Romans 9-11 has had an unfortunate history of being overlooked when it comes to understanding Paul’s letter to the Romans. Martin Luther, in his Preface to Romans, commented that Romans 9-11 was about the “eternal providence of God.” Whereas chapters 1-8 was about the struggle with sin, with chapter 8 highlighting suffering, chapters 9-11 are then to be a source of comfort to the suffering in chapter 8 through the discussion of God’s providence. Luther mentions nothing about Israel or the Gentiles, but rather Luther sees 9-11 as a discussion of the specific theological idea of providence. Calvin and the Reformed tradition saw these chapters as a source of the doctrine of predestination and personal election by God’s grace, most vividly expressed Romans 9.
Among the scholars of the New Perspective, the shift has occurred to try to understand Romans 9-11 in light of God’s faithfulness to Israel. James Dunn considers the chapters as posing a challenge. “has God’s word failed?, ” based upon Romans 9.6. For Dunn, the section should be understood as an exposition of a problem of God’s promise to Abraham not being fulfilled to which Paul describes the solution of God’s faithfulness.1 NT Wright understands these chapters as Paul attempts to sketch out a fresh new understanding of Jewish eschatology in light of Jesus the Messiah and the Spirit.2
While not a proponent of the New Perspective, Douglas Moo recognizes 9-11 isn’t about many of the important themes in early Protestantism, such as predestination or God’s righteousness, but that Paul’s Gospel fully recognizes the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel in light of Israel’s belief.3 Similarly, the Reformed Thomas Schreiner sees Romans 9-11 is Paul’s further development of his previously abbreviated defense of God’s faithfulness in Romans 3.1-8.4
It is safe to say that for recent scholarship, the central organizing theme used to comprehend Romans 9-11 has shifted from early Protestant concerns about predestination and providence to bigger questions about God’s faithfulness. This is no doubt a better frame to read Romans 9-11 with because more of Paul’s discourse fits into questions about God’s faithfulness, whereas the early Protestant doctrines are, at best, ancillary to the whole of Romans 9-11.
However, I would put forward that to describe Paul’s discursive purpose of Romans 9-11 as about addressing questions about God’s faithfulness and eschatology is to miss what I consider to be a more overarching concern and purpose for Paul in Romans that unites the whole letter together: convincing a Jewish Christian audience in Rome of a different meaning and significance of their Jewish/Israelite identity so as to make congenial to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
This premise should be distinguished from Philip Esler’s thesis in Conflict and Identity. For Esler, Paul’s central purpose is to:
strengthen the social identity that his addressees in Rome gain from belonging to the Christ-movement, particularly by emphasizing its supremacy over other identities, ethnic especially, on offer. To this extent his activity can be construed as an attempt to exercise leadership over groups of Christ-followers in Rome, torn by division related at least in part to their ethnic status as either Judeans or Greeks, in order to influence his audience in a manner that is likely to enhance their contribution to the enhancement of group goals.5
Whereas Esler construes Paul as trying to strengthening the Christian identity so as to create peace between people of various ethnic statuses, I argue that Paul is trying to established a different understanding of Jewish identity in light of Jesus the Messiah than what was commonly espoused in Second Temple Judaism, especially as it was expressed in STJ literature such as Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Maccabees, etc., so as to reduce Jewish Christian ethnic tensions with the Gentiles and (b) enlist their assistance in his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles in Rome and out towards Spain. The two critical differences between Esler’s and my understanding of the issues surrounding social identity in Romans is that (1) I don’t postulate there being an ecclesial division between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome as much as Paul’s is addressing potential hostility by some Jews towards Gentile converts to his preaching and (2) Paul is more focused on redefining Jewish identity and reestablishing a different understanding of Israelite identity based upon both Israel’s Scriptures and the faith or unbelief at the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, given their history and the Scriptures, Jewish and Israelite identity was tightly bound up with Israel’s understanding of God and Torah. In Romans 1-8, Paul helps redefine Jewish identity away from a reliance upon halakhic prescriptions to obey the Torah (“works of Torah) to the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead. This is expressed in a seminal form in Romans 2.28-29 and then further developed in a vision of the person justified by God through the crucified and resurrected Messiah in chapters 3-8. As the Jewish identity was formed out of the Maccabean rebellion’s zeal for maintaining adherence and practice of Israel’s ethnoreligious customs, that is circumcision and Torah, Paul downplays the importance of physical circumcision in being Jew in palace of the circumcision of the heart as an echo of Deuteronomy, which Paul then says is by the Spirit. It is a matter of one’s faithfulness to God in being doers of the Torah which the Spirit enables (Rom 8.4), not one’s faithfulness to the ethnic customs through what one does in regards to the flesh/σάρξ.
