In the Bible we encounter kissing between rulers and subjects (2 Sam 15:5; Ps 2:12), between a host and his guest (Luke 7:45), and between close friends (1 Sam 20:41), but in both the Bible and Greco-Roman society kissing was most commonly practiced between relatives (see Song of Solomon 8:1). In its first-century context, then, the “holy kiss” was a transgressive act:
“In the early years of Christianity, followers of Jesus were noted for kissing each other (probably, though not necessarily, on the lips) and for making the exchange of such greetings a part of their public liturgy. Paul’s emphasis that this greeting was to be a ‘holy kiss’ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:14) makes clear that nothing erotic was implied. Still, the practice was a novel one. … [T]here does not appear to have been any precedent in Jewish or Greco-Roman society for kissing between men and women who were not either relatives … or lovers.” - Mark Allan Powell summarizing Michael Philip Penn*When slaves and their owners, gentiles and Jews, and males and females in Paul’s churches kissed each other, they enacted family unity, demonstrating to themselves and others that they really were brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one body. If the goal of translation is to convey the—in this case shocking—effect of the original, NLT’s “Greet each other with Christian love” fails miserably. I am not proposing that churches today should add a literal “holy kiss” into their order of service, but they should probably have the chance to be exposed to what Paul actually said so that they can reflect on what an analogous contemporary practice might look like. (If you are like me, such reflection is unsettling.)
Alongside the kiss was the early Christian practice of addressing fellow believers as “brothers.” Unfortunately, readers of the NIV, NLT and other dynamic equivalence translations will sometimes miss the import of this speech act. I have no objection to replacing the Greek word for “brothers” with the gender neutral “brothers and sisters,” but when translators substitute the less cumbersome “believers,” the family connotations of the underlying Greek expression are lost—and these connotations are hugely significant both for the meaning of the term and its effect on those among whom it was used.
In the early Jewish book of Tobit, for example, marriage makes husband and wife “brother” and “sister” (7:12)—if, that is, marriage is kept in the family. Tobias addresses his new bride Sarah as “sister” (8:4) after he dutifully followed his father’s instruction to choose a wife from among his brothers, just like Abraham and the patriarchs (4:12; 6:16). In Tobit, the family ultimately includes all Israelites, who as descendants from Abraham are “brothers” (e.g., 1:3, 10, 16). The marriage between Sarah and her close relative, Tobias, is emblematic of a concern in the book to promote endogamy within the larger family of Israel and prohibit intermarriage with gentiles.
In 1 Maccabees, “brothers” frequently denotes those faithful Israelites who stood with Judas and his literal brothers (e.g., 1 Macc 2:40-41; 5:32). It is true that later in the book, Jonathan and the “assembly of the Jews” address the Spartans as “brothers,” but this exceptional usage proves the rule, for the Spartans explain in their reply that they had discovered that both Jews and Spartans were descendants of Abraham (1 Macc 12:21). (With Christopher Jones**, I take it that the assertion of kinship was believed to be genuine, not just a rhetorical device.)
Despite differences in where they draw the boundaries, Tobit and 1 Maccabees illustrate a wider Jewish pattern of usage drawn from the Hebrew Bible, which can use “brother” to refer to any descendant of Israel (e.g., Deut 17:15).
Much like giving a kiss, then, Christians in Paul’s churches who addressed each other as “brother” or “sister” were signaling that they were family, insiders as opposed to outsiders. (I should add that even though the new Christian family reflected in Paul’s letters crossed ethnic boundaries, it was just as exclusive in its own way as the Jewish pattern from which it was derived.)
In the next post, I want to explore how “brother” is used as a form of address in Acts. There is, I think, a consistent pattern that is intentional, but also rather puzzling.
*Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 379, summarizing Michael Philip Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
**Christopher Prestige Jones, Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).