What Paul Meant by “all Israel”

One of the questions that has dogged me for my entire career as a Christian has been the final disposition of Israel by God.  It’s hard to read the Old Testament (OT) seriously and not be left with a lingering impression that they’re (whoever they now are) going to receive, despite their unfaithfulness and 70AD, some redemption, some reward, some ingathering to the LORD (e.g. Je 31:31).  But, are we understanding correctly, particularly in light of Paul’s New Testament (NT) teachings that, while enigmatic and obtuse at times, seem to imply something quite different, something quite miraculous?

Introduction

It is indeed extremely rare when we come across a piece of new insight that suddenly answers a series of lingering, seemingly intractable questions that we’ve been dragging around with us for years.  Such is the case for me with Jason Staples new book[i] and his career’s-worth of study leading up to it, including this paper[ii] from 2011, on the interpretation of Israel’s eschatology.  What Staples has done through thoroughly-researched, clear, and precise writing is to convincingly answer what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he penned Romans 11:

 [25] Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. [26] And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion,

he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;

[27] “and this will be my covenant with them

when I take away their sins.”

A Quick Background

After the Hebrews (the nation’s name in Egypt) were led out of captivity by Moses and entered the land (Canaan) promised to Abraham, the now-Israelites disobeyed God’s decree to completely destroy its inhabitants. Rather, they spared some, and soon after began intermarrying with them, in violation of God’s instructions.  So their bloodline or ethnicity began to diffuse very early on.  But worse, they soon began worshipping the Canaanite gods, rather than YHWH, as they had been commanded by God (Ex 20:3).

500 years later, following Solomon’s reign as King of the United Monarchy of Israel, the tribes split between the Northern ten with their King, and Southern two with theirs.  Interestingly, the Northern tribes held onto the name “Israel” or “Israelite” (or “Ephraim”).  Following this split, the Southern Kingdom became “Judah” (instead of “Israel”), and its people “Judahites”, or just “Jews”.

Once the Northern tribes were independent of Temple life and its priests and scribes in Jerusalem, they quickly expanded their worship of other gods, and other ungodliness.  God judged this behavior by invoking the Assyrians to sweep into their land (722 BC), kill many and deport most of the rest to Assyrian cities.  The territory of Israel became a province of Assyria (into which the Assyrians imported a Babylonian people known as “Cuthaeans”, who, quite surprisingly, assumed the title “Israelite” for themselves once settled in the country.  The Greek term for these folks is “Samaritan”, from the name of its capital city Samaria, destroyed by Shalmaneser V).

Meanwhile, the Southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin also continued increasing in apostasy until, beginning in 607BC, and culminating in 586 BC with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, God judged them by orchestrating their attack and substantial destruction by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar.  All but a handful of survivors were deported to Babylon, including the last king of Israel, Zedekiah.

However, through His prophets God had promised to return both Judah and Israel to their land (e.g. Je 33:7, Isaiah 11:11-12, etc.).  God accomplished this for a remnant of His dispersed Israelites and Judahites in a series of returns from Babylonia between 538 BC and 458 BC.  We can’t know the tribal makeup of these returnees or if, in fact, there were any who traced their ancestors to one of the ten Northern Tribes.  Ezra and Nehemiah say only Judah and Benjamin members returned.

It’s worth noting here that the Assyrian empire that had conquered the Northern tribes was itself conquered by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians, who had conquered the Southern tribes, was itself conquered by the Medo-Persian empire under its King Cyrus (whom God called His “shepherd” [Is 44:28], and his “anointed one” [Is 45:1]).  God was working His plan.

The thing we need to realize is that the Israelites who were banished into Assyria were, at the time of Cyrus’ decree of restoration (538 BC), now all dead.  Their offspring had intermarried with Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, or migrated out of the area entirely[iii],[iv].  Similarly, the exiled Judahites were virtually all dead, and their offspring had intermarried with Babylonians, Persians or migrated to other lands.

Those descendants who actually returned to Israel were just a remnant of the progeny of the exiled generations.  And among those (and of the tiny number who had been left in the land) were a small group who had persisted in their faithfulness to the LORD (i.e. His “faithful remnant” [Is 10:20], [Is 17:6], [Is 27:12], [Is 49:6], [Is 61:3], [Je 23:3-4], [Je 50:2], [Eze 9:4-6], [Hag 1:14, 2:2]).  From them God intended to implement His blessing to Abraham that his descendants would be “a blessing to the nations” [Ge 22:18]), which was ultimately consummated in the person of Jesus.

