Paul as the New Abraham

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. Written by Pamela Eisenbaum.

In Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1977), Krister Stendahl argued convincingly for dispensing with the notion of conversion as applied to Paul’s religious experience, and for substituting the “call” of Paul.1 Based on a compelling exegesis of Galatians 1, Stendahl demonstrated that Paul describes his “vision” of the risen Christ like the call narratives of the Hebrew prophets, particularly Jeremiah and Isaiah.2 Rather than seeing Paul’s missionary zeal as the consequence of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity (which did not yet exist as a definable religion), Stendahl demonstrated that Paul’s vision and his mission were inextricably linked from the start. The vision was, in fact, a call to proclaim the word of the Lord, like the prophets of old; the only difference was Paul’s message would be directed not to his fellow Jews, but rather to Gentiles. Paul believed it was time for the final in-gathering of the nations, and he was being called to help carry out the project. So persuasive wasStendahl that his interpretation became the dominant understanding of Paul’s religious experience and mission, at least among Anglo-American scholars. The “call” is often understood as foundational to the “new perspective” on Paul.

In recent years, however, Stendahl’s model has been challenged. Perhaps the most thoroughgoing challenge has come from Alan Segal. In Paul the Convert (1990), Segal revives the conversion model, although he develops a much more sophisticated notion of conversion based on sociological and anthropological studies. Segal conceives of Paul as converting not from Judaism to Christianity, but from one form of Judaism (Pharisaism) to another (belief in Jesus).3 For Segal, Paul’s switch from the former to the latter involved a radical transformation, a transformation not fully appreciated by Stendahl and the scholars who have followed his lead.

The work of Stendahl and Segal has, generally speaking, marked out the principal options in recent Pauline studies. In arguing against the classical Lutheran understanding of the radical discontinuity between Paul’s life before and after Christ, Stendahl had to emphasize strongly the continuity between Paul’s life as a Jewish Pharisee and his life after his “call.” Since Stendahl’s landmark work, however, a bifurcation has arisen in Pauline scholarship. In general, those who follow the call model tend to emphasize continuity in Paul’s life experience, while those who follow the conversion model tend to emphasize discontinuity. A correlation exists between, on the one hand, those who presuppose Stendahl’s call model and therefore interpret Paul’s theology and teachings as reflective of first-century Judaism and, on the other hand, those who presuppose some sort of conversion and thus understand Paul as fundamentally transformed and standing outside the bounds of Judaism.4

The issue of continuity in Paul’s religious identity between his earlier life as a Pharisee and his subsequent life in Christ arises because of the mixed messages that seem to come through in his letters. Paul obviously understands himself as a Jew, both before and after his call. As he says in Gal. 2:15, “We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” Statements such as this give a clear indication that Paul is just as Jewish after his call as before, and that his identity as a Jew distinguishes him from Gentiles. Yet, as many have shown, Paul speaks as if there is a huge disjuncture between his former life in Judaism and his life in Christ (Gal. 1:11-24; Phil. 3:7-8).5 The ambiguity present in Paul’s letters toward Judaism needs to be acknowledged. In Gal. 2:15, when he reminds his audience that he is a “Jew by birth,” does he use the modifying expression “by birth” (physei) in order to qualify his Jewishness, or does he mean it more as a boast? To put it in modern terms, is Paul simply saying he is a Jew ethnically but not religiously, or is he saying he is a Jew through and through?

I align myself with the new perspective on Paul, and in this chapter I wish to build on Stendahl’swork and that of other new perspective scholars, while at the same time taking seriously Segal’s critique. I will offer an alternative paradigm for understanding Paul’s experience of the revelation of Jesus and his religious identity. I believe Stendahl was right to use the language of “call,” but the call that best reflects the apostle’s experience is not so much the call of the classical prophets as it is the call of Abraham, a figure who embodies both Jew and non-Jew. In what follows I will argue that Paul implicitly understands himself as an Abrahamic figure who establishes a new kind of family, one made up of Jews and Gentiles. I will first describe how the call of Abraham resembles Paul’s mission and then explore who Abraham is for Paul in particular. It is my contention that the importance of Abraham for Paul is not as an example of faith to Gentiles. Rather, Abraham is apatrilineal ancestor who encompasses “many nations” and thus enables Jews and Gentiles to become kin. This understanding of Israel’s patriarch mirrors Paul’s self-understanding because Paul’s mission is to create kinship ties between Jews and Gentiles as joint members of the family of God, as Stendahl’s work on Romans has so ably demonstrated.6

Paul and Abraham Share a Calling

To paraphrase Gen. 12:1-3, Abraham is asked to leave his homeland and separate from his kin with the promise that God will make of him a great nation; he will be blessed and through him “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Broadly speaking, this is what happens to Paul. He experiences a divine call described literally as God’s revealing his son “in” him, though it is more typically translated “to” him (Gal. 1:15), which results in his migratory sojourn among foreign peoples, so that he might preach the message God has told him to preach.