Having redefined Jewish in relationship to circumcision and Torah in Romans 1-8, Paul then focuses on the true significance of genealogical descent from the patriarchs in Romans 9-11. As presented in Romans 9.6-13, not every person who has descended from Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob is the direct recipient of God’s promises. Not every descendant of Israel is truly Israel, not everyone is seed/σπέρμα of Abraham. Instead, appealing to the example of God’s selection of Jacob over Esau, Paul’s overarching point is that the election of specific descendants of patriarchs is a matter of God’s choice rather than biological descent. In short, Paul draws from the language about Abraham’s progeny and the example of Isaac’s children to subvert any idea that findings one’s genealogy from Jacob/Israel provides any specific privilege that that individual. God has not elected every descendant of Israel. What Paul’s argument does is further invalidate the notion of innate Israelite privilege, which he had already done previously in Romans 3.1-20. In so doing, Paul joins in with the criticism of John the Baptist against those who would say, “We have Abraham as our father.” (Matt. 3.9).
The implication of this argument is to make the point that God’s faithfulness is not tied up with any sense of favoritism for specific Israelites. Romans 9.14-18 expresses this is a rather sharp way, using the example of God’s compassion to Israel and hardening the heart of Pharaoh to develop the general theological principle that God’s has his own choice to whom he will show mercy and whom he will harden to imply that Israelite identity does not force God’s hand.
Paul’s quotation of God’s words to Moses about mercy and compassion in Exodus 33.19 was given in the middle of the episode of Israel’s idolatry with the Golden Calf, where not everyone received this mercy. Paul doesn’t say it explicitly here, but the implication by reference to this story is that some Israelites during the Golden Calf incident were not the recipients of God’s mercy. As a result, Paul’s argument makes an implicit connection between Pharaoh’s hardening and the Israelites in the wilderness, suggesting the possibility of God regarding an Israelite as if they are like the super-villain in Israel’s story. Elsewhere in early Christian literature, we see the king Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem (Matthew 2.13-18) being implicitly cast as imitating the Egyptian Pharoah’s orders to kill Israel’s newborn baby boys (Exodus 1.8-22).
At this point, the hypothetical interlocutor of Romans 9.19 retorts back with a question that essentially amounts to arguing God’s hardening an Israelite would be unfair. However, this language can also be considered an echo of the Wisdom of Solomon 12.12, which precedes the discourse saying that God is merciful does not wrongly punish those who do not deserve it in 12.13-18. Ultimately, the Wisdom of Solomon transitions to the wicked who are punished in 12.23ff as being ignorant of God by nature (Wis. 13.1-9), which explains why they ignore God’s mild rebukes (Wis. 12.26) which the faithful do not overlook (Wis. 12.19-22). Paul places in the mouth of the hypothetical interlocutor the language of the Wisdom of Solomon, which was used to describe why the Gentiles are such great sinner, but Paul uses it to describe why not all Israelites receive mercy from God.
In response to the interlocutor, Paul throws back at this interlocutor the language about the potter making different forms of vessels in Wisdom of Solomon 15.7, but with God as the potter rather than Gentile idolaters. Whereas the faithful are given a special status and protection from their sin by God in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-5, which is not offered the wicked idolater described in the surrounding discourses. So at one level, Paul’s language of the potter is an indirect reminder of the attitude that this hypothetical interlocutor shares towards Gentiles. At the same time, Paul transforms the metaphor so that it is God who is making human vessels, rather than humans making (pseudo-)divine idols. In so doing, Paul redirects attention away from human idolaters that drew the ire of many Jews and towards God and His sovereign authority. The effect of this argument is to say that God is sovereign over the descendants of Israel; they are not individually entitled to any sort of mercy.
