Would someone who knows Greek well give me a little help?

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Posted: Tue, Oct 16 2012 3:20 PM

What kinship terms does Koine Greek use for half-brother?

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Hapax Legomena | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Oct 16 2012 4:05 PM


3. The Meanings of “Brother” in the NT

Even within the NT, if we prescind from the disputed case of “the brothers of the Lord,” there is no clear use of the Greek word adelphos (“brother”) to mean precisely “cousin.” The various meanings of adelphos in the NT can be boiled down to two basic senses: literal and metaphorical.

(1) First and foremost, adelphos is used literally to mean a blood brother, either a full brother or a half brother (i.e., with one common biological parent). (a) The clear cases of “full brother” are so manifest that there is no need to belabor the point. Suffice it to note that when Mark, in 1:29–30, introduces us to James, his brother (adelphon) John, and their father Zebedee, it never crosses the mind of any exegete or theologian to claim that James and John are really cousins and Zebedee is really their stepfather or uncle. Why an exegete, operating purely on philological and historical grounds, should judge differently in Mark 6:3, where we hear that Jesus is the son of Mary and the brother (adelphos) of James, Joses, Jude, and Simon, is not clear.

(b) Interestingly, Mark also knows the use of adelphos to mean “half brother,” as seen in 6:17, where Philip is called the brother of Herod Antipas. Actually, exegetes dispute whether “Philip” in this text refers to Philip, Herod the Great’s son by Cleopatra of Jerusalem, or Herod “Philip,” Herod the Great’s son by Mariamme II.33 But the debate makes no difference to our point: “brother” in this text has to mean half brother, since Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great by still another wife, Malthace the Samaritan. Hence the blood bond was only through the common biological father, and so Philip (whoever he was) was the adelphos of Antipas in the sense of being a half brother.

(c) With “full brother” and “half brother” we exhaust the literal meaning of adelphos found in the NT—which is all the more surprising when we realize that the “literal” sense of “brother” could be fairly broad in the extended families of the ancient world. For example, koine Greek outside the NT knows of wider uses of adelphos to signify various relationships of blood and law: e.g., the stylized use of “brother” applied to one’s husband, sometimes in an incestuous relationship, or the use of “brother” by a father writing to his son.34 In addition, koine Greek knows the various metaphorical uses we shall examine below.

Still, one cannot avoid asking what is for us the pivotal question: What is the constant usage of the NT in this matter? The answer is clear: in the NT, adelphos, when used not merely figuratively or metaphorically but rather to designate some sort of physical or legal relationship, means only full or half brother, and nothing else. Outside of our disputed case, it never means stepbrother (the solution of Epiphanius), cousin (the solution of Jerome), or nephew. When one considers that adelphos (in either the literal or the metaphorical sense) is used a total of 343 times in the NT, the consistency of this “literal” usage is amazing. To ignore the strikingly constant usage of the NT in this regard, as well as the natural redactional sense of the Gospel passages we have already examined, and to appeal instead to the usage of koine Greek in various Jewish and pagan texts cannot help but look like special pleading.35

(2) Every other use of adelphos in the NT falls under the general rubric of a figurative or metaphorical sense. This covers all those cases where “brother” refers to some broad relationship that cannot be equated with the bond forged by direct blood relationship or marriage. Under this metaphorical sense come all those texts referring to followers of Jesus (e.g., Mark 3:35), fellow Christians in the early Church (e.g., 1 Cor 1:1; 5:11), fellow Jews (Acts 2:29 [more in a religious sense]; Rom 9:3 [more in an ethnic or national sense]), any neighbor (without a particular stress on a common religious or racial bond; e.g., Matt 7:3–5), and potentially any human being (Heb 2:11, 17). Obviously, the Gospel references to the brothers of Jesus do not fall into this category.

In short, the “cousin” approach of Jerome, like the “stepbrother” approach of Epiphanius, simply lacks sufficient philological basis in the usage of the NT.36 It is significant that, when contemporary exegetes such as Josef Blinzler and John McHugh37 have tried to defend something similar to Jerome’s position, but in updated versions, they have been constrained to adopt convoluted theories of relationships within the families of Joseph and Mary that simply cannot be verified. As with the Epiphanian solution, so with the cousin theory: what is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied.

Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Volume One, The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1991.

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Tue, Oct 16 2012 4:12 PM

Thank you That confirms what I thought was likely the case.

