- Sources of his Biography Analyzed (§ 1).
- Historicity of Abraham Defended (§ 2).
- Historicity of the Patriarchs Defended (§ 3).
- Impossibility of Fully Reconstructing the Sources (§ 4).
This article will be limited to an attempt to establish the credibility of the tradition which represents Abraham as the first ancestor of the Israelites, against the arguments of those who doubt or deny the existence of the patriarch as an historical personage.
1. Sources of his Biography Analyzed. Knowledge of Abraham's history must be derived exclusively from Gen. xi. 26-xxvi. 10. Other accounts--Josephus, Ant., I. vi. 5-xvii; Philo, De Abrahamo, De migratione Abrahami, De congressu quaerendae eruditionis causa, De profugis, Quis rerum divinarum haeres sit; the haggadic narratives (collected by B. Beer, Leben Abrahans nach Auffassung der judischen Sage, Leipsic, 1859); the notices in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica, ix. 16-20--are all excluded by their late origin. Many maintain that the Biblical narrative is also discredited for the same reason. It is true that the beginnings of the patriarchal. history cannot be dated later than about 1900 B.C., and even if Genesis was written by Moses (c. 1300 B.C.) its account is from 500 to 600 years later than the life of Abraham. If, as so many believe, the present Genesis originated between 500 and 400 B.C., a period of from 1,400 to 1,500 years intervenes. Whenever it may have been written, however, the Book of Genesis presents the conception of the life of Abraham current in the pious circles of Israel at the time of composition; and this conception may be shown to have been handed down from earlier periods. The narrative is a piecing together of the sources (E, J, and P) without essential additions by R. For the present purpose it matters little when P originated, since this portion of the narrative is a mere sketch, barren of details. It is generally assumed that E and J originated between the time of Jehoshaphat and Uzziah (850-750 B.C.); others think it more probable that E belongs to the time of the Judges (c. 1100 B.C.), J to that of David (c. 1000 B.C.). If the latter assumption be correct, the combination of E and J (which are supplementary rather than contradictory) gives what passed for the history of Abraham at the end of the period of the Judges and at the beginning of the monarchy. The Book of Deuteronomy contains passages which imply facts and conceptions written down in EJ (cf. vi. 3, 10, 18; vii. 7, 8, 12, 13; viii. 1, 18; ix. 5, 27; xiii. 18; xix. 8; xxvi. 3, 7, 15). If, then, Deuteronomy be Mosaic, the history of Abraham is traced back to the Mosaic time. It can not be the product of the inventive fancy of Israel during the sojourn in Egypt; for during the first half of the sojourn the patriarchal period was too near to admit of fancies, and during the oppression there was no thought of migrating to Canaan and settling there. It is thus quite improbable that fancy transformed wishes into promises once given to the fathers.
2. Historicity of Abraham Defended. Most of the critics ascribe Deuteronomy to the last century of the monarchy of Judah. The narrative of EJ is, then, the oldest written attestation of Abraham; and the question arises, how far can this narrative be accepted as historical? If it is not historical the origin of its conception of Abraham must be explained. It has been suggested that Abraham was a deity adored in antiquity and afterward humanized (Dozy, Noldeke, E. Meyer). But in all Semitic literature no god named Abraham is found; and no indication exists that Abraham was ever conceived of in Israel as a deity or higher being. More plausible is the view that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were ethnographic collective names (Wellhausen, Prolegomena, Berlin, 1895, pp.322 sqq.). Abraham in particular was a combination of Israelitic, Edomitic, Moabitic, and Ammonitic nations. These collective names were afterward conceived of as names of individuals of remote antiquity, to whom fancy involuntarily ascribed a history reflecting the views and wishes of the later period. But there is little to prove that the names of the patriarchs were originally collective names; and against the supposition is the fact that the Israelites did not call themselves after the name of Abraham but after that of Isaac, Jacob. Israel. Moreover, the picture of Abraham presented by EJ is not what one would expect Israel's fancy of the time of the Prophets to paint as the portrait of a patriarch par excellence. Wellhausen says of the patriarchs as they appear in EJ: "They are not courageous and manly, but good house-masters, a little under the influence of their more judicious wives." It is hardly conceivable that the Israel of the monarchy should have imagined as the type of an Israelite indeed a man without courage, devoid of manliness, and ruled by his wife. Abraham's faith and obedience are emphasized and he is depicted as interceding with Yahweh; but EJ also makes him marry his half-sister, which was incest according to the Israelitic conception; he took Lot with him against Yahweh's command; though Yahweh had promised him Canaan as his abode, he went thence to Egypt; more than once he endangered the honor of his wife; his faith is occasionally, though only momentarily, not free from doubt (Gen. xv. 8, xvii. 17, 18). If, then, the origin of Abraham as a fictitious personage can not be explained and traced, nothing remains but to conclude that his history rests upon tradition. Like all tradition, that of Abraham may contain inaccuracies, amplifications, or gaps; but the less it answers the expectation of an ideal form or can be proved to be a product of later times developed from the past, the greater is its claim to credibility.
