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Paul and Israel’s Salvation: In Dialogue with Tom Wright

April 18, 2012

Among provocative statements in his recent Expository Times article (see my previous blog-posting), one in particular moved me to serious head-scratching: “Thus, American left and American right assume, without adequate exegetical grounding, that Paul believed in an ultimate Jewish salvation” (p. 371). This seems to me to posit a misleadingly narrow set of alternatives (either Christian fundamentalism and its “rapture” and attribution of eschatological significance to the modern state of Israel, or a secular/Jewish/Christian “left” that posits a Jewish “salvation” that doesn’t involve Jesus). This simplistic alternative thus avoids the serious scholarly work that appears to offer an impressive exegetical basis for thinking precisely that Paul envisioned God’s provision of salvation in/through Jesus as ultimately involving the eschatological salvation of the “fullness” of the nations (gentiles) and “all Israel” as well. (For example, curiously, in Wright’s discussions of the matter, I find no reference to Johannes Munck’s classic study, Christ and Israel, Fortress Press, 1967.)

We await Wright’s big book on Paul (likely to be big, as all the other volumes in his multi-volume series on the NT have been thus far), in which, no doubt, he will provide a doughty defence of all his views. But Wright has laid out rather fully his own reading of the crucial text, Romans 9–11, in an earlier publication: “Christ, the Law and the People of God: The Problem of Romans 9–11,” in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline theology (Fortress Press, 1991), 231-57. And in recent email exchanges, he assures me that he hasn’t changed his view.

This isn’t the place or format in which to engage in detail that essay, but I am bound to say that I find this friend for whom I have great admiration unpersuasive in his handling of this material. It is remarkable that, per his view, in Romans 11:25a the “Israel” upon whom a “hardening” (against the Gospel) has come = the Jewish people, but (within only a few words) the “all Israel” who shall be saved in 11:25b = the church (composed, to be sure, as Wright emphasizes, of gentiles and those Jews who, like Paul, accept the Gospel). Shifting the meaning of “Israel” within one verse, that’s going some!

I’ve re-read his essay on Romans 9–11 several times now, and my copy is heavily marked with indications of my puzzlement and disappointment at numerous points. I will simply say that I remain of the view that in Romans 9–11 Paul’s protracted and repeated concern is the fate of his people, fellow Jews, in light of his firm conviction that Jesus has been made now the one source of salvation, and the large-scale rejection of the Gospel by his people. For Paul, it seems to me, the issue boils down to this: If his ancestral people have simply gone into a ditch permanently, then “the word of God has failed” (Rom 9:6), and/or God has abandoned his people (11:1) to whom he made promises. And if God can be so defeated by Jewish unbelief in the Gospel, or can turn from his promises to Jewish ancestors, then God’s character and redemptive power are under suspicion.

I don’t see how one can read 11:25-32 as envisioning anything other than Paul’s surprising declaration that God will ultimately triumph over the present Jewish unbelief in Jesus and secure the redemption of all. Just as Paul asserts that in God’s secret plan (“mystery”) the large-scale Jewish unbelief actually is serving (in Paul’s time) to promote the “fullness” of Gentile salvation (11:25), so Paul seems to me to say that God will double back and bring also the corresponding “fullness” of Israel (11:12) into salvation. Just as all people (including Israel) have been disobedient, so God will scoop all nations (including also Israel) into eschatological salvation (11:32). And for Paul that means salvation through the Gospel of God’s Son.

The first issue is not whether you find this credible, or how to make such a scenario meaningful to pew-sitters today, or how to make it inoffensive, but whether Paul believed it. To put it a bit awkwardly, I can’t persuade myself that he didn’t. It is a mind-blowing, perhaps even outrageous, prospect; no question about that. But it seems to me that just such an audacious expectation is what prompted the lyrical, almost ecstatic final lines in 11:33-36.

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  1. John Moles permalink

    I’m glad you posted this. It seems to me that the interpretation you are arguing for is obviously right (as opposed to Wright). That’s important both for the interpretation of the text/Paul/where Christianity (or part of it) was at that time but also for the dismal ‘nachleben’ of Christian response to Jews who didn’t accept Jesus and all its horrendous consequences. I actually think that Luke at the end of Acts – and after the intervening Jewish War which ‘punished’ Jews for non-acceptance of Jesus (of course, I don’t accept the ‘theology’) – is taking a similar line, and maybe even ‘bouncing off’ Paul in Romans, because ‘Iesous’ will ‘heal’ (iaomai) ‘everybody’.

