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.
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 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.