Friday, May 02, 2008

The "Mystery" and "all Israel" in Romans 11:25-27

I wish to offer a hypothesis I am currently rolling over in my mind about the "mystery" Paul espouses in Romans 11:25-27. Please keep in mind that I am thinking out loud so be kind. But I would like to hear feedback.
As I have reflected over the "mystery" I want to suggest that it may consist of two ideas (Jewett representing most scholars I think asserts three ideas). Paul begins with the contention that “a partial hardening has happened to Israel”. This description is merely the flip side of a robust remnant theology grounded in the Jewish Scriptures. To assert the presence of a remnant, as Paul has earlier in the argument, is to say there is also a non-remnant as he has also claimed (11:7). Paul’s mention here in 11:25 of a partial hardening therefore is neither unprecedented in the context of the argument nor in Jewish Scripture. It is then unlikely to be a central aspect of the mystery. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to be a temporary condition as most commentators suppose, but a permanent aspect of the remnant theology Paul has articulated: “Not all from Israel is Israel” (9:6). Paul affirmed the remnant principle of Jewish Scripture at the beginning of the section (Romans 9—11) and has supported it not only with Isaiah’s specific remnant theology, but also with God’s activity generally in his dealings with individuals. Israel’s remnant is what God had intended and this implies the existence of a non-remnant.
Thus a central part of the mystery seems not to be the expectation of some climactic and remarkable expansion of Israel’s remnant at some future point to include those who formerly were not part of the remnant since that is no longer remnant theology by definition —in addition, the expansion of the remnant seems to be Paul’s hope in his present ministry (11:13-14).
However what appears to be one of the aspects of the mystery is: [1] that Israel’s remnant in the present, which itself is growing, is being joined by a group of Gentiles before Israel's end-time restoration. The first aspect of the mystery therefore concerns the revision of Israel’s eschatological schema (hand wave to Dunn). In this way, eschatological Israel’s restoration at the end of history has in fact begun in the middle of history and so God’s work in the present involves both the continuing remnant of Israel now defined by Christ-faith and the blessing of the nations in accordance with messianic expectations (e.g. Isa 11). These two groups, Israel’s remnant and the faithful Gentiles, comprise the nucleus of Israel’s future kingdom.
Once the Gentiles reach their fullness (11:25) then Israel’s kingdom will be restored (11:26). What is temporary then is not so much the partial hardening per se—notice Paul does not address the unhardening directly—but rather the remnant itself: God's remnant is temporary. This innovation is what forms the second aspect of the mystery: [2] according to Paul, Scripture's remnant theology has served its purpose and will finally cease. So the remnant as it turns out was for the sake of the Gentiles and after the fullness of the Gentiles is achieved, then "all Israel" will be saved by the deliverer who comes from Zion. At that point God will forgive Israel’s sin thereby reconstituting the kingdom of Israel (11:26-27).
It seems to me then that what is in view with the "all Israel" is not the non-remnant's conversion (see most recently Jewett), but the restoration of "all Israel" defined as the reconstitution of the kingdom of Israel in fulfillment of Davidic-messianic expectations in the form of the restored and global kingdom of David/Israel (see the many references to "all Israel" in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles that suggest a hemongeny of Israel beyond the borders of Israel and Judah (1 Kings 4:1, 7, 21, 24; 8:65; 2 Chron 7:8; 9:22-23, 26, 30; cf. 2 Samuel 24:4-9 and Psalm 72:8-11). Note especially 1 Kings 8:65 as it defines "all Israel" to include uncircumcised nations along with circumcised Israel:
So Solomon observed the feast at taht time, and all Israel with him, a great assembly from the entrance of Hamath to the brook of Egypt.
One additional thought that I would like to suggest for further reflection is the connection between Paul's prayer for Israel in Romans 9—11 and the penitent prayers of Nehemiah and Daniel, chapters 1 and 9 respectively. As yet I have not seen any studies comparing the groups of literature. Just in a general survey though it seems that there would be a warrant for such a study. I think Paul's prayer could naturally be compared with these prayers. It is true, that there doesn’t appear to be as explicit a solidarity in Romans 9—11 between Paul and Israel as there is clearly in Nehemiah and Daniel’s prayer (with the 1st person personal pronouns), although Paul at points readily identifies himself with the Israel who is also an enemy of the Gospel (11:1, 28). Paul does something more than they however by bringing in Isaiah’s remnant theology. This remnant theology is explicit here in Paul while only implicit in the nature of the prayers of Nehemiah and Daniel as they represent the remnant who prays for the rest.


Nathan Stitt said...

Thank you for bringing this scripture to the fore of my mind, it has been a joy to re-read it again. I had a few thoughts. As I read all of chapter 11, I felt that the revealing of the 'mystery' was given in the chapter but that I didn't really have closure on Paul's point until approx. 12:3. Also, something I have always found fascinating about the specific word translated 'mystery' is how a few other translations interpret the word:

REB- 'There is a divine secret here'
NEB- 'For there is a deep truth here'
GNB- 'There is a secret truth'

Michael F. Bird said...

How does Markus Bockmuehl understand "mystery" here? Didn't he do his Ph.D on mysterion?

Anonymous said...


You are correct that Markus' dissertation was on mysterion. I have not looked at it recently, but I noted that Jewett disagrees with him by defining mystery here as related to scriptural reflection. Jewett argues with Kim that this mystery was given to Paul at his conversion and was not the result of reflection on Scripture. He lumps Markus in with a host of folks who think otherwise.

Anonymous said...


Notice I revised the post a bit at the end with a slightly more evidence for my definition of "all Israel".

What do you think about the link with Nehemiah and Daniel's penitent prayers?