To be sure, the biblical language of Abraham’s call is not present in Gal. 1:11-17, whereas the language of Jeremiah (1:4-5) or Isaiah (49:1-6), particularly regarding being set apart while in the womb, does appear. I do not wish to deny the resonance between the language of the prophets and that of Gal. 1:11-17, but I think that Paul’s overall transformative experience is more akin to Abraham than to Jeremiah or Isaiah. The fact that Paul uses Abraham as a model figure in two of his epistles suggests that we look to Abraham as a model for Paul’s own identity.7 Although Paul is certainly familiar with the prophets and quotes from both Jeremiah and Isaiah, Abraham is a personto Paul in a way that Jeremiah and Isaiah are not.

The description of events in Gal. 1:11-17 has two essential components: (1) God’s call (1:15) to Paul, which comes in the form of the revelation of his son and which presumably caused some sort of religious transformation, and (2) the commissioning of his task to go to the Gentiles, which results in the peripatetic existence that characterizes Paul’s life thereafter. Two similar components appear in the opening verses of Genesis 12: (1) Abraham is called by God to leave his home and family, though no details are given as to how God revealed himself, and (2) this event leads not only to the blessing of Abraham’s own family, but to the blessing of “all the families of the earth.” The second effectively constitutes what Paul calls God’s “promises” to Abraham. These promises are repeated and expanded as the story of the great patriarch moves along. Most significantly, God promises to give Abraham a land currently occupied by foreigners, the Canaanites, and to give Abraham a great progeny; Abraham will become the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17:2-6).

While narrative details clearly differ for Paul and Abraham, their biographies share a similar pattern. Both are called by God to a purpose that benefits not only them and their families, but also the rest of humanity. Both Paul and Abraham become alienated from their communities of origin as a result of their experience. In Abraham’s case, God literally calls him away from his family and kin; in Paul’s case, God’s call implicitly results in his alienation from the Jewish community of which he was once fully a part. Both Paul and Abraham become travelers among other peoples.

No doubt the call of Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3 is sketchy, but the portrait of Abraham popular in Paul’s time resembles Paul’s self-understanding in a more obvious way. Abraham’s call is widely understood to have meant rejection of his former way of life.8 Abraham turns from idolatry to worship of the one true God. In other words, Abraham is widely considered to be the first monotheist. Often this tradition includes a description of Abraham’s original family as idolatrous and thus the reason for Abraham’s separation from his people. Numerous texts can be mustered to illustrate this image of Abraham:9

And the child [Abraham] began to realize the errors of the land that everyone was going astray after graven images and after impurity … and he separated from his father so that he might not worship the idols with him. (Jub. 11.16-17)

And when all those inhabiting the land were being led astray after their [idols], Abraham believed in Me and was not led astray with them. (Pseudo-Philo, Liberantiquitatum biblicarum 23.5).

He thus became the first person to argue that there is a single God who is the creator of all things, and that whatever any of these other things contribute to the good of theworld, they are enabled to do so at His command, and not by any inherent force of their own. … Because of these ideas the Chaldeans and the other people ofMesopotamia rose up against him, and having resolved, in keeping with God’s will and with His help, to leave his home, he settled in the land of Canaan. (Josephus, Ant.1.154-57)

James Kugel argues that the tradition of Abraham as the first believer in the God of Israel may derive from Joshua:

And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Your ancestors lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and ofNahor; they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan.'” (24:2-3)10

Because Abraham’s story begins with his being called away from home and involves many years of journeying, Philo allegorized the patriarch’s life as the process of coming to ultimate enlightenment of the divine.11 The very same reason that Abraham can be claimed as the originary ancestor of Israel requires that Abraham also be recognized as having been transformed from one sort of person to another. In other words, if Abraham is the first Israelite, then Israelites did not exist prior to Abraham, thus Abraham cannot have originally been an Israelite; he must have been something else first. Indeed, both Philo and Josephus consider Abraham the first proselyte, because Abraham was originally a Gentile who entered into a covenant with God by being circumcised only as an adult.12 Furthermore, some ancient exegetes believed that Abraham came to monotheism through his precocious study of the stars, since the Chaldeans were famous for their skill at astronomy. In some strains of postbiblical tradition, the Israelite patriarch excels not only in the science of astronomy, but in wisdom and virtue generally, such that he becomes the mentor and teacher of other peoples like the Phoenicians and Egyptians.13

I do not wish to argue for Paul’s direct textual dependence upon any of the postbiblical sources cited above. Because the traditions I have cited appear in a wide variety of sources and are therefore commonplace understandings, it is virtually certain that Paul was familiar with at least some of them. Significantly, however, one scholar has recently demonstrated that the tradition of Abraham “as the one who rejected idolatry and astral worship in favor of the worship of the creator God” is evidenced in Romans 4.14 Obviously such an understanding of Abraham bears on the connection between Abraham and Gentiles that I will discuss momentarily. For now, I wish to emphasize that the notion of Abraham as one religiously transformed could well have functioned paradigmatically for Paul’s self-understanding. Abraham’s life as popularly conceived in Paul’s time constitutes the closest biblical paradigm to Paul’s experience. In other words, Abraham provides a model internal to Jewish tradition for a kind of religious transformation that results in sojourning among Gentiles and thus helps us to explain how Paul can sound so Jewish and yet so removed from his fellow Jews.

