In order correctly to understand the concept of “inheritance” – kleronomeo (v.), kleronomia (n.), and kleronomos (heirs) – in the New Testament, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are here confronted with three different cultures – Hebrew, Greek, and Roman – none of which correspond directly to our own, or to each other. An exhaustive treatment of these is obviously not in the purview of this study: for more detail, I found the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), and Gibbon’s classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire most helpful. I will recount here only a few salient points.
In all three, as in many other ancient cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the obligations and debts of the deceased. Accordingly, it was not uncommon for a prospective heir to renounce or abandon his heritage. In Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son to be legally adopted by another, in which case the debt “died” with the father.
Adopted sons shared equal status with natural ones. Since inheritance was patrilineal, adoption involved only the husband. A wife could have her own property, but it was treated entirely separately.
Only a Roman citizen could execute or receive bequest from a will. If a slave was to be a beneficiary, his freedom had to be granted first, in the legal document.
In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the obligation of an heir was similar, but the (even more ancient) principle of primogeniture was also observed, although this convention could be abrogated by the father, as it was in the case of Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, or Ephraim and Manasseh. The firstborn (prototokos) was entitled to a “double portion”of the estate: it was divided into one part more than the total number of sons, and the firstborn received two such portions – but also double the responsibility, not only for the debt or other obligations of the father, but also for the welfare and support of the rest of the family. In the absence of a firstborn son, a servant might be considered the heir (see Gen.15:2,3).
It is significant to note that the Hebrew emphasis on the firstborn was not unique. In fact, it represented a very humane departure from surrounding cultures, some of which demanded a fertility rite of burning one’s firstborn son in sacrifice to the gods! (Lv.18:21, 20:3,4).
The Greek culture, here as in other areas, was considerably more lenient. All the sons of a family were considered equal, and entitled to equal portions. Daughters, too, could be included at the discretion of their brothers. In the other groups, daughters received a dowry, but not an inheritance, except with special dispensation as in Num.27. Please also see the treatment of “sons” in the essay, “The Task of a Translator.”
The English readers’ understanding of the situation is further complicated by the occasional alternative use of the word diatheke. Liddell/Scott defined this word, as does the writer to the Hebrews, as a legal will, which takes effect upon the death of the testator (Heb.9:15-20). The concept became confused by the consistent use of the term in the LXX to refer to the several “covenants” that God had instituted with his people. L/S lists only a single classical use of diatheke as a covenant, by the dramatist Aristophanes, but notes that it is “frequent in LXX”. One is made to wonder, then: did the LXX translators in the third century BC deliberately depart from the primary meaning of the word? Or did their subsequent interpreters misunderstand? It is true that the concept of “blood covenant” is not unique to cultures with an Old Testament heritage; but neither is it the primary translation of diatheke. A legal will has no necessary connection with the killing of either an animal or a person. It does, however, have no force until the death of the testator is duly certified (Heb.9:16).
Perhaps the traditional translators recognized that problem when they used “covenant” 20 x for diatheke, and “testament” 19 x. But using different translations for the same word compounds, rather than solving, misunderstanding. English usage, of course, still refers to one’s “last will and testament”. And perhaps we would do well to recognize that what we call the “Old Testament” or the “New Testament” (as in Jesus’ words in the “Last Supper”narratives), represents God’s repeated attempts to communicate his legacy to his intended heirs, and not just another in a long series of failed “covenants”. That would cast an interesting light on Stephen’s sermon (Ac.7), and the entire letter to the Hebrews, as both detail the many situations in which the original heirs had chosen to opt out of the responsibility portion of their legacy, while clinging tenaciously to the property / privilege!
Another word resembling, but not directly connected to the kleronomeo / kleronomia group (which etymologically include “nomos” – law, or legal), is kleros, classically translated as “a part or lot, or anything which is assigned by lot”, and later morphed into “a piece of land, farm, or estate; a legacy”. The LXX refers to Canaan having been divided “by lot”; and to various decisions made or officials appointed by the casting or drawing of “lots”, a procedure that is not fully explained (except by the fertile imagination of commentators!). Because of the connection to the inheritance of land, it was occasionally used of one’s heritage in other contexts (I Pet.5:3, Ac.1:17, 25); and because of the “choice” connection, it became a reference to gambling (the guards “casting lots” for Jesus’ robe – (Mt.27:35, Mk.15:24, Lk.23:34, Jn.19:24) or to the selection of Matthias (Ac.1:17-26), as well as a simple “share” or “portion” as in Ac.26:18, Col.1:12, Ac.8:21.
With this background, then, in the next post, we will move on to consider the unique New Testament usages of these different aspects of “inheritance”. The vocabulary treated here can help us to distinguish whether a reference is to the inheritance of a “firstborn” (prototokos), to lineal, birthright inheritance (kleronomia), to inheritance established by a duly certified will (diatheke), or simply to one’s share (kleros) of some commodity or partnership.
It is critical to remember that, in any case, inheritance involves responsibility, as well as privilege or possession, and that both acceptance and abrogation of one’s inheritance have serious consequences.