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“Israel” and the People of God: Wright & Response

March 23, 2014

In this posting I query another of Tom Wright’s major emphases in his mammoth new work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (see my previous postings on the work here and here).  This concerns his emphatic view that in Paul’s view  “Israel” becomes effectively the church, or more specifically becomes simply all those who put faith in Jesus.  I’ve queried this stance in a previous posting here, responding to a couple of his essays published earlier.  But, given the importance of the matter in his big opus on Paul, I think it worthwhile to return to it.

Wright’s treatment is set within what he regards as one of the three main foci in Paul’s theology, in this case “election” (or the divine choosing of God’s people).  Indicative of the importance of the topic for Wright, Chapter 10, “The People of God, Freshly Reworked,” is by far the largest chapter in the two-volume work, amounting to 268 pp.  But, in addition, some 140 pp. or more are also given to the subject in Chapter 11, (this chapter entitled “God’s Future for the World, Freshly Imagined”).  In short, there is far more on this topic than on Paul’s Christology, or his understanding of God, or . . . well, pretty much anything.  So, clearly, Wright considers it pretty important to make his case.

Repeatedly, Wright takes the view that Paul saw one family of Abraham, one redeemed people as the outcome of God’s redemptive work in/through Jesus.  Wright argues against those who propose that Paul held a “two covenant” theology, such as offered by Pamela Eisenbaum (in her book, Paul Was Not a Christian, HarperOne, 2009).  On both these counts, I think that Wright is correct.  I agree that for Paul Jesus is now the eschatological mediator of salvation and that Paul regarded a refusal to confess Jesus as Christ and Lord (by Jews or gentiles) as spiritual blindness and disobedience to God (e.g. 2 Cor 3:12–4:6).

But my problems with Wright’s particular view stem in part from his accompanying notion that this one family/people of Abraham/God must be homogenous, and that for Paul the historic special significance of ethnic “Israel” as a people is now dissolved in God’s plans.

Now the notion that ethnic Israel has lost its former significance in God’s purposes and that the church has inherited all that once was attached to the people of Israel is a venerable Christian one, going back to the second century or so.  But the question I have is whether Paul shared this view.  I don’t think so.

Wright knows that this sort of view is often labelled “supersessionist” and he strenuously denies the charge.  In his scheme, it isn’t so much that Israel is simply cast aside.  Instead, Wright refers to a “reworking” of “Israel” in Paul.  Briefly, here is how this works.  First, he claims that ethnic Israel was called by God for the purpose of bringing God’s revelation to the world.  Indeed, Wright repeatedly claims that Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle of redemption.  This is crucial in Wright’s argument.  

Second, Wright claims that Israel failed in this calling.  Instead of opening out to the world and bringing God’s revelation to it (Wright contends), Israel grasped its chosen-ness selfishly.  Israel/Jews held themselves aloof from gentiles (he says) priding themselves in their elect status and so failing in their elect purpose.

Jesus (in Wright’s view) took up the baton, however, and fulfilled Israel’s responsibility in his own obedient life and death.  “Israel” (as the elect people) effectively became a status/calling that shifted onto the shoulders of the one Jew, Jesus.  (This actually reminds me of Cullmann’s “salvation-history” scheme, but Wright doesn’t acknowledge any similarity.)

Finally, because of Jesus’ faithfulness to God, now all those who trust in Jesus are made partakers of the same status/calling as well.  And “Israel” as the elect people of God are now all those who trust in Jesus, the church.

But, to consider the Pauline data, I don’t see any evidence that he saw Israel as having failed in the way that Wright alleges, that Israel failed in bringing redemption to the world, that Israel’s problem was keeping God for herself.  In fact, the only references in Paul to a failure on the part of ethnic Israel that I know of are references to a refusal to recognize Jesus as Messiah and Lord, a failure to embrace the gospel.  This seems to be the gist of 2 Cor 3:12–4:6, where Paul refers to Israel (fellow Jews) as having a veil over their eyes, preventing them from recognizing “the glory of the Lord.”  And in Romans 9–11 as well, Paul grieves over the refusal of the main body of fellow Jews to recognize Jesus as Lord, referring to them as having “stumbled” over the gospel (e.g., 9:32: 11:11), and as “hardened” (e.g. 11:7, 25).