The vast majority of Israelites and Judahites never returned to their homeland but instead assimilated into the peoples to whom they had been exiled.  So who are those who comprise “all Israel” to Paul?  Are they just this remnant?  Did he know of some Israelite communities hiding out in the hinterlands whom God would redeem?  And how has the Church answered this question?

Paul’s “all Israel” in Romans and How it has been Understood

These verses (Romans 11:25-27) are the culmination of Paul’s discussion of Israel’s (and thus his Jewish brethren’s) fate in Romans.  Paul says he wants his readers to understand the μυστήριον[v], the mystery which has been shrouding the final disposition of the nation of Israel (and, not incidentally, also “the nations”), but that so far has been hidden, or only partially revealed.  What has been the received understanding of this passage?  Basically, there have been four different interpretations, as Staples relates:

The Ecclesiastical Interpretation

This view equates Israel and the Christian Church.  So it says: “when the nations have come in, all the Church has come in”.  This was the traditional interpretation in Christianity, and has become known as “supersessionism”.  Since WWII, however, there has been concern within the Church that this position treats an already persecuted Jewish people with a lack of charity, and so more recent thought has been in the direction of taking “Israel” literally, assuming that somehow anyone of Jewish descent will all be saved (see The “eschatological miracle” Interpretation).

The “total national elect” Interpretation

This view holds that all of the elect of Israel will be saved in the same way as Gentiles will be saved (i.e. through Christ).  This view gives special meaning to the faithful of Israel.

The “two covenant” Perspective

This view takes Paul’s “all” and “Israel” at face value, and so thinks that somehow all those throughout history that have possessed some piece of Israel’s genealogy will be saved.  This view, however, doesn’t square with Paul’s teaching elsewhere in Romans (e.g. Rom 9:1-8, Rom 11:17-20).

The “eschatological miracle” Interpretation

This view throws up its hands and simply concludes that somehow everyone of Israeli descent will be saved miraculously, not dependent on their faith in Jesus Christ or anything else, at the eschaton.  This view has the same textual problems in Romans as the “two covenant” view.  Perhaps surprisingly, it stands currently as the favored view by most Christians, particularly dispensationalists.

In an earlier piece I claimed that “Israel”, at least to Isaiah (following the north-south split), had become those who lived in accordance with God’s original charter for Israel to love and serve Him by their enduring faith in Him (Ex 19:5-6, 24:3, 6:7).  For Isaiah, as later for Paul (to his enduring grief) this left many native Israelites out of this “Israel”.  They had been “cut off” but could be “grafted back in” sometime in the future by faith (Rom 11:23).

Paul and the New Covenant

Paul was devoutly committed to the truth of the New Covenant and he seemed to have great insight regarding its contrast with, and superiority to, the Old.  An online resource contains the following table of contrasts between the two summarized from Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 3:7-11.

So what was going on in Paul’s mind as he wrote Romans 11?  He’s forty or so years into the era of the Church, and he himself has been ministering for twenty or thirty of those spreading his “Announcement” (εὐαγγέλιον – euaggélion) to Asia Minor and Greece.  And what he has observed is that some Gentiles have responded to his message and, according to Paul’s assessment, have been transformed by God’s Holy Spirit.

“Wait a minute!” (we should protest):  I thought the giving of the Spirit was God’s promise to Israel and Judah?”  That is correct, as Paul well knew.  Here’s the pronouncement in Jeremiah 31:

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, …[33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts [i.e. instill knowledge of His righteous will in His people]. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Ezekiel, announcing the same New Covenant, puts it this way (Ezekiel 36):

[22] “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came… [27] And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

But Paul knows what he’s been seeing in Gentiles in Thessalonica, Galatia, Philippi, Laodicea, and even Corinth.  What was Paul’s take on these promises to Israel and Judah now showing up within and lived out through his Gentile converts?

Paul’s “Announcement”, his Gospel, contains the revealed “mystery” that somehow “Gentiles” are included within the scope of this New Covenant.  In preparing those of his Roman audience familiar with the New Covenant promises to understand this view he said (Romans 2:14-16):

14For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Here he explicitly ties the phenomena of transformed Gentiles to the language (“the law…written on their hearts”) of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:33).  So in Paul’s mind he is reconciled to the idea that the New Covenant promises to Israel and Judah are also for the nations, i.e. Gentiles.  He’s seen it happening consistently, miraculously, throughout his ministry all across the Levant.  Paul knows what’s going on, but, as he says, it’s a “mystery” to everyone else.

Until the Fullness of the Gentiles Has Come In

To Paul, through the New Covenant the Gentile was transformed through his faith in Christ not simply into God’s family, but he was imparted the Pneuma – the Spirit of God promised in the Covenant to all Israel.  In doing so these people also took on the role identity (servant, priest) God originally intended for His Old Covenant Israelites, thus making them indistinguishable from Israelites, as the servants and elect (chosen) of God.

