Always know that Mark Nanos will shake things up. His Mystery of Romans (1996) had a major impact on me and is still one of my favorite books on Paul, even if I don’t buy all of its arguments. I’m hard pressed to think of a better treatment of Rom 4:18-25 and 14:1-15:6, and also some parts of Rom 11. (When it comes to Rom 13, he loses me.) At any rate, Nanos has done more work on Romans recently, and he is retracting some of his views set forth in that fabulous book. I find that unfortunate; his new reading of Romans 11 is (to me) less plausible. The good news is that it’s always rewarding to read Nanos; there’s always something I take away positively, even if in overall disagreement.
I’ll focus on two articles: “Paul – Why Bother?: A Jewish Perspective” (2019) and “All Israel Will Be Saved or Kept Safe? (Rom 11:26): Israel’s Conversion or Irrevocable Calling to Gospel the Nations?” (2021). The first is a revision of a lecture that Nanos gave at Lund University in Sweden, and the second is an article published in Israel and the Nations: Paul’s Gospel in the Context of Jewish Expectation (edited by Frantisek Abel). Nanos’ new reading involves re-translating a lot of terminology — the following three highlights in particular.
1. “Unpersuaded, not disobedient”. According to Nanos, it’s more accurate to translate Paul as saying that the Jews have “not yet accepted” the gospel instead of “rejected” the gospel, but this really amounts to a distinction without a difference. Even if the best translation for ἀπειθέω is “unpersuaded” — instead of either “disobedience” or “rejection of that which is known to be true” (p 282) — how different, ultimately, does that make Paul’s argument? Nanos asks:
“Would most Christians or Jews be accurately described as rejecting Islam or Muhammad as ‘the Prophet’? Does not that judgment require that they have been convinced that the claims made were true? Are they rejecting God’s grace? Or are they not persuaded of someone else’s claims for God, perhaps even not very aware of, or simply indifferent to those claims, more than likely convinced that what they do uphold as truth does not lead them to give this much thought?” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 283)
It’s actually very common, and accurate, to describe Christians or Jews (or any other non-Muslim group, like Buddhists or Hindus) as people who reject the claims of Islam. That judgment doesn’t necessarily require the non-Muslims to have accepted the claims of Islam in the first place. Christians reject Islam; Jews reject Islam; Muslims reject Judaism; Jews reject Christianity. All of these are common expressions in which “reject” could mean just about anything — “adamantly oppose”, “be unpersuaded by”, “be indifferent to”, etc. I always imagined that the non-Christian Jews of Paul’s day “rejected” his gospel for any number of these reasons — whether because they directly opposed it, were unconvinced by its claims, didn’t take it seriously, whatever. If there’s a difference between “not accepting Christ” and “rejecting Christ”, that difference is only on a high level of abstraction. Besides, Paul’s point about the Jews “not (yet) accepting Christ” is preserved (and acknowledged by most commentators) anyway, in the olive tree metaphor: there is still hope for the Jews; they may be grafted back in to the tree — or “unbent” and righted on the tree, if that’s the better reading. Which takes us to the next point.
2. “Bent, not broken off” (stumbling, not falling). On this point Nanos is more persuasive. He argues that the tree branches of the olive tree are better translated as being “bent” rather than “broken off”:
“In the early part of the allegory [of Rom 11:17-24], when discussing the bent branches, Paul only uses the verb ἐκκλάω, which just so happens to include the translation option ‘to break’ as in ‘to bend’. But when the allegory turns to threatening the foreign wild shoot with what it can expect if it should grow arrogant towards those branches temporarily bent aside to make a place for itself, then Paul introduces the verb ἐκκόπτω, which does indicate being ‘broken/cut off’, signalling a much more severe fate.
“When read this way, we can see that Paul was explaining why some Jews had not yet joined him to proclaim the message to the nations, which, he argued throughout the letter, was Israel’s special role, that over which some of Israel (even if many) were stumbling (Rom. 3:2; 9:6; 10:4, 15). This development represented a temporary anomaly that would soon be resolved, and that somehow had resulted in the best interests of the non-Jews anyway. In terms of branches, some among Israel were broken as in bent back, but not as if cut off of the tree, which fit the stumbling but not fallen metaphor that preceded.” (“Paul – Why Bother?”, p 280)
Only when speaking of the Gentiles (the wild olive shoot) does Paul threaten being broken or cut off altogether; the non-Christian Jews are simply “bent”. And instead of being “grafted back in” (Rom 11:23-24), these bent branches are “invigorated again”; Nanos again finds lexical support for the Greek phrase in these verses, which normally means “to goad” or “to spur on”. Now, if the lexical data does in fact support these translations of “bent”/”invigorated” branches for the Jews, then I agree with Nanos that it better supports the argument of Rom 11:11-32, especially what is announced in verse 11: that Israel has not stumbled so as to fall. On the other hand, I find it just as plausible that Paul used an imperfect metaphor. (The best theologians have been known to do so.) Either way, the overall argument of Rom 11:11-32 is clear: the situation for the Jews is temporary. So I don’t think anything stands or falls (pardon the mixed pun) on whether the branches come down or not.
