It would perhaps be easy to settle the matter of the meaning of "huiothesia" (υίοθεσία) if we had a first century koine Greek dictionary. We would look up the word and then know its meaning(s); unless Paul coined it, making a new word, a compound word, or else borrowed it and then gave to it a higher meaning in Christian theology, something done by him elsewhere. Not having such, researchers must look to Greek writings for instances where the word was used in order to help discover its etymology and meaning(s). How early or late in Greek history do we find the word? Is it a Greek word that describes something that is Hebrew, Greek, or Roman? Though Greek, was the word, or concept behind the word, borrowed from another culture and language? Did it mean "adoption" at the time Paul used it?
Paul's use of a Greek word does not warrant thinking that the idea or concept behind the word was necessarily Greek. Paul wrote in Greek words to describe things that were either Hebrew, Greek, or Roman (Latin). Paul was a translator himself, choosing Greek words that conveyed the meaning of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Latin words.
Who is Paul's audience in the three epistles where he speaks of "the huiothesia"? Are the Christian congregations in Ephesus, Galatia, and Rome, to whom Paul speaks about "the huiothesia," Jewish, Gentile (Greek, Roman, etc.), or a combination of each? We can reasonably assume that Paul's Christian audience, in the above named epistles, were familiar, to some degree at least, with what was meant by "the huiothesia." It is doubtful that he was introducing to them something entirely new by the term. I will show, however, that in the three epistles where Paul spoke of "son placing" that Paul is speaking chiefly to Jews and Jewish Christians and speaks in the language of Jewish laws and customs.
By "ἡ υἱοθεσία" ("the huiothesia") Paul is not alluding to a Greek or Roman practice, but to a Hebrew (even though Greeks and Romans had something similar, as we will see). This is evident from how Paul uses the word in the several contexts mentioned. In what respects an Hebrew "huiothesia" differed from a Greek or Roman "huiothesia" will also be studied. Paul is very clear in settling this matter for us when he says that to "Israelites" belong "ἡ υἱοθεσία" ("the son placing"), not to Greeks or Romans (Romans 9: 4), that is, to "Gentiles."
It is admitted by all researchers on the ancient meaning of "huiothesia" that the occurrences of its use are not only rare in Scripture but also in Greek writings. From these occurrences in Greek writings not much can be learned for certain about how the word was understood by people in the time of Paul. This does not mean, however, that we cannot discover what Paul had in mind. How Paul uses the word in the five instances mentioned furnish enough evidence to give a fairly good definition of the term and of what Paul had in mind by it. For this reason, we will first examine Paul's use of the word before looking at its use outside of the writings of Paul.
As I stated in the Introduction, "the adoption of sons" is a faulty and misleading translation and is the reason for most of the confusion on this subject. Truly, in this case, the "devil is in the definition." It is also a case where the "most scholars" argument, a form of the ad hominem argument, or argument from majority opinion, is invalid, for surely they got it wrong in this case. With this in mind, let us first look at the literal meaning of the word.
The literal meaning of "huiothesia"
Strong says on " ":
"...from a presumed compound of huios and a derivative of tithēmi; the placing as a son..."
I don't know of any Greek translator who would deny that literally "huios" means "son" and "thesia" means to place, set, put, lay, etc. Had the translators who wrongly chose "adoption" translated literally as "son placing," it would have been far better. With such a literal translation, the English reader would not only have been spared going into a wrong direction, and much confusion, but would have delved deeper into what is denoted by the idea of "son placing." With such a literal translation there would be little reason to think that the term referred to the common English idea of "adoption."
Not only the literal translation of the word, but the context of each of the five passages show us much about what Paul had in mind by the term. This, of course, is paramount, taking precedence over how the word may have been used by others in the Greek speaking world.
Putting or Placing Sons
It is not unusual to speak of certain kinds of adoption by use of words like "placing" or "putting." For instance, we may say of an orphan juvenile that he was "placed" in a foster home. Yet, it is not a word that parents of adopted children generally use when they speak of the legal act that makes a child their own. People say "we adopted a child" and do not say "we placed a child."
If we ponder what could possibly be meant by someone "placing" a "son," then our minds may think of many things. Fathers and mothers often "place" their sons. Likewise, children in general, son or daughter, at times may be said to be placed. Sometimes this is literally so, sometimes metaphorically so. Let us look at some examples.
"I put my son in school"
"I placed my son on my lap"
"My son was placed in charge"
In these examples there is both physical placing of a son but also the metaphorical, of being placed in a position of authority.
Notice this example of literal physical son placing in the old testament.
"Then Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives upon camels;" (Gen. 31:17; see also Exodus 4:20))
Here is an instance of literally placing of sons, but it is without signification.
When such a physical placing is in view then there are generally prepositions used to denote where the thing was placed, such as "placed upon," or "placed over," etc. Yet, in the five places where Paul uses the word there are no prepositions used, which fact points to "son placing" probably being a title for an event. It is like the word "enthronement." According to Webster it means "to seat in a place associated with a position of authority or influence," or to simply "place on the throne." But, the literal act is quite distinct from what is signified by the act. As will be shown, this son placing is a kind of enthronement, a time of "investiture" and "induction," which will occur with "solemn declaration" at the second coming of Christ and of "the redemption of the body."
