The Meaning of “Israel”
On Euangelion, in the comments section of Michael Bird’s post, I mentioned the importance of distinguishing Galatians, where Paul refers to the Christ-movement as “Israel” (Gal. 6:16), from Romans, where he does anything but. In Rom 9:1-11:36, Israel is Israel, every step of the way. J.B. Hood responded to me as follows:
It's at least possible [in Romans] that Israel becomes something new with the grafting in of Gentiles [Rom 11:17-24]... True, he's still talking about the Israel tree that was "pruned" -- but he has just added the "grafting in" of the unnatural branches...and mentions the possibility of other natural branches being grafted in again. That's one funny looking tree, that is! Isn't it possible that he is using Israel to label all believers, regardless of race? As he says earlier, Israel isn't always ISRAEL. [Rom 9:6]
Let’s go through this carefully. Paul statement that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6) means simply that “not all Israelites are presently faithful”. Thomas Tobin cautions that the passage shouldn’t be pressed beyond this loose meaning (Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 327). It does not mean, literally, that unbelieving Jews are no longer part of Israel anymore than it means that the Christ-movement (i.e. believing Jews and Gentiles) has become Israel (ibid).
Philip Esler argues similarly: “Despite the inclusive message of Rom 9:6-13, Paul does not identify the Christ-movement with Israel. He comes perilously close, but avoids taking that final step.” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 279.) Likewise, in Rom. 9:14-29, Paul refrains from calling the remnant of faithful Christians “Israel”. He may have done so years before, in Galatians, but he’s not willing to do this now.
Rom 9:30-11:14 actually makes clear that “Israel” refers to ethnic Israel rather than a spiritualized (Christian) Israel. Paul contrasts Israel with the Gentiles (Rom 9:30-10:4), that is, the Jewish people as a whole with the Gentile nations, and then insists that despite all appearances, God has really not abandoned his ethnic chosen people (Rom 11:1-12).
He then develops his famous olive tree metaphor in Rom 11:17-24, returning to the view of faithful Jews and Gentiles (9:6-29), the remnant who have turned to Christ. But again, he does not refer to this group as Israel. In fact, this new Christian entity is distinguished from what immediately follows in Rom 11:25-27: “All Israel” will be saved after the Gentiles have been evangelized and joined the faithful Jewish remnant. The Jewish people as a whole, in other words, can count on an apocalyptic miracle in the end to save them from the consequences of unbelief.
Esler and Tobin each come to terms with the differences between Galatians and Romans in different ways. Esler believes the Roman church was locked in ethnic conflict, and Paul needed to play fair ball with Jews as much as Gentiles. Tobin thinks Paul’s reputation had become so bad by the time of Romans, that he was desperately trying to exonerate himself by revising his theology. I think both are correct.