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Will “All Israel” Be Saved? Really? Guest Post by Jason Staples

Here now is the third and final post by Jason Staples connected with his dissertation and now to be published book on what Paul meant that “All Israel will be saved.”  It’s a big issue.  Isn’t Paul the apostles of the “gentiles”?  Doesn’t he attack Jews and Judaism?  Doesn’t he think God rejected them because they rejected him?   What could Paul mean by this?


Jason argues that Paul does not mean what scholars have long argued and regular ole lay folk have thought he meant (there are lots of opinions!).  As you’ll see, it’s a major issue with lots of ins and outs, but a huge payoff.


Jason will again be happy to respond to questions and comments.





Post 3: Did Jesus Fail to Restore Israel? Paul’s Solution to the Problem


The two previous posts have discussed why scholars have found Paul’s statements about Israel’s ultimate salvation difficult to square with his insistence on the equal status of gentile believers in Jesus and why we can’t just assume that “Israel” is synonymous with “the Jews.” Now it’s time to tie it all together and explain what Paul’s actually doing in this passage. As a reminder, we left off talking about Jesus’ proclamation of the “good news” that he was setting in motion the restoration of all twelve tribes of Israel—and everything that goes with that.

His followers would certainly have expected his crucifixion to be followed closely by the restoration he promised, including the reunification of the Jews and the ten northern tribes of Israel (who are not Jewish, since they’re not from Judah) into a single kingdom, through which God would bring justice to the world. When this didn’t seem to be happening, they had to explain why. Had Jesus failed? Was he not who he claimed to be? When would Israel be restored?

To see just how foundational this question was for the earliest Christians, take note of how the book of Acts begins: after the resurrection, Jesus gathers his faithful followers together, where they asked him, “Lord, is now the time you restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). This verse serves as the thesis question for the book of Acts, which then attempts to explain why the restoration of Israel seems not to have happened as expected if Jesus were in fact the messiah-king of Israel. Acts’ answer is that Israel’s restoration is in fact underway—it’s just happening in a surprising manner and on a heavenly level rather than an earthly level. It turns out that this solution is remarkably Pauline (not surprising since Paul is the great hero of Acts), as Paul ultimately gives a very similar answer in Romans 9–11.

Remember that Paul is trying to address this question about Israel’s restoration. Many scholars have understood chapters 9–11 as Paul’s attempt to explain the fact that many Jews have rejected the gospel, but the problem is really bigger than that. He’s trying to explain why, if Jesus is in fact Israel’s messiah-king, Israel hasn’t been restored as expected—and why gentiles are being included in the community instead. Does this mean God has abandoned Israel in favor of a new people? Paul vigorously argues against that conclusion, instead attempting to explain why the inclusion of gentiles actually represents God’s faithfulness towards Israel. Obviously, Paul’s explanation is complex, and we don’t have enough space here get into much detail—for that you’ll have to wait for my second book, which should hit the shelves next year at some point. For now, we’ll just hit three key points Paul makes in his argument.

The first is in Romans 9:23–26, where Paul explains that God has chosen to show mercy to those he has called, “not only from among Jews but also from among gentiles” (9:24). As proof, he cites a passage from the prophet Hosea, “I will call those who were not my people, ‘my people’ … and it shall be that in the place where it was said to them ‘you are not my people,’ there they will be called children of the living God” (Rom 9:25–26). There’s more going on here than meets the eye.

You’ll remember from my last post that, according to the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its people scattered by Assyria. Shortly before that happened, the prophet Hosea had warned that such judgment was coming, declaring that Israel’s infidelity had resulted in a divine divorce. “You are not my people,” Hosea proclaimed on behalf of Israel’s God, “and I am not your God” (Hos 1:9). Whereas previously Israel’s God had provided for them and ensured their safety, he would now cast them among the nations, where they would be “swallowed up” (Hos 8:8), no different than any other people. Nevertheless, the prophet also promises that God would one day restore those to whom he said “you are not my people,” making them his special people once again (Hos 1:10–11).

These are the verses Paul quotes in Romans 9, but he strangely applies these verses to the gentiles being shown mercy. Is he just ignoring the context to cite something convenient for his argument? That’s possible, but I think there’s more going on here below the surface. Specifically, Paul has latched onto these verses because of the “not my people” language—after all, gentiles are by definition not God’s people. Further, if Hosea is telling the northern Israelites that they are now “not my people”—that is, outside the special covenant with God—wouldn’t mean that they’ve effectively become gentiles?

