Romans 4:1–12

Gentiles as Descendants of Abraham “According to the Flesh”
  • Joshua D. Garroway


One of the more popular modes of biblical interpretation performed by rabbis in late antiquity was the petichtah, or homiletical proem. Though its structure varied widely, the basic strategy in the petichtah was to link an opening “petichtah verse,” usually excerpted from the Writings (i.e., the books of the Hebrew Bible between Psalms and Chronicles), to a concluding “seder verse,” drawn from the opening of the prescribed passage from the Pentateuch. The rabbi demonstrated his mastery of scripture and oral tradition through a series of deft interpretive moves, gradually revealing how a seemingly unrelated verse from the Writings, when expounded, leads ineluctably to the beginning of the day’s reading. The audience thrilled at the spectacular acumen, marveling as the rabbi forged a cogent argument en route to a predetermined destination. Where the rabbi would go was known already, yet tension was sustained by curiosity about how he would overcome the challenges of getting there. Knowing the end did not spoil the story, but rather made its recitation all the more exhilarating.1


Jewish Identity Definite Article False Inference Marked Person Biblical Interpretation 
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  1. 1.
    For more on this rabbinic genre, see Joseph Heinemann, “Petichtot in Aggadic Midrash: Their Source and Purpose” (Hebrew), Proceedings of the Fourth World Congress of Jewish Studies 2 (1969): 43–47;Google Scholar
  2. Heinemann, “The Proem in the Aggadic Midrashim: A Form Critical Study,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971): 100–122;Google Scholar
  3. Richard Sarason, “Toward a New Agendum for the Study of Rabbinic Midrashic Literature,” in Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann, ed. Jakob Petuchowski and Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1981), 55–73.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    The preeminent defense of the view that Gentiles alone are in view is provided by Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 83–100. See, too, the more recent treatment byGoogle Scholar
  5. Runar Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor in Romans 2 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2003), 165–77. The overwhelming scholarly view, however, is that Paul indicts all of humanity.Google Scholar
  6. See, for example, staple commentaries such as C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, ICC 45/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 1:103–35;Google Scholar
  7. James D. G. Dunn, Romans, WBC 38A (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 1:70–76;Google Scholar
  8. Robert Jewett, Romans, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 150.Google Scholar
  9. 3.
    It also mirrors Paul’s description of Gentile wretchedness prior to conversion in his other epistles: For example, 1 Corinthians 12:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; Galatians 4:8–11. According to Edward Adams, “Abraham’s Faith and Gentile Disobedience: Textual Links between Romans 1 and 4,” JSNT 65 (1997): 47–66, Paul underscores the disobedience of Gentiles in Romans 1:18–32 by contrasting it with the obedience of Abraham in Romans 4:1–16.Google Scholar
  10. According to Kathy Gaca, “Paul’s Uncommon Declaration in Romans 1:18–32 and Its Problematic Legacy for Pagan and Christian Relations,” HTR 92, no. 2 (1999): 165–98, there is a distinction between Paul’s polemic against Gentiles and that furnished by other ancient Jews. Where texts like Wisdom attribute Gentile waywardness to plain ignorance and see no hope for their betterment, Paul sees rebellion as the cause of the Gentile plight and believes that they are capable of returning to the awareness of God they possessed long ago.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    Studies of Pauline epistles in light of Greco-Roman rhetorical or epistolary techniques have become too numerous to rehearse in a single note. The momentous first step was provided by Rudolf Bultmann, Der Stil der Paulinischen Predigt und die kynischstoische Diatribe (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1910). More recent important treatments of Romans, in particular, have included Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor; Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981);Google Scholar
  12. Changwon Song, Reading Romans as a Diatribe (New York: Peter Lang, 2004).Google Scholar
  13. 8.
    Again, Stowers, A Rereading, 100–104, offers the best defense for seeing the interlocutor as a Gentile. See also Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor, 165–94; Diana Swancutt, “Pax Christi: Romans as Protrepsis to Live as Kings” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2001), 272–79;Google Scholar
  14. Lloyd Gaston, Paul and the Torah (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 119–20;Google Scholar
  15. F. J. Leenhardt, L’Épitre de Saint Paul aux Romains, 3rd ed. (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1955), 44. Among those who see a “universal man” areGoogle Scholar
  16. Alan Segal, Paul the Convert (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 258–59;Google Scholar
  17. Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000), 202. Most commentators consider the interlocutor to be a Jew. According toGoogle Scholar
  18. George Carras, “Romans 2,1–29: A Dialogue on Jewish Ideals,” Biblica 73, no. 2 (1992): 206, all of Romans 2 “may be conceived as an ‘inner Jewish debate.’”Google Scholar
