Can you explain what "flesh" is in Romans 4:1?

This verse is translated two different ways:

"What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?" (New King James Version)

"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?" (New American Standard Bible)

In the former, the question is: What did Abraham discover from his experiences in the world? In the latter, the question is being addressed to Christians of Jewish descent as to what Abraham had learned. The verses that follow are obviously addressed to those familiar with the teachings of the Old Testament. A third understanding is that Abraham was the father to the Jews as evident by his circumcision in the flesh. A fourth, and similiar understanding, is: What did Abraham discover in regards to his circumcision? In this understanding, the verse is making the same point as Romans 3:1, "What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?" Interestingly, none of these renditions alter the meaning of the verses following.

Paul still argues that Abraham's justification was not earned by came by believing God. (Notice that it does not say Abraham believed in God, but that he believed God. He accepted and lived by what God told him.) He was not justified by circumcision because God counted him as righteous prior to his being circumcised. It was not by the Mosaical law either as he lived long before Moses was born. Abraham believed God while he lived in the world and he saw the fruits of that belief in the birth of his son Isaac. Since the Jews physically descend from Abraham, the points Paul is making is significant to them because Paul is talking about their revered ancestor.

This is an occassion where the statement appears ambiguous but remains meaningful and accurate no matter how it is read. Sometimes I wonder if this style of writing was purposely done to communicate multiple truths at once.


March 15, 2005