The Meaning of “All Israel” in Rom 11:26: Five Views Ranked

After reading Jason Staples’ book, The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, I want to revisit Paul’s argument of Romans 11:25-27, in particular his claim in verse 26 that “all Israel will be saved”:

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

What does “all Israel” refer to in Paul’s statement? Here are five possible answers, each ranked on a scale of 0 to 10.

1. The two-covenant reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who don’t need to believe in Christ to be saved (Stendahl, Gaston, Gager). Christianity is a separate path to salvation for Gentiles, not Jews who can be saved as they’ve always been saved, through the Torah. By rights this reading deserves a plausibility score of 0. Paul is clear that salvation comes through Christ alone, and damnation awaits you otherwise, no matter who you are. Not to mention that this view makes no sense of Paul’s sorrow for his fellow Jews  (Rom 9:1-5) and his intention to make them jealous in the section immediately preceding this passage (Rom 11:13-24). But I throw it a bone, since some interpreters (like Stendahl) give it more nuance than others (like Gaston and Gager) whose ecumenical/post-Holocaust sensibilities are so transparent. Plausibility ranking: 1/10.

2. The replacement reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to a spiritual Israel, that is, the church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ (Wright especially). This reading earns a few points for the reason that Paul does imply that the church is Israel elsewhere, like in Galatians (6:16). The problem is that it makes nonsense of his argument in Romans, where prior to the passage cited at the top, Israel is clearly used in the traditionally ethnic sense — indeed the whole argument of Rom 9-11 is to explain how Gentile inclusion does not threaten Jewish salvation but actually reinforces it. If the ethnic Israel (of Rom 9:1-11:24) has been replaced by a new group just being called by the same name (Rom 11:26), that’s a baby-switcher and doesn’t prove Paul’s case at all. As Jason Staples says, “that would be like telling parents that they needn’t worry about their child’s safety because a substitute child with the same name can be provided.” While it’s true that biblical prophecies and promises are often understood by New Testament authors to be fulfilled in radically revisionist ways, that isn’t the case when the author is going out of his way to argue (at tortured length) why the recipients of the traditional promises have nothing to worry about. On the replacement reading of Rom 11:26 they have plenty to worry about; it’s bad news and hard to take seriously. Plausibility ranking: 4/10.

3. The causal reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, who will be saved through jealousy — their jealousy of the Gentiles being saved through the apostolic missions without their co-participation (Sanders, Dunn, Watson). Their resentment will provoke them to reconsider the gospel and become saved, as Paul just argued in the preceding section (Rom 11:13-24). In other words, Jewish disobedience leads to Gentile salvation which in turn leads to Jewish salvation. The Jews still have a chance, and will indeed be ultimately saved (11:26). They are God’s enemy for the time being, but God’s chosen in the end (11:28). This is the most straightforward reading of the text and plausible — meaning that it’s a plausible interpretation of the text as it stands in Romans. As a salvation scheme it wouldn’t have sounded very plausible. Most Jews would have scorned the idea that they would be provoked to accept Jesus Christ because they were jealous of Paul’s success in converting pagans. The proof of the pudding was in the eating: Jews were obviously not being converted en masse as Paul intended. Plausibility ranking: 7/10.

4. The miraculous reading: Israel in 11:26 refers to the Jews, some of whom will be saved as in reading #3 above, through jealousy of the Gentiles during the apostolic missions (Rom 11:13-24), but most of whom will be saved miraculously, by Jesus himself, when he comes again at the end of all things (Rom 11:25-27) (Munck, Tobin, Esler). On this reading, verses 25-27 don’t reinforce verses 13-24; they are a “Part 2” argument. Paul knows good and well that his “jealousy” argument of verses 13-24 is a desperate scheme and not the way things are panning out. His people remain unconvinced by the gospel. So to keep God’s promises to the Chosen intact, he introduces in verses 25-27 a failsafe for any Jews (indeed, most Jews) who continue to reject Christ during the apostolic missions: Christ himself will save the bulk of the Jews in the end, whether by preaching to them directly or miraculously converting them at once. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.

5. The twelve-tribes reading: Israel in 11:26 does not refer to the Jews (readings #1, 3, 4) anymore than it refers to the Gentile dominated Christian church (reading #2). It refers to exactly that — the twelve tribes of Israel, which includes Jews (those like Paul who are descended from the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and/or Levi) and those from the northern tribes of Israel who are not Jews. This is a new argument from Jason Staples, the foundations of which are laid in his book on Second Temple Judaism. His argument is that the restoration of Israel always, by definition, included more than just the Jews who returned from Babylon, and Paul makes that idea work to his advantage, arguing that since the northern tribes of Israel have become assimilated among the Gentile nations, the only way for Israel’s restoration to happen is for Gentiles to be included among Israel. That’s what the “fullness of the nations” is coming into (Rom 11:25). Says Staples in a blogpost:

“What does Paul 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 [Ephraim and Manasseh], 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)… By echoing this distinctive phrase, Paul effectively argues that the plan of God has been hidden in plain sight: 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 satisfactorily answer all 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 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.”

As I see it, this reading also doesn’t need to rely on the crutch of a “Part 2” miraculous end-time deliverance (reading #4). On the assumption that “all Israel” refers to the Jews, Paul’s “jealousy” scheme (Rom 11:13-24) is hollow since most Jews are not in fact accepting the gospel (out of jealousy or for any reason), and thus most of Israel is not in fact being restored — which is why the Jews require a divine bail-out at the end. But if Paul believes that Gentiles are included in ethnic Israel, then that goes a long way to solving the problem of so many Israelites (supposedly) being left out of the covenant promises. Jews are a subset of Israel; they are not (contrary to what most scholars assume) equivalent to Israel.

My only reservation with Staples’ reading is that it has the whiff of being too clever for its own good. (Sort of like Bruce Chilton’s interpretation of the eucharist.) But I have to admit, his book on second temple Judaism paves the way for it convincingly. I can’t see anything significant that is wrong with it. For now my assessment of his reading is very high. Plausibility ranking: 9/10.


Appendix: Romans 11:13-27:

(13) Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (14) in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. (15) For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? (16) If the dough offered as first fruits is holy, so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

(17) But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, (18) do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. (19) You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” (20) That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. (21) For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. (22) Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. (23) And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (24) For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

(25) I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, (26) and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; (27) “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

(28) As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. (29) For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s