Epistles as occasional documents
It is the tacit assumption of NT scholars that the epistles were each written as a result of a circumstance that has arisen among the recipients of the letter, or in the relationship between the author and the recipients. Therefore, understanding the circumstances that occasioned the letter’s writing is viewed as an essential step toward correctly interpreting the epistle. In other words, no epistle is written in a vacuum. They are written to answer a problem, question, or issue in the church, and until we understand the reason the author wrote, we will have difficulty understanding the meaning of his words.
This tacit assumption is part of the application of the historical-grammatical method of exegesis, which has been the standard form of interpretation in the Western church for over a century. But for some reason, it has been little used in the interpretation of Romans. Karl Donfried notes that until the middle of the 19th century, “virtually all scholars would have agreed with Melanchthon’s evaluation of Romans as…an abstract theological summary.” In 1845 F.C. Baur challenged that notion, but it was largely ignored for over a century, so that in 1977 Donfried could say: “the situation continued virtually unchanged right to the present.” And it is largely a consequence of this view of Romans that chapters 9-11 have been viewed as a theological aside, a non-essential rabbit trail at the end of Paul’s treatise on justification by faith.
Only in the last half of the 20th century has scholarship begun to treat Romans like every other NT epistle by examining the milieu, or specific historical situation behind the writing of Romans. Once recognized, this milieu contributes to our understanding of Paul’s purpose in writing Romans. According to C. Talbert, “a consensus seems to be building…that the main need in the Roman church addressed by Paul was that of resolving the disunity between Jew and Gentiles. If so, then the spiritual gift Paul wanted to impart was his gospel, which was to be the basis of unity for the Roman congregations.
If Talbert is right, then the gospel that Paul gave to the Romans was not an “abstract theological summary,” but a statement of Paul’s beliefs with a specific practical purpose, designed to encourage the church toward unity between Jewish and Gentile segments. That would explain why Paul emphasizes that this gospel is “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (1:16; cf. 2:9, 10). It would also bring contextual clarity to such statements as Paul’s warning to the Gentiles not to boast against the (Jewish) branches (11:18) and not to be arrogant toward the Jews (11:20), and it certainly puts into perspective Paul’s encouragement to the Jewish and Gentile believers to “accept one another” (15:7) and to worship God together (15:8-12).
It also reveals that there seemed to be a greater tension, involving a belief among some Gentiles within the church that they had in some sense replaced the Jews as recipients of God’s promises. The statement: “branches were broken off that I could be grafted in” (11:19) is technically correct, but it is mentioned as part of the explanation that Israel did not “fall beyond recovery” (11:11), suggesting that some in the Roman church believed that the broken off branches were forever forsaken by God. Paul repudiates this idea, arguing that if that were true, it would have grave consequences for the Gentile believers. Before showing Paul’s argument, let us briefly look at the historical situation when Paul wrote Romans.
The occasion of Romans
In AD 49 emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews to be expelled from Rome. This was almost certainly in response to public disputes between Christian and unbelieving Jews over the person of Jesus. Prior to 49, the church in Rome was largely Jewish, and its leadership surely reflected this imbalance of Jews over Gentiles. But when the expulsion edict came, most of the leaders and many rank and file Jewish members of the church left, and the constitution of the church was radically altered overnight.
In 54, Claudius died and his edict with him. The Jews were free to return to Rome, and many of them did. Again, the constitution of the church at Rome was radically altered in a short period of time. This had to present numerous challenges to the church there. What became of the house churches that were led by Jewish believers who had to leave the city for 5 years? If they took on new leadership, who will lead those churches when these shepherds return? If some house churches disbanded, its members joining other, existing congregations, what will these believers do when their previous shepherds return? Will they go back and restart the house church that disbanded 5 years ago? Considering all the changes taking place in the church in these years, it should not come as a shock if Jewish and Gentile believers became somewhat segregated, prompting Paul to encourage them to accept one another and worship together.
But why would Gentile believers adopt a position of boasting over the Jews? It should be noted that Paul nowhere intimates that such boasting was against Jewish believers. It likely was directed at unbelieving Israel. But why did they do this? The answer is likely to be found, in part, in the principle of exile and return. One of the fixed presuppositions of the Jewish people is the concept that God’s people are destined for exile, followed by deliverance from God and return to the Promised Land. This springs from the exile to Egypt, an event that God told Abraham would happen (Gen 15:13), and that did not occur out of any disobedience on the part of God’s people. The return was their entrance into the Promised Land, an event that stands as foundational to Israel’s identity as God’s people.
