A Question About Abraham

A reader writes:

I’m trying to find out about Abraham—did he really exist? Was he a monotheist (maybe in a practical as opposed to strict sense)? Does it matter? What weight does the OT carry for Catholics as a historical document?

I’ve read a bit over the last few days about this stuff— some Church documents—Humani Generis, Dei Verbum. Also, the ancient Christian commentary on Genesis.

My read is that Abraham matters and is real, especially to Salvation history. But I can’t find it anywhere that it is a tenet of faith or anything like you can with Adam. 

What would it mean for the messianic prophesies if he wasn’t real? Wouldn’t that be undermining our belief that Christ descended from Abraham and was fulfilling the covenant?

There is, it is true, no dogma about Abraham, but then we do not function as Catholics according to the dictum “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.” Rather, the Church’s teaching is a complex connection of idea with idea so that one thing logically leads to another. For instance, while the creed says nothing about Abraham, it does say that Christ rose “in accordance with the Scriptures.” Among these Scriptures are the promises to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3)—a promise fulfilled in Christ (Galatians 3:8-18). The Church’s teaching on Scripture is pretty clear, as is Dei Verbum, which teaches that “since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” The authors of Scripture—and unbroken Catholic tradition—speak of Abraham as a real historical figure, so I think it pretty obvious that he was. 

This matters because the whole of the New Covenant is rooted in the promises made to Abraham, so the New Testament would be incoherent without him. As Mary says, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever” (Luke 1:54-55). Likewise, Zechariah says that the New Covenant is the fulfillment of “the oath which he swore to our father Abraham.” And Paul calls Abraham our father in faith and clearly sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises made to him. So too, does the author of Hebrews, who roots Jesus’ entire priesthood in the priesthood of Melchizedek and recognizes it as superior to the priesthood of Levi precisely because Abraham (who is the ancestor of Levi and therefore greater than he) bows to Melchizedek and therefore acknowledges him as greater than himself. Get rid of Abe, therefore, and you do immense damage to our understanding of who Christ is.

Nor need we do so. There is no particular reason to believe that Abraham never existed and plenty of evidence that he did. The details given about Abraham in Scripture contain some anachronisms, due to the fact that the story is being written down long after Abraham. (Sort of like if a modern author, writing a tale about Plains Indians set in the 1500s, might say that his hero hunted buffalo near what is now St. Louis. In the same way, Abraham is sometimes located in places that do not seem to have existed in Abe’s day.) But these narratives also contain enough details to make clear that what we are looking at is rooted in the real historical memories of a people, albeit sifted in such a way as to preserve the theological meaning of those stories and not intended as a modern history. As to Abraham’s monotheism, it’s difficult to say. A lot of Old Testament literature suggests that Hebrews were originally henotheists—that is, that they *worshipped* only one God but took for granted that there were other gods, worshipped by other nations, that Israel did not worship. So, for instance, the book of Exodus seems pretty clearly predicated on the idea, not that there is only one God and no other gods exist, but that the one God of Israel was more powerful than all the gods of Egypt. Likewise, the psalmist calls God “the great king over all other gods” which again sees God, not as the only God, but as greater than the pantheon of the Gentiles. It is only in late Old Testament Judaism that things come into sharper focus and the prophets say things like “I am the Lord. Beside me there is no other” and Israel becomes fully monotheistic in the sense of believing that no other gods exist. At this point, there is a shift in the supernatural beliefs of Israel and the understanding that other supernatural powers at odds with God must therefore be, not gods, but devils—that is, fallen supernatural beings called angels who exist not as self-existent ‘gods’ but as rebellious creatures of the one and only God there is.