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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Heir Heritage Inheritance

1. Connotation of the terms used.-The words κληρονόμος, κληρονομία, κληρονομέω (derived from κλῆρος, ‘a portion’) have, like the Heb. verbs יָרַשׁ, נָחַל and their derivatives, which they render in the Septuagint , the idea of a possession rather than of a succession, i.e. of something obtained from another by gift (and not gained by oneself, κτῆμα) rather than of something that one has become possessed of through the death of another (see Westcott, Hebrews, 1889, p. 168). This is especially the case when Israel is regarded as the ‘heir’ of the land of Canaan; succession to the Canaanites is not prominent in the idea of this inheritance, for Israel inherited from God, not from the people of the land. In this sense κληρονομία is nearly equivalent to ‘the promise’; it, is a free gift from God-a fact emphasized in Acts 7:5, where Canaan is spoken of, and 20:32, where the ‘Christian promises are in question. We can trace in the OT (see Sanday-Headlam on Romans 8:17) the transitions of meaning, from the simple possession of Canaan to the permanent and assured possession, then to the secure possession won by Messiah, and so to all Messianic blessings.

On the other hand, the Latin heres with its derivatives, used by the Vulgate, being a weak form of χῆρος, ‘bereft,’ has the idea of succession; it means literally ‘an orphan,’ and so hints at the death of the father. The English ‘heir,’ derived from heres, usually suggests that the father is alive, and that the son has not yet come into possession; while the verb ‘to inherit’ and its derivative ‘inheritor’ usually suggest that the father is dead and that the son has come into possession. In all these English words the idea of ‘succession’ is prominent. We must, therefore, be careful to bear in mind that they are not quite equivalent to the Gr. and Heb. words, and that their connotation is slightly different.

It may, however, be noticed that when κληρονόμος, etc., are used in the most literal sense (see below, 3 (a)), the idea of succession is not altogether absent; it certainly is present when διαθήκη is used in the sense of ‘a will,’ as in Hebrews 9:15 f. (it is disputed whether in Galatians 3:15 ff. etc., it means ‘covenant’ or ‘will’: for the latter meaning see W. M. Ramsay, Galatians, 1899, p. 349ff.; also article Covenant). But it is obvious that where κληρονόμος is used of Israel’s inheritance in Canaan, or metaphorically of the Jewish and Christian promises of salvation (below, 3), the idea of succession must pass into the background, for the Heavenly Father does not die; and this fact causes the difficulty in the otherwise more natural interpretation of διαθήκη as a ‘testament’ or ‘will.’

The word κλῆρος in Acts 26:18 and Colossians 1:12 is rendered ‘inheritance’ in the Authorized Version and the Revised Version ; and in 1 Peter 5:3 κλῆροι is in the Authorized Version ‘[God’s] heritage,’ which is the same thing. In the latter passage the Revised Version renders ‘the charge allotted to you,’ i.e. the persons who are allotted to your care. It is easy to see how κλῆρος, ‘a lot,’ came to mean ‘that which is obtained by lot’ (Acts 1:17; Acts 8:21), and so ‘an inheritance’ with the connotation given above. In Colossians 1:12 the μερὶς τοῦ κλήρου is equivalent to the μερὶς τῆς κληρονομίας of Psalms 16:5. In Ephesians 1:11 ἐκληρώθημεν, which in the Authorized Version is rendered ‘we have obtained an inheritance’ (this appears to have no good justification), is translated in the Revised Version ‘we were made a heritage,’ i.e. ‘we have been chosen as God’s portion’ (J. A. Robinson, Ephesians, 1903, p. 34; for the metaphor see below, 3 (b)).

2. Laws of inheritance.-(a) According to Jewish law each son had an equal share, except that the eldest son had double the portion of the others (Deuteronomy 21:17). This law did not apply to a posthumous son, or in regard to the mothers property, or to gain that might have accrued since the father’s death (A. Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Edersheim).] 4 1887, ii, 243f. note). Thus the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11 ff.), if he had only one brother, would have received on his father’s death one third of the property. The father could not disinherit by will, but in his lifetime he could dispose of his property by gift as he liked, and so disinherit. Wills might be made in writing or orally (ib. p. 259). Daughters were excluded if there were sons; but if there were no sons, the daughter-or, presumably, daughters-inherited, failing whom brothers, failing whom father’s brothers, failing whom the next of kin (Numbers 27:8-11). This is later legislation, for at first daughters could not inherit; when they were allowed to become heiresses in the absence of sons, they married in their own tribe, so as to keep the inheritance within it (Numbers 36:2-13). In the ordinary case, however, where there were sons, the daughters would naturally marry into another family, and cease to belong to that of their father.