Putting the pieces together, Paul appears to read Hosea as a twofold prophecy, each directly involving gentiles or gentile status. First, (northern) Israel would no longer be distinct from the rest of the nations—they’ve effectively become gentiles. (This does seem to be what happened with the northern Israelites who were scattered by Assyria—they intermarried with the other peoples, thus assimilating into those groups and ceasing to be their own separate ethnic group.) But at some later time—and this is the part Paul specifically quotes—God will restore Israel from being “not my people” (gentiles). To put it plainly, much of Israel has “gone native” and become gentiles, so now God is fulfilling his promise to restore Israel by incorporating gentiles.

This brings us back to the two verses that have puzzled so many readers of Paul over the ages:

“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)

In my first post, I explained that any interpretation that aims to explain what Paul’s arguing in these verses needs 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?

It turns out that the key to understanding this passage is recognizing that “all Israel” is neither a way of talking about the gentile church as a substitute for the Jews nor is it synonymous with the Jews. Instead, by “all Israel,” Paul means exactly what that phrase means in his Bible—all twelve tribes of Israel, which includes both Jews (those from Judah) and those from the northern tribes of Israel, who are not from Judah and are therefore not Jews. That is, Paul is talking about the same long-awaited restoration promised by the prophets that Jesus claimed to be inaugurating, a restoration that by definition includes more than Jews.

But Paul argues that since much of Israel had become inextricably assimilated among the nations, the only way for this to happen to is for gentiles to be included among Israel—that’s what the “fullness of the nations” is entering. But what does he mean by “fullness of the nations”? Why use that specific phrase? It turns out that phrase appears in one place in Paul’s Bible: when the patriarch Jacob blessed the two sons of Joseph, he declared a greater blessing over Ephraim (which also became another name for the northern kingdom since Ephraim was the ruling tribe), promising that Ephraim’s “seed [descendants] will become the fullness of the nations” (Gen 48:19).

Interestingly, most Bible translations—including the Greek Septuagint—conflate the Hebrew phrase with God’s promise to Abraham that his seed would “become a multitude of nations,” but Paul’s phrase is a perfect literal rendering of the distinctive Hebrew phrase, which only appears in Gen 48:19. By echoing this distinctive phrase, Paul effectively argues that the plan of God has been hidden in plain sight (mystery!): northern Israel would become gentile-ified but would then be restored—in the process fulfilling God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed.

This reading can therefore satisfactorily answer all four of the above questions. The “fullness of the nations” represents the seed of Ephraim (the northern kingdom) assimilated among the gentiles. It enters and is reincorporated in Israel, and this is the means by which not only the Jews but all Israel will be saved. Thus Paul argues that incorporation of gentiles is a necessary part of Israel’s restoration and is in fact evidence of God’s faithfulness to Israel—God will go as far as incorporating gentiles (!) to essentially resurrect Israel from the dead (see Ezekiel 37; Rom 11:15).

This reading explains how Paul can insist both on the continued special status of Israel while also emphasizing the equal incorporation of believing gentiles in early Christian communities. It also dispenses with the major weaknesses of the other proposals. Unlike the “replacement” view, Paul has not replaced the “ethnic” understanding of Israel or argued that the gentile church has somehow become a “new Israel.” Instead, the gentiles’ salvation depends on their inclusion in Israel, something that amounts to an ethnic conversion. And unlike the other three common scholarly views, Paul has also not redefined “Israel” to more narrowly refer to Jews only but instead continues to keep the broader emphasis on all twelve tribes.

This understanding of Paul’s view of Israel has many implications about how he understands ethics, the role of the Torah, and many other things, but we’ll have to leave those things until another time. For now, it’s worth taking a moment to admire the elegance and subtlety of Paul’s argument for how Israel is in fact being restored as promised, though it looks different than anyone anticipated.


Paul’s Ascent to Paradise. Guest Post by James Tabor
When Paul Says “Israel” Does He Mean “The Jews”? Guest Post by Jason Staples



  1. Avatar
    Hngerhman  August 3, 2020

    Dr Staples –

    A fantastic post on an elegant solution.

    If by “all Israel”, Paul means “all”, and uses ‘pleroma’ in Romans 11:12, then does Paul’s usage of the same term ‘pleroma’, with respect to the nations, symmetrically also mean “all”?

    Many thanks in advance.

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 3, 2020

      Yes, I suspect that they’re symmetrical. I also suspect that Paul probably has Jewish traditions about the number of nations in mind (for more on that aspect, I recommend James M. Scott’s work). If they’re symmetrical in that sense, it would mean that all nations need to be represented (parallel to the twelve tribes) rather than that every individual from the nations will be saved.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  August 4, 2020

        Excellent! Many many thanks! I very much look forward to your books, and the rec of J.M. Scott’s book on Paul and the Nations will help pass the time until publication.

        Following the thread of symmetry, would “all Israel” then not mean “every individual”, but only the minimum sufficient representation of each (reconstituted) tribe?