Just as Abraham is considered the quintessential hero whose divine call leads to his abandonment of a former way of life and wandering among foreign peoples who receive the benefit of his wisdom, so Paul can understand himself as fundamentally Jewish and yet transformed by his religious experience into someone who must go live abroad among foreign peoples and teach them God’s wisdom. Paul speaks of his “former life in Judaism” (Gal. 1:13), often in direct contrast to his subsequent life in Christ, from which he counts all that came before as a loss (Phil. 3:4-7). Paul may be Jewish but he no longer lives among Jews, partly because of his own mission and partly because of their hostility.15

Paul’s missionary travels not only alienate him from his home but also they are intended to benefit the other peoples (ethne) among whom he is destined to live. As Stendahl made clear, Paul’s central identity is as the apostle to the Gentiles. This we know not just from Gal. 1:11-17, but from many texts.16 In Gal. 1:23-24, Paul explicitly recalls how his religious experience has influenced other believers: “‘He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me.” Paul positions himself as a model, hence his frequent exhortation, “Be imitators of me,” to the non-Jewish peoples of the world in order to teach them how to be worshipers of the one true God.

Most important, Paul positions himself as a new kind of patriarch, capable of unifying the multitude of nations who are already potentially related to one another through Abraham. As I intend to show in the next section, Abraham is primarily father Abraham for Paul, as for most any other Jew. The difference, however, is that Paul emphasizes the biblical claim that Abraham was destined to become the father of a multitude of nations and not just the father of the Jews.17 Paul thinks of his preaching to the Gentiles as a kind of spiritual birthing process, as indicated by his frequent use of parental imagery for himself, as well as his persistent use of kinship terms.18 By his preaching, Paul makes willing Gentiles legitimate members of Abraham’s family, which is the equivalent of making them children of God, as Gal. 3:26-4:7 makes clear. By informing Gentiles of the blessings promised to Abraham and his seed, they become heirs of the divine promises, and Paul, as thebestower of the inheritance, has become their father. Insofar as Paul establishes this newly constituted family of God, Paul functions as a founding father, just like Abraham.

Abraham and the Gentiles

My argument that Paul thinks of himself as a kind of Abraham redivivus depends not only on Paul’s self-description but also on Paul’s particular understanding of Abraham, specifically, demonstrating that Paul understands the relationship between Abraham and believing Gentiles not as one of analogy but as one of kinship. The majority of scholars assume Abraham is an exemplary figure for Gentiles both in Galatians and Romans. Recently, however, some have begun to recognize that Abraham-as-ancestor may be more significant in Paul’s thinking than Abraham-as-example.19 As one writer avers, “The idea is that the Gentiles are blessed not simply like Abraham but because of Abraham. Abraham becomes the reason why Gentiles experience salvation, not the example of howan individual becomes saved.”20 To be sure, both letters introduce the discussion of Abraham with the famous quotation from Gen. 15:6 (“Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”), but both letters use it to make the point that Abraham’s righteousness is connected to his status as the great patriarch. Moreover, Paul argues that Christian believers can claim Abraham as their father and claim to be the rightful heirs of God’s promises to Abraham. In polemical terms, Abraham is not just the father of the Jews but of Gentile believers also, and not just metaphorically or spiritually speaking. Abraham is just as much the patriarch of believing Gentiles as he is of Jewish believers.

Scholars have observed that Paul sometimes describes Abraham and Gentiles similarly. For example, Paul essentially labels Abraham a “former idolater and polytheist” when in Rom. 4:5 he indirectly calls the patriarch “ungodly” (asbes), a word commonly used of Gentiles and which Paul himself uses to emphasize the idolatrous state of Gentiles in Rom. 1:18.21 Similarly, the beginning of Galatians 4 makes mention of “elemental spirits” (ta stoicheia tou kosmou; Gal. 4:3,9) to which Gentiles were once enslaved. Although there exists much speculation about exactly what Paul refers to here, it is likely that this is an allusion to Abraham’s attention to the stars prior to his conversion to monotheism. If so, Paul once again connects the Gentiles’ former lives to Abraham’s former life.22

While scholars take note of the descriptive connections between Abraham and Gentiles, they generally think of these connections as analogical and rhetorical. They argue that Paul manipulates his rhetoric so as to bolster his use of Abraham as an example of faith for Gentiles.23 Paul’s analogies between Abraham and Gentiles are not intended to prove a genetic or ancestral connection between the two. In contrast, I think the connections Paul makes are there to reinforce what he understands to be a relation of kinship, albeit one that needs to be formally acknowledged. People who are kin are supposed to be similar to one another; those who belong to the same family share important characteristics.24 The emphasis for Paul, however, both in Galatians and Romans, is not on the way Gentiles can be like Abraham if they emulate his faith; the emphasis is on their existing relatedness to him which they can now claim.

