Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rewriting Abraham

There is no question that Paul reworked the biblical traditions about Abraham to create a new identity for the people of God. According to Paul, Abraham has established a new kind of family, one made up of Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, Abraham is an ancestor who encompasses many nations and thus enables Jews and Gentiles to become kin.

According to Luke, Abraham is the primary recipient of God’s promise to the fathers. This theme of God’s promise is constant throughout Luke’s masterpiece. Nils Dahl commenting on Stephen’s Sermon wrote: “God’s word to Abraham is seen as the beginning of a history in which partial realizations are interconnected with new promises, until the coming of the Righteous One, of whom all the prophets spoke.” Stephen’s Sermon also indicated there was continuous resistance to the prophetic Holy Spirit.

Josephus recognized that the followers of Jesus had made Abraham an important person in their presentation of the gospel. Josephus also rewrote the biblical accounts of Abraham. Feldman indicated that Josephus was interested in demonstrating that Judaism had produced persons of accomplishments. Josephus wrote: “He was a person of great sagacity, both for understanding all things and persuading his hearers, and not mistaken in his opinions; for which reason he began to have higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and to change the opinion all men happened then to have concerning God; for he was the first that ventured to publish this notion, That there was but one God, the Creator of the universe; ...."

Josephus also had another concern: how to address the success of the followers of Jesus in the Diaspora? As noted earlier, King Saul is more important in the writings of Josephus than either David or Moses. Saul, of course is the name by which the Jewish community knows Paul. Since Josephus has targeted as his audience the Diaspora that was the same audience targeted by Paul with considerable success, we should consider how Josephus has presented the story of Abraham to his audience and its significance.

The monotheistic view of Abraham was important to both Paul and Josephus. Both Paul and Josephus relied upon the tradition of Abraham as the one who rejected idolatry and astral worship in favor of the creator God. This tradition found, inter alia, in Jubilees and Philo exalted the faith of Abraham in the one God as a revolutionary departure from Mesopotamian beliefs.

Josephus placed emphasis on the oneness of God which is seen in the “one holy city,” “one temple,” and “one altar.” For Josephus, the one God and one temple are the central themes of the Jewish law. Near the end of Book IV, Moses gives his last address to the people. His directives include, inter alia, the requirements that: the one city is to be chosen with one temple and one altar "And let there be neither an altar nor a temple in any other city; for God is but one, and the nation of the Hebrews is but one"; the people shall not blaspheme the gods of foreign cities or steal from their temples; they shall recite the shema twice daily and remember with thanksgiving the deliverance from Egypt; place a mezuzot on the doorpost and the men shall wear phlacteries.

Josephus expands the biblical accounts of Abraham recorded in Genesis 12-36 in two significant ways while proclaiming Abraham as “the one from whom the Hebrews sprang and to whom they owe their distinctiveness.” According to Josephus, Abraham ascertained the truth of monotheism from his observations of the movement of celestial bodies (Ant. 1.154-156). Secondly, Abraham introduced astronomy and mathematics to the Egyptians and hence to the Greek (Ant. 1.166-168). According to Feldman and Spilsbury, it was most unusual for someone in this time period to appeal to the irregularity of the movement of celestial bodies. Annette Yoshiko Reed has recently stated that “scholars may have been too quick to dismiss the significant of the topic of monotheism for our understanding of the account of Abraham’s discussions with the Egyptian wisemen (esp. 1.166), suggesting that the superiority of the Jews’ rational monotheism may serve as the subtext for Ant. 1.154-68 as a whole.”

Feldman notes that Josephus presents Abraham as open-minded distancing the Patriarch from the pagan views of Jewish monotheism as intolerant. In Genesis, Abraham is expelled from Egypt while Josephus has the Pharaoh giving Abraham gifts because the Egyptians are impressed with Abraham who is described as being “great in understanding concerning everything and persuasive to his listeners.”

There are numerous instances both in ancient Jewish and non-Jewish texts illustrating Jewish self-affirmation and their identification by others in clearly monotheistic rhetoric. Of the non-Jewish writers, Tacitus is a representative example: “the Jews acknowledge one God only, and conceive of Him by the mind alone,” reflecting Jewish monotheism and rejection of cult images. Among non-rabbinic texts of Jewish provenance, affirmations of God's uniqueness can be found in Sibylline Oracles, Aristeas, Wisdom of Solomon, and references in Philo and Josephus (e.g., Ant. 2.12:4; Apion 2:33ff.).

The followers of Jesus also proclaimed their adherence to monotheism. Paul in I Cor 8. recognized the difficulty of defining and explaining monotheism in these words: “For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge.” The Lucan Paul taught the monotheism of the followers of Jesus in his speech at Areopagus and acknowledged that not everyone possessed this knowledge.

Schlatter and Shutt both conducted an in-depth study and analysis of the writings of Josephus. Schlatter concluded that the language and conception of God employed by Josephus demonstrated that he had an indebtedness and fidelity to the Jewish emphases on the uniqueness and sovereignty of the God of Israel. Shutt concluded that the “fundamental theological principles of Judaism” remained dominant in Josephus' writings, including the belief in the sovereignty of the God of Israel over all.

