How Making Better Sense of Paul’s Historical Argument Can Advance Better Christian-Jewish Relations Today

I am delighted to announce that my paper for a conference in Bratislava, Slovakia in September of 2019, which was entitled, “‘All Israel Will Be Saved‘ or ‘Kept Safe‘? (Rom 11:26): Israel’s Conversion or Irrevocable Calling to Gospel the Nations?,” is now available in the conference volume entitled, “Israel and Nations: Paul’s Gospel in the Context of Jewish Expectation,” edited by František Ábel, published by Lanham, et al: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2021.

In this project, I challenge the unanimous translation of Romans 11:26 as “all Israel will be saved [σωθήσεται],” and the equally familiar traditional, evangelically oriented way to interpret that to mean that Israel needs to be saved as in returned from having lost covenantal standing by way of becoming part of the Christian Church.

The conference provided a good venue to offer a new “Paul within Judaism” based perspective that significantly alters the questions to be asked as well as the possible answers. This essay builds on the extensive research on various parts of Paul’s arguments in Romans 9–11 I have been conducting for several years, especially surrounding the translations and interpretation of the allegory of the olive tree, many now collected in my Reading Romans within Judaism: The Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos, Vol. 2 (Cascade, 2018).

Surprisingly, the commentaries do not discuss the fact that the Greek word σῴζω (sōzō; usually “saved”) 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 or saved in the evangelical salvation sense that it has come to denote—converted in common parlance.

This word group instead referred to preventing someone or thing from becoming lost, or from the threat thereof. Like them, when we refer to a doctor saving a patient, we are closer to the meaning; that is, we (like them) do not normally mean that the doctor brought back to life a patient who had died (i.e., which would instead be resuscitated), but that the doctor kept a patient from dying, the process of rescuing or healing him or her.

Paul is arguing that God is preserving Israelites in their covenant standing as Israel during the anomalous period he sought to describe in which many of his fellow Jews were not persuaded (yet, as he saw it) of the claim that Jesus was the awaited Messiah, so that all Israel could complete Israel’s calling to bring this “good news/gospel” to the nations. Paul understood Scripture to teach that Israel was irrevocably entrusted with God’s prophecies for the benefit of the whole world (cf. 11:28–29 with 3:1–2).

We could defamiliarize by phrasing this as “All Israel will be safed“; that is “kept safe” during this temporary development, as Paul saw the case to be in his time. Although we look back now on his argument after a very long time has passed, we should resist the natural temptation to adjust his words to fit our times rather than undertaking the cross-cultural, historical effort that exegesis should exemplify.

The more positive implications for how Christians think and talk about as well as relate to Jews, and how this could impact Jewish responses too, make this an exciting historical discovery with attractive implications for our own times. Or so I see the case. How about you?

The international cast of contributors includes (in chapter order): Genevive Dibley, Anders Runesson, Eric Noffke, Matthew V. Novenson, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Michael Bachmann, Kathy Ehrensperger, William S. Campbell, Joshua Garroway, Kenneth Atkinson, Markus Öhler, Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr, and František Ábel.

The volume is expensive; if it does not fit your book budget, please ask your librarian to consider acquisition, or for access via library loan.

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