Renaming Abraham’s Children

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2016.12.13

Robert B. Foster, Renaming Abraham’s Children: Election, Ethnicity, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Romans 9. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe 421. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. ISBN: 978-3-16-154483-5. Pp XVIII + 327. 89.00 €. Sewn paper.

Paula Fredriksen
The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Who is the “Israel” that Paul claims will be saved, and what does he mean by “all” (Rom 11.26)? If we look to Romans 9.4-5, the answer will seem pretty straightforward: Israel refers to Paul’s sungeneis kata sarka, the historical kinship group and recipients of biblical privileges and promises, to which God remains committed (“for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” 11.29; cf. 15.8). God has not rejected “his people” (Mē genoito! 11.1). But then to what end does Paul present an elaborate history of election and hardening in 9.6-29? Further: How can Paul regard nomothesia as a defining privilege, when he has already discounted circumcision, and Torah-observance more generally, as of any value for righteousness and for salvation (Romans 2; cf. Phil 3.8-9, and his furious remarks in Galatians)? For that matter, Paul has already redefined “Israel” exclusively as that Christ-committed community of Jews and gentiles together (Gal 6.16): What, then, can he possibly be talking about in Romans?

Interpreters have long banged their heads against this particular stone wall. At least since the second century, gentile commentators have redefined “Israel” to mean “the church,” that Christian community of the saved consisting of a gentile majority, with the addition of a remnant of Christ-believing Jews. Schweitzer in the 1930s (The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul), and Scandinavian scholars in the mid-20th century – Munck, Dahl, Stendahl – insisted, by contrast, that by “all Israel” Paul meant all Jewish Israel, whose divine hardening to the gospel message, Paul anticipated, would soon cease. Lloyd Gaston and, following him, John Gager, focusing on the fact that all of Paul’s addressees in his extant letters are gentiles, urged that Paul actually promoted a “two-covenant” model of eschatological salvation. Circumcision and Torah observance were adiaphora for gentiles; but for Jews, they remained binding and important. In other words, they concluded, Paul urged Torah for Jews and Christ for Gentiles. More traditional New Testament scholars, on the contrary – some at tremendous length – have continued to hew to the classic supersessionist line: for Paul, they variously insist, Jewish Israel had ceded to Christian “Israel.” In this way, a polarized reading of Paul’s most polarizing letter, Galatians, has set the plumb line for interpretations of Romans: only Christians (of whatever ethnicity) are saved.

In this revised dissertation, Robert Foster proposes an ingenious solution to this abiding controversy. He begins by insisting on that old-time religion: Paul is supersessionist. In Galatians, in 1 Corinthians, in Philippians 3, and even in Romans 2, it is faith in Christ, not the works of the Law, that determines who numbers among the “people of God.” (See esp. ch. II, pp. 44-83.) The status of being children of Abraham “obtains only for those who believe in Christ” (55).  “Israel’s covenantal adoption . . .is redirected exclusively toward the Messiah” (56). The allegory of Galatians 4 addresses the split between non-believing Jews and believing gentiles (58). The “Israel of God” of Gal. 6.16 is redefined around Christ (61). In sum, this idea of the “New [Christian] Israel” might, for Paul, be an anachronistic term, but it is an appropriate concept (73). Put otherwise: non-believing Jews no longer count as or in Abraham’s family (83).

But. But on the evidence of Romans 9-11, Paul apparently changed his mind. “Only in Romans 9-11 does Paul recognize the abiding significance of Israel as a distinct entity free from Gentile presence or Christological redefinition” (84). In the second half of this letter, the ethnic features of Israel return.

How does Foster explain, indeed justify, this “both/and” way of reading Paul? In chapter III, “Ethnic Difference and Epistolary Exigency,” he ingeniously reconceives Paul’s reasons for writing Romans. He reviews and then dismisses the familiar backstory of Jewish expulsion and gentile superbia that interpreters have spun from Suetonius and Acts (85-95). In fact, he stands it on its head. Gentile Christ-followers in Rome, he suggests, held Jewish customs in high regard, and were proud of their affiliation with the “elect people:” If Paul wants the Roman community’s support for his coming trip and his projected missionary efforts in Spain, he must be sensitive to their respect for the Law (95). Accordingly, in Romans – addressing his letter to gentile believers but presupposing Jewish auditors as an “oblique audience” (107), Paul renounces his own former supersessionism (detailed and reviewed on 96). But why?

