Israel’s vocation in Romans 2-3

Israel’s vocation in Romans 2-3 October 18, 2019

N.T. Wright contends that “Israel should have been – had been called to be – the divine answer to the world’s problem; and that, instead, Israel is itself fatally compromised with the very same problem.”[1] Wright bases this on Paul’s words that Israel as whole was “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2), intended to be “a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness” (Rom 2:19), and “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles” precisely because Israel failed in this task (Rom 2:24; Isa 52:5). What is more, Israel’s unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3) is countered by the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22), the climax of Israel-faithfulness to the divine purpose of redemption, since Jesus is the representative Messiah who accomplishes in himself the role marked out for Israel.[2]

Many find this picture unconvincing and worry that it grounds Israel’s election in their vocation rather than in divine love for Israel. Still, Wright’s picture is hardly idiosyncratic. Much like Rom 2:19, the Jewish sibyl refers to Israel as “the guide of life to all mortals” (Sib. Or. 3.195), while in 1 Enoch the righteous and wise are given the Scriptures to enable them to be “guides” for all the “children of the earth” (1 Enoch 104.12-13; 105.1). In the Jewish scriptures, Israel’s Torah and Temple-worship were meant to have a quasi-kerygmatic character so that the Lord is “praised among the nations” and the “word of the Lord goes forth from Zion” (Deut 4:6; Ps 22:7; 117:1; Jer 31:7; 33:9; Isa 2:3; 12:4; Mic 4:2; Zech 14:16; Tob 14:6; Sir 24:6, 8, 23-24, 32-33; Wis 1:1). Thus, Israel’s “advantage” (Rom 3:1) was to be recipient of a divine revelation (Jer 18:18; Ezek 20:11; Ps 19:7; 103:7; Neh 9:14; Rom 3:2; 9:4), which was intended to be transmitted afar (see Philo, Mos. 2.22-26; Josephus, Apion 2.123, 2.261, 282; War 7.45, on the penetration of the Torah among the nations), and in shorthand we can appropriately designate this as Israel’s stewardship of the “oracles of the Lord” (Rom 3:2).

Lionel Windsor, himself committed to post-supersessionist readings of Paul,[3] has argued that Paul’s apostolic ministry was itself the expression of a Jewish vocation to reach the nations. Windsor disagrees with Wright in that Paul’s contention against his Jewish contemporaries was not their ethnocentrism, rather, it was their failure to grasp the purpose of their ethnicity and their failure to discharge their unique divine vocation. Whereas “mainstream” Jewish communities believed that their vocation was to keep and teach the Mosaic Law, Paul conceived of the Jews’ distinct role “to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles as the fulfilment of the Law of Moses and the power of God for salvation to all who believe.”[4] He maintains that Israel was the recipient of a divine revelation in the Torah which revealed God’s universal wisdom. This Torah, if taught properly, pointed ahead to Christ, which Israel was failing to do, but Paul, in a manner reminiscent of the Isaianic servant, was called to announce. According to Windsor, “Paul viewed his own apostolic vocation as the fulfillment of Israel’s vocation,” so that his identity as an “Israelite” (Rom 11:1) and his identity as the “apostle to the nations” (Rom 11:13) are two sides of the same coin. Paul identifies himself with Israel because “Israel is central to God’s worldwide purposes, as declared in his gospel (Rom 9:1-5).”[5] Important for Windsor is that Paul is not seeking to “eradicate Jewish distinctiveness or to show that all Christians are in fact ‘true Jews.’” Rather, “Paul is confident that his own vocation and Israel’s vocation will ultimately converge.”[6]

[1] Wright, “Romans,” 445 (italics original).

[2] Wright, “Romans,” 445-48, 453, 470; idem, Climax of the Covenant, 240; idem, PFG, 830-31, 836, 842-44, 931, 978, 1000, 1027, 1208, 1253-54; esp. idem, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis: MN: Fortress, 2013), 489-509.

[3] Lionel J. Windsor, Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017).

[4] Lionel J. Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel (BZNW 205; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014), 34-35.

[5] Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel, 19-21.

[6] Windsor, Paul and the Vocation of Israel, 20-21 and see too 143-44 n. 16

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