One of the most thorough dissertations I’ve directed in recent years was by Jason Staples, called “Reconstituting Israel: Restoration Eschatology in Early Judaism and Paul’s Gentile Mission.” It might be difficult for a lay person to figure out what it’s about from the title, but it was on a really significant topic that I think most any reader of the New Testament would see is important. It involves the Apostle Paul’s views of Jews, Judaism, and the nation of Israel.
The goal of the dissertation was to explain what Paul meant when he said that in the end, “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11). Huh? What’s that mean exactly? There are lots of options that have been proposed over the years, and none of them “obviously right.” The question drove Jason to an even more basic question, which almost no one has thought to ask, let alone provide a comprehensive answer to: what does Paul mean by “Israel”?
Jason defended his dissertation at the end of 2016. It was large! The first half of it has been accepted to be published as a book by Cambridge University Press, with the title: The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity (possibly to be out by the end of this year). He will provide us with three posts dealing with some of the key aspects of the book.
Jason is an adjunct professor in the Department of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He has agreed to respond to any comments/questions you might have.
What Does Paul Mean By ‘All Israel Will All Israel Be Saved’?
A few questions have come in about the apostle Paul’s views on the ultimate fate of Israel, a subject he covers primarily in chapters 9–11 of Romans, where his argument climaxes with the following two verses:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, lest you yourselves become high-minded, that an insensibility has come upon Israel for awhile until the fullness of the nations has entered—and thus all Israel will be saved, just as it is written….” (Rom 11:25–26a)
If you’ve found yourself puzzled when reading this section of Romans, you’re in good company—it’s among the most complex and difficult sections in the New Testament, and scholars have argued about these chapters for centuries. Third-century church father Origen got so exasperated with this passage that his commentary states, “Who the ‘all Israel’ are who will be saved … only God knows, along with his only begotten and perhaps any who are his friends.” A few modern scholars have simply given up the attempt to resolve the tension, concluding that Paul was simply inconsistent, giving different (ultimately contradictory) answers to different questions. That alone should tell you how deep the water is here—enter at your own risk!
The primary problem is that Paul—the self-proclaimed “apostle of gentiles”—has just spent the bulk of Romans arguing there is no distinction between Jews and gentiles with respect to salvation (e.g., Rom 3:21–30) and elsewhere proclaims that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). How can he claim that Jews and gentiles stand equal before God while simultaneously defending Israel’s special status? It all seems terribly contradictory. But it’s even worse than that: Paul not only claims both things but insists they’re tied together, arguing that “all Israel will be saved” only when “the fullness of the nations has entered [into what?!?].” The closer one looks, the more complex things seem. To figure out what Paul means here, at a minimum one has to answer four questions:
(1) What does “the fullness of the nations” mean? (Note: the Greek word for “nations” can also be translated “gentiles” or “non-Jews.”)
(2) What is the “fullness of the nations” entering?
(3) How is the ingathering of the “fullness of the nations” related to the the salvation of Israel? (Note: The Greek phrase underlying “and thus” represents a logical relationship between two things. For example, “He brought sandwiches, and thus they were able to eat.”)
(4) What does “all Israel” mean?
As early as the second century, some Christian interpreters cut this Gordian knot by claiming that the Christian church is the “true Israel.” One early second century writer, for example, argues that the Israelite covenant “is ours [Christians], but they [Jews] lost it forever” (Epistle of Barnabas 4:7). In this view, often called “replacement theology,” the “fullness of the nations” simply refers to all the gentiles who ultimately come into the church, which what Paul means by “all Israel.” This perspective is therefore able to answer all four questions, but it does so by radically redefining Israel. These things are therefore tied together because Paul isn’t really talking about the same Israel he was before.