I do not have space for a detailed exegesis of Galatians 3 and Romans 4, Paul’s two lengthy discussions of Abraham, but I do want to highlight some texts, focusing particularly on those places where Paul refers to Abraham’s being the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5) who are blessed because of him (Gen. 12:3).

Because Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so you see, those descended of faith — they are the sons of Abraham. And scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the nations out of faith, proclaimed the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying “In you shall all the nations be blessed,” so that those who are descended of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. (Gal. 3:6-9)25

The NRSV translates oi ek pisteos, a phrase that occurs repeatedly in this context, as “those who believe,” and the RSV translates “men of faith.” These translations reflect the reigning assumption that the faith of individual believers is what counts for Paul, their faith should resemble the faith of Abraham, and by virtue of this similarity they can be called “sons of Abraham.” According to this view, the relationship between Gentiles and Abraham is one of affinity. The language of kinship is the rhetorical or metaphorical means of making this point.

In contrast, I translate oi ek pisteos as “those descended of faith,” because the preposition ekmeans “out of” or “derived from” and can be used for a person’s lineage.26 Since the focus of Paul’s concern here is defining who the true children of Abraham are, using language of descent is appropriate. If Paul meant to say “those who believe” are children of Abraham, he would not have used the phrase oi ek pisteos.27 But he would most likely have used the active participle, oipisteuontes, or some equivalent, as he does elsewhere.28 Rather, ek consistently connotes origins or derivation and points toward the source of something, and Paul’s usage is no different. Thus, ekpisteos means that “faith,” at least in this case, does not refer to the personal interior belief of an individual but to an external source of faith from which one derives benefit. Being a descendant of Abraham entitles one to certain benefits, namely, receiving the blessings as God promised, as Paul reminds his audience in verse 8. Therefore, it is not the believers’ own faith to which Paul refers in this passage, but most likely Abraham’s faith. This interpretation is corroborated by Rom. 4:16, where the expression to ek pisteos Abraam appears, which I translate “those descended from the faith of Abraham.”29

Just what does it mean to be descended from the faith of Abraham? I believe the answer can be found in Rom. 4:16-22, which happens to be the other place where Paul quotes Genesis to illustrate Abraham’s ancestral connection to the nations:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise will be guaranteed according to grace to all his descendants, not only to those who are descended from law, but also to those descended from the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. As it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righeousness.”30

Here Paul makes clear that Abraham’s quintessential act of faith is the conception of Isaac. Therefore, those who are “descended of faith” are those born of Abraham through Isaac. To be sure, Abraham is considered faithful in general, and many other of his actions could be labeled faithful, but this particular procreative act counts as the faithful act second only to Christ’s act of faith because it aids God in fulfilling God’ promises.31 Abraham’s act of faith is to start a family on behalf of God; he produces offspring that bear God’s blessing. Put another way, Abraham’s act of faith provides God with heirs which, by the way, is exactly what Paul thinks he is doing.

What’s more, the heirs include “the nations.” Although it was not commonly emphasized, it was not unusual for Jewish interpreters to mention Abraham being the father of Gentiles.32 In some cases, Abraham was understood to be the ancestor of certain Gentiles to whom Jews could then claim a kinship relation.33 What is unusual, however, is that Paul explicitly connects the promise that Abraham will be the father of many nations to the conception of Isaac. Although this linkage is unprecedented, it makes exegetical sense, since the biblical story indicates that the promise for multitudinous progeny and heirs is fulfilled, at least initially, with the birth of Isaac. For Paul, Abraham’s act of faith gives birth to Jewish and gentile heirs; it marks the beginning of a line of descendants who will fulfill God’s promises.