When we review the history of these exiles, particularly Israel’s into Assyria, we quickly hit a brick wall in trying to track them down.  It is true that historical accounts around the first century continued to vaguely claim the existence of vestiges of these “lost tribes” just beyond the fringe of the known worldiii.

But Hosea, in his day, had a different view, as Paul also knew well.  He says, flatly in Hosea 8:8

[8] Israel is swallowed up;

already they are among the nations

as a useless vessel.

To Hosea, for all intents and purposes, the Northern Tribes were a write-off.  The word here rendered “swallowed up” (bala) is the same word used to describe how the earth swallowed Pharaoh’s army.  “Consumed” is a reasonable rendering.  But, unlike Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites weren’t consumed by destruction.  They were simply consumed by assimilationThis is Staples’ profound insight into Paul’s “mystery”.

In effect, and as a practical matter, the Israelites became Gentiles[vi], and so relinquished their status as “elect” – becoming “not my people” (Hosea 1:9).  Paul quotes Hosea prophesying God’s rejection of the Northern Kingdom in Romans 9:25-26:

[25] As indeed he says in Hosea,

“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’

and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” (Citing Hosea 2:23)

[26] “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’

there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (Citing Hosea 1:10)

Now it should be noted that Paul is taking some liberties here in citing Hosea by extending the definition of “not my people” to Gentiles, rather than apostate Israelites.  Or is he?  The overall result is the same, in Paul’s mind, justifying his citation.  God is going to call the assimilated Israelites, now Gentiles, “sons of the living God”. (One wonders how many progeny of the ten northern tribes Paul himself proselytized and won to Christ in his missionary career.)

This is the only rational conclusion one can come to in the face of the paucity of evidence (written or archaeological) of any Israelite communities in the Diaspora being preserved to the first century CE.  These descendants of the elect Israel (and much of Judah) effectively disappeared into their surrounding nations naturally by intermarriage and adoption of their religion and culture. 

So to Paul, the “fullness of the Gentiles coming in” is by definition the fullness of the now-assimilated Israel being regathered to God.  When God is done calling Gentiles to Himself He will have redeemed the Israel (and Judah) of the New Covenant to Himself.  And, all who have the law “written on their heart” will effectively be “Israelites” to God.  Simultaneously “all Israel” and “the Nations” are redeemed.  As Staples says, “Paul is simultaneously proclaiming the salvation of the Gentiles and the return of the northern kingdom—as the same event.”

For Paul, this method of constructing “Israel” had as its goal all along fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham, which ethnic Israel played a huge role in, not least by supplying its Messiah.  But at the end of the day it was all about implementing His New Covenant as a blessing both to Israelites (and their progeny) and to the “nations”, everybody else.  And after Jesus, Paul knew how God was going to accomplish this – through belief in and allegiance to His Son.

In the future, I hope to find the time to look at some of the OT prophecies impacted by this interpretation, particularly many involving the land.  But in the meantime, there’s plenty to chew on here.


[i] Jason Staples, The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile and Israelite Identity, Cambridge University Press, 2021

[ii] Jason Staples, What Do the Gentiles Have to Do with “All Israel”? A Fresh Look at Romans 11:25–27,  Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 2 (2011): 371–390. You may also find this video interview helpful.

[iii] Josephus (Antiquities 9-7) characterizes their whereabouts as “beyond Euphrates”, i.e. “out there, somewhere” always, seemingly, just a little further “out” than the borders of the expanding, known ancient world.

[iv] There is archaeological evidence of some claiming “Israelite” heritage and referring to worshipping on Mt. Gerizim from the island of Delos.

[v] 3466. μυστήριον mustḗrion; gen. mustē-ríou, neut. noun from mústēs (n.f.), a person initiated into sacred mysteries, which is from muéō (3453), to initiate, learn a secret. A secret, or esoteric knowledge.

(I) Denotes in general something hidden or not fully manifest. 2Th 2:7 speaks of “the mystery of iniquity” which began to work in secret and was not then completely disclosed or manifested.

(II) Some sacred thing hidden or secret which is naturally unknown to human reason and is only known by the revelation of God (Ro 11:25;1Co 4:1;14:2;15:51;Col 2:2;1Ti 3:16; see 1Co 2:7).

[vi] ‘Once a part of God’s elect nation, Ephraim has become “not my people,” indistinct from the non-chosen nations—that is, they have become “Gentiles” (what does “not my people” mean if not “Gentiles”?)’, Staples, Gentiles, pp 381