        • Avatar
          JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

          Something like that. “All Israel” reflects the totality of the tribes. In the prophetic/sectarian understanding of Israel Paul appears to be operating with, the unfaithful/disobedient among Israel are cut off, and the (twelve-tribe) Israel that remains is the whole thing.

  2. Avatar
    high_Q  August 3, 2020

    Hi Dr Staples,

    Since these ‘nations’ include the descendants of all Israel, why would Paul discourage people who could possibly be of Israelite descent from observing the Law?

    What’s your take on this?


    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      Paul’s main argument against that is that these former gentiles have already been made new covenant members (integrated in Israel) by receiving the spirit, and requiring circumcision as an entrance requirement effectively invalidates that, suggesting that the *real* requirement isn’t receiving the spirit but the human action of circumcision. Moreover, Israelite circumcision was to be done on the eighth day after one’s birth, something these converts obviously couldn’t accomplish. Paul’s argument is that God has already circumcised the hearts of these people (fulfilling such requirements), and calling that into question is to call into question the work of the spirit among the Jewish followers of Jesus also.

      He doesn’t argue for a completely law-free approach, however, as he argues that followers of Jesus fulfill what the law requires through the transformation of the spirit, being guided and empowered to do what is right and just. He argues that trying to fulfill the law without the spirit will result in inadequate obedience to the law.

  3. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  August 3, 2020

    That’s extremely clever of Paul and well researched. Still it seems Jews would have difficulty with the notion of a heavenly kingdom instead of the long anticipated earthly kingdom? Or was Paul mostly concerned about converting Gentiles than offending Jewish sensibilities?

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      The notion of a heavenly kingdom is a Jewish idea (“on earth as it is in heaven”), so that wouldn’t be all that difficult in that respect. And Paul still asserts that the kingdom of heaven will one day be manifest on earth as well when Jesus returns.

  4. Avatar
    Eskil  August 4, 2020

    All this made me wonder what were the actual differences between 1) Jews and gentiles, 2) Israelites worshiping false gods and gentiles and 3) Jews/Israelites and converts?

    It could not have been linguistic as all the Canaanite languages were mutually intelligible. Even in NT, Jesus is having conversations with Samaritan and Tyrian women without any language barriers. On the other hand, Alexandrian Jews were Greek speaking.

    Did king Solomon stopped being Jew once he turned away from the God of Israel and started following and building temples for other gods?

    What tribe did the Jewish converts belong? There must have been converts as Mosaic law commands “To love converts”, “Not to cheat a convert monetarily”, “Not to insult or harm a convert with words”, etc.

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      1) Jews are the ethnic group derived from the ancient kingdom of Judah. Gentiles are essentially everyone else, though Samaritans are somewhat marginal due to their claim to be Israelites. Keep in mind that ethnicity is not simply a matter of biological descent, as people can marry into groups and adopt the practices of that group, integrating with and becoming part of that ethnic group. So Jewish proselytes (full converts) also are Jewish, though their children are perhaps *more* Jewish than the initial convert.

      2) Unless you accept the Samaritan claim to Israelite status, there really were no distinct non-Jewish Israelites in the first century, CE. Those groups had, as far as we can tell, intermarried among the nations (and among the Jews) over the eight centuries after Israel’s fall.

      3) As for full (circumcised) converts to Judaism, most Jews seem to have regarded them as de facto Jews, and their children certainly were. So there’s really not a distinction to speak of there.

      There also weren’t any distinct Canaanites or Canaanite languages in the first century CE; most people in the region had spoken Aramaic (the imperial language of Assyria, Babylon, and then Persia; this is the language called “Hebrew” in antiquity) for generations.

      It’s a bit out of place to call Solomon a Jew, as that term wasn’t used in his day. But applying later terminology, it’s justifiable to call him a Jew since he was from the tribe of Judah. And he never ceases to be that, so he never stops being a Jew. According to the biblical account, Solomon and Judah ruled over Israel and even called the unified kingdom by the name “Israel.”

      Jewish converts would become Jews, meaning they’d be associated with Judah unless upon converting they married into a family from Benjamin (Levite endogamy was typically more strictly enforced).

      But for Paul’s movement, you have to remember that “Jew” is not synonymous with “Israelite,” and he argues that his converts into Israel don’t have to (and shouldn’t) become Jews.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  August 4, 2020

        What is your view o Beta Israel, the Ethiopian Jews? Could they be Danites?

        • Avatar
          JasonStaples  August 6, 2020

          I don’t know the details of their claim enough to have a strong opinion in the matter.

  5. Avatar
    PBS  August 4, 2020

    Absolutely fabulous and intriguing thesis Jason!

    But with so much emphasis in the OT & NT that it is only “the remnant” that is saved and not every last “ethnic” Israelite, what’s your view on who or what is the “remnant”?

