Abraham is “our” Father according to the flesh?

I’ve been listening to Romans 4 in audio and it suddenly occurred to me that the common translation of Romans 4.1 must be wrong. I’m not going to be stubborn if someone can prove otherwise, but as much as one can tell from listening or reading Romans 4, the first statement in the first verse makes no sense at all.

What does Paul say in Romans 4? He refers to “our father Abraham” (v. 12) and to “Abraham, who is the father of us all” (v. 16).

Is Paul writing exclusively to Jews? No. The Church in Rome is predominately though not exclusively Gentile. But Abraham is, by faith, the covenant ancestor of both Jews and Gentiles:

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised…

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the one of the law but also to the one [who is not of the law but] who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations

I’ve been selective because I thought it would be awkward to simply post all of Romans 4, but read it at your leisure and you will see it is all about how Abraham is our forefather because we share his faith so that we are in one covenant with him and we inherit his promises just as we are his promised inheritance.

What Paul emphatically denies is that only Jews are the heirs of Abraham and exclusively the members of the covenant: “Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” And later:

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the ones of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.

The promise would have to be void if only Jews were included because the promise was explicitly that Abraham would be the father of many nations, not only one.

So how on earth could this argument begin with a casual reference to Abraham as “our father according to the flesh”?

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? (NASB)

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? (ESV)

That makes no kind of sense at all! It contradicts the whole point. How could Paul say that Abraham is “our father”–both of Jews and Gentiles–according to the flesh?

There is another translation that has been offered by Richard Hays.

What then shall we say? Do we find that Abraham is our forefather according to the flesh?

I haven’t found the paper so I can’t give any opinion on the Greek. But unless someone can show me that his translation is impossible, it has to be right. It works. The other does the opposite of work–it works against everything Paul says. Not only does it lead into Romans 4 but it leads out of the previous paragraph:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

What then shall we say? Do we find that Abraham is our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

I’d love to know if anyone has seen an argument against Hays’ proposal.

Here are a couple of related posts I have found on the translation of Romans 4.1:

3 thoughts on “Abraham is “our” Father according to the flesh?

  1. Sam H

    Couple of thoughts here. The KJV has it:

    (Rom 4:1) “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?”

    “as pertaining to the flesh”…that it, (the flesh,) doesn’t avail as to being “a true Jew, as below:

    (Rom 2:28-29) “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: {29} But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”

    Or, as below, he is the forefather of the uncircumcised too, he was a “Gentile” “in the flesh” when he came to faith:

    (Rom 4:10) “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!”

    So he is a “father” after the “flesh” to all Gentiles

    Another thought is that Abraham was another “Adam,” like in 1 Cor 15:

    (1 Cor 15:45-49) “And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. {46} Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. {47} The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. {48} As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. {49} And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.”

    He is a father of “flesh” (human) that exemplified the faith that would come through the true “Father” who would be “spiritual”

  2. Mom/Ruth

    NTW’s translation in _Paul for Everyone – Romans: Part One_ is similar to the one Hays uses:

    “What shall we say, then? Have we found Abraham to be our ancestor in a human, fleshly sense?”

  3. Daniel

    Both translations are technically possible. Abraham is in the accusative and the verb is an infinitive. So Abraham could be the subject or the object of the verb.

    I think that the observation that “What shall we then?” is often a precursor to a second question makes Hays’ translation very attractive.


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