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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Abraham

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ABRAHAM.—It is noteworthy that while in the Synoptic Gospels references to the patriarch Abraham are comparatively frequent, and his personality and relation to Israel form part of the historical background which they presuppose, and of the thoughts and conceptions which are their national inheritance, in the Gospel of St. John his name does not appear except in ch. 8. In the Synoptists he is the great historical ancestor of the Jews, holding a unique place in their reverence and affections; he is their father, as they are each of them his children (Matthew 3:9 || Luke 3:8, Luke 13:16; Luke 16:24; Luke 16:30; Luke 19:9). To this the introductory title of St. Matthew’s Gospel testifies; it is ‘the book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ And in the genealogical record that follows, his name stands at the head (Matthew 1:2), and through equally graduated stages,—epochs marked by the name of Israel’s most famous king, and by the nation’s most bitter humiliation (Matthew 1:17),—the ascent of the Christ is traced to the great fountain and source of all Jewish privilege and life. It is otherwise in the genealogy of St. Luke; and the difference indicates the different standpoints of Jewish and Gentile thought. Here the historian records no halting-places in his genealogy, but carries it back in an uninterrupted chain, of which the patriarch Abraham forms but one link (Luke 3:34), to its ultimate source in God. See art. Genealogies.

Other references in the Synoptists are on the same plane of thought, and presuppose a prevalent and accepted faith, which not only knew Abraham as the forefather and founder of their national life in the far-off ages of the past, but realized that in some sort or other he was still alive; and it was believed that to be with him, to be received into his bosom (Luke 16:22) was the highest felicity that awaited the righteous man after death. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark bear emphatic testimony to this belief, in their narrative of the incident of our Lord’s solution of the dilemma presented by the Sadducees with their tale of the seven brothers. Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 in proof of the fact of the patriarchs’ resurrection and continued existence (Matthew 22:32 || Mark 12:26, Luke 20:37), inasmuch as the Divine sovereignty here asserted over Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob necessarily implies the conscious life of those who are its subjects. In the Songs of Mary and Zacharias, again (Luke 1:46-55; Luke 1:68-79), Abraham is the forefather of the race, the recipient of the Divine promises (confirmed by an oath, Luke 1:73) of mercy and goodwill to himself and his descendants (cf. Galatians 3:16; Galatians 3:18, Hebrews 6:13, Acts 7:17, Romans 4:13); and his name is a pledge that the same mercy will not overlook or cease to care for his children (Luke 1:55). And, finally, to be with Abraham and his great sons, to ‘sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 8:11), is the desire and reward of the faithful Israelite. This reward, however, Christ teaches, is not confined to the Jews, the sons of Abraham according to the flesh, still less is it one to which they have any right by virtue of the mere fact of physical descent from him; it is one that will be enjoyed by ‘many’ faithful ones from other lands, even to the exclusion of the ‘sons of the kingdom,’ if they prove themselves, like His present opponents, faithless and unworthy (Luke 13:28).

The expression ‘Abraham’s bosom’ (Luke 16:22) or ‘bosoms’ (Luke 16:23)* [Note: The plural form is frequently used by the Greek Fathers, e.g. Chrys. Hom. XL in Gen.: τάντες οἱ δικαιοιεὐχῆς ἔργον ποιοῦνται εἰς τοῦς κόλτους τοῦ τατριἀρχου καταντῆσαι.] is hardly to be understood as conveying the idea of an eminent or unusual degree of happiness. It is practically equivalent to ‘Paradise.’ And the new condition of blessedness in which Lazarus finds himself is pre-eminent only in the sense that it is so striking a reversal of the relations previously existing between Dives and himself. The parable says nothing of any superior piety or faith exhibited by Lazarus, which might win for him a more exalted position than others. As far as his present and past are concerned, it but sets forth retributive justice redressing for him and Dives alike the unequal balance of earth. ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ like the Hades in which the rich man lifts up his eyes, is part of the figurative or pictorial setting of the parable, and indicates no more than a haven of repose and felicity, the home and resting-place of the righteous with Abraham, who is the typical example of righteousness. The parable is on the plane of popular belief, and of set purpose employs the imagery which would be most familiar and intelligible to the hearers. [Note: On the phrase ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ see Trench, Parables13, p. 461 ff., and the references there given; Lightfoot, Horae Heb. et Talm. iii. p. 167 ff.; Stevens, Theology of the New Testament, p. 82; Meyer, and the commentators, in loc. Cf. also Salmond in Hastings’ DB i. 17b f.]

