What Did Paul Mean by "All Israel" in Rom 11:26? (II)

Two days of polling mirrors a scholarly stalemate. There’s no consensus on what Paul meant by “all Israel” being saved in Rom 11:26. Had I not voted, there would have been 8 votes a piece for (1) a spiritual Israel, (2) a remnant of faithful Judeans, and (3) the whole of Israel/Judean people. My vote broke the tie in favor of the last. Let’s see why it has to be right.

I was surprised that option (2) was as popular as the others. It makes little sense for Paul to state that there is currently a remnant of faithful Judeans (Rom 9:27, 11:1-10), and then switch gears to explain a peculiar “mystery” which is also unfolding and will result in the very same — a remnant of faithful Judeans being saved. That’s redundant and amounts to no “mystery” at all. (Mark Nanos notes this in The Mystery of Romans, p 256.) The Gentiles in Rome already know that Judean Christians are saved. The problem is that they are few in number, and so the real question after Rom 11:1-10 is how God will redeem the hardened part of Israel, the bulk of the Judean people. That’s what’s on Paul’s mind from the outset in Rom 9:1-5. Option (3) has to be correct.

Option (1) is also redundant but can’t be dismissed without a guilty conscience. It’s undeniable that Paul did once believe in a spiritual Israel composed primarily of Gentiles along with the Judean remnant (Gal 6:16). That’s hardly surprising, since he had a sectarian/millenarian outlook — a supersessionist one, in fact — in which fictive kin replaced the biological. And we hear echoes of this earlier view in Rom 9:6-8. But only echoes, for in Romans Paul doesn’t go so far as to call the Christian body Israel. He comes dangerously close to implying that in Rom 9:6-8 (he hasn’t shaken off Gal 6:16 entirely), but in the end can’t go there. “Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel” means only that “not all Israelites are currently faithful” (as Thomas Tobin and Philip Esler have argued) and no more. Nor does he refer to the olive tree in Rom 11:17-24 as a new Israel. He’s shedding his supersessionism as best he can (remember: Paul changed his mind about a lot of things), because he has become so troubled by the plight of his own people, the real Israel. And aside from the momentary lapse in Rom 9:6-8, it’s actually quite clear that “Israel” refers to the Judean people all the way through Rom 9-11.

For that’s what the climactic “mystery” (Rom 11:25) is about: the fate of unbelieving Israel. After claiming the word of God hasn’t failed because there is still a faithful remnant of Judeans (Rom 9:27, 11:1-10), Paul says even this isn’t the end of the story. Even the bulk of Israel, the hardened part, will turn to Christ out of jealousy for Paul’s success in converting Gentiles. Judean unbelievers who were “broken off” from God — i.e. not part of the saved remnant mentioned in Rom 11:1-10 — may be provoked to reacquire what is rightfully theirs (Rom 11:23-24).

That’s how the argument of Romans 11 goes, and to me it’s clear. The remnant of Israel (verses 1-10) + the hardened of Israel (verses 11-25) = all of Israel (verse 26). Thus will the Judean people be Christian. There’s just no way verse 26 can refer to the spiritual Israel of Gal 6:16 or the Judean remnant of Rom 11:1-10 and do justice to the argument of Rom 11:11-32.

What Did Paul Mean by "All Israel" in Rom 11:26? (I)

After a poll and follow-up discussion about what Paul meant by fulfilling the law, it’s time to see how he thought God would fulfill his promises to “all Israel”. So please vote in the poll below, and I’ll give my take on the matter later.

UPDATE: I stopped the poll after 25 votes. The result was almost a three-way tie.

When Paul said that “all Israel will be saved” in Rom 11:26, to what does “Israel” refer?

8 votes — A spiritual Israel composed of Judean and Gentile believers (Gal 6:16; Rom 9:6-8)

8 votes — A remnant of faithful Judeans (Rom 11:1-10; Rom 9:27)

9 votes — The whole of Israel; the Judean people in general

I guess I was the tie-breaker (though the first voter). I believe that Paul was referring to the whole of ethnic Israel in Rom 11:26 and will explain why in a follow-up post.

The 10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies

Yahoo’s 10 Most Historically Inaccurate Movies also happen to be bad or mediocre movies, except for one which just doesn’t count. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was futuristic when made in the ’60s and obviously can’t be judged as an historical film. It’s also the only truly great film on the list, as evidenced by its near perfect (96%) Tomatometer rating (and because I say so!). I’ve seen most of the others, and for the most part they left me nonplussed (irrespective of the bogus history) — even Gladiator and Braveheart. Sloppy history and mediocre filmmaking tend to go hand-in-hand.

