Abraham in the Greek East - Maren R. Niehoff & Peter van ’t Riet - 2021

Discussion on the website Academia.edu about Maren R. Niehoff’s article Abraham in the Greek East: Faith, Circumcision, and Covenant in Philo’s Allegorical Commentary And Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in:  The Studia Philonica Annual 32 (2020), p. 227-248.

Peter van 't Riet – March the 11th 2021

Hello Maren,

I think your article about Paul’s treatment of Abraham in Galatians is a valuable contribution to the understanding of his letter. Especially reading his argument in the context of a supposed religious debate with other Jewish exegetes operating within or in the neighbourhood of the Christian community of Galatia is illuminating. It resembles reading midrash stories as answers to questions from the religious debate of their time whereas these stories don’t mention those questions explicitly. In my article on Academia.edu Jewish Stories of the Creation Seen as answers to questions from the religious debate of their time I’ve applied this approach to a selection of Jewish creation stories. Your premise that in Gal. 3 Paul adduces Gen. 15 in a discussion with opponents who rely on Gen. 17 enriches the debate about the meaning of this chapter.

A problem I have with your approach is that Paul’s silence about Abraham’s circumcision in Gen. 17 could be explained as a misleading exegetical trick to profit from an affirmative text and to neglect a text contradicting his point of view. Without being an adherent of Paul’s theology, I would like to argue for his integrity. He doesn’t disregard Gen. 17 to mislead his audience, he can leave it behind because it produces no contradiction to his argument. What’s the case here?

Many scholars underestimate the allegorizing character of Paul’s Bible (LXX) exegesis. He himself refers to it in Gal. 4:24 in the context of his Abraham interpretation, but he uses this method in a much broader way also when he doesn’t mention it. It’s connected with his view of the Bible in which the letter dies, but only the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). The literal meaning of the text of the Bible – and especially of the commandments of the Pentateuch - isn’t valid any more since the death and resurrection of Christ (Gal. 2:21). Only the spiritual meaning of the text has been preserved. And this spiritual meaning could only be derived from the literal text by reading it allegorically. Consequently in the eyes of Paul the literal circumcision in Gen. 17 had lost its relevance so that this chapter couldn’t contribute to nor detract from his argument.

In my book Paul, a Hellenistic Jew? I’ve presented many instances from his letters which become transparent if we explain them from this allegorizing approach of Paul. In that book I’ve also shown several similarities between Paul and Philo. Their main difference of opinion was indeed the validity of the literal meaning of the commandments of the Law.
I hope my remarks are useful to you.

Best regards, Peter

Maren R. Niehoff – March the 13th 2021

Dear Peter,

I am glad to hear you found the comparison between Philo and Paul useful and that it reminds you a bit of analysing Midrash. I will check your book on Paul, a Hellenistic Jew?. Wonderful that you also engaged Philo there!

You are right that the neglect of Gen. 17 can raise all kinds of questions, including moral dilemmas, such as integrity. But I restrict myself to observing an exegetical fact, namely that Gen. 17 is not negotiated, even though it must have been a bone of contention. Even if Paul allegorized it, he must have been aware that for his competitors it is likely to have been a central prooftext.  But I understand that this can be a sensitive point.

Best, Maren

This is the website of Peter van 't Riet