At this, Paul quotes from Hosea 2.23 and 1.10 as an example of God’s simultaneous rejection and acceptance of Jews in Romans 9.25-26. While some commentators see Paul’s point to bring in the inclusion of Gentiles, it is more likely Paul’s point that the Hosea prophecies show that Israel is on equal footing with Gentiles before God.6 However, it is more coherent with Paul’s developing argument to take Hosea as an example of God’s dual response to Israel: God can show them mercy as His people who are fulfilling His purposes, or God can harden them and not deem them to serving God’s purposes and rejecting them as His people. AT this point in Paul’s argument, both Jews and Gentiles are equal ground, and so the only thing that matters when it comes to God is whether God has called (ἐκάλεσεν) them as His people or not (Rom. 9.24). In other words, what was true of God’s selection of Jacob is also true from all Jews in addition to the Gentiles: it is God who calls individuals as belonging to His people, it is not a birthright. Paul’s appeals to Isaiah in Romans 9.27-29 go on to attempt to solidify the point: God’s mercy and calling may only be at work among a remnant of Israel and not the whole nation.
Romans 9.30-10.3 suggests the reason many Israelites are hardened was that they did not actually seek God and His righteousness, which was revealed by Jesus Christ, because they were focused on following specific, halakhic prescriptions (“works”) and had become ignorant of God. While Paul doesn’t say it, this behavior compares to the idolatry described in the Wisdom of Solomon, as idols nor the halakhic traditions convey God or possess His presence. Only in Christ as the bearer of the title of κύριος as the Greek translation of the Jewish name of God can one realize the true righteousness of God that the Torah would point to (Romans 10.4-13). At this point then, Paul has brought back the discussion of Jewish identity in relation to the Torah as expounded in Romans 1-8 back into the discussion about the question of genealogical descent from Israel started in Romans 9.
In response to the hypothetical interlocutor that make try to rebut Paul’s argument as wrong through a series of objections suggest that those Israelites who have rejected Jesus as the Lord were ignorant of Jesus’ identity because no one had preached this to them in Romans 10.14-15a, Paul’s says that the story of the good news preached about Christ is sufficient on its own ground to bring about faith in Romans 10.15b-17. There was no need for a separate mission to be sent that Jesus is the Lord, but the Gospel itself was enough itself. Then, in Romans 10.18, Paul quotes from Psalm 19 as a testimony that an understanding of God’s glory has gone out throughout the world, so, we might say, the unbelieving Israelites are without excuse just as the idolatrous Gentiles were without excuse for not being able to understand God’s nature in creation (Romans 1.19-21). However, to paraphrase Paul’s argument in modern language, a theology of God from nature and the revelation of God through evangelism should have been enough testimony to recognize Jesus as Lord. It wasn’t. And, so, by this point, Paul has turned the natural theology argument against the Gentiles of Romans 1 on its head against the hypothetical interlocutor and his insistence that the corporate nation of Israel is as a whole God’s people.
To conclude this section of his argument, Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 32.21 and Isaiah 65.1-2 to show that boundary between God’s people and the world never drawn along the lines of ethnic boundaries. God had said as far back as Moses that God would be at work among other peoples besides Israel, including to spark jealousy among the Jews.
Paul first proceeds to clarify that God’s hardening of Israelites is not equal to rejecting His People. God has still kept his promises to the patriarchs by having descendants of them as part of His People. Paul presents himself as an example of this in Romans 11.1.
Then, Paul quickly transitions to a more general statement: “God has not rejected his people who he knew beforehand (προέγνω).” While προγινώσκω/foreknowledge has often been interpreted as some sort of eternal foreknowledge of who God would elect for salvation as a result of the theological debates between Calvinist and Wesleyan-Arminians, the word probably does not refer to an eternal foreknowledge, but likely God’s foreknowledge that God had as He expressed His promises to the patriarchs. Rather than προγινώσκω referring to God’s foreseeing of faith that distinguishes that boundaries between the chosen believers and the unbeliever, it rather refers to the faithful Israelites God knew of when He made his promises with the patriarchs as distinct from unfaithful Israel. In other words, προγινώσκω highlights those descendants of the patriarchs who were chosen according to the promises ahead of time like Jacob/Israel, further undermining any notion that God’s election was about the corporate body of Israel.