That is, ironically, in Paul’s view it was the appearance of Jesus and the preaching of the gospel that produced any failure on the part of Israel.  The failure was specifically to refuse to acknowledge Jesus as God’s new eschatological revelation, and in this way their “zeal for God” is “not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).  So, I don’t see anything in Paul that supports Wright’s grand narrative of the national failure of Israel that Wright posits.  And that means that I see no basis in Paul for Wright’s notion that Jesus assumed the role and responsibility of Israel.

To my view, when Paul refers to Jews he means Jews, and when he refers to “Israel” he means his fellow Jews in their identity before God.  So, despite Wright’s extended effort to make his case that in Romans 11:25-26 the Israel afflicted with a “hardening” (v. 25) was the ethnic body of Jews, but the “all Israel” that Paul says will be saved (v. 26) is the church, I am unpersuaded.

I reiterate that one of the reasons that Wright takes his view of matters is that he thinks that the unity of the family of Abraham in Paul’s thought requires a uniformity, a homogeneity, with no continuing significance for Jews as such in God’s plan.  It’s clear that for Wright his reading of Romans 2:25-29 is crucial to this notion that the oneness of the people of God cannot accommodate a continuing ethnic entity of “Israel”.  Indeed, a check of the index of references shows that these verses are by far the most frequently cited in the two-volume work, indicative of their place in Wright’s thinking.

Wright takes Paul here as saying that the term “Jew” no longer has an ethnic meaning, that gentiles who observe God’s law from their heart are in fact the true Jews.  I tend to see these verses, however, in the context of the preceding material (Rom. 2:17ff.), where Paul rhetorically addresses fellow Jews to emphasize that their ethnic identity means little unless they obey God, and that the true Jew is one who acts accordingly.  Mere ethnic identity isn’t enough, says Paul.  But these verses hardly seem to me to justify Wright’s sweeping notion that for Paul “Jew” and “Israel” no longer held their traditional ethnic connotations.

So, as I’ve indicated in a previous posting a few months ago, it still seems to me that Paul holds out the divine secret (“mysterion“) that the present, distressing (to him) situation of the main body of fellow Jews (their refusal to acknowledge Jesus, a “hardening”) will not ultimately prevail against God’s purposes.  Instead, when God’s present purpose with gentiles has been completed (the “pleroma“/’fullness’ of the gentiles,” Rom 11:25), God will then obtain the corresponding “pleroma” of Israel as well (11:12), and “all Israel” too will be “saved” (11:26).  Having consigned all (Jews and gentiles in their turn) to disobedience, God will show mercy to all (in their turn, Rom 11:32).

This isn’t a “two covenant” notion such as Eisenbaum espouses (Jesus the redeemer of gentiles, and Torah the salvation of Jews), for Paul seems to me to have held that all must come to God via Jesus.  But (as I see it) Paul did continue to see the family of Abraham, the full company of the redeemed, as comprised of believing Jews (such as himself) who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles.  To be sure, their respective identities were to have no negative impact upon accepting one another, for they were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  But along with that oneness there remained (for Paul) the significance of “Israel” as fellow Jews, who were (as he saw it) heirs of divine promises (Rom 9:4-5).  Although at present, most of his fellow Jews were “enemies” (so far as concerns the gospel), they were, nevertheless, “beloved” by God, whose gifts and calling were irrevocable (11:28-29).

