Why is there no eschatological pilgrimage of the gentiles in Paul?

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The idea of the “eschatological pilgrimage of the gentiles” to a rebuilt temple and restored Zion is well attested in Isaiah especially but is found in other Old Testament and Hellenistic-Jewish writings. Here are three examples, but we could add Isaiah 56:6-7; 66:18-20; Zech. 14:16; Mic. 4:1-2; Sibylline Oracles 3:715-19; 772-75, and no doubt others:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Is. 2:2-3)

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ (Zech. 8:22-23)

O Jerusalem, holy city…. Many nations from far away will come to the name of the Lord God, bearing gifts in their hands, yes, gifts for the king of heaven. Generations of generations will give you great joy. (Tob. 13:9-11)

Matthew Novenson points out that Paul, remarkably, makes no reference to this tradition, despite copious quotation from and allusion to Isaiah—and despite its popularity among modern interpreters. “Nor does he bring all three of our key elements—eschatology, pilgrimage, and gentiles—together anywhere in his own prose.”1

He doesn’t ask whether Paul differs in this regard from Jesus, who may have evoked the motif in his response to the centurion who exhibited more faith than any in Israel:

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:11-12)

Perhaps Jesus envisaged an eschatological pilgrimage of the nations to a restored Jerusalem in the aftermath of a devastating war against Rome; and perhaps we have here a fundamental distinction between the eschatology of Jesus and his immediate followers and the eschatology of the Pauline mission in the Greek-Roman world.

In any case, what Novenson draws attention to is the contrast in Isaiah between an eschatology centred on Jerusalem, in which many peoples visit the temple of the God of Jacob to learn his ways, and an eschatology centred on a Davidic king: “And there shall be on that day the root of Jesse, even the one who stands up to rule nations; nations shall hope in him, and his rest shall be honor” (Is. 11:10 LXX).

Isaiah 2… has a gentile pilgrimage to Zion but no messiah. Isaiah 11 has a messiah but no gentile pilgrimage. It is surely no accident that Paul cites the one oracle and not the others. (Novenson, 152)

Here’s the thing. Paul quotes the Greek version of Isaiah 11:10 at the climax to an important restatement of his gospel in Romans 15:8-12:

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.” (Rom. 15:8-12)

Christ became a servant to Israel, not least by bearing the reproach of those in Israel who were also enemies of YHWH (Rom. 15:3; cf. Ps. 69:7-9). I think Novenson gets it wrong here when he says that “Christ became a servant of the gentiles for the sake of God’s mercy” (153, his emphasis). The Old Testament passages referenced in verses 9-11 suggest rather that the gentiles are expected to praise YHWH for his mercy towards his people; and it is then on that basis that they begin to hope that in due course they too will be ruled by the Davidic Son of this merciful God. He becomes a servant to Israel in order to be Lord over the nations.

The prayer in verse 13, therefore, for Gentiles who already believe in this outcome has the specific eschatological hope in view—that the God of Israel will bring about a new imperial order: “May the God of the hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, in order that you may abound in the hope in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13*).

If Novenson is right in thinking that Paul has deliberately chosen the messianic-imperial motif over the pilgrimage tradition, then presumably there is no place in his eschatology for a restored Jerusalem as the seat of the messiah’s rule.

Gentiles-in-Christ (like Jews-in-Christ, presumably) have the Jerusalem above as their metropolis (Gal 4:26), not the present Jerusalem (Gal 4:25), which perhaps is why Paul does not exhort them to make pilgrimage to the latter. (Novenson, 154)

But what if “all Israel” repents and confesses Jesus as Lord and is saved (Rom. 11:26), whether before or after the advent of “wrath against the Jew”? Would he have expected a return of Christ—a royal parousia to defeat his enemies and be welcomed by the people of Jerusalem, from where he would fulfil the hope of a just, messianic rule over the nations? This would constitute an easy reconciliation of the two Old Testament themes: Christ rules as root of Jesse from Zion over an empire stretching from Judea to Spain, and kings and peoples make pilgrimage to bring tribute and learn the ways of the living God.

But I’m not sure anything in Paul points to such a happy and speculative development. So we are left with the prospect of a rule from a position at the right hand of God in heaven, over formerly pagan nations which now confess Jesus as Lord and king—for the foreseeable future—which is exactly what happened.

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    M. V. Novenson, Paul, Then and Now (2022), 150.

Samuel Conner | Thu, 05/09/2024 - 15:52 | Permalink

Thak you, Andrew.  This is an intriguing question that has never previously occurred to me.

I wonder whether it might be that Paul’s “corporate temple” ecclesiology, that his local congregations are a form of temples within which God dwells through the Holy Spirit, might be relevant.

Perhaps the land-centric Hebrew eschatology that sees the Gentiles coming to Jerusalem to worship is superseded in Paul’s thinking by God bringing temples to the Gentiles, or making the Gentiles into living temples.

@Samuel Conner:

To understand Old Testament eschatology, and I think also Paul’s eschatology, we need to maintain a distinction between Israel/Zion restored after judgment and what is, in effect, an “imperial’ relationship between Israel/Zion and the nations.

In Ephesians 2:11-22, we have the idea that Jews and gentiles together form a “holy temple in the Lord,” as a restored, new covenant people of God, and perhaps Paul would have thought of this in a dispersed sense.

But there would still be the overarching idea that the nations as nations, as ethnic-political entities, not as gentiles built into this living temple, would look to this new arrangement for moral and spiritual guidance, etc. The object is not that all the nations, as nations, are included in this priestly people of God, which now consists not only of Jews but also of gentiles.

The nations will be governed from heaven by the Son of God, from the Jerusalem above, and they will make symbolic pilgrimage to the most easily accessible “temple” to pay tribute to and learn the ways of the living and true God.