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Important Studies of Kinship-terms and Forms of Address

August 22, 2014

Through reading the recently-published thesis of one of our PhD students, I’ve learned of a body of important studies on terms used in the NT by Professor Eleanor Dickey.   Such is the canalization of modern scholarship (and my own limits) that I hadn’t previously known of these studies, but I think they’re essential for exegetes and commentators on NT writings.  A blog posting won’t allow space to do justice to all that her work offers, so I’ll confine myself to a few comments.

Let’s start with her book based on her DPhil thesis:   Eleanor Dickey, Greek Forms of Address: From Herodotus to Lucian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996).  In this work she analyses the use of terms (other than proper names) used in ancient Greek letters to address recipients.  This is of obvious relevance to NT studies given that a number of NT writings are letters.  We’re better enabled to weigh the manners in which people are addressed in the NT letters in light of what Dickey provides.

Next, this one:  Eleanor Dickey, “KYRIE, ΔΕΣΠΟΤΑ, DOMINE: Greek Politeness in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 121 (2001): 1-11.  Both κυριε (the vocative form of κυριος = sir/lord/master) and δεσποτα (vocative of δεσποτης = master/lord/owner) are used in the NT, esp. in narratives and reported speech, and Dickey’s study, attentive to changes across ancient centuries, gives important data for weighing what these terms of address mean in NT instances.

And then this one:  Eleanor Dickey, “Literal and Extended Use of Kinship Terms in Documentary Papyri,” Mnemosyne 57 (2004):  131-76.  This impressively data-rich study covers usage of various Greek kinship terms across several centuries:  The Greek words for “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “son,” and “daughter.”  The analysis focuses on how/when these terms were used “literally” (i.e., referring to actual family members) and when they were used in an “extended” or “metaphorical” sense, for individuals not physically related to the speaker/writer.

This study seems to me particularly important for serious readers/interpreters of NT  writings, where we often have individuals referred to with these terms.  Just note, for example, Paul’s use of various kinship terms in Philemon, none of which seems to be used in a “literal” sense.  Dickey gives reason for caution, for example, in assuming that simply referring to someone as a “brother” connoted an intimate or close personal relationship.  The use of the term in Roman-era documentary texts clearly shows that this is not necessarily the case.  There are a number of other specific observations in this article that simply must be noted by exegetes.

Finally, this one:  Eleanor Dickey, “The Greek Address System of the Roman Period and Its Relationship to Latin,” Classical Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2004):  494-527.  In this essay she makes a strong case for the proposal that in the Roman period the Greek terms used for addressees developed under the impact of Latin.  Of specific relevance for NT studies, she shows that the vocative form of “kyrios” (kyrie) seems to appear quite suddenly in documentary papyri of the Roman period, and she proposes that this happened as Greek-speakers developed this address-form as a functional equivalent for the Latin “domine“.

Now, on this particular point, I’m not (yet) entirely satisfied that she has adequately reckoned with the use of the vocative, kyrie, in the Septuagint (LXX).  This would pre-date the Roman period, of course.  Her response is that the LXX is something of a special case, as a translation-text (from the Hebrew and Aramaic), whereas she’s focused on the evidence of “documentary” texts (esp. letters).

But the counter-point is that the LXX likely reflects the use of Semitic-language equivalents for “kyrie,” and this may have been an additional factor promoting the formation and usage of “kyrie.”  But this question can’t be engaged adequately here, and, whatever may be the case, her article is a “must” read for serious NT exegetes.

Oh, and the published PhD thesis that led me to Dickey’s work is this one (which I also highly recommend):  Julia A. Snyder, Language and Identity in Ancient Narratives, WUNT 2, no. 370 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).

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10 Comments
  1. Dwight Gingrich permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. I have noticed in the past that the term “brother” is used in different ways in the NT.

    For example, I sometimes hear people argue that if the term “brother” is used as an address or a description in a NT letter, then the person being addressed or described must be considered part of the Christian community. For example, see Paul’s instruction “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother,” in 2 Thessalonians 3:15. Some people conclude without any reflection that the mere presence of the term “brother” proves that the person under discipline is certainly still part of the church.

    However, I have also noticed that in other contexts Paul seems to use the term “brother” much more loosely. For example, in Acts 22:1 Paul (as recorded by Luke) addresses a mob of Jews who were trying to kill him as “Brothers and fathers.” Here his use of the term clearly does not indicate share membership in the church. More likely it (1) indicates shared membership in the Jewish nation and (2) expresses Paul’s attempts to win an ear from his audience by showing them respect.

    Returning to 2 Thessalonians 3, I have to conclude that either that (1) context proves that Paul is indeed using the term “brother” here to refer specifically to a believer or (2) his use of the term “brother” here is more ambiguous, reflecting rather a desire (as in Acts 22) to show grace and love to the person he is describing. I tend to think the second option is more likely–or at least that the first option is unsure. It seems that Paul’s use of the phrase “as a brother” in 2 Thessalonians might also indicate the uncertain status of someone facing church discipline (perhaps similar to his term “so-called brother” in 1 Corinthians 5?).