  2. R. Macdonald permalink

    Are you familiar with Richard Bell’s work (‘The Irrevocable Call of God’ WUNT 184; or ‘Provoked to Jealousy’ WUNT 2. 63)? Also, I think the ‘Wiefel Hypothesis’ set forth in ‘The Romans Debate’ (ed. Donfried) has a proper bearing on the context for Paul’s rhetoric in 9-11. Any thoughts worth sharing?

    …off to find a used copy of Munck (his work is a ‘scream’)!

  3. Layton Talbert permalink

    Larry writes: “For Paul, it seems to me, the issue boils down to this: If his ancestral people have simply gone into a ditch permanently, then “the word of God has failed” (Rom 9:6), and/or God has abandoned his people (11:1) to whom he made promises. And if God can be so defeated by Jewish unbelief in the Gospel, or can turn from his promises to Jewish ancestors, then God’s character and redemptive power are under suspicion.”

    Agreed. Indeed, in the words of P. E. Satterthwaite’s disturbing admission, such a view requires “a radically revised understanding of God’s faithfulness to His promises, particularly in respect to the nation of Israel” (“Biblical History,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 49).

    • Thanks. I would, however, like to note the referential problems for us today in the term “Israel”, and the need to identify and distinguish two referential meanings: (1) the historic people, the “Jews” as they came to be called, and (2) the modern state that bears the name “Israel”. Obviously, the latter is a modern entity, and so should not be brought, either consciously or unconsciously, into discussions of Paul’s thought. He (in my view) was concerned with the fate of his people. I have no comment on the state of Israel, other than to say that it should be regarded as one nation-state among others, and held to the same bar of judgement as they.

      • No question. The problem of misidentifying the referential meanings of Paul’s terms has caused tremendous confusion in these passages. I’d add one more distinction that needs to be maintained (since it was consistently made by Jewish writers in that period): “Israel” as a historic people comprised of twelve tribes necessarily includes more than “the Jews” (οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι), and any discussion of the restoration of “Israel” must also take the restoration of the northern (non-Judahite) tribes into account. Too many NT interpreters miss this distinction (which is critically important at Qumran, in Josephus, and in numerous other contemporary sources), conflating the historic people of “Israel” with “the Jews,” who were historically only a part (a subset) of that historic people.

        The Jews of the Second Temple period looked backwards to the time of the twelve tribes of Israel and forwards to the time when Israel would be restored. A significant part of the Jewish scriptures is devoted to the fate of the northern tribes, not just “the house of Judah”: Hosea, Amos, Jonah, and much of the DtrH, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

      • Jason (if I may), I know that you reiterate here a position that you laid out more fully in your JBL article; but I have to say that I’m not convinced, at least of what you make of things thereby. A few points by way of explanation for my demurral. To me it’s not so important what the writers of OT texts may or may not have meant in their use of these terms, and the only relevant question is how people contemporary with Paul used them, and most of all how he did. Second, in addition to “ioudaios/oi” and “Israel/ite”, there is also “Hebraios/oi” (which I don’t recall you discussing in the JBL article), a term used by Paul, Josephus, et al. I’ve seen the arguments offered that “Ioudaios/oi” = people from Judea, but I’m not persuaded that this is always (or even typically) the case in Roman-era sources. A couple of texts by way of illustration of things, starting with 2 Cor 11:22-29, where Paul, apparently posing himself against Jewish Christian agitators, likely from Jerusalem, uses “Hebraioi,” and “Israelitai” with reference to them and him (v. 22), and then (v. 26) refers to “dangers from my own people”, which must mean fellow Jews. You mention and dismiss quickly Gal 2:15, where Paul designates both Cephas and himself as “ioudioi”, and your dismissal doesn’t convince me that it’s irrelevant. I could offer other data, but this isn’t the forum in which to thrash things out adequately. But I do owe you the favor of indicating that and why I don’t find your JBL proposal convincing.

      • Thanks for your response, Larry. As for Hebraioi, I think it tends to be a linguistic marker (there wasn’t space for that discussion in the JBL piece—I had to cut 3,000+ words as it was), so where Paul uses Hebraios/oi, I think he is claiming to be a Hebrew/Aramaic speaker (“Hebrew of Hebrews” = “Semitic speaker born to Semitic speakers”) like his rivals.

