At the conclusion of the so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the father addresses his elder son, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine” (15:31 KJV). ‘Son’ has been the standard translation since Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (fourth century) translation of the Greek New Testament. But the Greek word teknon literally means a ‘child’. Of the sixty-two English translations available on BibleGateway, all but six use either ‘son’ or occasionally ‘my son.’ The other six versions use ‘child. Which one is correct, and does it make a difference?
Teknon in Greek means a young person from birth to adolescence and is glossed as ‘child’ or ‘children’ in the plural. Normally it has no gender (neuter), but context can indicate gender, especially if it is a boy. The plural of teknon frequently appears in the stereotyped phrase ‘children and women.’ This combination indicates the word’s low social status. Children and women are only slightly above slaves and way below sons and men. Social status reflects the construction of gender. Women and children are viewed as deviant males (See After Jesus Before Christianity, pp. 117-20).
When Jerome translated the Greek teknon with the Latin filius, he made a logical deduction that the father was addressing his son. In the proper context, son is an acceptable translation of teknon.
This translation is not without problems, however. A parallel proves illustrative. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Thecla’s mother—in her effort to persuade her daughter to resist Paul—addresses her, “Child, why are you sitting looking downcast and making no answer?” (3:10). ‘Daughter’ could be a possible translation, but ‘child’ is clearly better, for Thecla’s mother is not appealing to her as her daughter, that is as one adult to another, but is claiming her authority over her child. She is saying, “As your mother, you child must obey me.”
The problem with ‘son’ in Luke
The Lucan parable uses exact terminology. The parable begins with, “A man had two sons” (15:11), with the normal word for ‘son,’ meaning two heirs. Then immediately the narrator says, “…the younger of them.” A father, two sons, one of whom is younger, indicate a hierarchy in the male dominated world of the first century.
The first half of this parable deals with the younger son, who flees his family and squanders his inheritance, but the father welcomes him back.
The second part of the parable turns to the elder son, who challenges and rejects the father’s acceptance of the younger son—“this son of yours”—back into the family. He basically claims, you love him more than me. In a shame/honor culture like the first century Mediterranean, the elder son’s challenge and rejection of his father is profound and demands a response. Otherwise, the father would be shamed and lose his honor.
Christian tradition has provided such a response by expanding upon clues provided by the narrator’s introduction to the three parables in Luke 15. “Now the toll collectors and sinners kept crowding around Jesus so they could hear him. But the Pharisees and the scholars would complain to each other, ‘This guy welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (15:1-2). This has led to an allegorical and supersessionist interpretation of the parable in which the younger son is the Christian (i.e., us) and the elder son is rejected Israel. This interpretation is clearly anachronistic and the father’s concluding statement, as we will see, overturns such an interpretation.
The father’s role
Does the father address his elder son as ‘son’ or ‘child’? Both are possible translations, but their meanings are different. Son would mean the father is addressing his heir and that aspect surely is in play. He says, “all that is mine, is yours,” which means that the elder son will inherit everything. Therefore, there will be no new division of the inheritance. The elder son is going to get it all; the younger son gets nothing.
This plays havoc with the traditional supersessionist interpretation of the parable. If the elder son (the rejected Jews) is to inherit everything, what happens to the younger son? One readily sees why the tradition prefers the title ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son,’ which shifts the emphasis to the younger son and by a sleight of hand hides the elder son and the father’s actual conclusion—“all that is mine is yours.”
Calling the elder son ‘child’ is problematic both in Greek and English. In the example from Paul and Thecla, Thecla’s mother is angry and is trying to assert authority over her child. Throughout this parable the father has violated the standards of behavior expected of a man.
When he sees the younger son approaching in the distance, he runs, embraces, and kisses him. Dignified men don’t do this. He asks for no sign of repentance on the part of the younger son before welcoming him home and throwing an extravagant party. When the elder son refuses to come into the party, the father does not send two goons out to force him to come in, but he himself comes out to plead with his elder son.
Jesus teaching a different kind of father and son
Unlike Thecla’s mother, this father approaches both his sons in a loving and forgiving way, abandoning the requirements of his male honor. After the elder son verbally abuses him, he says, “child, you are always with me.” The father will bridge any gap between him and his children. The elder is not simply a son; he is the father’s child, in our language his baby. In the terms of first century cultural expectations, the observant reader will notice that this father is playing the role of a mother.
Now that is a parable for you, a world turned upside down.