    All that to say “thank you” for pointing us to resources that may help us address such questions.

    • Dwight: First, note that Acts is written by one author, not Paul. So, you shouldn’t confuse the texts. Second, as commentators have noted for many years, “brother(s)” can be used for various types of relationships. Finally, the sentence and context is the crucial indicator of how the term is being used in any given instance. I won’t here engage the texts you mention. I simply want to stress the methodological point.

      • Dwight Gingrich permalink

        Thanks for responding. I agree with your comments. (I had mentioned that Acts was written by someone other than Paul and was deliberately not confusing the texts.)

        My point was that some important commentators (I was unclear and just said “people”) have concluded simply from the presence of the word “brother” that the person under discipline in 2 Thessalonians 3 was still part of the Christian community. Gene L. Green does this in his Pillar commentary, where he writes, “This designation [“a brother”], which appears repeatedly in these letters…, marks him out as one who is part of the Christian family.” Other commentators on this verse (such as Gregory K. Beale in his IVPNT volume) have sometimes been wise enough to know that we can’t make such a certain deduction on such slender lexical evidence; the status of the person is uncertain. In this case the question can have significant ramifications for what implications we draw from this text for current church discipline practices.

  2. Useful stuff.

    My own academic and other writing tends to be rather more speculative than the present material. But I am always based on the best strict scholarship available, when it is relevant. The above is therefore the sort of material that I very much like to scan – and put into my bibliography, when it seems relevant.

    Currently to be sure, I’m mostly interested in much earlier material on the names of various “lords,” in still other languages than Greek. Still, the current material would relate to the ongoing debate on “James the Brother of Jesus,” of course. The question there being whether “brother” is literal or figurative. Or which James is which, out of 5 or 6 possibilities.

    I’m not sure that the current reference directly addresses the sticking point of the current debate. In which many claim that the Greek uses a rather unique or specific form for “brother.” One that it is asserted – if not proved – only refers to literal biological brothers. (Cf. Mat. 13.55, Gal. 1.19 etc.; cf. James 1.1, Jude 1.1; Mark 1.19 etc.?). However, your indication of the importance of semantic context is perhaps more useful.

    My feeling there backs one of your major points, particularly on semantic context. It seems that the NT deliberately poses Jesus asking “who” are his real brothers and sisters. And then, significantly, it presents Jesus deliberately metaphoricalizing all that, in the critical passage (Mat. 12.48, Mark 3.33-5, Luke 8.19-21?). Jesus there is being presented with persons called his family. But then he is then shown responding that such things don’t matter; that his family is composed of his followers. (Rather as Jesus also metaphoricalized “neighbors” elsewhere).

    Semantic/pragmatic context is indeed, everything. As you correctly note.

    • I would say that the texts cited present Jesus as widening the scope of people who are “neighbours”, and re-defining familial terms (brother, sister, mother) in the Gospel texts cited. And, by the way, there isn’t a different form of the Greek word “brother”: The same word is used with different referents depending on context.

  3. Does Dickey’s work shed any light on Jesus’ address to his mother as “Woman” in John?

    • I don’t recall mention of this text or the term “woman” as a term of address.

    • It’s in some translations at least: John 19.26. It would be relevant here.

      “Women” were not regarded as the highest authorities in many ancient societies. Generalizing Mary into “woman” would therefore 1) on the one hand seem to limit the authority of the particular referent: Jesus’ biological source. In this passage, Mary 2) at the same time conversely becomes a symbol of general womanhood; and “mother” to any follower.

      In both cases, the particular is generalized into the larger generic class. Or the literal, into the figurative.

  4. Jim permalink

    Now I wouldn’t be able to recognize a Greek manuscript from antiquity even if it bit me in the butt. But I do have a knack for picking out a minor point on a blog and asking a question on it, and hope that this minor question isn’t too far out of order.

    My question is related to Eleanor Dickey’s 2004 article in Mnemosyne (I have no access to journals), and you had brought up the example of “Paul’s use of various kinship terms in Philemon, none of which seems to be used in a “literal” sense.” Based on Dickey’s work, would the use of the kinship phrase “Lord’s brother” in Gal 1.19 be clearly referring to “biological/familial brother” rather than the non-literal/general sense of brother as referring to other Jesus followers?

    This might be useful ammunition in say … an argument with mythicists.:)
    Thanks in advance.

    • Jim: Dickey’s studies are I think directly relevant. For one thing, she observes that when kinship terms are used in letters referring to the relationship of one person to another person other than sender or recipient, the kinship term usually seems to designate an actual family relationship. So, in Gal 1:19, this fits: Two “third-party” people, James and “the Lord”, as “brothers”. Which suggests strongly an actual family relationship.
      But the still larger relevance/lesson of Dickey’s studies is that they demonstrate a point I’ve tried to make again and again: Words don’t typically have fixed,inherent specific meanings, but a range of possible meanings, and they acquire a specific meaning in a given sentence. It’s the SENTENCE that’s the crucial semantic unit, not the word. So, in Gal 1:19, the sentence suggests strongly a real relationship between Jesus and James. Textual scholars really MUST acquaint themselves with basic principles of semantics.

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