(b) The Roman and the Roman-Greek laws of inheritance considerably affected the NT language. St. Paul, writing to persons who would not be familiar with Jewish law, refers to customs and laws which they would at once understand. According to Roman law, sons must inherit, and a will leaving property away from sons was invalid (Ramsay, op. cit. p. 344). Sons and daughters inherited alike (Lightfoot on Galatians 4:7). Ramsay draws out the differences between strictly Roman law and the law in hellenized countries conquered by Rome, which was founded on Greek law: the Romans left much of the latter in force. According to Greek law, a son could be disinherited (Ramsay, p. 367). In Asia Minor and Athens a daughter could inherit, and an adopted son probably married the heiress (ib. pp. 340, 363). Daughters in Greek law had an indefeasible right to a dowry (ib. p. 367). A minor came of age at the time fixed by his father’s will; if there was no will, the law fixed the period of nonage, but the Greek (Seleucid) law differed from the Roman as to the period (ib. p. 392). See Roman Law.

These facts help us to understand some passages in St. Paul which speak of the connexion between sonship and heirship. In Romans 8:17, Galatians 3:29; Galatians 4:7 the latter is deduced from the former. We are God’s children, and therefore His heirs. ‘Thou art no longer a bondservant but a son; and if a son then an heir through God.’ ‘If ye are Christ’s then are ye Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.’ Or the sonship is deduced from the heirship; in Galatians 3:7 ‘they which be of faith’-who succeed, as heirs to Abraham’s faith [here the idea of succession may be faintly seen]-‘the same are sons of Abraham.’ In Colossians 3:24 bondservants are promised ‘the recompense of the inheritance,’ but this is because by becoming Christians they become the sons of God. Similarly in Hebrews 12:8, though the idea of inheritance is not explicitly mentioned, the promise (11:39) can be attained only by suffering (cf. below, 3 (f)); and if Christians refuse this, they are ‘bastards and not sons.’ Bastards cannot inherit the promise.

3. Usage in the NT.-(a) The words κληρονόμος, κληρονομία, etc., are used literally, as in the Parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12:7, Matthew 21:38, Luke 20:14), where, however, there is a metaphorical interpretation (see (c)); so in Luke 12:13, where Jesus is asked to divide the inheritance between two brothers, apparently to settle a dispute, and in Galatians 4:1, where the son, the heir, is as a servant during his nonage, though lord of all the property, the reference being to the Law and the Gospel. The words are also used literally in the NT of Canaan as the land of Promise; cf. Acts 7:5, where it is meant that Abraham did not actually enter into possession; and Hebrews 11:3 f., where Isaac and Jacob are fellow-heirs (συγκληρονόμοι) with Abraham; and Hebrews 12:17, where Esau failed to inherit the blessing. So in Galatians 4:30 (a quotation from Genesis 21:10) Ishmael, the son of the handmaid, may not inherit with Isaac, the son of the freewoman; this also is applied to the Law and the Gospel.

(b) From the literal sense the passage is easy to the metaphorical-the idea of the Messianic hope, Noah became ‘heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’ (Hebrews 11:7). Abraham was promised that he should be ‘heir of the world’ (Romans 4:13)-a passage which has given some difficulty to commentators, as there is no such promise explicitly made in the OT; the reference is probably to Genesis 12:3; Genesis 22:18 and similar passages: in Abraham’s seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed; cf. Genesis 18:18, and [of Isaac] Genesis 26:4. This promise is quoted in Acts 3:25 by St. Peter, and in Galatians 3:8 by St. Paul. The reference in Romans 4:13 can hardly be to the possession of Canaan, which would not be called ‘the world’ (see also (d) below). By a somewhat different figure Israel is said in the OT to be God’s inheritance or portion (Deuteronomy 9:26; Deuteronomy 9:29; Deuteronomy 32:9); and in the Septuagint addition at the end of Esther 4 the Jews are spoken of as ‘thy [God’s] original inheritance’ (τὴν ἐξ ἀρχῆς κληρονομίαν σου). Conversely, God is said to be the inheritance of the sons of Aaron or of the Levites (Numbers 18:20, Deuteronomy 10:9, etc.). In the sense of the ‘Messianic hope’ (as in the more literal sense of the possession of Canaan) the words ‘inheritance’ and ‘promise’ become almost identical, as in Galatians 3:18, Hebrews 6:17.

(c) The ‘promise’ is fulfilled by Jesus becoming incarnate. He describes Himself as the Heir in the Parable of the Vineyard. He is the Heir because He is the Son, the First-born, as opposed to the servants-i.e. the prophets. In Hebrews 1:2 Jesus is called the ‘heir of all things’ because He was the Instrument in creation through whom the Father made the worlds (τοὺς αἰῶνας). So in v. 4 He is said to have ‘inherited’ a more excellent name than the angels. The metaphor is doubtless based on Psalms 2:8 : the nations are given to Messiah as His inheritance (see Westcott, op. cit. p. 8).