        As I stated in my article, “Israelitai” can and does refer to Jews, but it is not precisely synonymous with “the Jews,” as it can and typically does refer to a larger group of which the Jews are merely a part. (Thus Josephus, for example, doesn’t use “Israel/ite” in the post-exilic period.) In the same way, Paul and Peter were themselves “Ioudaioi” (descended from Benjamin and Judah) and Israelites inasmuch as Ioudaioi are part of Israel.

        Hopefully I can make a more persuasive case using significantly more data in the dissertation (the first chapter of which addresses the contemporary data in much fuller terms than could be done in that article). My case isn’t built on how the Hebrew Bible uses the terms so much as how contemporaries of Paul use them—and those contemporaries seem to be aware of (and maintain) the distinction made in the Jewish scriptures. But like you said, this isn’t the forum for a full discussion of these things. Again, thanks for your response.

      • I’ll await your fuller study with interest. I have to say that I’m not sure that “Hebraioi” simply = a “linguistic marker”. Josephus seems to like the term for his people (e.g., Antiquities 1.148), and seems to use “Hebraioi” and “Israelitai” synonymously (e.g., Antiq. 2.201-2). But, as I say, I’ll look for your finished work.

  4. I take your point. It comes from trying to say too much too quickly. Let me change it to something like “immediate or pressing historical fate of his people”. Judgment was on the horizon. Jesus spoke quite clearly about it, it seems to me. Likewise Peter in the early Acts sermons. Paul drew on Old Testament narratives of divine judgment. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that he had in mind events that would play themselves out in a foreseeable future—in a future that would impact Israel as he knew it.

    I’m probably pushing my luck, though, and I appreciate the fact that you’re keeping several plates spinning in this thread.

    • Do remember, Andrew, that (at least most scholars think) for Paul Jesus’ parousia and the resurrection of the dead was not some distant dream of centuries away but something he hoped for and likely expected within a finite future, perhaps his own lifetime. So, the distinction between “future eschatology” and “historical” events in your discussion might, if I may be so bold, reflect the modern situation of being now some 1900+ yrs down the road.

  5. Larry, if Jason can recommend his JBL article, can I put forward my view that Paul has in mind a more restricted historical horizon than we usually recognize? In view of the quotations from Isaiah I suggest that Paul is thinking of a large-scale repentance following an imminent act of divine judgment against Israel, which turned out to be the war against Rome. His hope was that if not through jealousy over the inclusion of the Gentiles, then perhaps in response to judgment his people would abandon their unbelief. But he did not live to learn the outcome. I make the argument in my book The Future of the People of God and, more conveniently, in this hot-off-the-press blog post, which is a response to the position you have articulated above.

    • I’ve only scanned your blog-posting, not read your book, but my immediate problem with your interesting proposal is this: I don’t find any reference in Paul to what you posit. Your argument seems to depend heavily on a reading of the Isaiah passage, not Paul. But readers can make up their own minds, and we can’t settle the matter here.

      • Thanks for at least scanning the post! The proposal relies to a large extent on the assumption that when Paul speaks of wrath against the Jew and draws widely passages that speak of judgment against Israel, he is fully aware that this language in the Old Testament has a historical frame of reference. “Vessels of wrath destined for destruction” can easily be read in that way. It seems to me that the burden of proof lies with those who think that he is not interested in the historical fate of his people.

      • Well, Andrew, that final sentence is a bit of a red-herring, isn’t it? Those who see Romans 11:25-27 as referring to an eschatological in-gathering of “all Israel”, and see the mis-step and “hardened” Israel of 11:11-16 as failure/refusal to embrace the Gospel can hardly be accused of thinking that Paul was unconcerned about “the historical fate of his people”! (It never helps one’s case to distort or represent unfairly one’s opponents in a discussion. Here the lesson endeth.)

  6. Mike Bird permalink

    Larry, Tom gives an updated argument on Romans 9-11 in “Between Gospel and Election: Explorations in the Interpretation of Romans 9-11) edited by Wagner and Wilk.

    • But, so I take it from his recent email to me, this doesn’t involve any change of view. Any new/better arguments for it?

  7. “Just as all people (including Israel) have been disobedient, so God will scoop all nations (including also Israel) into eschatological salvation (11:32). And for Paul that means salvation through the Gospel of God’s Son.”

    Are you positing that Paul was a universalist, or am I reading too much into your statement?

