The Meaning and Telos of Israel’s Election: An Interfaith Response to N.T. Wright’s Reading of Paul
Until 5th November 2019, get free access to Joel Kaminsky and Mark Reasoner’s full article ‘The Meaning and Telos of Israel’s Election: An Interfaith Response to N.T. Wright’s Reading of Paul’, in Harvard Theological Review’s latest publication, Volume 112, Issue 4.
Jews and Christians are both united and divided by the parts of the Bible that they hold in common. Many see Paul’s innovative, at times “counter” readings of the Hebrew Bible as standing at the beginning of the process that led to the eventual separation between rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity. In recent Pauline scholarship, especially within the New Perspective reading of Paul, the Jewishness of Paul has received much greater attention, and it has often led Jewish and Christian scholars to engage in dialogue about Paul’s writings, as evidenced by this very essay. This has also renewed debates about Paul’s precise view of his fellow Jews, the bulk of whom did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. In this article we critique N. T. Wright’s claims that combine to portray Paul as excluding non-Jesus confessing Jews from the “all Israel” who will be saved (Rom 11:26), and we argue that Paul views his Jewish contemporaries who do not identify with Jesus as legitimate heirs of Israel’s covenants and God’s favor.
Specifically, in influential studies, N. T. Wright asserts that Paul understands Jesus as fulfilling what Israel failed to do: to spread the teachings of Torah to the gentile nations, a claim not easily found in the Hebrew Bible texts Paul utilizes or in Paul’s own statements concerning his fellow Jews. Wright relies heavily on Paul’s use of diatribal language to build a Pauline theology of Israel that resurrects some disturbing anti-Judaic stereotypes and downplays the many positive things Paul says about Israel’s status. In contrast to other scholars working in the contemporary New Perspective school of Pauline interpretation, Wright employs Romans 5 to argue that Paul characterizes Torah as divinely intended to draw sin onto Israel, with the expected consequence that human sin would reach its zenith within Israel, a view that we argue moves Wright toward the very supersessionism against which Paul cautioned his gentile followers. These exegetical decisions, based on a tightly structured, messiah-oriented understanding of Israel’s election, ignore what the Hebrew Bible and Paul affirm: while God accomplishes certain larger aims through Israel, God’s election of Israel is ultimately grounded in God’s inalienable love for Israel and Israel’s ancestors.
While Jews and Christians will continue to have sharp religious differences, Wright has at times gone beyond what Paul actually said by claiming that Paul envisions God’s promises to the historic people of Israel as wholly transferred to those who affirm Jesus as the Messiah. Because the meaning of Israel’s election remains intrinsic to God’s acceptance of and promises to her ancestors (Rom 11:28), Paul regards the Jewish people as beloved for the sake of the fathers, i.e., beloved in their own right, not simply for the sake of Messiah Jesus. Thus, as we see it, the telos of Israel’s election is not ultimately Messiah Jesus but God’s mysterious favor toward Israel in itself, a divine choice made on the broad horizon of mercy toward the peoples of the earth (Gen 12:3; Exod 19:4–6; Rom 11:32; 15:7–12). The gifts and calling of the historic people of Israel remain irrevocable, including the gift of God’s call to be God’s own special possession among all the peoples of the earth.
Has God has abandoned Israel, and transferred Israel’s promises to a redefined Israel, as Wright claims? μὴ γένοιτο, by no means!