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Paul and Israel: This Year’s SBL Meeting Session

November 26, 2015

In this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I took part in a session focused on the question of whether Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus.  Three scholars gave three quite different views of the matter, and I was the designated respondent to their presentations.  The textual focus was obviously Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

John Marshall (University of Toronto) contended that Paul’s promotion of faith-in-Jesus was solely intended for non-Jews (“Gentiles”).  So he took Romans 10:9-13, where Paul urges confession of Jesus as “Lord” and faith that God has raised him from death, as having to do with Gentiles making these steps.  Noting that Romans seems to have Gentile Jesus-followers (“Christians”) as the addressees (or at least the primary/main addressees), Marshall contended that this should dispose us to read such passages as really about Gentile believers.  In Marshall’s view, Paul’s anxiety about Israel in Romans 9-11 was over their failure to endorse and take part in a mission to Gentiles.

I don’t find his case persuasive, largely because I think that the context, for example the immediate context of Romans 10:9-13, makes it fairly clear that Paul wanted both Gentiles and Jews to join him in his faith-stance toward Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  Paul’s expressions of considerable anguish in Romans about the religious stance of his ancestral people (e.g., 9:1-5; 10:1-4), together with a similar view of things in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6 (where Paul also refers to “hardened” minds and veiled eyes of “the sons of Israel”) seem to me to require us to see Paul as holding that a positive stance toward Jesus was required, the alternate being disobedience to God.  That is, as I read Paul, the problem with “Israel” wasn’t that they didn’t join in the Gentile mission, but that they didn’t recognize and confess Jesus as Mssiah and Lord.

Jason Staples presented what appears to be a summary-presentation of work from his soon-to-be-submitted PhD thesis (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), contending that in Roman-era Jewish usage “Israel” and “Jews” weren’t fully synonymous, and that “Jews” were a subset of “Israel.”  The remainder of Israel, he argued, were “lost tribes” from the time of the Babylonian exile who had become assimilated among the nations and were by Paul’s time practically indistinguishable from “Gentiles.”  So, in Staples’ view, Paul’s “Gentile mission” should be understood as his effort to retrieve those assimilated Israelites.  Staples, thus, translates the crucial phrase in Romans 11:26 as “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  That is, “the fullness of the Gentiles” is (or includes) the retrieval of those parts of Israel lost and assimilated among the nations.

I didn’t find this case persuasive either.  I can’t find reason in Paul’s usage of the terms in question (“Jews,” “Israel,” “Israelite”) to make them have different referents.  Indeed, it seems to me that Paul rather typically reflects a continuing distinction between “Gentiles” and his ancestral people, the latter referred to variously as “Israel,” “Israelites,” “Jews,” and I see no indication that Paul thought that large portions of “Israel” were comprised of assimilated Israelites such as Staples posits.

Instead, I find proposals such as that by Paula Fredriksen persuasive:  By powerful revelatory experience(s), Paul came to see Jesus as raised from death and installed as eschatological Messiah and Lord.  This, and perhaps additional revelatory experiences, persuaded Paul that this all meant that the biblical prophecies of the pilgrimage of the nations to the God of Israel were now to be fulfilled, and that he (Paul) had a special responsibility/calling from God to make it happen.  In short, Paul’s “Gentile Mission” was  . . . for Gentiles, not assimilated Israelites.

Mark Nanos conceded that Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus, and that Paul expected an eschatological time when “all Israel” would come to that faith.  But, drawing upon several of his previously published essays, Nanos urged revised translations of several key words in Romans 9-11, with the effect of softening considerably how we take Paul’s characterization of the present religious state of fellow Jews who didn’t share his faith in Jesus.  In particular, Nanos proposes that the “hardening” of Israel should be translated as a “callusing” that was intended to protect “Israel/Israelites” during the time in which they were out of step with God’s purposes through not (yet) confessing Jesus as Messiah.  Nanos also proposed that Paul hoped that his Gentile converts would so exhibit the validity of their turning to the God of Israel that Jews would perhaps thereby become more favourably disposed toward the gospel of Jesus.

I found some of Nanos’ translation proposals more persuasive than others.  For example, “callus” seems to me a reasonable translation of the Greek word porosis (and the verbal cognate forms). But I don’t so readily see that Paul presents this as a protective thing.  Instead, he seems to me to intend the term as a metaphor for the inability of fellow Jews to perceive the validity of the gospel.

In my response to these papers, I urged that we take as important Paul’s expressions of anguish for Israel as indicating some sort of serious problem, as Paul saw the matter.  In Paul’s eyes, that problem was such as to have moved him to pray that he be damned for the sake of his people (Romans 9:1-3).  That suggests to me that Paul feared the damnation of those, whether Jews or Gentiles, who refused faith in Jesus.

Moreover, it’s pretty clear that Paul saw himself and other Jewish Jesus-followers as the elect “remnant” who prefigured the stance that he hoped “all Israel” would come to adopt toward Jesus (Romans 11:1-10).  These Jewish believers also included the Jerusalem church (led by James and John) and the other Judean churches, and others such as “Kephas” (Peter), Barnabas, and the several fellow Jews named in Romans 16.  Paul was not exceptional as a Jew who became a devotee of Jesus, and I think he hoped that all his people would join him as such.

There is some talk of the papers from this session being published in due course.  I’ll give notice when I know more about this.

In previous postings in dialogue with Tom Wright here and here, I’ve indicated my own take on Romans 9-11.

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  1. Liminal permalink

    Could you also reiterate the brief pastoral comment you made at the conclusion of the session? I found it to be particularly thought-provoking.

    • Mark: My impromptu statements that you refer to arose from some concerns expressed by Mark Nanos in his paper. Nanos proposes (and I agree) that Paul hoped that his pagan converts would exhibit the validity of their conversion in moral qualities, including their treatment of Jews. Paul seems to have been convinced that God’s purposes (including specifically the salvation of “all Israel”) would not be defeated by Jewish failure to embrace the Gospel, and that eventually they would do so. I’ve sometimes wondered, however, whether 1500 yrs of Christian harshness toward Jews may have made it well nigh impossible now for “all Israel” to see much validity to the Christian message, and so whether Gentile Christian behaviour may have defeated God’s purposes. For Christians, this should be a sobering (perhaps even frightening) thing to consider.

  2. Larry, I totally agree. I think Paul did believe that his fellow Jews/Judeans needed to put faith in Jesus. I argue this more fully in a chapter in a forthcoming book called An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans.

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