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On Earth, Not in Heaven: Paul’s Scriptures and the Political Salvation of Israel in Romans 9 – 11

by Mark Reasoner, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN
AAR/SBL Meeting, November 18, 2006, Washington, DC

The gospel, which Paul celebrated and described in his letters, certainly has a political edge to it, since Paul describes this gospel’s effects with language used in imperial propaganda. And if the message Paul preaches was pre-gospelled to Abraham in the scriptures (Galatians 3:8) or promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy writings (Romans 1:2), it follows that Paul’s citations and readings of his scriptures are politically charged activities.

By “political” I mean concerned with the flourishing life of corporeal Israel in its land. And when we examine the scriptures that bracket and form much of the grist for chapters 9 – 11 of Romans, we see that they witness to a political view of salvation that would evoke in the letter’s first-century hearers a scenario in which the nation of Israel would enjoy the benefits of God’s covenants to them not in heaven, but on this earth.

With that definition stated, I now need to reject two inferences some may make as they hear this paper. First, I am not concerned with any application of the text of Romans 11:26-27 with the political state of Israel founded in 1948. Second, I do not accept the idea that Paul viewed Israel as still in exile while he was writing his letters. This cannot be proven and should not be accepted. Still, when one reads Romans against the political propaganda of the principate, a general impression emerges that Paul did not endorse Augustus’ claim to have brought obedience to the nations and that Paul did not think that Israel under Rome was Israel’s destiny.

We may first observe that Romans 9-11 is bracketed by concern for the political situation of its implied audience. Romans 8:18-25 contains Paul’s reworking of Roman eschatology, looking for the renewal of the earth not in the Augustan age of peace and religious renewal, or the hope that can be seen, the deified spes (hope) celebrated by Roman emperors when an heir was born, but hope in something only God can bring through the Spirit of God. In this paragraph Paul presents an eschatological vision that runs counter to the Augustan eschatology offered by Virgil, articulated in the layout of statues in the Augustan forum, repeated in the millennial language of Calpurnius Siculus in the reign of Nero and celebrated on the coins of Rome. Paul asserts, in contrast to the principate’s propaganda of a new world order and a vision of eschatological plenty, that creation is subjected to futility, waiting for the revelation of the sons of God (8:19), waiting to be freed from slavery of corruption to the glorious freedom of children of God (8:21). Jews or Gentile synagogue-attenders who heard this language would first think of the Jews’ freedom from bondage to Rome. This would be present in any recital of the Passover liturgy, and any reference to a new vision of “the sons of God” or freedom for the “children of God” would evoke ideas of a salvation for the people of Abraham from Rome.

But what about 8:23, that says we await the redemption of our body? Even if we consider ourselves enlightened enough not to read this with Platonic lenses, we still read it as redemption from the flesh, connecting the sōma here with the sōma of 6:12 and 7:24. This is probably correct; Paul seems to move from an eager expectation for the revelation of a freed Jewish people (8:18-22) to a hope-filled eschatology for the “saints” (8:23-27), marked by the “Not only, but even” that begins 8:23.

Then after setting aside the doctrine of the predestination of the Roman, imperial son of God for a doctrine of predestination of foreknown believers to become like the son of the God of Israel (8:28-30), Paul raises the question of the status of “the elect” (8:31-39). For Paul and his readers, “the elect” has for its first connotation the people of Israel. Paul lists the threats to the corporate existence of “the elect,” pausing after “the sword” to quote in Romans 8:36 from a national lament psalm (LXX Ps 43:23/ET Ps 44:22).[1] The quotation raises more questions than it answers, since those suffering are righteous ones suffering with God’s full knowledge. The psalm itself ends with a request for redemption based on God’s steadfast love, but no answer is given from God. The preceding survey of the political resonances in Romans chapter 8 is not exhaustive, but is enough to show that the question of Israel’s status in the world does not begin at Romans 9. It is thoroughly in view at least by Romans 8:18, after having been signaled already at 3:3-6 as a topos demanding attention.

The quotation in Romans 8:36 from a national lament psalm (LXX Psalm 43) provides the introduction to Paul’s own lament over his people. Indeed the genre of Romans 9-11 is best identified as a lament psalm, for in it Paul laments and explores the dissonance between his perception of God’s promises and the condition of his people. And like many of the canonical lament psalms, Romans 9-11 ends with an irrational stanza of praise to God, celebrating in supra-historical fashion that God will effect salvation for God’s people in the end.