In conformity with the general character of St. John’s Gospel, the references to Abraham there would seem to imply a more mystical, less matter of fact and as it were prosaic manner of regarding the great patriarch. He is spoken of in the 8th chapter alone, in the course of a discussion with Jews who are said to be believers in Jesus (John 8:31). Here also Abraham is the father of the Jews, and they are his children, his seed (John 8:37; John 8:39; John 8:56); and this position they claim with pride (John 8:33; John 8:39; John 8:53). It is a name and position, however, which Christ declares is belied by their conduct, in that, though nominally Abraham’s seed, they do not Abraham’s works, in particular when they conceive and plot the death of an innocent man (John 8:39-40). To the charge itself they have no answer, except to reassert their sonship, in this instance of God Himself (John 8:41 f.), and to repeat the offensive imputation of demoniacal possession (John 8:42). But with almost startling abruptness, taking advantage of a phrase quietly introduced, which they interpret to imply freedom from physical death for those who accept Christ’s teaching, they interrupt with the assertion that Abraham died ‘and the prophets’ (John 8:52), in apparent contradiction to the tenor and assumption of the language which a moment before they had employed. Probably they meant no more than that he and they, like all other men, had passed through the gate of death which terminates life on earth; and were more intent on gaining a dialectic advantage than on weighing the implications of their own words. But, in spite of them, for the few moments that are left the discourse preserves the high level of other-worldliness, to which Christ’s last words have raised it; and gives occasion for one of the most striking and emphatic assertions in which He is recorded to have passed beyond the boundaries and limitations of mere earthly experience. Abraham has seen His day (John 8:56). And by silence He concedes and affirms the half-indignant, half-contemptuous and protesting question of the Jews; He has seen Abraham, and is greater even than their father (John 8:53; John 8:57). The climax is reached in John 8:58,—in a brief sentence, which, if it did not bear so evidently the stamp of simplicity and truth, would be said to have been constructed with the most consummate skill and the finest touch of artistic feeling and insight. ‘Before Abraham came into being,’—the speaker gathers up and utilizes Jewish belief in its past and reverence for its head,—‘I am.’ Abraham ἐγένετο; Christ is. Thus was conveyed the answer to their question, ‘Art thou greater?’ (John 8:53); and thus was reasserted with emphasis the measureless distance between Himself and the greatest of the Jews, and a fortiori, as it would appear to the company around, of the whole human race.

It is remarkable and suggestive that in the only notice of the patriarch Jacob that is contained in the Fourth Gospel, ch. John 4:5 f., John 4:12, the same question is addressed by the woman of Samaria to Christ: ‘Art thou greater than our father Jacob,’—the Dispenser of the new water with its marvellous properties than the actual giver of the well? It was natural and inevitable that one of the questions that more particularly forced itself upon the attention of His contemporaries should be the relation of the Teacher, who had arisen in their midst and who claimed so great things, not only to the earlier prophets, but to the patriarchs and ancestors of the Jewish nation. See further art. Jacob.

The figure of Abraham, therefore, in the Gospels is idealized, and invested with a simple grandeur as the head and founder of the race in the indistinct ages of the past, to whom are owing its present privileges, and around whom gather its future hopes. There is, however, no indication of hero-worship, as in the case of the more or less mythical ancestors of other peoples. This conception, moreover, apart from St. John’s Gospel, is purely patriarchal. The characteristic Pauline presentation of Abraham as the father of the faithful in a moral and spiritual sense, as the type and pattern of all righteousness and obedience, as it is developed in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, is absent (cf. also Hebrews 11:8 ff., James 2:21; James 2:23). References to the details of his history are not indeed wanting in the remaining books of the New Testament, but they are all, as it were, with a moral and didactic purpose: Galatians 4:22, the two covenants; Hebrews 7:1 ff., Abraham and Melchizedek; Romans 4:18 f. and Hebrews 11:8; Hebrews 11:17, faith exhibited in the abandonment of his fatherland, in the birth and offering up of Isaac; Acts 7:2; Acts 7:16, the same abandonment of his country and the purchase of a tomb from the sons of Emmor in Sychem; cf. 1 Peter 3:6, with a possible reference to Genesis 18:12.

Later Hebrew literature discussed especially this aspect of his character, and the historical view was superseded by the ethical or theological. Cf., for example, Pirke Aboth v. 4, of the ten testings or trials (נסיונוח) of Abraham, and Taylor, loc.; ‘Testament of Abraham,’ ed. M. R. James, and Studies, ii. 2.

Literature.—The authorities cited above, with articles on ‘Abraham’ in Bible Dictionaries, and the Commentaries.

A. S. Geden.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Abraham'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/abraham.html. 1906-1918.

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