10,000 BC. 9%
Gladiator. 77%
300. 60%
The Last Samurai. 66%
Apocalypto. 65%
Memoirs of a Geisha. 35%
Braveheart. 76%
Elizabeth: The Golden Age. 34%
The Patriot. 62%
2001: A Space Odyssey. 96%

If You Want a Lot of Kids…

If cranking out kids is your goal, read New Scientist’s article explaining “Why Men Should Pair Off With Younger Women” — young enough to be your own kids, in fact.

“Last year, a study of Swedish census information suggested a 4 to 6-year age gap is best, but new research has found that in some circumstances a surprisingly large gap – 15 years – is the optimum.”

Paul’s Defeat at Antioch

Stephen Carlson asks a question we’ve heard before, Did Paul Win at Antioch?, and lists the pros and cons for “yes”, “no”, and “maybe so”. I’m a confident naysayer: Paul lost at Antioch, just as he later did in Galatia. That he would have played the trump card overrides the counter-arguments. Philip Esler also notes that the biblical phrase, “I opposed him to his face” usually occurs in the context of unsuccessful resistance (Galatians, pp 135, 140).

The reason Paul would have brought up his defeat, as Stephen asks, is (1) to illustrate that he (unlike Cephas) is consistent with his preaching of the gospel (addressing in part the charge of Gal 5:11); and (2) the Galatians probably knew of it anyway (gossip had a long arm in the ancient Mediterranean), and he simply couldn’t ignore it in the context of the current crisis which centered on the same question: circumcision (Gal 2:12) (not dietary laws). Paul is trying to save face as best he can, but it’s hard to obscure the fact that he lost after James and Peter broke the agreement.

Paul’s failures in Antioch and Galatia, and increasingly bad reputation, were responsible for his rhetorical shifts in Romans, where he found ways to respect Judean identity even while insisting that the law and covenant were completely obsolete.

What did Paul Mean by Fulfilling the Law? (II)

After two days of polling, it looks like most people favored Esler’s answer: Christians weren’t under any law at all, according to Paul, for the best the law promised but never delivered was now available by a different route — the spirit. Tne Torah was fulfilled in the sense that “law” no longer had any force. Commandments and moral imperatives were irrelevant to the moral dimensions of faith. I agree with Esler too. Let’s see why he’s right.

According to C.F.D. Moule (“Fulfilment Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse”, NTS 14: 293-320) pleroma (fulfilment) refers to the consummation of the will and plan of God. Fulfilling the law thus points to the total realization of what God intended with it, though it doesn’t follow that performing the law in some way is part of that realization. It could mean that, but not necessarily.

Most scholars, especially in the wake of the New Perspective, believe that performing the law (in some way) is what Paul had in mind. (1) Mark Nanos (6 votes) thinks nothing changed for the Judean people, that the Torah remained in force, even if Gentiles were exempt from ethnic requirements. (2) James Dunn and Tom Wright (5 votes) are stronger on this point, claiming that the racial/ethnic aspects of the Torah were obsolete, that all believers fulfilled the Torah by following its ethical kernel. (3) Ben Witherington (7 votes) takes it to the next level, saying that the Torah was completely finished, fulfilled by adhering to a new law (“Christ’s law”, “the law of the spirit”) which was about imitating Christ, keeping certain commandments from the past and new ones from the present. In all three cases, the Torah is understood to be fulfilled by performing it, a part of it, or a new model of it in the new age.

Back in the ’90s I leaned towards variants of options (1) and (2), because I was so into the New Perspective and wanted to believe in an historically “Jewish-friendly” Paul. I still consider myself a New Perspective advocate, but a moderate one. I suppose I’m a double-agent like Francis Watson, who sees that “Gentile rights” were only part of Paul’s battle. Sanders had it right all along: “it was the Gentile question and the exclusivism of Paul’s soteriology which dethrone the law” — and the latter is just as important as the former. This despite Dunn, who complains that Sanders has replaced the Lutheran Paul with “an idiosyncratic Paul who in arbitrary and irrational manner turns his face against the glory and greatness of of Judaism’s covenant theology and abandons Judaism simply because it is not Christianity”. But sectarian converts are often this way — unattractive and hostile about their previous allegiances (Philip 3:4b-11) — and we shouldn’t be trying to mainstream their mindset.