Many modern scholars have found such a radical redefinition of Israel implausible, especially since all the other uses of “Israel” in Romans 9–11 refer to the historical ethnic group. The “replacement” model also seems to work against the whole point of this section of Romans. In these chapters, Paul is explaining how gentile inclusion does not threaten Israel’s salvation but actually proves God’s faithfulness to Israel. But how is that true if he concludes that historical Israel has simply been replaced by a new group by the same name? That would be like telling parents that they needn’t worry about their child’s safety because a substitute child with the same name can easily be provided. Such a conclusion would confirm exactly what Paul is trying to argue against!
Consequently, this “replacement” or “supersessionist” view is no longer as popular as it once was and is now only one of four major views held by scholars today. The other three options all agree that when Paul says “Israel,” he means the ethnic group historically referred to by that term. The differences between these views have to do with exactly who is included in that group—that is, what Paul means by ”all”—and the manner and timing of Israel’s salvation.
Some scholars argue that both the “all” and “Israel” must be taken at face value and therefore argue that Paul means every individual Jew throughout history will ultimately be saved by virtue of membership in the covenantal people of God. In this view, Jews do not need to receive the gospel or follow Jesus—that’s a separate path to salvation for gentiles, not Jews. The problem is that this “two-covenant” view has a very difficult time accounting for questions (2) and (3). What are the gentiles gathered into? And if Jews will be saved regardless of the gospel, why does Paul suggest that their salvation is somehow related to the ingathering of gentiles? It’s also hard to explain why Paul’s statements of grief about his fellow Jews who have rejected the gospel (such as at the beginning of chapter 9) if they’re going to be saved either way.
A few scholars have argued that “all Israel” refers not to all Jews throughout history but only to all elect Jews (that is, those Jews God chooses to save) throughout history, those who will be saved through Christ. This view can explain Paul’s grief, but it has its own problems, starting with the inability to explain why Paul says “all Israel” when he really means “some Jews.” Had Paul meant “elect Jews,” he could have saved his interpreters the trouble by simply saying that. This view also makes the climax of Paul’s argument into a mere truism, effectively, “God will save everyone God will save,” and it doesn’t have much better answers for (2) and (3) than the “two covenant” view does.
The fourth view is that Paul is envisioning the miraculous end-times salvation of all Jews alive at that time. After all the elect gentiles (“the fullness of the nations”) have been saved, all Jews alive at that time will be saved at once, presumably through a mass conversion to Christ. This view therefore answers (3) by reading “and thus” as denoting temporal sequence (“and then”). This is probably the most widely held view among critical scholars today, but it is not without its weaknesses. First of all, “all Israel” is limited to all Jews alive at the end, so most Jews throughout history aren’t included. Most interpreters explain this by observing that Paul expected this to happen in his own day and wasn’t anticipating centuries between himself and Christ’s return. The second problem is more significant, as this view has difficulty explaining question (2): what is the “fullness of the nations” entering? Paul doesn’t say “all Israel” will be saved after the salvation of the gentiles but after the gentiles have “come in.” Into what, exactly?
But it’s the third problem that is most serious for this view: even if Paul’s “Israel” refers to the ethnic group traditionally associated with that name, why should we assume “Israel” is synonymous with “the Jews”? At first this may seem like a strange question to ask. I mean, isn’t it obvious that Israel refers to the Jews? Actually, no. Our first hint that the two terms aren’t synonymous is provided by the fact that Paul suddenly switches to “Israel” terminology in Romans 9–11 after referring to “Jews” nine times in the earlier chapters of Romans. In fact, Paul doesn’t use the term “Israel” very often elsewhere; that term appears over twice as many times (13) in Romans 9–11 as it does elsewhere in the seven letters scholars agree he wrote (6 times). Everywhere else Paul talks about his contemporary kinspeople, he uses the word “Jew” (26 times). If Paul meant “Jews,” why did he switch terms? Clearly, something is going on here!
These questions are not only important for this passage; they’re central to understanding Paul’s larger message. If we can’t explain how he envisions Israel’s salvation, how can we understand what he means by salvation in general? In my next posts, we’ll take a closer look at why Paul switches terms and what that suggests about how we should interpret this difficult passage.