I argued in the recent posts on Luke’s Christmas stories and on Paul’s description of Jesus as a “servant of circumcision” that a central plot-line in the New Testament narrative is that God saves Israel through Jesus and the Gentiles respond to this, in the first place, by praising the God who has proved himself righteous, proved himself faithful to his people, shown mercy to his people in this way. The “salvation” of the Gentiles is secondary to that and has a quite different narrative-historical dynamic.
I want to pursue the argument a bit further by considering two rather disparate texts: Paul’s address to the Jews and God-fearers in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), and an account of the eschatological restoration of Israel in Sibylline Oracles, which I think I will save until tomorrow.
Turning to the Gentiles at Pisidian Antioch
Let us begin by noting that nothing in Paul’s address in the synagogue suggests that God originally chose Israel in order to bless or save the whole of humanity. The nations feature only negatively: the Jews are delivered from Egypt and God destroys seven Canaanite nations in order to give the descendants of Abraham an inheritance in the land. God has now sent a saviour to the Jews for the sake of the promise made to the patriarchs, which must be interpreted, I think, as a promise to preserve this people and safeguard their inheritance in the context of international conflict. At least, that would appear to be the point of the quotation from Psalm 2: when the nations rage and the kings of the earth conspire against the Lord and against his anointed king, the creator God promises his Son that he “will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”; he will “break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Acts 13:8-9).
I would suggest that Paul believes that YHWH will establish his Son as king over the nations that opposed him—that is over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. What is novel and remarkable about this belief is that the reign of Christ over the oikoumenē will be achieved through the suffering, death and resurrection of God’s anointed Son. This is how YHWH decisively establishes his sovereignty in the world. But otherwise Paul says nothing to amend the essential argument of a Psalm that I think we can assume would have been familiar to his synagogue audience.
Paul concludes his sermon by quoting an ominous warning from Habakkuk 1:5 LXX: “Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you” (Acts 13:41). This is not a “work” of salvation. It is a work of judgment: “behold I am rousing [the Chaldeans,] the fighters, the bitter and swift nation that goes over the breadths of the earth to possess dwellings not his own” (Hab. 1:6). Paul can only mean that disobedient Israel again faces judgment through the agency of a vicious and unjust imperial power.
Here we get to the important point. It is this argument which forms the “word of God” that is spoken to the Jews, as Paul and Barnabas explain the following week (Acts 13:46). Since the Jews reject this word—having been stirred to jealousy by the presence of “almost the whole city”—Paul and his companions turn to the Gentiles, saying, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47). When the gathered crowd of pagans heard this, “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed”; and “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (13:48-49).
Now we at least have to recognize that the story about Jesus, as Paul tells it in the synagogue, is a story about the salvation of Israel from its enemies and the prospect of national disaster if the nation persists in unrepentance. It is only once this message is rejected that the apostles are commanded to turn to the Gentiles. This is a postscript to the Jesus story; it is not intrinsic to it.
But it also seems likely that the Gentiles rejoice and believe specifically in the same “word’ that was told “first” to the Jews. That is, the Gentiles believed that by raising Jesus from the dead and installing him as king over a renewed people of the Spirit, the God of Israel has shown himself to be righteous (this is how Paul will develop the argument in Romans) and faithful to the promises made to the fathers.
Just to remind ourselves, finally, this is the prototypical narrative pattern that is found in Isaiah. By restoring his exiled people to Zion YHWH has acted in the sight of the nations, he has “bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations”; “all the ends of the earth” shall see how YHWH has saved his people (52:7-10; cf. 62:2). And having seen this act of corporate salvation, the nations will respond by glorifying Israel’s God, by bringing tribute (60:5, 11), by coming to the light of a righteous people (60:3), by assisting the returning exiles (60:4; 66:20), by participating in the cultus (66:21), and by turning and being saved (45:22). The nations will acknowledge that the descendants of those who return from exile are “an offspring the Lord has blessed” (61:9).