The similarity between Romans and Galatians with regard to Abraham being the father of Jews and Gentiles means that Paul’s claim in Gal. 3:29 that the Gentiles are “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” need not be seen only as a metaphor in his argument with the Jewish-Christian teachers at Galatia, who purportedly claim that the Galatians need to be circumcised to belong to Abraham. I think Paul thinks the Galatians are just as much the offspring of Abraham as are Jews.34

Both Jews and gentile believers are descendants of Abraham, but their Abrahamic inheritance is dependent upon being properly “adopted.” Contrary to popular belief, Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans does not assume Jews are biological descendants (kata sarka), while Gentiles become descendants by “adoption” (uiothesia). He uses the term explicitly of Jews in Rom. 4:9: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption.” When Paul speaks of uiothesia, he does not wish to emphasize the Gentiles’ lack of physiological connection to Abraham. He simply means that the Gentiles are now in the process of claiming their inheritance, whereas Jews have already received it. The term mans “to become a son,” with all the rights and privileges thereof.35 Having the claim of inheritance to one’s father’s estate is of far greater significance in determining familial status than mere biology.36

Part of the reason that the conception of Isaac is so important as Abraham’s act of faith is that Paul understands the story as evidence that the claim to God’s promises is required for descendants to be recognized as true heirs. As Paul says:

For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “it is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” (Rom. 9:6-9)

“Children of promise” are Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, those born by God’s action, and not merely human procreation. The problem with unbelieving Jews from Paul’s point of view is that, while they were fully informed claimants to their divine inheritance through Abraham, they are now rejecting it. The problem with Gentiles is that they have not previously had a chance to claim their inheritance. That is where Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, comes in. As a “descendant of Abraham,” one who already holds claim to the inheritance, Paul can declare Gentiles part of Abraham’s legitimate offspring, able to grant them their rightful inheritance as “heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29).

Paul makes clear that Abraham’s family never was constituted kata sarka, but by means of spiritual descent, which is not dependent on biological birth and blood relations, but which is nevertheless a bona fide lineage. Turning again to Romans 4, I translate verse 1: “What shall we say? Have we found Abraham to be our forefather according to the flesh?”37 The inferred answer is, of course, no! Paul’s point is that physical descent does not make one a rightful child or heir. The same point is implicit in Paul’s allegory of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4. Any Jews who consider themselves descendants of Abraham do not hold this privilege by virtue of physical descent; otherwise, Abraham’s children by Hagar would be counted as heirs along with Sarah’s, which neither Paul nor any other Jews of his time believed to be the case. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 can be summarized as follows: If a Jew’s status before God is not dependent on biological lineage, then surely such lineage is not required for Gentiles either.38

Paul, Abraham, and the Gentiles

Virtually ubiquitous in current scholarship on Paul, at least for those who subscribe to the new perspective, is that the apostle wished to break down the barriers that divide people, specifically the barrier between Jews and Gentiles.39 The essence of the new perspective on this question looks something like this: Paul as a Hellenistic Jew followed monotheism to its logical conclusion.40Believing in the divine impartiality of God, and as a result of his experience of the risen Christ, Paul was led to abandon the idea of Israel’s uniqueness in the pursuit of theological and anthropological universalism. Jews “by birth” no longer hold the privileges they once held. Paul spiritualizes the understanding of Israel, so that anyone who has faith, Jew or Gentile, can be part of Israel. According to this view, genealogy no longer counts in the makeup of one’s identity. As one scholar has put it, Paul renders “all genealogies irrelevant.”41

I, too, believe Paul’s project consists in his trying to construct, or perhaps reconstruct, a single family made up of Jews and Gentiles. But, in contrast to others, I do not think Paul devalues genealogy; rather he restructures genealogical lines in order to reconfigure the boundaries that unite and divide people. As a Hellenistic Jew Paul knows implicitly that one’s genealogy is notcoterminus with biology.

Biology is never the sole factor in determining kinship relations. Social processes, such as marriage and adoption, always aid in the construction of family and genealogy, though such processes are manifest in as many different ways as there are different cultures. Cultures that construct genealogies through the patriline, that is, exclusively through the father’s line extending back to a single male ancestor, tend to depend upon social structures even more. As sociologist Nancy Jay has shown, paternity must be explicitly constructed, since it cannot be observed; but, because it is constructed, it is a more flexible form of genealogical identity.42 Usually, focus on a single male ancestor is designed to provide society with a coherent social identity. Furthermore, concern forpatriliny appears most frequently in those societies in which families are part of more extended and complex kin groups, for example, clans, tribes, and where the transfer of property needs conscious attention.43

