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A Note Re: Wright on Israel’s Future

In his article, “Romans and the Theology of Paul” (reprinted most recently in Pauline Perspectives), N. T. Wright emphasizes that the narrative of Paul’s letter to the Romans is keyed to the story of Israel, seen within the light of Jesus as the Messiah. This is a crucial point that is often overlooked, but in a number of places, I think he takes wrong turns or doesn’t quite get the grasp of the handle in the right place.

For example, in regard to Israel’s “fall” of which Paul speaks, Wright frequently notes that Israel was called to be a light to the nations and she failed, largely because of pride in covenantal position.

At the heart of this “fall” in Paul’s own argument, however, is something more specific. Israel did indeed have antecedent problems (cf 2:17ff), but the climactic and crucial “fall” in Romans refers to first century Israel’s failure to believe her Messiah, which in turn is tied to his crucifixion. I think the groundwork for this is laid in the often-misunderstood passage, 3:1–8, but it becomes most explicit in 9:32–33’s citation of Isa 28:16. This stumble/fall then forms the backdrop for the discussion of hardness, stumbling and falling in chapter 11.  While Wright at times appears to be approaching this Christocentric reading, he never quite goes there, which in my mind leaves the issues in Paul’s handling of Israel’s narrative rather unresolved.

Related to this, near the end of his piece, Wright broaches the question of Romans 11 promising a future widespread restoration of Israel, which he denies. Granted that he is most specifically arguing against an ill-advised common notion of a “second way” of salvation for Israel taking place at the resurrection, Wright sweeps aside more historic readings in the process. His primary rationale is that “for Paul, the restoration of Israel had already happened in the resurrection of Jesus, the representative Messiah” (p 120). He thus implies that the restoration has already occurred in Jesus, and therefore is not to be looked for in the future with regard to the people as a whole.

While the idea of Israel’s “concentration” or summing up in the Messiah is true, so far as it goes, it misses the point of representation, and proves altogether too much.

Wright’s argument proves too much, because if it can bear this kind of weight, then it is no longer necessary or appropriate for Paul to speak of a message for the Jew first (1:16). If the Messiah is, in effect, the final Jew, then there is no “Jew first” and there is certainly no need for the extended treatment of an apparent “problem” as we find in Romans 9–11.

Behind that, Wright’s position proves too much, precisely because it implicitly fails to grasp the biblical character of representation. As an analogy, think of Paul’s handling of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul emphatically believes that the resurrection has occurred in the body of the risen Jesus. But far from implying that this means nobody else needs to be resurrected, Paul’s entire point is that the resurrection of Jesus guarantees the future resurrection of his people. (A point with which Wright himself agrees.)

Contra Wright, that is just the sort of thing that Paul is doing in Romans 11. Yes, God has heaped up sins in Israel, so that her representative Messiah could bear them. Yes, God has brought suffering and death to Israel so that they could devolve upon her Messiah. And yes, God has raised her representative in restoration resurrection. But the point of all that narrowing is not for the wide beginning to become a narrow point and stay there. It is precisely for the narrowing action to accomplish something definitive that will then deliver the whole.

This is the point of the imagery Paul uses throughout the passage (firstfruits and whole lump, root and branches). Moreover, Paul’s argument is in fact tied to my first criticism of Wright above. That is, it is crucial to see Israel’s fall in a Christocentric manner, focused upon the death of Jesus and Israel’s failure to believe upon him and embrace him as her Messiah.

Paul says that Israel’s fall has not only brought about the saving death of the Messiah, but her unbelief has allowed salvation to come to the Gentiles (11:11). Their rejection has meant reconciliation for the world (11:15). That implies that had Israel believed, salvation would not have come to the Gentiles, which is a point that neither Wright nor most other interpreters wrestle with.

What could it mean? Paul does not tell us directly, but I think he implies the answer: “If their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (11:15) Interpreters generally gloss over this verse with a superficial spiritualized take, and move on, but I think that misses the point Paul is providing. If “their” (i.e. that of the general mass of Israel) rejection has meant (i.e. resulted in) reconciliation of the world, “their” (i.e. that of the general mass of Israel) [re-]acceptance will mean (i.e. will result in) the resurrection. In other words, the restoration envisaged in 11:15 will trigger the (final) resurrection.

Working backward, we can now see why Paul says that Israel’s unbelief and hardness has meant life and reconciliation for the world. If Israel’s widespread embrace of her Messiah triggers the final resurrection, that means that widespread Gentile salvation has been made possible precisely because Israel has stumbled. (On this particular point, see especially my excursus on “life from the dead” in my festschrift article, “Judah’s Life from the Dead,” in The Glory of Kings, pp 38–40.)  Just as God cast away his son upon the cross to save the world, so too God has cast away his son Israel to save the world. And just as he raised up Jesus, so too he will restore Israel.

I think that N. T. Wright’s work in Paul has been monumental, and in many respects has shown the way forward in the total exegesis of Romans. But (as I likewise thought after reading his large commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s series) there are still bits and pieces that have not been made to fit. It seems to me that re-reading certain passages in the light of a sharpened view of the character of Israel’s fall will help press things forward even further.

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