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  1. Dr. Hurtado,

    “I don’t see any evidence that he saw Israel as having failed in the way that Wright alleges, that Israel failed in bringing redemption to the world, that Israel’s problem was keeping God for herself. … I see no basis in Paul for Wright’s notion that Jesus assumed the role and responsibility of Israel.”

    Thank you! I’ve been reading Wright for years and still can’t see what he’s seeing with his whole “one faithful Israelite” thing, and was beginning to think I was quite alone in that regard, so again, thank you! This post was very helpful.

    It seems to me that Wright would draw a boundary around OT Israel and label that boundary Torah, but after the Christ event would put Israel in quotes and re-label the boundary Christ. If this is what Wright is doing, I see Paul doing something a bit different.

    I think Paul might put both Torah and Israel within the same bounds and label that boundary sin. However, now that boundary is re-labeled Christ – sin has been defeated, and so Torah does not go away, but rather is now free from condemning the very people it was graciously given to “to result in life” (Rom. 7.10). When Christ set us free, the Torah was set free along with us.

    This is why, as I see it, those commands concerning the (temporary) removal of sin are no more / superseded (circumcision, priesthood, temple, sacrifices, etc.), whereas it is still maintained that we (Jew and Gentile alike) are to fulfill Torah. The new covenant / Law is “new” in the very way that we are “new” in Christ.

    Thoughts? (I will be graduating from Wheaton College this May, and will be attending St Andrews this September.)

    Best regards,
    Ben Varner

    • Well, the point of view I espouse is that Paul continued to think of fellow believes as Jews and gentiles, and didn’t homogenize them. They were one body, but unity doesn’t mean uniformity. So, gentile believers were to observe the Torah-commands expected of gentiles, and Jews the Torah as given to/expected of Jews, providing that the latter didn’t interfere with full acceptance of gentile believers.

  2. Weismann permalink

    Now the notion that ethnic Israel has lost its former significance in God’s purposes and that the church has inherited all that once was attached to the people of Israel is a venerable Christian one, going back to the second century or so.

    Has it?

    What is your basis for believing Ecclesiology is biblical?

    • Mr. (??) Weisman:
      My reference to the 2nd century was to Epistle of Barnabas, and a few other texts. I don’t understand your question. “Ecclesiology” is simply doctrines/views of what “church” is in God’s purpose. There was always some kind of ecclesiology. What I was referring to was a particular kind, involving what is now called “supersession” of Israel by the church. That seems to me more securely shown in 2nd century sources than in NT ones.

  3. Great post. I am very sympathetic to Wright’s view, but you have nuanced the details in such a way that there you show some helpful overlap and contrast.

    On a basic level, it seems to come down to how Paul’s “new humanity” or “unified humanity” in Christ language is to be understood.

    Was the context in which he addressed these issues one in which he was teaching how Jews and Christians (each in their own identity) are or will be reconciled in Christ. Or was he teaching that any perceived division (ethnic or otherwise) is cultural baggage? The Jew and the Christian are unified in Christ as the “new” Israel in such a way that ethnic Israel is irrelevant.

    Perhaps a little of both.

    • No, Corby, I can’t read Romans 9–11 and derive the sense that “ethnic Israel is irrelevant”. It’s pretty clear (to me!) that Paul was a Jew (and remained so), who sensed a calling from God (Israel’s God) to enfranchise gentiles into eschatological salvation through Jesus Christ. In principle, this was no problem for other Jewish believers. But there were differences over the terms of this: Some insisting on something like full proselyte conversion in addition to baptism/faith in Christ, and Paul insisting that gentiles must not be forced to proselytize, convinced that the eschatological time in which God would gather in gentiles as gentiles had arrived. The ingathering of the gentiles did not involve the dissolution of Israel. Instead, believing Jews (for Paul the obedient Israel) and believing gentiles were to comprise one multi-national family of Abraham, united in Christ (not in conformity to Torah or in abandoning it).

      • Patrick permalink

        Recently, I’ve re-examined Romans 9-11.