    Who or what are the remnant returning to? To the “Mighty God” (Isa 9:6, 10:21-22) aka YWHH or to Christ via faith?

    A key argument for the “Israel of God” = all in Christ, regardless of ethnicity view (as you’re well aware) is made from texts like: (Mt 3:9, Rom 2:28-9, 9:6-8 & 27; Phil 3:10 & Gal 3:29). So, how do you reconcile these texts that employ such explicit Jewish terminology like “seed”/“sperma,” “heirs,” “sons” (of Abraham), (sons of the) “promise” & “true circumcision,” etc. since these texts (save Mat) address and/or are being applied to Gentiles?

    With thanks & appreciation!

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      For Paul, the distinction between YHWH and Christ doesn’t work, as Paul explicitly states in Philippians 2 that Jesus has been given the “name above every name” (YHWH).

      “Remnant” simply means “those that remain,” and my view is that attempting to distinguish between the “remnant” and Israel as a whole is therefore a category error. In the prophets, the idea is that many (disobedient) Israelites will be cut off but that the remainder of Israel (=all of Israel that is left after the divine purge) will be saved. I think Paul basically holds to that idea.

      I think that at least for Paul the application of these ethnic terms of Israelite membership to gentile believers reflects his view that these people have experienced an *ethnic* (not just *religious*) conversion. They’re authentically Israelites in every sense through the work of the spirit, which has circumcised their hearts, etc. This is Paul’s version of John the Baptist’s “children of Abraham from these stones.”

  6. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  August 4, 2020

    Medieval kabbalah offers different approaches to the land of Israel (perhaps Yasher-El (straight to God) .As a medieval Jewish rabbi who explained “Israel” said (one by many other Jewish scholars / rabbis) “” The secret behind foreign lands and the land of Israel .. is not a land of earthly things, but it is the souls that live in a lump of earth … ”

    From what I have understood, as a non-scholar in this field, these symbolic concepts/views may have existed when Jesus lived. The Gnostics (who were around) also had their symbology of the soul, and used eartly terms as spirtual definitions. One example is the beautiful Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl who is a spiritual tail (of the Prince from a “Kingdom” (Israel?) , travelling “down to Egypt (a place/condition of earthly capitvity/bondage, )

    So it seems (to me at least) that it is the esoteric (old) understanding of concepts such as “Israel, Egypt, Nations and the New Jerusalem and more” that takes it in a more spiritual direction.

    Anyway, with all these groups, the interpretations at that time, no wonder it is difficult to get a good grip on this, at least for me.

  7. Avatar
    Stephen  August 4, 2020

    Interesting! Your view also goes a way towards reconciling the apparent discrepancy that the historical Jesus seems to have considered his mission “Jewish only” with the existence of an early pre-Pauline Gentile outreach. Would this suggest that the viewpoint you describe might have been the general view of early Christians rather than a Pauline innovation?


    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      I think the evidence suggests that there were lots of disagreements about this question in the earliest years of Christianity, so I don’t think we can say it was “the general view of early Christians.” But I also don’t think it was a Pauline innovation; Jesus himself seems to have aimed at least for the inclusion/incorporation of Samaritans as a necessary step for the reconstitution of all Israel, and when non-Jews and non-Samaritans began to “receive the spirit” in mixed communities like Caesarea and Antioch, this seems to have been the conclusion that eventually won the day.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think there was disagreement about whether gentiles could be incorporated into the movement—that much probably goes back to the earliest level. But incorporated without circumcision? That was a bridge too far for many of the earliest followers, especially given the centrality of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant of Gen 17.

  8. Avatar
    jhague  August 4, 2020

    Jason, I have enjoyed your posts here so much that I checked out your website and blogs. Are you still posting and replying at your site? Thanks

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I’m still replying at my own site, and I’m planning to start posting again once both of these books are out. Until then, I’ve got to focus my energy on the books themselves.

  9. epicurus
    epicurus  August 4, 2020

    Great series of posts, I really enjoyed reading them.

  10. Avatar
    tom.hennell  August 4, 2020

    Very ingenious and stimulating Jason; thank you.

    Nevertheless; Paul supports his argument that ‘all Israel will be saved’ with an extended metaphor (allegory/parable?) depicting Israel as a cultivated olive tree (Romans 11: 17-24; Hosea 14:6) . For your argument to succeed, it must make sense of Paul’s metaphor.

    But I cannot see that it does. For Paul, the ‘lost’ tribes would appear to be broken-off branches from the cultivated olive of Israel; subsequently grafted onto wild olive trees and so detached from their true ‘root’; but remaining cultivated olives by nature. To these have since been added those Jews who do not recognise Christ; broken-off as Christ is the true ‘root’ or, and ‘end’ of, the Jewish Law.

