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The Anthropology of Romans Four: The Anthropology of Romans Four

July 30th, 2007 | 8 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

(Warning:  because this is the heart of the argument, a lengthy post follows).

VI. The Anthropology of Romans 4

It is perhaps easiest to begin outside of Paul’s writings to highlight two traditions that Paul may have been aware of, strains of which seem interwoven into the argument of Romans 4. In the above section, I emphasized that Paul’s purpose is to delineate who is included in the covenant made with Abraham. I also pointed out linguistic parallels between Romans 4 and Romans 1 that demonstrate that Paul is using Abraham as an antithesis of the Gentile unbelievers depicted in Romans 1, parallels which seem unrelated to Paul’s purpose. There are several loose ends, then, that need tying, beginning with the relationship between Romans 1 and 4.

I have highlighted the textual parallels between Paul’s depiction of the Gentile pagans in Romans 1 and Abraham in Romans 4. Noticeably absent, however, is any explicit reference to idolatry in Romans 4. The references in Romans 1.23 and 25 to idolatry find no parallel in Romans 4. However, as Edward Adams has pointed out,[44] there is a strong tradition behind Romans 4 that depicts Abraham as the first to reject idolatry in favor of the belief of a creator.[45] While Paul seems to have this tradition in the back of his mind,[46] it is on the basis of the revelation of the promise in Genesis 15.6 that Paul draws his argument, and not on the move from idolatry to belief in God as the creator. Adams contends that the distinctive difference between the tradition and Paul’s focus on Genesis 15.6 is hat Paul can show that faith was “personal…It was faith in God’s spoken word…It was oriented toward hope…It was crisis related.”[47] None of these elements are found in the tradition, though the extra-biblical tradition clearly is used by Paul to characterize Abraham as the antithesis to the idolaters of Romans 1. What bearing this has on our argument will be hopefully be made explicit after an analysis of Joseph and Aseneth.

Joseph and Aseneth is commonly associated with Romans 4:17, and with good reason. The story is an elaboration on Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, a beautiful virgin who scorns all suitors. Interestingly, she is the daughter of a pagan priest. When Joseph, who is at that time gathering grain for the famine, is about to arrive at her father’s temple, Aseneth’s father attempts to persuade Aseneth to marry Joseph. Aseneth reacts scornfully to the suggestion, only to be paralyzed with fear when she sees him approach. Joseph sees Aseneth leaning out a window and asks to meet her. When she comes, Joseph refuses to kiss her, claiming it is not proper to “kiss a strange woman who will bless with her mouth dead and dumb idols and eat from their table bread of strangulation and drink from their libation a cup of insidiousnes and anoint herself with ointment of destruction.”[48] Joseph’s refusal distresses Aseneth, and consequently, Joseph prays for her:

Lord God of my father Israel,

The Most High, the Powerful One of jacob

Who gave life to all things (oJ zwopoihvsaV ta; pavnta)

And called them (kalevsaV) from darkness into light

And from the error to the truth

From the death to the life;

You, Lord, bless this virgin

And renew her by your spirit

And form her anew by your hidden hand,

And make her alive (zwopoivhson) again by your life,

And let her eat your bread of life,

And drink your cup of blessing,

And number her among your people

That you have chosen before all (things) came into being

And let her enter your rest

Which you have prepared for your chosen ones,

And live in your eternal life for ever and ever.[49]

Joseph’s prayer for Aseneth has clear parallels to Romans 4. For instance, the appellation of God “who gives life to all things” distinctly parallels 4.17. Furthermore, Aseneth is a pagan steeped in idolatry. Joseph’s prayer that she would be “numbered among [God’s] people” strikes at the heart of what Paul is arguing in Romans 4—that inclusion in the people of God is open to all men, not merely Jews. Though no direct connection can be established between Joseph and Aseneth and Paul, the thematic parallels are indeed stunning.

What follows the prayer is a description of Aseneth’s conversion. She spends seven days fasting for her sins. What results in chapter 12 is a long prayer of confession, which again contains many of the same themes.

Lord God of the ages,

Who created all things and gave life to them

Who gave breath of life to your whole creation,

Who brought invisible things out into the light,

Who made the things that are the ones that have an appearance from the non-appearing and non-being…

You , Lord, spoke and they were brought to life,

Because your word, Lord, is life for all creatures…

I have sinned, Lord,

Before you I have sinned in much ignorance,

And have worshiped dead and dumb idols.