Let’s give the New Perspective its due: Judaism didn’t make difficult demands, and the interpretations of Nanos or Dunn apply well enough in places like Rom 3:21-4:17 where Paul clearly has the scope of God’s salvation — “pagans as much as Jews” (Rom 3:28-30) — in view. But they fail miserably in contexts like Rom 5:1-8:17, where Paul speaks against the entire law (and the term “works” is nowhere to be found). If Paul were only trying to defend Gentiles and hold to an ethical kernel of the Torah, he would have left well enough alone at Rom 4. But he went beyond this, insisting that Jews die to the law in its entirety, as much as to the reign of Adam and sin. All of the law’s commandments (not just “Jewish works”) facilitate the victory of sin (Rom 7:7-25), and Moses even foretold that the Torah would be a dead-end project (Rom 9:30-10:13; though admittedly the Gentile issue comes into play as well in this passage). We can’t pound the round peg of Rom 5-8 into the square hole of the New Perspective. I tried doing this for years, but in the end found that scholars like Nanos and Dunn were limiting Paul’s perspective. For better or worse, the apostle thought the Torah was done with. As a sectarian convert he looked back on the era of the Jewish covenant as a dark age — even though he had actually found it personally rewarding — and at Abraham as a lone faith-figure who anticipated better things to come.

What about option (3)? Ben Witherington argues that Paul thought the Torah was fulfilled by performing a new law, the messianic successor to the old. This would be “Christ’s law” (Gal 6:2) or the “law of the spirit” (Rom 8:2) — the “new covenant” (I Cor 11:25, II Cor 3:6) — which consists of:

(1) the imitation of Christ and his apostles

(2) the keeping of those commandments reiterated by Christ and his apostles from the past (e.g. some of the ten commandments)

(3) the new imperatives urged by Christ and then his apostles.

I think this is plausible as an expression of Paul’s view before the Galatian crisis, for I Corinthians admittedly presents commandments and moral imperatives as having force. Paul recycles material from Leviticus, and in the context of circumcision being irrelevant even declares that “keeping God’s commandments is what counts” (I Cor 7:19). No getting around that statement.

But Paul later revised it by saying that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6) — again in the exact same context of circumcision. Galatians is difficult to date, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that it comes in between I & II Corinthians, per Mark Goodacre.

Paul’s frame of mind on the subject of “keeping commandments” when he wrote Galatians and Romans is clear: it just can’t be done. That’s why Judean Christians have died to the law in its entirety (Rom 7:1-6). Being under the Torah reenacts the Edenic tragedy (Rom 7:7-13), which means that being under any commandment results in the victory of sin, because that’s precisely how sin succeeds — using any commandment against the holy purposes for which God intended it. Christ, in Paul’s view, came to liberate humanity (though the Judean people in particular) from this mess (Rom 7:24-25).

So it seriously misrepresents the Paul of Galatians and Romans (that is, the post-I Corinthians Paul) to claim that he thought believers in Christ were subject to the commandments of any law or that moral imperatives were relevant to the dimension of Christian faith — Gal 6:2 and Rom 8:2 notwithstanding. What then do we make of Paul’s occasional references to “the law of Christ”, “the law of the spirit”, and the “new covenant”?

(4) Philip Esler (12 votes), answers the question. Paul was saying that Christians had a metaphorical equivalent of the Torah, through the spirit. It’s worth citing him at length:

“The best the law can provide is love of one’s neighbor, but such love is available through an entirely different source — the spirit. In fact, agape is the first fruit of the spirit. The law and spirit are stark alternatives: ‘If you are led by the spirit, you are not under law’ (Gal 5:18). Paul is speaking of the replacement of the law by the spirit, not the continuance of the ethical aspect of the law in the new dispensation of Christ.” (Galatians, p 203)

“The law of Christ does not mean the Mosaic law redefined by Jesus, since this view is based on a failure to appreciate that Gal 5:13 envisions the total substitution of the law with an alternative path to agape. Nor does it mean a body of ethical tradition derived from the historical Jesus, since this plays no part in Galatians and is excluded by Paul’s derivation of moral behavior from the spirit. Rather, Paul uses the phrase as a striking metaphor for the way in which love, the first fruit of the spirit, becomes the guiding force in the life of those who are in Christ… The ‘law of Christ’ represents Paul’s most daring inversion… the final nail hammered into his argument that the Mosaic law is quite irrelevant in the new dispensation. Suggesting that the members of his congregations also have a law further serves in his ascription to them of a fictive ethnic identity. Not only do they have Abraham as an ancestor, they also have their own equivalent to the law, albeit only metaphorically.” (Ibid, pp 231-232; emphasis mine)

Unlike other NT authors (Matthew and Hebrews most notably), Paul does not believe in a literal new law or covenant. By the time of Galatians at least, he’d consigned law and covenant to the dustbin. The Torah was fulfilled on an entirely different avenue — the spirit.