    Believing gentiles, says Paul, are wild olive branches grafted ‘against nature’ onto the cultivated olive tree root-stock in place of these broken-off branches. But in Romans 11:24, Paul envisages a second grafting, this time the re-grafting back onto their ‘own tree’, of both sets of ‘natural’ (cultivated) olive branches.

    So; in Romans 11:25 and Romans 11:26, these two qualitatively distinct graftings, correspond successively to the ‘fullness of the nations’ and the saving of ‘all Israel’.

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      There’s not enough space here to address this more fully, but I’ve got a pretty significant chunk of material focused on the olive tree metaphor in the second book (the one focused on Paul and Israel) that should be out sometime next year. In brief, I think the most significant aspect of all this is that the branches being grafted in are wild *olive* branches, not branches of other trees. If we extend the metaphor, it’s not that branches are cut off and grafted into wild olive trees but rather that they’re cut off and discarded, with some taking root (as olive cuttings do) and, as they’re not cultivated, becoming wild.

      In any case, the tree itself is Israel, so those branches that are grafted in are becoming incorporated into Israel and therefore becoming Israelites (but not Jews), which is the most important point.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  August 4, 2020

        Thanks for the explanation Jason; I look forward to your book.

        But for the moment I am not convinced. The branches of the nations may be wild ‘olives’; but for Paul their grafting is ‘para physis’; where the branches of Israel are ‘kata physis’. That is a signficant difference that you have not yet explained.

        It may be questioned how far Paul is being literal in his ‘oliive’ metaphor (as it is not at original to him). But cuttings from cultivated olive trees attached to uncultivated rootstock do not ‘become wild olives’; they continue to fruit with cultivated olives. And equally wild olive cuttings grafted onto cultivated rootstock are never transformed to bear cultivated fruit.

        Paul says ‘if the root is holy, so are the branches’,(Romans 11:16). So, although the branches of the nations remain ‘by nature’ wholly different from branches of separated Israel, nevertheless when both are grafted onto the common root of Christ, both become equally holy.

        But by the same token, as the nations are not ‘incorporated into Israel’ to hecome holy, so they do not become Israelites; but happily remain as ‘eschatolgical’ Gentiles.

        • Avatar
          JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

          It depends on what the olive tree is. If it’s Israel, then the ingrafted branches become Israelites by virtue of becoming part of the tree. That seems to be the overarching point of the metaphor. If the tree is not Israel, then one has to explain what other people is “holy.”

          • Avatar
            tom.hennell  August 5, 2020

            The tree’s branches are clearly ‘Israel’; as in Jeremiah 11:16; but Paul distinguishes the tree into ‘branches’ and ”root. So, in Romans 11:17, the wild shoots of the Gentiles are grafted ‘among the branches’, but onto and supported by, the ‘root’.

            This is in line with normal agricultural practice; the economic life-span of olive root-stock is measured in centuries, and it was common experience that you would obtain higher yields grafting fresh branches onto existing root-stock, than planting anew (Columnella V, 10:7).

            But, if the olive tree is Israel, is the root also ‘Israel’?

            I propose not. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul applies the term ‘root’ to Christ (Romans 15:12), and it may be supposed he is doing so here too. So, Christ is the root of Jesse, ‘in whom the Gentiles hope’; and Christ is also the fulfilment of the Law (Romans 10:4), and hence the root of all Israel. Both the wild olive shoots of the nations, and the regrafted cultivated olive branches of all Israel will then be rooted in Christ and the Law.

            One root, whose sap equally sustains two ‘natures’ of branches, which bear both ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’ olive fruits.

          • Avatar
            JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

            My book will get into more detail on this, but in brief: Christ is the root. The tree itself is Israel. The branches are Israelites.

  11. Avatar
    jscheller  August 4, 2020

    Thank you Jason. You have a very insightful proposition here. If I understand you correctly then…
    …the 10 northern tribes are gentile based on their being uprooted and assimilated among non-Israelite people.
    …gentiles then represent the 10 northern tribes.
    …Israel is the combination of believing Jews and Gentiles, in that, through the combination, all 12 original tribes of Israel are represented.
    Part of the explanation is based on Paul’s use of Israel instead of Jews in Romans 9-11. If so, I’m a little fuzzy on some of Paul’s references in chapter 11:
    11:11b – Israel is jealous of the gentiles; if gentiles denote a portion of Israel, why is Israel jealous?
    11:31 – Is Paul referring to Israel when he says “they” or to Jews?

