Paul and Justin on the Ancestry of Abraham

This post is part of an ongoing series on Paul and Pneuma, Justin and Judaism.

Paul refers to Abraham nineteen times in his undisputed letters, often citing God’s promise to Abraham, his faith, or status as intermediary.[1] Key for Paul’s theology was the genealogical function Abraham filled. Galatians 3:1-9 suggests that, for Paul, Abrahamic sonship was intimately connected to reception of the pneuma.[2] That is, to receive the pneuma of God was to be brought into the Abrahamic family of God. This new ancestry further transformed Gentiles-in-Christ, legitimating if not actualizing their existence within the pneuma and kinship of the People of God.[3] Both Abraham and Christ stand as faithful followers of God; as Israel participated in Abraham’s blessed faithfulness, so now Gentiles—through Christ’s faithfulness—participate in Abraham as well.[4] Summarizing this viewpoint, Thiessen writes,

“Since those who are out of faith receive the pneuma of Abraham’s seed, Christ, they too become Abraham’s seed. The reception of the pneuma thus provides gentiles with a new genealogy so that they become truly descended from Abraham, not through the flesh, but through the pneuma. Paul does not reject genealogical descent; instead, he envisages a newly possible pneumatic form of such descent.”[5]

Justin refers to Abraham 103 times in the Dialogue, employing him in relation to the question of circumcision, the promises of God, and Christ.[6] While Justin summarily denigrates circumcision as a “sign of suffering,”[7] Abraham avoids this fate. Justin focuses instead on Abraham’s faith before circumcision.[8] He writes, “Abraham, indeed, was considered just, not by reason of his circumcision, but because of faith. For, before his circumcision it was said of him, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him unto justice’” (Dial. 92.3). While Jews and Christians alike may claim Abraham as their ancestor, Jewish emphasis on circumcision clearly aligns them with “later Abraham” and Christian rejection of the need for circumcision aligns them with “early Abraham,” that is, the Abraham who was justified by faith prior to his circumcision.[9] Justin thus divorces Abraham from Jewish faith and practice, using the two stages of the patriarch’s life as the boundary formation between corrupted fleshliness and spiritual faithfulness.[10] 

What then are the differences between Paul and Justin? In the first place, where for Paul Abraham has two sorts of children—those according to the flesh and those according to the promise—Justin argues that only the children of the promise (Christ-followers) are Abraham’s true children.[11] Building on the Platonic notion that the new pneuma of faith must transcend the old, Justin argues that, “And along with Abraham we shall inherit the holy land, when we shall receive the inheritance for an endless eternity, being children of Abraham through the like faith…. He promises to him a nation of similar faith, God-fearing, righteous, and delighting the Father; but it is not you, ‘in whom is no faith.’” (Dial. 119)

Secondly, circumcision—for Paul only rightly part of the covenant with Israel—is entirely useless for Justin. Although he follows a Pauline reading of the Abraham story in Dialogue 23-24 (where Abraham received circumcision as a sign of justification), Justin developed this claim to mean that “the blood of circumcision is now abolished, and we now trust in the blood of salvation. Now another covenant, another law has gone forth from Zion, Jesus Christ” (Dial. 24). That is, the covenant now brought about by the logos transcends and interiorizes the demands of the old covenant.[12] Similarly, in Dialogue 18.2 (and repeated in Dial. 92), Justin builds on Paul’s notion in Romans 2-3 that true circumcision occurs in the heart, enjoining Trypho to, “Wash therefore, and be now clean, and put away iniquity from your souls, as God bids you be washed in this laver, and be circumcised with the true circumcision.” Likewise, Dialogue 19.3 argues that, “Even you, who are the circumcised according to the flesh, have need of our circumcision; but we, having the latter, do not require the former.”

Finally, while Paul employs Abraham to argue that both Jews and Gentiles inherit the promise made to the patriarch, Justin uses Abraham in concert with the new covenant to indicate Jewish unfaithfulness and rejection.[13] Dialogue 11, 23, and 119 make clear that the Gentile Church is new, true Israel. Because Christ—the true descendent, the true seed of Abraham—has come, only those fully in fellowship with him belong to the family of Abraham and, consequently, the People of God.[14] Those who think otherwise are deluded and “beguile themselves…supposing that the everlasting kingdom will be assuredly given to those of the dispersion who are of Abraham after the flesh, although they be sinners, and faithless, and disobedient towards God, which the Scriptures have proved is not the case” (Dial. 140).

While Justin clearly relies on Paul to start his thinking about Abraham and Abrahamic sonship, he significantly recasts the apostle’s arguments for his own purposes.[15] Underlying these differences is Justin’s Platonic worldview, which lead him to summarily ignore Paul’s dynamic Stoic cosmology and posit significant differences between the old and new covenants. Justin’s pneumatic ideal presumes a contrast between old and new, and the new covenant ushered in by Christ cannot possibly be identical to the old perceptible law of Judaism. New Israel’s Abrahamic sonship—rooted in the higher reality of Christ—wholly surpasses Old Israel and its fleshly existence.

[1] Rom. 4.1, 2, 3, 9, 12, 13, 16, 9.7, 11.1; Gal. 3.6, 7, 9, 14, 16 18, 29, 4.22; and 2 Cor. 11.22. Jeffrey S. Siker, Disinheriting the Jews: Abraham in Early Christian Controversy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 18-28.

[2] Thiessen, 107-9.

[3] Johnson Hodge, 76. Thiessen, 122.

[4] Gal. 3.6-9. Rom. 4.16. Johnson Hodge, 91. Thiessen, 126. Sena Pera, 202.

[5] Thiessen, 105-6.

[6] Siker, “Gentile Inclusion,” 34-5.

[7] Dial. 16.2. Livesey, “Theological,” 62.

[8] Siker, “Gentile Inclusion,” 34-5. Siker, Disinheriting, 163.

[9] Dial. 92.2-4, 15.7. Denise Kimber Buell, “Constructing Early Christian Identities Using Ethnic Reasoning,” ASE 24 (2007): 98. Nina E. Livesey, Circumcision as Malleable Symbol (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 125-30.

[10] Livesay, “Theological,” 56. Siker, “Gentile Inclusion,” 35.

[11] Thiessen, 121. Rom. 9.8, 11.28-9. Siker, Disinheriting, 13. Siker, “Gentile Inclusion,” 30.

[12] Werline, 84. See also Andrew S. Jacobs, Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[13] Ibid., 86.

[14] Werline, 93. Sena Pera, 192-3.

[15] Werline, 92.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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