Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

What does it mean to use “heir” as a theological concept rather than a legal one?

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December 25, 2022

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

I have argued in the previous commentary that the Pastoral Epistles weave together clear, practical, instructional injunctions addressed to specific members of the communities and general kerygmatic theological comments. Here we have another example: in this case, the theological focus is on a balance between “good works” and the gratuitous action of the Divine. The author here relies on the topos of “grace” that activates righteousness in the believer and makes an heir of eternal life. The chapter starts with general instructions for community members to be obedient and submissive to the civil authorities. The clarity of the instructions leaves little room for ambiguity: the author is invested in creating a communal dynamic at peace with its cultural surroundings. I have also argued that such new development in Christianity is likely due to the institutionalization process: as the church moves from charismatic modes of authority to institutional ones, leadership is likely concerned with reinforcing inward strength by not conflicting with their surroundings. 

This pericope continues with the previous text’s emphasis on “good works.” There is a pacifying drive designed against tendencies to entertain quarrels and controversies about the law. It is not clear what the author might mean by law or genealogies, but most likely, the text seeks to thwart internecine fights that would raise suspicions among outsiders. If this were the case, the proselytizing efforts of the community would be curtailed. We perceive how Christian identity has shifted from an anti-cultural leaning to an assimilationist tendency. Therefore, we can see how, at least, the Pauline corpus moves from a certain unawareness about boundary limits to a very clear emphasis on inside/outside borders. 

Here I would like to briefly zoom in on a concept often neglected in theological reflection, both as it appears in the New Testament and subsequent exegesis. What does it actually mean to be an “heir”? More specifically, what does it mean to use “heir” as a theological concept rather than a legal one? In its literal sense, to be an heir involves being entitled to someone else’s assets, usually one’s progenitor, although not exclusively. Inheritance laws regulate, distinctly in different places and times, who, where, when, what, and why someone becomes heir. In the Roman world, it was usually the first-born male who was entitled to his father’s possessions, but all kinds of possessions were contemplated. The idea is that wealth remains in the family. It is also this reason, property management, which explains why laws about marriage were codified in detail. 

In the New Testament the notion of inheritance is both important and secondary. In the Gospels, it only appears in the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:38; Mark 12:7; Luke 20:14). Here the evangelists establish a contrast between the landlord’s slaves and the true heir to make the point that condemnation of those who do not recognize the new covenant are doomed. By way of analogy, one could say that the parables identify the heir’s son with Jesus, sent by his father. The gospels do not explicitly equate Jesus as the heir of God, but through this parable, one could make the theological argument that given that Jesus is the son of God, he is also his heir. 

In Paul, the “heir” topic comes in Romans 4 when Paul argues that Abraham becomes an heir not through the Law but through righteousness. Most notably, the notion of inheritance plays a crucial role in Galatians 4 where Paul equates the figure of the believer to a son (and not a slave) who inherits his father’s property. Here Paul makes it clear that enslavement precludes inheritance, although the meaning of both terms depends on whether we understand them literally or metaphorically (see my commentary on Romans 4). In Hebrews, “heir” is applied to Christ, as God’s heir (Hebrews 1:2) but also to Noah (Hebrews 11:7) and to the heirs of the promise in (Hebrews 6:17). James (2:5) mentions the poor as the heirs of the kingdom. 

The notion of inheritance, as Carolyn Hodge has powerfully argued1, relies on the flexibility of native conceptions of family: on the one hand, inheritance relied on blood-based genealogies. On the other hand, the notion of “fictive kinship” stretched to show how supposedly biologically-based notions could become metaphors with real-life implications. It is such flexibility that allows Paul to graft non-Jewish Jesus believers onto Abraham’s promise. 

This same principle about fictive kinship operates in Titus 3:7. The text does not clarify exactly what the believer becomes heir of: “according to the hope of eternal life,” what is it that the believer inherits? The promise? A role in the covenant? Eternal life? The kingdom? All of these are possible interpretations but the text leaves us with no definite answer. Instead, I would suggest, contemporary believers should be more attuned to underlying assumptions of such concepts, particularly in a text where enslavement figures so prominently. 

At the literal level, “inheritance” affects slaves and free citizens very differently. Slaves cannot inherit anything but enslavement itself. This is not to say that slaves did not inherit the kingdom in the author’s mind. To the contrary, the New Testament is unequivocal about slaves’ participation in God’s salvation. The theological argument about inheritance relies on two assumptions: first, the argument works because the concept is both literal and metaphorical. Put differently, to be an “heir” in theological terms means that, through reference to “fictive” kinship, we become inheritors of a divine promise. Second, the argument presumes the notion of the free citizen with property and citizenship. This clarification is important because preachers/theologians have tended to portray early Christianity as an inclusive movement invested in erasing class and gender differences. In this case, Titus operates at the theological level (“we might have a part in the heritage, the hope of eternal life” 3:7), but it is incumbent upon us to remember that the figure of the slave, the one who cannot inherit, stays in the background. 


  1. Caroline Johnson Hodge, If Sons, then Heirs: a study of kinship and ethnicity in the Letters of Paul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).