Claiming to be the descendants of Abraham, as Jews had done for centuries prior to Paul, was likely not taken as literally by the Jews of Paul’s time as modern scholars often think. Rather, the focus on Abraham and patrilineal genealogies linking Jews to him probably indicates some anxiety about the fluid boundaries of Israel as a people and the need to establish a coherent identity. Several reasons can be adduced to support this assertion. First, by this time, the possibility of conversion already exists.44 Since a person can become a member of the Jewish community, and since the Jewish community collectively understands itself as descended of Abraham, one not biologically related to Abraham can be made into a descendant and a legitimate heir of theAbrahamic promies.45 Second, some scholars have recently argued that circumcision constitutes a blood sacrifice by which men lay claim to their sons as members of God’s covenant people, much as Jay describes. Indeed, if Jews saw themselves as automatically legitimate descendants of Abraham, why perform the rite of circumcision, which includes the blessing, “Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by his commandments, and commanded us to admit him [the child] to the covenant of Abraham our father”?46 It seems fairly clear that circumcision gave a Jewish father the ability to make his son a descendant of Abraham, rather than having to depend on a preexisting biological condition.47 I imagine this symbolic function became even more important once Jewish identity was established by the matrilineal principle. Finally, there is evidence in both ancient Jewish and Christian circles that men could claim powers of reproduction through the dissemination of religious instruction, rather than through fertility. HowardEilberg-Schwartz, who quotes from an array of rabbinic texts, says the following:

Rabbis fathered “children” through the teaching of Torah. As the learning of Torah emerged as the paridigmatic religious act in the rabbinic community, it absorbed the symbolic capital which had earlier been invested in procreation. Concerns about reproduction and lineage were symbolically extended from the human body to Torah knowledge itself.48

Like the rabbis, Christians could understand their preaching and the making of converts as an alternate form of reproduction. Such an understanding is implicit in the oft-recited claim that Christians “are made, not born.”49 Christian asceticism led to the high valuation of virginity and sexual abstinence, along with the consequent devaluation of physical reproduction.50 Yet Christians kept increasing their numbers. I contend that this attitude, namely the procreative use of teaching and preaching to increase numbers, is implicitly present in Paul. After all, as Eilberg-Schwartz has ably demonstrated, because the Jewish God did not create by copulation with a consort but rather through speech, and because of the common association made between creation and procreation, seeing the procreative potential of human speech is not much of a leap.51

Paul makes that leap in Rom. 4:17. In his description of the conception of Isaac, Paul refers to God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Paul here draws an explicit connection between God as creator and Abraham as procreator. Paul’s retelling of the conception of Isaac in Rom. 4:17-22 (quoted earlier) is ethereal and devoid of sexuality. By describing Abraham’s body as being “as good as dead,” Paul removes any image of virility that might connote sexual activity. He paints a picture of the conception as a faithful enactment of the divine promise, which makes it into an entirely mental endeavor on Abraham’s part: “he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God.” The point is not only to communicate that this procreative act is really a form of divine, and not fleshly, action but also to emphasize that lineage does not depend on biology.

In conclusion, Paul’s description of Abraham’s procreative act of faith mirrors his self-understanding as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul creates Abrahamic descendants not through biological reproduction but through his preaching and teaching. He is a verbal progenitor, struggling to “form” Christ in his gentile “children” (Gal. 4:19; 1 Cor. 4:14-15). Just before he begins his discussion of Abraham in Galatians, Paul says, “Does the one who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by faith that comes by hearing?” (Gal. 3:5).52 The NRSV translates the last phrase as “your believing what you heard,” which again places the emphasis on the believer’s personal faith. But it seems to me much more likely that the “faith that comes from hearing” refers to Paul (or, hypothetically, to any preacher of the gospel) transmitting information about the faith that has been enacted on their behalf, whether by Abraham or by Christ.53 More specifically, the “information” is really the divine promises God made originally to Abraham and by extension his family. As Paul says in Gal. 3:14, “that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Paul’s proclamation of the divine promises transmits the Abrahamic inheritance to those willing to hear it, and those who accept that inheritance are now Abraham’s heirs.54 Once Paul’s Gentiles become part of the lineage of Abraham, they not only receive God’s promises, they help God enact God’s promise to the great patriarch that he would become the “father of many nations.” And helping God to realize God’s promises is apparently what Paul really means by “faith.”

Postulating Abraham as Paul’s missionary model helps explain the seeming contradictions in Paul’s understanding of himself. The figure of Abraham could simultaneously serve as the ultimate symbol of Israel and the point of contact between Israel and the rest of the peoples of the world. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, never stopped being a Jew, but because his mission took him into foreign terrain, he came to understand what it means to be an “other,” so much so that he partly became an “other.”


JSNT = Journal for the Study of the New Testament
NovT = Novum Testamentum
NTS = New Testament Studies

SJT = Scottish Journal of Theology

1Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

2See esp. Jer. 1:4-5; Isa. 49:1-6.

3Although Segal frequently uses the language of Judaism and Christianity. See A. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

4Scholars in the continuity camp include John Gager, Lloyd Gaston, and Mark Nanos; those in the discontinuity camp include E.P. Sanders, Francis Watson, and Stephen Westerholm. New perspective scholars like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright fall somewhere in between, though see the critique of the new perspective by Nanos in The Mystery of Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 4-8.

5Segal, Paul the Convert, 117-33; A.J. Hultgren, “The Self-Definition of Paul and His Communities,”Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 56 (1991): 78-100.