        I now think Paul was expressing both NT Wright’s view of ancient ethnic Israel and the Church in his epistles and your view of unbelieving, ethnic Israel other than just “outcasts”. They are still loved by God because of the “fathers”.

        He states in chapter 11 “all Israel will be saved” and while I think that context = the church including Gentiles as “God’s Israel” while not excluding believing Jews, later on in chapter 11 Paul gets darn close literarily to pretty much saying Israel is mostly out for now, but, they’ll see it different someday.

        It almost has or does have a universalist bent to it.

        Wrapping up the discourse on whether or not God has now “rejected the Jews” starting at Romans 11:1:

        32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

        Then Paul proceeds to this awesome reverent appreciation for the wisdom and goodness of God. Earlier, he had stated he would be willing to be separated from God for his people’s sake he was so sorry for them, yet he ends the discussion on his people the Jews and their status with this “hallelujah chorus”?

        Would be exceptionally weird if he still thought Jews were going to be forever separated from Christ.

      • Patrick: Keep reading! You’re getting there!

  4. Seraphim Hamilton permalink

    Also, for what it’s worth, “mystery” in Paul also comes up in discussions of Jew and Gentile in the letter to the Ephesians, where it refers to God’s eternal purpose, now disclosed in the incarnation of divine wisdom, to unite Jew and Gentile into a single family, the commonwealth of Israel, in the Messiah. I take 11:16-17 as hugely important. The “root” is the remnant of Israel, the “branches” are the ingrafted Gentiles. The two metaphors are used to the same end, so the “firstfruits” is the remnant of Israel, and the “whole lump” is the reconstituted Jew+Gentile family. The point being, then, that God has not replaced His old family, but rather has, through the remnant, brought Gentiles into that same family. Even as the broken branches are cut off, they can be grafted in again if they believe. Ultimately, my biggest problem is that I don’t think there’s any evidence that Paul thought the “family of Abraham” was a broader entity than Israel, indeed, I don’t think such a concept would have been coherent in the first century unless it was very explicitly articulated. In passages like Romans 4:12-16 (echoed in 11:5-6), even for the circumcised Jew, descent from Abraham depends on faith. Sorry for the double-post. Enjoying the interaction here.

    • Seraphim: A brief response for now. Ephesians 2:11-21 does have much more of a rhetoric of unification of gentile and Jewish believers “in Christ Jesus”, and speaks of Jesus having “abolished” the Law as a “dividing wall”, and gentile believers as now “citizens” and “members of the household of God”. But, aside from the question of whether we can use Ephesians as the best guide to Paul’s own thought (as Ephesians is widely regarded as “pseudonymous”), it’s not clear (to me at least) that the passage supports the notion that “Israel” is now the church, or that Jewish believers must now abandon Torah-observance as a consequence/requirement of faith in Jesus. As for Abraham’s family, Paul draws upon the Genesis promise that through Abraham’s “seed” blessings will come to the nations (gentiles, e.g., Gal 3:6-9) as well as Israel.

  5. Seraphim Hamilton permalink

    I think Wright’s retelling of Israel’s covenant story is based on Romans 2:17-23, 3:1-8, and then 3:22. Israel is claiming to be a “light to those in darkness”, but God reaffirms His “righteousness” to bring to pass his purpose. Israel was “entrusted” with the oracles of God (meaning, per 1 Thess. 2:4, given for the sake of others), but was “unfaithful” in her commission. Then in 3:22, the Messiah is “faithful.” Paul quotes Isaiah 59 in Romans 3:15-17, and in Isaiah 59, Israel’s covenant stands broken, but God puts on a breastplate of righteousness and fulfills it Himself- that leads straight into Isaiah 60 where the nations stream to Israel’s newfound glory and light. I have a great deal of trouble reading 2:25-29 as anything other than a reference to Gentiles receiving the long-awaited promise of the heart-circumcision (Deuteronomy 30:1-6), given that Paul describes them as “physically uncircumcised.”