But what exactly is Paul lamenting? He does not tell us what Israel’s problem is in the opening of this section; it is simply assumed that the readers understand why Paul would have unceasing grief for his “brothers and sisters, [his] kin according to the flesh, who are Israelites, whose is the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises, whose are the fathers and from whom is the Messiah according to the flesh” (9:3-5).

Within chapters 9-11, the contexts of the scriptural quotations and the images used (Esau, Pharaoh, potter and vessels, stumbling stone, olive tree) all include the political dimension of Israel’s plight in the world. Paul is not merely concerned that Israel is not believing in Jesus, a problem that is not fully articulated until 10:16—“But not all have obeyed the gospel”; in some way Paul considers that the separation he perceives between his people and Christ have led to their political malaise. Based on the scriptures Paul uses to process this problem, Paul considers the “salvation” of Israel for which he prays to include political autonomy and health for his people as a nation.

When we come to examine the scriptures that form the skeletal, weight-bearing structure of Romans 9-11, we find that most of them are pointedly political. After the references to the Abraham and Sarah narratives in Romans 9:7, 9, Paul includes a reference to the older serving the younger (Genesis 25:23), a text that fits with a number of politically-charged comparisons of Jacob and Esau. Lest there be any mistake and we miss the national dimensions of the Jacob and Esau comparison, Paul follows up with a quotation of Malachi 1:2-3, which comes from the introduction to a prophetic text that is clearly concerned with the homeland of the Jews and its place among the nations of the earth.[2]

Who is Esau or Edom in first-century Jewish consciousness? In the rabbinic literature of the tannaitic period, Esau is Rome. G. Cohen has dated the earliest rabbinic connection between Edom/Esau and Rome to be Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph in the second century CE, and Carol Bakhos in her recent book, Ishamel on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab, concurs.[3] Still, we may note in 4th Ezra 3:16, the author says to God, “And you set apart Jacob for yourself, but Esau you rejected.” Edom is famous in the scriptures for living by the sword (Genesis 27:40), and the sword is definitely a concern of Paul in this letter (Romans 8:35; 13:4), inevitably connoting Rome in the imagery of the early Empire. Rome, as Edom, lived by the sword.[4] I cannot prove that Paul has the Edom-Rome connection firmly in mind here, since that connection is not established in other literature until the next century. “Edom” and “Esau” might only invoke the Herod family in first-century hearers’ minds. But it is noteworthy that Paul follows the reference to Esau with a reference to Pharaoh, and both countries are linked to Rome in a Passover homily in the Pesikta de Rab Kahana: “As with Egypt He took each of the chiefest among them and slew them, so, too, with Edom: A great slaughter in the land of Edom, among them to come down shall be the Remim (Isaiah 34:6-7), that is, as R. Meier expounded it—among those to come down shall be the Romans [pre-eminent among all the peoples of Edom].”[5]

Why the reference to Pharaoh as someone God raised up (9:17, quoting Exodus 9:16)? The connection between the Roman emperor and the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt was closer than we typically assume. The Ptolemies were granted Pharaonic titles by Egypt’s priestly caste and her bureaucracy, and Roman emperors also were depicted with Pharaonic traditions.[6] Did Paul know that the Roman emperor was equated with Pharaoh? I cannot prove this. Suffice it to say that today, the link between the princeps and Pharaoh in Egypt is conclusive in the material evidence. On the walls of the temple of Dendur (Tuzis), now reassembled in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Augustus is depicted as a pious Pharaoh offering sacrifices to Egyptian gods.[7] The large statue from Karnak on the right at the end of corridor G49 in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is of a Pharaoh who is identified either as Ptolemy V or Augustus. While not Pharaonic, the Egyptian connection to the imperial cult is also amply evidenced by Claudius’s request to have the golden statue from Alexandra called the Klaudiakē Eirēnē Sebastē brought to Rome.[8] Deir el-Shelwit, a temple from the second half of the first century, depicts Galba, Otho, Vespasian and Domitian as Pharaohs.[9] Paul is continuing here in Romans 9 the consideration of the election of the Roman emperor. While I cannot prove that the equation between the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Roman emperor would be transparent to the first hearers of this letter, anyone celebrating the Passover in Rome would make that connection.[10] In chapter 8 he insists that Jesus is the one who is elected as son of God, and others are elected to be conformed to the image of the son. Here in chapter 9 he is more closely examining the idea of God’s election of the pagan ruler. This is surely Paul’s answer to the common first-century theme that the Roman emperor is predestined by the gods to rule the world.[11] Paul’s answer is that God has raised up the Roman emperor as he raised up Pharaoh, in order to show God’s power and magnify God’s name. Paul’s concern tracks with the prophets he is quoting, who also wondered how God could raise up evil, foreign rulers and accomplish divine purposes for his chosen people through them. This reading of the Pharaoh as indicative of foreign rule over the Jews fits with the following context through the “vessels of wrath” phrase.