Paul’s remarks in 1 Thessalonians 2:13-16, his being lashed by synagogue authorities on five different occasions (2 Cor 11.25), his other remarks dissociating Jews from “Israel” all cohere, Foster notes, with the accusations against Paul brought by Jewish critics in Acts 18.13 and 21.21 and 28. As Foster nicely observes in one of his footnotes, “The supersessionist, anti-Torah, ‘Reformation,’ anachronistic Paul was first a construct of Paul’s contemporary Jewish critics” (as expressed in Acts; 99 n. 39, italics in the original). Evidently, the accusations brought Paul up short, and he realized that he would lose a sympathetic hearing in the Roman community (103). “The stinging accusation, ostensibly rooted in his own teachings, that Paul called for Jews to apostatize from Moses [sic] may very well have spurred him to reevaluate past formulations” (111). Accordingly, Paul addresses these accusations in his last letter by arguing that Jews and Gentiles represent “distinct though related descendants of Abraham who should not be confused with each other” (101). This reinvigorated understanding of Israel’s election allows Paul to say in Romans what he says nowhere else: “Jews and Gentiles are separate but equal children of Abraham” (112).

Foster’s solution to the problem of how to read the Paul of Galatians et cet. together with the Paul of Romans is elegant in its simplicity. It enables the interpreter to take Paul’s many anti-Torah statements straightforwardly. It suggests that Paul, like any other person, may have changed his mind over time. And it permits an equally straightforward reading of Romans 9-11, thereby relieving Paul’s god of seeming to have perpetrated one of the greatest bait-and-switch sleights of hand in the history of salvation. For those who like to shave with Occam’s razor, Foster’s reconstruction has much to commend it.

Alas, the remaining 150 pages of Renaming Abraham’s Children float a reconstruction of Paul’s thinking as confoundingly complex as the preceding explanation was clarifying. Foster feels compelled to conjecture a hermeneutical backstory of how Paul read Genesis to account exegetically for Paul’s going where he goes in Romans 9 when invoking Hosea (my-people and not-my-people) and Isaiah (sand, remnants and Sodom and Gomorrah). An “ironic” hypothetical substructure “doubly inverts” the idea of election, resulting in a “complex of associations” that supposedly illumines “Paul’s labyrinthine rhetoric” (148) . . . the “logic” of which “lies outside of the epistle’s text itself” (151). Thanks to Hosea, Paul’s understanding of “election is “inverted,” “ironic,” “reversed” and “negated.” Foster’s evidence for this super-epistolary matrix of meaning that inverts (and even “transgenders,” 204) election has to do with minute explanations for Paul’s changing the wording of Septuagintal phrases, occasionally by appeal to Paul’s familiarity with the Hebrew text (cf. 33) and to his training in “rabbinic” exegesis (cf. 21). Here, all these textual details start running in circles, as the proof for the existence of this supposed matrix is the text of Romans itself.

The convolutions of the book’s second half retrospectively clarified not Paul’s letter to the Romans, but several remarks made by Foster in his opening chapter, where he summoned a “subterranean meaning of scripture” (22) and gestured toward Paul’s “multifaceted deployment” and “allusive” uses of it (25). How complicated could Paul have allowed his scriptural pyrotechnics to get, given that he was writing to (only recently) ex-pagan pagans? Foster suggests that Paul “attributed to his [gentile] audience an intellectual ability beyond their actual capacity” (25). But, aren’t letters supposed to, well, communicate? (Loc. cit., Foster lifts up Paul’s “obvious skills as an effective communicator,” 25.)

I could scarcely track Foster’s closing reconstruction as I sat, mentally and physically girded by a desk full of print texts in various languages, reading and rereading these passages at will and at leisure, cross-referencing them, and sitting on top of a several-decades-long familiarity both with all of Paul’s letters and with the scholarship on them. I was swamped. Good luck to Paul’s gentile auditors in Rome. “The question of whether Paul’s audience could discern nuances and retrace his hermeneutics falls outside the scope of this study,” Foster firmly announces (25). Alright; that’s the author’s prerogative. But the answer to that question emerges fairly clearly, I think, from pages 113-262 of said study: If Foster’s reconstruction truly represents how Paul actually was thinking, Paul was talking largely to himself.

The historical arguments of the first half of the book do not rely upon the hermeneutical speculations of its second half. These arguments merit serious consideration, and they may even promise a way out of the current scholarly impasse in understanding Paul-as-Late-Second-Temple-Jew versus Paul-as-First-Christian-Theologian. For nourishing that hope, Foster deserves our thanks.


Paula Fredriksen, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem

One comment

  1. It is immensely gratifying to have a scholar of Paula Fredriksen’s stature show an interest in my work. I offer my sincere thanks for her willingness to review my monograph and her extensive and constructive feedback.

    In Renaming Abraham’s Children, I probe beneath the surface rhetoric of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, not in order to understand his letter as a locutionary event between him and the Roman community, but to reconstruct his exegetical engagement with Israel’s Scripture. Naturally, I hope that the enterprise can be sustained by the text of the letter and also illuminate difficult passages within it. But the burden of the argument is to show that we can extract from Paul’s dialogue with the Roman Christians his antecedent dialogue with Scripture. As a prelude to this project, I felt it necessary to elucidate my understanding of why Paul wrote the letter in the first place, since my exegesis relies on a deeply contested, and some would say discredited, hypothesis concerning its occasion. Therefore, when I revised my dissertation for publication I added a chapter (expanded from a single footnote!) to justify my position.