  8. Bobby Garringer permalink

    You seem to be saying that Paul is asserting that all generations, dead or alive in his day, will be saved. Instead he seems to address only the generation, Jew and Gentile, of that time.

    He anticipates a point in the future when the “full number” of elect Israel (verse 12) and the “full number” of elect Gentiles (verse 25) will come to faith. And he places these together in verses 25 and 26, indicating that “all Israel” would be saved only after the full number of Gentiles.

    Under the principle that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6), the “all” reference in verse 26 can be a way of labeling only the elect of Israel who are alive at the time of restoration prophesied.

    It seems to be reading a lot into the text to extend “full number” of Israel to include every Jew who ever lived, especially when Paul is interested in taking action that will “save some of them” (verse 14). For consistency, “full number” of Jews, in this case, would include only “some”, just as “full number” of Gentiles would include only those who have come or will come to believe.

    The matter to be resolved, as you’ve indicated, is: “If his ancestral people have simply gone into a ditch permanently, then ‘the word of God has failed’ (Rom 9:6), and/or God has abandoned his people (11:1) to whom he made promises.”

    But as partial evidence that God has not abandoned Israel, Paul states that he himself is “an Israelite”. It is enough for Paul to add to this that God — who is in full charge of the situation — will some day stage a glorious restoration of Israel, following the completion of a time that favors the Gentiles.

    To demonstrate God’s faithfulness to Israel, Paul need not make the extraordinary statement that every person who ever lived will be saved; and the terminology in the text does not demand such a meaning. Instead it makes sense without such sweeping implications.

    Even the statement that God has mercy on all (verse 32) need only mean that he graciously extends the Gospel to all the disobedient.

    What you advocate would mean that Paul made relevant assertions in Galatians that are now meaningless. There he speaks of those “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (5:21); and he contrasts those who will reap “corruption” and those who will reap “eternal life” (6:8).

    There is an eschatological vision in Paul’s teaching that included “the coming wrath” and deliverance from it by Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1:10). It is difficult to imagine Paul abandoning this vision, without explanation. And as stated, there doesn’t seem to be anything stated in Romans 9-11 that would require believing such a thing happened.

    • You basically summarize Tom Wright’s position (versions of which, it must be said, have been around since at least the 2nd century CE). You also wrongly read into my brief posting things never said or implied: I didn’t imply that Paul thought every individual Jew (or Gentile) would come to salvation. As Munck and others have noted for many years, Paul thought of nations, peoples, on a grand scale. So, e.g., in Romans 15:19 he states that “from Jerusalem round as far as Illyricum” he has “fully preached/fulfilled the gospel of Christ”, has “no more room” in the East, and plans to head west to Spain via Rome. Clearly, he hadn’t evangelized all the villages in that great arc he portrays. The “pleroma” of the gentiles is likely the divinely-set completeness of the gentile mission, and the “pleroma” of Israel likewise. But, whatever it was, it was clearly not simply the “remnant” of Jewish believers of which Paul was a part. Paul contrasts the “pleroma” (redemptive “fullness”) of Israel with the present “mis-step” (“paraptoma”) in Rom 11:12, and their “reconciliation” with their present “rejection” (“apobole”), and predicts that when the “fullness/reconciliation is achieved it will bring “life from the dead” (which appears to mean the eschatological resurrection). So, plenty of room for individuals of all nations to be judged, and for divine “wrath”. But my point is that Paul seems terribly concerned in particular that his gentile mission not be mistaken for an abandonment by him or God of Paul’s ancestral people. That, for him, would call into question God’s character.

    • Bobby Garringer permalink

      Your response to me seems to be different from your response to Charles Cherry, so I must ask:

      Are you saying that Paul’s statements in Romans 11 are in perfect harmony with statements in: Galatians 5 that some will not inherit the kingdom; Galatians 6 that some will reap corruption and not eternal life; and 1 Thessalonians that there is a coming wrath, and Jesus has delivered his church from that wrath?

      In short, are you saying that Paul does not teach universalism in Romans 11?

      • Well, I don’t take well to interrogations, but just this once. Depends on what you mean by “universalism”. Paul speaks of “all” as being consigned to disobedience so that God can show mercy to “all”. The same apostle warns believer and unbeliever unlike of a coming judgement in which they can get rewarded or hammered by God. So, God’s mercy offered to all, and a real human responsibility to accept it too.