This language of God’s knowledge might echo the Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-5, where it is said that the faithful will not sin because they know (εἰδότες) that are regarded (λελογίσμεθα; cf. the usage of λογίζομαι in Romans 4) as God’s people (Wis. 15.2). Paul’s emphasis on God’s foreknowledge undercuts any connection between an Israelite’s election and their personal confidence that they are a part of God’s people (cf. the Jewish sage of Rom. 2.17-24). It is about who God knew and had in mind when He made the promise to the patriarchs. In other words, the election into God’s people is about being known before birth when God made the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, instead of God’s People being coterminous with all who have genealogical descent from Jacob.
So for Paul, it is those who God has foreknown that God has protected from sin and idolatry, not simply any Israelite who deems themselves a part of God’s people. Hence, Paul makes reference to the story of Elijah’s exasperation at feeling alone in the midst of an age of darkness, violence, and apostasy in Romans 11.3-4. God responds to Elijah that he has kept 7000 Israelites from idolatry. In other words, God continues the preservation of His people, even as corporate Israel has become apostate and lost into idolatry. God’s mercies to protect, to strengthen, to guide is not given to Israel corporately, but it is given to those whom God chooses to show mercy to.
As Paul’s overarching argument about the identity of Israel and God’s People started in 9.6 comes to a close in 11.10, Paul has begun to demonstrate the principle of God’s free choice to show mercy and to harden mentioned in Roman 9.18. The remnant in Elijah’s day is a Scriptural narrative that demonstrates God’s mercy to a limited portion of Israelites. In so doing, Paul draws the conclusion in Romans 11.5 that in a similar fashion, God has chosen a remnant of Israel based upon His mercy and grace in Paul’s own day. And, to continue to connect this discussion of the identities of Israel and His People with the related but slightly different discussion on the behavioral prescriptions derived from Torah previously discussed up in Romans 1-8 and briefly brought up in 9.30-10.4, Paul further defines this election as not being based the adherence and practice of specific types of prescribed behaviors.
The other demonstration of Paul’s statement about God’s free choice in Romans 9.18 from Israel’s past takes place in Romans 11.7-10. Explaining that the rest of the Israelites who were not graciously chosen were hardened, Paul provides a compound quotation from Deuteronomy 29.4 and Isaiah 29.10, describe God’s act to obscure understanding from some Israelites. Paul then quotes from a David Psalm, Psalm 69, that implicitly drawing a connection between those Israelites who were King David’s enemies, oh whom David prayed for their ignorance, and those Jews hostile to the Lord Jesus. At this point, Paul has finalized his point overarching point about Israelite identity: those Israelites who did not believe that Jesus was Lord with the preaching of the Gospel are those who are hardened and do not belong to God’s People. Rejection of Jesus as Messiah is tantamount to those who committed idolatry and fought against God’s chosen king in Israel’s history.
So, Paul engages in one final conversation with the hypothetical interlocutor he has been engaging throughout Romans 2-11 before he shifts conversations partners to the Gentiles in 11.13-32. He explains that Israel’s rejection was not meaningless or purposeless, as if was simply some arbitrary act of God. Rather, the stumbling of Israel has led to the gift of salvation the Gentiles into God’s people. Paul ends here with a note of hope their rejection was of benefit to the world of the Gentiles, how much more so will Israel’s inclusion become of a benefit to them, as the jealousy of the blessing of the Gentiles will move them to return to God. In so doing, Paul gives greater significance to his reference to Deuteronomy 32.21 as quoted in Romans 10.19: the jealousy stirred up among Israel though the foreign nation of the Gentiles is not to their everlasting rejection, but it is, in fact, to restore to them the blessings from God as mentioned in Deuteronomy 30.1-10.