  19. 9.
    Many have proposed that the interlocutor introduced here is a Jew. In order to do so, however, they disregard the transitional term dio. Hans Lietzmann, Einführung in die Textgeschichte der Paulusbriefe an die Römer, 3rd ed. (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1928), 37, calls it a “colorless transition particle.” Others assume that Jews were included in the condemnation of Romans 1:18–32, which we have already shown to be incorrect.Google Scholar
  20. 10.
    Usually interpreters claim that Paul refers in 2:14–15 to unbaptized Gentiles who somehow do not fall into the Gentile condition described in 1:18–32. For a persuasive rebuttal of this position, and an argument in favor of seeing these Gentiles as those faithful to Christ, see S. J. Gathercole, “A Law unto Themselves: The Gentiles in Romans 2.14–15 Revisited,” JSNT 85 (2002): 27–49. Gathercole cites the numerous authorities with whom he agrees, including among othersGoogle Scholar
  21. N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992).Google Scholar
  22. John W. Martens, “Romans 2:14–16: A Stoic Reading,” NTS 40 (1994): 55–67, has proposed that Paul taps into the Stoic notion of natural law in this passage. 11. As far as I am aware, this position has been suggested only by Thorsteinsson, Paul’s Interlocutor, especially 134–44, 151–64, 196–204; although,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. William S. Campbell, Paul and the Creation of Christian Identity (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 107–9, considers it.Google Scholar
  24. 18.
    Despite the frequent effort to prove that there is evidence. Consider, for example, Edgar Krentz, “The Name of God in Disrepute: Romans 2:17–29 [22–23],” Currents in Theology and Mission 17 (1990): 429–39.Google Scholar
  25. 19.
    Don B. Garlington, Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Tübingen: Mohr, 1994), 32.Google Scholar
  26. 28.
    This verse receives a good deal of attention from interpreters, in large part because the best rendering of it is incompatible with most approaches to Romans 1–4. Though problems abound in the verse, all of which are addressed in comprehensive commentaries, the most significant one surrounds the curious middle voice verb proechometha. Some give it active force, yielding translations such as, “Do we have an advantage?” See, for example, C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, rev. ed., MNTC 6 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1932), 46–47;Google Scholar
  27. Heinrich Schlier, Der Römerbrief, HThKNT 6 (Freiburg: Herder, 1977), 97. But there are no other cases of such use for this verb, and advocates invariably struggle to explain why Paul would not simply have used the active voice to convey this message. Others render it as a true middle; thus, “What shall we provide in our defense.” For a consideration of this approach,Google Scholar
  28. see Nils A. Dahl, “Romans 3:9: Text and Meaning,” in Paul and Paulinism: Essays in Honor of C. K. Barrett, ed. Morna Hooker and Stephen Wilson (London: SPCK, 1982), 184–204. The response, “not at all” (Gk. ou pantōs), makes it an untenable reading, however. An impressive minority take the verb as a true passive; for example, Jewett, Romans, 257;Google Scholar
  29. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans, AB 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 331.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law (Tübingen: Mohr, 1983), 97–99;Google Scholar
  31. and E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1983), 82, both wonder how Paul could indict both Jews and Gentiles when his argumentation up to this point has been directed primarily at Gentiles.Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Popular suggestions include “righteousness,” see Jewett, Romans, 308; “found [sc. to be the case]?” see Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 184; “grace,” see Dunn, Romans, 2:198; andGoogle Scholar
  33. Otto Michel, Der Brief an die Römer, KEK 6 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1955), 99. Many also point to Sirach 44:19–21, in which it is said that Abraham was tested and “found faithful.”Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Richard Hays, “‘Have We Found Abraham to Be Our Forefather according to the Flesh?’ A Reconsideration of Rom. 4:1,” NovT 27 (1995): 76–98.Google Scholar
  35. 43.
    Some say the grammar is flawed no matter how the verse is construed: For example, Cranfield, Critical and Exegetical Commentary, 1:237; Dunn, Romans, 1:210–11; however, Maria Neubrand, Abraham—Vater von Juden und Nichtjuden. Eine exegetische Studie zu Röm 4 (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1997), 234–35, has shown that the reading provided here is more accurate.Google Scholar
  36. 45.
    As far as I can tell, pride of place goes to Lucien Cerfaux, “Abraham ‘Père en Circoncision’ des Gentils (Rom IV,12),” in Recueil Lucien Cerfaux (Gembloux: J. Duculot, 1954), 2:333–38. More frequently referenced is the work ofGoogle Scholar
  37. James Swetnam, “The Curious Crux at Romans 4:12,” Biblica 61 (1980): 110–15.Google Scholar
  38. 46.
    C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2nd ed., BNTC 6 (London: A & C Black, 1991), 85–87.Google Scholar
  39. 50.
    Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 279.Google Scholar

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© Joshua D. Garroway 2012

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