    I am certainly glad that I did, since it is precisely this material that Prof. Fredriksen has reviewed so positively. Her commendation of this part of my work is deeply appreciated. She correctly sees that for me, any attempt to come to grips with how Paul understood the interrelated questions of Israel, Torah, and Gentile inclusion must not force Galatians, much less the entire Pauline corpus, into a paradigm based largely on a single letter, and indeed, one suspects, on a single verse, Rom 11:26. This harmonizing quest should be surrendered, as it leads to much forced exegesis. Once we relinquish the burden of making all Paul’s letters agree with each other or with a preexisting commitment to what they can or cannot mean, new possibilities for understanding emerge. I am glad Prof. Fredriksen agrees that an investigation into the reason for Romans should account for its differences with Galatians, and I am encouraged that she finds merit in my proposal.

    It may therefore appear churlish for me to take exception to several comments Prof. Fredriksen makes even in the more laudatory first-half of her review. But I am concerned that my own contribution has been inaccurately located in the scholarly terrain, already occupied by hostile camps engaged in uncharitable polemics. She begins by construing the 2,000-year long quest to understand Paul into precisely two positions: old-school supersessionists, whose current representatives doggedly “hew the classical supersessionist line” by arguing that Christians have appropriated Israel and replaced Jews, and modern interpreters from Schweitzer to Gager, who offer a far more compelling interpretation of Paul’s mission by insisting that “all Israel” in Rom 11:26 means “all Jewish Israel.” Having thus coordinated the main options for interpretation, it is clear how my own work should be aligned: I belong to “that old time religion: Paul is supersessionist” (italics Prof. Fredriksen’s) and he considers his communities to be a “New [Christian] Israel” (bracketed gloss inserted by Prof. Fredriksen into an expression I use on p. 72).

    This is a rather constricted topography of Pauline studies. Its flattened landscape admits of only two landmarks: supersessionism (= “old time religion”) and a literal interpretation of Rom 11:26 (= Schweitzer, Scandinavian scholars, Gager). Occluded from view is the interpretive trail blazed by E. P. Sanders, Terrence L. Donaldson, and Daniel Boyarin, precisely those scholars in whose footsteps I hoped to follow.

    The given depiction is moreover inaccurate on its own terms. Where I come from, “that old time religion” is strictly dispensational; its literal reading of Rom 11:26 antedated the Scandinavian school by a century, and C. I. Scofield made the nonspiritual interpretation of this entire chapter a pillar of orthodoxy two decades before Schweitzer published his research on Paul. In fact, Scofield’s literal reading of “all Israel” contrasts with the view Schweitzer himself maintained. In opposition to the trajectory leading from Stendhal to Gager, Schweitzer argues that “all Israel” means not “all Jewish Israel” but “nothing more nor less than all the Elect” (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle [New York: Seabury, 1931], 185; emphasis added).

    But however the map should be drawn, the key question Prof. Fredriksen raises is this: do I claim that Paul is a supersessionist?

    She asserts that the answer is a clear yes. But far more nuanced than this blunt either-or is my actual argument: in all of his letters prior to Romans, Paul is operating with an understanding of Israel that is reconfigured around the Messiah; he himself does not consider this to be “supersessionist” (to use an anachronistic term), but he expresses himself in such a way that his opponents could easily make this deduction. He is, to put it differently, conceptually parallel to those Jews who claimed that people with the wrong halakah were followers of Belial (CD X, 12–17). Paul was “supersessionist” in precisely the same way as the Dead Sea sectarians, which makes any straightforward use of the designation inherently problematic. This is why I could write, for example, the “new identity [of messianic Israel] does not require a theology of supersession or transference” (72; similar statements can be found on pp. 61 n. 49; 63 n. 54; and 84 n. 1; again, the inspiration for this and related formulations was Terrence Donaldson, himself following the lead of E. P. Sanders).

    In fact, what I thought I was arguing was that the structure of Paul’s convictions about salvation and the Gentiles remains consistent from his days as a persecutor of the Christ-movement through the time of writing his letters (Romans excepted). Gentiles have no hope of salvation apart from proselytism to Israel. What does change after the encounter with the risen Christ is the meaning of Israel. Henceforth, Gentiles still have no hope of salvation apart from proselytism to Israel. But this Israel is now defined by allegiance to the Messiah rather than to Torah. Far from pioneering Christian universalism, Paul shows himself committed to an ethno-centric model of salvation.