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Laurent Cleenewerck | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 5:50 PM

The reply above relies heavily on the flawed arguments presented by John Meier. They have been well-refuted by Richard Bauckham who aptly and decisively defends the Epiphanian view.

Here is a relevant quote from his article The brothers and sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian response to John P. Meier:

"Examining the use of [Adelphoi] in the NT, and prescinding from the disputed case of the brothers of Jesus, Meier claims that when the word is used literally of family relationships, not figuratively or metaphorically (e.g., of fellow Christians or fellow countrymen), it always means "full brother," except in one case (Matt 14:3 || Mark 6:17 || Luke 3:19), where it means "half brother." This he considers sufficient evidence to exclude the possibility that it can mean anything else in the case of the brothers of Jesus.

What is quite extraordinary is the assertion that the general NT usage of a word exclusively determines its meaning in particular instances in the NT, excluding meanings which are attested in literature outside the NT.[12] This is to treat the NT as though it were written in some kind of linguistic ghetto with a range of linguistic usage all its own, whereas, of course, it is obvious that NT writers were free to exploit whatever range of meaning a word had in their linguistic environment. When Paul wrote of the brothers of the Lord (Gal 1:19:1 Cor 9:5--the only two occurrences of [adelphoi] in a literal sense in Paul's writings), his meaning was not determined by the use of [adelphoi] in other NT writings, none of which were known to him. Of course. it is true that the early church developed its own semitechnical use of vocabulary for its own religious practices and ideas. The use of [adelphoi] to mean "fellow Christian" is an instance of this. But in the ordinary, literal use of [adelphoi] Christian writers participated in the common linguistic milieu of their Greek-speaking contemporaries. If [adelphoi] in that linguistic milieu could be used of family relationships other than full brother and half brother. then it could also be so used by NT writers. The fact that they generally used it in its most common sense of full brother cannot exclude the possibility of their using it in less common senses on particular occasions. Moreover, in relation to the meaning "stepbrother" which Meier thinks is excluded by the consistency of NT usage, this consistency would be "amazing" only if there were occasions on which NT writers referred to stepbrothers in other ways. Since it is unusual to refer to stepbrothers at all, there is nothing amazing about the NT writers' failure to use [adelphoi] in this sense outside the disputed case.

To realize how extraordinary Meier's argument is, we need only to notice the effect it would have if it were applied consistently to NT vocabulary. There are many Greek words which in the NT usually have one meaning but occasionally have another. Meier's principle would mean that this rare meaning, however well attested outside the NT, should not be allowed within the NT because the general usage of the NT (its amazing consistency) would exclude it. For example, [adelphoi] occurs 15 times in the NT, normally with the meaning "table." Just once, in Luke 19:23, it means "bank," according to all translators and exegetes, but Meier's principle would have to disallow this. To take another example, occurs 41 times in the NT, always with the meaning "end," except on three occasions when it means "tax" (Matt 17:25; Rom 13:7). This ratio of common meanings to rare ones (38 to 3) is much more unfavorable to the rare meaning than is the ratio of [adelphoi] in undisputed instances of the meanings "full brother" and "half brother" to [adelphoi] in the disputed instances referring to the brothers of Jesus (61 to 14). If in the latter case the general usage must determine the meaning in the remaining 14 instances, then how much more must the 38 instances of [adelphoi] in the sense of "end" require the same meaning in the remaining three instances.

It is probably unnecessary to labor the point that Meier's argument contradicts what nearly all translators and exegetes assume: that the range of use from which the meaning of a word in the NT must be chosen is the range of use in the language, not the range of use in the NT.

Some more specific comments are now required on Meier's claim that the Epiphanian view is disproved because there is no clear instance of the meaning "stepbrother" for [adelphoi] in the NT.

  • The point is that the Epiphanian view postulates Jesus' standing in the same kind of relationship to his brothers and sisters as he did to Joseph. If Luke can call Joseph Jesus' parent or father without implying blood relationship, then it is arbitrary to insist that reference to Jesus' brothers and sisters must imply blood relationship.