From Romans 9.6-11.12, Paul has thoroughly attempted to undermine any sense of a special privilege that comes in virtue of being a descendant of Jacob/Israel. It is only those who know God who was revealed in Jesus, and not those who are creating an “idol” out of ethical prescriptions, who are part of God’s people. Paul’s argument has essentially disconnected God’s election from ethnicity and genealogical descent. In so doing, Paul has simultaneously established a Scriptural case for the boundary between God’s people and the world not being drawn along the lines of Jewish ethnicity that, if accepted by Jews, would cease to make Jews pessimistic about and suspicious, if not even hostile, towards potential Gentile converts that Paul hopes to preach the Gospel to in Rome.
At this point, Paul’s argument might present suspicion that he had simply accommodated to the Greco-Roman society, gone off the reservation, and denied his Jewish ancestry and heritage. Paul had already preemptively expressed his own motivations in Romans 9.1-5, likely so as to strategically frame his discussions about Israel and election as not being about abandonment of his ethnic heritage. However, to further demonstrate that he has not abandoned his fellow Israelites, he lets the Jewish audience into a conversation he would have with hypothetical Gentiles who might grow arrogant after hearing what Paul said in Romans 11.13-32. In doing this, Paul accomplishes two things: he firstly punctures a hole in the ego of arrogant Gentiles, just as he has been doing the whole time to his fellow Israelites who were tempted to think their ethnic heritage was a source of pride, boasting, and privilege.
However, it also gives him the opportunity to more fully give an account of the hope for Israel that he had just previously mentioned in Romans 11.11-12. He does this by taking a metaphor used to describe the faithful followers of God in Wisdom of Solomon 15.3, that of a root (ῥίζα) which portrays the relationship of the faithful to God’s power as one that gives life the faithful one. In Wisdom, the metaphor of the root may be an echo and metaphorical extension of the tree as the righteous person in Psalm 1, who is distinguished from the ungodly. For Paul, however, rather than casting individual people as being like an individual tree, he cast them as branches that shoot off from a tree. Who does the cultivated olive tree that Paul mentions metaphorically refers to? The patriarchs, and more particularly that of Abraham, as the imagery of branches resembles the “branching” of descendants.
Within this metaphor, both Jews and Gentiles are portrayed as being broken off from their original, respective trees. But, as the metaphor goes, either of the branches, either the one from the wild olive tree as representing the Gentiles or the cultivated olive tree as representing Israel’s patriarchs are not any fundamentally different, and so they can both in the same manner be grafted onto the cultivated olive tree of the patriarchs. Just as Paul made the argument back in Romans 2.1-3.9 that there is no fundamental difference of privilege or status between Jews and Gentiles, Paul brings that concept back up again in the imagery of the broken branches.
Paul’s usage of this metaphor has two discursive functions. Firstly, to let the Gentiles know that hardened Israel can be included God’s People just as the Gentiles had been. Secondly, just as Israelites had been hardened, so too could Gentiles become hardened themselves. In so doing, Paul makes the point that God’s inclusion of the Gentiles is NOT a switching of priority, status, and privilege to the Gentiles or an elevation of Gentiles about Israelites. Just as the Jews are no better off than the Gentiles, the Gentiles are no better than the Jews. Just as God shows no favoritism for the Jews, but will judge them for their disobedience, so too God shows no favoritism for the Gentiles, and will judge them for their disobedience. Paul is making a rhetorical effort to make clear to his Jewish audience that he has not gone over to the “Gentiles” and favored them to Israel, even as he is an apostle to the Gentiles.
In beginning to make his way towards the conclusion of his argument in Romans 9-11, Paul emphasizes the analogy of similarity between Jews and Gentiles in Romans 11.25-26. Just as God’s salvation (ἡ σωτηρία) of the Gentiles leads to the inclusion (τὸ πλήρωμα) of Israel in Romans 11.11-12, the inclusion (τὸ πλήρωμα) of the Gentiles will lead to the salvation (σωθήσεται) of all of Israel. While being an Israelite is not a guarantee of one’s membership in God’s people, there will be a future, eschatological inclusion of all of Israel. Paul’s language does not give much hint as to whether this is all of Israel through all of history or all of history as a specific point in history, but my suspicion is that it is the latter. Whichever reference Paul has in mind by “all Israel,” what seems likely here is that Paul is attempting to leaving a note of hope with his Jewish audience after disconnected membership in God’s people from genealogical descent from Israel. The identity of Israel is not meaningless now, even if much of Israel has been hardened. God still has future plans for Israel and their inclusion, just as the quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah in Romans 11.26-27 speak to.
