Visitors to the Netherlands are familiar with the sight. Dutchmen who turn fifty are embarrassed by a life sized puppet of Abraham (or Sarah), which advertises this achievement in their front garden. If one turns fifty, one is able to see Abraham, according to Biblical tradition. Is this derived from Scripture? Is it true? Enjoy this translation of my Saturday column in the Reformed Daily.
Last week I had reason to contemplate seeing Abraham. Born in the illustrious anno Domini 1968, the year 2018 boded mathematical inevitabilities. An engraved plaque, a present from compassionate family, passed on the encouraging words “the best is yet to come.” A colleague in a lovely town in the Netherland fared quite differently. Friends presented him with a T-shirt that carried the daunting prospect of aging: “The worst is yet to come.” As senior minister of a substantial parish he thought this might not be the best way to move around as servant of the Gospel, so the T-shirt served as pyjamas. One early Saturday morning, as he went to retrieve the newspaper from his mailbox in the garden, a lady from the congregation happened to pass. As he greeted her, she noticed his T-shirt and curtly responded: “That is not Christian at all, father!”
Nonetheless, seeing Abraham when turning fifty seems to be based on a Biblical tradition. The idea is derived from St John’s Gospel (8:57), where the Jews ask our Lord Jesus: “Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham?” This was in response of Jesus’s claim that Abraham had seen his work of earth and rejoiced in it. This verse suggests that the Jews believed that one could see Abraham, but after reaching the age of fifty only.
In the early Church it was thought, because of this verse, that Jesus must have been a lot older than the thirty three years that are usually assigned to his lifespan on earth. Irenaeus of Lyon (c. AD 180) argues that these words fit someone who is well over forty, but has not yet turned fifty (Adversus Haereses II.22.6). The Jews would have mentioned a number that was close to Jesus’s actual age. In other words, our Lord was nearly fifty at the time. Consequently the period of his ministry did not las for three years only, as usually supposed, but for a period of twenty years.
If one moves abroad, one quickly realizes that the tradition to see Abraham at fifty is a typical Dutch phenomenon. It is only in God’s own country (not the US) that banners, billboards, and life-sized Abrahams and Sarahs dot the landscape. Not even the Jews seem to know of this connection between turning fifty and seeing Abraham. It is uniquely Dutch.
Are the Dutch the only people who have read Scripture correctly? One would like to think and admittedly the attitude of some leaves this impression. But are they correct, does Scripture say that one has to turn fifty to be able to see Abraham? Does the Bible actually say ‘fifty?’ John Chrysostom did not think so. He found this difficult to reconcile with Luke 3:23, the fact that our Lord was roughly thirty years old when he started his public ministry and the three years that seem to follow after until his death on the cross. According to Chrysostom there must have been a mistake in transmission. In reality the Jews said “Thou art not yet forty years old.” However, there is hardly text-critical evidence for this view. If two hundred years earlier (Irenaeus), the Church already accepted that this verse read ‘fifty,’ it would have been a very old mistake in transcription.
So fifty is likely to be the correct number, but let’s address the actual question. Does the text connect seeing Abraham with a magical age of fifty?
The Old Testament regarded the period between 30 and 50 as the time when men were in the strength of their life, able to carry out labour and allowed to be involved in public matters (cf. Numbers 4). Jesus, at the time, belonged to this group of relatively young men. His active life was now, that of Abraham long ago. This made it practically impossible that he had seen Abraham or vice versa. Added to this, the Jews assert that he is lacking in seniority. The age of fifty was first and foremost about Jesus. Seeing Abraham was impossible because of the chasm in time and space. Rendered in dynamic equivalent: “You can’t have seen him and who do you think you are anyway?”
The tradition that accepts one is able to see Abraham on reaching the age of fifty is not derived from a careful exposition of Scripture. That our Lord had seen Abraham and was aware of his feelings was quite unique. Its context is the prehistoric Jesus, his pre-existence as Son and Word of God. Abraham seeing him may have been prophetic in nature, or dependent on present spiritual reality (Matthew 22:32).
May mere mortals still expect to see Abraham? Or is all hope dashed with this tradition being consigned to the realm of Dutch folklore? Not completely. Whosoever put his trust in Christ, continues to have good reason to expect to see Abraham, encouraged by Scripture (cf. Luke 16:19-31). This, however, is only when all earthly birthdays have passed.