While we’re on the subject of what people in the New Testament had to do to be saved, I notice that Larry Hurtado whose blog I highly recommend, disagrees with Tom Wright over the question of the ultimate salvation of national Israel.
Wright—according to Hurtado’s reconstruction of his argument—thinks that the “Israel” upon whom a “partial hardening has come” in Romans 11:25 refers to the Jews, whereas “all Israel” that will be saved in verse 26 is the church. So there is no exegetical basis for the American obsession with the state of Israel today. Hurtado thinks that such a shift in meaning in so small a space is unlikely, and argues that “in Romans 9–11 Paul’s protracted and repeated concern is the fate of his people, fellow Jews, in light of his firm conviction that Jesus has been made now the one source of salvation, and the large-scale rejection of the Gospel by his people”. I think that Hurtado is right so far, but wrong in his conclusions about the future of national Israel from Paul’s perspective.
In the first place, Hurtado maintains that God must ultimately save Israel as a nation because otherwise the word of God would have failed and God would have been “defeated by Jewish unbelief in the Gospel”. That seems to fly in the face of Paul’s argument. He says in Romans 9:6 that the word of God has not failed because “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. When he asks in Romans 11:1, “has God rejected his people?”, the answer is no, because God has kept a “remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5). In other words, God can remain true both to his word and to the descendants of Abraham without saving all Jews. The “full inclusion” of Israel will mean even greater riches for the world (11:12), but God is under no theological obligation to reinstate national Israel at some indefinite point in the future.
Paul had certainly hoped that the inclusion of Gentiles into renewed Israel would make his people jealous and lead them to repent and be saved as a people (Rom. 11:11, 14). But what are they going to be saved from? This is where I think both Wright and Hurtado miss the point of Paul’s argument in Romans 11:25-27. I would suggest that Paul understood as well as Jesus did that, because of unbelief, Israel faced the wrath of God in the form of national catastrophe in a realistic and foreseeable future. He believed that his people had become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22). In effect, with hindsight, this was to be the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in AD 70.
In light of this narrative-historical context we need to look carefully at how Paul uses the quotations from Isaiah in Romans 11:26-27:
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”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
It has become painfully apparent to Paul that his people are not en masse being made jealous and repenting so judgment becomes inevitable. But then a further possibility presents itself—that they will repent after judgment comes upon Israel.
Isaiah writes that God will execute judgment against his people because “Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; …truth has stumbled in the public squares, and uprightness cannot enter” (Is. 59:14). God will arm himself for battle. “According to their deeds, so he will repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies”; and as a consequence the nations “shall fear the name of the Lord” (Is. 59:19). Then the deliverer will come “for the sake of Zion, and he will turn away impiety from Jacob”; and God will make a covenant with them, when he takes away their sin (Is. 59:20-21; 27:9 LXX).
Paul has adapted the LXX text and has written Isaiah 29:9 into the argument, but the point to note is that this is a salvation and restoration that will happen after God has judged his people. This makes excellent historical sense. Paul is writing before the day of God’s wrath against the Jew. He does not know how Israel will react to such devastating punishment. If the nation repents and does not continue in its unbelief, it will be grafted back into the rich root of the patriarchs, alongside those Gentiles who are now descendants of Abraham by faith. In this way “all Israel will be saved”.
Alas, it was not to be. We can see from texts such as 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra that post-war Judaism could interpret the destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for sins, even agreeing with Paul that the temple sacrifices could not in the end solve the problem of human sinfulness (cf. 4 Ezra 3.20-27), and that the Jews have “no works of righteousness, that all have acted wickedly, all have transgressed” (4 Ezra 8.31-36). But there was no recognition that the prophet Jesus had been right all along, or that God had made him Israel’s anointed king. So all Israel was not saved. End of story as far as the New Testament is concerned. But Paul wasn’t to know that.
So in the end, I think that Wright is right—there is no exegetical basis for the American obsession with the state of Israel today—but for the wrong exegetical reasons.
For the argument in detail see Andrew Perriman, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (Wipf and Stock, 2010), 132-38).