The potter and clay analogy, which continues through the “vessels of wrath fit for destruction” phrase of 9:22, evokes imagery of God working with foreign rulers in a pursuit of the mysterious fulfillment of his plans for the Jews. Jeremiah glosses his potter’s vessels with “a nation or kingdom” (Jeremiah 18:7-9). Or if one goes to the actual site of Paul’s potter quotation, Isaiah 45:9, one can see that it is immediately followed by a defense of God’s raising up of Cyrus (Isaiah 45:13) with the ultimate goal of the salvation of Israel, who will never be put to shame (Isaiah 45:17).

Regarding “the vessels of wrath” in 9:22, it is more consistent with Paul’s preceding context (Pharaoh quotation) and with his quotations later in this chapter from Isaiah 10, to view the vessels of wrath as foreign powers given political power over God’s chosen people. John A. Battle, Jr. has helpfully pointed out that all of Paul’s quotations from the prophets in Romans 9, with the one exception of Isaiah 45:9, all depict the time of Assyria’s looming conquest of Israel.[12] In Isaiah 10, from which Paul quotes in Romans 9:27-28, Assyria is God’s rod, and their own club is God’s fury. It is significant that in Isaiah 10 not only rod (5, 15, 24) and club (5) are used but also ax (15, 34), saw (15), staff (24), whip (26, belonging to God) and yoke (27). Assyria as a foreign power is linked to Egypt in Isaiah 10:24, just as Paul has quotations regarding Pharaoh and Assyria in this chapter. While there is not an exact verbal quotation of Paul’s phrase skeuē orgēs (“vessels of wrath”) in Isaiah 10, it is significant that in LXX Isaiah 10:28, the Assyrian enemy places his skeuē in Michmash, on his way to Jerusalem. The enemy is showing wrath, but will ultimately experience God’s wrath when God works salvation—political deliverance—for God’s people.[13]

The famous use of Deuteronomy 30:12-14 in Romans 10:6-8 is definitely a christological gloss. But does it point to life in heaven? The context of the text in Deuteronomy 30 is clearly about a this-worldly political flourishing of Israel. The following quotations from Isaiah, Joel and the song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) in the following context of Romans 10 all deal with the political deliverance of Israel.

In Romans 11:1, Paul insists that God has not rejected his people, offering himself as an example of an Israelite who is still among the remnant. This personal argument that Paul makes raises the question of what sort of political allegiances Paul the Pharisee would hold. Were Pharisees apolitical, simply applying and internalizing the purity laws whatever the political climate? This is a possible reading. Or was Paul sympathetic to the Pharisee Zaddok, whom Judas of Gamala enlisted in a rebellion against Rome at the end of Archelaus’ tenure over Judea?[14] And if the Psalms of Solomon have Pharisaic roots, we would expect Pharisees to be politically engaged against Roman dominance.[15] The question of Paul’s Pharisaic identity in relation to his political posture toward Rome needs further exploration.

In Romans 11:12, the “wealth of the nations” has a very material connotation when it comes in Paul’s scriptures. Yes, Paul is reworking it to include the idea that Israel’s unbelief has prompted the wealth of the nations, but based on the blessing Paul assumes will come back to Israel at the end of verse 12 and in verses 14-16, it is clear that Paul has still retained his scriptures’ idea that the wealth of the nations will flow into Israel.