(d) In Jesus, Christians are Abraham’s heirs, whether of Jewish or Gentile stock (Romans 4:9 ff.). They inherit Abraham’s faith, and are therefore his sons; the promise did not depend on Abraham’s circumcision, but was before it, though it was confirmed by it; nor was it dependent on the Law. Thus all nations are blessed in Abraham, and he is the heir of the world (see above (b)). In Ephesians 1:14 St. Paul uses in regard to Gentile Christians the very words which described Israel’s privilege: ‘promise,’ ‘inheritance,’ ‘emancipation,’ ‘possession’ (Robinson, op. cit. p. 36). By adoption we were made fellow-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), and a heritage (Ephesians 1:11). Gentiles are follow-heirs with Jews (Ephesians 3:6, Acts 26:18); and Christians are fellow-heirs together of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7)-e.g. husbands and wives are fellow-heirs because they are Christians. See article Adoption.

(e) The inheritance is described as ‘eternal life’ in Titus 3:7 (‘heirs according to the hope of eternal life’; cf. the Gospels: Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:17 [where || Matthew 19:18 substitutes ‘have’ for ‘inherit’], Luke 10:25; Luke 18:16); as ‘the kingdom’ in James 2:5, Ephesians 5:5 (‘kingdom of Christ and God’), and by inference in Colossians 1:12 f. (these seem to be founded on our Lord’s words recorded in Matthew 25:34, where the predestination, and the giving, of the kingdom are emphasized; cf. Daniel 7:27 and the Slavonic Secrets of Enoch, § 9 [‘for (the righteous) this place is prepared as an eternal inheritance’]). In Hebrews 1:14 the inheritance is ‘salvation,’ and so by inference in 1 Peter 1:4 f. In Hebrews 6:12 it is ‘the promises.’ In 1 Peter 3:7 it is the ‘grace of life,’ i.e. the gracious gift of eternal life (Alford, Bigg); in v. 9 it is ‘a blessing.’ It is the portion (κλῆρος) of the saints in light (Colossians 1:12), and is eternal (Hebrews 9:15), incorruptible, undefiled, unfading (1 Peter 1:4). With the NT idea of an ethical inheritance or portion we may compare Wisdom of Solomon 5:5, Sirach 4:13 (glory) Sirach 37:26 (confidence among his people), the Ethiopic Book of Enoch, lviii. 5 (the heritage of faith), Psalms of Solomon, 12:8 (inheritance of the promise of the Lord), 14:7 (life in cheerfulness).

(f) One condition of inheriting is self-denial (Matthew 19:29, where ‘receive’ of Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30 becomes ‘inherit’ when applied to ‘eternal life’). We are ‘joint-heirs with Christ, if so be that we suffer with [him]’ (Romans 8:17). We must imitate those who ‘through faith and patience inherit the promises’ (Hebrews 6:12); ‘he that overcometh shall inherit and become God’s son’ (Revelation 21:7 -the only instance in Rev. of κληρονομέω). Other conditions are meekness and humility (1 Peter 3:9, ‘not rendering evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but contrariwise blessing; for hereunto were ye called that ye should inherit a blessing’; cf. Matthew 5:5, Psalms 37:11) and sanctification (Acts 20:32). The inheritance is forfeited by self-indulgence (1 Corinthians 6:9 f., Galatians 5:21), and is not reached by ‘flesh and blood’ or by ‘corruption’ (1 Corinthians 15:50)-a spiritual regeneration is necessary for its attainment.

(g) In a real sense the inheritance is already entered upon.* [Note: the conception of the heavenly citizenship and eternal life having already begun in this world: Ephesians 2:19, John 5:24; John 17:3, 1 John 3:14; 1 John 5:12 f.] In Hebrews 6:12 the present participle κληρονομούντων is used: ‘those who are inheriting’ (the Vulgate has the future hereditabunt, but some old Lat. Manuscripts have the present potiuntur); so in 4:3 ‘we which have believed do enter-are now entering (εἰσερχόμεθα)-into that rest,’ not as Vulgate ingrediemur, ‘shall enter’ (see Westcott, op. cit. p. 95). The kingdom has already begun (Matthew 3:2, and the parables of ch. 13). Yet the inheritance will not be fully attained till the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:34). In Ephesians 1:14 St. Paul speaks of the sealing ‘with the Holy Spirit of promise’ as ‘an earnest (ἀρραβών) of our inheritance,’ and in the same contest (v. 18f.) uses language which shows that in some sense it is entered upon already (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:5). The same thing is seen in Colossians 1:12 f.; while in 3:24 the promise to Christian bondservants that they should receive from the Lord the ‘recompense of the inheritance’ rather points forward to the world to come. So in 1 Peter 1:4 f. the reference seems to be to the future: ‘an inheritance … reserved in heaven for you’ (so Bigg; but this is denied by Hort and von Soden). In this connexion we must be careful not to confuse our thought by connecting ‘inheritance’ with our own death, or the ‘death’ of this age. There is no idea here of ‘succession’ (see above, 1).

A. J. Maclean.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Heir Heritage Inheritance'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/h/heir-heritage-inheritance.html. 1906-1918.

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