6See most recently, Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

7Commentators frequently assume Paul made use of Abraham in his discussion in Galatians only because Paul’s opponents invoked the great patriarch as part of their argument that the Galatians needed to be circumcised. J.L. Martyn is one of the most articulate defenders of this position; see “A Law-Observant Mission to the Gentiles: The Background of Galatians,” SJT 38 (1985): 307-24, reprinted in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997). Some have made a similar kind of argument for Paul’s use of Abraham in Romans; see the discussion of J.S.Silker, Disinheriting the Jews: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox, 1991), 52-76. I do not wish to dispute such claims in this essay, but my emphasis here is on Paul’s perduring understanding of Abraham, apart from polemics. Much of my case depends upon an image of Abraham that would have been shared by various Jews (as well as god-fearers and proselytes). As J.M.G. Barclay has pointed out, it is quite likely that Paul shared much of the same vision of Abraham as the rival teachers, even if such commonality is obscured by the polemic about circumcision (“Mirror-Reading in a Polemical Letter: Galatians as a Test Case,”JSNT 31 [1987]: 73-93).

8The characterization of Abraham in early Judaism is rich and varied, as surveys of the subject have shown, extending far beyond what I have covered here. Abraham was known for his hospitality, for having been given apocalyptic insights about the future of human beings, for having been an intermediary between God and others, and, perhaps most famously, for his faithful obedience to God. Because these qualities are either too generic or commonly attributed to other biblical figures, they are not terribly useful for my purposes in this essay.

9James Kugel has collected many examples of postscriptural texts illustrating various facets of Abraham’s call in The Bible as It Was (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1997), 133-48. The translations from the pseudepigraphic texts quoted here are his.

10Ibid., 133-34.

11See Migration of Abraham and On Abraham 71.

12See Philo, Virt. 212-17; Josephus, Ant. 1.7; 2.159-60. Abraham must be at least seventy-five years of age, which is how old he is when he leaves Haran, according to Gen. 12:4.

13See the quotations of Pseudo-Epolemus and Artapanus in Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 9.17.3-4, 9.18.1; as well as Josephus, Ant. 1.167-68.

14Edward Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience: Textual Links between Romans 1 and 4,” JSNT 65 (1997):55.

15Cf. Segal, Paul the Convert, 122: “Paul recommends for everyone conversion to a life of spiritual transformation, not a life defined by ceremonial obligations. In so doing he takes the part of the gentile Christian community in which he lives. Paul’s constant theme of the opposition of faith and law is a social and political justification for a new variety of community. It matches the opposition between Jewish and gentile Christianity.” Of course, I do not think Paul universalizes his religious transformation and therefore expects it of others. Rather, if Paul models his religious transformation on Abraham, as I argue, then such transformation plays a unique role for him in his particular mission. Furthermore, it binds people of different sorts together, instead of separating them from one another.

16E.g., Gal. 2:1-10; Rom. 1:1-6,13; 15:15-21.

17Although many ancient Jewish interpreters explicitly recognize that Paul is the father of many nations, this aspect of Abraham’s identity more often than not lay dormant in Jewish exegesis. See W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994), 166-77.

18See, e.g., Gal. 4:19; 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Thess. 2:11. Although Paul’s use of kinship terms is most often understood metaphorically, I believe such terms are theologically and socially significant.

19See the excellent discussion of Stanley Stowers in Rereading Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 227-50. Stowers points out that people who are kin are also expected to manifest the same characteristics as their ancestors, which may render the contrast between Abraham-as-example and Abraham-as-ancestor ultimately meaningless.

20Michael Cranford, “Abraham in Romans 4: The Father of All Who Believe,” NTS 41 (1995): 73, italics his.

21Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience,” 59. A similar observation is made by James Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 205.

22Cf. Wis. 13:15 and see the discussion by J.L. Martyn, Galatians, AB (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 399-400.

23In addition to those already listed, see Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986), 136-42.

24That is, no doubt, why some Hellenistic and rabbinic authors were compelled to say that Abraham observed Torah, even though he lived long before Sinai. Since Jewish law is seen by such authors as essential to Jewish identity, they could not imagine that their ancestral patriarch did not observe Torah. See, e.g., Sir. 44:20.

25Translation is mine, based on the NRSV.

26Cf. John 1:13 and especially Rom. 1:3, ek spermatos David, translated in the NRSV as descended from David. See also the discussion in Stowers, Rereading Romans (225-26, 237-43), who finds that “[t]he article with ek is well known in Greek as a way of denoting origins, participation, and membership” (240). He cites Lucian, Vit. Auct. 43 as an example. AlthoughStowers’s discussion focuses on Romans 3-4, not on Galatians 3, and I would probably not agree on all exegetical points in both texts, his work with regard to this issue is foundational to my own.

