Fans of Paul would agree that his olive tree metaphor is a brilliant creation. I love the way it so subtly and effectively undermines Gentile superiority. As Philip Esler explains it, normal grafting practice involved transplanting a wild olive tree and making it fruitful by grafting on cultivated branches. By portraying the inverse — a cultivated olive tree with wild branches (which normally didn’t bear edible fruit) — Paul was painting an image completely insulting to Greeks, implying they were dependent on the root of Abraham (Rom 11:18), and that arrogance toward unbelieving Israelites could result in being damned forever (Rom 11:21). That’s pretty clever all right.
But clever inventions have a way of trapping their creators in ways unforeseen. Consider: the argument of Rom 11:11-32 is that Israel’s state of unbelief — outlined in Rom 9:6-11:10 — is only temporary, that most Israelites will soon get back on track and convert to Christ out of jealousy for Paul’s success with Gentiles (Rom 11:11-16), and can perhaps even rely on a little help from God directly at the apocalypse (11:25-27). These unbelieving Israelites have stumbled but not fallen (Rom 11:11) — “Have they stumbled so as to fall?” asks the apostle. “By no means!” — and will surely be saved in the end (Rom 11:26).
So Israel is stumbling, not falling, according to Rom 11:11-32, but the problem is that Paul isn’t consistent about this matter elsewhere, nor even in the argument of 11:11-32 itself. In his new essay, “Broken Branches: A Pauline Metaphor Gone Awry? (Rom 11:11-24)”, Mark Nanos demonstrates how the olive tree metaphor of verses 17-24 undermines the stumbling metaphor of verses 11-12. Paul warns Gentiles that they will be “cut off” from the olive tree if they persist in ethnic pride, just as unbelieving Israelite branches have already “fallen” from the tree. Those Israelites may be grafted back in again, to be sure, but that’s not what “cut off” and “fallen” imply. Nanos writes:
“The implications from Paul’s portrayal of the olive tree to [warn Gentiles in harsh terms] leads to a theological development that I believe Paul did not anticipate when he created it. For it is used to describe the state of non-Christ believing Israelites as broken off, discarded, and dead branches on the ground below the tree, which clearly depicts them as having fallen. In terms of the stumbling metaphor, that is a condition Paul emphatically insisted did not apply… I believe Paul would deny that these Israelites were broken off as it has been presented in the interpretive tradition, and that he would extend this denial today if asked to describe the state of Jews and Judaism. He would instead insist in the same unmistakable terms that he communicated in the stumbling allegory…’May it never be!’ The tree allegory was created with the special concern to describe the present state of the Gentile believers in Christ, and the inferences about these Israelites are (il)logical byproducts of that explanation. What we have here is a Pauline metaphor gone awry.” (p 57)
That’s right, and it goes awry particularly in the context of Rom 11:11-32, which is meant to undermine the supersessionist/replacement theology which Paul advocated in other places (though I think Nanos disagrees with me that Paul ever was a supersessionist). We need look back only two verses to see the problem, where the psalmist is invoked: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent” (verses 9-10). Yet verse 11 goes on to insist that there’s nothing “forever” about this process. Judeans haven’t stumbled so as to fall; they’re going to be saved.
Also consider Rom 9:6, which comes dangerously close to repeating the supersessionist theology of Galatians (Gal 6:16): “Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel.” Really? The entire argument of Rom 11 insists otherwise (and as both Philip Esler and Mark Nanos point out, Paul does NOT refer to the olive tree as a new Israel; in Rom 11, Israel is Israel, all the way). What Paul really means to say in Rom 9:6 is simply that “not all Israelites are currently faithful” (so Thomas Tobin, Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 327; cf. Philip Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 279; cf. Mark Nanos, p 10 footnote 16). But he goes beyond what he meant to say — natural perhaps, since he’s echoing an earlier supersessionist stance.
By the time of Romans, Paul was rethinking theological dilemmas, facing new church situations, and trying to undo a nasty reputation he’d acquired. Romans 11 is a fascinating result of all this. But in trying to salvage something for ethnic Israel, Paul becomes trapped by his own ingenuity and a victim of his past. He insists that unbelieving Judeans are only stumbling and haven’t fallen (Rom 11:11-16) — but then can’t help but imply the latter (Rom 11:17-24). (Tree branches can’t stumble very well, can they?) Nowhere in Rom 9-11 does he want to identify the Christian movement as Israel, but he slips in Rom 9:6 and implies it anyway (echoing his earlier and more explicit Gal 6:16). Paul does the best he can, but he creates as many problems as he solves. He shoots himself (and his kinsmen) in the foot as he railroads the Gentiles. Whoever said theologians had it easy?
Do read Nanos’ essay. It shows better than any other analysis how the olive tree is unable to communicate Paul’s idea effectively — that the metaphor “is itself broken” (p 50).