turn. Second, this frequent substitution of non-family terms when translating Paul’s use of the adelph group obscures the original cultural context and substantially weakens the punch of Paul’s exhortations for modern readers of every cultural background.

S. Scott Bartchy was professor of Christian origins and the history of religion at UCLA and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion when this article appeared.

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