Was there ever, thousands of years ago, a personage named Abraham whom more than three billion people—more than half of humanity—venerate as the father, patriarch, and spiritual ancestor of their faiths? Two billion of them are Christians, 1.2 billion are Muslims, and close to 15 million are Jews. And had Abraham verily spoken with God and celebrated with him covenants that became the foundations of these religions?
The outlines of Abraham's life appear first and most fully in Genesis, the first book of the holy scriptures of Judaism and the Christian Bible's Old Testament. Abraham also makes frequent appearances in other Jewish and Christian writings, including the Talmud and the New Testament, and he is mentioned time and again in the Koran, the holy book of Islam.
Christianity accepted Abraham as its patriarch almost at its own birth. Paul the Apostle wrote in the New Testament's Epistle to the Romans of that faith of our father Abraham.
And in the Magnificat in Luke, the Virgin Mary says the Lord helped his servant Israel in remembrance of mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever. The Prophet Muhammad, who taught the principles of Islam in the seventh century, similarly honored Abraham, whom the Koran recognizes as one of Islam's prophets: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob. The Koran elevates Abraham's story to religious practice. Muslims are commanded to prefer the religion of Abraham the Hanif (monotheist), and the Koran says God took Abraham as Khalil, his "friend."
Yet when I asked scholars the question, "Was there ever a man called Abraham?" as often as not they were respectful (we can't disprove it) but convinced of the futility of trying to find a flesh-and-blood individual. "Abraham is beyond recovery," said Israel Finkelstein, a biblical archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. Without any proof of the patriarch's existence, the search for a historical Abraham is even more difficult than the search for a historical Jesus.
The important thing, we are told, is to assess the meaning and legacy of the ideas Abraham came to embody. He is most famously thought of as the founder of monotheism, although Genesis never credits him with this. The stories do, however, describe his hospitality and peaceableness and, most important, his faith and obedience to God.
Whatever scholars may say about the history of Abraham, Genesis provides an irresistible narrative. So I set out during the year 2000, following him through Genesis, keeping other scriptural writings and modern scholarship within reach. As Genesis tells it, Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees, journeyed to Haran, thence to Canaan and west to Egypt. He returned to Canaan, to Hebron, where he died and was buried in a cave next to his wife Sarah.
When might these wanderings have taken place? Islamic scholarship does not delve into Abraham's origins, and in the other two religions there is no firm consensus. Working with the lineages recorded in the Bible, some scholars place Abraham around 2100 b.c. A number of historians who have married biblical history with archaeology converge on the period from 2000 to 1500 b.c.; others argue that the most you can say is that an Abraham figure could have preceded the Israelite monarchy, which began about 1000 b.c.
For all his mystery, Abraham remains intensely alive today. In fact, we may even be witnessing a renaissance of his memory. Pope John Paul II—Abraham's ardent champion—earnestly hoped to make a pilgrimage early in the millennial year in honor of the patriarch, because Jews, Christians, and Muslims all regard themselves as Abraham's spiritual offspring. In 1994 the pope told me that going to Ur was his dream. "No visit to the lands of the Bible is possible without a start in Ur, where it all began," he said. But at the last moment, in late 1999, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, canceled the invitation.
The pontiff announced that instead he would hold in the Vatican "a spiritual commemoration of some of the key events of Abraham's experience." On February 23, 2000, Rome witnessed a huge Vatican auditorium being turned over to Abraham. When the pope lit branches on an altar recalling the site of Abraham's impending sacrifice of his son, smoke and incense filled the auditorium. For a moment 6,000 of us relived the story.
Why is Abraham so vividly alive today? Faith—Judaic, Christian, and Islamic—and his majestic yet elusive presence provide one answer. But the most eloquent explanation I've heard originated with Rabbi Menahem Froman, who lives near Hebron. He said, "For me Abraham is philosophy, Abraham is culture. Abraham may or may not be historical. Abraham is a message of loving kindness. Abraham is an idea. Abraham is everything. I don't need flesh and blood."
And Terah took Abram his son and Lot son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law . . . and he set out with them from Ur of the Chaldees toward the land of Canaan. (Genesis 11:31)
My pursuit of Abraham began with a 500-mile (805 kilometers) taxi ride from Amman, the capital of Jordan, to Baghdad, in Iraq. This was followed by a 200-mile (322 kilometers) dash southeast through a wasteland of sand and scrub grass. Crossing the Euphrates River, I passed through a half dozen military checkpoints, arriving at last in Ur, widely believed to be Abraham's birthplace. My first impression was one of utter disappointment: Ur was dusty and forlorn, with no discernible pulse. The only visual point of reference was the pyramid-like brick tower, or ziggurat, built in tribute to Sin, the moon god, around 2100 b.c.