Last week I posted the first of three interesting discussions by my erstwhile student Jason Staples, PhD in New Testament, currently teaching at North Carolina State University. Here is the second post, with an even more challenging thesis that runs counter to what scholars have long said, but for which he makes a compelling case. His fuller discussion will be found in the book he has coming out from Cambridge Press at the end of the year.
Jason will be happy to address your comments and questions.
Jason A. Staples is the author of The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity.
Post 2: Why Does Paul Switch from Talking about ‘Jews’ to ‘Israel’?
My last post looked at how Paul’s statements about Israel’s ultimate salvation in Romans 11 seem to contradict what he says elsewhere about the equality between Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) and surveyed several ways scholars have tried to reconcile that tension. But that post concluded by calling attention to a significant but often unnoticed problem: most modern scholars have simply assumed that “Israel” means “Jews.” But if Paul meant “Jews,” why didn’t he just use that term like he does in the rest of Romans and his other letters? Why does he switch terms for three chapters in Romans 9–11? The very fact that he changes terminology suggests something subtle is afoot, so if we’re going to understand what Paul’s doing here, we have to be able to explain why he shifts to talking about “Israel” in the first place.
To answer this question, we need to step back a bit to look at how the term “Israel” was understood and used by Paul’s contemporaries. Surprisingly, it turns out that other first-century Jews also distinguish between “Israelites” and “Jews.” One good example is Josephus, a first-century Jewish priest who wrote a history of the Jewish people (Jewish Antiquities). Josephus stops using the term “Israel” around the midpoint of his history, at which point he begins using the term “Jew,” which is much rarer in the first half where Israel appears.
Interestingly, unlike Paul, Josephus actually explains why he switches terms, saying that although many Jews returned from the Babylonian Exile, “the whole of Israel remained in that land [of exile], so it came about that only two tribes returned to Asia and Europe and are subject to the Romans. But the ten tribes are still beyond the Euphrates River and are a boundless multitude too great to number” (Antiquities 11.132). He then explains that “after they [the two tribes] returned from Babylon, they were called Jews after the tribe of Judah, since that was the prominent tribe” (Jewish Antiquities, 11.173).
To understand what Josephus is talking about here, we have to take another step back to the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), where Israel is the name of the twelve-tribe people of God led out of Egypt in the exodus that eventually becomes a unified kingdom under David, who was from the tribe of Judah. But the unity among these twelve tribes is fleeting, as the ten northern tribes broke off to form their own kingdom after the death of David’s son, Solomon. The result was two kingdoms: the northern kingdom, which retained the name “Israel,” and the southern kingdom of Judah, which was ruled by David’s descendants. The odd result of this is that “Israel” could refer either to the whole twelve-tribe people of God (that is, “all Israel”) or the ten-tribe kingdom to the north of Judah.
The northern kingdom was actually the stronger and more prosperous of the two, but it also drew the attention of the Neo-Assyrian Empire because of its strategic importance along an important trade route connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt. After a few ill-advised attempts to shake off Assyrian control in the mid-eighth century BCE, the northern kingdom finally came to an end when the Assyrians sacked the capital city of Samaria in around 722 BCE and converted the territory into an Assyrian province.
The Assyrians were experts at breaking up rebellious people groups; their primary strategy was to deport much of the population, dispersing them among different regions of the Assyrian empire, ensuring that they were spread too thin to unify and rebel again. And within a few generations, these dispersed groups would typically intermarry among the other people groups in those areas, effectively losing their distinct ethnic identity and becoming melting-pot Assyrians. (Such practices are considered genocide by today’s standards.) This is ultimately what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel, as Assyria deported large portions of the population, scattering them into separate areas. (For a theologically-charged and hyperbolic account of these deportations, see 2 Kings 17.)