So Paul concludes his comments about Israel’s identity and significance with a final note that acknowledges the significance of Israel in God’s eyes in Romans 11.28-29. Even though much of Israel has been hardened and rejected, this does not change the promises God gave to Israel’s patriarchs. A future election of Israel based upon God’s continued love of Israel waits on the horizon, even as much of Israel has rejected Jesus and has actively made themselves and enemy of the Gospel that Paul preaches.
Then, to rhetorically conclude his argument, Paul makes a connection between God’s hardening of the disobedient, which Paul now uses the metaphor of imprisoning to refer to, and God’s mercy in Romans 11.30-32. God’s action of hardening Gentiles and Jews into disobedience was not done with some arbitrary decree, but even those actions God has taken with the hope of inclusion of Jews and Gentiles alike. With this note, even Israel’s hardening is included part of God’s purpose to fulfill His promises to the patriarchs.
I have offered this overview of to show how the idea that Paul is reestablishing a Scriptural understanding of Israelite identity can feasibly serve as the skeletal topoi that brings together the rhetorical and argumentative flesh of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11. Insofar as the redefinition of identity can provide a parsimonious, coherent account of Romans 9-11, the stronger the evidence there is that Romans is written very specifically with addressing questions of social identity in mind, although not in quite the same manner that Esler conceives it. Esler believes that Paul’s purpose in Romans 9-11 is found in the eschatological hope at the end in chapter 11:
In spite of the failure of the Mosaic law, Israel is not to be scorned. In the end all Israel will be saved. Issues of divine justice do appear in these chapters, but in the course of an argument moving resolutely toward a conclusion that has direct relevance to solving ethnic tensions and conflict between Greeks and Judeans in the Roman Christ-movement. But Paul’s resolution does not entail eliminating the distinction between the two subgroups. As in the metaphor of the olive tree, they are incorporated within one new identity but not at the price of losing their subgroup identities. The tree and cut-off branches are distinct from the wild olive shoots that are grafted on-one tree, but recognizably separate parts. Yet neither here nor elsewhere in Romans does Paul call the new entity Israel. He is noticeably reticent about this, unlike in Galatians, where he comes close by referring to the Christ-movement as the Israel of God (6:16).7
Esler intimates that Paul is pushing towards a redefinition of Israel so as to be inclusive of the Gentiles, although Esler does not think Paul does so explicitly in Romans, but he appeals to Paul’s usage of “Israel of God” in Galatians 6.16 as a precedent for a redefinition of the identity of Israel as inclusive of Gentiles.
However, as I have given above, an alternative is being offered. In Romans 9-11, Paul’s primary purpose is to redefine Israel’s identity to bring it in line with the two basis “data points” of Israel’s Scripture and the overwhelming rejection of Jesus as Lord while in rendering asunder any intrinsic connection between God’s people and Israel while, at the same time, maintain a note of an eschatological hope on behalf of Israel. This reading of Romans 9-11 can then offer a different understanding of the “Israel of God’ in Galatians 6.16 as a reference to Israelites that are foreknown by God but had not given into the national “idolatry” that place all importance upon Jewish identity and circumcision. In other words, the “Israel of God” could refer to those Jews who had yet to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ but in virtue of being chosen by God, they have not substituted God’s righteousness with something else, but remain faithful to God and will upon hearing the Gospel preached, recognize Jesus as Lord. Just as argued here in Romans 9-11, the phrase “Israel of God” is intended as a phrase that narrow’s down the chosen people of Israel to those who have been elected by God, as distinct from those who simply have been born an Israelite.