Now that she has cut herself off from her people, Aseneth spends considerable amounts of time pleading to be rescued from her “orphanage.”[50] After her prayer, she is visited by a man from heaven, who proclaims that her new name shall be a “City of Refuge”[51] and that she “will be renewed and formed anew and made alive again.”[52] The nature of this “conversion” to new life is extremely mystical—at one point the man asks her for a honeycomb, which Aseneth claims she does not have, but discovers she in fact does have it. Aseneth’s response is crucial: “Lord, I did not have a honeycomb in my storeroom at any time, but you spoke and it came into being.”[53]

The thematic parallels between Joseph and Aseneth and Romans 4 are many. In Joseph and Aseneth God “gives life to all things and calls them from darkness to light.” His creative ability is clearly linked with his “calling.” Similarly, the same God who “calls into being that which did not exist” (4.17) is the same God who spoke the promise to Abraham. Similarly, this “creative ability” is described in Joseph and Aseneth as the ability to “make alive.” It is not simply creatio ex nihilo that is at work—rather, it is the change in Aseneth from death to life, as Joseph prays for her.[54] In the story of Abraham, it is the deadness of Abraham’s body and Sarah’s womb that must be overcome for the promise to be fulfilled.

At this point, scholarly support is needed. Moyer Hubbard’s recent work New Creation in Paul’s Letter’s and Thoughts, upon which I am basing many of my thoughts, uses Joseph and Aseneth as a thematic parallel to Paul, arguing that Paul and the author of Joseph and Aseneth are drawing from a common stock of metaphors in order to explain conversion.[55] Hubbard’s judicious evaluation of Joseph and Aseneth bears repeating:

In Joseph and Aseneth …the issue to be resolved was how a pagan, born in sin and nurtured in idolatry could ever become a full member of the family of God. The solution of this community was that the proselyte was re-created by the Spirit of God, so all prior involvements were irrelevant.[56]

Hubbard develops the parallel not with Paul’s argument in Romans 4, but rather with the “death” to “life” imagery of Romans 5-8. Hubbard sets Paul’s “new creation” motif within this imagery, arguing that it then supports an anthropological, as opposed to an ecclesiastical or cosmological, reading of those places where Paul uses the phrase "kaine ktisis," or "new creation".[57] Hubbard’s argument for an anthropological reading of "new creation" is convincing, and in many ways my argument is simply an extension of his.

Hubbard’s analysis of Joseph and Aseneth highlights the emphasis on the imagery used to depict conversion. Alternatively, Moxnes, while not neglecting the “new creation” focus of Aseneth’s conversion, emphasizes the communal aspect of Joseph and Aseneth, that the problem is how Aseneth becomes a part of the covenant people of God.[58] He writes:

This new creation and new life which were given to Aseneth were not restricted to her alone. The importance of this event for other idolators as well is emphasized by the new name which the angel gives her: “You shall not be called Aseneth any more, but your name shall be City of Refuge, for in you shall many nations find refuge, and under your wings shall many people find shelter and within your walls shall they who turn to God in repentance be protected” (15:6)….Thus creation imagery is applied to conversion, so that initiation into the Jewish faith was described as a new creation for the proselyte.[59]

Moxnes identifies Abraham as a parallel figure to Aseneth. Both Abraham and Aseneth experience conversion, and both have communal implications. Here again we are presented with the dilemma between the individual and communal interpretations.

To briefly summarize, then, a number of textual echoes have been identified between Romans 1 and Romans 4. A prominent theme of Romans 1, idolatry, was identified as implicitly present in chapter four by virtue of the traditional material Paul is drawing on. Furthermore, Paul’s focus on Abraham’s faith in God’s creative ability was seen to be parallel in Joseph and Aseneth, where Aseneth experiences a “conversion.” This emphasis on God’s creative ability and the “death” and “life” imagery in Romans 4 suggest that an anthropological understanding of "new creation" is lying in the background of Paul’s thought in Romans 4. The specific nature of Abraham’s faith depends upon God’s creative ability at an anthropological level—in Abraham—and any justification is dependent upon this.

Other posts in this series:

Series Intro

Prefatory Remarks

An Intro to Pauline Theology

The Individual vs. the Communal

An Exegesis of Romans 3:20-31

The Turn to Romans 4

Continuing with Romans 4

The Anthropology of Romans 4

Romans 4 with respect to 5-8

Conclusion and Footnotes

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.