3. Historicity of the Patriarchs Defended. Another point raised against the historicity of the Biblical narratives of the patriarchs is that in the time of Moses, and later, Yahweh was a thunder-god dwelling on Sinai and was worshiped in a fetishistic manner by the Israelitic tribes, which at the same time were devoted to totemism. But this objection rests upon a rash inference, from single phenomena of the religious life at the time of Moses and the subsequent period, that the religious conceptions and usages of the Israelites were identical with those of the Arabs who lived two thousand years later in the time before Mohammed's appearance. The Israelites were not conscious of any special relationship with the Arabs, and the religion of the latter before Mohammed can not be proved to be a petrifaction of former millenniums.
The effort to prove the patriarchs unhistorical from the narrative of the sending of the spies (Num. xiv.-xiv.)--because it appears questionable in that narrative whether it was worth while or possible for Israel to take Canaan, whereas on the basis of the history of the patriarchs both were certain--falls to the ground when it is remembered that the authors who wrote the story of the spies were fully convinced that Yahweh had promised Canaan to the fathers and that they wrote with the supposition that no intelligent reader would see in their narrative a contradiction of this conviction. The most plausible objection to the historicity of the narratives of the patriarchs is the length of time between the events recorded and the origin of the documentary sources extant in Genesis. But that tradition may preserve a faithful record of former events sespecially where matters of a religious nature are concerned, will be denied only by those who judge the remote past by the conditions of the present. The Indians and the Gauls for centuries handed on their religious conceptions by means of oral tradition; and it is very possible that the authors of the documents of Genesis had records from very ancient, even pre-Mosaic, time. The possibility once admitted, that a faithful tradition concerning Abraham may have been preserved to the time when the documents of Genesis originated, the last reason for considering him a product of later Israelitic fancy, is removed.
4. Impossibility of Fully Reconstructing the Sources. No one of the three sources which are pieced together in the present Genesis can be fully re-constructed. The document P must have contained much more material than the sum total of all the excerpts from it. The source E appears first with certainty in chapter xx.; and J, especially for Abraham's later years, is preserved only in fragments. There is thus no means of knowing all that the sources originally contained; and, furthermore, many passages of Genesis can be assigned with certainty neither to one nor another of the sources. Hence the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge of Abraham's history is dependent on the fidelity and good judgment with which the compiler of Genesis has done his work; and in attempting to delineate the true story of Abraham's life it is an imperative duty to weigh carefully the possibility and probability of each detail. (A. KOHLER.)
The historicity of the personal as distinguished from the tribal Abraham is still held by a wide though perhaps narrowing circle of scholars. In the above article the difficulties are too lightly treated. The embarrassing question of Abraham's date is disposed of (§1) by the assumption that it can not have been later than 1900 B.C. But Gen. xiv., by its Babylonian synchronism, puts it in the twenty-third century B.C., at least one thousand years before Moses, and fifteen hundred years before the generally accepted date of Abraham's first biographer. Moreover, practically nothing is known of the history of his descendants until the era of Moses. When we seek for at least a substantial personality amid the vagueness, inconsistencies, and contradictions direct or inferential, that mark the several accounts, we are thrown back upon the fact of the persistent general tradition, which evidently had a very early origin, and to which great weight should in fairness be attached. J. F.M.