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

      Good questions. First of all, it’s important to note that 11:11b doesn’t say “Israel”; the antecedent (all the way back in 11:7) is “the rest”—that is the part of Israel that was made insensible. This is an important point of precision, as Paul is again making the same distinction he sets up in 9:6 when he says “not all from Israel are Israel.” So it’s not “Israel” that is made jealous but rather “the rest of Israel”—a subset. And what are they jealous of? Gentile incorporation in the people of God (Israel). I think 11:31 is referring to the same group—those “from Israel” who are (according to Paul) presently insensible and unfaithful.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  August 4, 2020

    Excellent exposition. Question about this: “Paul’s phrase is a perfect literal rendering of the distinctive Hebrew phrase, which only appears in Gen 48:19.” Did Paul just happen to know this Hebrew phrase from memory? My understanding is that a scroll of the Pentateuch, or even just Genesis would be a relatively rare and expensive possession. Hard to imagine Paul traveling around Asia Minor with such scrolls. Or do you think he did have such resources at his disposal, that he would render the phrase so precisely?

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

      I don’t know. There’s been a lot of scholarship on Paul’s scriptural citations and what can be presumed about what he knew and had access to. The short answer is that we don’t really know for sure.

      I think we can almost certainly rule out Paul traveling with Torah scrolls (especially Hebrew versions!), but he may have had access to them in synagogues in various cities as he traveled (at least until he wore out his welcome, as his claim to have received 39 lashes five different times suggests). It’s also likely that he had significant parts of the Torah committed to memory, but despite his claim to be a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (=native Semitic-language speaker), we have no idea how much of his knowledge of Torah was in Hebrew versus Greek or Aramaic. His quotations are normally from the Greek translation tradition known to us as the Septuagint (LXX), but sometimes he diverges and uses something closer to what is found in the Hebrew or one of the Targumim (=Aramaic translations).

      One thing to consider as we reflect on this question is how polished and rhetorically sophisticated (and long!) Romans is. This wasn’t a letter that was just written or dictated in the moment but an unusually long letter that was carefully crafted from materials Paul (and coworkers) had been collecting and combining for years. We also have manuscript evidence that people at this time put together small compendia of key verses on similar themes that they would presumably refer back to when needed, and Paul probably kept (and eventually memorized) such lists of key passages that he would use in his sermons and oral teaching over the years. By the time he wrote Romans, he’d been working with this material for years and almost certainly used pre-formed and deeply-considered chunks of material that simply needed to be reshaped for their larger context in an extended letter like Romans.

      Again, that’s a long way to say that we don’t really know for sure but that there’s good reason to suspect that the phrase is not merely coincidental.

  13. Avatar
    mrccs  August 4, 2020

    Is the term “fullness of the nations” similar to term “time of the gentiles”? I assume they are used to move the believer away from the concept of an imminent return of Christ/ restoration of Israel.

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      I assume you’re talking about Luke 21:24. The phrases are similar, but I don’t think they’re referring to the same phenomenon, nor do I think Paul’s concept of the ingathering of the “fullness of the nations” was a way to move the believer away from the concept of an imminent return of Christ or restoration of Israel. If anything, I think he’s imagining that his ministry is the beginning of the ingathering of the “fullness of the nations,” which he directly ties to the restoration of Israel and ultimate return of Christ.

  14. Avatar
    dankoh  August 4, 2020

    An interesting argument! But it seems to me you rely heavily on “Jew” being derived from “Judah” and more specifically from “Judaea,” a nomenclature that appears not to have been in use prior to 200 BCE. The authors of Kings treat the inhabitants of Israel and Judah as one people, and exiles from the northern kingdom were welcomed by their kinsmen to the south. Perhaps this is theological propaganda, but I do read a common religious and ethnic connection, even if the sole worship of Yahweh was never totally established in the north, perhaps because of distrust of its Jerusalem HQ. (To be fair, it was not totally established in Judah either until after the Persian conquest.)

    So who was Paul trying to persuade here? The Jews or the Gentiles? And if the latter, why wasn’t he more explicit, since the nuances you cite wouldn’t have meant anything to non-Jews, except maybe some of the Godfearers.

    • Avatar
      JasonStaples  August 4, 2020

      The term “Judaea” is just the Greek term for what had long been the Persian province of Yehud, which before that was the territory of the kingdom (and tribe) of Judah. So the terminology goes back far beyond 200 BCE (the Hebrew equivalent of “Jew” appears in the books of Jeremiah and 2 Kings, for example).

      The authors of Kings do not treat the inhabitants of Israel and Judah as one people, either, though they argue that the two groups should be unified as one under the authority of Jerusalem and its king and priesthood. Instead, they treat the northern and southern kingdoms separately, with the northern (but not the southern) group referred to by the label “Israel.”

      The books certainly argue for (and construct) a common religious and ethnic connection between Israel and Judah, but they do not equate Judah with Israel, and that’s very important.