Although Josephus clearly intended to demonstrate the antiquity of the Jews and that that Judaism had produced persons of accomplishment, we should not ignore the fact that Josephus was responding, inter alia, to the writings of Luke and Paul. Both Luke and Paul demonstrated that the followers of Jesus were good Jews and descendants of Abraham. The importance of legitimating a new sacred order to its members was recognized by Peter Berger in Social Reality of Religion and the principle of legitimacy as applied to Luke-Acts was discussed by Esler in Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts. Luke and Paul also suggested that their Gentile followers are descendants of Abraham.

Josephus is in fact responding to the NT and in particular to Luke-Acts. However the evidence that supports this bold statement is totally unexpected. Josephus has rewritten the story of the flood to eliminate all references to the covenant with God as he did with the covenant of circumcision. In Judaism, the rite of circumcision is the sign of covenant between God and Abraham. In Book One, God charged Abram “that they should be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin.” However, according to Josephus the purpose is “to keep his posterity unmixed with others.”

The promise of the land was one of the most basic elements of the Abrahamic Covenant. In Genesis 17:8 this everlasting quality of the covenant was again related directly to the promise of the land: “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you . . ..” This land theology, first set forth in the stories of the patriarchs, is a major theme of the Biblical history of Israel. However, in Josephus’ treatment of the patriarchal period, “the covenant with the patriarchs, all of which describe covenant in terms of land promise, Josephus connects Moses with the patriarchs through a totally unscriptural reconstruction of a dream, in which God reassures Amram by reviewing the providential care He had given to Abraham” citing Ant. II, 212-13. Josephus never used the term “covenant.” There is a complete absence of the concept of the land covenant and, as noted, of the covenant of circumcision. By removing the language of covenant, Josephus responded to the theme of God’s promise to the fathers which Luke so effectively utilized.

Josephus also re-worked the story of Lot. You may recall that Lot was the nephew of Abraham who moved away from Abraham to the city and region of Sodom, became a civilian captive when the region becomes engaged in war, was rescued by Abraham and later by two angels although he had not been circumcised. Josephus has made several minor changes to the story. Lot is adopted by Abram and Abram becomes Abraham but no explanation is provided.

The failure of Josephus to discuss an important aspect of conversion in antiquity, changing one’s name, is significant. Many new followers of Jesus adopted new names, as did Saul, using Abraham as their example.[i]

There is one change for no apparent reason. Josephus mentions Lot in Ant. 1.6.5; 1.9.1ff; and 1.11.4 - the latter being most significant. In Jos. Ant. 1.9.1ff, we read that Lot “had come to assist the Sodomites.” Likewise, in 1.11.4, we read that Lot “lived a miserable life, on account of his having no company, and his want of provisions.” Anyone vaguely familiar with Genesis would not recognize the rewriting done by Josephus and they would ask why?

Josephus in rewriting sacred scripture intended to destroy not only the lineage but also the linkage of the followers of Judaism by deleting and rewriting the passages relied upon by them. This theory is not so wild when one considers that both sides accused the other side of rewriting scripture to meet their needs. See generally Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. Lewis has recently examined in Legitimating new Religions the methods by which new religions legitimate themselves by charismatic appeals, rational appeals, and appeals to tradition and how repression of them is legitimated.

Mason argues that Against Apion aims primarily to “encourage potential converts to Judaism.” 1996, 222. It is likely that Antiquities of the Jews also has encouragement of conversion to Judaism as one of its goals.

Copyrighted 2008

[i] See Richard Fellows, Religious Renaming in the Ancient World,


Blogger Richard Fellows said...

Richard. You raise some interesting questions about why Josephus wrote up the stories of Genesis in the way that he did. You mention that Josephus does not discuss Moses's escape from Egypt. Perhaps Josephus was sensitive to the charge that the Jews were descendents of fugitives. It is possible that Luke is silent about the flight of Jesus and his parents to Egypt (whether it happened or not) for similar reasons.

As I mentioned before, Philo tells us that pagans ridiculed the change of Abram's name to Abraham, and Saria's name to Sarah. This may explain why Josephus is silent on these name changes.

New names were taken by people who had life changing religious experiences, and it seems to me that Josephus had little sympathy for these types. This would explain why Josephus mentions few cases of religous renaming, and why he omits the renamings of Abram and Sarai. Perhaps he wants to avoid casting the founders of the Jewish people in the mould of religious fenatics. To do so might have discredited the Jews in some people's eyes, and might also have legitimated those who followed the renaming practice, such as many of the leading followers of Jesus, and probably other prophets and messianic pretenders. I owe this last thought to you.

I'll give it some further thought, but I tend to think that, while you might be on to something, Josephus probably had more than just the Christians on his mind when he re-wrote the scriptures.

Incidentally, I think Josephus called him Abraham throughout. I don't know why Whiston has "Abram" in some places.


5:51 PM


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