      • Bobby Garringer permalink

        I am sorry to have offended you, I simply note that your responses seem unclear to me. This may be more my problem than yours.

  9. I know Ben F. Meyer agrees with you Larry regarding Paul’s concern for Israel. He thought that the heart of Romans 9-11 was that “the call of God and the blessings of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). More: when the infinitely resourceful Lord of history sends his exalted Son to bring time and history to completion, he will win the long-withheld assent of Israel: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”Such is Paul’s prophetic vindication of the righteousness of God in the fullness of its meaning and the full scope of its reference.” I think Rom. 11:25-26 is precisely concerned with this “prophetic vindication of the righteousness of God.” The article is short and appeared first in Ex Auditu and then reappeared in an article of mine on Meyer in Logos. (“Election-Historical Thinking in Romans 9 -11, and Ourselves,” in Ex Auditu (1988), 1-7, and republished in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7 (4), Fall 2004, 150-170.) I noted your post in a short post of mine today where I cited Meyer in support of your reading:

  10. Larry, have you had a chance to see my JBL piece on Rom 11:25-27 from last summer? I’m addressing this very subject in that piece, which is an abbreviated summary of a part of my dissertation.

    At any rate, I’m not so sure Paul is motivated by the question of Jewish unbelief as much as he’s attempting to prove that the circumcision-free Gospel doesn’t mean God has abandoned his promises to Israel. That’s a slightly different question, one that I think the entire book of Romans to that point is attempting to address. That is to say, I don’t think Rom 9–11 is really picking up a new topic, I’m persuaded it’s the central topic at hand throughout (Rom 2 and its law-doing Gentiles being the other bookend to the discussion).

    • I hadn’t noted your JBL article. I’ll try to read it soon. Certainly, Paul is very concerned in Romans to defend the gentile mission, but he does that mainly to other Jewish Christians who felt that gentiles needed to make a more thorough Torah-observance part of their conversion to the God of Israel. I don’t see how we can take Paul’s several strenuous professions of deep anxiety about Jewish unbelief in the Gospel in Romans 9–11 as anything other than genuine. And that means that the question about the fate of Israel was real. Or don’t you agree?

      • I think the question about the fate of Israel was most certainly a real one, and I think Paul is addressing that question. This isn’t the forum for getting into my full research, but in other Second Temple literature, “Israel(ites)” and “Ioudaioi” are not usually synonymous. Rather, “Ioudaioi” are a subset, a part of “Israel” (that is, those tracing back to the kingdom of Judah). Paul is very careful with his terms here, and I think we miss the impact of his “and thus *all* Israel will be saved” if we don’t take that nuance into account. He’s certainly concerned about Jewish unbelief, but I think the question he undertakes to answer is even bigger than that—it involves the promise of Israelite (not just Jewish/Judahite/Judaean) restoration and whether God has been true to that promise.

      • Well, if we confine ourselves to Paul’s usage of “Israel” and “Jew”, I’d say that the latter for him is an “ethnic” designation of the sort that one uses to distinguish one nation/people from another in ethnographical terms (to use a modern label), and “Israel” designates his nation/people as to their religious identity. I.e., “Israel” for him seems to me to = Jewish people before God. Among works that need to be considered here is: Richardson, Peter. Israel in the Apostolic Church. SNTSMS, no. 10. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.
        But, as you say, blog-sites aren’t the venue in which one can adequately wrestle with all the detailed data. But thanks for your alerting us to your article: Jason A. Staples, “What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with ‘All Israel’? A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25-27,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130/2 (2011): 371-90.

  11. sakeoftruth permalink

    “To put it a bit awkwardly, I can’t persuade myself that he didn’t.” –Ah, exactly how I felt when I recently taught this section of Romans for undergraduates. I think the posture toward the text envisioned by your statement here is also instructive: An interpreter may often wish to “smooth out” perceived wrinkles in Paul’s argumentation, but one ought to be constrained by the text, its structure, and grammatical-historical context. Do you think the temptation to “smooth out” is heightened when a particular text is being treated as part of a larger theological project such as the kind Wright often publishes (and skillfully so). Theologizing, as important as I believe it is, tends to smooth out wrinkles in its effort to synthesize the arguments of a biblical author or group of books.

    Another clue that Paul may anticipate a bit of resistance to his claims here is his extensive argumentation from Scripture in Rom 9-11. It strikes me that Paul is really laboring to persuade here, as if he is feels he shoulders the burden of proof.

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