Posted by: mattcolvin | March 15, 2018

Reading Romans 4:1 from left to right

“Despite an intriguing suggestion to the contrary, it is best to read Romans 4:1 as it is usually translated: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has discovered?”
– John M. G. Barclay. “Paul and the Gift.”
Philologically speaking, there is zero chance that his rendering of Romans 4:1 is the right one. The correct reading is that of Wright and Hays: “What then shall we say? That we have found Abraham our forefather according to the flesh?” Pace Barclay, this is not an “intriguing suggestion.” It is, rather, the natural and plain reading of the Greek.
It is not plausible that any ancient reader would have taken the τί of τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν as the object of εὑρηκέναι instead of as the object of ἐροῦμεν. Ancient Greek readers read from left to right. They would have been familiar with Paul’s dialectical technique of introducing an imagined objection with τί οὖν ἐροῦμεν (“What then shall we say?” – cf. Rom. 6:1, 7:7, 8:31, 9:14, 9:30 – and that is just within Romans). Reading Rom. 4:1 after 3:31’s resounding, “May it not be! Rather, we establish the Torah,” every ancient reader would have taken it as Paul’s usual way of turning to an imagined objection. The first three words would be the familiar “What then shall we say?”, with τί construed quite naturally as the direct object of ἐροῦμεν. But if Barclay is to be believed, they would then have had to revise their construal of the sentence upon discovering that τί was actually the direct object of εὑρηκέναι. As a process of decoding the syntax of a sentence, this is whiplash-inducing.
No one would have taken 4:1 to be asking “what has Abraham found?”, especially because there is no subsequent discussion of Abraham “finding” anything.

In a footnote (88), Barclay asserts, following Engberg-Pedersen, that Wright’s and Hays’ reading is “fatally flawed: if it were a predicate, “forefather” would have no definite article, which it has in Paul’s Greek.”

This ignorance is perpetuated by Barclay, who says, “There is no evidence that ‘the forefather’ was a well-known title of Abraham.” But there is no need for such a construal. Anyone who has ever taken Greek prose composition would know that to render “Abraham our forefather,” one will need to use the definite article, for Αβραὰμ προπάτορα ἡμῶν without the article would mean “Abraham, a forefather of ours”, just as Zahn says.

Incidentally, this is the second time I’ve found Zahn nailing the Greek for a controverted verse. He also solved the pseudo-problem of alleged conflict between John’s chronology of the Passion week and that of the synoptics, by pointing out that παρασκευη του Πασχα does not mean “the day before the Passover” but “the preparation [of the Sabbath] of the Passover week”, i.e. Friday in the Passover week, the same day on which the synoptics also say Jesus was crucified.

You can find Zahn’s Einleitung in das Neue Testament here. Page 296 of Volume 3 (page 1502 in the PDF) has discussion of “the preparation [day] of the Passover [week].” Page 132 of Volume 1 (page 156 in the PDF) has the discussion of “What shall we say? That we have found Abraham [to be] our forefather according to the flesh?”


  1. What are you opinions on Barclay, and ‘Paul and the Gift’, more broadly? Specifically, I’ve been thinking about his claim that Paul’s theology sees God’s election of Abraham as totally baseless, and hence emphasizing the incongruous perfection of grace. Of course, Abraham appears within a certain genealogical context, and Irenaeus even made something of Abraham’s lineage in relation to Noah in the ‘Demonstratio’. I can’t imagine Paul would ignore that, especially with the apocryphal stories of Abraham smashing idols.

    • I picked up Barclay because the entire world of evangelical and Reformed Biblical scholarship was lauding _Paul and the Gift_ as the greatest work of Pauline studies since Bultmann.

      So far, I am not impressed. Barclay is not an insightful exegete. The main thesis of this book, concerning Paul “perfecting the incongruity of grace” is argued using a highly artificial taxonomy of the various “perfections of grace” which tends to make things clearer than they are, and also to become a substitute for careful demonstration of the inner coherence of Paul’s own arguments. Also, Barclay has come down on (IMO) the wrong side of several prominent exegetical debates. This one about Romans 4:1 is one; the question of πιστις Ιησου Χριστου is another.

      I learned more about Paul from Wright’s Climax of the Covenant or from Hays’ Conversion of the Imagination or Echoes of Scripture.

  2. Can you send me your email? I had a translation question about something in Romans 7.

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