With this survey of Paul’s scriptures in mind, his assertion that all Israel shall be saved in 11:26 must speak primarily of the political health of a thriving nation on this earth. In his supporting quotation, Paul says that the redeemer will come from Zion. Why does Paul say “come from Zion” in Romans 11:27, when Isaiah 59:20 has “come to Zion”? This is also what we see in Isaiah 52:8—“Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.”

Ross Wagner has helpfully laid out the possible lemmas for Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 59:20.[16] Of special note is that the Masoretic text’s “to/for Zion” is in Paul’s quotation “from Zion.” Is Paul’s ek simply a contraction of heneken in the LXX? This is a possibility. Paul’s quotation might also be influenced by such texts as Isaiah 2:3, where the nomos kai logos kuriou will come ex Ierousalēm. In this last phrase of Isaiah’s verse, the morpheme ek is found three times. Perhaps Paul’s ek simply appears by attraction to such a text as this. If Christ the redeemer is the telos nomou, and if the nomos was supposed to come out of Zion, then Christ the redeemer must also come out of Zion. In addition, the political dangers of predicting that a redeemer would come to Zion might sound too controversial in Rome. Would this mean that a general aspiring to imperial rule would start his campaign by liberating Jerusalem from Nero? Better just to say that the redeemer would come out of Zion.

The salvation is then defined as the forgiveness of sins. While this sounds to Christian ears as entirely spiritual, having as its goal life with God in heaven, it would not necessarily sound this way to careful LXX readers. In the hymn of Zecharias in Luke 2 that is thoroughly influenced by the LXX, he juxtaposes rescue from enemies with forgiveness of sins (Luke 1:74, 77). In addition the Psalms of Solomon link forgiveness of sins with the political health of the nation, as we see in Psalm of Solomon 9:6-9; 10:1-8. Paul’s lament over Israel, like the lament psalms of his own scriptures, thus ends with a stubborn insistence that God will save God’s people in the end, and ends with praise to God.

The concluding bracket of this section, Romans chapters 12-15, also contains signals of concern over Roman dominance. In chapter 12, Paul writes that people are not to work vengeance. From here he explains why a human government that works vengeance can still be obeyed (13:1-7). Readers have long noted the abrupt topic change in 13:1. Why does Paul mention government here? The most adequate explanation is that government has been in view since the middle of Romans 8. Augustan eschatology and the doctrine of imperial predestination are reversed in that chapter. Paul’s scriptures and the imagery he uses in chapters 9-11 also evoke to first century ears an assertion from below that the Roman dominance over God’s chosen people, the Jews, cannot stand forever. Romans 13:1-7 then becomes a pro forma endorsement of the status quo for the safety of the letter’s readers and a subtle reconfiguration of imperial theology.

Paul quotes from a national lament psalm after ending his first list of threats in Romans 8 with the word “sword.” Then in his explicit discussion of the governing powers, Paul warns that Rome does not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4). In the context of propaganda from Nero’s reign, this is a direct subversion of the peace language evoked by Calpurnius Siculus who repeatedly emphasizes the end of sword-wielding by Rome: “Amid a secure peace, the Golden Age springs to a second birth, at last kindly Themis [Greek goddess of justice/righteousness], throwing off the gathered dust of her mourning, returns to the earth; blissful ages attend the youthful prince . . . He, a very God, shall rule the nations, the unholy War-Goddess shall yield and have her vanquished hands bound behind her back, and, stripped of weapons, turn her furious teeth into her own entrails . . . All wars shall be quelled in Tartarean durance . . . Fair peace shall come . . . Clemency has commanded every vice that wears the disguise of peace to go far away; she has broken every maddened sword-blade . . . Quietness [Loeb has “peace”] in her fullness shall come; knowing not the drawn sword, she shall renew once more the reign of Saturn in Latium, once more the reign of Numa who first taught the tasks of peace to armies that rejoiced in slaughter . . . Numa who first hushed the clash of arms and bade the trumpet sound ‘mid holy rites instead of war.”[17] In contrast to the poet’s insistence that Rome under Nero is not using a drawn sword, Paul insists that sword is a real danger (8:35) that the Roman government most definitely still wields (13:4).