Many from the north fled south during these events, but only twenty years later, King Hezekiah of Judah foolishly repeated the mistakes of the northern kings and rebelled against Assyria. According to the records of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, this resulted in the deportations of over 200,000 people from Hezekiah’s kingdom—including many refugees who had fled from the north. Interestingly, Sennacherib did not depose Hezekiah himself (there’s some evidence that suggests Sennacherib’s mother was closely related to Hezekiah), and Judah remained a distinct kingdom, though effectively reduced to the territory immediately around Jerusalem, for a few more generations. A little over a century later (587/6 BCE), the Babylonians finally brought the kingdom of Judah to an end, famously destroying Jerusalem, burning the Temple of YHWH (the God of Israel), and deporting those of consequence to Babylon.
While all this was happening, a series of prophets engaged in withering critiques of Israelite and Judahite society, proclaiming that YHWH would destroy both kingdoms and scatter his people because of persistent injustice and idolatry, each of which represented a breach of contract with YHWH. But that’s not all these prophets proclaimed; the final versions of these prophetic books also promise that YHWH would ultimately restore his people from their scattered state after they learned their lesson. Remarkably, these prophecies often emphasized that this return would include a reunification of Israel and Judah (for examples, see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36–37). This expectation of the reconstitution and restoration of all twelve tribes of Israel became an important part of Jewish theology thereafter.
This brings us back to the events Josephus is talking about in the passages cited above. Babylon was soon conquered by the Persians, who presented themselves as liberators to those who had been oppressed by the Assyrians and Babylonians. As part of this policy of liberation, many from Judah who had been exiled to Babylon (or their descendants) were allowed to return to their homeland once again. Prophecy fulfilled, right! Well, not quite. Don’t forget that many of the prophecies about Israel’s restoration go out of their way to include not only those from Judah but also from the northern tribes of Israel.
That’s ultimately what Josephus is referring to—he explicitly says that only those from Judah returned while the rest of Israel remained on the other side of the Euphrates, still awaiting the promised return and reunification of all Israel. Josephus explains that this is why he stops saying “Israel” and starts talking about “Jews”: after the return from Babylon, the lens has narrowed from Israel as a whole to those from the southern kingdom of Judah. For Josephus, at least, “Israel” is not synonymous with the Jews. Instead, Israel is a larger group that includes but is not limited to Jews, much like “American” includes but is not limited to New Yorkers.
I won’t belabor the point here—I did plenty of that in my book The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, which comes out later this year—but a closer look at other sources from the period shows that Josephus’ distinction between these terms was pretty typical in this time period. There’s also a lot of concern about exactly where the other ten tribes are (our best evidence is that most of the tribes like Reuben and Naphtali simply intermarried and disappeared), and the Samaritans claim to be descendants of some of the northern tribes. Most Jews seem to have rejected that claim to Israelite status as illegitimate, viewing Samaritans as the result of intermarriage between the people Assyria resettled within the land and the Israelites left behind. (Note, however, that neither Jews nor Samaritans view the Samaritans as Jews—the debate is over Israelite status, not Jewish status.)
Once we recognize this distinction, a few other things get clearer, starting with the historical Jesus himself. Take note that Jesus proclaimed the coming of the “kingdom of God” and chose twelve apostles, who he promised would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28 // Luke 22:30). But there were no twelve tribes in Jesus’ day! The point of this promise was that Jesus himself was initiating the long-awaited restoration of all twelve tribes—they may not be here yet, but they will be! The “kingdom of God” would be the restored Israel of the prophets, through which God himself would bring justice to all the nations. This was the radical apocalyptic message Jesus went to the cross proclaiming and attempting to initiate.
Of course, that raises an obvious question for those around after Jesus’ crucifixion: did Jesus fail? Where is Israel’s restoration? Why haven’t the twelve tribes returned? And if you’re Paul, you’re also left trying to explain why all these gentiles are responding to the gospel message—which, remember, is about Israel’s messiah-king and the restoration of Israel! Has God simply abandoned Israel and elected a new people from the nations? This is precisely the question Paul is trying to answer in Romans 9–11, and in answering it, he returns to the question of exactly who constitutes Israel in the first place. And as it turns out, he argues that because “Israel” is something bigger than the Jews alone, the salvation of “all Israel” will require something bigger, something miraculous. Paul’s solution will be the subject of my next post.