    • Seraphim: You give a good summary of Wright’s “take” on these texts. But it requires a lot of filling-in and assertion to make it work. E.g., in Isaiah 59, I fail to see a “broken” covenant, much less any reference to a broken covenant in Paul. Instead, in Isa 59:20ff. God promises to redeem Zion and affirms his covenant with her. In Isa 60, it is to the redeemed Israel that the nations will stream. To be sure, in Romans 2:25-29 the “uncircumcised” who “keep the requirements of the law” are likely gentile believers (whom I also see referred to in Rom 2:14-16). But the larger address is to fellow Jews, and the larger point is that real Jews are those (Jews) who obey God from the heart, and don’t rely simply on ethnicity. And Deut 30 isn’t at all about gentile, Seraphim, but about a regathering of Israel from exile, and a heart-circumcision that will enable them to “love the LORD you God with all your hearth and with all your soul.”

  6. Dear Dr. Hurtado,

    Thank you for your succinct and perceptive refultation of Bishop Wright’s position on the Jewish people. Your position mirrors mine precisely, and that of the vast majority of Messianic Jews among whom have long served. Together with most of Christendom, Bishop Wright has forgotten that Jesus is not simply the Lord of the Church: he is the Son of David. As such he is Israel’s Champion, and the ever living Guarantor that all of God’s promises to her regarding her glorious destiny will be fulfilled in the fullness of His time. None of the Creeds of the historic church make mention of the Jewishness of the Messiah, nor of His Davidic office. In my view, it is because people forget this, or as Colin Brown told me, because Christendom has suppressed this, that Bishop Wright and so many others can see Jesus as the Replacement Israel instead of as who He remains, the Son of David, and Israel’s Champion, as well as the Savior of the World.

    Thank you for remembering what Pilate knew, and the Church forgot, that this One remains the King of the Jews . . . and NOT their replacement.

    • Stuart: I must correct any impression you have that Wright denies or minimizes Paul’s view of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. Wright repeatedly emphasizes the messianic nature of Paul’s christology, and complains that this has often been overlooked. Wright contends, however, that Paul “reworked” the meaning of “Israel” such that it rightly = those who put faith in Jesus (i.e., the churches of believing gentiles & Jews). In Wright’s scheme, thus, “Israel” (and the covenant with Israel) are not abrogated but “reworked” (or one might say devolved upon Jesus and thence through him to the church).
      I appreciate your concern as a Jewish believer. My own issue is whether this is the exegetical one, whether in fact Wright’s scheme is supported in Paul’s letters.

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond to my earlier post, Dr. Hurtado. Despite what you add in your response to my note, I trust you will agree that when the good Dr. Wright redefines [or if you wish, “reworks”] Israel, his interpretation IS supersessionist in that the new definition and thus, new people of God, supersedes the people and definition that formerly prevailed. In my view, Bishop Wright sees Israel’s mission and identity as collapsing into Christ so that Christ himself in a sense becomes the new Israel. Either way, through reworking the definition of Israel, or through collapsing her mission/identity into that of Christ, Wright leaves the Jews standing on the doorstep like a postman whose job is done. He uses this analogy himself in “What St Paul Really Said,” when he writes, “The covenant always envisioned a worldwide family; Israel, clinging to her own special status as covenant bearer, has betrayed the purpose for which that covenant was made. It is as though the postman were to imagine that all the letters in the bag were for him.” What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus Really the Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1997) 108. Bishop Wright is a GREAT communicator and fabulous scholar. But I am sure we agree that he gets Israel wrong, although as to what degree, we no doubt differ.

  7. Very good article – thanks.

    It seems like we have to filter Paul’s statements about “the Jews” through the fact that the book of Acts tells us that thousands of Jews actually did believe in Christ (2:41, 5:14, 6:7, 21:20).

