In Romans 9–11 the Apostle Paul claims that many from Israel have become hard hearted, rejecting the gospel about their Messiah, Jesus. At the same time, many gentiles have believed this message. In Romans 11:25–26, however, we learn that Israel’s hardening is only temporary. Once the “fullness” of the gentiles comes in (i.e., they get saved), “all Israel” will be saved.
Several interpretations of “all Israel” are possible, but a prominent position these days is to interpret “Israel” in Romans 11:26 as inclusive of believing gentiles; i.e., the church (the so-called ecclesiological interpretation). According to this viewpoint, the gentiles, along with the Jewish remnant that believes in Jesus (Rom 11:5–7), are to be identified as “all Israel” that will be saved:
“For I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, this mystery—so that you may not be wise in yourselves—that a hardening has happened in part to Israel until when the fullness of the nations/gentiles has come in; and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25–11:26a).
There are several strengths and weakness with this viewpoint. We will first ponder on some of its strengths and then its weaknesses. Ultimately, I believe that ethnic Israel—not the gentiles and Israel, nor the church and Israel—refers to “all Israel” in this passage.
“All Israel” as including the Gentiles?
Perhaps the most popular supporter of this position is Dr. N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham (see his book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 1195–1253).
To assist in his interpretation, Wright translates “and so” (kai houtôs) at the beginning of 11:26 as “that is how”: Thus, for Wright, the hardening of Israel lasts until the fullness of gentiles comes in, and “that is how all Israel will be saved.” Given this translation, we can see how easy it is to equate the “fullness of the gentiles coming in” with “all Israel will be saved” implying that the gentiles now belong to Israel.
But kai houtôs can be translated in different ways, whether as “and so” (NIV; NRSV) or “and in this way” (ESV; CSB; similar to Wright’s version), or in a temporal sense that essentially means “and then” “and after that,” “and subsequently” (see e.g., Robert Jewett, Romans, 701*). A number of commentators understand it in the latter sense, pointing out that earlier in the same passage the word “until” (achri) marks a time element. The “fullness of the gentiles” must happen first before “all Israel” can be saved.
In other words, given the prophetic anticipation of Zion here (see Rom 11:26b–11:27), all the gentiles (the nations) must first come into Zion, filling up the spiritual city with its fullness. Or, alternatively, the “full number” of nations must first come into that city. Zion probably means more than simply Jerusalem here. It represents the place of the divine presence, the holy place of the righteous, and thus this passage has to do with these gentiles getting saved and now worshipping the one true God in Christ rather than their idols. Once that event happens, then all Israel will be saved.
Given this disagreement over translations, the issue on whether the gentiles are to be included as “all Israel” cannot be decided on the basis of kai houtôs.
Here are Other Points N. T. Wright uses to Support his View
- Israel has largely refused to believe the gospel about the Messiah, Jesus (Rom 10). As a result, God raises up gentiles who inherit the privileges that once were exclusively Israel’s, provoking them to jealousy (Rom 10:19; 11:13–14).
- There is a distinction between the elect “remnant” of Israel and “the rest” of Israel who are hardened (Rom 11:7). Not all who are Israel are Israel (Rom 9:6). The hardened Israel suffers spiritual blindness “for ever” (dia pantos) (Rom 11:8–10; cf. Psalm 68:23–24). The other Israel is the elect remnant.
- If some of the hardened Israelites end up accepting the gospel, that would mean “life from the dead” (Rom 11:15). According to Wright, this refers not to a futuristic general resurrection but present-day baptism, as in Romans 6:3–11. These Israelites are the “some” whom Paul says might be saved as a result of being provoked to jealousy (Rom 11:14).
- For Wright, the saving of “some” of them in Rom 11:14 counts as the “fullness” of Israel (Rom 11:12). He believes a very large number will be saved. Even so, this does not have to do with Israel being saved en masse at the second coming of Christ.
- In Romans 11:16–24, the “firstfruits” refers to both the Messiah and the remnant of Israel. The “lump” refers to the hardened members of Israel. The branches of the olive tree are also the remnant, and broken branches are unbelieving Jews. The olive tree is metaphorically Israel, one family rooted in the patriarchs and promises. The broken branches could be re-engrafted in, being saved by being provoked to jealousy rather than by the second coming.
- The engrafting of the unnatural wild branches refers to the gentiles, who are now engrafted into Israel as a result of their believing in Christ. Thus, for Wright, “Israel” consists of the entire people of God, including believing gentiles.
- In Romans 11:25–32, “until” (a temporal marker) “the ‘fullness’ of the nations comes in” refers to the gentiles entering into the olive tree. These verses do not tell us what happens to hardened Israel at the time of that “fullness.” We can expect that a much greater number of hardened Israel will be provoked to jealousy and so be saved as a result of this fullness of the gentiles/nations.