      Paul seems to be primarily focused on convincing and converting non-Jews (almost certainly non-Jews already interested in Judaism to some degree), but he’s also interested in proving his point to Jews, as he seems to understand himself as proclaiming the promised restoration of Israel that many (most?) Jews of his day looked forward to.

      • sschullery
        sschullery  August 5, 2020

        Would you please give a history of the term “gentile,” and how it might have related to the people of Israel? And, I too share AndrewB’s wonder, below.

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          JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

          “Gentile” is just an English rendering of the ancient Hebrew and Greek words for “nation” (goy and ethnos, respectively). In the Hebrew Bible, “the nations” are the various people groups across the earth, of which Israel is the one specifically chosen to be YHWH’s covenantal people. On occasion, “the nations” is used as shorthand to refer to the nations other than Israel. This latter use of the term becomes more common in the literature of the late Second Temple period, and in the New Testament, “the nations” almost always refers to “everyone else.” Paul uses the collective noun “nation/nations” to refer both to non-Jewish groups and to individuals within those people groups (akin to using “America” to refer to the collective or to “Americans”), a use that we also find in later Rabbinic literature.

          I can’t (or at least won’t) go into more detail here, but if you’re really interested in more detail, I suggest taking a look at Ishay Rosen-Zvi and Adi Ophir’s 2018 book Goy, which engages in a highly detailed (and quite technical/theoretical at times) history of the term. Their hypothesis (which I’m not sure I fully agree with) is that Paul’s use of the term to refer to individuals is in fact an innovation.

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    AndrewB  August 4, 2020

    Very interesting and it sounds very plausible. I wonder: Dr. Ehrman, has Dr. Staples convinced you?

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    Phillipos98  August 5, 2020

    Very interesting set of posts, Jason.
    Do you agree with the «New Perspective on Paul» view developed by E.P. Sanders and some other Scholars?

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      JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

      The NPP is a bit of an amorphous beast and isn’t a single view, so it really depends on which part of what is associated with the NPP you’re asking about. I think Sanders’ original point—that Paul was not arguing against “Jewish legalism”—is correct, but I don’t agree with many New Perspective proponents who have built on that by suggesting that Paul was arguing against Jewish “ethnocentrism” (=racism). I don’t think Paul rejects exclusivism or argues for radical inclusiveness; he argues for a specific means of ethnic conversion, which that might seem incoherent in a modern context in which race or ethnicity are often understood as immutable but makes more sense in his own context.

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        Phillipos98  August 5, 2020

        Ah, I see.
        Thanks for taking the time to give such a detailed response!

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    Hon Wai  August 5, 2020

    This solution to the “All Israel will be saved” conundrum sounds elegant, natural and compelling. Have many scholars argued along this line before your seminal thesis?
    A surface reading of the gospels and Acts is that the gentile mission got under way well before Paul, and was even initiated by Jesus himself. A historical-critical reading of the texts reveals a different picture. Yet the epistles do suggest the gentile mission and establishment of gentile churches predated Paul’s missionary work. Paul in Romans provides a deep theological justification. But what socio-theological factors could have initiated the gentile mission in the first place?
    How much of N.T. Wright’s latest magnum opus on Paul would you agree with? What would you say is Wright’s most persuasive thesis on Paul, and his least persuasive?

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      JasonStaples  August 5, 2020

      Some did emphasize the twelve-tribe aspect of “all Israel” before my work, but I’m not aware of any scholarly work written prior to my own that fully argued along this line with respect to how the gentiles and “all Israel” are related.

      I suspect the gentile mission probably started on accident. Most likely, uncircumcised hearers of the gospel, probably in a synagogue, responded positively and then displayed the charismatic signs of having received the spirit, which would have caused a bit of a theological crisis as those proclaiming the gospel would have to reconcile why uncircumcised people were participating in the fulfillment of what was promised to Israel. The theological justification would’ve come after the fact.

      I must confess that I haven’t read a word of NT Wright’s latest big book on Paul aside from checking the index to see whether he’d cited my work.

  18. Robert
    Robert  August 7, 2020

    Thank you very much for the posts, Jason! I would really love to hear more of your opinion on this point:

    Paul did not only say that Cephas ate (presumably kosher?) with gentiles, but he also says that Cephas “lived as a gentile and not as a Jew/Judean’ (ὑπάρχων ἐθνικῶς καὶ οὐχὶ Ἰουδαϊκῶς ζῇς).”

    Do you understand this only to mean only that he ate kosher with gentiles?

    If the only problem is that Cephas was eating kosher with gentiles, that implies a very strict interpretation by the Judean Christians led by James. Not only that the Judean Christians certainly kept kosher but they would not even eat kosher with gentiles.