    The issue to Paul in Romans 9-11 was not that *none* of the Jews had believed in Christ, but that *not all* of them did. (Have all of us Gentiles, for that matter, embraced him?)

    • Lois: Two brief comments. First, scholars often wonder whether the Acts accounts are in some cases “embroidered” a bit, i.e., whether in fact in this case “thousands” of Jews in Jerusalem were Jesus-followers.
      Second, Paul speaks of a “remnant” of Jewish believers, comparing them to the 7000 who “had not bowed the knee to Baal” (in the Elijah story in the OT). Clearly, his concern was that only a small slice of the total number of Jews accepted the gospel.

  8. Tim Reichmuth permalink

    Dr. H.,
    I find much agreement with what you have written in the article above, yet, I wonder how you would reconcile continued observance of the Torah with a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and as the One who has fulfilled the Law? I am aware that this is how some Messianic Jews today operate but I have not been convinced that this ‘Law plus Jesus’ is how Paul saw either his own beliefs or those of the future ‘fullness of Jewish believers’ either. Admittedly, I may have misrepresented your position but if so, it is out of misunderstanding not out of intent.

    • Tim: In my reading of Paul and other texts, Jewish observance of Torah was a problem for Paul only if it led to/involved rejection of gentile believes as full “brothers/sisters”. If a Jew goes on to trust in Jesus, not relying on Torah over against Jesus, then (as I read Paul) that’s perfectly OK. It would demonstrate acceptance of Jesus as the new eschatological revelation of God’s purposes, effectively relativizing Torah as something less than adequate in itself for one’s relationship to God.

  9. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Romans 9-11 is indeed very hard to understand.

    • Donald: But the difficulty may be more to do with modern readers than simply with Paul.

  10. Gris Harward permalink

    I agree, and I find your interpretation (the one I also hold) kind of obvious, and yet it seems to be the minority position. Why is that? Can you suggest a reference that discusses the history of interpretation over this topic?

    As an aside, I get weird looks from people when explaining my view of Paul (and my subsequent beliefs on the topic), I think people assume I am some kind of Christian zionist (I am not in any sense).

    • A good commentary on Romans will review major proposals/views. I’m not sure that the view I’ve taken is really a minority position among NT scholars. Indeed, I’d think it’s probably the majority view.

  11. Is there more writing on this very topic that you can recommend?

    • Philip: There are lots of works on the topic! Here are a couple:
      E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press, 1983)
      Johannes Munch, Christ and Israel: An Interpretation of Romans 9–11 (Fortress Press, 1967).

  12. Dr. Hurtado, do you have any thoughts on Love Sechrest “A Former Jew: Paul and the Dialetics of Race”? Like Wright she suggests that Paul was moving towards the idea of a “third genos” and redefining Israel around the Christ community, but the concept of multiple nested ethnic identities could allow that Jews/non-Jews retain their ethnic distinctiveness within an overarching category and also that Paul hopes that the fullness of natural Israel and the nations will become part of the redefined people of god in the eschaton.

  13. Salvo Infantino permalink

    I fully agree with your approach and your point of view on Romans 9-11. The misteryon is underway and will be revealed, I think, in the parousia of Jesus … he will be recognized, finally, (from Israel) as the messiah sent to Israel … Jews are irrevocably in the heart of God.

    • Salvo: Paul links the salvation of “all Israel” with the completion of the gentile “pleroma” in Rom 11:25-26, and doesn’t mention the parousia.

  14. Richard Lucas permalink

    In your conception, does the fulfillment of these future purposes for Israel (when ‘all Israel will be saved’) involve an existence for Israel distinct from the church? Or is the nature of Israel’s future salvation completed when they join the Gentiles in the church?