27Cf. Segal (Paul the Convert, 119), who translates the phrase “those who are under faith, a phrase defining his audience sociologically, describing how they entered Christian community.” I do not see, however, that such connotations are implicit in the preposition ek.

28Cf. Rom. 3:22, 4:11.

29My claim about Abraham resembles debates about whether pistis Christou is a subjective or objective genitive, whether one is justified by Christ’s own faithful act on the cross, or by one’s own faith in Christ. See Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation into the Narrative Substructure of Gal. 3:1-4:11 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1983).

30I have again modified the NRSV.

31Cf. Stowers, Rereading Romans, 230,243.

32Even Ben Sira, who fundamentally thinks of Abraham as the father of the Jewish nation, introduces the patriarch by calling him “The great father of a multitude of nations.”

33In 1 Macc. 12:21 and Josephus, Ant. 12.226, Jews and Spartans are said to be related because both are descended from Abraham.

34Cf. Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 144. My work is very much indebted to Boyarin’s, but my reading of Galatians 3 differs markedly form his.

35Cf. Paul’s use of the term in Rom. 8:14-15.

36This is evident from Paul himself when he says in Gal. 4:7: “So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.” See also Carolyn Osiek, “Galatians,” in Women’s Biblical Commentary, ed. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster / John Knox, 1998), 424.

37Cf. Richard Hays, “Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather according to the Flesh? A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1,” NovT (1985): 79-86.

38See Cranford, “Abraham in Romans 4,” 75.

39As N.T. Wright says, “The presupposition of Paul’s argument is that, if there is one God — the foundation of all Jewish belief — there must be one people of God. Were there to be two or more peoples, the whole theological scheme would lapse back into some sort of paganism, with each tribe or race possessing its own national deities” (The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992], 170).

40As Paul says in Rom. 3:29, “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes of Gentiles also….”

41Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 228. To be fair, he qualifies this comment later on the same page by stating, “Thus although Paul repudiates genealogy as the defining feature of the Christian community, he does not totally eliminate it. Jews by birth retain an identifiable status with distinctive practices.”

42See Meyer Fortes, “The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups,” American Anthropologist 55 (1953): 25-34.

43Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), xxiv, 34.

44I follow the opinion of Shaye Cohen that conversion most likely originates in the Maccabeanperiod (The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999], 109-39). Certainly by Paul’s time, we have a great deal of evidence attesting to the existence of proselytes (proselyte essentially functions as the Greek term for a convert to Judaism).

45I realize the claim that proselytes are as much descended of Abraham as native-born Jews is not unproblematic, given the well-known mishnaic text that claims that Jews cannot say “O God of our fathers” when reciting prayers (m. Bik. 1.4). At the same time, the Talmud declares the convert to be “like an Israelite in all respects” (b. Yebam. 47b). As Cohen argues (Beginnings of Jewishness,154-74, 324-40), proselytes form a lower caste within the Jewish community, even as they are theoretically full members of the Jewish community. However, that proselytes were sometimes treated as second-class citizens is not altogether different from Paul’s understanding of Gentiles in Christ. On the one hand, Paul claims there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, and yet he also claims that the Jews are special, possessed of certain privileges. In both cases, one who shares no kinship relations becomes officially integrated into the kin group, even if initially the awareness that the person has other origins cannot be ignored. This problem, however, seems to be overcome within a generation. As Cohen argues, the rabbis seem to regard the progeny of proselytes (assuming marriage to a Jewish woman) no longer as proselytes but as Jews, who in fact now have Jewish fathers.

46See the discussion by L. Hoffman, Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 64-154. The quotation of the blessing is taken from Hoffman’s detailed description of the rite of circumcision (70).

47Cf. Roman society, the paterfamilias can reject a biological child if he so chooses. Conversely, he can fully adopt one to whom he has no biological relation and make him heir to his property. In traditional Roman religion, the paterfamilias must ritually recognize his own child in order for that child to be recognized legally and socially as a member of the family.

48Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, 212-13.

49See, e.g., Tertullian, Apology, 3.1.18.

50The fifth-Century Syrian Christian Aphrahat gives evidence that Jews charged Christians with abrogating God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, because they valued sexual abstinence so highly. From their perspective, however, Christians were multiplying their numbers, even if not always through sexual reproduction. See the discussion in D. Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 7,141.

51See Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus, esp. 199-242.

52Another modification of the NRSV which reads, “Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?”

53Cf. Rom. 10:14-17.

54The analogy of the will in Gal. 3:15-18 is therefore most appropriate.

From Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation(Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International), 2000, pp. 130-145. Reprinted by permission.

Written by
Guest Author

This post was written by a Logos guest author. Logos Bible Software helps pastors, scholars, and other Christians get more out of their Bible study.

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Guest Author
Help us improve Word by Word
This is default text for notification bar