To this end, Paul’s redefining the boundaries of God’s people looks similar to what is observed of the Essenes at Qumran. However, there is one critical difference between Paul and the Essenes. Whereas the Essenes saw themselves as the true Israel, Paul does not, strictly speaking, change what it means to be an Israelite: it is to be a person whose genealogical heritage is believed to have come from Jacob/Israel. That does not change. What has changed for Paul, however, is the relationship between Israel and God’s people; the two identities are not coextensive. The effect of Paul’s reestablishing the significance of Jewish identity as not being the same thing as God’s people is to embrace a broader inclusion of Jews and Gentiles alike, as opposed to the Essenes who thought that God’s people as the true Israel were simply a much smaller subset of those who physically descended from Israel and remained dutifully faithful to the community’s sectarian covenant.
It bears mentioning that Esler’s tendency to bracket out more systematic theological considerations from Paul’s discussion of social identity in Romans8 overlooks a critical way in which systematic theological reflection and social identity often interpenetrate and overlap: thought leaders, such as prominent teachers, who spent time in more thorough reflection on the sources of cultural meaning, including religious texts, influence societal conceptions and perceptions about social identity. When such thought leaders are recognized as authorities among a specific social identity group, the way they think influences how members understand their own identity. To that end, insofar as Jewish sages, whom Paul alludes to in Romans 2.17-24 and through the multiple allusions and echoes of the Wisdom of Solomon, were instrumental in determining perceptions of Jewish and Israelite identity, more systematic reflection becomes increasingly relevant in trying to shape understandings of these social identities. With that in mind, Romans 9-11 can be understood as a more systematic, theological reflection on the relationship of Israel and God’s election that engages in “interpretation and explanation” that Esler suggests defines systematic theology by explain Israel’s story through idea of God’s gracious action of election, rather than simply “designation and description” that defines the mere ideational content of theology.9
However, even as theology is brought to bear on the questions on Israelite identity in Romans 9-11, there is a mistake in treating theology in general or some specific branch of modern theological investigation as Paul’s overarching concern. For instance, Paul’s purpose in Romans 9-11 as a whole does not appear to be developing a Jewish eschatology as NT Wright suggests. Eschatology is only salient in Romans 11.11-32. Perhaps one can argue that the discursive purpose of Paul’s argument is to set up for the eschatological vision of Israel’s inclusion in Romans 11, but that doesn’t explain what Romans 9.6-11.10 is about on its own terms. At best, eschatology is only beneath the surface. One would expect that if the purpose of a discourse is to set up for what comes at the end, there would be preliminary references and allusions to those concerns and themes that sets up for the conclusion. However, asides from possibly the language of salvation in 10.9-13 associated with confessing Jesus’ Lordship, there are no clear indication of reflections on eschatology in Romans 9.6-11.10; it is by and large a reflection of Israel’s history in the Scriptures. It seems better then to perhaps cast Romans 9-11 as Paul’s theological reflections on the relationship of Israelite identity with God’s election and regard the eschatology mentioned at the end as fitting within that larger theological frame.
In summary, it can be argued that Paul’s purpose in Romans 9-11 is to shift an understanding of the relationship of Israel’s identity as it relates to the identity of God’s people, to undermine the understanding of Jewish identity that the Jewish Christians in Rome might have acquired from influential Jewish sages and literature, like the Wisdom of Solomon, of the time period.
- James Dunn, Romans 9-16. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), EPUB Edition, Section V, Introduction.
- N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1156-1157.
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 547-553.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. BECNT. Second Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 749-750.
- Philip Francis Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), EPUB Edition, Ch. 1, Ethnic Conflict and Identity.
- Paul’s usage of the conjunction ὡς in Romans 9.25 suggests that the Hosea quotations describe God’s rejection and later re-inclusion of Israel as His people are employed as a type or analogy to describe a similar reality in the present to those Israelites who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Paul does not intend the quotations from Hosea to be evidence of the Gentiles’ inclusion, but rather of the people of Israel being on the same footing as the rest of the nations.
- Ibid., EPUB Edition, Ch. 12, Conclusion.
- Ibid., EPUB Edition, Ch. 1, “Theology” and “Religion” in Romans?