    • Richard: Paul refers to his expectation of some kind of eschatological resolution of what he considers his kinsmen’s disobedience as a “mysterion” (Greek: “secret”), a term typically having a strong association with “apocalyptic/eschatological” events now hidden but to be revealed fully in due time. Earlier in Rom 11, he refers to gentiles as “wild” olive branches grafted into the root, and expresses hope that those “natural” branches (his kinsmen who are blind to the gospel) can be grafted back in again. Note, however, it isn’t a case of Israel “joining the gentiles in the church,” but of a “pleroma” of Israel joining with the present “remnant of faith” (i.e., those Jews, such as Paul, who own Jesus as their Messiah and Lord). At least, that’s how I think Paul saw the matter.

      • Richard Lucas permalink

        Dr. Hurtado, that’s helpful. Please allow me to rephrase my question based on your response.

        First, my clarification of what I see taking place (which I think is the same as what you articulated). The root of this olive tree, which I take to be the people of God, grounded in the Abrahamic promises, contains the believing remnant (11:5). In the current age gentiles are joining this olive tree through believe in Messiah Jesus, though they are wild olive branches. At some future point God’s promises will come to fruition by the fullness of Israel, the hardened remainder (11:7), having their sins taken away (11:27) and joining the rest of Israel, and the fullness of the Gentiles, in the one olive tree. The remnant and “the rest” of Israel will be joined and hence “all Israel will be saved.” Romans 11:25 speaks of “the fullness of the Gentiles coming in.” I take that to mean “coming in” to the same olive tree that constitutes the people of God, true believing Israel, those joined to the true seed of Abraham.

        Second, my rephrased question. In Paul’s conception, is this believing community of Israel, which also includes “the fullness of the Gentiles” coextensive with what he elsewhere refers to as “the church”? Or does Paul envision a future existence of believing Israel distinct from “the church”?

      • Richard: Based on what appears to have been Paul’s own practice, I’d guess that he hoped that Jewish and gentile believers in the future “pleroma” would recognize and affirm one another as full co-religionists and that Jewish believers would maintain their distinctive identity and particular observances of Torah, as signs of their ethnic identity before God. I.e., for them as well as for gentiles, trust in Jesus would be essential, and their observance of Torah would be their particular way of life. Note, e.g., Paul’s treatment of differences in Romans 14.

      • It is needless to say, that such a grafting method about which Paul speaks in Rom 11:24, i.e., to graft a wild branch into a good/noble tree is simply unheard of in the history of gardening. To put it lightly, if someone remotely acquainted with viticulture and horticulture of the first century (or of any century for that matter) would read Paul’s exposé in Rom 11:16-24, they would simply laugh their socks off.
        Of course, Paul is aware that what he is saying is unnatural, since the branches he speaks about are wild “by nature” (κατὰ φύσιν), and are grafted into a good tree “contrary to nature” (παρὰ φύσιν). Yet, he still insists on this “unnatural” image. But from a horticultural point of view, there is absolutely no direct relation between a branch being cut off so that another one might be grafted in its place. And last but not least, the branches selected for pruning because of their deficiency are never re-grafted into the same tree: they would have little chance of survival anyway, would rather prevent than help the tree to bear better fruit.

        I am of course aware of the reason why Paul uses this imagery and try to understand his point (I have read quite a few commentaries on Romans 11). Nonetheless, I am still puzzled by the fact that he insists on something “unnatural”. The combination Paul suggests would certainly not bring the desired “good fruit” in a horticultural sense: it would simply ruin a good olive tree.
        All in all, my point is: why use an unnatural image to prove a valid point, when you can do it in a most natural way? Or, to put it provocatively: why is God a brilliant husbandman in John 15 and in Isaiah 5 (NB: “I will make it a waste: it shall not be pruned or hoed”, i.e. if you want to ruin your vineyard, you do not prune it), and at least a weird gardener in Romans 11:16-24?

      • Istvan: Thanks for the horticultural information. I can only respond that, as you say, Paul knew that he was portraying a process that wasn’t normal practice. He was intending to portray the remarkable, unpredictable, even strange, purpose of God.

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