Did Abraham exist? John Goldingay tackles the question

September 18, 2012

As I’ve indicated before, Old Testament scholar John Goldingay is a blessing to the Church. I try to use his For Everyone commentaries whenever I preach or teach on the Old Testament. (N.T. Wright, you may recall, wrote the equivalent New Testament series.) In his commentary on the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, which I preached on last Sunday, Goldingay tackles a thorny question in academic circles: Did Abraham really exist, or was his story a parable?

Of course, most of us have no trouble believing that Abraham was an historical person, myself included. But in the world of scholarship, where the rules of evidence are far more stringent, nothing is taken for granted. If you say, “The Bible tells me so,” you’ll be laughed out of the building. Goldingay is aware of these rules. From a purely academic point of view, he describes the problem as follows: “Abraham lived over three thousand years ago in an area and a culture that left no historical records. There is never going to be the kind of evidence that will make definitive judgments possible about his life on purely historical grounds.”

But Goldingay points to some intriguing indirect evidence for the historicity of Abraham:

Having said that, a striking feature of [Abraham's] story is for me the strongest piece of evidence of a historical kind that it is more than a parable. There is a big difference between the way Genesis pictures Abraham’s faith and the way Israel’s later faith works. The reference here to the oak at Moreh illustrates the point; we will also read of Abraham’s living by the oaks of Mamre, further south. Why should that be mentioned? The Old Testament later attacks Israel for offering sacrifices “under oak, polar, and terebinth, because its shade is good” (Hosea 4:13). Such worship styles are too like the traditional worship practices of Canaan. The Torah likewise prohibits the Israelites from erecting sacred posts or pillars, yet Genesis records Israel’s ancestors doing so without implying any criticism. In general, people such as Abraham are much friendlier in relationships with other peoples in Canaan than the Old Testament later encourages Israel to be. If the authors of Genesis were making up a story, it seems more likely they would portray Abraham’s relating to God in the way they do themselves, and less likely they would portray him acting in a way the Torah will see as unorthodox. This is not a knockdown argument to prove the Genesis stories are factual, but it does suggest that they are unlikely to be simply made up.[†]

John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2010), 141-2.

One Response to “Did Abraham exist? John Goldingay tackles the question”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think the skepticism about “historicity” of Old Testament accounts is unwarranted. First, there IS extant evidence of the Old Testament accounts–the Old Testament accounts themselves. Surely that must be given at least the same “weight” as any other “work of antiquity.” And more so because the New Testament claims divine inspiration for such writings. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” Paul says, and he must surely have been talking about the Old Testament, as that was what was extant at the time. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Spirit,” Peter says–same point as to Paul. Further, New Testament authors/speakers repeatedly reference Old Testament passages “as though” they were historical. The only basis to challenge that they were speaking “literally” is because of a predisposed bias to believe otherwise. Jesus himself spoke of Abraham, as did Paul. So I am skeptical of the skeptics.


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