Consider the political edge of these verses from Isaiah 49, the chapter from which Paul quotes in Romans 14:11 (note that Paul alludes to Isaiah 49:10 in Romans 9:16, according to the Nestle apparatus, “Loci Citati vel Allegati”).

Thus says the Lord GOD: I will soon lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders. Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame (Isaiah 49:22-23).

At the end of the letter’s argument, the scriptural quotations found in 15:9-12 from the song of Moses, the Psalms and Isaiah also challenge Roman dominance over Israel, since they envision Messiah, his people, and the nations, praising the God of Israel, who has reinstated “the root of Jesse” to rule over the nations who hope in this Davidic king. The God of hope is invoked in blessing at the end of the scriptural catena as an alternative to the deified hope (spes) celebrated on Claudius’ coins.

Romans 15:10 quotes the first part of Deuteronomy 32:43. The verse as found in Deuteronomy concludes with a political edge: “Rejoice O nations, with His people; For he will avenge the blood of his servants, And will render vengeance on his adversaries, And will atone for his land and his people.”

All Christians have ideas that salvation affects conditions on the earth, but they differ on how this salvation works out on earth. The hope of an afterlife and heaven and the idea that the main content/result of being saved is life in heaven has as a central point of utility for most people that it allows them to cooperate and accept one another even when they disagree about what salvation on earth means. This deferment of salvation to an afterlife remains useful, but should not eclipse our recognition that in the first century, “all Israel shall be saved” must primarily connote the flourishing life of corporeal Israel in its land.


[1] Cf. also Psalm of Solomon 15:6-7: “For God’s mark is on the righteous for (their) salvation. Famine and sword and death shall be far from the righteous; for they will retreat from the devout like those pursued by famine.”

[2] See Malachi 1:5 (“Great is the LORD beyond the borders of Israel!”), 11 (“my name is great among the nations, . . . my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts”); 4:6 (“. . . lest I come and strike the land with a curse”).

[3] Gershon Cohen, “Esau As Symbol in Early Medieval Thought,” in Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 245 as found in Carol Bakhos, Ishamel on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab (Albany: SUNY), 63-64.

[4] See Virgil, Aen. 10.372-373: ferro rumpenda per hostis est via, “’Tis the sword must hew a way through the foe” LCL, H. Rushton Fairclough, trans. (London: William Heinemann/Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 1954.

[5] Pesikta de-Rab Kahana:  Rab Kahana’s Compilation of Discourses for Sabbaths and Festal Days, trans. William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America), 1975, Piska 7.11 (page 152).

[6] J. Rufus Fears, Princeps A Diis Electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor as a Political Concept at Rome (Rome: American Academy in Rome), 1977, 20, 70-71.

[7] Roger S. Bagnall and Dominic W. Rathbone, eds., Egypt from Alexander to the Early Christians (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum), 2004, 247-248.

[8] Stefan Weinstock “Pax and the Ara Pacis,” JRS 50 (1960): 50, citing Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, Pap. Lond. 1912, lines 34 and following.

[9] Bagnall and Rathbone, Egypt 197.

[10] On the Egypt – Rome connection, note also the interpretation of Revelation 11:8 as designating Rome. The first corrector of Sinaiticus added kai eggus ho potamos (“and near the river”) right after Sodom, connecting Egypt to the city of Babylon and hence to Rome. Oecoumenius takes it as Jerusalem as does Andrew of Caesarea, but Hoskier lists other manuscripts that add Babylon after Egypt. These would thus also link “Egypt” to Rome.

[11] J. Rufus Fears, Princeps a Diis Electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor As a Political Concept at Rome (Rome: American Academy in Rome), 1977.

[12] John A. Battle, Jr., “Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:25-26,” Grace Theological Journal 2/1 (1981): 124.

[13] Battle, “Paul’s Use” 127.

[14] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.4.

[15] R. B. Wright, “Psalms of Solomon,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday), 1985, 642.

[16] J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul “in Concert” in the Letter to the Romans Supplements to Novum Testamentum 51 (Leiden: Brill), 2002, 280-286.

[17] Calpurnius Siculus, Eclogue 1.42-68 in Minor Latin Poets, trans. by J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press/London: William Heinemann), 1961.

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