4. We have seen, in section 1 above, that "stepfather" is not really the appropriate term for Matthew's and Luke's view of Joseph's relationship to Jesus. since they understood Joseph to be Jesus' father in social reality and in law. i.e., in every, respect other than biological paternity, the idea of adoption comes much closer to what they envisage. On the Epiphanian view, Jesus' status as Joseph's adopted son makes him the brother of Joseph's natural children. The linguistic evidence shows that for the relationships created by adoption the ordinary Greek words for the corresponding natural relationships could be used.[16] This can be shown even from the NT, where Moses, understood to have been adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, is called her son (Acts. 7:21: Heb 11:24: [adelphoi]).[17] That [adelphoi] can be used for the relationship between natural and adopted children is shown by Paul's metaphorical use of the term to designate the relation between Jesus and Christians (Rom 8:29) in a context which makes it clear that Christians are adopted children of God (Rom 8:15, cf. 8:16-17)."

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 6:57 PM

Thank you - makes more sense

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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Doc B | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 7:11 PM

MJ. Smith:

Would someone who knows Greek...

To add a bit of levity to the discussion, I'll relate one of R. C. Sproul's favorite stories.

"Someone asked me if I knew a little Greek. I said, 'Yes, I know a little Greek. He's my tailor."

"I took my pants to him. He looked at them and said, 'Euripides?".

I said, "Yes I did."

He said, "Fine. Eimenides."


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Paul Strickert | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 7:14 PM

Meier responded with an article published in CBQ:  "On Retrojecting Later Questions from Later Texts: A Reply to Richard Bauckham."

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Paul N | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 7:22 PM


...now there's a four dollar word!

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Anthony | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 7:42 PM

Laurent Cleenewerck:

Welcome to the forums Laurent! ^_^

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GaoLu | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 11:09 PM

I am glad someone understands it.  And that people know enough about it  to retroject each other.  Even my spell check doesn't know that word, but I bet NASA does.

I realize I am way down the totem pole, but I am curious as a cat about why the arguments matter?  Just because it is there?  Nothing contentions please.

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Lee | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 11:16 PM

Retroject, as opposed to project. My vocabulary just got bigger.

As to the relevance of all this, here's a link.

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GaoLu | Forum Activity | Replied: Thu, Dec 4 2014 11:20 PM

I get it now.  Thanks, Lee.  

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Kevin Maples | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 5 2014 7:07 AM

Doc B:

"Someone asked me if I knew a little Greek. I said, 'Yes, I know a little Greek. He's my tailor."

"I took my pants to him. He looked at them and said, 'Euripides?".

I said, "Yes I did."

He said, "Fine. Eimenides."


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Kristin Dantzler | Forum Activity | Replied: Fri, Dec 5 2014 1:54 PM

I will be using this one.  Big Smile

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abondservant | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Dec 6 2014 2:52 PM

If its anything like modern asian subcontinent ideas of family then its going to be as confusing as all get out... 

I knew a girl who now calls herself my cousin-sister. She says her husband is my uncle-brother. She had a friend who is apparently now my auntie-sister. Her father, she says, is my father and her mother my auntie. Her mothers sister is my auntie-sister-cousin. Her Boss was directly my brother. 

There didn't seem to be rhyme or reason as to how or why this girl assigned familial relationships. I consulted with a consultant who said that "asian" familial relationships are overly complicated for one by close intermarriages, and for two by using familial terms as a sign of respect. He may really be an uncle, but because he was particularly dear he could be called brother. We do this to some extent in the US (ok, maybe just here in Florida). 

My fathers Nephew, who is my fathers age and was partially raised by my grandmother is called my uncle. Another cousin growing up that I was especially fond of who was 20 years my senior I also called uncle out of respect. Now, some of my cousins (from NC) have children that call me uncle as they are especially fond of me. So in a sense we do it as well. Just not as complicated. I would assume having not looked into it at all, or studied it beyond these cross cultural stories with a Pakistani family in another country that I lived with for a time, that it may not be this simple... But I suspect this cultural construct plays/played a role. 

L2 lvl4 (...) WORDsearch, L9

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MJ. Smith | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Dec 6 2014 3:13 PM

Kinship terms are an interesting study unto themselves. However, I need only to go back to my grandparents' generation to find a sufficiently high rate of death in chldbirth to render the terms step-mother and half-brother/sister unused unless clarity was actually needed. The impetus for my question was partially wondering whether the distinction between brother/half-brother would be generally stated or generally ignored.

My favorite "slaughtering" of actual relationships (which my father was very capable of being very precise on) was the man Dad called his 5th cousin - first cousin once-removed through his mother's lineage, second cousin once-removed through his father's lineage. You add them together and get a 5th cousin..

Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: "To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship."

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