    If Cephas had even abandoned kosher when living among and as a gentile, then it is hard to imagine that there was not already some impetus even from Jesus toward this type of laxity, perhaps when Jesus also ate with tax collectors and sinners, was called a drunkard and glutton, and told his disciples to eat whatever was set before them.

    The whole of Paul’s argument in Galatians seems much more consequential, implying that Cephas’ living as a gentile and not as a Jew/Judean was also more consequential.

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      JasonStaples  August 7, 2020

      Take note of the difference between Paul’s report and what he then says to Cephas (that’s the part you quote). And I do think the interpretation of those led by James was especially strict; my 2019 JSNT article on Acts 10 discusses some of these issues more fully, but I think the matter at issue both there and in Galatians 2 does not have to do with eating unclean food (pork, shellfish, etc.) but rather a third category that Acts calls “common” (10:15).

      This is a category of meat that is neither holy nor inherently illicit, and the acceptability of specific examples in this category was a matter of dispute. Some Jews of the period, for example, would not eat with fellow Jews whose tithing practices they deemed inadequate, as improper tithing practices invalidated otherwise acceptable food. The same sort of scrupulousness would obviously apply even more to the food of non-Jews.

      Paul certainly advocates that Jewish and non-Jewish Christ-followers share common meals, but I’m not convinced that he is advocating that Jews abandon the Torah’s food laws in the process.

      • Robert
        Robert  August 7, 2020

        Thanks! I will definitely check out your JSNT article.

        Just for the record, I do not think Paul was advocating that Jews abandon wholesale the Torah’s food laws. I suspect it was only an issue in evangelism and leadership by Jews in mixed communities. Just as Jesus (and other Jewish teachers) would relax Sabbath commandments to save a life, and some (outside of Qumran) would even do so to save the life of an animal, Paul would surely relax kosher requirements (qal wahomer) to save the eternal life of gentiles (1 Cor 9,19-23).

        I suspect Cephas, James, and John in Jerusalem were initially happy to let Paul take on the apostleship to the uncircumcised. Perhaps they were more than happy to be free of any burden of having to deal with the unwashed sinful gentiles. But when James in Jerusalem was failing to make significant inroads with other Jews in Jerusalem, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have felt some pressure to defend the sect as unimpeachably observant. And as gentiles began make up an ever larger component of the movement, what were the Jewish ‘Christian’ leaders to do with ‘the gentile problem’? Typical top-down solution. Judaize. Conformity.

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    joncopeland  August 7, 2020

    Excellent series of posts, Jason. I very much enjoyed them.

    If you have time to answer two questions:

    1) Do you think Paul continued to observe Torah throughout his ministry, as proposed by Mark Nanos et al?

    2) Is the Acts 15:29 reference to the Noahide covenant historically reliable? Did the historical Paul instruct his gentile communities to observe certain practices for ritual purity?

    Okay, that was three questions. Thank you again for the outstanding posts. I look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

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      JasonStaples  August 12, 2020

      Thanks for the kind words.

      1) I don’t think we have enough information to be sure, but I think Paul continued to observe Torah as he understood it. But part of the problem here is what exactly constitutes “observing Torah.” Observing Torah by whose standards and interpretations (that is, whose halakhic rulings)? I have little doubt that the authors of the sectarian materials from the Dead Sea Scrolls would have regarded Paul as not observing Torah, and many of Paul’s fellow Pharisees may have thought the same. But I think he understood himself as continuing to observe Torah, and (contrary to many who suggest he argued against attempting to keep the law) he criticizes his opponents for not adequately keeping the law. I strongly doubt Paul ate bacon, for instance.

      2) We do have good evidence from the letters that Paul instructed his converts to avoid idol meat and porneia (the word from Acts 15:29 usually translated “fornication”). But we don’t know for sure whether he added strangled animals and blood to the list of prohibitions, though given the fact that he prohibits the other two, it’s reasonable to conclude that he similarly taught to avoid these, too. I don’t think it’s quite right to say that these prohibitions are for “ritual purity,” though. They’re more about “holiness” (that is, separateness/distinction) than they are ritual purity.

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        joncopeland  August 12, 2020

        Excellent, thank you for the reply!

  20. Rick
    Rick  August 10, 2020


    So, what do Paul’s tribal distinctions mean viz Jesus himself? Absent the Bethlehem infancy story likely made up to infer royalty, Jesus was Galilean, not Judean. Beyond Paul, how would an observant Galilean been seen in Jerusalem?

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      JasonStaples  August 12, 2020

      Jews in Galilee were still Jews (from Judah, Levi, or Benjamin). Galilee is a region, not a tribal identification, and the Jews living there weren’t from the northern tribes.

      Generally, Galileans seem to have been seen as mostly ignorant hicks by the Jerusalem establishment. But they were still Jews.

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