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What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh [κατὰ σάρκα]? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Rom. 4:1–2, ESV)

While the proximity of κατὰ σάρκα in Romans 4:1 to Ἀβραὰμ τὸν προπάτορα ἡμῶν makes τὸν προπάτορα ἡμῶν seem to be the modified, this has a problem in the context, because in this case κατὰ σάρκα eliminates "we" including the Gentiles. Thus, this seems to be inconsistent with the context.

The previous context:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:28–31, ESV)

The context that follows:

9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom. 4:9–12, ESV)

Supporting εὑρηκέναι being modified: in Galatians Paul used κατὰ σάρκα to refer to human effort, which in that case resulted in Ismael.

But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh [κατὰ σάρκα], while the son of the free woman was born through promise. (Ga 4:23, ESV)

Note Paul's reference in Rom. 4:13 to promise:

 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. (ESV)

Note in Galatians:

And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal. 3:29, ESV)

not κατὰ σάρκα

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  • Neither Paul, nor Christ, seem to encounter any problems with rendering unto Caesar what is rightfully his (Romans 1:16, 2:9-10); not sure why this particular passage would be meaningfully different than the rest, let alone problematic.
    – Lucian
    Oct 25 '21 at 6:54
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After some puzzlement and consideration I begin to comprehend the question. My first thought was that because σάρκα is in the accusative, it must be the object of the verb....but then, looking at κατὰ, I realized it is only the object of the preposition. Your question clearly transcends grammar, and the Greek grammar itself is insufficient to answer it. This is why you have taken such pains to set forth the context upon which the question rests.

The KJV renders the text as:

What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? (Romans 4:1, KJV)

This leaves the expression ambiguous. It could be interpreted, having been set apart by commas, to belong either to the verb or to Abraham himself.

As I understand the question, you are essentially asking which of these two meanings is intended by this verse:

  1. That Abraham is our father according to the flesh; or
  2. That Abraham learned [this/something] through the flesh.

And the next verse continues with:

For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. (Romans 4:2, KJV)

But James complicates things a bit more:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? (James 2:21, KJV)

Paul is trying to say that Abraham was not justified by works, whereas James says Abraham was justified by works. But on closer inspection, we see that the kinds of "works" addressed by Paul and James differ widely.

Paul is speaking of works of the flesh. He is addressing Abraham's attempt to fulfill God's promise on his own, by having a son with Hagar, the maidservant (slave).

James is speaking of works of faith. He addresses Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in obedience to God's command.

The "works" that Paul addresses and the "works" that James references are opposites: done in either disobedience, or in obedience to God. It stands to reason that the flesh cannot accomplish the will of God when acting contrary to His principles. But when one's actions fulfill God's will, they are counted on the side of faith.

Abraham is also counted as our father by faith, and not by flesh.

Consider Jesus' words in John 8.

They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. (John 8:39, KJV)

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. (John 8:56, KJV)

Jesus begins with essentially saying they were NOT children of Abraham, followed later by calling them just that. If the Jews could potentially not be children of Abraham, the significance is that it is not the flesh by which their paternity was counted. We must be children of Abraham by faith.

That is precisely what Paul is getting at in verse 16.

Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all, (Romans 4:16, KJV)

Paul asserts that by faith, ALL can be the "seed" (children) of Abraham, and not only those, the Jews, which descended from Abraham by (physical/fleshly) law. Paul's intention with speaking of the "law" is clarified two verses earlier.

For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: (Romans 4:14, KJV)

He is placing the "law" by which they have become heirs in contrast with faith, making the argument that if being a descendant of Abraham by physical inheritance (law) meant that one automatically inherited all the privileges accorded to the heirs, then faith would be unnecessary, and the promise as well. Paul, then, elevates faith about physical inheritance.

Putting these themes together, we can return to the task of answering the question.

Does κατὰ σάρκα in Romans 4:1 modify Ἀβραὰμ τὸν προπάτορα ἡμῶν or εὑρηκέναι?

I would submit that κατὰ σάρκα is an adverbial expression modifying the verb εὑρηκέναι; for it was by attempting to accomplish God's will through his own flesh that Abraham learned the futility of the flesh and the necessity of faith.

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Allow me to take the liberty of re-stating the question.

"According to the flesh", κατὰ σάρκα, or very similar occurs quite often in the NT and has, in modern language, two broad meanings:

"biologically speaking" such as

  • Gal 4:23 - His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born through the promise.
  • Rom 1:3 - regarding His Son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh,
  • Rom 9:3 - For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
  • 1 Cor 10:18 - Consider Israel according to flesh: Are not those eating the sacrifices fellow partakers in the altar?

"Humanly Speaking" (as distinct from spiritually speaking) such as:

  • Rom 8:5 - Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires
  • Rom 8:13 - For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
  • 2 Cor 5:16 - So from now on we regard no one according to the flesh. Although we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.
  • John 8:15 - You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.

Question restatement: Which (if either) category does Rom 4:1 fall into?

It must be immediately recognized that both senses are used in Paul's book of Romans..There is a particularly stark example where both senses occurs almost side by side in Rom 9:6-8 -

6 It is not as though God’s word has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. 7 Nor because they are Abraham’s descendants are they all his children. On the contrary, “Through Isaac your offspring will be reckoned.” 8 So it is not the children of the flesh who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as offspring.

Here is my overly literal translation:

What shall we say discovered Abraham, the father of us, according to the flesh?

The "big" problem here is not actually the allocation of the referent in "according to the flesh" but the meaning of "father of us". Whatever we decide for one must apply to the other. Does "father of us" apply biologically or spiritually? It could be either because Abraham was both the biological father of the biological Jews and the spiritual father of the spiritual Jews according to Rom 9:6-8 (quoted above). It is obviously intended to be BOTH here.

So now, what does "according to the flesh" mean?

  1. "according to the flesh" modifies "Abraham, our father"

If this is true then it is simply added for emphasis to "our father". This is credible as it is closest to "our father" and is the most natural meaning.

  1. "according to the flesh" modifies "discovered".

If this is true, then it is at odds with the context. The only thing that Abraham discovered according to the flesh was that he could not conceive.

However, the whole thrust of Paul's argument in both Rom 3 and 4 is what Abraham discovered spiritually - when he accepted the promise by faith, God enabled him to have a son, according to the promise and NOT according to the flesh.

CONCLUSION

"According to the flesh" is biologically speaking in Rom 4:1 - Abraham was the biological ancestor of the Jews; however, the point Paul makes is to show that Abraham was also the arch-type of the community of faith and thus became the spiritual ancestor of the spiritual Jews - his argument later in Romans.

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