In the 6th century B.C., the Jews were exiled again, this time for disobedience. They returned, but not in full. Israel at this time was hoping for an eschatological return, i.e., one that would be ushered in by the Messiah himself. That did not happen; Israel would have to wait for their Messiah to come at a later time of exile and return. So when Messiah did come and Israel, instead of experiencing a return, instead rejected Jesus, this seemed to seal their fate as being rejected by God. The exile of the Jews from Rome provided the church with a vivid illustration of Israel’s disobedience, and they understood Israel to be in a period of exile, at a time when they were supposed to be returning.0
Two theological conclusions could be drawn from this turn of events. Either God has rejected his people and there will never be a return for them as of the promises of God, or they will return and receive the promises, but it will not happen until the 2nd Coming of Messiah Jesus. Paul held to the latter belief. Some in the church at Rome seem to have held to the former.
The centrality of Israel in Paul’s soteriology
Thus Romans 9-11 is central to Paul’s teaching in Romans. In fact, it is chapters 9-11 that explain just how important Israel is to the church The spiritual blessings the Gentiles receive come only because God made these promises to his people, Israel. Paul said, “If the root is holy, so are the branches” (11:16). In other words, the reason they are holy is because they “share in the nourishing sap of the olive root” (11:17). They are holy because the root is holy. The reason Gentile believers can claim to be set apart to God is because they are attached to the root, that is, the patriarchs, who received the promises.
The grafted branches are supported by the root (11:18). The only way Gentiles can claim any of the promises of God is by being grafted into the olive tree that is Israel. If Israel, the tree, is forsaken by God, then all hope for Gentile salvation is lost. So when Paul says, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), this means more than just the salvation of Israel. It also the means the salvation of the Gentiles.
This suggests that the place of Israel in Paul’s gospel is not peripheral, but central. The salvation of Israel is necessary for the gospel to take effect, so Romans 9-11 cannot be treated as a theological aside. It must be seen as the goal of the whole gospel message proclaimed by Paul in Romans.
That Israel is central to the gospel message says more than that it is important. It says that it is essential. Some who acknowledge that chapters 9-11are important to Paul’s teaching in Romans, do not recognize just how essential it is. Goppelt rightly says that if God’s promises to Israel have fallen, “then the ground of Christian hope, the climax of Romans 1-8, has also collapsed.” But why is this so? Munck argues it this way: “If God has not fulfilled his promises made to Israel, then what basis has the Jewish-Gentile church for believing that the promises will be fulfilled for them?” Similarly, Gutbrod asks, “Can the new community trust God’s word when it seems to have failed the Jews?” In other words, the threat to the church is at the point of God’s faithfulness, not at the point of the promises themselves. If God can be unfaithful to fulfill his promises to Israel, then he might not fulfill his promises to the church.
This is true in itself, but it misses the point Paul is making. Paul does not prove God’s faithfulness to Israel just so he can give the church confidence the he will also be faithful to them. For Paul, if Israel is forsaken by God, then the church has no hope for salvation. It is not about God’s faithfulness to the church. It is the fact that the church is dependent upon Israel for its life, because salvation only comes to them through Israel. If the tree dies, how can any of the branches survive? Thus God’s faithfulness in preserving the tree is his faithfulness to the branches of the tree. His faithfulness to Israel is his faithfulness to the church, and Israel’s salvation is the guarantee of the salvation of the church.
If these things be true, then how important is it to understand that when Paul discusses Israel in Rom 9, he is talking about the nation as a whole? To reduce himself to a discussion of individual salvation in chapter 9 would be a departure from Paul’s point to be made in chapter 11. When we exegete Rom 9 we will do well to keep in mind the larger picture of what Paul is accomplishing in chapters 9-11, how this is argued from the perspective of a specific historical situation in which the Jews of Rome had just experienced an exile and return, and that Rom 9 is an explanation of the theological meaning of the then-current state of the Jewish people when Paul wrote.