    Before moving on, I would like to make one further clarification. To avoid cumbersome circumlocutions, I do refer to “early Christianity,” “the Christian community in city X,” and even “Gentile Christians” and “Jewish Christians” (though with respect to these last instances, I normally use “Christ-followers,” a more historically accurate description). This may give the reader the impression that I think Paul saw himself as a Christian (as opposed to a Jew) or that he himself viewed his communities as Christian and therefore distinct from Judaism. While there is no evidence in Paul’s letters that his assemblies were affiliated with the synagogue, it does not follow, nor do I maintain, that Paul in any way viewed his mission as an activity that violated the norms of his native religion, or that either his activities or the way he conceptualized them fall outside the parameters of what legitimately counts as Second Temple Judaism. I therefore never refer to Paul, nor to his own understanding of Gentile Christ-followers, as Christian. Perhaps however I should be more explicit on this point in future publications.

    In short, I am deeply grateful to Prof. Fredriksen for her commendation of the first half of my work, but I am concerned that she has improperly situated it within a reductionistic account of the interpretive options and has thereby mischaracterized its argument.

    Nevertheless, Prof. Fredriksen does bring out clearly that the solution I offer to the so-called Romans Debate has at issue the question as to whether Paul’s God “perpetrated one of the greatest bait-and-switch sleights of hand in the history of salvation.” This, I think, is precisely the conundrum Paul had to face in writing his letter. The question is not, of course, whether anyone actually claimed that God did this, but whether Paul was cognizant about the potential implications of his own theology. It is arguably this issue that explains much that we read in Romans, not least Paul’s asseveration that God’s word has not failed (Rom 9:6).

    That brings the discussion to the heart of my monograph and the material about which Prof. Fredriksen is less enthusiastic. I attempt to show that Paul derived from the stories of Abraham and his children a certain understanding of what it means to be God’s elect. In the narratives of Israel’s founding generations, the status of favored son repeatedly devolves onto a younger brother. That status however embraces its own negation; the elect, younger child does not enter into his inheritance without first experiencing the exclusion which his privileged position forced on the elder sibling. This construal of election provides Paul with a new conceptual framework for understanding the relationship between Israel and Gentiles in the messianic era: Israel is the favored child who, precisely because of Israel’s elect status, must temporarily endure the experience of rejection in favor of another. The discussion in these chapters is certainly more dense than what preceded, and the intricacy of the argument runs the risk of putting readers off. It apparently had this effect on Prof. Fredriksen, who in her review makes at least three criticisms.

    First, she suggests that the argument is circular, since “the proof for the existence of this supposed matrix is the text of Romans itself.” However, in the opening chapter on methodology, I enumerate reasonable criteria which my study intends to meet, and which separates it from other approaches that, lacking such objective controls, end up begging the question (I name examples on pp. 21–22 n. 47). These criteria reappear continually at appropriate moments in my discussion of Rom 9 and provide the argument with a basis outside the biblical text. The method I adopt may be inherently deficient, or alternatively the evidence I adduce may fail to meet the proposed criteria. But it is not the case that I offer no external means for evaluating the plausibility of my exegesis.

    Second, Prof. Fredriksen points out that the Pauline exegesis of Scriptures that I hypothesize is far too complex for his readers to follow: “If Foster’s reconstruction truly represents how Paul actually was thinking, Paul was talking largely to himself.” If this assessment has validity, it is only because I completely failed to make my intentions sufficiently explicit. To refer again to the chapter on methodology, I argue there that people can and do have a dialogue not only with other people but with their texts; that Paul engaged in such a dialogue with his Scriptural text, prior to and independent of his mission to Rome; and that the particular nature of his writings allows us—at times—to abstract this antecedent dialogue from his rhetorically conditioned, contextually specific letters, and reconstruct it. I did not set out to elucidate Rom 9 as a communicative event between Paul and the Roman believers, and I provide justification for not doing so. While I hope that my approach can explain textual features that have been long-recognized as exegetical problems by modern scholars, I never claim that these difficulties would have been noticed, much less solved, by the Roman audience. Again, the methodology may be intrinsically flawed, but whatever merit it has does not depend on its ability or lack thereof to do something it is not designed to do.

    Finally, Prof. Fredriksen finds my argument overwrought and convoluted. This evaluation from so accomplished a scholar needs to be taken seriously. Prof. Fredriksen is not only a world-class scholar, she is also an accomplished writer and an effective communicator; her criticism on this point cannot be set aside. Furthermore, as a matter of principle I myself value clarity of argument and lucidity of expression. If I have forced her to endure the kind of byzantine reasoning that I myself find so alienating, I can only admit my own responsibility and resolve to show future readers greater consideration.

    It is then with much gratitude that I receive Prof. Fredriksen’s review. It is a pleasure to engage with one from whom I have learned much, and been challenged by even more. While I have been concerned to address what I see as misrepresentations, I nevertheless feel privileged to be part of this dialogue. I hope that this first exchange will not be the last.

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