- In Romans 11:27, “when” (hotan) means “whenever” so the citation reads: “when(ever) I take away their sins.” This is an indefinite time, a repeated event, rather than pointing to a single future event like the second coming. It refers instead to a steady influx of hardened Israel being saved rather than a one-time event.
Here is My Critique of this Position
- The “fullness” of Israel in Romans 11:12 corresponds with the “fullness” of the gentiles in Romans 11:25. Both texts refer to the totality of the people involved (cp. “all” in Rom 11:32). This “fullness” of Israel, then, is not the same thing as the mention of “some” Israelites that might be saved through Paul’s gentile ministry in 11:14.
- In Romans 11:14, the Greek construction ei + pôs + subjunctive or future verb connotes a hesitant expectancy: “if somehow,” “in hope that perhaps,” or “possibly” (cp. Rom 1:10; 1 Cor 9:27; 2 Cor 2:7; etc.). By way of contrast, Paul speaks more confidently concerning the “all” who are saved and shown mercy in Romans 11:26 and 11:30–32. Hence, Romans 11:14 and Romans 11:26 do not refer to the same thing, even as “some” in 11:14 does not mean the same thing as “all” in 11:26.
- The olive tree is never referred to here as Israel; otherwise, the severed branches could not be called Israel in 11:11.
- The gentiles remain identified as unnatural wild olive branches rather than the natural branches (i.e., the Israel that remained, the remnant). Hence, a distinction between “gentiles” and “Israel” continues to be maintained in this metaphorical illustration of the olive tree. The gentiles do not become Israel or part of Israel.
- The phrase dia pantos in Rom 11:8–10 does not mean “forever” but “continually” (cp. 2 Thess 2:16; Heb 2:15; Acts 2:25; 24:16). The phrase, for example, is used of the demoniac who experienced “continual” torment (Mark 5:5), but that is not the same thing as experiencing torment “forever.” Jesus heals this demoniac man of his continual torment. So what difference does this nuance make? Hardened Israel will not be hardened “forever” but will eventually be saved, as Paul will affirm in Rom 11:26.
- It is highly questionable in Rom 11:25 that the gentiles “coming in” refers to their entrance into the olive tree as “Israel.” Israel is not said to be the olive tree (see #3 above). Had Paul meant in 11:25 that the gentiles are engrafted into the olive tree, he would more likely have used egkentrizô (to “engraft”) as he does in Rom 11:16–24 rather than eiserchomai (to “come in”) as he does in Rom 11:25. The active voice “may come in” “may enter in” stands in contrast to the passive voice used for being engrafted in Rom 11:16–24.
- If not the olive tree, then where do the gentiles “come in” to? Most likely this refers to their entrance into Zion, which is cited in Paul’s Scripture quote in Rom 11:26b–27 of Isaiah 59:20–21. Zion is the place of the Lord’s presence and points to the future salvation and restoration of Israel that is inclusive of the nations coming to Zion (see Isaiah 59–62).
- It does not make good sense for Paul to be writing about “Israel” in fully ethnic terms throughout Romans 9–11, and then all of the sudden, the gentiles are included in the name “Israel” in 11:25–26! Would the original readers in Rome readily comprehend this? Also, Paul’s quote regarding Jacob in Isa 59:20 (in Rom 11:26–27), clearly refers to him as Israel, not the gentiles/nations.
- The more plausible view of Romans 11:26 is to understand “all Israel” being saved as something that will take place in the future, from Paul’s perspective. That is, ethnic Israel will be saved after the fullness of the gentiles takes place. This salvation will apparently take place or reach its culmination at the end of the present age. That is when the spiritual blindness of hardened Israel will be removed, and they will then be able to perceive and believe Jesus the Messiah, the “deliverer” from Zion (Rom 11:26b; cf. 1 Thess 1:10).
- Nowhere does Paul ever explicitly call the gentiles “Israel” in any of his letters. That is also true of Romans 11:26.**
“All Israel” in Romans 11:26 refers to ethnic Israel. My conclusion, then, is that the gentiles do not become part of Israel. Paul affirms the elect “remnant” of Israel who are already believers in Jesus Messiah (Rom 11:5), and he also anticipates a time when many of the hardened Israelites (“the rest”: Rom 11:7) will be freed from that hardening and come to believe and be saved. He looks forward to a day when both the “elect remnant” and “the rest” of Israel will be united as “all Israel.” For Paul, all the twelve tribes of Israel will once again be reunited.
* For the best Bible commentaries on Romans, see my Patheos blog, B. J. Oropeza, “Top 12 Commentaries on Romans.”
** For the complete article of my view, see B. J. Oropeza, “The Identity and Destiny of ‘All Israel’ in Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination: Revisiting Rom. 11.26.” In The Scriptures in the Book of Revelation and Apocalyptic Literature: Essays in Honour of Steve Moyise, ed. Susan Docherty and Steve Smith, LNTS 634 (London: T.& T Clark/Bloomsbury, 2023), 171-82.