3. “Safed, not saved” (protected in the interim, not redeemed in the end). Here’s where things get interesting. Nanos argues that the Greek word σώζω in Rom 11:26 was usually used to indicate being “saved” in the sense of being protected or kept safe (or “safed”, as he coins for English usage) more than in the sense of being converted or rescued from being lost:
“What the lexicons reveal is that the Greek word σώζω and cognates were normally used to refer to protecting and keeping safe — before and besides Paul’s supposed use, that is. This word group was not used to discuss someone or thing that had been lost being returned in the evangelical salvation sense that it has come to denote — converted in common parlance — but to prevent someone or something from becoming lost, or from the threat thereof; in this case, to preserve these Israelites in their covenant standing as Israel during this anomalous period so that all Israel could complete the calling to bring the ‘news of good’ to the nations: the gift of the entrustment with God’s oracles was irrevocable (cf. 11:28-29 with 3:1-2).” (“Saved or Safed”, p 244)
For Nanos, in other words, Israel wouldn’t need saving in the end; the Jews weren’t losing covenantal status for not accepting Jesus. What Israel needed was protecting; the Jews’ covenantal status was in jeopardy during this period of the apostolic missions, because they had been called to be a light to the nations, and most of them had not (yet) accepted Christ as the messiah, and so they could not be that beacon. For Paul, their covenantal status would be protected by the scheme he presents in the olive tree metaphor: the Jews (the bent branches) would turn to Christ as they witnessed more and more Gentiles doing so. That’s the first major takeaway of Nanos’ argument.
The second takeaway is that Jewish salvation itself doesn’t depend on accepting Christ. According to Nanos, for Paul the Jews should accept Christ (for the reason just mentioned), but whether they do or don’t, they will be redeemed in the end on account of being God’s chosen people. Yet strangely, Nanos denies that he advocates a two-covenant reading of Paul: “Some readers may be tempted to classify my argument as another expression of the various Sonderveg and Two Covenant alternatives. It should not be.” (p 254) With all due respect, it should absolutely be. What makes a two-covenant reading is that Jews can be saved apart from Christ, and that is exactly how Nanos reads Paul: the Jews should accept Christ (and be a light to the nations) but they don’t have to in order to be saved:
“As I understand Paul, he confessed Jesus as Messiah and upheld that his fellow Jews should do the same, but not in order to be saved in evangelical salvation-based terms by any mechanism, period. For Paul, that was a truth claim made within Judaism; it did not involve Jews being saved in evangelical soteriological terms because they were never lost in the logical way that paradigm requires. What he promoted was a chronometrically based propositional claim that an awaited event, when the reign of God would arrive to rescue those who were already in a living covenant relationship from sinfulness, from sinners, from enemies, and so on — so that they could complete their calling to bring the gospel announcement to the nations — had begun. That premise, central to the gospel, should shape the thoughts and lives of the non-Israelites he addressed toward humble concern for the well-being of those Israelites who were not persuaded that was the case yet: they remained the “beloved” because of the promises made to their fathers, not least to Jacob/Israel. To argue that Israelites were being protected during this anomalous period of alienation while retaining continued covenant standing is not the same as the later evangelical concept that Jews need to believe in Jesus Christ to become saved, which empties their historical covenantal standing as “irrevocable” of the substance that Paul labors to explain.” (“Saved or Safed?”, p 255)
Nanos thus argues that Jewish soteriological salvation doesn’t depend on the preserving of covenantal status — in other words, it doesn’t depend on accepting Jesus as Israel’s messiah which leads to the bent branches being straightened again on the olive tree. But it appears that Gentile soteriological salvation, in a way, does depend on the preserving of Israel’s covenantal status — so that Christian Jews can bring the good news to the nations and convert Gentiles before the end of all things.
I’ve always found Nanos to be a refreshing exegete who thinks outside the box. As I said, he often fails to convince me, but not because he can’t make a formidable case. The biggest problem with this reading is the same problem for all two-covenant approaches. It doesn’t make sense of Paul’s sorrow and “unceasing anguish” for his fellow Jews (Rom 9:1-5) that he can go so far as to wish himself “accursed and cut off from Christ” for their sake. Those aren’t the feelings of a guy who knows that his countrymen are going to be saved, no matter what. He wouldn’t wish the worst thing on himself simply because his fellow Jews aren’t “gospeling the nations”. That’s a much too limited point for the overall concern of Rom 9-11.
I believe it’s accurate to describe Paul as follows: He believed that most Jews were lost, in need of salvation, disobedient, for not accepting the gospel; he believed that they were rejecting the gospel (whether because they were unpersuaded, actively hostile to it, or indifferent about it), but that this was a temporary state for them — they were “bent” branches, as Nanos says, not “broken off” altogether, and would either be righted again during the apostolic missions, or redeemed at the end, by Christ himself. That’s assuming that “all Israel” referred to the Jews. If “all Israel” referred to both the Jews and the northern tribes, as Jason Staples has suggested (and talk about thinking outside the box), Paul may have envisioned the saving of all twelve tribes, of which Gentiles were actually a part. I find either one of those readings (the fourth and fifth listed here) about equally persuasive at the present moment. Regretfully, I remain unconvinced by any variation of the two-covenant reading, though I am glad that someone like Nanos is willing to go to bat for it. He’s one of its better advocates, and we need them.