Paul's son placing involves more than the mere placing of a person in a physical location. It is not mere physical placing that is in view, but what that son placing signifies. As we will see, "the huiothesia" is an event, and one significant of a change of status and position, the result of having been perfected.
In all these instances the thing being placed is passive. The son is not placing himself but is being placed by someone else. Movement is involved in the idea of putting, placing, or setting. One thing is here, literally or metaphorically, and then it is moved to another place. There is a change of location or position. If I move (or place myself) from one seat to another in a theatre, it is generally insignificant. But, if I move from a board room table from the seat of lessor executives to the head seat, this is both physical and significant. Who is it that places the son? The father is the one who places his son into this position, as we will see.
In the compound word Paul uses, does "son" modify "placing" (or 'placement'), or vice verso? Should we view the word as meaning "placed sons" or "son placement"? Doubtless, both ideas are true, though one was foremost in the mind of the apostle.
"Thesia" as stated, means to put or place, literally speaking. Yet, depending upon what is the thing being placed, more may be signified than a mere change of physical location. Oftentimes, the placing of certain things or persons into some position has great significance. Think of the word "install." When used in regard to persons, it signifies being placed in a new position of authority, especially with ceremony. If Paul is thinking of "thesia" in this respects, which is highly likely, then "son placing" involves the idea of sons being installed into their destined place of honor, glory, and ruling authority.
Not only the word "install" but the word "set" is also sometimes used instead of the simple words "place" or "put." Like the word "install," the word "set" often connotes much more than do the mere words "put" or "place," depending upon the nature of the thing being "set." People are "set" in office, meaning that they are "placed in office."
Paul's future "son placing" is no doubt more than the mere placing of resurrected saints, with their new bodies, into a certain physical place, but is significant of the final glorified position of the elect as full grown sons who are in every respect like their Father and one with him and the whole Trinity.
Notice these verses related to this. Some of them we may refer to later.
"But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself: the LORD will hear when I call unto him." (Psalm 4:3)
"Set apart" (Hebrew "palah") to be distinct, marked out, be separated, be distinguished
"I will set him in safety" (Psalm 12:5)
"Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee." (Psalm 2: 6,7; See also Isaiah 7: 6)
The Use Of The Compound Word
Why use the singular compound word "huiothesia" instead of two words? Why not keep "huios" a separate word from "tithemi"? Did Paul put these two words together himself to coin a new word? What does breaking down the compound word into two distinct words tell us?
"For the most frequent type of compounds, one component is the head (determining the grammatical properties of the compound) and the other the modifier (modifying the meaning of the head, usually by adding information). Examples: drugstore, workload, word form. A regular compound is a compound whose meaning can be derived by a general rule, e.g. teapot, but not butterfly. For types of compounds see argument compound, frame compound, synthetic compound, value compound."
("Compounding" by NIGEL FABB - SEE HERE)
Is "huiothesia" a regular compound word like "teapot" or is it more like the irregular word "butterfly"? Breaking apart the word "teapot" reveals all, but not so with words like "butterfly." You would not know what "butterfly" meant by simply breaking down the word. Unless someone tells you what it means or signifies, then you could not discover it. Consider the word "understand." Though broken down it is stand under, yet this is hardly the meaning.
Under "Structure and interpretation" Fabb wrote (emphasis mine):
"The meaning of a compound is usually to some extent compositional, though it is often not predictable. For example, popcorn is a kind of corn which pops; once you know the meaning, it is possible to see how the parts contribute to the whole – but if you do not know the meaning of the whole, you are not certain to guess it by looking at the meaning of the parts. This lack of predictability arises mainly from two characteristics of compounds: (a) compounds are subject to processes of semantic drift, which can include metonymy, so that a redhead is a person who has red hair; (b) there are many possible semantic relations between the parts in a compound, as between the parts in a sentence, but unlike a sentence, in a compound, case, prepositions and structural position are not available to clarify the semantic relation."
Compound words are plentiful in the Greek new testament, and this presented both opportunity and challenge for translators. To think that any given group of English translators will always get such compounds right is fool hearty.
In "A Treatise on the Grammar of New Testament Greek, In SECTION XVI. FORMATION OF DERIVATIVE AND COMPOUND WORDS (SEE HERE) we read these words:
"The N. T. contains a number of words not used by Greek authors, which were either derived from the spoken language, or were newly coined: we find most examples of the latter class in the writings of Paul. The more numerous such words are, the more necessary is it to compare the established laws of derivation in Greek with these formations peculiar to the N. T."
Thus, it is entirely possible that the Apostle Paul gave to "huiothesia" a new or enlarged usage and meaning, using it to refer to something that was Hebrew first and foremost, but what was also akin to other "rites of passage" in other cultures in regard to reaching adulthood or manhood.